When artist Missy Dunaway accepted a Fulbright Research Fellowship to study Anatolian textiles in Istanbul in 2013, she didn’t know that her side project — a travel sketchbook — would soon become her most celebrated work. Today, the fantastic scenes and short poems in Missy’s sketchbook remain some of her favorite souvenirs. Not long ago, we caught up with the artist herself to learn more about her process, inspirations, and favorite travel memories.

Midnight in Stockholm, in Missy Dunaway's travel sketchbook

When did you decide to keep a travel sketchbook? Where did the idea come from?

It wasn’t a conscious decision; it just grew out of habit, as I’ve kept a sketchbook since college. Painting in my sketchbook has been a part of my daily routine for over a decade, so it naturally took on diary-like qualities. The subject matter became increasingly autobiographical, and the sketchbook itself slowly evolved into the visual journal it is today.

The book’s small size was convenient in my dorm room, then in my first shoebox apartment, and then when I started traveling in 2013. It was easy to pack and carry abroad, and the paintings recorded my experiences along the way.

Each page evokes a different mood, from somber to exuberant. How do you choose your subjects?

I’m attracted to light that conveys a strong mood and atmosphere, from quiet twilight to dramatic sunsets. I use my phone to snap photos throughout the day and give myself visual reminders of what to paint later. I don’t have any professional equipment, so my photography usually falls short — nighttime scenes are reduced to flat shadows, daytime scenes are often washed out with glare, and points of interest become lost in the overall composition. The colors, atmospheres, and temperatures are often inaccurate, so I try to correct these elements or exaggerate them for effect when I paint them.

When working from a photograph, I have the freedom to illustrate the scene a day, a month, or even a year later. Painting is a way to relive a moment, so I often reach pretty far back. Memory saves and amplifies special moments, however small, and I try to capture that feeling of nostalgia in my artwork. Romanticizing the past may not be a healthy practice in real life, but it inspires some nice artwork.

Missy's travel sketchbook includes a painting of a greenhouse in England.

What is your process for creating a new page in the sketchbook?

I paint with acrylic ink, a pigment-ink medium with an acrylic binder that improves color permanence and thickens texture. It can be diluted with water to create translucent washes or applied heavily for more opaque coloring. I love its versatility.

Creating these paintings can take anywhere from 30 minutes to six hours. Paintings with simple compositions and few layers, like seascapes or silhouettes, can be completed in under an hour, but scenes that require several layers, like heavy foliage in daylight, can take up to six.

One month in a location usually yields about 15 pages. A year in a location yields closer to 50. Each 50-page sketchbook takes around a year to complete, and I have a collection of 10 completed books so far.

On this travel sketchbook page, Missy has painted a lighthouse in Finland.

You write a few lines of text on each image. Where do those words come from?

Throughout the day, I snap reference photos and jot down short poems in my phone. Usually, the poem that I inscribe on the painting is a variation of what I thought in the moment, so the words and image are closely related. In the painting, I want the words to either give some context or exaggerate the mood, so the viewer can experience the moment as I did.

Missy's travel sketchbook shows off the dunes in Morocco.

How would you describe your artistic style?

I studied Impressionism for several years, and that training still informs my use of color. If we’re using art-school language, I would say I’m a representational, autobiographical, impressionist painter or illustrator.

How is creating pages in your sketchbook different from creating art for other purposes?

My other projects are more academic; I use painting as a way to study a new interest. I’ve illustrated feathers to get into birding and created a series about fishing flies as an excuse to learn how to fly-fish and fly-tie. I studied weaving for a year while living in Istanbul as well, and my research was presented in a series of paintings about Turkish textiles.

My sketchbook is dramatically different in that it’s guided by emotion, not thought. I’m surprised it’s taken the spotlight because it was always something I did for fun on the side. It’s my most self-indulgent project.

Missy painted Istanbul's whirling dervishes in her travel sketchbook.

Can you share one (or two) of your favorite travel memories and tell us how it inspired a page in your sketchbook?

I think a lot about when I first moved to Istanbul in 2013. The Fulbright requires fellows to be self-guided, so I had to find an apartment, learn the language, and conduct research on my own. Istanbul has over 15 million inhabitants, so finding a place wasn’t exactly easy, especially since I had never been to Turkey before. Through the guidance of expat forums and Craigslist, I found a studio apartment in Harbiye, a mile from Taksim Square.

I moved in on a really hot day, opened all my windows, and began mopping the floors. I was on top of a hill, and the neighborhood below had a dozen mosques, which projected the Call to Prayer through megaphones. It was so powerful and mesmerizing when it blasted into my apartment on that first day. I miss hearing it, and I’ve referenced it several times in my artwork. That was the moment when everything sank in, and I was amazed by how unpredictable life can be and how far away it can take you.

The following year, I spent six weeks at an art residency in Cappadocia, a region of central Turkey known for its surreal, rocky landscape. Ancient cave dwellings are carved from tufa limestone, and “fairy chimney” rock spires project from the earth. Beneath the region lay underground cities that hid Christians from Romans and Byzantines as far back as the eighth century B.C. It was such a gift to be there. I was one of two artists at the residency, so it was a very quiet month. Every evening, I ate dinner alone on a veranda that overlooked a gorge where swallows hunted for mosquitos, so I’d watch as hundreds of them swooped in graceful arcs while I ate. There’s a lot to love about Cappadocia, but having dinner in the company of swallows every evening remains my favorite memory.

To keep up with Missy’s travels, visit her website and follow her on Instagram.