Urban Sketching and Visual diaries

Leonora Venter – Urban Sketchers Johannesburg

Sketching from life on location is nothing new – artists all over the world have been doing this for centuries. It was used to record travelling adventures, historical events, military operations, and scientific discoveries. The invention of photography freed artists to create whatever they wanted, as the camera largely took over the task of recording things accurately and objectively; artists could thus work from photos instead of necessarily on location.

Sketching is still used by artists to explore ideas, shapes and forms, to plan out compositions and as a form of art in itself. In recent years, sketching has become a very popular pastime for many artists as well as for those who wish to reconnect with their inner artist!

Seattle-based journalist and illustrator Gabriel Campanario founded the Global Urban Sketchers organization (USk) in 2007, when he created an online forum for all sketchers who enjoyed drawing their surrounding neighbourhoods, the cities where they live and work – and the places that they travel to. It’s an international community of artists who practice on-location drawing in order to “Show the World, One Drawing at a Time.” There are now hundreds of official USk chapters all over the world.

In South Africa, we have three official USk chapters; USk Cape Town, USk Johannesburg and USk Stellenbosch. There are also a few ‘unofficial’ sketching groups in Pretoria and the Durban Sketchers in Durban – and hopefully there are many others all over the country, yet to be discovered!

USk Johannesburg started in 2010 when John Philip found Cathy Gatland’s blog “A Sketch in Time” on the Internet and the two of them decided to sketch together. The rest is history, as they say!

Anyone can join USk regardless of skills level or age, or how ‘rusty’ you are, and membership is free. The most basic tools and supplies you’ll need is a sketchbook or paper, and some or other tool with which to make marks on the paper (a ballpoint pen, pencils, markers, technical drawing pens or fountain pens can all be used). A clipboard will be handy if you’re using a soft-cover sketchbook or loose sheets of paper – with some bull-clips to keep the paper in place in the wind. If you want to use colour then bring watercolours and a brush, or coloured pencils or markers. You’ll need some sort of a bag to hold your supplies, and a hat, sunglasses, sunblock and water are rather important as well. You can bring a little foldable chair if you don’t like sitting on the ground or dirty pavements. A little fishing chair is ideal for this!

My own first sketch event was in April 2013 at “The Lamp Post”, an antique shop in Norwood. I was very nervous beforehand about sketching in public – and I did all of my sketches in pencil as I did not feel comfortable enough to use more challenging media such as ink or watercolour ‘out there’ in front of other people. At that stage I had not done any sketching (or any art for that matter) for a very long time, and my drawings reminded me of the work I did in the beginning of my first year at university!

However, the other sketchers were so kind and encouraging that it turned out to be a very nice experience.  Even though I dreaded the ‘throw-down’ session afterwards, I soon found myself passing my sketchbook along just like all the others! And I found that my work was neither the worst nor the best, in fact I realised also that it’s not a competition – it’s about enjoying the act of sketching with like-minded people.

Urban sketchers visit all sorts of places in and around our cities and suburbs. In Johannesburg, we sketch in parks and other outdoor spaces like “The Wilds” and the Johannesburg Botanical Gardens, and we visit a diverse array of suburbs from Melville (which always attracts a good crowd due to its ‘arty’ kind of vibe and central location), to Bertrams – a rather ‘gritty’ suburb on the east side of the CBD where it’s not uncommon to witness suspicious dealings on street corners (which we pretend not to see – just in case), to the Johannesburg CBD (always quite an adventure). We also sketch at interesting community events such as “Angela’s Picnic” at Delta Park (a favourite annual event featuring an amazing display of classic and vintage vehicles), the Jozi Land Art events, community markets, cultural events such as Dance Umbrella and Chinese New Year celebrations – and even protest marches and sporting events. We visit historical and interesting landmarks, buildings and Museums – from Vilakazi Street in Soweto, the Randlord Mansions on Parktown Ridge, the Nizamiye Turkish Mosque in Midrand, and we even sketch our Jacaranda trees in bloom!

At sketch events, we all meet at the start and then go off in groups or individually and sketch whatever we want to. About 2 hours later we get together again and have a “throw-down” where we look at each other’s sketches, take photographs and share our experiences. We might have coffee or lunch together and then sketch some more into the afternoon. Afterwards, the sketches are shared on Facebook and Instagram. Members are also encouraged to sketch on their own without the group wherever they live or work, whatever they do or wherever they travel to.

Of course, 2020 has been a very challenging year for urban sketching, not only for us but also all around the world. We only managed to squeeze in 2 sketching events before lockdown, and 2 afterwards. But all sorts of plans were made and many new ways were invented globally to keep the momentum going – through on-line challenges, tutorials, interviews and demos, Zoom calls and virtual sketch events.

We all looked at our own environments with fresh eyes and sketched our kitchen sinks (complete with dirty dishes), we ‘illustrated’ the ingredients and utensils used in our baking and cooking experiments, we documented our sewing projects, we sketched the bird baths in our gardens, our cars, the view through our windows, our pets, our partners snoozing in front of the TV, and sometimes even our grandchildren watering the plants!  We were also forced to make an exception to the fundamental USk rule of direct sketching from life – by allowing sketchers to visit far-off cities and sites on Google Street-view and drawing the scenery off of their computer screens. Not true urban sketching, but desperate times calls for flexibility!

With 2021 kicking off under lockdown as well, we are once again doing online challenges, watching USk Chats, and using our time to hone our skills. Hopefully we’ll be able to go and sketch the real world out there again soon – join  us!

Visit the Global Urban Sketchers website: http://www.urbansketchers.org/

Find more information about USk activities (tutorials, the Sketching Symposium, workshops, USk Talks, stories about Symposium Instructors and other well-known sketchers, news from other chapters around the world) or sign up for “Drawing Attention” (the monthly USk online magazine)

Visit USk Johannesburg on Facebook


 [LSM[1]Miskien kan ‘n men sook meer naasliggende chapter se besonderhede gee? Byvoorbeeld Kaapstad en Stellenbosch s’n.


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