Sketch tools by Chandler O'Leary

Below is the list of some of the things I find myself explaining on a regular basis. I get a lot of messages and questions, so please don’t be offended if I’m not able to respond to an email; you might just find an answer to your question here. Also, please note that the materials and reference books I mention below link to Amazon, from whom I receive a small commission via their affiliate program. That commission helps defray the costs of running this website, so I can continue to offer my content for free, without ads.

What kind of sketchbook/paints/brushes/pens do you use?

I try to keep my travel sketching kit portable. I work small, using pocket-sized sketchbooks and compact materials that I can fit in a small shoulder bag. Your mileage and preferences may vary, of course, but the question I receive the most is what, precisely, is in my sketch kit. Here’s the complete list:

Sketchbooks I use most frequently:
Moleskine Pocket Sketchbook
Moleskine Pocket Watercolor Album
Handbook Journal Co. Square Travelogue Sketchbook

My travel paintbox:
Winsor & Newton Artist’s Water Colour (liquid paint in tubes)
Watercolor half pans (I fill these myself with the liquid watercolor)
I prefer metal paintboxes, though plastic ones are fine, too.
Screw-top glass water jar
(If you’re looking for a pre-packaged travel paint set, I recommend this one)

Painting supplies I use in my studio:
Pelikan Translucent Watercolor Set
White Gouache (opaque watercolor)
Daler Rowney FW Acrylic Ink
Ceramic palette
Big white enamel tray for protecting my studio table

Squirrel Mop Brush for all-purpose work (I use a variety of sizes)
Winsor & Newton Sable Pointed Round for detail work
Winsor & Newton Sable Rigger for lettering work
(Note: many sketch artists like to use water brush pens, though I prefer the traditional brushes listed above. But I’m including the link anyway, since people ask me all the time.)

Drawing tools:
Faber-Castell Pitt Artist Pens (I use the “S” or Superfine tip most often)
Micron .005 for super detail work (I like the Pitts better, but the ultra-fine tip here is handy)
Twist-Erase Mechanical Pencil, because I have no patience for pencil sharpeners
Pentel HB 0.5 pencil lead refills (a nice all-purpose graphite: not too hard, not too smudgy)

Navigational tools (more on this below):
I do most of my navigating using gazetteers, which are detailed state-by-state road atlases
Thomas Guides (which come in both city and state format) are also very good
For an all-purpose compact overview, nothing beats ye olde medieval Rand McNally Atlas
If you prefer folded maps, I like Rand McNally for state maps and GM Johnson for super-accurate city maps (though AAA also provides great maps for free, if you have a membership)

Other tools I use:
A floppy hat is a lifesaver in both sun and rain, whether you prefer a girly hat or manly hat
A folding camp stool can be handy for sketching where there’s nowhere obvious to sit
I shoot backup photos with my Canon 7D with 18-135mm lens, in case I can’t finish a sketch on-site
I carry all my sketching supplies in my Timbuk2 bag with camera insert (size XS)
I scan all my sketchbook drawings on my Canon CanoScan color scanner

What pigment colors do you have in your travel paintbox?

Every artist has his or her own preferences here—some sketchers carry only the most basic colors (the primaries—red, yellow, blue—plus maybe black), while others bring a virtual rainbow with them. I’ve built my paintbox after years of trial and error, using colors that are good building blocks for mixing, or are difficult/impossible to achieve by mixing, or else are hues that I find myself needing frequently. Here’s what’s in my palette at all times:

– Two yellows: Lemon Yellow and Cadmium Yellow Deep
– Three reds: Vermillion, Cadmium Red Medium, and Alizarin Crimson
– Two greens: Sap Green and Viridian
– Four blues: Pthalo Blue, Cobalt, Ultramarine and Indigo
– One purple: Violet (which I don’t use all that much, actually, but it comes in handy)
– Four neutrals: Yellow Ochre, Burnt Sienna, Raw Umber and Lamp Black

Elliott Bay Book Co. sketch by Chandler O'Leary

I want to teach myself to draw. Can you recommend any books to get me started?

I get asked this question all the time, and I used to draw a blank (no pun intended) when I tried to come up with an answer. I was trained in art school, and I’ve been sketching in the wild forever, so most of my know-how comes from hands-on experience rather than from books. But I can recommend a few useful titles to help you on your way (these are all books I either own or have read and liked):

General drawing and urban sketching books:
The Art of Urban Sketching: Drawing on Location Around the World
Sketch! The Non-Artist’s Guide to Inspiration, Technique, and Drawing Daily Life
Urban Sketching: The Complete Guide to Techniques
Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain
Atlas of Human Anatomy for the Artist

Books about perspective drawing and cityscapes:
The Urban Sketching Handbook: Understanding Perspective
Perspective Made Easy
The Art of Perspective: The Ultimate Guide for Artists in Every Medium
The Urban Sketching Handbook: Architecture and Cityscapes (I’m featured in this book)

Books about working with watercolor:
The Watercolor Artist’s Bible
Urban Watercolor Sketching: A Guide to Drawing, Painting and Storytelling in Color
Local Color: Seeing Place Through Watercolor
The Complete Watercolorist’s Essential Notebook
For more advanced painters: Watercolor Painting: A Comprehensive Approach to Mastering the Medium

Anthologies featuring other artist sketchbooks or journals for inspiration:
An Illustrated Life: Drawing Inspiration from the Private Sketchbooks of Artists
A World of Artist Journal Pages (I’m featured in this book)
The Sketchbook Project World Tour

Orcas Island sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Do you sketch for a living?

At first I didn’t. Sketching was just something I did in the background, and I didn’t really talk about it much. It wasn’t a secret or anything, but I just didn’t see how it fit in with my professional life, so I didn’t promote it as part of my portfolio. Launching this blog in 2013 changed all of that, and all of a sudden I had this enormous body of work and an audience to go with it. Ever since then, sketching has become more and more a part of my income, in the form of artist grants, print and card sales, licensing of my images, and commissions for travel-themed pieces.

I don’t know if I will ever quite get to the point where all I do for a living is travel and sketch—and as fun as that sounds, I’m not sure I’d want to. I have very broad interests, and I love that my studio work encompasses all sorts of media and techniques. In the end, all these things are part of a larger story for me. Whatever the mix of activities I might do each work day, I’m very, very fortunate to be able to do what I love for a living.

Do you take commissions?

I am available for editorial commissions, commercial work and licensing; I also help shops develop locally-themed travel stationery and prints. If that’s something you’re looking for, please give me a shout. I also do occasional private commissions for individuals and small businesses, but balancing my ongoing commercial projects with my personal work means that I’m almost always booked. It’s very rare that I can accept a project with a last-minute timeline, and as my entire business consists of just little ol’ me, I have to turn down even the most tempting opportunities, all the time. I hope you’ll understand if I can’t take on your project.

How can I purchase your work? Can I buy your stuff at a shop in my town?

You betcha! In fact, there are lots of options for that:

– You can find sketchbook prints and travel-themed goodies in the Drawn the Road shop
– You can find my full line of stationery and artwork in my larger Anagram Press shop
– I also collaborate on the Dead Feminists series, which you can find in its very own shop.

Or if you prefer to shop in person, here is a list of retailers that carry my work. Be advised, though: I don’t have any control over inventory or restocking at outside retailers, so if they sell out of my stuff, I won’t always hear about it. It’s always good to contact the retailer first and ask.

I own a retail shop and would love to carry your work. What do you offer for wholesale?

I have a veritable boatload of cards and digital prints available for wholesale! You can find them all, plus my wholesale prices and terms, in my wholesale catalog.

I also often help shops create cards and prints tailored to their location or community. If you would like to discuss the possibilities, please contact me!

Can I use your illustration for my website/blog/tattoo/event poster?

The images I post online are not licensed for personal or commercial use. All of my work is protected by U.S. copyright laws, so please do not use my images or writing without my written permission. Purchasing artwork does not grant reproduction rights or transfer copyright.

If you’re interested in licensing one of my images for your product/project/event/tattoo/etc., please feel free to contact me.

If you would like to do a feature about my work in your publication or blog, thank you! Please credit me, and let me know so I can help spread the word for you! Also, please note that while my name is often associated with dudes, I am, in fact, a woman. You’d be surprised how often articles about me get this detail wrong.

Do you teach sketching classes? Are you an instructor at Sketchbook Skool?

Only once in a blue moon do I teach these days—but when I do, they’re always live classes, usually held once a year or so at the School of Visual Concepts in Seattle. I’m afraid I don’t offer video classes, nor am I an instructor at Sketchbook Skool. Sketching is something I do on the side, in addition to my studio work. Since it’s something I have to fit into an already crazy schedule, that time is precious to me—I need to devote that time to drawing rather than filming videos or setting up online classes.

But if you want to learn to sketch, that’s great! There are lots of ways to learn to draw—traditional life drawing classes, like the ones offered by college art departments, are a great place to start. But the best way I know to learn how to sketch is to just get out there and try it. And try some more. And keep trying. Just draw and draw and draw—don’t worry about it being “good,” just worry about finding time to do it. Drawing is something that takes time to master, but the practicing is the fun part. Before you know it, you’ll have racked up a lot of time and more than a little expertise.

Italy sketch by Chandler O'Leary

How did you get started sketching?

I started keeping “formal” sketchbooks as a teenager, drawing people and animals from life in a spiral-bound sketch pad. I sketched my friends constantly, and drew my classmates and teachers on the sly. I’d visit the zoo and draw animals, or do covert drawings of strangers on public transit. I did a little bit of travel sketching, but it looked very different than what I’m doing now.

I graduated with a BFA in Illustration from RISD (Rhode Island School of Design). I spent my third year in Rome, pretty much doing nothing but drawing and traveling. (And drawing while I travel. And eating Italian food.) That’s when I started doing the full-color, full-bleed, standalone drawings that look like what you see on this site. That was kind of the beginning of what I do now, and I’ve only gotten more prolific (and obsessive) since. But that year in Rome was really unique, because I was able to devote pretty much all of my time to sketching and seeing the world. Being a full-time student meant that I didn’t have to worry about a job, or paying a mortgage, or juggling clients, or any of the things I have to balance now. It was a huge luxury, and I was hugely lucky, and I had just enough self-awareness that I knew I was lucky at the time. Now that sketching is a treat that I look forward to, I try really hard never to take it for granted.

How much sketching do you do onsite?

I do as much as I can onsite, but sometimes I have to do a lot of finishing work afterward. I might run out of time, or get interrupted, or it might start raining or snowing, or the light changes on me, or whatever. Sometimes I’m on a whirlwind trip and there simply isn’t time to do more than a few chicken scratches in pencil. And sometimes I’ll think of something much, much later, and decide to do a whole new sketch from memory or a whole new illustration after the fact. So I’ve gotten in the habit of snapping a quick reference photo at the beginning, just in case. Sometimes I use that photo to finish a sketch later, sometimes I don’t need it at all. But I don’t obsess about it—I’m more concerned with the finished product than what “rules” I follow or break along the way.

Wait, last week’s post was about Florida, and today you’re talking about Maine. Do you really travel that much?

No—at least, not all at once! This blog is not laid out in chronological fashion. Instead, the structure is thematic, with posts bouncing forward and back in time and place in order to create narrative arcs and common threads between subject matters. The reason I set the blog up this way is twofold: for one thing, I don’t travel every day of my life, and there are sometimes long gaps between road trips. For another, I’m not interested in the standard travelogue format—I’d much rather draw parallels (again, no pun intended) between different places than tell you every minute detail of what I did on each day of each trip.

So here’s how each blog post works: the date under the title of the post is the date on which the post was published on the blog. To find the date on which I actually created the sketches in the post, scroll down to the very bottom of the post. You’ll see a small-print label that says “Sketched on [date].” That’s when I was actually there, at the location in question.

Route 66 sketch by Chandler O'Leary

Do you have any travel recommendations? How do you find your sketching locations?

I’m always on the lookout for new things to explore and sketch, so I find my sketch locations from a huge variety of sources. I do a fair amount of research before any trip, reading books about each location and asking for word-of-mouth recommendations from friends and colleagues. I scour the internet for information, and I spend many, many hours studying maps. But I also like to leave at least some things up to chance when I travel. I try to include at least some unstructured time in every trip, because no matter how diligent my research is, there’s always some surprise along the way. Some of my favorite sketches and travel memories come from stumbling upon something I had no idea would be there.

As for my recommendations, basically this entire blog is one huge directory of recommendations, one that’s growing all the time. If you’re new here, I recommend checking out the Categories and Travel Series lists in the sidebar. Also, my Pinterest board is kind of a repository for all my sketches, so you can get a good at-a-glance sense for the kind of places I cover.

Do you use GPS?

No—at least, not when I’m driving, and not as any sort of navigator. Occasionally I will use Google maps for research or to assess the traffic situation, or to see where I am on the map, but that’s the extent of it. I absolutely hate the feeling of being led around by the nose—I want to understand wherever I am, not just fumble through it. So on the road I carry paper maps and gazetteers with me, and pull out my smart phone only when I need a quick reorientation or a specific address. Besides, map-reading is an invaluable skill that’s always worth learning—particularly when your battery dies, or you’re in a place where GPS simply won’t work.

Can I come sketch with you?

I’m sorry, but probably not. I prefer to blend into the woodwork and really concentrate when I’m sketching, so I do my best work when I’m alone. But if you’re looking to sketch in a social situation, I’d highly recommend looking up your local Urban Sketchers group. Most major cities and many other regions have a sketching group these days, and most of the Urban Sketcher events are free. They are a great place to meet other artists and find inspiration among like-minded, friendly folks.

Will you make a sketch for me from my vacation photos?

I’m afraid not. I have an overfull dance card, so I’m only available for editorial and commercial commissions.

Can I write a guest/sponsored post or put my image/graphic/link/ad on your blog?

No. Sorry.

As I mentioned above, the books and materials I link to here and on my About Page are affiliate links, but that is the only form of advertisement you’ll find on this website. I make my living through sales of my prints and stationery, client commissions and image licensing (see above). I don’t accept sponsored posts or travel, guest content or any other form of advertising. I get many, many requests from advertisers and companies looking for sponsored content, and I turn them all down. I pay for my own travel and materials, and I will not create sketches or blog posts to support any company or brand. All of my trip itineraries, content, recommendations and opinions are my own.

On the blog you sometimes mention someone named “the Tailor.” Who is that?

The Tailor is my spouse, so named because he makes his own clothing. He’s also a scientist, an amazing cook, a brilliant tinkerer, and frequently my travel companion. Out of respect for his wishes and privacy, I refer to him online only by his pseudonym.

Do you always travel with the Tailor? Are you looking for a road trip buddy?

The Tailor and I often travel together, but not always. My other road trip soulmate is my friend Mary-Alice, who is also a travel blogger (though she writes about pet travel on her blog). When she and I travel together, we are always on the lookout for dog-themed roadside attractions—the perfect Venn Diagram of our individual interests.

Though I adore traveling with friends and my spouse, my favorite travel companion is myself. I love solo road trips, and take them whenever I can. So I’m afraid I’m not looking for a new travel buddy, but thanks for asking!

Do you have any advice for new sketchers?

I know a blank page can feel intimidating, but the best antidote to that is just to take a deep breath and dive in! Remember that there are no wrong answers in sketching: the beauty of it all is that if you took 100 artists and asked them all to sketch the exact same thing, you’d still end up with 100 completely different drawings. And I wouldn’t want it any other way! There are endless possibilities, and many, many different styles out there, and each is wonderful and beautiful in its own way. The real work and challenge in sketching is to find your own voice, so don’t worry about what everybody else is doing.

And don’t forget—even if you draw in public, sketching is a very personal, very subjective thing to do. You aren’t under any obligation to show anybody your sketches! I hardly showed anyone my drawings for almost fifteen years—if you’re not ready to share yet, don’t sweat it. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes, or try something new. You might just surprise yourself, and create something you can’t wait to show the world.

Marin Headlands sketch by Chandler O'Leary


























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