Studying urban sketching – what next after Lisbon?

September 17, 2011

While reasonably happy that (urban) sketching is part of my (almost) daily routine, when I’m not doing it I’m thinking about it. So I’m juggling several things at the moment: newspaper coverage of Tom Carment’s on-site sketching around Sydney; newspaper coverage too of David Holm’s Churchill Fellowship to do some urban sketching in Asian megalopolises; trying to read the entrails of the Lisbon Urban Sketchers symposium and glean useful outcomes for myself; Louis Hawson’s 52 suburbs moving from Sydney suburbs to a World Tour photographing Berlin and Tokyo and the implications this has for an equivalence in urban sketching; learning about urban sketching online, moving from private spaces to public spaces; the potential for documenting the building of Barangaroo, Sydney’s next-big-thing architecturally; what the forthcoming Urban Sketching book (The Book developed from the Website) might offer.

Hardcore urban sketchers around the world are currently letting the Lisbon Symposium seep into their work. I notice Paris urban sketchers are re-convening in their home town after the symposium. I didn’t attend Urban Sketchers’ Lisbon Symposium (or the previous one at Portland) but imagine that the ‘herd’ mentality endemic to all conferences was inspiring and motivating and probably the overriding issue: you had to be there. Nevertheless urban sketching certainly increases one’s awareness of living in a particular city and with that awareness goes expectations. Am I heading in the right direction? Is there more I can be doing? Is there more I can be learning? Obviously is moving from website to book – out next February – which hopefully will shed light on the process as much as the content.

The sketchcrawl event. I imagine the experience of 200 sketchers milling around together in a relatively small town like Lisboa will give a lot of spiritual support to the idea of “mass sketching”. The singularity of the experience must have been very strong, given that most sketchers work in isolation. What drives media and public relations (as well as personal ambition towards fame and reputation) today is The Event. A lot of effort in future on the part of urban sketchers will go into event management. I’m somewhat disappointed that there’s nothing of interest for urban sketchers in the current Art & About Sydney 2011, especially when its avowed purpose is to organise “the city’s public spaces to be taken over by artists” ( We know that just as Photography and Glass have been ‘sexy’ and ‘in’ for the last decade, Installation and Light are on the up-and-up. Similarly I can’t find anything of interest to urban sketchers in the next three months at The Rocks ( I am however heartened by the fact that at least one Sydney local Council (Ashfield) is organising urban sketching events. These parallel the regular plein air sketching long organised by the various Art Societies in Sydney (St George, Oatley, etc.).

Drawing architecture. Buildings are at the heart of urban sketching because so many of the experts are academics involved in architecture. Urban Sketching is founded on individual cities around the world; sketchers differentiate themselves according to the city where they are living, demonstrated by the latest phenomenon of affiliate USk websites organised by city.

At the heart of architectural drawing is the building facade, so Ptolemy Dean’s emphasis in his book on the context of buildings fascinates me. He talks of vistas, of anticipated views as one travels through space and how curved streets, full of anticipation and expectation, have been replaced by grids and straight lines. He talks too of the deleterious effects of street furniture on public spaces: how often are things like light poles and street signs omitted from architectural drawing?

A key success factor for urban sketching symposia is a university or Fine Arts School able to act as an umbrella for the event. It’s interesting to hypothesize which university will sponsor next year’s Urban Sketchers Symposium.

At the local level it’s interesting to witness urban sketching as a marketing tool for Sydney painters and architects. Urban sketching as an adjunct to the tradition of painting was aired in newspaper coverage given to Tom Carment (“Seeing Sydney anew”, SMH 3-4 September 2011). Urban sketching and architecture were linked in a newspaper article publicising David Holm’s books of sketching in Europe and his Churchill Fellowship to go and sketch in Asia (“Quick on the draw”, SMH 17-18 September 2011). Am I alone in thinking that European public spaces are considered the global benchmark, while Asian sketchers are busy instead recording the demise of their architectural heritage? Surely Chinese public spaces today are those dropped in by contemporary townplanners, everything previous having been razed? I’m fascinated by urban sketchers in Japan where plein air sketching is made all the more difficult because there are no public spaces – or where they exist, they have been imposed by Western town planning aesthetics since the 1880s when Europeanization hit Japan.

Urban dwellers. While there is pull in one direction to sit on a WalkStool and draw a building facade, there is a pull in the opposite direction to draw people, often on the move, either on public transport or in transit through cafes. One sketcher has done a World Trip simply to draw portraits of individuals on subway trains. There was talk at the Lisbon Symposium of getting closer to people – what that means exactly is confusing to me; difficult where one of the defining characteristics of a city (as opposed to a small town or village) is the primacy put on anonymity. We love living in cities because we can be private citizens, without everyone knowing who we are or knowing our business. Urban dwellers, by their very nature, hate being photographed or sketched or regarded or “identified” – it’s an invasion of privacy. There is a tacit agreement among all city dwellers that if they have to be “recorded” (via urban sketchers or security CCTV cameras) then it has to be “hidden” or “not obvious”. Some like David Holm believe that plein air sketching acts like a magnet, while Carment hints at the direct opposite.

Figure drawing in urban sketching amounts to little more than stick figures used to portray scale most of the time. The very transitory nature of figures moving through the landscape means they move and the (architectural) background remains static.

Social conscience. Socially-engaged art is foreign to most artists and to urban sketchers in particular. Urban sketchers rarely tackle edgy or difficult subject matter in their environments. There are sketchers who tackle homelessness and charity work, becoming reporteurs graphiques (Damien Roudeau – or tackle urban disasters (L’Aquila has been both a subject for urban sketchers as well as filmmakers, documenting Berlusconi’s equivalent of Bush’s hurricane “Katrina”), but they are in the minority. As a movement, urban sketchers will rarely if ever introduce into their sketching any critiques of social change, change management in cities, urban planning, public spaces or public architecture. I think urban sketchers, like architects, see their art as ephemeral, without importance, without a message and especially without a social message.

Technique and media. Participants at Lisbon were encouraged to keep on their toes by using different media and different techniques, to be constantly evolving technically as artists. I assume this comes from the age-old art school tradition of forcing work in a variety of media: drawing, painting, printmaking, sculpture. At the same time, this ‘moving around’ gently subverts the idea of an individual developing her or his own sketching “signature”: urban sketchers spend a lot of time and effort developing their own recognizable style. I know this sketcher will work in pen-and-ink, that one in pastels, that one in watercolour.

Taking individual ownership of format is the driver behind hand-made sketchbooks; there are some in the community who include hand-made books as part of the overall look of their work.

Like theatre people, urban sketchers often display behaviours that come close to OCD in their addiction to ritual and superstition. Urban sketching, like the theatre, is an environment which is both extremely controlled and extremely uncontrolled, so the behaviours are both justifiable and desirable. Danny Gregory’s book “An Illustrated Life” is certainly a testament to the high degree of ritual underpinning urban sketchers’ approach to their work.

Text and image. I’m not sure this came up at Lisbon at all, but there is a lot going on in the movement about defining (and reifying) the iterative process. In the past, when sketching was the footstool of drawing (and the foundation stone of painting), the maker simply dated the sketch. Van Gogh signalled to the world (via letters to his brother) whether a sketch was sufficiently good to stand on its own too feet or not as a “work of merit”; nowadays we do that by uploading to Flickr. Sketching can be inextricably linked to the narrative, linear qualities of the book (one sketch follows another in a sequence) so it’s only natural that sequence be time: I do one sketch today and tomorrow’s follows afterwards. The date (and additional textual notes) become as important as the image itself. So it’s not at all surprising that urban sketching has become dovetailed into diarising and visual journalling – the sketch doesn’t stand for or by itself, it requires textual commentary. This is mimicked in the “real” world of modern painting when text is inscribed on to the image. It’s reinforced these days by the fact that viewers in museums have to walk around with a recorded voice round their neck telling them how to look at the painting (MONA in Hobart has no titles/artist names next to works). By extension too, an image by itself is “incomplete”, insufficiently loaded with information, so collage is introduced – one visual element (most often pattern or texture) bouncing off another. Louise Hawson’s 52 suburbs concept locally here in Sydney is organised around the diptych: two images bouncing off each other (often linked by colour or pattern), one reinforcing the personal the other the social, the global and the local. She’s gone from photographing suburbs to her own World Tour, proof that the trajectory from garage band to world-touring superstar is ingrained in us all!

Sketches are never (or hardly) ever presented to the world as framed, single “paintings” with titles: they are book objects in glass cases, organised by date. This reinforces the “book” context of urban sketching – both in the real world, ‘read’ with white gloves at an exhibition, or ‘flicked through’ via book software in the virtual world online. The humblest of urban sketchers is inextricably linked to the art establishment and the art industry, imitating for her/himself the blockbuster exhibition, the touring exhibition, the group show/solo show, the media event, the booklaunch, the retrospective, the catalogue raisonee. Urban sketching however subverts these business models too: they can’t be easily broken up into individual artworks (though scanning/uploading to the Net achieves this), though this doesn’t prevent some urban sketchers aspiring (or not) to be ‘proper artists’ whose work is broken up and sold.

Subject matter. There are several forces at work at the moment, all operating outside the establish art world: plein air sketching in cities (urban sketching), a renaissance in object drawing (Every Day Matters) and stylized figure drawing (under the influence of magic realism in illustration, anime and cartooning). A flexible artist these days will jump from one world to another.

I’m not sure I have a ‘bucket list’ (things I need to sketch before I kick the bucket) when it comes to urban sketching but I can see the sense in moving around twenty or so different subject areas as follows:

  1. airplanes & airports
  2. architecture & buildings
  3. food & drink: pubs, bars, cafes & restaurants
  4. leisure: parks, beach, squares
  5. bridges
  6. concerts, bands & musicians
  7. construction sites
  8. galleries & museums
  9. harbour, boats & seascapes
  10. markets, stalls & vendors
  11. churches, mosques & shrines
  12. night
  13. transport: flyovers, public transport, buses, trains, trams & subways
  14. sculpture, statues, graffiti & installations
  15. shops, shopping centres & malls
  16. skyline & streetscapes
  17. spring, summer, autumn, winter
  18. traffic
  19. pets, zoos & wildlife
  20. flora, trees & plants.

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