#Train2ISTE Train Doodles

Last year, I took the train to San Antonio for ISTE.  It was a 2 day trip on a train without wifi.  I was doing a lot of watercolors at the time and trying to pain on a moving train is very difficult.  This year as I traveled to ISTE in Chicago via train and decided to try something different. And even began with more of a plan. And let's be honest, it wasn't exactly a plan but more like being receptive to different ideas around me.

I had the good fortune to watch (or re-watch) two things right before leaving on this trip that inspired me.  One was Jon Burgerman's recent Creative Morning Talk in New York called The Art of Doodling.  In this talk addressing the monthly theme of Craft, he talks about the British concept of graft as doing the hard work. This combined with rewatching Episode 1 of Abstract on Netflix about the Illustrator Christoph Niemann. The title sequence of this episode has a doodle bike riding through the streets of New York City.  Knowing I had 48 hours on a train through Califonia, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa, and Illinois it seemed like something to try out.  I packed some wet-erasable pens and transparencies in my ArtBin to see what I could create!

Combining doodles with the beautiful scenery outside the Amtrak window was quite amusing. I had no idea how or if it would work but had lots of time to play, explore, and find out.  What I appreciate about this exercise is the creative stretch it required.  One approach would have been to show the same doodle on different landscapes. Somehow this didn't seem particularly exciting. And as the landscapes changed throughout the trip, different doodles just made sense. There were lots of mighty rivers outside my window so doodle kayaking and doodle rafting just made sense.  So did swimming and floating down a lazy river but haven't got those doodles quite figured out.  Peering out the window at the high desert landscape of Utah, it screamed skatepark.  Following a breakfast conversation with a farmer from Ohio, the farms in Iowa needed a doodle tractor.  And on the trip home, I began to receive some ideas from others via Instagram.

My favorite part of this creative exercise was that it was constrained by the materials but allowed me to be completely responsive to the environment.  My regular daily creative practice usually involves a prompt and the constraint of time. On the train, there was no way to anticipate exactly what the landscape would look like ahead and prepare. There was no wifi to look up any reference photos. Rather it was an exercise where you see and feel something, quickly create it, and then attempt to capture it. This last part was the biggest challenge. I used my cell phone and the constant moving of the train created many shaky outcomes. In addition, the rivers would change directions in unexpected ways or a building would appear that would obscure the landscape. In many instances, there were multiple takes or editing that occurred at the end to shorten the clips and remove the building or trees that came into view.

A couple other lessons learned. You don't actually need the chalk pens.  You can use Micron pens for a fine line and they are still erasable from the transparency.  I can imagine this as creative exercise in the classroom.  Something like Through the Looking Glass.  Of course, classes don't move like a train but given a window into the world from their classroom, what can you create and see?  Students can create it directly on the window glass, take a picture and then write about it.  So many possibilities here.  Plus, who wouldn't jump at the chance to draw on a window.

Bergerman makes the point about a creative practice that all it requires is restrictions and time. A train trip across the country affords plenty of time without a lot of distractions minus the view out the window. The restrictions are inherent to the materials available on the train. This was 4 days well-spent improving my creative practice. Since returning from this trip, I have found myself less reliant reference images and trying new things just because. This month, I'm devoting 31 days to portraits which is so far out of my comfort zone but learning lots and improving.



Want to make your own train doodles?
  • Here are the chalk pens I initially used. They are wet-erasable so could be used directly on glass though I figured Amtrak wouldn't appreciate that.
  • I had transparencies among my supplies at home from my classroom teacher days.  I cut these in half horizontally, so they would fit in my travel ArtBin.  In some cases, having the full paper-sized transparency sheet would have made capturing simpler.  
  • I also packed a travel pack of Wet Wipes which made changing the scenes simpler.


desk space aboard train with drawing of flying unicorn and different pens on table.
Creative Workspace aboard Amtrak


Partially erased drawing of white unicorn with pink wings, only the body is visible.  The head has been erased.
Once captured, the transparecy is erased.