Rider’s Lens: Isabel Del Real’s Travel Watercolors
In our latest installment of Rider’s Lens, we discover the colorful work of 24-year-old artist Isabel Del Real, who’s currently documenting a bikepacking trip between France and Iran with pencils and watercolors. Learn more about Isabel, her inspiration, and her beautifully detailed travel journals here…
Words and illustrations by Isabel Del Real (@plouheran)
I’m Isabel Del Real, a 24-year-old amateur bikepacker and watercolorist. I was born into a multicultural family (my dad is Spanish, my mother French-American) in San Francisco, California, but grew up in Brittany, the beautiful peninsula of Northwest France. It’s a place called the Emerald Coast, famous for its blue-green waters and hidden coves, and is home to a very poetic atmosphere, with landscapes constantly reshaped by the tides and the mist.
My brother and I had a happy childhood in the famous village of Plouër sur Rance—sailing, kayaking, mushroom hunting… always outdoors, taking long walks in the countryside or camping on small islands. I’m very grateful that we had no TV or screens at home. We lived across from the library and spent a lot of time reading books, graphic novels, and drawing our own stories.
My current project is called Plouheran (“Plouer-Teheran”). Maybe it’s because I live so close to the pirate harbour of Saint-Malo—home base of legendary circumnavigators—that I’ve always wanted to cast off. Just to satisfy my curiosity. And, after I graduated from Law School in Paris, it was time for something off the charts. Since sailing away on a yacht with white sails and a mahogany cabin was out of my reach, I settled for a Surly Ogre instead. It’s been the best investment in my life!
I wanted to make the first pedal stroke from my doorstep and see how far I could get. Given that I live in the far west of the European continent, heading east was very appealing. I felt drawn by the deserts and the passes of the Silk Road and the tales of Alexander the Great crossing the Hindus. Tehran was a random destination I chose to shock my grandma. My mission is to be on the move, feel the wind and the sun on my face, visit the troglodyte villages, the churches and the mosques, read about the history of the places I go through, and glide through the beautiful mountain ranges of Europe. And, of course, try some new foods.
I spend a lot of time reading graphic novels, especially the stories of Corto Maltese, a travelling sailor, by the Venetian artist Hugo Pratt. Corto seeks legendary treasures on forgotten Islands, he meets Jack London and Rasputin, finds El Dorado, and more.
Through these stories, I’ve developed a passion for ancient hand-drawn maps and the carnets de voyage explorers might have carried. Travel sketchbooks used to be the main way to document a journey or scientific expedition. In a nutshell, I totally romanticise the figure of the explorer with a sketchpad.
When I left on this trip, my two goals were to experience a nomadic lifestyle and create a painted travel diary. I packed some sketch paper, basic pencils, and an old watercolour set. I had neither expectations nor pressure but kept drawing and posting regularly. Not thinking of myself as an artist gives me freedom.
Surprisingly, I received lots of encouragement along the way. Illustrating became an important part of my travels and my bikepacking identity. Unexpectedly, it influenced the way I travel, providing opportunities for encounters and changing the way I look at people, objects, and buildings. Starting as a casual observer, I soon became focused seeking spots of special interest for my sketchbook. It became the essence of my travel.
My favourite part of this trip has been riding in the mountains on lovely gravel roads and camping under the stars, away from civilization. When it comes to illustrating, however, I feel more inspired in towns or villages, whether they be bustling with life or abandoned ruins. I have a soft spot for chaotic neighbourhoods where all the electrical cables are entangled, where air conditioners hang on the stained walls, and rooftops are covered in forests of parabolic antennas and chimneys. I love the narrow, staircase streets, the balconies, and the half-opened doors.
Drawing a city offers a privileged angle to discover it, and it really anchors you in the place. You pay attention to the colors and you take the time to observe all the details, even the ones that don’t end up in the painting. It also gives you time to reflect on the history of the place.
Apart from cities and buildings, I like to draw little scenes starring bikepackers in their everyday lives: pitching the tent, cooking on the gas stove, hiking the bike.
My Tools and Equipment
I have zero background in illustration. Drawing was a sporadic hobby until six months ago. This leaves much room for improvement, which is an encouraging perspective! As such, my kit is somewhat of a hodgepodge that I’ve been developing as I go.
- Faber Castell PITT Artist Pen in sizes S and XS
- Pencil HB
- Raphaël Petit Gris Pur paintbrushes (different sizes)
- My mom’s old Windsor and Newton Watercolor Field Box Set
- Leporello / Accordion sketchbooks (two from Sennelier, two from Fabriano)
My sketchbooks are rolled in my clothes in a waterproof satchel, and the watercolors are generally deeply buried in the mess of the same satchel. My pencils and paintbrushes are neatly packed in a smart case sewn by my mom with the rest of the Cordura we used to make my framebag and food pouch (what would I be without my mom?).
I also carry many medium-sized watercolor test sheets, which are free in art supplies stores. Whenever I stumble on an art supplies store, I get myself a new (often unnecessary) accessory to complete my set: pigments in Florence, a limited-edition Bic pen in Venice, brushes in Istanbul just because they were stylish.
Highs and Lows
One of the greatest challenges about this trip was that I left alone and against all odds: it was winter during COVID, the few hours of daylight were shortened by curfew, and people were suspicious and skeptical about my trip. I was determined to go east but had to change my route to avoid lockdowns.
This solitude was a blessing. I was alone in the cold and foggy mountains, and life was so intense that I never felt lonely in the few months I spent without company. The first night alone in the wild, I was on my guard. In fact, I slept with a knife in each hand (super worried I would cut my air mattress or rip open my sleeping bag, haha). And then, after a couple of weeks in the wilderness of the Cevennes, I slept at ease hidden in the heart of dark, gloomy forests.
The greatest reward of this bikepacking trip is how the road grew on me and eventually became my turf. If all of a sudden, I have an urge for coffee, I sit down in the middle of nowhere (a desert, a valley, most likely a deserted valley) and just make it. I feel lucky if there’s a rock to sit on, and my living room can be anywhere on the side of the road. This is the most precious and rewarding feeling I get—belonging to the road.
Bikes and Creativity
While on your bike, you have endless time to listen to podcasts or audiobooks, imagine stories to fill the beautiful landscape, or just wander off and daydream. I noticed that while my body was busy pedaling, I had the right mindset to organize my thoughts.
With so much quality time, I could reflect on the encounters, the daily routine, the route. I had stories to tell and ideas about how to tell them. Eventually, I decided it would be fun to tell the stories with drawings, and I started working on a graphic novel. Bikepacking gives me the inspiration and the time to create something new.
Current and Future Plans
Right now, I’m parked at the Armenian-Iranian border, waiting for a visa. Wish me luck. I’m taking time to finish some paintings and climb mountains in the Lesser Caucasus. In a few weeks, I will make my way towards Istanbul and eventually Brittany, where I plan to work on my bike and prepare it for my next trip in the spring.
This winter, I’m planning to scout for a short gravel loop on the Emerald Coast and document it with paintings, photos, and stories about the local folklore. I will share it on a new website soon. In the spring, if the land borders reopen, I’d like to head to Iran and Central Asia and work on a travel sketchbook about the Silk Road. All this should give me the elements to work on a professional book and start looking for collaborations.
In the long run, I will be working on a scenario and a storyboard for a graphic novel about this bikepacking trip. And maybe on an illustrated book for children as well. We’ll see how this works out.
Lastly, I’d like to give special thanks to the awesome people who scouted and shared the routes I’ve ridden from BIKEPACKING.com. And many thanks to Logan Watts for the How to Make A DIY Framebag article. I would also like to thank Surly Bikes for their support, Café du Cycliste for providing me with amazing kits, Abus France for a great helmet and lock, Evan Christenson (@evanchristenson) for the cool pictures of my painting set shown here, and (last but certainly not least) the city hall of Plouër sur Rance for encouraging me on this journey! If anyone reads French, I write a blog for my friends and family, which you can find here.
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