How pulling out a sketchbook Created for new Experiences in Joshua Tree


My husband and I am unable to share a camera once we travel. This fact was established fairly early in our 15-year relationship.

Imagine my surprise when, out of the blue, my DSLR-lugging, Instagram snap-happy husband announced that he wasn’t bringing a camera on our two weeks of traveling to Joshua Tree and the Mojave Desert areas of Southern California. Instead, he included his sketchbook and watercolour paints into the pile of travel accessories meant for packing.

Now, we’re accustomed to low-tech experiences since we frequently travel without cellular devices. However, no camera in his backpack? This was a game-changer. I needed to know; would this imply that an endless stream of requests to “just quickly catch” this or that? Would we want long breaks specializing in sketching every day? What could I do while he found the perfect place to “stop, drop and draw?”

We’re also “slow travellers,” so we have a tendency to travel without a record of things to see and do. We choose to keep our days and experiences open and free-flowing. So, not long after the first “no camera” conversation occurred in our kitchen, I was pretty sure this pen-ink-and-watercolour idea just might work.

The sketching began when we arrived at our cherished homesteader cabin just north of the village of Joshua Tree. After five trips to this little desert town, the three-hour backroad route from Las Vegas is so familiar it could be drawn out of the mind’s eye without the help of our well-worn map with tears and tears on all of the folds.

The sketchbook and watercolours were set from the cottage door at night in anticipation of the celestial orange-pink desert sunrise that greeted us each morning. To catch the Technicolor sunrise fast and correctly became a daily game — sometimes successful, sometimes not.

The summit gained on a morning hike or a snack break on a 16-kilometre loop were natural areas to break out the sketchbook. Without a real agenda except to find out what we can see, it never felt like a hardship to stop for 30 minutes while my husband turned out a desert vista, peculiar rock formation or desert blossoms to draw. I brought a book to read; suitably, Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire. I wandered off the road with my camera, in search of mining debris and wildlife sightings. By the time I’d return, a little piece of artwork was drying on the page. (Incidentally, watercolour dries quickly in the dry desert atmosphere, which is terrific for completing numerous paintings in an outing.)

On a Thursday afternoon, we dropped in for lunch in La Copine in Yucca Valley. Getting popular and new, the small restaurant was packed. We were seated at the counter, just 1 metre from the chefs working the open kitchen. It felt wrong to pull my camera out in this romantic setting, however, the sketchbook was completely discreet. Among the chefs penned to the drawing turned out to be somebody we met in the neighbourhood book club just two days before. She was so happy to find herself in my husband’s lunchtime sketch which they have since discovered each other on Instagram, naturally. Can this link have happened if I had taken a quick snap with my camera? Not likely.

The sketchbook was an experiment which turned our fifth visit to Joshua Tree to a fresh new experience. To begin with, sketching and watercolour materials are considerably lighter and less bulky than a digital SLR camera.

What’s more, stay in one place long enough and you see things that could only be observed by slowing down to a sketching speed. I discovered things differently and noticed different things. It became easy to spot the subtleties of locations we were before, but never really noticed because we snapped it with a camera and proceeded on.

We found that sketching in public is a wonderful conversation starter. It helps people to initiate conversation following a sidelong glance at the man sitting on a stool beside the road using a miniature palette of watercolour paints. On two lifts, we encountered other artists painting en plein air. We stopped to speak, obviously.

At the end of every day, we could examine the sketchbook and the camera photographs, recounting completely different stories about the pictures from every medium.

And yes, we found that we could, indeed, survive with just one professional camera between the two people.

Upon our return, I was pleasantly surprised when family and friends were really interested in hearing about our recent travels. Everyone was captivated by the pen-and-ink sketches dabbed and sprinkled with watercolour. They were interested in my photographs. Maybe I will have to invest in a sketchbook.

Courtesy: The Globe And Mail

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