Lining the Soul of a Place

The art of urban sketching.

16 Apr 2012
Lining the Soul of a Place

It is a tranquil Saturday morning in the city as I make my way down to Bras Basah to join my maiden sketch walk. The giant webbed canopy of the National Library towers over the historic civic district, and a cold April rain blankets the neighbourhood with a glistening pewter coat. Seated in the outdoor café at the National Library building is a group of six, engaged in an impassioned discussion about drawing instruments – fountain pens, watercolours, graphite, charcoal.

My host for today is art and design educator Tia Boon Sim, who leads Urban Sketchers Singapore. The Urban Sketchers group is an international nonprofit that brings together people who draw on-location. For the past two years, the Singapore arm has been organising Saturday morning sketch walks, a once-a-month chance to put aside work and other distractions to observe, enjoy and sketch space. Every last Saturday of the month, the group meets at a designated place in Singapore, simply to sketch. It’s not just the touristy or quaint locations the sketchers enjoy, it’s also the ordinary places that matter; some of their past locations have included Little India, Buangkok, Queenstown and even industrial Eunos.

At the café at the National Library, I wait expectantly for the group briefing to commence. But when our group of about 20 – both regular sketchers as well as newbies – set off to stroll about Bras Basah, I realise that the sketch walks are actually pretty free-for-all. Tia explains along the way that the initial walks were more systematic, but as the group grew more comfortable with each other, they became less structured and wandering became the norm.

Translating inspiration

What happens, exactly, during a sketch walk? Armed with a multitude of art instruments, the sketcher saunters the urban streetscape of Singapore till he (or she) sees a point of interest and stops to observe. Slowly, perhaps some five or fifteen minutes later, he flips to a fresh page and begins rendering. I watch as Paul Wang interprets the café where we were just seated on his 120-gsm paper, administering dusty watercolours to represent the tropical chill of the morning. It feels like a meditative moment as he transposes reality into drawing, and for those minutes I am an intruder into the artist’s privacy.

That privacy between a sketcher and his work is singular. Beyond the act of pencilling, sketching is much like the act of translating between two languages. In drawing out a universal core meaning, it becomes necessary to simplify and semantic nuance may be lost or rendered obsolete. Perhaps this is what Tia meant when she said that sketching is humanistic; it reflects the uniquely human involvement in coordinating our perceptive apparatus and limbs in order to translate the mood, ambience and reality of a moment into a piece of drawing.

For Wang, sketching is part inspiration, part adventure. Especially for those in the group who work in creative fields, inspiration gleaned from the process of sketching can inspire other endeavours, and going on sketch walks is sometimes the best way to rediscover a forgotten part of Singapore. The act of sketching requires keen observation, and also brings with it the opportunity to re-examine the nondescript. The sketchers have been delighted when they bring back a piece of relatively obscure Singapore, like a Chinese wayang (opera) performance at Race Course Road, and get the response from family or friends, “Eh, I didn’t know that still exists in Singapore!”

Yet it is not always, and only, about the novelty of place. One of seven points in the Urban Sketchers group manifesto states: “Our drawings are a record of time and place.” Sketching is thus, in Tia’s words, an ‘action art’, conceptualised on-site and often a re-imagining of an actual moment without prior planning. This immersion and sense of being is transformed into artistic energy that is almost palpable in some of the final products, where gestural expression and the artistic play of lines and colours are so personal, it’s alluring.

Arguably, a sketch is not only a representation of a place. It is also a representation of the artist in that precise moment, who is translating something immediate and momentary into something tangible and permanent. Two sketches of the same place will never be the same, since each is an extension of their respective sketchers, who sense and process the world differently. This morning, Tia applies predominantly Prussian blue to her work, but were it a typically hot sunny day, she might have used tangerine instead to brighten the mood.

Indeed, sketching often comes as a way of seeing of these artists; as Tia earnestly exclaims, “Lines are our soul.” The addictive nature of sketching isn’t just emotional or superficially therapeutic; much of it boils down to the cognitive and mental exertions that go on while one is sketching. As with most art, the medium of sketching allows sketcher and viewer to challenge the notion of universal perception, as personal responses rise foremost to create new interpretations of the same old subject.

The sketches seem to also challenge a sense of realism in the perception of space. It is easy to see how the artwork can be conceived as more than just a representation of reality –  the sensory quality of a sketch is best experienced when holding a completed sketch with your bare hands. When Tia graciously offered me her sketches of Marina Boulevard to touch, I could retrace the turn of her lines, feeling the pen-tip emboss the cold-pressed watercolour paper, and the washes of watercolour glaze the Singapore skyline. I realised then that the wholeness of place that transpires through the sketch is quite ineffably tangible, with abundant personal meaning packed into a single sheet. “We always put our sketch next to the building to prove that the sketch was done on location, and when we do this, people always come up to tell us that our sketches look better than the original street.” Tia believes that this beauty stems from the artist’s personal response to the sights and sounds of the place.

Capturing an essence

In the Western art tradition, sketching is thought to be part of the artistic process, an unfinished product that goes into planning the details for the final artwork. Wang muses, “There’s a fine line between a drawing and a sketch. A sketch is not meant to be finished. It is mindless sometimes, it’s a doodle. There is no expectation to ‘perform’.” With the Urban Sketchers, however, the sketch itself is the end product that emphasises expression simplified. Tia and Wang explain that the group is driven by the belief that this activity should transcend traditional methods of taxonomising art. In subverting the assumption that sketches are not finished works, urban sketching becomes a liberatory mode of expression.

For educators like Tia and Wang, the limits of the purist, Western attitude to sketching are readily apparent. “As educators, we want people to come out and do more. Education is about drawing out the best in a person and when you say that say that art must fall into certain pigeonholes, you restrict freedom,” Tia says. In their experience, the convention of the visual arts in Singapore privileges ‘finished products’ rather than process or journey.  Sketching thus becomes potentially controversial, if thought of as a completed work unto itself. Yet, come face to face with the works of the Urban Sketchers, and the concept of completeness becomes obviously secondary. For these sketchers, the fluidity of an end point allows them to reach a comfortable equilibrium between conventional expectation and personal expression.

It is the artistic license to express themselves beyond traditional boundaries of art that makes sketching attractive to the group. Although the artists repeatedly confess that sketching allows them to immerse themselves in a moment and place to observe the details of their subject, the sketch is almost always a simplified version of it. The tension between this apparent lack of detail in the piece of art and the sketcher’s mind, focused on observing details during the process of sketching, is what, to some, makes sketching an appealing pastime.

The monthly sketch walks now draw an average of 30 participants per session, some from professions that deal with drawing on a fundamental level (architects, engineers, designers and illustrators), others with professions tangentially so. Wandering the ever-changing streetscape of Singapore,these sketchers are essentially involved in personal, urban memory-making. Their sketches represent a playful yet serious act of contention: a collective, national response to document space that may one day – perhaps, all too soon – cease to exist.

It might be the therapeutic nature of something like drawing that is an enticing respite to those who live in a fast-paced society. When so many moments of our daily lives are snatched aside from us, perhaps what is so captivating about sketching is allowing oneself to be lost in contemplation and creation. At the last stop of the sketch walk, I fall into a thrall of my own, watching the veteran sketcher Tia knock each piece of window plane on the Swissôtel The Stamford tower with seasoned dexterity on her sketchpad, the sharp precision of her turn-tip fountain pen creating deliberated chaos.

Words Huishan Aprilene Goh

Images / Illustrations (from top to bottom) Don Low, Drewscape, Teoh Yi Chie & James Tan

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