English philosopher John Ruskin once said: “A man is born an artist as a hippopotamus is born a hippopotamus.” Living through the rise of photography, Ruskin believed that it was destroying the art of sketching, which is why he spent four years campaigning to get people to sketch again, regardless of how skilled they were.
Ruskin believed drawing was the way to see the small and beautiful details in even the most mundane of sights. In his mind, a sketcher observed more beauty in the world than a non-sketcher because they took more time and effort creating a token of their experiences. Alas, we all have cameras on our phones now, which are filled with photos from our last holiday, while sketching is something many of us haven’t done in years.
I won’t lie, Ruskin’s failed mission to save sketching made me a little sad. Was my habit of taking photos whenever I travelled making me miss the beauty that allegedly surrounds us all? Not wanting to take the risk I decided that I, someone with no discernible talent for drawing, would give sketching a go whenever I went on holiday.
Here’s a drawing of a breakfast I enjoyed in Singapore:
Pretty average, huh? To be fair, I rushed it a bit so my toast wouldn’t go cold, adding the colour at home. Clearly, it’s not going to win any awards.
But I love it.
Not because it’s good but because looking at it makes me remember a lot about that day.
When I look at that sketch I see so much more than my kaya toast and eggs. I hear the aunties yelling at me for taking my tray to the table without any soy sauce, I can smell black coffee with condensed milk, and taste those soft jammy eggs (which really were quite delicious with the aforementioned soy sauce).
Yeah, this drawing is never going to hang in a gallery but it will remain an exhibit of my time in Singapore with more sensory memory triggers than any of my photos from the rooftop bar of the Marina Bay Sands.
So it was that I kept on sketching my travels. Whenever I had a relaxed moment, enjoying a negroni or waiting for my food to arrive, instead of checking my phone I would pull out my notebook and start sketching. While travelling I tried to make sure I sketched one thing a day, whether it was a quick five-minute squiggle or something more leisurely and detailed.
I kept on sketching until something completely unexpected happened: I started not to suck.
Here’s a sketch of mine done a year later in Amsterdam:
This one I’m actually proud of because a) I never thought I’d draw something this nice and b) the day comes flooding back to me when I look at it. My girlfriend and I were having a coffee while we waited for our entry time at the Anne Frank House to come up. I remember the unseasonably warm sun and looking across the canal at the grand church whose bells were ringing to the tune of The Pink Panther.
I don’t know how much I would be able to recall about this day had I just taken a photo. How many times have you looked at photos of your travels and had a disagreement with someone in regards to what day the photo was taken? In her essay collection, On Photography, writer Susan Sontag wrote: “So successful has been the camera’s role in beautifying the world that photographs, rather than the world, have become the standard of the beautiful.”
Basically, Sontag (who would have been great mates with Ruskin) argued taking photos deferred the act of forging memories. By allowing the camera to do the observing instead of our eyes, a pencil, and some paper, Sontag believed we missed what was right in front of us.
To sketch this moment in Amsterdam, I had to look at everything really closely. I observed the textures and heights of the buildings, how the sun reflected off the wrought iron fence and how the trees seemed to be planted with symmetry in mind. It was the sort of inconsequential moment that I would have otherwise forgotten but thanks to my sketch I now look back on as one of the most serene moments from that trip.
We don’t talk about it a whole lot, but travelling is filled with those ‘in-between moments’ when we’re waiting to do the thing we came to do (which we will likely be taking a picture of). These moments could easily be passed-by on our phones, checking socials or responding to emails, but if you give sketching a try during these slower times you might just come home with a souvenir made by you – just for you.
I’m never going to stop checking my phone, taking photos, or writing during my travels (nor would I expect you to) but I will always make time for sketching. The effort needed to capture what you’ve observed can be very meditative and create sensory memories, completely unique regardless of the level of skill on display.
Next time you’re away, sketch one for Ruskin and, more importantly, sketch one for yourself.
Benny is a travel, food, and comedy writer from an up and coming seaside town called Sydney.