Travel Sketchbooks

Collection #14: Travel Sketchbooks—China, Part 1


The most intimate way to experience a place is to draw it in a sketchbook—to see every detail and absorb the entire atmosphere (the sounds and smells, the light and shadows) around your subject. I’m lucky I’ve been able to experience some of the world this way. My sketchbooks are the first possessions I would grab in case of a fire (after my daughter and dogs, of course).




I toured China in 1987 with a group of artists lead by the energetic Barbara Carr, an illustrator and professor at Pratt. She brought out the best in all of us.



We started in Shanghai, staying at the Peace Hotel, which at the time was like stepping back into the 1930’s with its tattered deco décor. The hotel faced the Huangpo River.

Here’s my sketch of the sleepy waterfront then:


And a photo of the waterfront today—the shiny financial and commercial Pudong.

photo by Jpbowen,_Shanghai.JPG

For a snapshot of China’s amazing growth since my visit there, check out this timeline of modern Chinese history:


We continued on to Beijing and our first spot for sketching was Tiananmen Square on June 1—Children’s Day. I perched on a curb and was suddenly surrounded by curious onlookers (this tended to be an ongoing dilemma—everywhere!). I was face-to-face with this little girl so she became my subject. The Tiananmen Square demonstrations erupted a year after our visit.



I tended to use pen and ink as my default medium. It was easy and only required one color. But after Barbara demonstrated watercolors at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing, I was inspired to put watercolor directly to sketchbook and never turned back.

My tiny Bijou Box is a gem.


With our art supplies, we hiked up 1300 steps (the gondola was broken) to arrive at The Great Wall. I used this accordion-fold Chinese sketchbook to try to capture the enormity of the Wall. The paper was almost too absorptive for watercolor. I’m not sure what medium is best used on it. Maybe calligraphy inks.



We continued farther into China, stopping on a hillside near Chongqing to paint the landscape where every inch was terraced and planted with crops.



In Dazu, we saw 30-foot statues carved into cliffs.



We painted the Stone Forest with it’s rock formations.



I made a quick drawing of Sani people selling produce at a roadside market near Kunming.



From Guilin, we cruised down the Li River famous for its unique, karst rock mountains. I had two sketchbooks working at the same time since we were painting while moving down river.




Our final stop was Hong Kong with its busy harbor. It was a culture shock—having spent three weeks in Chinese cities and towns untouched by western culture—to arrive in one of the most commercial cities in the world.



During the entire trip, I painted on watercolor-paper postcards, applied stunning Chinese postage stamps, and mailed them back to myself in the US (and they all arrived!).




Part 2 of my Travel Sketchbooks Collection will take us to Italy.


Until next time, cherish your clutter.


5 thoughts on “Collection #14: Travel Sketchbooks—China, Part 1

  1. Absolutely gorgeous. The sketches, the landscapes, the colors…all so intriguing. These certainly make me feel that I was there. Thanks so much for sharing! Mary, you are so very talented!


Leave a Reply

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

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s