These urban storytellers prove that a sketch is worth a thousand words and more.
WHEN KC Lee sees an impressive building, a vibrant street or a historical landmark, he doesn’t whisk out his mobile phone to snap a photo. Instead, he takes out his sketch pad and fountain pen, finds a good vantage point to perch on and starts to sketch.
Sketching, says Lee, is a fantastic way of recording a moment and documenting places and experiences. A sketch is emotive and adds personal perspective to a picture.
In fact, if you ask Lee, sketches are far superior to photographs.
“When you sketch, you actually spend quite a lot of time looking at your subject, whether it is a building or a scene you want to capture. Your impressions of the place go into your sketch. It means something special to you.
“I sometimes spend an hour sketching a building or scene. In that hour, I notice tiny details about the building and the environment around it; they go into my sketch and stay etched in my mind. I also add notes on my sketch because sketching is my way of journaling.
“It’s much easier to take a photograph, of course. In seconds, you can have a beautiful photo on your phone and share it on social media. We have thousands of images in our storage but these images slowly fade from our memory. We can’t add our thoughts and impressions in a photo but we can, in sketches,” says Lee, 57.
His love for sketching has prompted Lee to set up the Kuala Lumpur Urban Sketchers (KLUSK), the Malaysian chapter of a global community of people who love to sketch the cities where they live and visit.
“I was sitting at a cafe sketching a scene in front of me when a couple of fellow retirees came over to observe me and ask me what I was doing. I explained about my hobby of sketching scenes from my city and they asked if they could join me.
“That gave me the idea of starting a group for retirees like me who have a lot of time to sketch and meet new people,” explains Lee.
What started as a small informal group of retirees soon grew to include youths and working adults.
At the same time, Lee learnt of the Urban Sketchers, a non-profit movement which started in Seattle in the United States in 2006. Since its inception the movement has grown not just in the United States but all over the world with over 200 chapters in six continents (see sidebar).
Lee decided to apply to open a KL chapter (there has to be a substantial group that meets regularly to form a chapter) of the movement and in November 2015, KLUSK was born. In Malayisa, there are chapters in Penang, Batu Pahat, Ipoh, Kuching, Sarawak and Sabah.
The KL sketchers meet on Sundays at various locations in and around the city to practise their sketching .
These “sketch crawls” often end with an informal workshop session, often over kopi and teh tarik, where members discuss their work and the day’s outing.
In just two years, the KL Urban Sketchers’ Facebook page has garnered about 2,500 members.
Membership is free but the group follows an international manifesto which members have to adhere to. The manifesto is basically a code of conduct to maintain the integrity of their work – urban sketchers have to draw on location whether it is indoors or outdoors. They cannot sketch from a photograph and post it up as a location sketch. All sketches have to tell a story of the place in focus.
Sketchers can use any media they wish (watercolour, pencil, pen or drawing apps) but all sketches have to record the time and place.
The weekly sessions attract an average of 30 people although sometimes the group work with students in universities or colleges and go on larger excursions; these groups can swell to about 250.
Last Sunday, the sketchers focused on the Masjid India area in Kuala Lumpur.
They have also sketched iconic and historical sites such as the old railway station, Tugu Negara, Masjid Jamek, Carcosa Sri Negara, Pudu, Wilayah Complex, Kepong and even the wet market in Taman Tun Dr Ismail.
They also occasionally organise sketch “retreats” where they take their sketch pads and pens or brushes out of KL. The most recent retreat was to Kluang in Johor but there have also been trips to Sungai Lembing and Bentong in Pahang.
“Sketching is a good pastime and not just for retirees like me who have time on our hands. I believe sketching is s way for the younger generation to break away from their gadgets ... take a break from video games and explore the city and their country,” says Lee.
Announcements and details of their sketch trips are posted on the group’s Facebook page (www.face book.com/groups/KLUSK/) and anyone wishing to join the group can just subscribe to the page and contact the group admins.
“We are run by volunteers who recce places the group can go to sketch. We have to make sure that they places we go can accommodate our sometimes large group,” explains Lee.
The group is open to anyone, even those who have never sketched before.
“Our oldest sketcher is 75 years old and our youngest is eight. We are a mixed group that have become like family. You don’t have to be an artist to join us. Nobody’s an expert.
“We are all improving on our skills and I believe that practice makes perfect. Experienced or not, we learn from each other and get better the more we sketch. This is a hobby and the objective of this group is to give people the opportunity to sketch with like-minded people. We support and encourage each other, which is what makes it so enjoyable,” says Lee.
Because they are a part of an international movement, there are often visiting sketchers from abroad who join the KL Sketchers in their outings.
“All over the world, urban sketchers are connected online via Facebook forums and other online platforms which allow members to share their work with others.
“It is a global network and often when the sketchers travel, they will connect with the local urban sketchers there to join them on a sketch. It’s really very nice to be part of such a big community,” says Lee.
A personal journey
A graduate in Fine Arts from the Malaysian Institute of Art, Lee says that his love for sketching was rekindled after he retired a few years ago. Even though he had a
degree in Art, Lee worked in advertising and interior design and barely had any time to devote to his passion for art.
“It was only after I stopped working that I picked up my sketch pad again after more than 30 years! I’d go out and sketch people and places to brush up on my skills and I found my passion again,” he says.
Although he started out alone, his three children eventually grew curious about his outings and decided to follow him. His eldest daughter Sheanne has since become an active member of the KL Urban Sketchers.
“We joined him because we were curious about his sketching and also because we thought it would be a good way to spend time together as a family.
“I studied business and I don’t have a background in Art like my father but I found myself enjoying the outings. And, my drawings have improved too,” says Sheanne, 30.
Lee enjoys sketching buildings and historical sites the most.
“Each building has its story to tell. Ia min a hurry to sketch them all to preserve them in sketches before they get demolished,’ he laughs.
Apart from improving their sketching skills, the outings are also a good way for people to get to know their cities.
“We’re always cooped up indoors at home or in malls. But what we’ve noticed is that on our weekly gatherings, we do not only get to enhance our creativity but also become more observant about our surroundings.
“We notice things about our city which we have never seen before. Since Malaysia is almost always sunny, we really should leave the house and go outdoors,” he says.
Lee believes that sketching captures more of a scene or building than a photograph.
The KL Urban Sketchers meet weekly to sketch various locations in and around KL.
On a sketching outing to Bentong, Lee recorded his impressions.
Lee’s impression of Jalan Pasar Besar in KL