Wednesday, April 18, 2018

France Sketchbook - Villa Glanum + The Thinking Process Behind Page Design

After a morning spent sketching at Saint Paul-de-Mausole monastery, my students and I enjoyed a wonderful lunch at our hotel, then we gathered for class outdoors under the shade trees in the courtyard.

(This post is a continuation of my travel journal postings from a trip to Paris and Provence. As I finish up the painting of my sketches from the trip, I'll share them here. To catch up and read the earlier posts, visit the "Travel Sketches" page and click on the links for Paris & Provence 2017.)

It was a hot summer day and the constant din of cicadas (the unofficial symbol of Provence) meant I had to almost shout to be heard. But the inconvenience of noisy insects was nothing compared to the joy of being in a beautiful garden in Provence on a perfect summer day.

My lesson that day focused on how to design a themed composite page in a travel journal. A composite layout offers a great way to capture the essence of a place on a single sketchbook page. I usually suggest some guidelines for a composite page, like including sketches in a variety of sizes, and having a vertical element, a horizontal element, something organic, and some local signage. It's a good jumping off point, but often my students seem a little overwhelmed by all the possibilities. They look at my composite pages filled with colorful paintings and lettering and just shake their heads and ask, "But how do you DO that? How do you come up with the design? How do you get from the idea of a composite page to THIS?"

Ink & watercolor in a 6" x 8" handmade sketchbook filled with 140 lb. Kilimanjaro watercolor paper 

So, I thought it was high time I attempted to convey how I get from a blank page to something like the sketch you see above. What goes on in this brain of mine?

When I begin to work on a composite page in my travel journal, I take some time to think about what it is about that particular place that really speaks to me. What is it that makes me smile or makes my heart skip a beat? What do I love about the place? That's the first criterion for selecting subjects for my sketches.

Then I think about what is unique to the place. What's different from home? What's typical of the locale or representative of the region?

These two thought processes help me to narrow down the immense amount of subject matter to a few select ideas for possible sketches. At that point, I'm usually ready to begin drawing. I don't have the whole page planned yet, but I have an idea for how I want to start. It will evolve as I work.

For this sketch of Hotel Villa Glanum, I knew I wanted to draw the entrance to the hotel in the center, surrounded by smaller scenes from the building and grounds, but I didn't draw the hotel facade first. I simply penciled in an oval for the spot where I planned to put it later on.

I was concerned that the page might end up feeling like a hodge-podge of images, so I tried to think of what I could do to tie things together, to give it some structure. A border? Frame? Lines? A color box? I brainstormed ideas, trying to think of something different, something that would add some variety to this journal. I came up with the idea of using an ellipse to frame the center image and connect the surrounding sketches. I penciled in the large ellipse lightly with a pencil. Then I was ready to choose the first subject I would sketch.

I liked the little stone fountain that was merrily splashing away in a shady part of the garden. It was cool there and my friend Karen was sitting nearby, so it was a natural place to begin sketching. I quickly penciled in the main shapes of the sketch, then inked it with a black Pigma Micron 01 pen.

Watercolor came next. Buff Titanium was the perfect color for the old stone. The foliage was painted with mixtures of Sap Green, Olive Green, Cobalt Blue, and Yellow Ochre.

Next, I jumped over to the lower right corner of the two-page spread and did a sketch of the window of my room.

This subject matter qualifies for my composite sketch on several counts:
1. I have a personal connection to it. It's my room.
2. The color of the shutters is to die for! They definitely make my heart beat faster.
3. This vignette, with its climbing vines, terra cotta roof, shutters, tie-back curtains, and wrought iron railing is a representation of the entire building.
4. The scene is typical of Provence.

I sized the sketch to fill the corner and extended the greenery on the left side to follow the curve of my elliptical frame.

That's all I had time for that afternoon, but later in the week we had a few hours of free time, and I jumped at the chance to add more sketches to the page.

Olive trees are everywhere in Provence, and I love how each one shows the marks of age. The years of pruning, harvesting, wind, and weather give them rugged character and make each one unique.

This gnarly old tree in the Villa Glanum gardens had a trunk that angled to the left, so I positioned it in the upper right corner of my page. The trunk echoes the curve of the ellipse, and I allowed some of the branches and leaves to extend down over the ellipse to soften the frame and make the tree project forward on the page. Notice how I drew the tree with my pen. I defined the trunk and major branches, but my pen skipped over areas of the trunk where foliage covered it. I only drew a few of the leaves and smaller twigs, leaving most of the detailing of the foliage, trunk, and branches for later on, to be added with a brush during the painting process at home.

Next, I added the center sketch of the hotel to the page. I sketched it onsite with pencil and pen, fitting it into the general area that I had marked off at the beginning. As I worked, I adjusted the size and location to work well with the sketches already on the page.

When I painted it later, I prettied up the colors a bit. The actual awning was brown, and I just couldn't bring myself to have that big slash of dark brown in the center of this sketch that's filled with light, soft colors. Artistic license to the rescue! I changed the color to be more in keeping with my color scheme for the page.

I came home from France with most of this page drawn and some of it painted, but I still had two areas to fill with sketches. The lavender sketch in the lower left corner of the page was added next. This scene had caught my eye from the moment I stepped out into the garden our first night there. The old stone steps and wrought iron gate lead to the Mausoleum of the Julii and Saint Paul de Mausole monastery, which I had sketched earlier. Stone walls and masses of lavender, two things that I love - how could I not sketch them?

I shaped the bed of lavender to follow the curve of the elliptical frame on the page, and positioned the tree at the left side to act as a frame for the sketch and keep the eye from roaming off the page.

The grounds surrounding Villa Glanum were filled with oleander in full bloom. Coming from the northeastern part of the US, it's not something I get to see regularly, so I really enjoyed having it as a part of every day in Provence. That made it a natural choice as a subject for this composite page. I took several photos of oleander blossoms while I was at the villa, then drew this customized arrangement to fit the space on my sketchbook page when I was back home.

One of the last things I added to the page was the green grass in the lower left corner. That spot looked empty, like it needed something. Adding some green with hints of warm Yellow Ochre there helped to round off the corner and tie it in with the other greenery on the page. It's not something anyone would really notice when looking at the page, but it enhances the overall composition.

Click to enlarge

I should probably mention my overall color choices for the page. With this composite sketch, I wanted to convey a feeling of relaxation, happiness, warmth, and sunshine. I intentionally kept my colors light and sunlit, but I also made sure to have a good range of values throughout the sketch. I used touches of Yellow Ochre in the foliage, on the buildings, and on the ground to add warmth. The off-white color of the paper helped to soften the colors, too.

One of the most important color decisions I made on this page was also the last decision I made. I waited until all the sketches were finished before I chose the pink color for the elliptical frame. I knew the color of that frame would greatly affect the look and feel of the entire sketch. I had already used Permanent Rose here and there on the page, and I thought the color would enhance the happy feeling of the painting, so I plunged in and painted the ellipse pink. After the oval frame was painted, I went back to each of the sketches on the page and added more touches of rose to make the page feel unified. If you look at the close-ups of each sketch, you'll be able to spot it.

At the very end, I decided to add a dotted edge to the ellipse to soften the hard defined edge and fancy up the plain wide pink line a bit. It's always risky to keep adding things to a sketch - it's easy to overdo it - but I had a niggling feeling that the ellipse needed a little something, so I took the plunge and added the dotted lines. That did the trick - no more niggling!

I hope this rather lengthy explanation has given you some insight into the way my mind works when I'm planning, designing, drawing, and painting a page like this. There's a lot of thinking involved, that's for sure, but I enjoy the design aspect of sketchbook journaling.

What it all comes down to is pushing myself to do something I've never done before, like using a large ellipse to unify a composite sketch. I constantly ask myself, "What if...?"

Give it a try. You just might surprise yourself with what you can do!

Would you like to try travel journaling?
Join me this fall in Sicily or Northern Italy. 
For information, click here.


  1. Thank you so much for this wonderful sketch and explanation, The paper texture is a pronounced part of the sketch - which paper or sketchbook was that?

    1. It’s Cheap Joe’s Kilimanjaro 140 lb. paper, which Joe told me is made for them by Fabriano. This is a sketchbook that one of my students made for me, and I LOVE it.

  2. Can you hear me sigh? Your sketch is a little respite in my day, so charming and soothing.

    Thank you for the glimpse into your thought process. The tips are very helpful, and I like that creating a thing of beauty is an important part of your process and that you allow yourself the time to develop a pleasing sketch even if it means completing it at home.

    I also appreciate the close-ups you share of different areas of your sketches. I’m learning a lot about line work from looking at them, especially in the greenery—where there is often a temptation to want to draw each branch and leaf. Just a hint of the foliage in ink is SO much better!

    Your artistic choices to add the grass in the bottom left corner and to change the color of the awning work very well, I think. The grass forms such an inviting path with the lavender up to the gate, and your colorful awning seems like it belongs to the building. I don’t think I would have liked the brown either. You didn’t mention your lettering, but it’s also a beautiful choice.

    More, please!

    1. Oh, I should have mentioned the lettering! I think it looks serene, don't you? Sometimes the simplest lettering style is the best.

      I'm so glad you got something out of my lengthy explanation. I'm not one for short blog posts, am I? It's nice to know someone read the whole thing and actually thought about what I wrote. I so appreciate your thoughtful comments.

  3. It is amazing how much information you communicate visually in a sketch, and how orderly it is, without becoming a list.

    1. That's true. You can say so much in a simple little vignette. Right now I'm working on a calendar page for April. Each box is only 1 1/4" square, and I've learned to really design those tiny spaces and put all the essentials to communicate an idea in them. Each one tells a story.

  4. What serendipity! I Literally googled “travel sketchbook” this evening and found your website an all of your amazing descriptions of how yuo design your pages and paintings - you have answered a million and one questions - and some I didn’t even know were bubbling in my brain! My husband and I are off on a trip of a lifetime at the end of May to see gardens in Kent, Surrey and Sussex U.K. and. Want to prepare and create a watercolor sketchbook journal - you are a treasure! Thank you so much - thrilled to have found you ad your blog and website and looking forward to following you!

    1. Can I go along as your personal travel journal instructor? Please???? My dream trip is the one you just described.

      Have a WONDERFUL time!

  5. Leslie, thank you for letting us in on your thinking process. Sometimes, that is more helpful to know than the actual painting part. Love this spread!

    1. I guess I need to do this more often. Until recently, I hadn't realized how much people want to understand the thinking process that goes into my sketches. I'll have to start paying more attention to what's actually going on in my head when I'm designing and painting. Sometimes that's hard to do when I'm "in the zone". I've been doing some reading about cognitive creativity and cognitive thinking (thinking about what you're thinking). It's really interesting, and I think it will help me to be a better teacher, understanding more of what's going on in our heads when we're creating.

  6. Is this painting for sale? It is lovely!

    1. I'm afraid not. It's part of my sketchbook, but I could upload it to my online gallery, and you could order a print.


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