TRAVEL AS AN ARTIST: Part 1

Thanks for stopping by! This is the first post in a series of travel advice/review blogs that I’ve been working on as a way to showcase some tips and travel destinations for artists- whether you’re traveling solo, with a couple friends, or with your whole family. I also take suggestions on future posts- though I do have about 6 or 7 posts planned out for the series, if there’s anything you’d like to see or hear about in a future entry, go ahead and let me know!

Ormond Beach, FL

The best thing about traveling as an artist- especially one whose main media are drawing and painting instead of, say, sculpture- is being able to find visual inspiration for your work everywhere: from the hotel lobby, the roadside landscaping, the goofy giftshop offerings, and even from the actual parks, beaches, and attractions you came there to visit. I’m incredibly lucky; I live in Florida, which means I get to see all kinds of interesting people, lush pockets of wild and gardened greenery hosting wildlife between buildings and busy streets, and purposefully eye-catching feats of advertising meant to harpoon the brains of tourists and force them to stop and look at whatever it is that’s for sale. Especially as an Orlando native- I’m just a day trip away from all the inspiration you can eat.

Ormond Beach is not the closest beach to Orlando- that being said, though, it was the one I visited the most as a kid. There were times when we’d head up once or twice a week, after school or on the weekend for a just-because visit, or maybe to just grab some subs and eat a relaxed dinner on the sandy picnic tables at the Michael Crotty Bicentennial Park. It was a kind of stunning realization for me, to realize it’d been at least a couple of years since I’d been to Ormond Beach itself, and that it’d been even longer since the last time I’d been to this park in particular. I decided to head up for a day of plein-air sketching, maybe do a couple of studies for some paintings I’ve been mulling over for a while, rest up in a hotel for the night, and come home to Orlando mentally refreshed.

Well… that didn’t quite turn out.

Traveling Artist Tip #1: Check the weather. Fortunately, it did not rain on me in Ormond Beach, but it was very dark, chilly, and windy all day long. It was too cold to head onto the beach itself, and it was way too windy to bring my sketchbook out with me. That’s what’s so great about being alive in this point in history, though- my phone is a nice enough camera, and the light was still good enough (mid to late afternoon, even!) to take photos.

Now, the park itself is split into two areas- there is “beach access” parking in the front area, next to a set of slightly gross bathrooms and a couple of covered pavilions with picnic tables, and what is technically a walkway to the beach itself. However, the one I stopped near was closed due to storm damage, and I didn’t get a chance to head over to see if all of the walkways were similarly closed on this trip. This area is good for a lot of reasons- it’s free beach parking a decent enough distance from the hotels that the actual beach is usually pretty peaceful and clear of rowdy tourists- but with the weather like that, I opted to head a little farther back into the park itself for the second area.

a weathered, wall-mounted payphone
I did not touch this item.

Farther back, you get actual amenities- the bathrooms are, indeed, a bit nicer, even if they are home to a payphone of dubious provenance. There’s a really great playground for kids with one of those huge sail-like sunshades, a baseball diamond with little bleachers, a dog park, tennis courts, what appears to be a meeting room/clubhouse that could be used to host parties, and a very well-maintained set of low-ability walking paths into the woods between the beach and the Intracoastal Waterway. I took my phone as we explored the walking paths- you can still see where abandoned, overgrown paths used to be in some areas, and there are a lot of animal-made paths beaten through the low bushes and knee-height palms.

mulch-lined path leading into a wooded park area
Peaceful and inviting!

It’s tough to find places in the middle of tourism towns that look and feel utterly remote- even deep in the woods at the back of the park, all you had to do to remember that you were in civilization was glance down at the perfectly manicured and mulched walking path under your feet. Looking up, though, makes it easier: you can see the wide blue sky bordered in green, unmarked by powerlines or the small planes dragging advertisement banners over the beach, and you can hear very little, because even the wind is muted by the trees around you. There aren’t any signs, or benches, or gaps in the greenery exposing the back of a campground manager’s cabin or the side of a campground manager’s pickup truck. It’s not “Old Florida,” necessarily, because it is so gentle and clean and forgiving- there’s no getting lost and surviving for days on swamp water and palmetto bugs here, but the fantasy of an older, emptier Florida lingers nearby.

Of course, even on a supremely empty and gloomy day, we ran into like… four separate groups of locals, including one lady walking not one but three very small and friendly old dogs. The Bicentennial Park is nice and quiet, but it’s in the middle of a decently populated tourist destination, and there’s probably times of year- high summer, spring break, any day with reasonably good weather- when it’ll be crowded or even impossible to park. The walking might be desolate enough in spots to set up a travel easel and bang out a few studies, but if the weather permits that sort of activity, it’s probably going to be even busier in all areas of the park, including the woods.

Still, this is a good place for photos- stock photography and resource and reference photos for sure, but there are a lot of nice spots that would work well for some kinds of photoshoots if you didn’t mind going all the way to the back of the park where the paths are. Possibly not wedding photography- it’s pretty far from the actual parking lot, and the bathrooms are unideal for trying to change into expensive formalwear- but certainly engagement photos, graduation announcements, that kind of thing.

After a couple of hours of hiking around and taking some pictures, I figured it would be a better idea to head to the hotel to check in and then get dinner afterward. Now we actually stayed a little bit away from the park- maybe 15 or 20 minutes driving in evening traffic- in the Hampton Inn right at the intersection of I95 and 40. Obviously, this meant that the hotel was SUPER easy to locate from all approaches- we actually passed by it on the way from Orlando to the beach- and even though there are plenty of food and convenience options within a five minute or less drive from the hotel, there’s literally a Cracker Barrel 400 feet away from the hotel. I have to say, it’d been like… fifteen years since I last stepped foot in a Cracker Barrel, for no particular reason other than not having a particular mind to do so. It’s so obviously a tourist trap- it’s basically two gift shops stuffed into one restaurant-shaped trench coat- but there’s a decent assortment of Cute Items I Legitimately Want To Buy, and if you want standardized, reliable Southern food, why the hell not?

Just as a disclaimer, I did not eat inside the Cracker Barrel this time. I ordered online from my hotel room, walked over to the takeout register inside the gift shop, and then spent about ten or fifteen minutes poking around the store looking at everything while I waited for my food to be finished and bagged up. I don’t know how convenient the tables are for taking out your sketchbook and doodling while you eat, but I feel like this is a good way to get sausage gravy in your papers. Maybe don’t risk it.

The thing is, by the time I carried the food back to my hotel room, I was pretty tired out from all the walking, and then the meal that I ordered (Uncle Herschel’s Favorite, poached eggs and hashbrown casserole and chicken tenders because I am an adult and order what I crave) slammed me directly into a food coma. I needed caffeine, so I headed into the lobby to make myself a free cup of coffee. Even though- obviously- it was way too late for the free breakfast you get at a Hampton Inn, there’s a complimentary beverage area. It’s basic stuff- coffee, tea, hot cocoa- but it was a nice touch considering I didn’t want to walk back to Cracker Barrel to ask them to please sell me a cup of coffee.

free coffee and tea in the lobby of a Hampton Inn by Hilton
Delicious caffeine….

Speaking of hotels in general:

This is important enough to be Traveling Artist Tip #2: If there is a free membership or loyalty program that you’re not yet a member of, sign up. A lot of hotel rewards programs will start you out with some basic perks at the very first level, including discounted stays and some amenities at check-in. Even if you don’t see the value at first, when you get to the stage where you’re getting steep discounts on rates, free upgrades on things like in-room wifi and room types, and enough points to book free stays, it makes every other aspect of traveling- whether it’s for art or work, or for a fun trip- that much easier to plan. A huge chunk of the various hotels and brands that exist will be covered under Hilton Honors and Marriott Bonvoy, so at the very least sign up for those two- if you travel a lot for conventions, though, you’ll really see the points and the benefits for future stays rack up. It’s absolutely worth your time to get that all set up before the next time you book a hotel room.

I grabbed a few photos in the lobby- those hanging-ring lamps were very pleasing to my eye, for some reason- and if I’d been less tired, I probably could have set up to draw for a while. Some lobbies are different, but when you know that it’s a big chain hotel, you can kind of depend on some things being consistent. Since Hampton Inns have free breakfast, the lobby usually doubles as the general dining area, so they have tables and comfortable seating. However, I fully realized that I would be drawing just a bit, and then tucking myself into bed by like… nine.

Lamps are soothing and compelling…

I actually lucked out, though- the local PBS station was showing an episode of Artbound (Season 9, Episode 7: Artist and Mother) which felt extremely fortuitous, and I got to watch the entire thing before dozing off in the middle of a show that seemed to be… all about the various tree types in South Carolina? I was asleep early, with the nebulous idea that I’d be up and running around early in the morning.

Now, in the interest of fairness, I would like to add that I haven’t engaged with the nightlife in Ormond Beach in five whole years, but the TGIFriday’s is still there, and Hanky Panky’s- a delightfully divey bar with bowling-alley carpeting- is still standing where I left it last. This will possibly be a report for a future visit, so I don’t want to go into too much detail there, and in all honesty, there’s a big chance that things will be different the next time I’m staying overnight and in a mood to hit a bar. So I’ll leave that be for today.

There are a ton of great places in Ormond Beach to hang out, look at art, and draw- another personal favorite is Tomoka State Park, which has a lot of cool things to do, is dog friendly, and also has a great big weird commemorative statue. There are art galleries and museums- there’s actually an art walk that I’ve never had a chance to participate in- and of course, tons of great spots for people-watching.

Gorgeous day, too.

It was warmer and less windy the next day, so I hung out around the hotel pool for part of the morning before checkout- and, again, as an artist, I know it can be rough to make the budget work for trips like this sometimes. Any hotel that has a free breakfast is worth the investment simply because you can buddy up with one or two or even three other artist friends for a trip like this to split the costs, and all of you can get a great breakfast in the mornings, saving you, what, ten or fifteen dollars per person just for the one meal? Plus, like I mentioned earlier, places that serve breakfast have big, comfortable seating areas with tables that you can use to sit down and draw somewhere other than your actual bed or the desk in the hotel room, which might be needed for a staging area.

You want to keep in mind that no matter where you go, you’re always going as an artist. Especially when you’re already traveling for work, family, etc- if you’re already going to be staying somewhere out of your normal homespace, there’s going to spaces and opportunities for practicing your art even when you’re not typically a plein-air artist, and there’s going to be a list of opportunities there to help make it easier to save money, time, and effort here and there that can really benefit you in the long term, too.

Now, I ended up going to one of my other favorite local beaches- New Smyrna- that next day, but honestly, that will end up being a whole other entry in this series, because I actually have another trip planned this spring to go and spend a couple of days and nights in New Smyrna, so I’ll just leave those particular photos for next time.

Now- was this trip a success? COMPLETELY. Even though I didn’t get to do the exact amount of art that I’d planned on, it totally refreshed me to get out of the house and put my eyes on a different- though, for me, familiar- landscape, and I was able to work out some sketches on the trip and make a digital composition study for a painting I’m hoping to work on this summer. That’s the thing about traveling as an artist- you’re not always going to park yourself in some well-lit spot and bang out a Monet in an afternoon, right? Sometimes you just need to recharge and rebuild your mental database for future work.

Keep an eye out for Part Two of the Traveling Artist series!

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