HEADSPACE: Author Gabriel Campanario discusses the Art of Urban Sketching

Sketching is a way of discovering communities, showing lively streetscapes, soaring architecture and intriguing faces. Gabriel Campanario‘s book The Art of Urban Sketching presents a visually arresting, storytelling take on urban life driven by artists drawing their cities and sharing their visual dispatches. Starting tomorrow, Spacing will showcase three excerpts from this book.


 Spacing: What is the link between urban sketching and the public realm? How does urban sketching contribute to city building?

Gabi: Urban sketching connects space with the people who use it. It increases awareness of place. You need to spend time looking at something to be able to draw it.  An urban sketcher always has his eyes peeled when out and about in the city. I see with those sketchers eyes, often tracing the skyline or the outline of buildings. One of the benefits of urban sketching is that it brings appreciation to the spaces one inhabits and the subtle beauty which can be found even in the texture of a wall or brick.

Spacing: Do you consider the visual art as an important tool for engaging citizens and bolstering public participation?

Gabi: Art is very individual. Sketching creates an interpretation of a space that is then shared with others. It’s a very unique transaction. People like this book even if they don’t draw, because they can see cities through the artists’ eyes. I see art more as a communication tool, rather than meant to be put in a frame on the wall. My background is in journalism, and sketching is a way of communicating my experiences. If I can show you my experiences then I don’t need to tell you, you see how I’m interpreting my own city. Art is important in experiencing your own city because anybody can understand it, it’s in a universal language. it crosses borders, languages, and backgrounds.

Spacing: Is there political power inherent in urban sketching?

Gabi: It’s interesting that you bring that up. I was invited back in December to go to Caracas in Venezuela. One of the reasons why I was discussing urban sketching is because Caracas has become a very unsafe city of late, not just for tourists, but for their own citizens. People are not in the streets late, people feel unsafe. We did an event where we drew in different parts of Caracas and everybody was really excited because they believed that by drawing the city they could reclaim spaces that have been taken over by crime or neglected. That aspect of urban sketching never occurred to me. I think as a communication tool it does have inherent political force,  if used for that purpose. The same way that a writer pens an editorial piece about an issue, an artist can draw any subject and make a statement about it with those drawings. I’ve seen it happen. In Italy there was a group of urban sketchers that got together in L’Aquila, which is a city where there was an earthquake in 2009, and they’ve drawn lots of attention to the state of their city in the media through their images.

Spacing:  What is the interrelation between traveling and urban sketching?

Gabi:  Here in North America we have the privilege of photographing and drawing in the public realm, but in other cultures and communities you may not be able to do that. Use caution. If you’re in a dangerous place be careful, because cultures change. That being said, I hear more stories from traveling sketchers about how their sketchbooks have opened up conversations with locals who would never have approached them otherwise. People come and peek over your shoulders. You become almost like a performer in the middle of the street, which engages you with the community you are in. When I first moved to Seattle, sketching helped me explore. I was discovering my own city, this new community where I live. I started to share the drawings online, and discovered that this was a wonderful way to communicate and learn more about city.

Spacing: What personality traits make for a good urban sketcher?

Gabi: All you need is something to draw with and something to draw on. A curious mindset is always helpful. People who are friendly, enjoy urban exploration, and are generous in sharing their work. Some people may be more afraid of doing it in public, and it takes a little confidence to place yourself in crowded places. First go out and sketch with a friend, with a group. Everybody tends to be complimentary.

Spacing: How has urban sketch evolved and adapted over time?

Gabi: I think technology has allowed us to meet each other. I’ve had many people tell me “Oh I didn’t know there were so many people doing this.” People have come to urban sketching from different positions. There are architects and urban planners, those who build spaces for their daily bread and butter. There are artists, who relate to space by drawing it. Journalists relate through storytelling. Urban sketching bring together like minded people from different fields, into a universal communicative language. By labeling these individuals as urban sketchers it becomes inclusive, anyone can do it.

Spacing: How has advances in technology impacted urban sketching?

Gabi: The tools will continue to evolve. People are already sketching on iPads. Jorge Colombo created the first iPod drawn cover of the New Yorker, and it was an urban sketch. There is this new app called Paper, where the commercial features a person urban sketching. Despite these advancements, the concept of freehand drawing — making marks that represent what we see —  won’t change. That’s been done since cavemen painted on walls, it’s human nature.

Spacing: Does the city offer an environment for sketching that is unavailable in rural and suburban communities?

Gabi: This practice is defined as drawing built environment — where you live and what happens in it. It doesn’t matter if it’s suburban, downtown, or surrounded by snow-capped mountains. Anytime you draw a place where human activity happens, to me that’s urban sketching. The word “urban” is not mentioned in the urban sketching manifesto, which emerged as a result of such questions.  What are we really doing here? Is a figure drawing class urban sketching? I suggested that it was not. It occurred to me to write a manifesto of what we do and put it up on the blog. The post got 30 comments. Some artists disagreed with a few points, and we group edited. I’m glad people made an issue of it. Urban sketching is a way of documenting space visually. Accuracy is thus important. We are truthful to the scenes that we witness, whether it be the places we live or where we travel.

Photo via urbansketchers.org