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Saturday, Dec. 9: Wallingford Center

Friday, April 19, 2019

Urban Sketching Victoria with Gabi

4/14/19 BC Legislative Assembly Building
Although I have been to Victoria, British Columbia, several times, all those visits had been before I began sketching. A few months ago, Gabi Campanario announced that he was offering urban sketching workshops in the charming Canadian city. Recalling the historic architecture and lovely harbor, I jumped at the opportunity to visit again – this time with sketchbook in hand.

4/12/19 Gabi and I met up on the Clipper ferry to Victoria. Here
he is finishing up his presentation.
Co-sponsored by Greater Victoria Placemaking Network, the workshop weekend began last Friday afternoon with a free presentation by Gabi about urban sketching. Although I’ve heard Gabi give similar talks at other workshops I’ve taken with him, I always find it helpful to be reminded of his tips, basic practices and principles to get the most out of urban sketching. For example, here’s the order of priority that Gabi places on the elements of a sketch:
  1. Composition (more than 60 percent of the success of a sketch depends on a strong composition)
  2. Tones and values (“squint hard to see them”)
  3. Color (might not be necessary if other elements are strong)
Other words of wisdom:
  • For the sake of speed, keep drawings small (he favors pocket-size sketchbooks; workshop participants received a small Stillman & Birn free) and stay on your feet (you’re less likely to spend a long time on a single sketch if you don’t get too comfy)
  • “Keep your eye on your subject, not on your paper.”
  • “Don’t be intimidated by all the gear. . . all you need is a pencil or a ballpoint pen.” Keep materials simple.
  •  “My sketchbook is a laboratory, not a portfolio.” Gabi encouraged us to experiment and take chances with our sketches instead of trying to make them perfect and precious.
  • “I have nothing against erasers.”
4/12/19 My notes while Gabi gave his presentation.
4/12/19 St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church
After Gabi’s presentation, members of Greater Victoria Placemaking Network, “a group of Greater Victoria residents dedicated to improving our region’s shared places,” took participants on a short walk around the neighborhood to experience public urban spaces. They encouraged us to use all our senses to observe without judging. Since urban sketchers naturally observe their surroundings closely as part of sketching, the group’s values – “we focus on what happens in ‘the public realm’” – complement urban sketching well.

Although making a sketch was not necessarily part of the brief exercise, sketching is the easiest way for me to efficiently observe and focus on any space, so I chose to make a quick one (at left) of the St. Andrews Presbyterian Church that I could see in the distance. (Little did I know then that it would be a dry run for the next day’s workshop!)

Gabi offered three workshops over two days: Architecture, People, and Nature. I opted for Architecture, which continues to be my biggest challenge. Saturday dawned wet, cold and windy (much colder than Seattle only a hundred miles south as the crow flies). We were originally supposed to sketch the stately and formidable BC Legislative Assembly Building, but without nearby shelter, it was untenable. Gabi decided to change the workshop location to the same church I had hastily sketched the day before, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian, because a building with a deep overhang was conveniently available directly across the street. The overhang kept us all dry and somewhat sheltered (though not warm! We were all frozen by the end of the workshop). All weekend as he had to change plans according to the weather, Gabi noted that being flexible is an important part of urban sketching!

Gabi demo's composition options.
I look cold, don't I?
Thumbnail of the composition I chose.
The street light fixtures had an unusual curved shape that was different from the ones I’m used to sketching back home, so I wanted to include them in my sketch. As we talked about composition, Gabi noted that it might be a better choice to move slightly down the sidewalk so that the light poles wouldn’t be planted firmly in front of the church. Although the rain had slowed by then, I admit that I was reluctant to leave the overhang’s shelter. I stayed put and made my thumbnail. When I told him I had chosen to stick with the original composition, he said that it was still possible to make a successful sketch if the poles were given prominence so that their lines didn’t get mushed together with the lines of the church.

My final sketch is below. In retrospect, I think that Gabi’s idea of moving down the street would have made a stronger composition. But I tried to use color (on the church) and heavier lines on the light poles to distinguish them from the church.

4/13/19 St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church

Gabi wrapped up the architecture workshop inside a nearby coffee shop so that we could warm up and share our sketches. He demo’d watercolor techniques and showed us his favorite sketch materials there.

Architecture workshop participants

The next day, the rain had stopped, but the temperature was still not amenable. Instead of following the Nature workshop students to a nearby park as I had planned, I decided to explore the historic Fairmont Empress Hotel. Thinking I would find an interesting interior to sketch there, I was delighted to find something much better: a fantastic view of the Legislative Assembly Building that we had to forego the previous day! And a cozy, comfy couch to sketch it from, to boot (sketch at top of page)!

Normally I would fill the entire composition with a huge building like this, but as I scoped out the scene, I heeded Gabi’s suggestion during the workshop: “Leave extra room in front of the building so people can ‘walk’ into your sketch as if they were walking into the real building.” A bus, a vendor’s umbrella and pedestrians in the foreground seemed like a handy way to give the composition the space that Gabi had advised.

The park in front of the legislative building was the location for the final event of the weekend – a sketchcrawl open to the public. Since I had already sketched the domed building from the comfort of the Empress, everything else seemed like icing. I chose the statue of Queen Victoria prominently placed in the park (you can also see a tiny version of her in my sketch at the top of the page).

4/14/19 Queen Victoria's statue

Despite the rain and cold, I had a very enjoyable weekend meeting sketchers from Victoria, Vancouver and other parts of British Columbia. I learned new tips to apply to future sketches, and as always, I was inspired by Gabi’s enthusiasm for and commitment to urban sketching.

Cathy sketching a totem.

Gabi sketching the legislative building.

Sketchers at Queen Victoria's feet.

Final sketchcrawl participants


  1. Enjoyed reading this post. Your observations, tips, and of course your artwork. Thank you for documenting your adventures!