One of my passions is sketching. I don’t like “drawing” or “painting” per se, as I would attribute each of these to a much more rigorous and structured endeavor; yet, sketching has become one of my favorite outdoor pastimes. There is nothing like spending a few moments creating a sketch of an actual place, with actual people and things to help us remember a time or a moment. As I look through past sketch books I can still remember very vivid details about the day and place the sketch was made. I can remember the smell of fresh cut grass or the feeling of a cool spring breeze as I look at my sketches. I don’t have that experience with photographs, no matter how many dramatic images I take – I really can’t remember the place after a month or two.
An interesting article by Natalie Wolchover was written in 2012 about the ability to draw. See it here (http://huff.to/1E7eRNG). Drawing has an interesting connection to how our brains work, according to the study. One of the critical factors demonstrated by people who can “draw” is the ability to triage information. People who draw actually see the world better than those who can’t – they can see things as they are rather than allowing their minds to override visual evidence (a scary thought, no?) The researchers state: “Drawing seems to involve focusing on both holistic proportional relationships as well as focus on detail isolated from the whole.” The greatest part of the article is the hope driven conclusion – that all the great mental attributes associated with the ability to draw can be learned over time. It seems the only requirement is repetition and practice to build the skill. Not that I needed any prodding, but this article encouraged me to spend more time enhancing my budding sketching skills.
One of my professors at the University of Idaho – Matthew Brehm – was a founding board member of an organization called Urban Sketchers. This is a global group of individuals who share their work with each other in the hopes to “show the world, one drawing at a time.” I decided to start a Las Vegas Urban Sketching group and quickly set up a series of sketch meetings with some friends. We are a growing group (and welcome your attendance!) that meets every month to sketch together at a location around the Las Vegas area. You can see some of our work here on our Facebook page (http://on.fb.me/1LeDo5w)
I was asked recently about the value of a sketch. While it is easy to say that a sketch captures a portion of our community and our lives; what can we say about the value that the sketch has to the community? If there are a myriad of “sketchable places” within a community, does that say great things about its architecture, its neighborhoods and even its people? The side of me that views sketching as a problem to be solved by teasing apart the light from dark and the solid from the void, says that all neighborhoods have a location worthy of a sketch. Still, I don’t know that people are racing to suburbia to sketch tract houses as quickly as they have been racing to Rome for centuries.
It is always an interesting conversation as we try to decide on where we would like our group to meet every month. We discuss the value of sketching in many locations around the region and why people would or would not want to sketch there. I think it is interesting to step back from that conversation and look for the deeper meaning behind those words. As an architect, I am always trying to create great places and spaces where lives are enriched and somehow the world is made a better place. That may sound like an over-simplified view of an architect’s daily task list; but there remains a vibrant truth to that statement. We seek to make great places as architects, but as a sketcher I often critique many places as having nothing great that is worthy of a sketch. It is an interesting creative dichotomy that, as an architect, I try to create community; but, as a sketcher, I seek to place myself in places where community is happening. Each practice has the ability to influence the other and through the work of sketching I become a glass through which my community is weighed, measured and ultimately put to paper.
Because of these two hats that I wear, I am quite interested by the value systems that each sketcher brings to our monthly meetings. These value systems are the forces that lead somebody to draw the couple having coffee while I, conversely, spend an hour drawing the empty tables and chairs in the corner. Each sketch different, both sketches valuable. Why do we gravitate to different scenes? Is it our internal perception of what is memorable that drives our selection or is it simple aesthetics and composition? A sketch can say a lot about the sketcher as much as it can say about the subject being sketched.
I recently stopped by the house that my mother worked her whole life to build and where she ultimately died. I captured a rainy winter day of a non-descript house that isn’t very different from the other homes on the block. I would never look at this house as a place with much redeeming architectural value or “presence” that would make it a remarkable place worth a spot in my sketchbook. Regardless, it is as special to me because of what it means as much as for what it is.
Ultimately, I think that is the true value of sketching is the logging of memories. Some memories are personal and some are communal but it is up to the sketcher to triage the information within our communities. What he or she captures, they capture because they see beauty, or meaning or depth or humor or any number of values that cry out to be remembered in ink and watercolor. As a sketcher I try to listen as I visit new places and old. I listen for the beauty that whispers from the buildings that surround us. I look for the uniqueness of a shadow or the vibrancy of a stone wall shining in the sun. Sketching not only allows me to capture my world, it allows me to make a statement about who I am and what I value. A sketchbook then becomes something much more visceral as it explains the way a person sees and how they describe value. My sketches are more than a place, or a series of lines, they are an on-going struggle to truly see the world and as I see it as it really is – to capture it in all its beauty and present my world, one drawing at a time.