My Bangkok Travel Journal

Last month, I took a week-long trip to Thailand. It was a fairly busy business trip but I managed to squeeze in time to do some drawing here and there. I brought along a new sketch book bound for me by my friend Roz Stendahl. It’s made with Guttenberg paper which is really lovely but quite different from the sort of hard, hot press watercolor paper I am used to.  Guttenberg is soft, almost like sheets of linen, but takes any sort of medium easily. I also like the way the buff tone looks in a travel journal, sort of parchmenty like an old map.

I made a few decisions before I left about how I was going to work on this trip. First of all, I wanted to make a journal of observations, rather than purely making drawings or paintings.  So I didn’t just plunk myself down on a random  street corner on my trusty  folding stool and draw what was instead of me.  Instead I wanted the equivalent of postcards, a real record of my experiences and drawings that illustrated what I was doing.  That also meant that if the environment was less than ideal for drawing, I would take a couple of quick pictures and work on the pages when I had time, often back at my hotel room desk.

I also decided to draw boldly, with thicker lines, more sure and blocky.  I’ve been inspired by people like Fabio Consoli and Kathrin Jebsen-Marwedel and Bryce Wymer, artists who think graphically rather than purely representationally.  (All three of these guys are in An Illustrated Journey, BTW).

I also decided I wanted to shake up my usual bags of tricks and so I brought along  my gouache and some gold leaf, some white paint and some much thicker pens.

(Click on the images to expand)


I made this spread days before I left, when I was getting excited about the trip and was imagining where I would go. I looked up stuff on the Internet and practiced my Thai calligraphy.  I laid down a super rough square of gouache with a dry brush, then painted a map on top of it with black and white ink. I smeared a stroke of glue stick across the top of the right hand page, then rubbed down a sheet of gold.  It doesn’t scan well but looks great and Siamese in the book.Thai-03

My girlfriend J.J. lent me her North Face bag — it’s bright red so you never lose it at baggage claim. I was angsting a fair amount about jet lag — my trip was so short I didn’t want to waste it staggering around in a daze. Medication helped knock me out and I generally did pretty well though I would usually fade by seven PM.

On the left page, I used gouache straight of the tube. On the right, I used watercolors from a tiny pocket-size paintbox. The writing, like most of the words in the journal, were done with India ink and  a dip pen.paint-box

I like the contrast between these two pages and the way the different media work. I also like spot illustrations in the middle of a block of text.Thai-05

This page is a bit of  a hodge-podge.  The drawing of me on the right was done in the rain,  by a street artist who charged me 100 baht ($3).  I was horrified by how paunchy he made me look and wondered if I should have tipped him much more. The drawing of the bunny dressed in a clown costume came from a photo I took in the market— I drew it later in my room and added some gouache.  The bowing Thai lady I made up but she looks quite typical.   Even Ronald bows like this in Bangkok:



I like the way the gouache boat turned out. It reminds me of Miroslav Sasek, an illustrator I love but who never drew in Bangkok as far as I know. I drew the gent in the corner surreptitiously while we rode on the boat then hit him with watercolors later on.  The enormous reclining Buddha was so impressive I could only record the impression he made on me, gigantic feet towering twenty feet in the air


I love how gouache is  forces me to think backwards from the way I am used to doing with do with watercolors. Lights can go on top of darks and the medium is so much more forgiving. I find it much easier to use and the right sort of  boldness for capturing Bangkok.  It’s got a very different emotional quality from what I am used to and obliterated my line. Some of these images seem really unfamiliar to me, as if they were painted by someone else. I like that.


A fairly ugly spread. I wanted to capture the intense color of marigolds and the intensity of her costume, but I worked too quickly and mucked it up a bit.  Not sure what I was thinking with the potato print looking body on the right. Oh, well, turn the page.


On the left,  I got a chance to be a little a painterly, working from observation, thick and wet on wet. The right hand side is very cartoony, but it captures all these absurd parking attendants in their uniforms, bossing cars around the parking lots. Thai-15

Watercolor on the left, gouache and white paint marker on the right. I drew the first building in a sun-baked courtyard, super quickly, with a brush pen. Then drew it again hastily from another angle.  I added all the details and the color later on when I was in the air-conditioning.  I had painted the right hand page with dark blue gouache the day before, not sure what I’d draw on top of it but the bone white stupa called out to me as a study in contrast against the clear sky. I like this spread.


On one of our last nights, we went to Thai boxing. Eight bouts and as many beers. Great fun.Thai-17

The next morning, still a little dazed, I illustrated my thoughts with a quick made-up drawing of boxers. Later, on the way to the airport, I drew a young woman on the back of a man’s scooter and wrote about why it had perplexed me. In my haste, I didn’t hold my book the right way up.Thai-19I only drew the ubiquitous king once I was safely out of the country. I’d wanted to draw him all along but had fantasies of being pulled aside at the airport and made to explain my crummy likeness. He does have enormous ears and a generally unfriendly and unroyal air, more like a dull CEO.  This is done in gouache and gold paint pen.

As you can tell by the diminishing quality of my pages, Thailand wore me down. It is hot, noisy, crowded and I was thoroughly over Thai food and stilted English by the time we left.  It can be hard mixing business and drawing but I’m glad I have  a record of the trip and quite pleased with a few of my pages. I stretched myself with some new materials and some stylistic experiments. I’m scheduled to go back in a couple of months. Maybe I’ll try oils.