Travel Sketches: Las Vegas/Mojave Desert

Ash Grove at Spring Valley Ranch. Painted November 26, 2022 (after returning from the trip, based on a composite of travel photos).

Last week, I was in the suburbs of Las Vegas for a family wedding. I was excited to see the surrounding desert landscape, as I’ve never been to the desert! We didn’t have a ton of time outside of family activities and our ambitious stretch goal Grand Canyon trip got predictably cut (though I did see it from the plane window!), but I was delighted with our naturey day trips in the immediate area.

We took walks in Clark County Wetlands Park, a riparian habitat and birdwatching hotspot where cottonwoods line rushing water, and in Spring Valley Ranch State Park by Red Rock Canyon (pictured above), home of ample Joshua trees, prickly pear cactuses, and the only naturally occurring Arizona Ashes in southern Nevada. We basically found the two spots within fifty miles of Las Vegas in which there are tall trees! I was delighted with the new-to-me birds I saw, including Greater Roadrunner, Juniper Titmouse, Western Scrub Jay, and lots of Gambel’s Quails. 

Lessons from Desert Travel Sketches

On my Nova Scotia trip, I learned what a great activity travel sketching can be. Here are some lessons from this time around.

You can sketch anywhere

I got plenty of opportunity to do airport sketches because we had a long delay on the way out. Although I hadn’t taken my own trip photos to paint yet, I made do with reference photos from my phone (not necessarily of the places I was going to go, but still using the desert as my inspiration since I had my Desert Palette with me).

Quirky is better than perfect

Sunrise from the Hampton Inn. November 24, 2022.

Many of my sketches were sunrises and sunsets through windows. While I was inspired to paint them by their incredible beauty, my most “honest” (and therefore favorite) includes city lights and a large neon PET HOSPITAL sign which were a mainstay of our hotel window views. I probably wouldn’t remember those quirks if I hadn’t painted them.

Sketch across the fold (carefully)

Sunrise over Black Mountain. November 22, 2022.

Since I’d mainly worked on one side of the page in Nova Scotia, I decided to try sketching across the fold this time. I liked the effect, except when I dripped through the binding and ruined sketches on other pages! 

Don’t put off a sketch

Mountain layers, as seen from my partner’s parents’ balcony. November 23, 2022.

On our first day in town, I was fascinated by the shapes and colors in the mountains I could see from my partners’ parents balcony, but I didn’t feel like getting my paints out so I thought, “I will sketch it later.” But as good of a later didn’t come again, and I wound up hurriedly squeezing it in during a less opportune time just to alleviate my regret and FOMO.

Trips are short, and experiences are rarely repeated. You may not go back to the same spot, or may not have time and supplies when you do; the light will definitely change; the magic may be gone next time. Sketch now! 

Draw first

At home, I don’t usually use pen in my paintings, and I rarely even do undersketches. But on the road, I don’t have the time to build the careful layers that allow me to create definition in paint alone. It’s also a lot harder to do with a water brush.

Although it is not my usual style, a pen-first approach is much more suited for quick sketches on the go. A combination of waterproof liners and brush pens can be used to create essentially a coloring page with the darkest darks already filled in, which leaves the paint with a much lighter lift of just adding color. 

Take notes

Notes on Alpenglow. November 24, 2022.

I love opening my sketchbook to a page that’s just a big drawing, but sketchbooks are also great for taking notes. When I found myself describing a scene mentally in words, observing things I wanted to remember later, or identifying colors I’d like to try that I didn’t have with me, sketchbook notes were a great tool. 

In my next post, I’ll revisit my Desert Palette and reveal which colors were most and least useful!

1 thought on “Travel Sketches: Las Vegas/Mojave Desert”

  1. Love your sketches! Thanks for sharing and wanted to say as a beginner watercolorist I’m really enjoying your blog and learning a lot and, as a pigment nerd, I can’t wait to read your next post about your desert palette! 🙂


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