Five continents, five years... and thousands of sketches

Story highlights

  • 'Urban sketcher' Luis Simones is traveling the world with his sketchbook
  • The artist and illustrator is two years into a five-year travel odyssey
  • So far he's completed over 1,200 sketches of his travels
  • Sketching allows him a more intimate connection with the countries he visits, he says
Luis Simoes has visited 29 countries in the past two years, traversing Europe and Asia and documenting every step.
But not in the usual way -- there's no snapping of thousands of photos with his smartphone, or making friends back home jealous with interminable Facebook posts.
Instead, Simoes, a 35-year-old former 3D motion designer from Lisbon, Portugal, is sketching his way around the world.
And for the first time since he left Portugal and his old life behind, he has -- temporarily at least -- stopped moving.
Ultimately, though, it's merely the latest stop in an epic trip. His is a unique journey, one which the expression 'around the world' doesn't do justice.
He's expecting to spend five years, in total, on the road on a trip that will take him, forever eastwards, around the globe, taking in five continents.
Over a thousand sketches
So far he says he's filled "probably twenty" 60-page sketchbooks, with images capturing life everywhere from Milan to Mongolia.
"I'm a slow traveler, so much" he tells CNN.
"What I've learned is I have time to see things, to see the culture passing by. I can be in one spot for three hours maybe, it gives me the time to feel more. That's what I'm trying to capture: the feeling, rather than the moment."
After ten years in the same job he decided that he'd had enough; he wanted to be out there doing what he loved. And that thing, he discovered, was sketching.
"I had a friend who was traveling around the world and I was jealous, but then I thought, if he's doing this then I can also do this."
So far he's made it through Europe and much of Asia, documenting his travels -- as well as, of course, posting his sketches -- on his bilingual blog and on Instagram. He says that India, Nepal and maybe Southeast Asia are next on the list, although it's a "vague plan."
Given the scope of his adventure, he's understandably frugal, eschewing flights in favor of long distance buses, and sleeping in hostels or -- as he's doing in Hong Kong -- on friends' couches.
Framing countries in a new light
He says that sketching the world has allowed him to frame things in a new light. "Up until now as I've been traveling around I do a lot of sightseeing but I try to capture the mood of a traveler when he's sightseeing. So I'm not just drawing a beautiful building, I'm trying to capture the life around the building, and how people connect with that building.
"So I try, with my sketches, to bring these moments. I try to build a story behind every sketch."
Through sitting in one place and drawing what he sees, he says he learns much about the cultures he observes and records more than he would if he was whizzing through, digital camera at the ready.
"You think about the culture, how people greet each other, if you hug when you meet; if people like to eat ice creams on a bench.
"I try to connect with people before I sketch them, to have a context. With this slow travel I feel I can connect with people, cities much more intimately. I still have my goals -- when (remaining in one place) no longer makes sense I'll move on."
Evolving style
His style has changed, he reflects. He no longer draws tourist attractions like the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona or the Eiffel Tower.
"Now I'm drawing a story... I don't have to tell everything, but I give you the subject. I've learned how to go sketch faster but keep all the ingredients to keep the viewer interested. Of course the more you sketch the more you grow, so it's an evolution."
Two-fifths into his epic trek, Simoes says that, despite being completely self-reliant, life on the road can be tough.
"I've never thought I wanted to go back (to Portugal) but you struggle, sometimes you miss someone caring about you, you miss some comfort, if you're in a beautiful natural place you just wish you could share it with someone."
Ice-breaker
Despite this, this engaging, thoughtful traveler attracts people wherever he goes, with his sketchbook often the only thing he needs for people to feel comfortable approaching him. He says people stop him more on the street in Asia, and seem to really want to engage with what he's doing.
"People in Asia want to know why I'm there. I traveled for three months in China, people would touch me, put their fingers on my sketch book. It can be an unwanted interruption but it can (also) be a nice ice-breaker. Sometimes it can be a bit awkward but I need to be patient, and learn to understand why they're touching, why they're so curious and be open to that."
Simoes says that he is confident that, by packing his sketchbooks and watercolors in his backpack, he made the right choice.
"I really don't know if I can do it but so far I've really enjoyed it. The opportunities are so big and right now I'm just looking forward to the next country.
"I needed the ambition -- I wanted something big, for myself. Five years is a long time but I want to search for the unknown."