Drawing en Plein Air

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Whether on paper or tablets, a growing community of artists are taking the process of drawing outdoors.

Text: Jocelyn Lau & James Lim

Plein-air drawing is a inspiring sight: a group of people perched on low stools or sitting cross-legged on the ground, pen or brush in hand, carefully sketching the details of a scene in front of them into an open sketchbook. Occasionally, one leans over to a fellow artist to discuss a detail in the drawing, to borrow an art material, or simply to chat. Others appear absorbed in thought, as if contemplating the best way of composing their drawing or capturing a detail.

In the current age of Instagram uploads, immediate mobile phone photos and quick gratification, the art of outdoor sketching – one that often requires the person to endure the elements – seems to belong more reasonably to a time of the past. Indeed, plein-air (“open air”) drawing goes back for centuries, and was turned into an art form by the French Impressionists in the 19th century. Yet, plein-air drawing is popular and thriving throughout urban societies in the world today, fuelled by the enthusiasm and passion of informal interest groups as well as individual artists.

On-Location Sketching
One well-known plein-air phenomenon is the Urban Sketchers (USk). The global nonprofit organisation, which celebrated their 10th anniversary in November 2017, was begun in 2007 in Seattle, USA, by Gabriel Campanario, a staff artist at The Seattle Times. Their motto is “show the world, one drawing at a time”, and their manifesto is “draw places that can be put on a map, and everything that happens in those places”.

Nearly 200 other groups, or “chapters”, have since started throughout the world, with each chapter run autonomously by enthusiastic local volunteers. In Asia, nearly 60 USk communities have been formed, including in Singapore, Kuching (Malaysia), Beijing (China) and Hong Kong (China) (see www.urbansketchers.org).

The committee currently responsible for managing the registration of new Asian chapters includes the co-founder of USk Hong Kong Alvin Wong. An architect in his 40s, Wong says, “The main difference between ourselves and other art interest groups is our ‘on-location’ rule: the sketch must be completed on-site. We can tell whether a drawing was done on-location or drawn from a photo or memory back at the studio – even if the artist does not provide the information. It’s got to do with our understanding of what the human eye is able to see, in contrast to what a camera lens can capture.”

“Other than this main rule, we are very welcoming of individual styles and skill levels, and we encourage the sharing of artwork online,” Wong concludes. “Anyone with a pen can join us – anyone at all: young or old, professionals or homemakers, absolute beginners or veteran artists – and all
mediums are allowed, even drawings done on a mobile phone!”

To find out more about why artists enjoy creating their art outdoors and see delightful pieces they have created, see issue 132 of Asian Geographic.

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