The Business of Sketching in Public Spaces

Chinatown, Singapore (drawn by a fude nib fountain pen on sketchbook)

For any experienced or veteran sketcher (anyone who sketch on-location), it is still a daunting experience to be sketching in any public spaces, when you couldn't help but feel that you are under many watchful and prying eyes, at the same time, being scrutinised for whatever you felt are your weakness. Even under such circumstances, I am still loving sketching, drawing or painting in-situ. Even though you are constantly plagued by self-consciousness, sometimes being in the public spaces help you with getting things done. Having the thought that someone out there is standing with his arms akimbo or crossed in front on his torso and judging you, you tend to want to do a good job and fast. There is always this nagging thought that you should not leave the location with a half baked drawing, even when you are practicing reportage sketching, in which you are sketching the essence of the location, its people and buildings and activities that were going on, thus the sketches might look "unfinished" at first glance. 

Some random sketches from the sketchbook.

I have been sketching for quite some time now but I am still nervous when I whipped out the sketchbook from my bag and methodologically took out the fountain pen from my pencil case. Some part of me felt the exhilaration and some part of me wanted to anticipate a questioning look or a lingering gaze in my direction. Most part of me was pretending that I was just going about with my own business and so should everyone else. Sometimes that's the thing that makes this act of sketching in-situ exciting. Some part of me wanted someone to take notice and some part of me wanted to tell the person to mind his own business. So many conflicting thoughts and emotions! I am fickle minded and I ashamed of it.

Why Sketch in Public

Sketched while having dinner with wife and mum in a Chinese restaurant, painted digital in the studio.

 Firstly it is enjoyable, and you never know what and who you will encounter. I like to be accompanied when I sketch because in most cases, people tend to leave you alone when someone is sitting beside you. If you are alone, there is a likely chance the person standing to watch would speak to you. It is okay when you are in the mood to talk or answer questions. Secondary, I am an urban sketcher and the essence of urban sketching is sketching on location and sketching from life and from direct observation. Thirdly, sketching is the best way to pass time and the best excuse to watch people around you, without feeling bad or that you stalking them. It is quite strange really.

Sketching people in Starbucks.

How to Stay Inconspicuous while Sketching

Avoid bobbing your head up and down when you sketch, especially when you are sketching in a cafe or anywhere with many people. You are bound to be noticed because you will be doing something that people don't. Though no one is looking up or at you usually, they would notice because the peripheral vision is quite powerful. We tend to sense movement through the corner of our eyes due to the way we are made and wired to response to danger; the fight or flight response. The best practice is to blend in by making people think that you are doing what they are doing. Think yourself as a hunter so no sudden movement. 

Avoid using big elaborate setup like a painting tripod, huge boards or even mixing palette for paints. I like to keep things simple; an A5 portrait orientated sketchbook, a small bijou palette if I am in the mood to add colours to my sketch, a couple of pens and brushes in a handy pencil case and some tone markers. My setup does not usually occupy an area more than 30cm sq, if possible if I am drawing on a table in a cafe or a restaurant. I would reserve some space for my food and drinks too.

Sketching with a camera setup
Sketching people in a public hawker center - aka alfresco food court.

You are bound to draw some attention to yourself. So try not to avoid it and occasionally, engaging with the public can be as rewarding as the act of sketching itself. 

Wear a earphone may help to avert attention if you don't mind listening to something when you sketch. I do not have the habit of listening to something when I sketch but when I did, I was quickly brought into the zone. Usually people wouldn't disturb you when they see that you are not able to hear them. However I did encounter someone who tried to get my attention by looking in my direction and stood quite close to me. I simply have to response to him even when I did not want to. You know in Singapore, people love to draw attention to themselves. You can't tell them to fak off unless you are trying to invite a brawl with someone else. There was one time when I was sketching in the train. I could see the middle age man beside me tried so hard to get me to response to him. I could see with my peripheral vision that he was looking at my drawing and at me very intently. I did my best to pretend that I haven't noticed. However at the station where I got off, an Indian couple came forward to ask if they could take a picture of my sketches and asked if I am a Singaporean. 

If you sketched enough you will get used to attention eventually.

Why do I enjoy this so much?
It is about watching people, finding an excuse to stare at someone, though not literally. It is about connecting with the person your drew, but not in a personal way. Connecting from a distance. When you are done drawing someone, he or she does not appear intimidating anymore. It is like you begin to know the person. Many questions popped into my head when I spent the next 5-10mins sketching someone. I would like to know his or her name, what he or she does and where he or she lives. Questions that stay in your head throughout the process. You formed your own answers, by the way the person dresses or carries him or herself; what he or she carries with him or her and etc. You could read a person when you draw him or her. You form your own stories.

When you are done, the story ends there. There is completely no follow up. My interest of the person came to a complete stop once I stowed my pen away. He or she becomes a total stranger again. It is strange to get to know a person and then within a blink of the eye, becomes in the next short moment, I wouldn't care less about him or her anymore. I like that. I am bad with forming and maintaining relationships. I am too much a loner who preferred to be by myself and not talk about anything or with anyone. Except with my wife. I like to keep a distance but not entirely insular so sketching people is one way to maintain that relationship.

Uncles Everywhere
We have many uncles these days. My definition of uncles is men who have retired, not working and in their 70s. They hang out in 2s or more, sometimes there would be a loner. You can find them in kopitiams, hawker centers and these days in the malls. Hot weather has driven them to cooler places but not so much because coffee is more expensive. I like to draw them. Elderly men have a certain flavour to them. I think it is because of their weather beaten faces, thinning hair and plenty of wrinkles. They do not care about their public decorum, sometime sitting with one leg on the chair. This lends well on sketchbook. They are an unique feature of Singapore streets and public spaces. They don't mind being sketched and mostly quite friendly about it if they found out that they were being drawn. Still, I try not to get too much attention from them. It may take up too much time if they started talking to you.

I have tried sketching and drawing from photos taken by myself and by others too. The experience is quite different. When drawing from life, real time, you are challenged with capturing with the pen many things; the gesture, movement, behaviour, all culminated to what the person is. Unlike drawing or painting a model seated motionless for the next 2-3 hours, you get to know the person and his personality, well a little. The process involved me having to spend more time to look and think about the person I am sketching. The challenge is every person move every now and then, but this challenge makes the process all the more enjoyable. Half the time I am relying on memory and may a quarter of the time knowing where to put the line down. Eventually you will realise there is a 'pattern' because movement is repetitive. I can wait for the subject to go back to the same pose or I could simply capture the movement as an improvisation to the sketch. The flurry of lines becomes a suggestion of movement in a drawing.

Sketching is not about making pretty pictures all the time. It is an end to its means. A messy sketch or 'poorly' drawn sketch may not be a 'bad' sketch. It is still a record of the time and moment the artist spent looking and translating what he saw and felt as he penned the scene with his pencil or pen. Every moment recorded is precious to the artist and to anyone who appreciates. Every drawing or sketch done in-situ is a sincere and honest translation of the scene, whether is about people or landscape, and it has to be so. An honest translation is one that records whatever the artist sees, not glorified or edited to hide mistakes or unsightly stuff caught within the scene. Doesn't mean the artist cannot move things around to suit the composition or the format.  That's the fun and thrill of it.

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