Sunday, December 8, 2019

California Road Trip - Part 1 + Creating a Flow Sketch

My workshop in Santa Barbara last month was a huge success, and the road trip that followed, although not quite what I had expected, was a lot of fun, too, and showed me a part of California that I had always wanted to see. I took hundreds of pictures along the way, so I have plenty of digital memories safely stored on my computer, but I think the moments that will really stay with me are the ones I captured in my sketchbook. 

Ink & watercolor in a Khadi 6-1/2" x 5" hardcover sketchbook with 140 lb. watercolor paper

I did a few larger sketches during the workshop in Santa Barbara and I'll post those eventually, but the page I want to share with you today is this "flow sketch" that shows some of the highlights of our first few days in California.

Click to enlarge

On a fast-paced trip like this one, I don't always draw the sketches on location. Rather, at the end of each day, I pencil in the image after looking back through photos I took that day. I think of a flow sketch like this as a sort of  "Table of Contents" for the trip, an overview of where we went and what we did. I block everything in during the time we're traveling, then finalize the page with ink and paint when I get home.

When creating a page like this, I have to distill down all that I experience in a day and choose only a few elements to sketch. I ask myself:

  • What really stands out about the day? 
  • What did I enjoy the most? 
  • What was the most beautiful, unusual, or interesting thing I did or saw? 
  • What was funny or disappointing or surprising?

These are the things that I tend to draw. There's no right or wrong choice, but what I choose to sketch does end up being important. It's what I'll remember most about that time, years in the future.

The first thing I did for this two-page spread was to pencil in the title. I knew that my ten-day trip would take up more than these two pages, but I didn't have any kind of preconceived page design in mind. I only knew that I wanted to do a flow sketch, where one image flows into the next, showing a timeline of images. I decided to make the title fairly bold and prominent. I used two contrasting lettering styles, and when I painted it later at home, I used an ombré treatment on the block letters.

Our first day in Santa Barbara was spent doing touristy things like visiting the beach, the Santa Barbara pier, the Mission, the downtown area, and the county courthouse, a beautiful Spanish Colonial Revival style masterpiece built in the early 20th century.

I had two reference photos for the courthouse, and I decided to draw a modified front view since it was easier to draw and showed more of the actual look of the building. I use photos as a tool, but I don't feel obligated to make my drawing match a photo. And remember, these sketches are tiny, so it's not necessary to include all the details.

My workshop began the next day in the expansive upper story of a cute barn on the coast in Carpinteria, about 20 minutes south of Santa Barbara. In the morning we sketched in and around the barn then moved to Rincon Point Beach in the afternoon for some plein air sketching.

Rincon Point State Beach

I had good reference photos for both Day 2 images, but I felt a little silly trying to reduce a 1/2 mile long beach into a sketch just an inch and a half wide. Oh, well, all I needed was an impression, not a faithful rendering of all the details. The curved line of the lettering helped to separate the two sketches.

The next day we took a field trip to Mission Santa Barbara where we spent a few hours painting on location.

Mission Santa Barbara

The rose gardens in front of the mission were my favorite part of our visit, so I included them in my sketch.

I used a plastic ellipse template to make all the "Day --" shapes on the page. Adding a shadow to the lower left side of each pale Phthalo Blue ellipse helped to make the dates more prominent. The arrows that direct the viewer's eye from one day to the next were all painted with a deeper value of the same color. Painting them a rich, bold color was a good choice to keep this busy page from becoming completely unreadable.

We spent the final day of the workshop back at the barn. In the afternoon, the students designed a composite sketch filled with items they had picked up at Rincon Point...

and I demonstrated techniques for adding texture to beach pebbles.

After hugs and goodbyes for all my new-found friends, my mom, my friend, Candy, and I packed up and headed up the coast the next day. We stopped for breakfast in Buellton, "The Split-Pea Soup Capital of the World".

Reference photos for this sketch were everywhere - on billboards, buildings, souvenirs, and menus. I thought the whole idea of being the "Split-Pea Soup Capital of the World" was really funny, so I felt compelled to include it in my flow sketch.

It was sunny all day as we traveled up Route 1, so we had beautiful views of Morro Bay, where we stopped for an hour or so. We visited the nature center to learn about all the wildlife that flocks to this area, so I included some birds on my sketch as a reminder.

We watched sea otters lolling on their backs, munching on oysters near Morro Rock...

but my reference photo left a lot to be desired...

Add caption

so I simply drew a circle frame to be filled in later after consulting my good friend, Google images, and finding some good reference photos of adorable sea otters.

We arrived at our hotel in Cambria in the afternoon, just in time for a walk to Moonstone Beach.

It was late in the day and and a ferocious wind was blowing.

Moonstone Beach in Cambria, CA

My mom and I layered on all the warm clothes we had and were still cold - not at all what I was expecting for California!
My cute mother and favorite traveling companion, Saundra

We covered a lot of territory on Day 5 as we traveled north from Santa Barbara to Cambria, so instead of including just one or two sketches that day, I drew five. More sites + more time for sketching = more vignettes on my flow sketch.

Drawing the rough sketches for a flow sketch in pencil gives me a lot of flexibility when it comes time to ink everything back at home. I can change the size or position of a sketch, move the lettering, change the size or style of it, fine-tune shapes, and add elements that might help to round out the page design.

Sure, this all takes time, but while I'm working on the sketch, I'm reliving each one of those experiences and remembering the people, the laughter, the weather, the animals, the gorgeous scenery, and the feeling of joy that I felt to be exploring a place that I've always longed to see. Sketching for me is a journey, not a race to the finish. I love the whole process, so why hurry?

Up next: California Road Trip - Part 2


  1. these are all so beautiful. of course you had a beautiful place and weather, but your paintings of it all are just wonderful...thank you

  2. Thank you for sharing your talent. The flow sketch is a wonderful idea and yours is truly beautiful. A work of art that touches the heart!

  3. Loved your posts, but sorry about the weather! Fall is usually a great time along the California coast. Mark Twain once said something like, "the coldest winter I ever spent was a summer in San Francisco." I suppose you can get fog any time along the coast, but generally Fall is really beautiful. Maybe next trip!


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