The pursuit of creativity is very often a lonely route, unless collaboration is at its core.
Painting or writing usually needs the hard solo graft, the time spent in a studio or other workplace, away from other people. This solitude may, it's true, be the characteristic that draws us to such a way of life or pastime in the first place.
But there's no doubt that, for some, the act of working with other people from time to time can be a beneficial experience. One way of doing this is through sketchcrawls, which are informal gatherings of artists of all backgrounds and levels of experience who gather to draw or paint together at a particular location, to compare work, to discuss ways of working, and to generally have a sociable time. They are, in essence, simply groups of friends who meet to draw together.
Sketchcrawls turn what is essentially a lone activity into larger gatherings. By bringing people together at one time and in one place to do what they would otherwise be doing exposed and remotely, turns it into the norm rather than something unusual. At a sketchcrawl, suddenly it is the non-drawing onlookers who are in the minority and look out of place.
Sketchcrawl at the British Museum
My own introduction to sketchcrawls came through the Urban Sketchers community. There are currently around 150 international regional communities (or chapters, as they are known) of artists who draw on location, from Mumbai to Ramallah. The heart of Urban Sketchers is online, with work shared – and friendships built – through Instagram, Facebook, Flickr, Twitter and blogs, but there is also a focus on meeting in real life, through workshops, sketchcrawls and an annual symposium.
In the UK there are groups in Manchester, Southampton, London, Bristol, Cambridge, among others, who all meet regularly to draw together. The gatherings are informal, free and sociable occasions, pictures of diversity and inclusivity, with no tuition given and with all levels of experience and ability welcomed. They may consist of just a handful of people, or even 50 or more. Participants are welcome whether they have been drawing for years, or just bought their first sketchbook. They may involve a route from where people gather at the start of the day to an end point (as the term sketchcrawl, like pub crawl, suggests), but the start and end points may be the same so a single locality is explored.
Olga Mackness Canalside, gel pen and coloured pencils, (21x30cm)
A sketchcrawl often starts with a few words of greeting from the organiser, and details about places to explore for those new to the area, where to meet at lunch and the end of the day. Then people may split into smaller groups or go off alone to draw what interests them. People can come and go as they please, arrive late or leave early: there is no obligation.
If this sounds intimidating, it isn't. There is a huge variety of styles and approaches to drawing on location represented at these gatherings, and no prevailing sense of how things should be done. You will find people using pens, watercolours, charcoal, coloured pencils, tablets and more.
Some people spend the day making one drawing, while others reel off dozens. Sketchcrawls have a supportive, encouraging and non-judgmental atmosphere: a part of the day, perhaps at lunch or at the end, includes laying work out on tables or the ground so people can show their work, and look at how others have approached the same subject. This is very relaxed and supportive and, for those more sensitive about their work, nothing to fear. People may be passionate about their work, but the emphasis is on confidence building for those starting out.
Mike Whalley Canal at Little Venice, pen and watercolour, (21x30cm)
Fear of working alone
A common reason people take part in sketchcrawls is the sense of safety that working as a group can create. Standing on a street corner to draw can at first be intimidating, even in the friendliest and most familiar of locations. Most of us prefer to work without a large audience. Sketching together as a group seems to deflect unwanted working alone naturally subsides with experience, to the extent that some artists are disappointed when people do not approach them as they work.
Most sketchcrawlers, though, take part because it is an excellent way of meeting people with a similar interest. It is the conversation that accompanies the drawing that can be most inspiring and informative. They are places to discuss materials, drawing equipment and new products, and find out about competitions, exhibitions and other opportunities.
In perhaps a café or pub at the end of the day you can find yourself surrounded by a wealth of experience and know-how that is more effectively shared around a table than through hours spent online. There are, perhaps, some sketchcrawls when more talking is done than drawing, and that's not necessarily a bad thing.
Mary Ng Flyover, Paddington Basin, fountain pen, watercolour and collage, (18x25cm)
How do you find a sketchcrawl?
Events are invariably shared online: try a search through www.meetup.com to see if there is anything organised in your locality. Check how close your regional chapter of Urban Sketchers is on www.urbansketchers.org (it is surprising to discover how far people will travel to join established sketchcrawl groups.)
Perhaps even consider starting your own local group. It need only start with a handful of people, perhaps coordinated through a Facebook group page. This is useful not just for inviting interested people you know, and posting dates of events, but also for sharing work with each other after the event. It can be a surprise to find out how many people living nearby have been drawing in sketchbooks for years, hidden in plain sight.
Sketchcrawls aren't ideal for everyone. They are aimed at those who work on location and who are prepared to tackle what each location throws up.
Personally, I don't often make my best work when I'm working with a group. But if you find yourself bitten, like thousands of others, by the bug of drawing or painting in sketchbooks, or if you are keen to meet a diverse and inclusive group of people who do the same, it must be worth a try.
James Hobbs From the Gardens, Posca pens, (15x21cm)
What makes a good sketchcrawl?
The best sketchcrawls often have a variety of subject matter, a range of different things to draw in one location, although it is remarkable how different artists can create such different works when drawing the same subject.
A quieter location means the sense of unity of working together is easier to maintain. Participants can easily become lost in the crowd in busy tourist locations, for instance.
Choose venues that have amenities nearby, such as food, drink and toilets. Sketchcrawls may continue from, say, 11am to 4pm, with a mid-day gathering for lunch, so somewhere to take a breather is a must. Find a place to meet at the end of the day, such as a pub or café, into which you can all fit.
Consider a wet-weather contingency. Is there somewhere inside to continue drawing if the showers come?
Have a meeting point arranged for the midway point, or lunchtime, so that those who are late can join in for the second part of the day.
Take group photographs of those who come along to share online.
Nuria Navas, Little Venice, watercolour and ink pen, (21x30cm)
Urban Sketchers strength in numbers
Urban Sketchers was started in 2007 by Seattle-based Gabriel Campanario, who launched a Flickr site for artists who work on location to share their work. Nine years on, it hosts 220,000 images, and the non-profit group's Facebook page has more than 80,000 followers.
London's branch of Urban Sketchers started in 2012. The group has had four group exhibitions in bookshops and cafes, and been featured on BBC Radio 4. They have also been invited to document the changes in the Silvertown redevelopment area, in East London, as it is transformed over the years, and to draw from the top of a 32- storey tower in the financial district.
Manchester hosted the 2016 Urban Sketchers symposium, attracting around 500 artists from more than 40 countries.
Find out about a place for drawing groups in your locality and Urban Sketchers drawing communities in towns and cities around the world at www.urbansketchers.org
For information about International Sketchcrawl days visit: www.sketchcrawl.com
Meet ups: www.meetup.com
Tanya Paulo Little Venice, fineliner pen, (30x21cm)
James is a freelance artist, journalist and author of Pen and Ink, published by Frances Lincoln, price £9.99, ISBN 9780711238046; Sketch Your World, published by Apple Press, price £12.99, ISBN 9781845435141; and Dream Draw Design My Garden, published by Rockport, price £16, ISBN 9781631590429. James has exhibited widely and is an Urban Sketcher (www.urbansketchers.org).
For more information see www.james-hobbs.co.uk
This feature is taken from the April 2017 issue of The Artist
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