2.10 There and back again

The purpose of this exercise was to use reportage drawing to document a journey.

Key words from the brief:

  • At least three drawings or illustrations
  • Say something about your experience of setting out on your journey, your destination, and your travel home


In completing this brief I had three objectives.

  1. Understanding the practicalities of documenting a journey
  2. Experimenting with use of colour using and what I learned from the Park Life Urban Sketching weekend
  3. Trying out different media and approaches for Assignment 2 – A sense of place

The journey was short 3-day boat trip along a strip of the Southern Oxford Canal through the beautiful Warwickshire countryside. This is an area I had not been to before so was a voyage of discovery.

The starting point was Calcutt Boats, a small marina just north of Napton Junction where my sister and I were due to pick up Wild Mint 1, a 44 ft narrowboat with two beds, a toilet, shower, fridge, gas cooker and hob and no WiFi.

Oxford Canal map
A map of the trip showing the numbered bridges and locks

I live in South West London and the journey to Napton Junction by car took about three hours in heaving Bank Holiday traffic.

I stopped for a coffee north of Oxford at Cherwell Valley Services which is on the M40 motorway.

A Costa full of people at Cherwell Valley Services – Ink pen, A5 sketchbook

The weather was hot and the services were heaving.

I arrived at the boatyard just after lunchtime, checked-in at reception and waited under a large shady parasol for my sister to arrive.

It was a Saturday which is switch over day and five boats were being readied. Crates of beer, bags of food, children and pets were being unloaded from cars and stowed neatly away in lockers and cupboards.

Preparing to cast off – Ink pen, A5 sketchbook

My sister arrived at 2:30 pm and we loaded our gear, had our narrowboat briefing and motored out onto the Grand Union Canal in glorious sunshine.

The Grand Union Canal runs from the Tideway in London (where the canal meets the River Thames at Brentford), for 137 miles to Birmingham and Napton Junction marks the point where the Grand Union Canal meets the South Oxford Canal. For our short trip we had decided to motor south towards Oxford through beautiful countryside.

Our objective for the first day was to moor-up overnight north of Napton Locks; a long set of eight locks that raise boats 16 metres in height and typically take 2-hours to get through. It’s an amazing piece of engineering that dates back to the late 1700s, and ideally I’d have stopped part way up through the locks to draw the scene, but it was getting late and we needed to move on.

After clearing the final lock we motored on for a further half  hour before mooring up against the towpath.

Boat image 04
A view towards Napton on the Hill at dusk using watercolour pencils – A3 sized

I woke early the next morning to make a drawing of the boat and canal before the sun became too hot.

Boat image 05
Wild Mint 1 in the foreground – coloured pencil, A3 sized

Our plan for day two was to motor down to Fenny Compton Bridge, (bridge number 136 on the map), where there was a turning point we could use.

The weather was clear and hot with temperatures reaching 29°C. We stopped for lunch in a shady spot and waited until late afternoon before moving on.

Boat image 01
Drawn sitting on the stern of the boat. The hump backed bridge in the background is of typical red brick construction, just wide enough for a single boat to squeeze through. Dip pen and liquid watercolour. A3 sized

We reached the turning point at Fenny Compton Bridge early evening and thankfully managed to turn the boat in front of a pub full of spectators without incident.

We motored back to a Knotts Bridge, (bridge 130), and spent the night moored under a canopy of trees.

Boat image 06
A drawing from the bow section of the boat looking over the bow rope and cleat through a tunnel of trees. Watercolour, coloured pencils and ink pen. A3 sized.

I woke very early the next morning to sketch a ghostly landscape before the sun had risen high enough to burn off thick mist.

The canal shrouded in mist. 4B pencil, A3 sized

We retraced our steps on the final day’s cruising and reached the top of the Napton Locks at lunchtime.

Boat image 07
Moored up in a queue of boats waiting to go through the top lock. The view is from the Wild Mint 1’s cockpit looking down the length of the boat. Ink pen, A3 sized

Going down was easy, and unlike our trip up we benefited from traffic coming the other way which meant the locks were set correctly and could be cleared more quickly.

We spent the final night 45-minutes away from Calcutt Boats where we needed to be early the next morning. A combine harvester was working the field opposite and my last picture is of the partially cut field of wheat with the setting sun casting a golden light across the scene accentuating the colour.

Boat image 08
Wheat field during the harvest. Coloured pencils, A3 sized.


We were at Calcutt Boats at just before 9 am the following morning to hand back the boat.


What went well

  • I tried out several different combinations of media using colour, tone and black and white.
  • It is interesting to see how the different approaches work with the text. The black and white line drawings are functional and descriptive of a scene. They tell a fairly straight forward story. The colour images are more complex and layered and perhaps should be used more sparingly for ‘big’ or impactful statements.
  • I felt like some of the media combinations didn’t work, but the experimentation was valuable.
  • Using the images to illustrate a written narrative was interesting and I think this provided a structure to hold the images together.

What I would do differently/better

  • I didn’t really know how to plan the trip because I wasn’t sure what to expect, how much time I would need at different locations or what and where the good locations would be.  I also didn’t know how to structure the work or what was going to be visually interesting. For future exercises of this nature I will try and do more pre-planning and structure the shape of response in advance. For example, what could I do differently to make the images work in a more logical narrative sequence; beginning, middle, end.
  • Reflecting back on the images produced, I see there’s not a lot of variety in the subjects. For example, there are very few people. Including some of the characters we met on the way would have added another layer of interest/narrative.
  • I had intended to make some watercolour paintings but I found this difficult. I probably should have persevered with this and will look at this again in Assignment 2.
  • Lessons for Assignment 2:
    • Do more pre-planning and have an idea of the kinds of subjects/compositions needed in advance, particularly when there’s limited time available (which will be the case)
    • Recce the location(s) and thumbnail/design compositions quickly (reference the 20 thumbnails in 20-minutes exercise from 2.2 Drawing on location) to maximise the chances of getting good expressive and engaging material
    • Collect photographic reference as well as drawings and use different drawing approaches (colour and/or black and white) appropriately
    • Think about colour early


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