Wednesday, August 7, 2019

A Sizzling Symposium

7/25/19 Amsterdam skyline sketched from the air-conditioned NEMO museum cafe

As soon as I arrived in Amsterdam, I could immediately see why it had been an easy win as a symposium host. Its extraordinary architecture, well-designed urban spaces, geographic compactness and humanely flat terrain all made it an extremely appealing city for sketchers. On top of that, the Netherlands is the most English-language-friendly European country I have been to. Every local person I talked to, from fellow sketchers to random citizens on the street, was completely fluent in English. So much information and signage was available in English that I sometimes forgot I was outside the U.S. In every way I can think of, it was by far the easiest European country to visit.

I heard that temps topped out at
107 degrees in some parts of the Netherlands.
Arriving a couple of days ahead of the symposium, I awaited the event with excitement and much anticipation (as I’m sure my 700-plus fellow participants were also feeling). In retrospect, I’m very happy that I had the days before and after the event to sketch, because we were all in for unexpectedly harsh conditions.

As mentioned in my first post about Amsterdam, a record-breaking heatwave broiled the region for four long days – precisely the four days of the 10th international Urban Sketchers Symposium. When I started hearing reports from locals that the temperature was expected to hit 40 C, it didn’t mean much to me (I couldn’t make the conversion to Fahrenheit in my mind). But when I saw the triple digits in Fahrenheit predicted on my phone’s weather app, I fully comprehended its meaning: Lots of sweat and difficult sketching!
My strategy for hot-weather sketching was to go out at dusk (left) and dawn (right) when the temperatures were bearable.
7/27/19 Skipping a sketchwalk, I made more sketches from
NEMO's air-conditioned cafe.

Even symposium veterans who had participated in Santo Domingo and Singapore said that Amsterdam was hotter (though not as humid as either tropical location) – the hottest sketching conditions they had ever experienced. To make matters worse, Amsterdam typically does not suffer such high temperatures, so many homes, hotels and businesses are not air conditioned. Relief wasn’t easy to find. (Our small Airbnb apartment had no air conditioning, but it was in the basement, which kept it mercifully tolerable.)

Fortunately, workshops were scheduled for the mornings while temperatures were still in the 80s and lower 90s, and shade made conditions bearable. However, I forfeited most of the afternoon sketchwalks, demos and other outdoor activities and instead retreated to whatever air-conditioned venues I could find. A favorite was the NEMO Science Museum’s large upper-floor café, which offered a nearly 360-degree view of the city. (As mentioned in my previous post, I explored the sketchwalk neighborhoods on my own after the symposium was over and the heatwave subsided, so at least I was able to sketch in those areas – though it wasn’t the same without other sketchers everywhere.)

Despite the unexpected hardship of high heat, I enjoyed reuniting with old friends, seeing in person those whom I’ve otherwise known only through social media, and meeting new sketchers from around the world. While I value the inspirational opportunity of workshops, the main reason I attend symposiums is to join the camaraderie of my international tribe. For a few days each year, I am fully immersed in this worldwide community that I cherish. And I’m always grateful to the many volunteers who worked hard for well over a year to make this symposium possible.

7/24/19 USk President Amber Sausen addresses the
700+ participants at the opening reception (plus a few
bikes and the Zuiderkerk entrance facade).

Opening day reception (I'm sweating already, and the heatwave
is only getting started!)

For more views of the symposium, dont miss Teoh Yi Chie (Parka)s excellent six-part video coverage on YouTube. In addition, this years three symposium correspondents Gwen Glotin (Amsterdam), Orling Dominguez (Santo Domingo) and Mark Anderson (Liberty, Missouri) reported daily on the Urban Sketchers blog. Familiar with the level and intensity of work required to be a symposium correspondent (I was one myself in Manchester, one of the hardest jobs Ive ever done, paid or otherwise), I can only imagine how much harder their work was in triple-digit temperatures!

7/22/19 Zuiderkerk, formerly a historic church
and now an event venue, was the symposium headquarters.

Norberto Dorantes Workshop

Norberto demos his composition principles.
With 36 workshops to choose from this year, I would normally have had a tough time making my selections, but I had a clear direction in mind. From my experience at previous symposiums, I knew that three hours is not much time to grasp an artist’s working methods, and I’ve sometimes been frustrated when too much material is presented. Now I choose workshops that seem sharply focused on one or two concepts, and my particular interest this year was composition.

Called “Line Flow: Discover How a Simple Line Can Be a Launch Point and Join Spaces,” Norberto Dorantes’ workshop focused on the artist’s unique take on composition. Beginning with a strong foreground element that may or may not be the focal point, Norberto allows the sketch to grow intuitively from that element. A strong proponent of thumbnails, Norberto led us through several exercises in which we explored a variety of compositional possibilities based on this foreground principle.

Thumbnails made at the pedestrian bridge near
the NEMO Science Museum.
Workshop exercises. The lower one is my favorite
of the workshop: a strong foreground element
that leads the eye upward to the rest of the sketch.

Through demos, he showed us how a few deftly and confidently placed lines might be all one needs to express an entire finished composition. In other words, he made sketches that were like thumbnails in concision but were still fully resolved as finished works – not preliminary. It was remarkable how much he could convey with only a few strong marks that took very little time to make but clearly expressed both analysis and intuition behind the deft strokes.

7/25/19 Workshop exercise (I needed a stronger
foreground element)

7/25/19 final workshop sketch (a strong
foreground element, though I'm not
sure the rest is very strong)

Norberto’s intuitive approach is intriguing, and I especially appreciated his emphasis on the thumbnail. In fact, my exploration of thumbnails in his workshop that first hot morning put me on a thumbnail course for the rest of my stay in the Netherlands and gave me a useful insight for travel sketching (more on that later).

Nina Johansson Workshop

Nina gave us a well-prepared and
well-designed workshop.
“Framing the City – A Few Guidelines on Image Composition” was Nina Johansson’s workshop, and it was exactly that: a structured and logical sequence of steps for learning and using compositional tools. From my prior experience taking a workshop from Nina in Paraty, I knew that she would deliver a well-organized, well-prepared presentation, and I was not disappointed. Her handout was a wonderful little booklet containing all the principles we would practice with visual examples. She also gave us a cardboard viewfinder to help us see compositions.

While most of the compositional guidelines – for example, the classic “rule of thirds” and dynamic triangles and diagonals – were not new to me, the way we were led through the exercises opened my eyes to new ways of using the basic guidelines. Nina’s teaching method includes having participants break out into small groups of three or four people so that we can discuss assignments, share ideas and give each other feedback. I enjoyed the added benefit of the opportunity to talk with other sketchers whom I might not have met otherwise.

Exploring the "rule of thirds" with thumbnails
7/26/19 workshop exercise (I was trying for a triangle
of elements -- the sign, the dark shadows under the
vehicles, the building -- but then I couldn't resist putting
in the crane, which weakened my composition.

7/29/19 This "farewell" sketch I made shortly before I left Amsterdam
incorporates composition ideas I learned from both Norberto
and Nina. It's one of my favorites from the trip.
The compositional guidelines we used stayed with me the rest of my time in the Netherlands, and I found myself hearing Nina’s recommendations in my mind as I began considering a sketch. My “farewell” sketch in Amsterdam (at left), which you saw at the top of the last post, is one of my favorite sketches of the trip. I incorporated ideas and methods that I learned from both Nina and Norberto as I planned this sketch.

7/27/19 A few small sketches I made during a sketchwalk.
7/26/19 After leaving a demo early because I couldn't
handle the heat, I retreated to an air-conditioned
hotel, where I was able to sketch Rembrandt's statue
from the bar.

7/26/19 Ben and Gary at a drink & draw. Both
from Hong Kong, they are excited that their local
USk group will be hosting the 2020 symposium!

Herding cats: Organizers try to gather us for the final group photo.

Inside the enormous Muziekgebouw, where the closing
reception was held.

I won Jane Blundell's beautiful painting of
Zuiderkerk at the silent auction!

Seattle USk at the closing reception! Front and center is Gabi, our modest founder, who started all of this! Unfortunately, only about half the Seattle participants made it into this photo. . . 

. . . but we're all in THIS photo! Although only about 700 people were officially registered, an estimated total of double that number attended the sketchwalks, which were all open to the public this year in celebration of the symposium's 10th anniversary. (Photo by Antonius Widjaya)


  1. Thanks for both of these summaries of the event.

  2. I love that Nina had you break out into small groups during her workshop. That's an interesting element to add!

    1. This is Elizabeth Alley - I don't know why I'm signed on as Memphis Urban Sketchers :)

    2. Hello, Memphis/Elizabeth! ;-) Yes, Nina's small group strategy is really wonderful! I remember that from Paraty too, and it was fun to get to know other sketchers that way!


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