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Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Learning to see

11/2/11 Maple Leaf neighborhood

When I first started sketching, I spent a lot of time looking at the work of other sketchers online, and one thing struck me right away. While I was naturally dazzled by the sketches of glorious cathedrals, monuments and other world-famous structures, what caught my attention were all the equally marvelous sketches of ordinary residential scenes. How are these people able to sketch an alley or parking lot and make it look fresh and exciting? What magical power do they possess that makes this possible? As a brand-new sketcher, I knew it would be a long time before I learned that magic, but I was eager to begin.

The sketch at the top of this post is one of my earliest urban sketches; it’s dated Nov. 11, 2011. Still too self-conscious to sketch from the sidewalk, I took my baby steps by sketching out the windows of our house. It would still be several months before I had the nerve to show up at my first Urban Sketchers outing, but my spirit was willing: I was driven to show my world, one sketch at a time.

Nearly nine years and more than 7,000 sketches later, I have sketched on four continents. My subject matter has included a few world-famous scenes, and it has also included many, many mundane, ordinary scenes.

During those years, I’ve learned techniques and approaches from excellent teachers, many at Urban Sketchers symposiums, that helped me refine and shape the style I use today. As grateful as I am to all of them, none handed me the super power I kept thinking I would eventually find.

It turns out that there is no magic, at least in terms of techniques or tricks. Any sketch I have ever admired – whether it’s of the Eiffel Tower or a fire hydrant; the pyramids of Egypt or a utility pole – was made by a sketcher who had observed so closely and fully that I couldn’t help but see what they saw. That was the “magic.” And it turns out that all those teachers did try to give me the super power I was looking for: Every one of them told me that drawing was about seeing. But I didn’t always understand.

Below is a sketch I made a few days ago. I still have a lot to learn, but now I realize that the most important skill I have to learn is to see. In fact, I now understand that as a sketcher, I have only one job: To observe so closely and fully that I can make anything look interesting, even the mundane. And by observing that closely and fully, even those things I see every day become fresh again.

(This post was inspired by Stephanie Bower’s #USkThenAndNowChallenge to look back at our own old drawings, share them and reflect on what we’ve learned since then.)

4/25/20 Maple Leaf neighborhood

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