Illustrator Léon Moh-Cah on how she connected to people around the world with her sketchbook

Illustrator, animator, and prolific sketchbook keeper Léon Moh-Cah reveals how she travelled the world and connected with people through her art.

It’s surely the dream of many artists to pack their bags and set off on a round-the-world adventure where their art pays their way. However, French artist Léon Moh-Cah has turned that fantasy into a reality with her project, The Roving Sketchbook.

Having taken her from Brazil to South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Thailand and the Canary Islands, Léon’s Roving Sketchbook has connected her with a big group of friends and even led to her meeting her husband. Her travels may be over for the time being as she has settled in Seoul, but her journey is sure to inspire fellow artists all around the planet.

Léon’s 18-month trip started after she finished studying for an animation Masters at the Royal College of Art. She intended to capture the beauty of everyday life and use daily observations and travels as her main source of inspiration. Equipped with a tiny set of supplies that could fit snugly inside her purse, Léon then documented so many sights that she felt her sketchbook had become an extension of her arm.

“Sketching what I see has a very different impact compared to taking photos with a phone,” she explains. It takes much longer, and the memories of each place remain engraved because of the connection I built while observing and interpreting what I was seeing onto paper.

“When I flip through my sketchbooks now, I can see a whole story, and I can almost smell and hear the environment I was in. It isn’t really about how symmetrical my building is or how faithful my colours are.

In addition to its artistic benefits, sketching while out and about also proved to be the perfect icebreaker. “People acknowledge the fact you are drawing them, and it is so easy to break the barrier of being strangers,” Léon adds. It feels like a full immersion, not just lines on paper. If it were, I would draw from pictures on Google images and wouldn’t need to travel. Certainly, the sketches would look totally different.”

Of course, by drawing in the wild, Léon encountered a whole range of diverse and fascinating people. These include a group of Korean housewives whose talent for drawing was kept as a hobby but who nevertheless embraced Léon as one of their own and helped her shop for supplies.

“Back then, I was supposed to leave for good to go on the rest of my trip, but as I ended up meeting my boyfriend while in Korea, I’ve since moved to Seoul and met the Urban Sketchers regularly ever since at meet-ups.”

Throughout her many exciting travels, Léons tools have remained the same. She works in an A6 or A5 sketchbook filled with warm 180gsm paper, a small watercolour palette the size of her phone, a brush, a pencil, a pen, and a tiny can of water. And while arranging accommodation frequently proved difficult, drawing was always a joy.

“Keeping up a sketchbook practice was very simple,” she reveals. “It was my leitmotif to step out of the house and explore the city. Without my sketchbook, I would probably haven’t seen as much, as it was my best pretext to go out, and going out was my best pretext to sketch.”

Of course, even the best-laid plans of nomadic artists never run smoothly. Léon ran into the hurdles of not only money and working remotely but also dealing with a global pandemic. However, none of these things could stop her from jetting off and drawing somewhere new.

“The reality was harder than I thought. It would take a while to gather enough money to not need to work for such a long period, and the travel restrictions due to Coronavirus set aside my plan for a little while,” she says.

“But then I realised I didn’t need to wait for my money to be raised or for the pandemic to be over. I could just go and travel with a different rhythm than what I initially had in mind: slowly, staying in one country for three months, and working, too. This way, my travel was self-financed.”

It’s just as well that Léon took the leap because it led to her meeting the love of her life. While she originally planned to return to London once her travels were over, a fateful encounter in a bar called Woori Super would change her life forever.

Having ditched plans to meet friends at a club, Léon found herself drawing a rotating cast of musicians as they got up to jam and entertain the crowds. Yet, during all of the performances, the pianist was the only musician to remain the same.

“After a few hours, when the bar was a bit less packed, the pianist, with a very warm smile, sat next to me and asked if he could have a look at my sketchbook,” says Léon. “I said it had to dry first, so he went to jam some more and came back after ten minutes. The rest is history! I moved to Korea after my trip, and we are now living together. My sketchbook helped me meet my future husband and a big group of friends that I see daily.”

Léon’s travels are over for the time being, meaning that her attachment to her sketchbook has taken a backseat. But now that she’s settled into Seoul with her husband, she hints that all of that might be about to change.

“When I moved to Seoul, the city became home instead of being a faraway place that was so exotic to sketch,” she concludes. It is as if I was now living inside my initial sketchbook. So, I sketched a lot less. But the hunger came back now, and The Roving Sketchbook is back on track!”

With a wealth of material to draw from, Léon has announced that the images from the Roving Sketchbook will be used to fund a book she will be crowdfunding later this year. Stay tuned to her website and social media accounts for further updates on when it will be released.

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