After the dust has settled :What I learnt from my correspondent role at #USkManchester2016

What an absolutely amazing week at the Manchester Urban SketchersSymposium  (27th-30th July 2016)!  I don’t think anything would have fully prepared me for the incredible experience of meeting and sketching with like-minded artists from around the world! It was just magical to see the city I have come to know and love being portrayed by skilled sketchers from near and far.  It was also a wonderful sight to see the streets lined with people drawing together, old-friends and new friends.  It is a little hard to settle now that it is over so, as a kind of wrap-up from me, an attempt to collect some thoughts and learnings, this blog summarises my role as local correspondent, what I learnt from it and what next!  The images are a mix of sketches done post-symposium, they are not necessarily with a specific theme or purpose, other than to get me back into sketching!

What it was all about
I was thrilled and proud to be asked to be local correspondent for this the 7th International Urban Sketching Symposium here in Manchester and in theory I had a lot of time to get ready ( >6 months); and I did a lot of things to get me ready: from reportage commissions to everyday practice in people drawing, to my weekly countdown sketches (you can see these in the blog post here).  You can read about some of the preparation here and here.  On reflection I couldn’t have done it without that continuous focus but the task is big and it’s hard not to think you have just scratched the surface of what you could have achieved in the 4 days.  This year there were 4 correspondents: myself as local correspondent and a member of the Manchester Urban Sketchers group; Tina Koyama from Seattle, USA; Kumi Matsukawa from Kanagawa prefecture, Japan and Javier De Blas from Rioja in Spain.  In a nutshell the role is to capture through sketch and written narrative, as many of the workshops (26), activities (8), demonstrations (5), lectures (11) and sketch crawls (7) and to capture the feel and vibe of the symposium in context with the urban environment that surrounds it.  A blog post has to be published by each correspondent for each day of the symposium on the main urban sketchers website.  Here is my first, second, third and fourth post.
What I learnt
I felt I learnt a huge amount through the experience and in an attempt to make the most of it I have tried to unpick my thoughts, these come from a whole range of experiences throughout the week, from things mentioned by tutors in the sessions I covered, to conversations and observations, they are not in any particular order and are not necessarily new, but they are things I need to think about!
  • Being a correspondent is about much more than just the technicality of drawing, it involves a variety of reporting skills including annotating drawings and telling a story in written and visual form as well as working as part of a team and being able to work under the pressure of an activity whatever is thrown at it, especially the weather and other logistical challenges!  Its a synthesis of aspects of the symposium, capturing the activities in a variety of ways and communicating that to others. Oh, and did I say you need to have lots of energy and enthusiasm!
  • No matter where you are at in your sketching practice there is always that dichotomy: Inspiration vs. intimidation and there is always something to learn or adapt!  I wasn’t surprised that on the Tuesday evening prior to the start of the symposium I felt a little overwhelmed (to say the least) as the best sketchers in the world started to arrive in the city!  But what I was amazed to hear was  that even those that are at the top of the game, frequent attendees and workshop leaders also have that same worry when they meet others at the symposium whose work they love-is their own work comparable? good enough? worthy etc in the same way that us newbies feel!  I guess this human condition keeps us all on our toes!
  • Seek to portray a Sense of Place in a drawing through initial observation, analysis and interpretation (without drawing just thinking), much like a designer,  in the first instance.  It is important to identify exactly what it is that you want to capture, thinking carefully about what the focal point needs to be; what is important to include (or even adapt) to convey that sense of place and what is superflouous.  Thumbnails before a final piece are a useful tool in the process.
  • Most city scenes, with an array of buildings and layers of complexity need to be simplified into groups of shapes and elaborated accordingly.  A designers eye is required that goes beyond drawing what you see: this is about strategy and composition!  It is important to think about the relationships between the shapes, the centre of interest in the view, perhaps framing the view and leading the viewer into the drawing, or differentiating and emphasising different parts of the drawing through contrast (e.g. dark and light tones).  It is a matter of looking at the scene, context and conditions and drawing on the approaches accordingly!
  • Draw people first in a scene before adding the context, with their heads at approximately the same level, no matter the distance (its just the size of the figure that changes).  Grouping, non-uniformity and overlapping of people all help to make them look more believable as crowds and don’t forget to vary the head level slightly to give an organic real-life feel.  Don’t forget that rules can be broken so if you want to add an imposing foreground figure, a little larger than life, then do so!
  • Depth in a drawing is an important fundamental and whilst this is obvious, it is sometimes easy to forget! Foreground, middleground and background are the key layers to include using greater detail, heavier line weight, more intense colour in the foreground and a variety of ways to create depth including less detail, lighter line, more muted colours etc.
  • Quality of line is paramount to ensure clarity of purpose and a confident drawing.  But this only comes about through constant practice and consideration.  I was amazed when I looked at several of the most experienced sketchers journals just how loose they were closer up (on-line the images appear less loose!).  However, the quality of the line and the range of pattern making and line weights ensure a readable drawing.
  • Explore colour/tone approaches that go beyond watercolour  especially for quick capture and practicality on the move, or greater impact-include coloured pencils (pressing hard with watercolour pencils, which are creamier than the non-watercolour variety to create solid colour or with a less heavy line but overlaying different colours), inks (including non-waterproof for interesting effects) , sticks and an iPad!  The later is something that I can see would really help in the long term with speed and portability.
  • Consider portability of sketching kit especially a system for watercolour outside.  At the moment I am like an clumsey octopus on location!  I saw some very slick operations with clips, boards and pouches that enables all the kit: water paper, paint and brushes to be ready at hand with no dropping of implements…Enough said!
  • Keep drawing through observation (people in particular) every moment you can, getting to the stage where what goes onto the page isn’t important, you don’t judge it, you just do it.  I’m going to soldier on with this one despite hitting brick walls (not literally!),  keeping a small notebook with me at all times.  Continual practice is the only way!  This one isn’t about the composition of drawings but accuracy in portraying people-gesture and physique!
     This is a clear oversimplification of the vast learning experience of the symposium but I am hoping through documenting in this way it will help keep some of the ideas alive and give me an aid-memoire to refer to in the coming months.  Thanks to all the workshop leaders lecturers, activity leaders and other urban sketchers who contributed to this list through their participation in the symposium!
What next?
This is a good question and one which I asked myself a lot in the post-symposium blues of last week!  but the dust is settling and I am beginning to sketch again, perhaps very similarly to before, but hopefully, in the coming weeks,  using some of what I learnt to improve my captures of the things that are of greatest interest: storytelling, portraying a sense of place and time in my sketches, with a greater clarity of purpose and quality of line!   For the moment I will also be trying to go further afield than the centre of Manchester, using a change of scene and of subject matter to reinvigorate me whilst applying the principles and ideas above.  The quote that’s always in my head from James Richards ” don’t aspire to be great; aspire to be prolific and being great takes care of itself” has never had more resonance ; so I need to get my sketching mojo back and develop a renewed focus for my continued practice!  -watch this space!

17 thoughts on “After the dust has settled :What I learnt from my correspondent role at #USkManchester2016

  1. Liz, wow, you put so much into this: the preparation, the hard work, the focus. So thrilled to see it all show up in the work. That’s quite a body of work, looking forward to seeing where you take this next!

    1. Thanks so much Suhita. I have a long way to go but I am feeling a little bit like returning from the wilderness now, after the challenge of the build up and the symposium. This weekend’s sketching helped me to start to take stock.

  2. Thanks for so many of these good ideas and suggestions for sketching. I appreciate all of postings and sketches. Wonderful!

  3. Excellent post, Liz! When I get back home and my own dust has settled, I was going to ask you and the other correspondents to summarize your learnings for the benefit of future symposium correspondents — but you’re ahead of the game (as usual)! This is great — thank you!


  4. Great post. I like the idea of a journal totally dedicated to mark making and hang the perfection. Like your quote from James too – a great nerve settler I would say.

  5. I loved seeing your build up to the sympsoium with the weekly countdown sketches, and this post helps me see why at some point I must get to a symposium! So much to learn from so many amazing people! Thanks for making it such an enjoyable experience.

  6. Excellent post Liz! I really enjoyed your daily sketches and posts! One regret is that I never got a chance to say hi to you in person.. Maybe next year.

    1. Thank you Mike and yes such a shame we didn’t manage to chat in Manchester. Hope to meet you at an Urban sketching event sometime!

  7. Thank you so much for putting it all down so clearly. This was my first UsK Symposium and it all went by in a blur. Wish I had met you. Maybe next year in Chicago?

    1. Thank you Susan for your lovely comment. Yes it was my first symposium too and its a shame we didn’t get to chat. I am not sure about Chicago, realistically it may not happen for me next year but we will see.

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