Sketching the World

all illustrations © Candace Rose Rardon

ABOUT Candace

Candace Rose Rardon is a writer, sketch artist, and illustrator with a passion for telling stories about the world, be it through words or watercolors. Originally from Virginia, she spent the past seven years traveling and living overseas—calling England, New Zealand, India, and a yurt on an island in rural Canada home along the way—and recently created a new base in San Francisco. Her stories and sketches have appeared on sites such as BBC Travel, World Hum, and National Geographic’s Intelligent Travel site, and she has worked on a wide range of art commissions, from book covers and blog headers to an 85-foot-long mural for Google Thailand. She also runs her travel blog, The Great Affair, which has been featured in the New York Times, and earned an MA in Travel Writing from London’s Kingston University.


Hello Candace, so you travel, sketch and write for a living, which of the three came first and how do they all come together?

Hello! Well I’ve always loved to write and create art (growing up with a father who’s a trained artist and a creatively-minded mother played a big part in that), so in a way both of those came first from quite a young age—but in terms of my professional path, I would have to say it all started with traveling.

Just before graduating from college in Virginia, I ran into two friends who serendipitously said, “Candace, come to London with us.” It took me all of two seconds to decide to join them in moving to London for six months. I immediately fell in love with traveling around Europe and being at large in the world, so as my time in the UK came to an end, I began looking for a way to continue traveling while pursuing a profession I was passionate about.

Again, I have serendipity to thank for what came next—after leaving London, I randomly decided to do a Google search one night for a Masters in Travel Writing program. I was thrilled to discover that not only did such a course exist, but that it was offered by a university back in London. The idea of looking to the world for writing inspiration sounded perfect, and then not long after I began my course, I started traveling with a sketchbook.

In terms of how they all come together, I’d have to say they constantly feed each other. As soon as I arrive in a new place, the first thing I do is pull out my sketchbook. Sketching has become my favorite way of getting to know a place, experiencing its culture, and connecting with the people who call it home. The travel stories I write now frequently arise from the experiences I have while sketching, and I love weaving several sketches through each story.

“The stories I most love to write and read by other writers lie at the intersection of the external and internal journeys.”

Candace at work at Machu Picchu, Peru

What do you look out for when you are walking around a new place sketching?

After I arrive in a new place and am ready to start sketching, I love to set out walking and wandering without any particular destination in mind, keeping my eyes and mind open to what about the place is speaking to me. I look out for interesting streetscapes and buildings, memorable characters, or a beautiful detail that seems worth documenting. As I’ve grown as an artist, I’ve also tried to think about my sketches from a cinematic perspective—capturing a range of scenes from the close-up still life to bird’s-eye-view panoramas.

You have seen quite a lot of the world now, any particular countries or places that stuck with you?

Absolutely—the country that has continued to stick with me, even after having not been there for a couple of years, is India.

India was never on my radar, until I entered a raffle drawing at a conference in Manchester, England, and to my utter shock and surprise heard my name called as the winner—the prize being a place on an adventure called the Rickshaw Run. Organized by a UK-based company called The Adventurists, the Rickshaw Run involves driving a three-wheeled tuk tuk 2,000 miles across India. It’s less a race and more just a test of survival.

Although I was fairly terrified by the idea of the trip beforehand, as soon as we began driving, I couldn’t imagine experiencing the country any other way. We stopped several times a day in the villages we passed through—places I knew I would never have seen otherwise—and meeting the people who called each village home really opened me up to India.

The one moment I’ll never forget from the Rickshaw Run was after a hectic morning spent navigating an 18-mile traffic jam in the Indian state of Bihar. After several hours of driving, I pulled over to catch my breath. A white-haired, wizened shopkeeper then walked up to my teammate and me, holding out two tiny plastic cups of chai to us. When I tried to tell him that we didn’t have any small change to pay for the tea with, he handed the cups to us anyways and said, “I may be poor, but I still have a heart.”

That unexpected instance of kindness in the most unlikely of places forever changed me, and the way I move through and interact with the world.

Machu Picchu, Peru © Candace Rose Rardon

Any downfalls to travelling around all the time? It must get lonely sometimes

For me, one of the biggest downfalls to a lifestyle involving constant travel is that it can be difficult to feel connected to a physical community of friendships. Life on the road often feels like an endless series of hellos and goodbyes—with family and friends back home, and with the people you meet on the road—so holding onto a sense of emotional continuity has continually proven to be a challenge for me.

And loneliness is certainly a big part of this—as exciting as it can be to explore a new culture on your own, there are also times when it can feel incredibly isolating. But one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned is that loneliness isn’t something to be afraid of, and that it’s something that can find you no matter where you are in the world—whether you’re at home surrounded by people you know, or traveling alone in a foreign country.

In the times when travel does feel more lonely than fulfilling and I find myself missing a sense of community, I try to be patient and embrace the loneliness, as I’ve learned it tends to pass soon enough and I can throw my full energy back into the trip again.

You say on your blog that all your work is self-funded and you don’t accept advertising, do you have a real focus on keeping your travels personal to you?

I definitely focus on keeping my trips personal—to me, that’s part of the very point of travel. The stories I most love to write and read by other writers lie at the intersection of the external and internal journeys. In each place, I try to ask myself—what is the story of this particular place, and how does it connect with the story unfolding in my own life right now?

It’s impossible to guarantee I’m going to connect with a place before arriving, and for me, those connections—both with the people I meet, and my connection with the place itself—are the heart and soul of what I love to write about. By not accepting advertising and limiting the amount of sponsored travel I take, I feel as though I’m able to stay true to the stories I’m drawn to tell, and I have more freedom to offer readers tales of authentic connection.

Machu Picchu, Peru © Candace Rose Rardon

How do your assignments fit into this and how does it feel being able to live off of your travels?

As a writer and artist, my assignments are split between the two disciplines. An editor might mention that she’s looking for stories from a particular country or region, so I’ll then try and plan a trip that will enable me to research and write about those places. On the illustration side of things, my commissions also play a big role in where I go—whether it be drawing a live sketch mural during a conference in Athens, Greece, being an artist-in-residence in the Costa Brava region of Spain, or creating an 85-foot-long mural for Google Thailand in their new Bangkok office, there’s a very close relationship between my projects and my path through the world, and I love the sense of purpose this gives me on the road.

In terms of how it feels being able to live off of the stories and art I create through my travels, I have to say it’s incredibly humbling—and it’s something I could never have expected happening when I first moved to London seven years ago. I will always be grateful for being able to take the two things I’m most passionate about—writing and art—and build the various assignments I receive from them both into a sustainable livelihood.

Paris, France © Candace Rose Rardon

In terms of travel imagery, the majority is photography-based, how do you feel illustration fits into this and add to it?

Since I started sketching, I’m often asked if I still travel with a camera, and my answer is always a resounding yes—I never travel without my DSLR (even if it continues to weigh down my backpack!) and I’ll always love photographing the places I visit. However I think illustration adds an entirely new dimension to documenting your trips visually. To me, the beautiful thing about sketching is that the images you create are expressly, uniquely yours.

The example I always give of this is visiting Angkor Wat in Cambodia. Nothing compares to photographing this ancient site at dawn, when the sun rises over the ruins and its light is reflected in the ponds in front of it—and yet chances are, you’ll be elbowing your way through heaving crowds of other travelers who are most likely taking images not terribly dissimilar to your own.

For me, sketching Angkor Wat was a chance to create an image of the iconic temple that no one else could replicate in exactly the same way. I love my photographs of sunrise at Angkor Wat, but it’s the sketch I created later during the day—when I camped out in front of the ruins, chatted with other travelers, battled the humid rainy-season heat, and slowly drew my own impression of the place—that I’ll always treasure the most.

Have you got a travel to-do list?

I don’t have too concrete of a travel bucket list per se, in that I love staying open to where potential projects might send me next around the world, but there are a few experiences I hope to make happen in the coming years—traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railway, staying in a yurt in Mongolia, sketching the moai on Easter Island, and hiking Kilimanjaro, which I’m planning to do next summer to celebrate my 30th birthday.

Cartagena, Colombia © Candace Rose Rardon