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