Article and Illustrated by Lionel Rakai
Growing up on an island surrounded by finely grained sand with blue ocean water and later moving to Xi’an just shy of four years ago, I am no stranger to life surrounded by local attractions and the bustle of tourists. With smartphones charged and digital SLR’s packed with batteries to spare, there is this constant movement of people taking photos. Panting from my morning jog and sitting on a wooden bench beneath the pagoda as the sun rose slowly from its slumber, I realised how the people snapping photos keep changing but the location is constant; the subject is constant. If we take a photo, how often is it that we look back at the same photo and reminisce?
Having accumulated a set of abandoned ink sketch pens varying in sizes, a knowledge of watercolour in my arsenal and the supplies to match, I contemplated the idea of making a first attempt at urban sketching – sitting in front of a scene, drawing out its details in ink by pure observation and then adding life through watercolours. One aspect of shooting a scene through a photograph is to capture the moment in terms of how we expect to remember it; the type of mood, subjects in or out of focus in an attempt to hold a single piece of still evidence for the beauty we will witness (in most cases) temporarily. It is one of the many aspects in photography which I have deeply respected as an art form of its own. Urban sketching offers a different perspective to capturing a scene or subject which I was curious to investigate. By drawing out the lines and breaking down the complexity of a subject into familiar shapes we are forced to improve our observational skills. In turn, these details get locked into our mind alongside the finished sketch.
I started the process by educating myself on the subject through copious hours of online tutorials and reading books by Chinese, Singaporean and Japanese masters. Trying out something new always lends itself to slight intimidation but it was reduced once I learnt that one doesn’t need to be a great sketcher or artist to try sketching an urban scene. The messiness of the lines and the unintentional blotches of water colour can all add some form of texture and personality to the finished piece. Firstly, let’s look at initial supplies.
Supplies for urban sketching.
An ink pen – in most cases, sketchers tend to reach for a fountain pen with refillable ink (preferably waterproof) as the nib offers more variety in stroke widths from thin to thick. The closest resemblance of a fountain pen in my supplies was a feather quill pen I used for calligraphy once in a while. However, since a large feather didn’t seem practical in an outside setting, I opted for a set of Micron ink pens ranging between sizes 0.1 for fine lines and 0.8 for thicker lines. If you are short of similar supplies, a single ball point pen is also sufficient.
A pencil and eraser is an optional companion when starting out as an unconfident beginner to initiate the sketching process and later filling over the pencil lines with an ink pen.
Watercolour materials – it’s not essential to add colour to an urban sketch but it can breathe life to a piece, especially when you’re not completely happy with the ink lines previously set down on paper. In terms of paints, a small set of six to twelve colours containing cool and warm versions of the primary colours (red, yellow and blue) is enough to get started. Fewer colours enforces the sketcher to mix secondary and tertiary colours that are required while too many colour options can overcomplicate the activity when we are trying to reduce bulking up on equipment. By biting off my own tongue here, I opted to use my beloved personally built palette of roughly forty colours…
Paper or sketchbook – the paper or sketchbook you choose to use is dependent on the previous materials selected. A single ball point pen or pencil for sketching only requires a clean sheet of unruled paper. For ink pens, it’s important to ensure the paper is thick enough to not allow bleeding of the ink through the paper and when using watercolor paints, the paper should be thick enough to hold the water with little to no buckling. Watercolor paper (a standard weight of 300gsm or 140lbs) can come in hot pressed (smooth textured) or cold pressed (rough textured) variants. I chose to dust off some fresh sheets of A5 sized hot pressed paper so the smooth surface would not hinder the inking stage. Next it’s time to find a location.
Finding a location and subject.
Initially, I had chosen Dayanta to be the test ground for my trials, with the location being a convenient ten minute walk from my school dormitory. Instead, a spur of the moment decision by my local friends to make a midweek road trip to Bailuyuan (White Deer Plain) opened the opportunity to move these trials into the White Deer Plain Folk Culture village. Located about 40km (25 miles) from Xi’an’s city center, the Folk Culture village is located in the South East section of the area. The village is a hub of traditional experiences, integrating ancient Shaanxi-style buildings, art performances, old style movie sets and local Shaanxi cuisines. Variations of Liang pi (steamed cold noodles) and roujiamo can be found in abundance among some delicacies also inspired by Taiwan and Hong Kong cuisine. Meeting the traditional elements of the folk culture village includes a modern area of amusement park rides and haunted house-inspired maze rooms.
To start off, I selected a simple subject – a bamboo layered steamer holding rolls of soft steamed buns and an aluminium container of cooked marinated meat.
A local chef and store owner twining a roll of 金线油塔 or Jinxianyouta (flat flour noodles rolled into small tornado balls) was claimed as my next subject. As he spun a roll of noodles off the steamer onto a pair of tongs and scrupulously placing them into a paper bowel, I observed the way he stood, the clothes he wore, the wooden walls behind him and the bamboo steamer cooking the noodles as I proceeded to sketch.
The culture village scatters elements of cemented history around the area, including metal-plated statues. Two statues that caught my eye posed a barber trimming the hair of his client on the street side and a woman at her sewing desk, unconventionally located at the bank of a small river. The stoic features and motionless pose set in stone made the sketching process conveniently easier.
As the sun started to bid farewell and the moody sky signaled an appearance, the food stalls began to close and stall owners cleared the restaurants in preparation. In this moment, I passed the same noodle stall with a bamboo steamer vacant, a golden glow of light shining from the kitchen window and fresh steam still escaping the cooker; a final sketch opportunity before the light of the day completely surrendered to the night.
With a culturally enriched day behind, I sat back in my dorm room and laid out the best pieces of the day that were more successfully illustrated. Brushing over a few layers of watercolor to fix some not-so-happy accidents like retouching a photo that didn’t develop as accurately as I had envisioned, my first attempt at urban sketching was then complete. Awakening a new found confidence and a unique method of capturing a moment, I was ready to search for my next location.