2012-07-12 / Arts & Entertainment News

Drawn to The Art of Urban Sketching

Book and blog depict a world of city sights
BY NANCY STETSON

THERE’S JUST SOMETHING INTIMATE ABOUT sketching.

In this age of digitalized art and PhotoShop, a sketch can be as personal and individual as a handwritten note.

It’s art in its most basic form: All you need is paper and pen.

“Every person has a unique style,” says artist Gabriel Campanario. “That’s what makes drawing so fun to look at, because no two drawings are alike… Every sketcher brings a different viewpoint and different perspective.

“You can have three or four people drawing the same building, and no one draws it the same way. It will all look different.”

When Mr. Campanario moved to Seattle in 2006 to become a staff artist for The Seattle Times, he searched for a way to connect with his new city. He’d always sketched when he was a teenager growing up in Spain.

“But when I moved to Seattle, I hadn’t been doing it very often,” he says. “I wanted to improve my drawing skills. I was in a new city, a beautiful city. So I bought a little pocket sketchbook and took it everywhere I went.”


While his wife recovered from jet lag in the hotel, Dutch visitor René Fijten didn’t waste any time in the Big Apple. He drew the Empire State Building standing up and leaning against a lamppost on a traffic island with cars zooming by. Tools and time: Edding 0.3mm technical pen and watercolor on Moleskine large watercolor sketchbook: 40 minutes 
SKETCH BY RENÉ FIJTEN While his wife recovered from jet lag in the hotel, Dutch visitor René Fijten didn’t waste any time in the Big Apple. He drew the Empire State Building standing up and leaning against a lamppost on a traffic island with cars zooming by. Tools and time: Edding 0.3mm technical pen and watercolor on Moleskine large watercolor sketchbook: 40 minutes SKETCH BY RENÉ FIJTEN At the same time, he noticed that many people on the Web had blogs in which they shared pages from their visual journals, showing drawings they’d done of their own cities.

“I thought, ‘Wow, I’m not alone. I’m not the only person out there on the street, trying to draw,’” he says.

So in 2007, he started a group on Flickr.


When drawing Trafalgar Square, Londoner James Hobbs says is easy to get the scale wrong and thus crop off something vital, in this case running the risk of leaving Nelson’s Column without Nelson. “A degree of creative editing has gone on to ensure the main subjects fit on to the page,” he said. Tools and time: Edding 400 and 404 permanent marker pens on sketchbook; 35 minutes. 
SKETCH BY JAMES HOBBS When drawing Trafalgar Square, Londoner James Hobbs says is easy to get the scale wrong and thus crop off something vital, in this case running the risk of leaving Nelson’s Column without Nelson. “A degree of creative editing has gone on to ensure the main subjects fit on to the page,” he said. Tools and time: Edding 400 and 404 permanent marker pens on sketchbook; 35 minutes. SKETCH BY JAMES HOBBS He called it Urban Sketchers and invited anyone who likes to draw on location to contribute. A year later, it had 300 members.

Then he e-mailed approximately 30 of his favorite sketch artists and suggested they do a group blog.

“I was interested in not only seeing the sketch, but reading about the experience of the drawing… the story behind it,” he explains.

The site, urbansketchers.org, features the artwork of 100 artists from more than two dozen countries. The phenomenon has spread around the world, and architecture professors and designers are now teaching classes in urban sketching.

“Little by little, it has become a new definition of the practice,” Mr. Campanario says, acknowledging that the idea of field sketching and drawing on location has always been around. “We’ve been drawing things ever since we were in the cave,” he says.

But he was the one who christened it Urban Sketching and drew people together from around the world.

“I didn’t expect all this to happen. It’s unbelievable. The power of the Web is really engaging,” he says.

He started a nonprofit group, Urban Sketchers, and in July 2010 held the International Urban Sketching Symposium in Portland, Ore. The following year, it was held in Lisbon.

This year, the symposium takes place July 12-14 in the Dominican Republic in Santo Domingo. One hundred people from countries such as Argentina, Brazil and France will attend. Their sketches will be posted online at sdq2012.urbansketchers.org.

Book has broad appeal

Mr. Campanario’s book, “The Art of Urban Sketching: Drawing on location around the world” (Quarry Books, $26.99), came out in February of this year and sold out within three weeks. Now it’s in its fourth printing.

Why is it so popular?

“There’s no other book out there like it,” he says, adding, “Many books about drawing and sketching are very much instructional books that teach you the steps you have to follow to be able to draw. This is a book that tells readers why it is worth drawing, not how. And the reason why you should draw: You get so much out of it. You get to know your city in a way you never would’ve before. You’re looking at your surroundings, and you’re seeing things that you would normally take for granted. You learn to appreciate and see them in a different way.”

The 320-page book contains more than 500 urban sketches from around the world. (Florida is represented by Thomas Thorspecken, who draws scenes in Orlando.)

The book demonstrates the wide variety of styles, material and processes. Some use simple pen and ink. Others use watercolor, while some favor pencils, markers or pastels. Lapin, a Parisian urban sketcher, likes to use old accounting ledgers he finds in flea markets, because he likes the quality and thickness of the pages.

“Some put the color first, some put the line first,” Mr. Campanario says. “There’s no one way to do this. Everybody can do this. Obviously, the educational background comes across. Maybe they are landscape architects and have a more precise style. Other people are more free; painters may have a freer style. I wanted to have in the book a good showcase of different styles and diversity from all over the world. It shows that anything is possible, as long as are trying to capture life in your city.”

People don’t have to be professional artists. One participant, a doctor, told Mr. Campanario she finds urban sketching to be very liberating. In her profession, she explained, she cannot make mistakes; but if she doesn’t like a sketch, she can just do another one.

The book has a broad appeal, extending to those who don’t even plan on picking up a sketchbook. Some, he says, just want to travel vicariously through the sketchers.

Most of the images aren’t of landmarks, but of everyday life: people on the street, in a bus, in a café, construction sites, neighborhoods, harbors, waterfronts, parks.

The most mundane places catch your eye when you see them represented by someone, Mr. Campanario says. For example, on the back cover of the book is a sketch of a Norfolk, Va., parking lot with a chain-link fence and a sign that says: “Have a nice day.”

Jana Bouc in San Francisco likes to sketch the wide variety of streetlamps she sees, while Pete Scully, in Davis, Calif., has a penchant for drawing fire hydrants.

“In France, one woman went to draw in her cemetery,” Mr. Campanario says. “Any place, really, has potential when you are urban sketching. People like to go to industrial sites. All the machinery and construction has very intricate shapes that are fun to draw.

“You do have a new appreciation for your environment when you’re a sketcher. That’s what a lot of people tell me: ‘I used to hate my city, but now I’ve started drawing it, I’m starting to see the good side of it.’”

Showing the world

In 2009, Mr. Campanario started a weekly feature in The Seattle Times. Every Saturday, “Seattle Sketcher” appears on the cover of the local section, with drawings he’s sketched around the city.

“People in Seattle love it,” he says. “They send me ideas, things I would have never found on my own. My drawings are different and show a side of the city they’re not used to seeing through art.”

His column was awarded first place for blog writing in The Best of the West journalism contest and has also been recognized by the Society of Professional Journalists and the Society for Features Journalism.

“Sketching is something anybody can understand,” he says. “Sketching is a universal language, just like art.

“With our drawings, we can see the world in a different way. Our mission is to show the world, one drawing at a time.” ¦

The Urban Sketchers Manifesto

The Urban Sketchers Manifesto can be found in “The Art of Urban Sketching.” It’s also at www.urbansketchers.org, in English, Basque, Chinese, Danish, French, German, Hebrew, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish and Portuguese.

1. We draw on location, indoors or outdoors, capturing what we see from direct observation.

2. Our drawings tell the story of our surroundings, the places we live, and where we travel.

3. Our drawings are a record of a time and place.

4. We are truthful to the scenes we witness.

5. We use any kind of media and cherish our individual styles.

6. We support each other and draw together.

7. We share our drawings online.

8. We show the world, one drawing at a time.

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