How to Fill a Travel Journal

Together with Caylee Grey and guests, we’ll explore what it REALLY means to be an artist. Practically. Warts and all. So that you can be an artist, today, now, even if you work a day job, have a million and one commitments and own a cat that likes sitting on your art.

No more excuses. Okay? Okay.

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Whether you’re exploring a new country or your own backyard, here are practical tips on how to travel like an artist rather than a tourist.

Podcast Show Notes

We discuss:

  • how to fill up a travel journal – whether you’re away from home or just around the neighbourhood
  • how to find the time to journal while on vacation
  • the difference between a tourist and an artist

Here are the accompanying videos:

Berlin is my all time favourite place. It’s the perfect mix of Germany and South Africa to me. It’s essentially German Cape Town.

This trip was a gift from T.
I was going with Rach. We bound journals in advance, and knew our main purpose for the trip was breakfast, coffee and journaling. Listen. We live in a small town. Our ambitions are low.

That’s my first tip for journaling while on a trip. Plan your trip around the journaling. Haha. If that’s not possible, and you’d still like to journal while travelling, you can still do that. I’ve journaled on trips to get my son’s passport when he was a year old. That trip I journaled during nap time on the hotel bed, but this trip… oh this trip had 24 hours of journal-opportunities.

Before we get into the rest of the tips, this video is to take you along with me. The panini has been rough and maybe you’d like to visit Berlin virtually with me. This video has a lot of trains but it’s one of my favourite things about Berlin – I even love the smell of the underground. No judges. It’s been a long time since I’ve traveled too. I used to do it quite a lot – which I think is inevitable if you live in Europe and especially if you’re an immigrant. I am both.

Over all the trips I have become very good at travelling and making art. Each time I’ve shared one online I’m asked how I find the time.

My secret is that I don’t do touristy things.

I am not interested in seeing the Berlin Wall. I won’t go to Buckingham Palace. The Eiffel Tower is the only touristy thing I will consistently come back to. One of my best friends is unfortunately that kind of tourist. They exist. It might be you too. But it’s not me.

My goal with any kind of travel is to chill the hell out and eat eggs for breakfast. I realise that if you’re travelling far, you might not want to do the same things as home. But they don’t have eggs that aren’t boiled where I live. Poached eggs that have the whites all cooked, and the yolk still raw (and hello, basically not watery boiled eggs) are my greatest pleasure in life. To boil it down, my pleasure in life is avoiding boiled eggs.

Avoiding boiled eggs and tourist attractions are a great way to make time for art while travelling.

Another way is to keep a limited amount of supplies. For this trip, I took a lot. I usually work with less. Limit your decision making. Washi tape, pencil, pen, glue are the essentials. I need a ruler for drawing because my father has architecture in his veins and I like being precise, though inaccurate (because as much as I tried, osmosis doesn’t allow for me to gain architecture knowledge from my architecture friends). Bonus points for small scissors, an eraser, watercolours with a water brush. Maybe pens at different thicknesses or a colour pencil. Super bonus points for a pencil case that fits the journal.

A corollary to that is to use found art. Flyers and pamphlets, free maps, papers that have fallen on the floor and are falling off a pole. I will always ask for a business card. If the menu is paper, I’m taking it with me.

Take photos of the things you want to remember. Your photos don’t have to be pretty and you can delete those kinds of ones when you have transferred them to your journal. It can be the name of the menu item you ordered (especially if it’s in another language). Instead of writing it down, snap a photo of the weird street name, the cafe, the name of the metro station.
Take a screenshot of the area on Google Maps.
Photograph The brick patterns on a building. Textures. Details.

Essentially, to travel like an artist you have to travel like an artist.

You’re probably already seeing the world like an artist. Transfer that skill to your travelling and stop travelling like a tourist.

A tourist goes to the main spots. An artist sees the spots on the way to the hidden nooks of a city.
A tourist uses a cab and an artist walks. Duh.
A tourist gets as much as possible in the day. Works through a checklist. An artist is still allowed a plan, but knows that two amazing breakfast places across the road from each other mean that it’s subsequent double breakfast day and maybe the lunch plans can be cancelled.
An artist judges by the details. They look down and up, and up close.
An artist allows themself to feel a place.
An artist knows that every town has its own colour palette. Geneva is turquoise, London is royal blue, Berlin is yellow, and Paris is light pink.
An artist doesn’t visit an art gallery just because they’re an artist.

You can travel like an artist in your own neighbourhood too. In fact, this is like travelling, but with gratitude. Back in 2013, the third Get Messian, Sabine from Moments to Live For, shared her photo walks on her blog. I immediately took them on. All you need to do is go for a walk around the block. If you can’t do the block, do your house. If you’d like to extend it, do your village, or city, or closest city. I absolutely hate the city that my studio is in so I do this a lot. I’m cultivating gratitude for the second ugliest city in Germany. I’m typing this from a really nice cafe that has omelettes – not poached eggs, but also not boiled – so I’m almost there.

Anyway, you can either just explore or you can explore with a theme. Constraints are good, yo. Search for numbers, or circles, or a colour, or a pattern. Take photos of those. You can take it to the next level and make a zine out of them or simply allow them to be a moment of your time.

Artist dates, and exploring your neighbourhood with a journal achieve the same thing.

Other ways to maximise the amount of art on your trip:

  • use pencil to write what you did that day – you can do this to assign pages. Even if you bind your own journal, you’ll probably never have enough pages. Work in it anyway. Know that you can add more pages with washi tape, and that you can tear some out.
    • Here’s a trigger warning, but you can also just leave the rest of your journal pages blank. Another trigger warning. I do this a lot. I completed five journals for my three week trip to America in 2018. Well, 4.5. And I finished the half-filled one over a few months being back home.
    • When I went to London for a week, I took a 192 page journal and finished that baby in its entirety except for 20 pages and didn’t touch it again. It’s STILL A FINISHED JOURNAL.
  • For any unfinished pages, Write your favourite things from the trip,and ask any co-travelers to do the same. You’re also allowed to write ONE QUOTE from the trip over one page. You can also stick a map over two pages and add nothing else. You do you boo.
  • Journal while at cafes and restaurants. If you have kids, you’ll probably not be able to do this. But if someone who is not a child is on a trip with you, they probably like you enough to allow you to journal during lunch. I have a habit where I need to be doodling something in order to be able to pay attention to a conversation. My husband jumps at the opportunity to read. When we went to a villa in the Austrian Alps with my parents, I journaled on the balcony while they played games with my son.
  • Try and get as much done as possible without ignoring your own needs. If you’re tired of journaling, don’t keep doing it. If I’m drawing, I get NAUSEOUS if it’s been longer than an hour. N A U S E O U S. It may sound like I’m lying, but those details drive me dizzy. And I like details slightly less than I hate nausea, and so guess what? I stop.

I have a process for travel journaling now. It might take time for you to realise what works best for you. My process is as follows:

Add ephemera and paper to pages without glueing down. Group like ephemera with like. Usually, I can collate my experiences into groups. Going through the videos from the trips, there are very definite boundaries. So the ephemera groups together in my head before it ever goes onto the page. Colour schemes be damned.

If an experience or memory doesn’t have ephemera, I’ll write it down. Bullet points in pencil on a page.

If I find a postcard that works particularly well on both sides, and I realise my journal is going to finish before I do, I’ll keep it as a possible washi taped extra page.

When I have time or energy or – lust (that’s Afrikaans for an English word I cannot find that means something close to keenness). I will journal. I’ll journal what I feel. Drawing. Or lettering. Or arranging the paper on the page and glueing down.

To summarise, I work in layers. The entire journal is one layer, like one canvas. The memories serve as the base. The paper is the next layer. And then the illustrations and writing. I don’t ever finish a page before moving onto the next. It’s all fluid and in motion. I’m in motion.

My journals are not always finished by the time I get home. Usually they’re about 80% done. Sometimes I feel like working on them more and sometimes I am done. While on the trip, working on my journal, it is processing. After the trip it’s more reflective. I use my pencil marks, and my photos – especially the ones taken to remember rather than to capture beauty.

Caylee Grey

Caylee Grey is the host of Get Messy and a South African perfectionist currently pursuing imperfection.

Caylee Grey, host of Get Messy

The Get Messy Podcast

I’m Caylee Grey. Creator of Get Messy, official fairy freaking artmother and your pro excuse-squashing ninja.

In the Get Messy podcast I’ll be chatting to a selection of amazing, real-life humans just like you are who are dealing with the very same barriers … but overcoming them to create their art.

Together, we’ll explore what it REALLY means to be an artist. Practically. Warts and all. So that you can be an artist, today, now, even if you work a day job, have a million and one commitments and own a cat that likes sitting on your art.

No more excuses. Okay? Okay.