On family holidays, my parents would give me a book of A4 paper to keep me quiet. I’m drawing in every holiday photo! Actually, I’ve drawn every day for as long as I can remember.
I’ve always taken a sketchbook on my travels … and a major part of my work as an illustrator is based on travel drawings. I see what catches my eye, then sit on a bench or at a cafe window and stay for about an hour. I take two sketchbooks: an A6 one that fits in my pocket and an A4 watercolour sketchbook that I use if I have more time. In Britain, no one pays me any notice. In, say, Japan, people are more likely to come and talk or to stand at a respectful distance and watch.
My tools are usually just a grey brush pen and a black brush pen. With pencil, you know you can rub it out if it goes wrong and in a similar way, grey ink seems to fool the mind into thinking it’s not permanent. I go over the sketch in black ink later.
I try for one finished painting a day during a trip, and as many pages in my sketchbook as possible – ideally an entire book. With watercolours, I often start in pencil. I tend to do about half in situ and embellish afterwards
During lockdown, I have been drawing more than ever. I always have a sketchpad or an iPad around, even at night. I’ve been doing challenges on social media, including a portrait one, and try to post a drawing a day on Instagram. I don’t draw when I’m out for a walk, though – I wouldn’t feel comfortable stopping.
My advice to beginners is to start small and simple. Get a sketchbook and start drawing everything around you: a receipt, a label on a bottle, a sign. Try a one-line drawing – without taking your pencil off the page. Or start drawing unusual shadows, then add other details. If you want to draw your pet, use a single line to get their gesture down as quickly as possible.
It’s comforting to look back through my travel drawings. Of course, it makes me miss travelling, too, but when I look at them, things I’d forgotten come flooding back: conversations, weather, the smell of the food…
Some drawings remind me how the sun felt on my skin … one reminded me how it felt to be bitten by ants!
My favourite place to draw is Japan. I have been nine times and feel at home there. My partner (the stitcher Felt Mistress) and I had an artists’ residency in Japan in 2011: six weeks of drawing daily. It enhanced my time there and increased my appreciation of the place.
In Tokyo, I like drawing in the more urban and industrial parts – overhead power lines, kanji street signs and the old and new styles of dress. I also love drawing in Shinjuku Gyoen, a national garden where the sun-bleached grass undulates like sand dunes and the short trees cast amazing shadows.
Nara is a beautiful Japanese city, with eight Unesco-listed historic monuments – and deer wandering freely about. I’ve got a photo of a deer chewing the edge of my sketchbook while I’m trying to draw.
Helsinki is a quiet, calm city, with great architecture. It’s my second-favourite place to draw. I love the Alvar Aalto House and there are some very interesting doorways, too! Plus, every chair you sit on is a beautifully designed object. I enjoyed drawing the boats in Helsinki harbour, and some of my favourites were done in the indoor markets. I put them online and the owner of one of the market cafes I’d drawn got in touch. My drawing now hangs in his cafe.
Berlin is packed with street art – and really distinctive people. I like to draw in a cafe looking out on a crossroads or a railway station. I also love drawing Madrid and Lisbon. In the UK, I’ve drawn Liverpool several times, as well as Manchester and London. In the future, I’d like to draw India, especially its buildings and the traffic.
I try to draw animals, but it’s difficult … they move around a lot! I was once gifted a zookeeper experience that involved feeding aardvarks and then sitting with them while they were sleeping. I asked if I could get my sketchbook and draw them. I was told I was the first person to ask that. I’m generally more interested in urban environments, though I do draw a lot of trees!
When we can travel again, I think the first place I’ll go to draw is Lisbon … or perhaps Berlin … or maybe Tokyo …
• See some of Jonathan’s work at jonathan-e.com