It looks like an innocent black-covered diary, nestled under a small zip-up case next to Frances Buckmaster’s coffee cup. But open it up and you’ll find an array of pens, pencils, erasers and colors, plus dozens of neatly outlined watercolor scenes: Tacoma’s Spanish Steps, the Museum of Glass cone, the roaster at Bluebeard Coffee.
What you see, though, isn’t just a sketchbook. It’s a visual record of the South Sound that is shared around the world because Buckmaster is part of the growing organization called Urban Sketchers, folks who meet to draw their environment and share it.
Begun by Seattle Times’ illustrator Gabriel Campanario in 2008, the Urban Sketchers movement has gone from a small group of Seattle enthusiasts to a global organization. Now a nonprofit, it has chapters in 31 countries from Australia to the Ukraine, 100 regular contributors on the central blog, annual international symposia and members who teach online drawing classes. The focus is on meeting monthly to draw a local neighborhood or site; the manifesto is to “show the world, one drawing at a time.” This is done both physically, with sketchers returning to a central place after a sketching session to compare work, and digitally, with contributors posting sketches on local blogs and Flickr sites, following artists around the world and discovering new techniques and places.
Buckmaster, a retired Puyallup Unitarian minister and avid sketcher, began the Tacoma group after a few long drives to Seattle Urban Sketcher meet-ups. Along with Renton artist Kate Buike, Bonney Lake printmaker Rom LaVerdiere and Kent designer Mark Ryan, they began Pierce County-based meet-ups on first Saturdays of the month (such as this Saturday at the Meeker Mansion in Puyallup) and launching a Tacoma blog and Flickr page.
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The results? Improved art skills, and a deep connection to the world. All four Tacoma Urban Sketchers founders got together to talk with The News Tribune.
What do you do at an Urban Sketcher meet-up?
Frances Buckmaster: (First, we administrators) talk about where to meet. It’s not all in Tacoma, and we try to find places that are free or cheap, or have outdoor alternatives if there is a fee. It’s often indoors in winter. We meet at 10 a.m., then go and sketch, then meet back up at the end to share our work. There’s usually between six and 15 people each time ... everyone from first-time sketchers to people like architects who draw professionally. We also meet other times — you can find out about them under the Ad Hoc tab on the blog.
Mark Ryan: The nice thing is that there’s no sign-up, no dues. You just show up.
Kate Buike: And the group is very accepting. No one’s going to say anything negative.
What’s the benefit of sketching in a group, rather than just by yourselves?
Rom LaVerdiere: It really strengthened my drawing abilities and observation. When you share, it’s interesting to see where people went to draw, what they see. I approach my skills in different ways now. ... You get out of your comfort zone.
MR: It’s a motivation.
FB: It’s a community, a social group. ... You’ve made a commitment, (whereas) it’s easier on your own to let other things conflict. But being in community it becomes exponential. ... You start seeing things in different ways. And it feeds your other artwork.
KB: What’s different for me is the sharing aspect. I follow people all over the world (on Urban Sketcher Flickr sites), and I’ve learned a lot from what they do.
FB: I do that, for my own growth. You start to recognize the global Urban Sketcher movement, and you can follow various artists that, for example, might work in a similar style but be out ahead of you in skill. And you form relationships: I started following a photographer who followed my sketches. One sketcher I follow lives in a floating home in Thailand, and is still recovering from the tsunami (of 2004). A sketcher from Singapore who visited Seattle once was recently documenting the protests there in sketches. That’s incredibly touching, to have tendrils out there. ... And of course people can “favor” your work with stars (on Flickr), or follow you, or share it. That’s gratifying.
One of the Urban Sketcher tenets is to “be truthful to the scene.” How does that work, exactly, since you’re sketching rather than snapping a photo?
FB: A sketch is not the reality of a single moment. It’s a composite. For instance, in this café there are people coming and going at a table. I would sketch them all there, but I wouldn’t make up someone who wasn’t there.
KB: Photojournalism is the work of an instant, whereas sketching can take an hour. So it puts you into the scene a little more — you remember everything you feel, smell, hear and see.
Do you sketch news or current events, if you’re there?
KB: I sketched the opening of the first marijuana shop (in my area).
FB: We encourage everyone to have sketching materials with them so that if something happens, the opportunity to report is there.
RL: That’s what drives us, the desire to draw it. We chronicle our age. If it’s interesting, we sketch it.
What about if everything’s moving around in a scene?
KB: People usually come back to a position, so I wait ‘til they do.
MR: I find people who aren’t moving!
RL: You capture the gesture with a stroke, a quick bit of watercolor, then fill it in later. Occasionally I’ll take a photo, and work from that.
FB: But mostly we don’t work from photos. It’s boring, and it’s not what we try to do.
What’s the reaction of people around you as you sketch?
KB: Most of them come to see what you’re doing and are complimentary. I had one guy correct my perspective. He was wrong.
MR: I was at a financial institution once, and the security guard asked me to leave.
FB: I’ve never had a bad experience — we’re totally open to people coming up and looking at our work. ... In fact, I was sketching at Johnny’s Dock recently, and the owner’s wife came up and saw what I was doing, and invited us all back. That’ll be the February outing.
Why are people so curious about sketching?
KB: There’s not much art taught these days. People are fascinated that you can actually do this. One guy asked me was I famous; he was so astounded.
Other than loving sketching, why do you do Urban Sketchers?
FB: When there’s something you love, taking action to enfold other people in that is a kind of ministry. It’s something totally satisfying and wonderful. It feeds me.