Urban sketching: drawing is thinking

Urban Sketchers is a worldwide community of artists who draw on location in cities and towns. Their motto is ‘Show the world, one drawing at a time’. The tenth annual symposium took place this summer in Amsterdam. Three of the urban sketchers who attended were willing to share their work in the Stadsleven webmagazine: Karen Jones from Manchester, Christiaan Afman from Groningen and Ben Luk from Hong Kong. 

The Spui in Amsterdam

by Karen Jones             

I am Karen Jones, an architect and artist living and working in Manchester, England, specialising in housing design.

I have sketched en plein air since I was a child, introduced to it by my father, who was an engineer. I became an architect because all I wanted to do was draw – little did I realise that there was more to the job than just sketching! Clients respond well to hand-drawn drawings: they communicate a softness that computer drawings don’t.

I have become aware how little architects now draw by hand. Surely, then, they can’t see the world around them as well as architects used to. How will that affect the quality of the design of our built environment? With hand drawing, drawing is thinking and there is no computer slowing that creative connection between the hand and the mind.

Four years ago, I felt railroaded at the large firm where I worked into producing my work almost solely by computer. I felt so strongly that this skill should not be lost to architects that I left to pursue a life of more hand drawing. Fortunately, I think the current urban sketching movement sets a trend that has started to change things for the better.

Chinatown in Manchester

The more I look, the more I see

Sitting on the pavement drawing buildings has been a longstanding pastime of mine. Until I learned of the Urban Sketching movement about five years ago, I thought I was the only person doing it!

By observation, I build up ideas and patterns in my mind that can inform my design. It also enhances my memory: I can remember not only what I have seen, but also what I have heard and smelt and who I have talked to during the sketch. It is a meditation, requiring a single-minded concentration, a complete present awareness. It makes me feel very alive.

The more I look, the more I see. I get to a point where I feel I am part of the scene I am drawing. A city is not just about the buildings, it is also about its inhabitants, the public spaces, the vegetation, the vehicles, the street furniture, the signage. I look for the grain, the patterns, their rhythm, the colour, the feel.

Aerial view of Amsterdam

Tapestry of rusty red and grey

I was in Amsterdam four years ago on my first urban sketching workshop. This time I was delighted yet again by the human scale of the city – it seems like a very large village.

I was also struck by the many towers and spires. They serve as focal points in this flat land. The rooftop view is a tapestry of rusty red and grey; the tramlines above the street add a graphic style to my drawings, helping to stitch the composition together. And the city is so green! There are many breathing spaces in the city and there are trees wherever space allows. Fronts of the townhouses are adorned with beautiful planting which softens the built environment and allows a small amount of personal space between the public and private domain.

Amsterdam is a captivating city. It feels like a very sociable city, where everything is compact and connected. Is it the built city that shapes its inhabitants, or vice versa?

St Peter’s Square in Manchester