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January 16, 2015

Call it paint-by-nomad. Travelers are putting down the camera and picking up a canvas in a literal approach to making misty water-colored memories. By Melanie Lee.

Published on Jan 16, 2015


If a picture is worth a thousand words, a painting could well be a tome. There is a burgeoning segment of tourists trying to capture a richer travel narrative by sketching the scenes before them in oil, acrylic, charcoal and everything in between. Painting and globe-trotting are fitting bedfellows, and the growing popularity of Urban Sketchers (, a network of sketchers that started in Seattle in 2008 but has since expanded to chapters across the world, bears testament to the allure of location drawing. The group's motto is "show the world, one drawing at a time," and many of its members believe art offers the strongest bond to travel.

Singaporean Favian Ee was sketching ruins outside of Siem Reap when a few local children came over to watch what he was doing. One girl pointed at the neon pink from his palette and he realized that she wanted him to use that color in his painting. Soon other children joined in, and the collaboration stands out as one of his favorite travel moments. "People, no matter what part of the world you're in, like to see art taking form in front of them," says Ee. "That's how connections are made."

Favian Ee
Ee with his sketch of a durian seller in Penang

David Liew, one of Urban Sketchers' more prolific illustrators, says there's no better way to get to know a destination. "What you see becomes more than just a place. You take the time to sketch it. You start to feel more for it. It becomes a deeply personal snapshot of a place you've visited that has meant something to you," he explains. For Liew, the spot that caught his eye was a hole-in-the-wall Teochew restaurant in Malacca. Its pale green tiles, stainless steel wall clocks and exposed wiring made him feel like he had "stepped into a time warp" and he plans to return there to render a more detailed likeness of the restaurant.

Ee and Liew agree that travel sketching makes them slow down and pay attention to details, etching a deeper impression in their own minds. Yet the time it takes to produce the work contrasts with the satisfying immediacy of sharing it, pairing an age-old art form with the speed of modern technology. "Social media has really helped in boosting the profile of travel sketching," says Ee. "Many artists post their travel sketches on blogs, Facebook, Twitter or Flickr, and this inspires others to try this during their travels too." And even for the novice artist, a drawing must be worth at least 140 characters.

David Liew
A watercolor of a shop in Singapore by David Liew


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Favian Ee, Urban Sketchers
  • Favian Ee, Urban Sketchers
  • Favian Ee, Urban Sketchers
  • David Liew, Urban Sketchers
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