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  • Writer's pictureDiane deGroat

Illustrating a Travel Journal

Updated: Apr 12

Unlike a personal diary, a travel journal can be used for reference and for sharing. It's also handy when your memory fails and Google has no idea what you're talking about.

Not everyone gets (or likes) to travel as much as I have, but my partner, Norm, had international conferences every year, and I was fortunate to be able to tag along. Since the year 2000, I had been keeping track of our trips as I experienced them, mostly to share with him.

A journal can also be shared with a friend who might ask advice about a place.

For instance: “Visiting other islands from St. Maarten? Isn't that where we took the boat they called the Vomit Comet?”

Yep, here it is—the ferry to Saba (top right page). You might want to avoid that one.

(But yes—electronic wrist zappers do work for seasickness.)

You'll notice I make small drawings on the pages, either because I can’t help myself, but mostly because it makes the page more interesting. I'm embarrassed to show them here, as they're pretty rough, but the whole point is to draw and write with speed, so you have more time to actually experience things to draw and write about.


Sometimes a drawing can even be more effective than words, like when I described the layers of clothing I had to wear in the Arctic.

Yes—it was worth it to see the Northern Lights.

No—I didn't pee for 12 hours.


And when our guide taught us which hand gestures NOT to use in Sicily,

diagrams helped:

Sometimes an event was made for drawing, like when we almost ran over a boar in Hawaii.

Spoiler alert: The boar dies.

Spoiler alert 2: TMI about bladder issues.

Also worth drawing was when the brakes failed on the standard shift rental in Guadeloupe.

Sacre Bleu!

I found that waiting in airports is a good time to draw random people. (JFK, Fiji)

...Or waiting in line at customs (Cayman Islands). Can you find me and Norm? Answer at end of post.

Sometimes there were surprises. The Finland conference was in Tampere, home of the 'Moomins' creator. Who knew? Fun for a children's book illustrator to discover!

Besides conferences, we also traveled for pleasure, each picking a place on alternate years, depending on our interests:

Norm: boats, scuba diving, vineyards, listening to birds, talking to locals.

Me: Nature, art, museums, food, listening to Norm talking to locals.

I write a lot about food and drink in my journals, probably because I like to eat and drink. I travel to see things that I’ve never seen before, but also to experience new tastes and smells.


(Southern France- Sarlat)

Besides meals, I apparently found it necessary to include TMI regarding health issues, reminding me that we both got food poisoning in Geneva, the night before we had to fly home.

Note: Always get an Rx of Cipro from your doc before traveling. You’re welcome.

But it’s not all about car troubles and gastric issues. I like to sum up my impressions and reactions to unusual places.

Leeches in an Istanbul market merit a mention, of course.

FYI: stuff like maps and postcards can be included. There are no rules.

Sometimes I make bulleted notes of my impressions at the end of a trip, like for Southern Spain, 2006:

The Basics:

I started journaling with Moleskin (brand) 5” x 9” notebooks. It’s the perfect size to carry in a purse or a daypack, and it opens flat to draw across the middle. At one point Moleskin was manufactured with a smooth, off-white heavyweight paper, but then they changed to a lighter weight (which ruined my 2015 journal!) The pen bleeds through to the other side of the paper—an artist's nightmare. I’ve since switched to Strathmore's Art Journal 500 series.

Cons: It’s bright white and has a tooth, unlike the original Moleskin.

Pros: No bleeding through paper. And it’s the best I can find for now.

I use a thin point felt pen for writing and drawing, but I can use color if I happen to bring the necessary materials and have time to sit a while. Then the journal becomes a sketchbook.

Sometimes I draw something ‘live’ like a structure, a scene, or objects that catch my eye.

Cayman Islands. Watercolor:

The B&B at Giverney, France. Felt tip pen:

I’m not comfortable drawing in public like artist and illustrator James Gurney does.

photo curtesy James Gurney

But it's not always possible to escape onlookers. Sometimes 100 schoolchildren will pass through a museum when you’re sketching.

“Ohhhoooooo, that’s good.”

“Lemme see!”

“No, me!”

“Boys and girls—leave the lady alone.”

For easy reference, I make a ‘Table of Contents’ on the first page of each journal, and a list of places taped on the spine for the shelf. When it’s full, I start another.


We always made our own travel arrangements because it allowed us flexibility, and we were old pros at pulling it off with a minimum of hitches—like our flight being canceled when a blizzard hit the Northeast, and we had to spend an extra couple days in Hawaii . Ha ha.

But for our Galapagos trip, it was necessary for the first time to join a group that had official permits and a boat, so we took that trip with Road Scholar (formerly Elderhostel, which sounds ancient and hostile, but it isn't) 

Of course, we were subject to their schedule, but it opened my eyes as to how much easier it is to have someone else take care of all the details and responsibilities! Duh.

A typical schedule with Road Scholar:

P.S. I am not a morning person:


Norm died in 2022, ending my 'Travels with Norm' journals. His passing (plus the covid years) brought an abrupt stop to my travel adventures. But I'm ready to start again, when I go to Croatia with Road Scholar this year as a single. I'll let them handle all the details. And I'll have more time to fill my 'Travels without Norm' journals.

I'm not done yet. There’s a big world out there...



Answer to the Cayman line up:

I’m grumpy #7 from the left and Norm is low-sugar #8.

Yes—count the Sasquatch. Don't ask.

Update on the journal search. I just found a better source than Strathmore: Beechmore Books, London.

It’s 1/2” larger, but has the original moleskin-like paper and a pocket in the back. And a vegan cover if you plan to eat it.

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