By Jean Cunningham
The work of an artist can be very solitary, but if you are more social and like to get out and about in the world, the art of urban sketching can be very rewarding. Urban sketching is the practice of drawing or drawing and painting the scene in front of you for the purpose of capturing a moment, a place, and a memory. So popular is this practice that a global group exists called Urban Sketchers with local branches in many areas. The closest Urban Sketching group to Evanston is Urban Sketchers Chicago. They have Facebook and other social media sites where sketchers share their work. I am a member. Being a member is not required to urban sketch. Anyone can do it anywhere and in any style.
Evanston resident Sherry Smith learned about urban sketching two years ago and fell in love with it. She does on-location sketches of what she can see right in front of her. She wants the sketched scene or items to have enough surrounding information that she can recognize where it was when viewing it thereafter. The sketches serve as her journals that she revisits to evoke memories of her life experience. She keeps her stack of sketch books in a storage envelope, and like a photograph album, she takes them out and relives not only the scene, but also the weather and how she was feeling that day.
Smith sketches daily and sometime more than one time a day. She is ready to draw at almost any time, and normally spends 20-30 minutes on each sketch which includes drawing and painting. Her sketching preference is to be out in the community; mostly in Evanston but also when she travels and unexpectantly comes across a standout scene or event that demands to be captured. She works both inside and outside mostly based on the weather or opportunity. If it’s comfortable weather, she’s probably outside. Finding needed shade in the summer, sun in the winter; and being dressing comfortably are key necessities. If she finds an indoor setting with a compelling ambiance or feature, she’ll try to capture it. Mostly she sits while sketching, but if she sees an image she wants to capture quickly, she might stand.
When there is a scene she is particularly interested in, Smith sometimes makes an exploratory visit to the site too understand when it is most intriguing to capture and returns at the appropriate time to create the sketch.
Setting up to sketch is quick as she does not use an easel, and she has her sketch kit with her 90% of the time. She sketches on a 5” x 7” spiral bound journal or watercolor paper clipped on a 9”x 12’ plastic board. Her kit includes a pouch containing several drawing pens, a travel watercolor pan, a selection of watercolor paper sizes, and her watercolor kit. The paper is usually in a spiral bound journal, and she uses both sides of each page as a visual journal. If she is creating a sketch to hang or give away, she will pull paper from a watercolor block, a pad of paper with gum around the sides that holds the paper flat.
Once Smith arrives at a location, she gazes around thinking, “What catches my attention? What is my focus, and how will I approach it?”, and makes many related decisions. Should she sketch the entire building or just the door? Where should she position the image on the page? Are some elements too difficult and if so, can they be minimized or deleted?
With the composition decided, she begins her creation by using a pen to draw the main lines at the focal point and applies quick marks to show the relationships of the shapes. Smith prefers micron pens in various widths and a white gel ink pen for highlights. The amount of detail she draws is based on either the amount of time she has or her focus and feeling at the moment.
After completing the drawing, She is ready to put color down. Smith’s watercolor kit is all inclusive with an area to mix paint, a variety of colors, and a water barrel brush. The brush dramatically enhances the kit portability as it has water inside so the artist does not have to worry about a water cup and can stop and sketch anywhere.
At first Smith was nervous about people looking over her shoulder to watch her sketch but overtime has realized that it is a hallmark of urban sketching. It is about catching a moment interpretively without photographic accuracy, and it interests passersby. As she learned while discussing with another sketcher, “My relationship to accuracy is long term. Today is the best I can do today, and I will get better. Each day is different including my skill.”
Smith welcomes more people who might want to sketch together in Evanston. Direct Message her and see more of her work on Instagram at @evanstonsherry. If you would like to learn more about the Urban Sketcher organization, the website is urbansketchers.org, and there are Urban Sketcher Chicago Facebook and Instagram sites.
Jean Cunningham is retired after a career in business management and finance. She has written three books and authored many articles in her field, was a speaker at conferences, and taught at the university level. While traveling for business she began painting and drawing for relaxation and collecting art. She and her husband have lived in Evanston for 11 years and are avid walkers of the town and lakeside. She has a BS from Indiana University and an MBA from Northeastern University.