Chronicling travels by drawing and painting has been a long and storied tradition; common practice among art students, amateur hobbyists and master artists, as well as explorers and scouts. After photography was developed and became widespread, capturing locations with ink and paint fell out of fashion, and was mostly left to those with professional training.
However, there’s been a revival of sorts with the formation of Urban Sketchers, driven by social networking which encourages sketchers across the world to share their drawings online. Sketching on location can be magical, often managing to instill life into pieces of paper that isn’t the same as a snapshot. Keeping a sketchbook of travels and scribblings of daily activities is a great way to collect memories.
En plein air, French for “in the open air“, is what most people think about artists working outdoors, with a large canvas, professional-looking easel and optional umbrella. The reality is that urban sketches can be done quickly and on the go, and the final product doesn’t always have to look finished. The important thing is to capture the feeling in time and place, telling the story of the here and now.
It’s easy to start off with small sketches, especially as an utter beginner, without feeling intimidated by a large work. Can’t draw a straight line? Straight lines are not needed! Loose lines actually contribute to the charm of a sketch. With a bit of practice, you can develop a unique style. Everybody sees things differently, and a single scene can be rendered in many ways by many people.
Instead of taking that same old money shot with a camera, make your own impressions of the sights and sounds in a personal carnets de voyage or travel sketchbook. For an example of pen and ink artwork that has a bit of an urban feel, look into Instinct Art at iabyiz.com. There you’ll find some unique, quirky drawings, and you can even buy and download digital art from the site.
Group excursions to local spots to draw and paint, known popularly as sketch crawls, are often organized by Urban Sketchers (USk) and SketchCrawl. An international day of sketch crawls is usually announced, with hundreds of people participating in various cities and then later sharing their experiences on Flickr, Facebook and blogs. Discover unusual locations even as a lifelong resident and meet up with locals while visiting new places.
There are active communities from Seattle and Sardinia to Seoul and more. There’s also an Urban Sketchers Symposium, a yearly get-together in July for sketchers around the world with workshops, panel discussions and of course, drawing marathons.
Urban sketches can be carried out using all sorts of instruments and surfaces, like graphite, color pencils, pens, markers, watercolors and even iPads. The very least you need is a sketchbook and pen, or you can go the full hog with a traditional plein air artist’s setup of a tripod easel and portable stool. Sometimes a hasty retreat from bad weather is required, so it’s easier to stay mobile if everything fits into a small bag or backpack.
The texture and quality of paper to use is often debated, from loose cold-pressed sheaves to the much beloved Moleskine notebooks. Flat-lying and spiral bound sketchpads both have their own supporters. Colored paper gives a different challenge compared to plain white paper. Watercolors require thicker paper of 190 gsm (90 lb) and above to absorb the extra water and paint. Watercolor postcards are particularly popular in Japan. There are different varieties of inks and brands of pens: fountain and quill pens, permanent Indian ink and Chinese ink sticks etc.
Coffee shops, streets and parks: there are tons of places where urban sketching can be carried out. Draw during moments of time, while waiting in the airport, on subways or over a hot coffee. Concentrate on the visual details and information, taking in the energy and the movement in front of you, and then channel its lines onto paper. Light can change quickly, so take note of the atmosphere it generates and the shadows it creates. People are just as apt to change their poses, hence fast initial studies can capture their joie de vivre in their body language and gestures.
Don’t be limited to people and landscapes; the most dull and dreary mundane things like postboxes and dumpsters can be great subjects. Get off the beaten track and dingy alleys could be transformed into beautiful art in a sketchbook.
It’s possible to work very loosely, using a minimum of marks to recreate the scene, although some people prefer to concentrate on the details. Pencil in broad strokes before going over them with permanent ink and then dabbing on a bit of watercolor, or be bold and work without pencils, etching directly in pen, mistakes be damned. Accidental smudges and coffee stains are part of the work in progress. Not all sketches are going to be great, and some will be surprising in their artistic impact. Sketching can take as little as ten minutes to as long as two hours, it’s all up to the pace you want to work at.