|6/6/19 colored pencil|
Plumbago, a periodic ‘zine about analog life, has published an essay about how I became a lifestyle urban sketcher. (Edited and published by Andy Welfle, co-host of the Erasable podcast about pencils, Plumbago has featured my work in two previous issues.) Issue 6, with the theme of Travel and Nature, is available for preorder now.
The essay, republished below, is a compilation of thoughts and reflections I’ve already published here on my blog, so if you’ve been a regular reader for a while, not much will be new to you. But if you’ve joined me only recently, it serves as the “back story” of how I got here and why I keep doing what I do.
Urban sketching: It’s not a hobby; it’s a lifestyle. That’s the subtitle of my blog, Fueled by Clouds & Coffee, where I have been sharing and writing about my sketches since 2012. A hobby can be defined as “an activity or interest pursued for pleasure or relaxation.” While urban sketching certainly provides both pleasure and relaxation, I don’t think of it as a hobby. I think of it more as a way of life – something that has become such a normal part of my everyday that it shapes how I view the world.
I haven’t always had this world view. For most of my life I had the fear of drawing as well as the desire to draw. Yet every time I tried to learn by reading how-to books, I became bored practicing cubes and spheres and would eventually quit. Then, in 2011, I discovered Urban Sketchers, a worldwide network of thousands with a common passion to “show the world, one drawing at a time.” They weren’t sitting in studios drawing nude models, vases, or cubes – they were hitting the streets of their cities. And unlike plein air painters carrying fifty pounds of equipment, they were going out with a simple sketchbook and a pencil or a pen in their pockets. Viewing the sketches they shared online, I was inspired by the mundane beauty of their everyday subjects as well as the simplicity of their tools.
With portable art supplies carried with me at all times, even when I’m just running errands, I am ready to capture whatever might fill five minutes or a half-hour of my ordinary day. A trash can, an abandoned couch, a fellow bus commuter, or a coffee shop patron – they’re all fair game. I don’t let the cold-and-wet-weather months (many of which we have in Seattle) keep me from sketching. I just do it from inside my car.
I remember the exact moment I became a lifestyle sketcher. When I first started out, I had prepared a special bag full of tools, materials and sketchbooks. This “sketch kit” lived on the floor next to my everyday-carry bag. When I thought I might be “inspired” to sketch, I would grab the kit and go out.
The more I sketched, however, the more I began seeing things that I wanted to sketch – especially when I didn’t have my supplies. For example, I had been hoping for months to see a gray heron at my neighborhood lake. The morning the bird appeared, my sketch supplies were at home. That’s when I decided to dispense with a designated “sketch kit” and fully integrate my sketch supplies into my everyday-carry bag, and that’s the way it’s been ever since – simple tools that go with me everywhere, every day.
In addition to changing my everyday-carry, becoming a lifestyle sketcher has altered the way I travel. Although I still can’t resist iconic sights (what urban sketcher could visit Paris and not attempt drawing the Eiffel Tower?), increasingly, I find myself favoring simpler, less-showy scenes. I seek out neighborhoods where people live instead of the tourist book must-sees. The back alleys of Venice or Tokyo attract me more than the Piazza San Marco or Tsukiji fish market.
Interestingly, sketching those Venice and Tokyo alleys has taught me to appreciate similarly modest views back home. Sometimes I like to walk through my own neighborhood wearing a visitor’s eyes. Suddenly I realize that the boring alley I never give a second glance to is exactly the kind of scene I would relish sketching in Lisbon or Kyoto. There’s nothing special about it, but it becomes special when I sketch it. Each drawing tells a story of where I live, where I’ve visited, and what I’ve seen.
I’ve been an urban sketcher for nearly eight years now, and only recently have I come to understand why finding resonant subject matter has been critical to helping me learn. It’s not that every scene inspires me. It’s that when I am ready to sketch at any moment, when I am open to both the mundane as well as the spectacular, I observe everything more closely and fully – and that’s what learning to draw is all about.
|Color sketch converted to grayscale|
Technical note: Plumbago publishes images in black and white only. Initially I had made the color sketch at the top of the page to accompany the essay. But when I converted it to grayscale to see what it would look like published in black and white, I saw that I hadn’t made strong enough value contrasts (color always confuses me that way!), and I didn’t like the way it looked. So I made a new sketch with graphite (above) with stronger value contrasts. Shown at left is the color sketch converted to grayscale. If you ever have doubts about your values, converting a scanned image to grayscale will show you the humbling truth.