On international travel sketching

March 4, 2013

Sketching – the international travel experience

I’ve taken a notebook with me overseas on previous occasions, for lists, notes and on-location sketches, but a recent trip to Bangkok was the first time I’ve consciously travelled overseas in order to sketch, with sketching gear (WalkStool, watercolours and pencils) in tow. I “travel” at home sketching nearly every day, either what I call “Deep Topography” or sketching in my local area (within a mile or two of home) or “Urban Sketching” when I travel to my different worksites or at formal sketching events. But travelling overseas and sketching, or what others call “Travel Sketching”, is quite a different experience.

I’ve discovered there are three distinct phases: Experience Anticipated, Experience Experienced and Experienced Recollected. The same dynamic operates for local sketching or sketching with other urban sketchers.

Experience Anticipated is all about preparation and warm-up, often from internet research or reco photographs. It helps to know where the sun will be, where the good angles are, where it’s possible physically to place oneself.

Experience Experienced is what happens when you get there. Suddenly gaps appear in your research. For example, I never draw motorbikes at home and didn’t associated Bangkok with motorcycles: but suddenly I was drawing motorcycle taxis, unique to Bangkok. Similarly, I’d not prepared enough sketches of mosques, Hindu temples and Chinese shrines. There is the harsh reality of the environment to contend with. Regardlress of where you are in the world, sketching on location is almost never “easy”; it’s an Extreme Sport.

Lastly, there is Experience Recollected. At home, this involves “twisting” the on-location sketch by adding colour, often adding emotions remembered. It’s never the same as the first two experiences. You put intellectual, emotional and spiritual overlays onto the sketch which weren’t there on location. Everything is mediated!

Whether conscious of it or not, you’re creating a Narrative for the viewer through a series of sketches, when presented either physically via the sketchbook or online via how you create a story through the sketches. It’s inevitable that it’s a confection, a framework that is “false” or “inauthentic” compared to the original sketch, but that’s okay because it’s inevitable. Some boost the narrative by exploiting the book format, which is linear and sequential. Others add dates and keep the sketches in chronological order. There’s all sorts of ways of creating for the viewer a “way of seeing”. There are censorship and privacy issues, especially when sketches are posted online.

I’m fascinated by all this because I’m running two “shows” at once currently. My sketching from daily, local trips continues (time present), alongside the slow process of scanning and uploading sketches from the international trip (time past). I know that international travel sketching is viewed as exotic and desirable, but I don’t place any primacy or importance or significance on it compared to my local sketching: it’s all the same to me. If anything, international travel sketching rings hollow because it’s simply not possible to capture the spirit of a place in any depth in a short trip: it remains elusive and superficial. But, heck, people in the global village created by the digital world love it, so who am I to rain on their parade?

Equally fascinating for me is how a temporary glimpse at a foreign city crystallizes the City Past, City Present and City Future. Seeing a place with “fresh eyes”, it’s a very powerful experience to city what has happened (Bangkok is as old as Sydney), how it operates currently with its mix of motorcycles/tuk-tuks/cars/skytrains (‘getting around’ is integral to the experience of any city) and what it will be like (surely, like Hua Hin, the Thai tourist resort, all the street vendors will be swept off pavements into safe malls). One can’t imagine a street vendor-less Bangkok, employing most of the 6.5m residents, but surely Bangkok one day will fall victim to the dictat of workplace safety, public security, threats of litigation and urban “productivity”, involving widespread changes to the current level of small business entrepreneurship and its unique expression here in Bangkok.

Bangkok, Sam Yan and Soi Na Wat Hualumphong

Today’s post is all about Sam Yan. I went to Bangkok never having heard of Wat Hualumphong (it’s not in any tourist guide book), but we had the privilege of staying in a hotel which overlooked it. There was always the possibility of scoring in Bangkok a hotel room without a window – many are like that. But we scored a huge picture window, five floors up! Our aerial view over what is ostensibly a back lane in Bangkok was so intriguing I could have never “left home”, there was so much to sketch! In fact, given the heat, humidity, noise and dangerous levels of air pollution, I could have captured Bangkok quite comprehensively simply by  staying in my air-conditioned room and sketched the view through the picture window.

The first thing that struck me was the variety of architecture. Here I had very traditional (the Sam Yan wat), a species of ?post-WW2 concrete factory-like buildings with corrugated iron rooves very common as modern shophouses and residential “flats”, as well as the modernist contemporary high-rise commercial buildings which dominate downtown Bangkok. It was all there!

The second thing that struck me was the gold used in the roof-tiles of Sam Yan. Depending on the time of day, the temple rooves would temporarily start glittering as the sun past overhead.

The third thing was the eerie fluorescent lights which dotted the landscape at night.

There was a very strong “soundtrack” associated with this view, depending on the time of day. I’m used to a Dawn Chorus of birds where I live and my early morning sketches of Sam Yan and the soi or “lane” leading to it featured particular early morning birdcalls. At other times of day, large plumes of incense smoke would rise from the wat, along with monk recitations over their public announcement system. Except on the public holiday Mucha Bucha, a religious holiday in which no alcohol is served in Bangkok and street vendors decide to have the day off, there was always the rattle of cars and motorbikes associated with this soi, one of many “service roads”, the backscenes behind the commercial and residential high-rise of the main streets of Silom, Thalon Si Lom and Thalon Surawongse. Here the local workers would have their outdoor breakfast lunch and dinner, store their supplies and street vending equipment (no trucks to deliver the steel scaffolding!), rush the hotel laundry back and forth, take their smoke breaks, and so on.

All my sketches ran over a double-spread of my A4 Laloran 120g sketchbook, more suited because of the paper to pencil than watercolor. I present them here “unstitched together”, along with reference photos.



I call this one “Versailles Massage” because it’s the name of an establishment, lit up at night in fierce fluorescent light, just off the bottom RH corner of the page. It shows the soi with street vendors’ daytime umbrellas in place. The little thing at the bottom page is the home shrine, two in fact, under a roof of chicken-wire netting. These altars were lit up at night with their own fluorescent lights. In the background is the very severe Chamburi Square retail high-rise (which I was told served good, cheap food – but we never got there). To the right were heavily water-stained (black) concrete walls of a factory and at left, various residential blocks, three-storeys high lining the soi.


Here I wanted to capture the way the wat spire changed colour during the day. Around 4pm, with the approach of sunset, it would suddenly glow a deep blue-purple.


I set myself up on a weekday for an hour inside the sala or courtyard of Wat Hualumphong, near (I’d never seen it elsewhere) stabled cows. The wat was always busy, rougher it seemed and more “everyday”, since there were no signs in English and no tourists. I seemed to attract the interest of local marketeers and tradesmen; your average Buddhist wat is as busy as any cathedral in the Middle Ages in Europe. Church wasn’t just a place you visited to pray, it was surrounded by sellers of all sorts: food, utensils, clothes, you name it. I felt as if I’d gone back to the European Middle Ages! The wat itself is particularly grand, both inside and out, high off the ground, accessible by a huge marble staircase. I enjoyed “popping into” Buddhist wat for some episodes of Power Meditation; five or ten minutes of intense sitting meditation revived my spirits and helped me get to my next destination around Bangkok.


I tried to include the height and dominance of the several high-rise commercial buildings. The whole scene was invariably overwhelming!


Probably most strongest and most abiding memory for me of Bangkok will be overlooking this wat, day and night, visiting it, meditating in it and sketching it. I felt privileged because your everyday Bangkokian wouldn’t see this particular view from on high, reserved in a sense for tourists. I also know that these concrete shophouses will disappear over time. If you want to see what Bangkok will look like in twenty years’ time, stop at Surasak and walk around to the fully restored colonial mansion. It sits, with its beautifully-painted window shutters, utterly treeless and completely surrounded on three sides by sixty storey commercial towers.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: