matt brehm location sketching

I am prone to writing not “reviews” of new books, so much as  “responses” to them. Here below is my personal ‘response’ to a recently-published book about location sketching by Matthew Brehm. While out and about sketching, I’ve often had people stop to watch me work in silence or complain to me that they don’t have any “talent” for drawing. To the latter, I just quote the Nike slogan, “Just do it!”. But noone’s ever stopped by and asked if there’s a book published on what I’m doing. If they did, this is the book that I’d recommend to them!

This is, to my knowledge, the first book on the subject: a sketcher’s guide to working on location. Tucked away in many books on art-making or drawing, you might find, if you’re lucky, a tantalising paragraph or two on how to sketch outdoors effectively, but they pale into insignificance when compared with the range and depth of advice you’ll find in this book.

I’ve been living it with now for several months, dipping in to it at regular intervals. I’ve “road-tested” the information in a lot of the chapters, putting the advice into practice. While you will find some material duplicated in other art textbooks (e.g. perspective, watercolour, etc.), everything in the book is written with the outdoor sketcher specifically in mind.

There’s a whole host of hints and tips, valuable and practical information, e.g. goal-setting for enthusiastic sketchers is reasonable and achievable – four sessions a week at 20-40mins each, sufficient to keep competency and skills developing without becoming maniacal (yes, location sketching can become addictive!).

What I love in particular is the inclusion of reference photos and how what one sees can be translated to paper, especially in those difficult-to-grasp subjects such as fitting all that you want on to a single piece of paper or choosing among various compositional options.

This book is an excellent springboard to more detailed research elsewhere. For example, he covers linear and atmospheric perspective. Armed with these technical terms, the reader can search elsewhere for more detailed information to progress the sketcher’s particular competency in that area. In both perspective and watercolor, I’ve used this book by Brehm as a springboard to develop my own understanding and competency by tracking down specific teachers specializing in particular techniques.

The historical context of location sketching, particularly in terms of the Grand Tour tradition, is an important inclusion in the book. History will surely find parallels between the rise of contemporary urban sketching (the Internet, social media, new sketching media, reportage, etc.) and those unique factors (transport, brushes with ferrules, portable paints, etc.) which gave rise to working plein air in the painting medium among the French Impressionists 150 years ago.

The examples of sketches, whether pencil-only or watercolours, are all done by Brehm and importantly mention paper, size and on-site duration. His use of strong darks and lights help create great pictorial space and depth and for a determined sketcher, what he proposes comes across as eminently achievable – a far cry from the very elaborate and complex examples of urban sketching published in books of virtuoso outdoor sketching.

The focus is on location sketching – anything outside the strictly controlled environment of the studio. Thus, Brehm includes indoor sketches as well as outdoors.

I first became aware of the author via his very powerful lecture presented at an Urban Sketchers Symposium in Lisbon and published in that symposium’s proceedings. I’m glad this material has been developed to cater for a larger audience in the form of a very comprehensive monograph.

The book cost me $US70 and I have only very minor gripe – the publisher seems to have dropped the time-honoured tradition in book publishing of 12 words per line of text. A keen reader however will persist with the lines no matter how long they are.

There are plenty of books on the market which feature the splendid examples of virtuoso urban sketchers, artists of the streets. Those books focus on the outcome, not the process. Some books are now being written on the interface of traditional art techniques and digital processes. This book by Brehm, however, is the first “how to” book devoted to the subject, especially for the “ordinary” sketcher, armed with just pen-and-paper or pencil-and-paper. Very highly recommended!

Matthew Brehm, “Sketching on Location”. Dubque, IA: Kendall Hunt, 2012. Paperback, 8×10″, 176 pages.

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James Richards, “Freehand Drawing & Discovery: Urban Sketching and Concept Drawing for Designers”. Foreword by Francis D.K. Ching. Hoboken, NUJ: Wiley, 2013. ISBN 978-1-118-23210-1

It’s customary for urban sketchers to move from online dissemination of their work to hard copy publishing and James Richards has joined the fray with this excellent book, linking urban sketching and professional hand-drawing associated with architecture, landscaping and urban design. It has been published around the same time as the intriguing compendium of travel sketchers’ work (Danny Gregory) and the eminently practical “how-to” of location sketching (Matthew Brehm).

Richards provides a refreshing slant on urban sketching because of his lyrical visual style, characterized by spare line, nutty texture and bright color. He acknowledges the influence of Paul Hogarth in this respect and Richards’ work has the unfailing ability to make me smile. Not all urban landscapes make me smile – far from it – but in Richards’ world, it’s always sunny.

His approach to the practical aspects of location sketching was presented succinctly at the Lisbon symposium of Urban Sketchers a few years ago and his pithy lecture there forms the backbone of his opening chapter. His second chapter develops these ideas and, like the first chapter, should be required reading by anyone interested in urban sketching. I myself have been adopting his messages about simplifying tools and message and technique since reading the Lisbon lecture and this book and his advice is ringing true for me, even though my worldview is much darker.

Many of us in the world of urban sketching or location sketching or plein air drawing will appreciate his third chapter on elements and entourage: how to ‘situate’ what we draw with things like cars, trees, sky and water. This contextual stuff moves us from Object Drawing or “portraits” of buildings stuck fast in the middle of the page. These elements of context will be old hat for architects and landscape designers and for anyone working, for example, digitally, in other creative industries, but Richards provides for non-architects friendly ways to adopt these vitally important elements. Initially, these may appear to be slick devices used by architects, but those of who don’t sketch this stuff for a living can work from these generic elements to the specifics we see on location. We can thus make our people more human and our motor vehicles more lifelike, our skies full of “actual” clouds, but we need Richards’ guidance as a starting point.

Chapter 4 discusses perspective,  not limited just to buildings but to landscapes in general. For any urban sketchers moving from the “object drawing” of buildings, this chapter allows us to fearlessly capture the streetscape and surrounding landscape.

These four chapters of fundamentals occupy half the book and then branch out into the more specific areas alluded to in the book’s subtitle. Richards’ mission is to link the worlds of urban sketching (drawing the past) and creating new worlds in the workaday world of architects, landscapers and digital artists (drawing the future or the imagined). As a non-architect urban sketcher who draws the world as I see it every day, I don’t inhabit the world of the future. I don’t cause buildings or gardens to be created, but architects, landscapers and designers do, so the importance of hand-drawing for them is under the spotlight. Not that drawing from imagination is not important for non-professionals; after all, it wasn’t so long ago that Sketch Clubs set a formal test for wannabee members involving a drawing, done in half an hour, of an imagined scene, fitting a particular theme as set by the Membership Committee.

Richards makes the case for hand-drawers learning more about digital tools as much as the case for digital artists discovering hand-drawing, so there is a lot of attention in the second half of the book on concept sketching and digital sketching.

Usually hard copy books on sketching focus on the efforts of the author-artist, but Richards very cleverly draws on his contemporaries, filling the book with a wide range of work by other artists. This large, 263-page book, with hundreds of illustrations, is further enhanced by access to online tutorial videos, bridging the gap between hard copy book and the digital world. Highly recommended!

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This 272-page paperback is almost identical in size and format to Gregory’s earlier 2008 book entitled “An Illustrated Life”. But is different on several counts. You’re not buying a re-write of the first book. First of all, the 40+ artists featured are different from the earlier book (a mere handful are the same) and secondly, it’s easier to read, with the artist’s own ‘natural’ voice coming through. Thirdly, rather than journaling in general, this is about travel journals, so it moves beyond what I call “Objective Drawing” or creating vignettes based around the people and objects that pass through our lives, but in documenting journey, what it means to document place or location, given the natural wanderlust or inner explorer that it is fundamental to many of us. Some like Giorgio Morandi stayed at home and never moved beyond his studio, another of my heroes, Euan Uglow, did the same. But that’s not the “natural” condition in which many of us live and create. Most artists, given the choice, would like to leave home.

I constantly dip into his previous book both to get inspiration and to reinforce validation. What shocked (and delighted) me originally about the book was that the text read, rather clunkily, like case studies in Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. Content-wise, the contributing artists all seemed to be enormously hung up on creating their own superstitions or routines around their journaling and sketching (I never do this…, I always do that…). Text-wise, it read obviously like answers to pre-set questions.  Just like the case studies in the book, I too was developing and had developed my own irrational phobias, setting “limits” for myself just like a parent quarantining or setting parameter’s for his or her child’s behavior. Endless potential and enthusiasm is one thing, but most of us need a (self-imposed) discipline to stay on The Path, especially since we are largely teaching ourselves how to ‘see’ and create.

What the two books have in common is they both display Danny Gregory’s own penchant for a querky, cartoonish, irreverent style, loose flowing penmanship with bright enthusiastic colour and dry wit, mainly in the manner in which Gregory himself sketches and journals. That said, he overcomes, in both books, his own narrow personal aesthetic by including a very wide range of artistic styles. It’s the broad sweep of personal styles which keeps me coming back for more. I particularly like the fact that Gregory replicates the global nature of the illustration/design/art work-worlds today beyond just a token one or two non-Western contributors. We need to continue this trend by looking for precedents in non-Western travel journaling such as Hiroshige, for example.

We all “like” artists who work in the same style as ourselves – that’s justifiable and understandable. But both books have thrown up for me new artists whose work I’ve either never seen before or who’ve only been shadowy figures in the background. A mark of success for both books is (a) whether you are on-message and drawing every day and (b) rushing to the Net to find out more about individual artists. The advertising exec in Gregory would like this: you need to have bought the product, not just seen the ad. The first message I’ve absolutely “got” (not just from Gregory’s books but in particular from Veronica Lawlor who features in the second book). In the case of (b), I absolutely love Peter Cusack’s biro work (though I could never myself personally draw commuters as he does) and Simonetta Capecchi (I’ve been on a panorama j’ag ever since reading how she operates). Butch Belair’s work in that book, too, keeps me nourished in the area of watercolor painting. That I don’t like more of the work in the first book is a reflection on my own personal taste; they work in a cartoon-illustration style that I’m simply personally ‘ not in to’. That’s okay, because the text is a constant font of knowledge as I make my own experiments with technique and media. In terms of this recent book, I identify most strongly with the work of Ian Sidaway (his focus on composition and lack of text), with artists like Nina Johansson and Will Freeborn providing me with inspiration watercolour-wise. But, as in the first book, it’s the text which shines through most vividly for me. I’m either surprised by what other artists do or I either nod sagely “Yes, I’ve discovered that to be true too!”.

Concepts of “travel” and “journey”

The primacy of overseas travel, international travel, travel ‘abroad’ is always going to be a given. We’ve fetishized tourism to such a degree these days that it’s hard to swim against that particular tide. And it goes beyond just eschewing international resorts where one can sit in splendid cultural isolation, being served food and drink by the natives but otherwise seeing, talking, relaxing with one’s own. Everyone acknowledges that sketching on holiday creates a different pace, like swapping a fast car for a pushbike as one travels through a landscape. Some of us are hearing messages now about “slow travel” and considering its implications for “slow sketching”. Liz Steel acknowledges (extremely well) the inner tussle between the inner tourist and the inner sketcher and the sheer exhaustion following both paths can create.

On  being there

Most artists are frankly middle-class, with well-paying jobs in the creative industries. Who we are as artists depends very much on how much we have travelled, especially overseas: it’s not just fundamental to our Curriculum Vitae, but to our networking. No matter how superficial our travel is (though as sketcher-journalers we can always take the high moral ground against photographers), it is ultimately all about oneupmanship at dinner parties. A strong argument can be made that this has always been the case. We will never go back to the Middle Ages and glorify anonymity, never signing our work. The illustrators and designers interviewed by Gregory for his books certainly reinforce this, as does the primacy of jet-setting inherent in the Urban Sketching movement. Most brownie points in that movement go to those rock stars who constantly travelling. And for very successful illustrationists and designers these days, that’s what’s involved in being part of the (global) workforce today. Have Moleskine and plane ticket, will prostitute.

But there are cracks in this argument, which Gregory has been clever enough to allow to show through. There are some married-with-kids or who work in academe who can for obvious reasons travel (in this narrow sense of international travel) less than others. I love the fact that Gregory has tapped into the vein of armchair travellers and those with limited means who swim against the tide by still “travelling” and still creating convincing travel journals, with all the inquisitiveness and creativity of someone “actually” there. Just as notions of “real” or “analogue” travel are breaking down, thanks to the Internet and Google Maps and photo galleries, so too are notions of travel documentation changing. To this extent, Andrea Joseph’s contribution is one of the book’s high points. As is Asnee Tasnaruangrong’s passing comment about sketching in retirement: “(it’s) what I do for a living, not financially, but for the joy of living.”

No matter how superficially a traveller-sketcher might document a place, there is an innate attraction in someone visiting our “place” and seeing it through their eyes. Parisian friends were appalled at my being delighted by electrical light poles there; I’m sure Bangkokians would find very strange my being completely entranced by street vendors, tuk-tuks and motorcycle taxis in a recent trip there, given they just don’t exist in my own environment back home. Gregory acknowledges that we not only yearn for things foreign and unseen, but that we are also intrigued by foreigners who come to look (and journal about) us.

On text and image

What’s public and what’s private has been plaguing artists and sketchbook journalers since J.M.W.Turner (if not Da Vinci and Michelangelo before him, for example) and Gregory canvasses that dynamic in the modern era. To include or not to include text is again present, as is foreign language: scripts unfamiliar to the viewer become a half-way house of design, not “text”. Film maker Peter Greenaway has a lot to say on the contemporary struggle between text and image these days and this struggle lies at the heart of travel journalling also. The pace at which individual artists can rapidly change is exemplified in the contribution of Tommy Kane. Compare this with the Tom Kane of the earlier book. Reflect on the Tommy Kane contribution and meditate (even just for a split-second) on how the digital environment is changing our notions of text and the consumerism/consumption of our work.

I love the fact too that while many eschew photography (I travelled to Bangkok recently for a half-sketching/half-tourism holiday replacing my camera with a sketchbook, and was all the better for it – though I purloined my travelling companion’s digital camera for the occasional reference photo), Gregory presents a case study of someone who only photographs, creating massive (A2 sheets) works back in the studio, and with the help of digital software. As with Gregory’s first book, there is for us, as readers, a wide range to pick and choose from. Not just in experimenting with different media, but in approach.

On being ‘in the zone’ and research

Comedian John Cleese’s lecture on creativity completely validated what I feel while sketching and what happens, internally and externally, to the sketcher-journaler is covered well in this book. Some prepare a lot before travelling, some operate on the spur of the moment. Some touch nothing on the page once it’s done on location, others spend months tinkering with their journals after they get home. For me, this is validation and valorisation of methods I’m already using or think I might want to use. This isn’t confusing for anyone new to travel journals because the over-riding message is to ‘just do it’ and let your own personal approach flow from that. I find I’m constantly telling my own students, “This is not a race against someone else. You’re the one moving forward, at your own pace, in your own way.” I think Gregory would agree.

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 Urban Sketchers Singapore, We love Toa Payoh.  Singapore: Epigram Books, 2012. 96 pages in colour. ISBN 9789810736231

I can’t speak about Singapore or this particular Singaporean neighbourhood with any authority, but I am very keen to consider how a group of of very keen and enthusiastic urban sketchers has managed to produce what appears to be the first of a series of small books devoted to different areas of their city, as hinted in the “neighbOURhoods” of the book’s subtitle on the front cover.

The book is in coffee-book format in miniature,  illustration-heavy interspersed with a text appearing every few pages. The illustrations stand alone, uncaptioned, sometimes with what appears to be only a tenuous link to the text. Similar to the Group’s previous, initial launch into hardcopy media, as opposed to its natural playground, online media, there is a list in the back of sketches and contributors, though with no details of original sketch sizes or the media and materials used to create them.

The sketches run across double-spreads; some are in black-and-white (pencil, fountain pen, brush pen), while some feature spot colour and most are full-colour (mainly watercolour, with examples of coloured pencil-and-water wash, limited palette on toned ground). The content covers streetscapes, buildings, people and food, street signs and object drawing.

The approach to text is interesting. Jerome Lim provides a three-paragraph foreword: the first paragraph on Singapore, the second on his personal connection to a prominent landmark building and a third mentioning the contribution of the group of sketchers. What follows are one-line quotes (fifteen in total), most often from locals recalling the neighbourhood’s past but also several from the sketchers themselves.

I counted some two dozen separate contributors to the sketchers, which represents a substantial degree of coordination and effort from the USk Group. While no one sketcher’s style dominates, there is the same general preference for pen combined with lively watercolour washes one notices in the Group’s earlier publication.

A remarkable visual snapshot capturing place in our own time, set against a subtle background of place recalled, snatches of memory from times past.

Urban Sketchers em Lisboa desenhando a cidade / Urban Sketchers in Lisbon drawing the city. Lisbon: Quimera, 2012. ISBN 978-972-589-212-1.

Why go to the trouble of publishing in hardcopy book format these days when we’ve all gone digital? It’s not inconsistent with the philosophy of the urban sketcher movement that urban sketchers should publish in this format. There are several reasons: to give urban sketching respectability in the art world by entering the academic marketplace; to imitate the sketchbook style which USK practitioners are used to and find attractive; to reflect the contemporary marketing sequence of idea-film-book-memorabilia which is at the heart of the multinational the entertainment industry, of which book publishing is a minor part and which keeps many urban sketchers in paid work.

Urban Sketchers Singapore is a vibrant and sensual book reflecting a city and its sketchers. This new book, Urban Sketchers em Lisboa is in similar sketchbook format and portrays ubrna sketching in the form of the conventional printed conference proceedings genre. It is restrained and authoritative compared to everything else. Indirectly, it’s a book about a city and San Payo’s short textual description of Lisbon is thought-provoking.

In Urban Setchers em Lisboa I’ve been exposed to wonderful new sketchers such as James Richards and Matthew Brehm. I found the essay on the urban sketcher movement by Ruth Rosengarten absolutely stupendous and the jewel of the entire book. Her analysis of the USK website entries, urban sketching blogs, drawing-as-testimony and of deep topography was excellent. She touched on reportage and the feel-good optimism of sociability among and portrayed by urban sketchers. Reportage on the grand scale of 9/11 and L’Aquila will only penetrate the consciousness of urban sketchers; normally we meet and sketch in order to escape the harsher aspects of urban life.  Similarly, (urban) sketching weblogs are devoid of pain, suffering and discontent, markers which we in today’s society shun in general, in an unspoken way, because we believe it will tip us all into the abyss of depression and nihilism. Life these days is, after all, aimed at the 13-year old American: innocent but vaguely sexualised, half-child half-adult  but otherwise vibrant, jolly and eternally optimistic. Art must affirm life; urban sketchers will continue to inhabit coffee-houses and shun the grotesque associated with everyday urban squalor and injustice. When there are no other human subjects to draw (Gonçalves and Salavisa cover the gaze in public of the sketcher, confrontational in the case of the former and remembered/memorised in the case of the latter). Urban sketchers have yet to write about the decline of sketching in public compared to times past as a result of universal concerns about personal privacy.

The book has the air of being put together very quickly, presumably based on the erroneous premise that anyone would forget the symposium or forget Lisbon in a hurry. The lectures read well in English I daresay because they were written and delivered in English; the workshop explanations appear to have been translated the other way and there are some rough patches. The translators would have worked from summaries by the workshop leaders: formal Portuguese takes on a rhetorical and lyrical qualities which can be hard to translate. The texts explaining the workshops are thus vague; I had to flick back and forth between the English and Portuguese versions to make sense of them (o declive pronunciado/the high slope, and so on). The techniques put into practice at the symposia are clearly designed to help urban sketchers decontruct their practice and re-assemble it later back home. USK symposia are plainly not for the faint-hearted, they seem to shake the foundations of individuals to the core.

Urban Sketchers em Lisboa is on high-quality glossy artpaper whereas Urban Sketchers Singapore imitates more closely the cartridge paper of sketchbooks. Urban Sketchers Singapore is written much more with the sketcher in mind and includes details such as dimensions and media, information which is unsuited to conference proceedings. If anyone wants to examine more closely the working methods of a particular artist, there is very often plenty of information (including pictures of them working on location) on the Internet: Anna Cattermole and Daniel Greene are ones I’ll be following up.

Urban Sketchers em Lisboa deserves to be in the hands of every sketcher and not just on the shelves of fine arts college libraries. Highly recommended!

 

Urban Sketchers as a phenomenon is moving from a website to book publishing, or at least individuals and groups are moving to book publishing. The most recent addition to the mix is one by Urban Sketchers Singapore. I look forward to a general book on Urban Sketching coming out in February and a forthcoming work summing up Lisbon in the wake of the Urban Sketchers Conference there. That work will complement a small number of Vimeo video clips documenting conference participants.

The Singapore book is roughly an inch thick and in roughly A5 landscape format, a very sturdy casebound book with 250 pages are crammed with urban sketches. The matt paper reproduces the feel of an actual sketchbook. It is called “Volume 1” so there are hints of more to come. Singaporean sketchers are big on very busy pen sketches with vibrant, vital use of watercolour. There is some contrasting black-and-white penwork; I particularly like the work of one William Sim who somehow manages to create quieter, more sombre work. I’ve never been to Singapore but I have been to Indonesia and I find it intriguing how these sketchers can take in so much of the detail of the plainly hectic lifestyle typical of their city. The heat and humidity is palpable in the sketches; a similar frenetic pace is palpable in Japanese urban sketching, again where the pace of life is extremely quick.

Of particular interest to me personally is the sketchers’ dedication to architectural reportage. On further re-reading, I know I’ll come to learn more about the people and social life in Singapore. Like my own city, Singapore is obviously changing at a very rapid rate architecturally – that’s a mark of economies which are financially successful. The sketchers are getting in there are sketching things they know will disappear in a short while. They are recording aspects of traditional life and place, as well as capturing the surprise of the new.

Because urban sketchers rely on the Internet for communication, there’s a strong personal presence on the part of the individual sketchers, with biographical notes and portraits. I appreciate the dimensions of works begin given. I look forward to imitating the “big brush” approach to watercolour washes.

From their exuberance, it’s plain that Singapore must be in the sights of organisers of future Urban Sketchers Conferences. There’s a lot of sketchers available to chaperone sketching globetrotters around their city. This book will be valuable preparation for such an event.