Thursday, November 7, 2013

Are Urban Sketchers Reportage Illustrators?

6/5/13 Diamine Chocolate Brown ink, Stillman & Birn Alpha
Gabi Campanario just posted an interesting question on Facebook: Are urban sketchers reportage illustrators? It’s a question that was posed to him by Christina Brunnock, an artist and illustration student who is writing a paper on this subject. In part, here’s what she wrote to Gabi:

I have had a few debates with my tutors discussing the urban sketchers. One of my tutors who specialises with editorial illustration believes that the urban sketchers are not true reportage illustrators and that they are more interpretive illustrators. He believes that only illustrators that tackle news based subjects such as conflict and politics are reportage illustrators. My point of view is that your illustrations are reporting everyday activities, culture and struggles in life which means you are reportage illustrators.
. . .
As reportage illustrators do you feel inferior to other reportage illustrators who tackle conflict and war issues in their work, such as George Butler, Sue Coe and Mario Minichiello?

I’m also debating whether reportage art actually has a vital use in modern day life competing against photography and film. In a digital world where videos are so easily accessible online, are the general public interested in an artist’s representation of the event or are they only interested in the actual event.
. . .
I am genuinely interested in the urban sketchers community and how they are grow [sic]. I am looking to define and challenge reportage illustration.

Gabi posted Christina’s e-mail to get feedback from other urban sketchers. Here’s what I posted in response:

Very interesting questions! My short answer is Yes, urban sketchers are reportage illustrators. We may not necessarily always sketch what is “newsworthy,” as in breaking news. But I look to my local newspaper as a model for that. Often on a slow news day, I’ll see photos in the Seattle Times of a gorgeous sunrise, children playing in fallen leaves, or the silhouette of the Space Needle against a crimson sky. What’s “newsworthy” about those photos except that some photographer captured an engaging moment – one that will never be repeated in exactly the same way? And so it is with all urban sketches. And that’s newsworthy enough for me.

And here’s my long answer: Above is a sketch I did back in June at the Pike Place Market. I never got around to blogging about it because I was busy with an out-of-town visitor that week, and we had been to other places that day, like the zoo, which I did blog about. But this sketch is typical of most of my urban sketches: It’s not about anything particularly newsworthy; just a moment in the busker’s day and my day captured in my sketchbook. Is it “reportage illustration”? By Christina’s definition – “reporting everyday activities, culture and struggles in life” – I’d say it qualifies.

At the same time, I do try to seek out newsworthy, current events to report on with sketches in the way that a photo journalist might. Although Im (fortunately) not near a war zone, last August I made reportage sketches of From Hiroshima to Hope, a local event on the anniversary of the atomic bombing of that city that ended World War II. I dont get these opportunities often, but I keep my eyes and ears open for them. (After all, isnt observation 90 percent of a sketch?)

As for her other question, “In a digital world where videos are so easily accessible online, are the general public interested in an artist’s representation of the event or are they only interested in the actual event”: I don’t know about the general public, but I know that most of the sketches I see on the Urban Sketchers blog and Flickr group are more vibrant, evocative and compelling than most of the videos circulating on YouTube or Facebook. Sketches made by hand are as much about “the actual event” as anything recorded by a digital device.

The answer is Yes, urban sketchers are all reporting on their part of the world, one drawing at a time.


  1. Well said, Tina. I think we are reportage illustrators who sketch the daily life that we find around us. The scenes we see may not be earth shaking events, but they have their own importance too.

  2. Interesting debate! I tell my Reportage students that they can choose whether to record events as an illustrator would (telling the *story* of the event, so that people who weren't there could get a clear idea of the setting, action, & mood) OR simply to record their own impressions, or what caught their artistic eye. (Though I make sure they know how to do both!)

    The first choice is more journalistic; the second choice is more personal, more like "fine art". There's a thin line between illustration & fine art; both can tell stories. I think perhaps the more personal approach to journal sketching is right on the line... or more accurately, where they overlap. The story of someone's delightful expression is just as valid as the story of an event.

    Thanks for your thoughts!

    1. Great points, Stacye! I love the idea that someone's reactive expression is just as valid as the story -- and is, in fact, part of the story. Thanks for visiting my blog!

      - Tina

    2. Thanks, Tina.
      I think the best journalists also include the "human element" in their stories. Think: Life magazine. It always used to include photos that weren't directly about the event they were covering, but more about people witnessing the event. I believe those photos added a beautiful dimension to the story! & a sense of really being there.


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