Ten Tips for Urban Sketching in Bangkok

March 6, 2013

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Internet research will turn up results for what to sketch in Bangkok, but here are ten tips on what to expect in terms of the how and the dynamics of urban sketching or plein air/on location painting and drawing:

1. Bangkok is a typically Asian city: noisy, crowded, bustling. Foreigners are an easy target for touts and scam-artists on the streets. There is no “Off” button or “Low Volume” button in Bangkok. Venture out from an air-conditioned hotel room for two hours at a time, returning for respite from everything and a change of clothes.

2. Consider limiting any trip to Bangkok to just three days if you are over 40 or have a current/previous medical condition. Fresh air is lacking in Bangkok and high levels of air pollution (not to mention the heat, humidity, noise, touts) will have you in need for an oxygen cafe before very long. There seem to be few people over 40 in Bangkok: they have either left to retire to rural Thailand or are actively thinking about it!

3. Heat and sun (and humidity) is strongest from about 10am to 1pm. On-site sketching is more comfortable outside these hours.

4. Getting around. Street signs are invariably in English so it’s quite hard to get lost. Thai transcription spelling in English can vary a lot; take more than one map if searching for anything off the tourist track.

5. Sketching architecture and traditional Thai buildings. There are plenty of temples, shrines and churches, all with semi-private courtyards ideal for sketching religious buildings. Seek out examples of traditional architecture (teak wooden structures) before they totally disappear; any non-tourist area (no signage in English) means you’re probably close to traditional buildings. It is possible to set up a sketching position in the street – look out for closed shops or pavements not occupied by street vendors (the vendors work in shifts, so don’t get in their way!).

6. Sketching streetscapes. Bone up on motorcycles and research photos of tuk-tuk taxis. They are integral to street life and best observed from inside air-conditioned cafes. Street vendors and their stalls are endlessly fascinating; try to observe their set-up and disassembly.  Street vendors don’t operate on public holidays and beware the massive street cleaning of busiest soi (lanes) around 9am on Sunday mornings. Ferry piers are good, under-cover locations for observing and sketching people, especially the least busy ones away from tourist landmarks. The Chao Phraya River is a must-see but I defy anyone to actually sketch on the ferries!

7. Stay local. Bangkok is a flat, large city of 6.5m people. Sketch the area closest to where you are staying, because most of it will be “duplicated” in the various suburban areas across the entire city. You will obviously travel for the principal city’s landmarks, but stick to the main street and the soi (lanes) running off it.

8. Keep hydrated. You will need at least two 500g bottles of water (or 1 large 14 baht bottle from the many 7-11 shops) for any 1-2 hour sketching session. Food is never a problem; you will not eat better anywhere else in the world.

9. Sketching people. Bangkokians are entrepreneurial and work hard; they don’t sit still. At most street corners, motorcycle taxi drivers will congregate with their bikes waiting for clients; at others, tuk-tuks will line up with their drivers nearby; Bangkokians will stop by the many Buddhist shrines attached to every commercial buildings. Bangkok has large shopping malls with sprawling public areas outside. Stopping by any public park (there aren’t many) is a must, e.g. the Chinese t’ai chi practitioners, and Chinese ladies-who-lunch in the various teahouses, inside Lumphini Park. I chose not to sketch people worshipping in temples and shrines, i.e. inside Buddhist temples and shrines of other denominations; it just seemed an invasion of privacy. For your dose of people sketching, Attic Studios runs drawing sessions involving clothed locals and the usual life drawing; unfortunately my email seems not to have gotten through to them, but it’s useful to know in terms of foreign artists visiting the city.

10. Solo urban sketching is hard work, something of an Extreme Sport in any large city, but don’t overlook any opportunity to sketch with the local Bangkok Sketchers group. They are experts at finding comfortable locations and maximising sketching productivity: no strenuous sketchcrawls involving extended travel! There is not a more relaxed, inquisitive, quiet, supportive sketching group in all the world.

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