En Plein Air

Fea­turefea­ture || Asianasian artist­sartists In­trepid artists who put aside their so­cial me­dia apps... to draw

Asian Geographic - - Front Page - Text

Plein-air draw­ing is an in­spir­ing sight: a group of peo­ple perched on low stools or sit­ting cross-legged on the ground, pen or brush in hand, care­fully sketch­ing the de­tails of a scene in front of them into an open sketch­book. Oc­ca­sion­ally, one leans over to a fel­low artist to dis­cuss a de­tail in the draw­ing, to bor­row an art ma­te­rial or sim­ply to chat. Oth­ers ap­pear ab­sorbed in thought, as if con­tem­plat­ing the best way of com­pos­ing their draw­ing or cap­tur­ing a de­tail.

In the cur­rent age of In­sta­gram up­loads, im­me­di­ate mo­bile phone pho­tos and quick grat­i­fi­ca­tion, the art of live draw­ing – one that of­ten re­quires the per­son to en­dure the el­e­ments – seems to be­long more rea­son­ably to a time of the past. In­deed, plein-air (“open air”) draw­ing goes back for cen­turies, and it was turned into an art form by the French Im­pres­sion­ists in the 19th cen­tury.

Yet to­day, plein-air draw­ing is pop­u­lar and thriv­ing through­out ur­ban so­ci­eties in the world, fu­elled by the pas­sion of mem­bers of in­for­mal art in­ter­est groups as well as of in­di­vid­ual artists.

Show­ing Asia One well-known on-lo­ca­tion phe­nom­e­non is the Ur­ban Sketch­ers (USK). The global non­profit or­gan­i­sa­tion, which cel­e­brated their 10th an­niver­sary in Novem­ber 2017, was be­gun in Seat­tle, USA, by Gabriel Cam­pa­nario, a staff artist at Th­e­seat­tle­times. Their motto is “show the world, one draw­ing at a time”, and their man­i­festo is “draw places that can be put on a map, and ev­ery­thing that hap­pens in those places”. Nearly 200 other groups, or “chap­ters”, have since started through­out the world, with each chap­ter run au­tonomously by en­thu­si­as­tic lo­cal vol­un­teers.

In Asia, nearly 60 USK com­mu­ni­ties have been formed, with Sin­ga­pore, Pe­nang and Kuch­ing (Malaysia), Hong Kong (China) and Thai­land hav­ing some of the most ac­tive ur­ban sketch­ing groups in the re­gion.

The com­mit­tee cur­rently re­spon­si­ble for man­ag­ing the reg­is­tra­tion of new Asian chap­ters in­cludes the co-founder of USK Hong Kong Alvin Wong. An ar­chi­tect in his 40s, Wong says, “The main dif­fer­ence be­tween our­selves and other art in­ter­est groups is our ‘on-lo­ca­tion’ rule: the sketch must be com­pleted on-site. We can tell whether a

draw­ing was done on-lo­ca­tion or drawn from a photo or mem­ory back at the stu­dio – even if the artist does not pro­vide the in­for­ma­tion. It’s got to do with our un­der­stand­ing of what the hu­man eye is able to see, in con­trast to what a cam­era lens can cap­ture.”

“Other than this main rule, we are very wel­com­ing of in­di­vid­ual styles and skill lev­els, and we en­cour­age the shar­ing of art­work on­line,” Wong con­cludes. “Any­one with a pen can join us – young or old, pro­fes­sion­als or home­mak­ers, ab­so­lute be­gin­ners or vet­eran artists – and all medi­ums are ac­cepted, even draw­ings done on dig­i­tal tablets!”

Why Plein Air? Go­ing on a “sketch­walk” is a reg­u­lar fea­ture of ur­ban sketch­ing. The artists meet at a pre­planned lo­ca­tion, or fol­low an itin­er­ary, to sketch build­ings, streets and peo­ple.

Sanjeev Joshi, 60, an ar­chi­tect and founder of USK Pune in In­dia, quips cheer­fully, “On­lo­ca­tion sketch­ing con­nects me to the peo­ple around me, and be­ing an ar­chi­tect also helps me ob­serve the de­tails bet­ter. I ac­tu­ally sketch more than I take pho­tos!”

“Pleinair is record­ing the ex­pe­ri­ence at that mo­ment in time: it al­lows me to im­merse in my sur­round­ings,” says James Lim, a 32-year-old Malaysian cre­ative de­signer. “If I am trav­el­ling – to Bangkok, for ex­am­ple – I also en­joy talk­ing to the lo­cals and un­der­stand­ing more about the his­tory and cul­ture of the place.”

Sin­ga­pore IT di­rec­tor Tay Thain Lin, 48, adds, “I like to cap­ture the spon­tane­ity of the mo­ment. I use the hot and hu­mid weather in Asia as a per­sonal chal­lenge: I’m com­pelled to com­plete a piece of draw­ing quickly, so I pro­duce line works that are very fluid and loose. Some­times I sketch in ink with a foun­tain pen on lo­ca­tion, then com­plete the paint­ing in­doors, like I did in Ho Chi Minh City. Each ink sketch on a typ­i­cal 35 x 25 cm wa­ter­colour pa­per takes 30 to 45 min­utes and an ad­di­tional 30 min­utes to paint.”

Artists of­ten use a va­ri­ety of medi­ums and tools for pro­duc­ing their art pieces. Many use a bound sketch­book and a pen­cil or pen, com­ple­mented by wa­ter­colour or acrylic for the colours. Kumi Mat­sukawa, founder of USK Ja­pan, usu­ally has with her an A5 wa­ter­colour sketch­book, wa­ter brushes and a small pal­let with eight to ten pig­ments. “My favourite medium is wa­ter­colour,” she says, “be­cause you can draw lines, paint mass vol­ume and ex­press light and shadow quickly, com­pared to the more time-con­sum­ing hatch­ing method pro­duced by pens or pen­cils.”

Other artists, like Zhu Hong, an acrylic artist from Dalian, China, also en­joys draw­ing on his Sam­sung Note 10.1 (S Pen). “The mo­bile

dur­ing which res­i­dents en­gaged in a peace­ful demon­stra­tion to de­mand freer elec­tions, us­ing um­brel­las and yel­low rib­bons to sym­bol­ise pas­sive re­sis­tance against the po­lice. Some ac­tivist groups in­stalled pub­lic art and or­gan­ised a Face­book com­pe­ti­tion to de­sign the move­ment’s logo. The re­sult of sev­eral months of the ur­ban sketch­ers’ en­deav­ours re­sulted in a col­lec­tion of re­portage draw­ings in Sketch­esun­derthe Um­brella, with texts in English and Chi­nese, pub­lished by Sun Ef­fort in Hong Kong.

Draw­ing At­ten­tion Per­haps the most prom­i­nent as­pect of the Ur­ban Sketch­ers or­gan­i­sa­tion is its large-scale art con­fer­ences. These events in­volve a host city or­gan­is­ing sketch­walks, work­shops and shar­ing ses­sions for the ben­e­fit of art-lov­ing friends from other parts of the world.

In July 2015, artists met in Sin­ga­pore for the or­gan­i­sa­tion’s sixth an­nual Ur­ban Sketch­ers Sym­po­sium, which co­in­cided with the coun­try’s cel­e­bra­tions for their 50th Na­tional Day. Founded in 2009 by 62-year-old art and de­sign ed­u­ca­tor Tia Boon Sim, the chap­ter in this citys­tate or­gan­ises a sketch­walk on the fi­nal Sat­ur­day of every month, and these ac­tiv­i­ties some­times at­tract up to 100 par­tic­i­pants.

Pa­trick Ng, 47, re­calls, “As Sin­ga­pore’s USK ad­min­is­tra­tor and chief or­gan­iser of the 2015 sym­po­sium, I found it most re­ward­ing to meet the 408 par­tic­i­pants from around the world – a mile­stone fig­ure at the time – who took to the streets, sketch­ing, learn­ing from the work­shops, and sim­ply hav­ing a great time cap­tur­ing Sin­ga­pore through their pens and brushes. Our over­seas friends still talk about it to­day!”

In 2017, cities around the world marked the Ur­ban Sketch­ers’ 10th an­niver­sary with a se­ries of 10 art work­shops called “10 x 10”. Based in Sin­ga­pore, Filipino in­te­rior de­signer Achilles “Uhky Uhky” Estremos, 50, ex­plains why he teaches at work­shops like these: “I want to share my art jour­ney with other artists, us­ing wa­ter­colour as a medium.” A mem­ber of both USK Sin­ga­pore and Philip­pines, Uhky ha­bit­u­ally ends each day with a sketch or two, as part of what he calls “keep­ing the urge” to draw.

In Oc­to­ber of the same year, USK Kuch­ing (Malaysia) hosted the sec­ond an­nual Asi­aLink Sketch­walk over four days, at­tended by 300 sketch­ers. The main part of the event in­volved on-lo­ca­tion sketch­ing at Kuch­ing’s her­itage precinct, and there were also draw­ing work­shops and art­work shar­ing ses­sions.

Says the founder of USK Kuch­ing Peggy Wong, 40, “We’ve been sketch­ing to­gether since 2010. The group started with the in­ten­tion of record­ing van­ish­ing his­tor­i­cal build­ings of Kuch­ing, and later went on to record other as­pects of life and times here. To­day, they are a di­verse group of peo­ple, from re­tired sci­en­tists and housewives to young pro­fes­sion­als and col­lege stu­dents, who come to­gether every first Sun­day of the month to sketch. Be­ing part of this com­mu­nity has been re­ally re­ward­ing!” ag

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