By Gery de Pierpont
Appreciate your cultural heritage by sketching it: the experiences of Urban Sketchers
Has it ever occurred to you how much more you appreciate your surroundings when you have sketched them? The fact that you have focused your attention on all the little details of a landscape or building so you can recreate it on a blank sheet enables you memorise its characteristics in greater detail and recall it to mind with your eyes closed. The cleverly studied proportions of ancient buildings are revealed and their stylistic exuberance, glossed over in a cursory glance, come into focus, while the hidden facet of these habitations can be glimpsed … and what of the ever changing play of light and shadow on surfaces as the sun moves slowly across the sky and clouds come and go …
Enjoying the moment
If you’ve tried it, then you know this already: it’s such fun to pause in front of an historic setting with the urge to re-transcribe the emotions which it evokes on a sheet of paper. First of all, you have to decide to take time out and stop looking at your watch. Be it fifteen minutes, half an hour or an hour, it doesn’t matter “as long as enthusiasm reigns”, as Alfred de Musset once wrote. Then you have to identify the most inspirational spot. Do not choose an obvious point of view, especially if it is too easy or too familiar. Take time to get your sketch book ready, sharpen your pencils, line up your felt pens or mix your colours. Then let your fingers drift over the paper, giving your creative urge free reign. Observe the outlines they make, the way they calculate movement, sketch in shadows, hesitate in a blank section before marking the paper with a clearly defined shape …
Have you heard of the Urban Sketchers?
Enthusiastic sketchers of ambiances, a group of happy sketchers came together in 2007 to share their spontaneous creations over an internet platform, Flickr. These graphic designers, architects, illustrators and other strip cartoon artists were soon joined by swarms of amateur sketchers worldwide. It got to the point when they decided to set themselves up in an association: the Urban Sketchers (USk). This movement, which has grown considerably since then, has spawned numerous local groups or “chapters” around the world.
Sketching the world, from sketch to sketch
What is the core approach of the Urban Sketchers? To focus on the artistic, narrative and educational value of a sketch produced “in situ”. Capture reality as it is in a sketch, if possible in a group, and then disseminate these “off the cuff moments” which are created via this collective experience over the internet. No pretext is needed to use one’s little folding chair, beside a group of fellow sketchers before exchanging one’s drawings and watercolours in a café, over a glass of wine or a good beer.
The Urban Sketchers’ initiative gives me food for thought, as an enthusiast of history and cultural heritage, because these itinerant artists are, like me, trying to capture the soul of a site that is a source of inspiration. Their pencil or paintbrush re-invents the gestures of other creative artists, architects, craftsmen, decorators, town planners or designers who have breathed life into these surroundings. Their drawings capture contrasts, emphasize rhythms, heighten perspectives or magnify unusual details. They interpret such places in their own way, translating them into emotionally charged pictures.
Their enthusiasm is catching!
A pioneer of European Urban Sketchers, Gérard Michel has put hundreds and hundreds of drawings on line. Wonderful drawings sketched in situ and drawn freehand (without any aids), often with a watercolour wash, in the way of 19th century plans. Real gems. Dipping into his sketchbook embarks you on a journey with him to all the buildings whose essence he has captured. Escapism and wonderment through the eyes of a keen admirer of architecture. This is how he describes his passion:
“The sketches enable me capture the most striking features in a setting. You have a wander around when suddenly you are pulled up short. You are driven with a desire to put down on paper what has caught your eye. It could be a row of houses, a cityscape, a keyhole view or a door knocker.
Drawings are what give greatest pleasure to the eye, because they give us above all a chance live a precious moment once again. I’ve lost count of the number of times I have flipped through the pages of my fifteen or twenty year old sketch books”.
An antidote to cultural zapping
“A distinction must be made between drawing and the final result, the sketch itself”, says Fabien Denoël, an architect, illustrator and long time Urban Sketcher. “To draw (an old church, a car, a camel, one’s shoes, etc.) actually means spending time observing, and thus discovering, one’s subject. The lines of the drawing are nothing more than marks made on paper after scanning a subject with one’s eyes. Drawing is an ideal pretext for awarding oneself time.
“In the case of an old building, this exercise allows us to appreciate the richness and variety in the detail and discover an architect’s perceptions. Being able to recreate the features on a roof or a cornice and the proportions of windows implies an understanding of the building. The longer a drawing takes to complete, the more these subtleties become apparent”.
A few tips before you start
For Fabien Denoël, there is no need to spend too much time looking for “the ideal subject”. This will gradually become apparent while you sketch. For a start, avoid postcard subjects where everything is beautiful. For example, be brave and draw a period building adjacent to an ugly construction. As a contrast, the banal appearance of the latter will often enhance the finesse of the historic building.
Lolo Wagner, another Urban Sketcher, well known in Alsace, has been kind enough to share a few tips before we embark on this adventure: “The basis for a successful drawing is its composition. Take time to find the best viewpoint; this is key. Sometime, the most interesting perspective is obtained by having an object in the foreground providing depth; sometimes it is a lighting effect or chiaro-scuro which generates the desired contrast.
“For your drawings on location, it is best to begin with details, drawing them in close-up, before launching into complex, wide-angled perspectives. Separated from their support, these decorative features, stylistic details or examples of skilled craftsmanship take on a completely different relief.
“If you feel frustrated that you cannot enhance your drawing with fragrances, sounds, a sense of touch or anecdotes, do add some annotations or collages to your sketch, along the lines of a travel diary.
“Also, do not take much paraphernalia which you will have to carry around during the day. You will soon realise you often use the same basic equipment …
“Above all, to make progress in this field, it has to give you pleasure. This is the basis of a growing personal relationship between the sketcher and the setting which inspires him. It lies at the heart of this very enriching experience”.
From sketch to plan – only a step away
Gérard Michel’s drawings are the fruit of years of studying ancient monuments. His experience as an architect helps him understand cultural heritage in three dimensions enabling him to retrace the plans: “For me, drawing has always been the best observation tool … Of course I use it to read architecture like a history book. I walk round the inside of the building to start with, trying to capture the way various areas inter-relate. It is probably by observing the covering of the various sub-spaces that the building can best be understood. The vaults, with their characteristics, shapes and proportions. Then there are the ceilings, with their structural elements, beams and joists … only by looking at the ceilings do you realise the differences in terms of the orthogonality of spaces.
“Then I walk round the outside of the building, trying to remember what is behind each wall, and what is featured by each window… Finally I give my drawing a scale, by measuring in strides (mine is nearly a metre) the vast dimensions which I am going to have to draw.
“For each plan, the right procedure must be chosen: where does one start the composition of the sketch to give oneself the maximum chance of achieving a coherent result? I have to say that experience enables me to avoid disappointment most of the time, although sometimes I am caught out by a feature of the building which I had initially overlooked!”
Drawing is a wonderful way of “experiencing cultural heritage” – an exceptional observation and comprehension tool. A link with the universe hidden behind the visible world, a universal key unlocking the imagination of yesteryear. Your sketchbook will keep your memories and emotions alive and you can share them with family and friends.
Now it is your turn to be inspired by an ancient facade, mysterious interior, arcade or flight of stairs and put your interpretation on paper! Do share your impressions and recommendations with us … and if the mood takes you, create an on-line link to your work.