In 1851, Henry David Thoreau wrote in his journal, “The question is not what you look at, but what you see.” For centuries, artists have observed—and seen—their surroundings, capturing architecture, texture, color and structure through quick, onsite sketches. Subjective and energetic, this practice continues to inspire artists, including many in the Dayton region.
In May 2015, Terry Welker, a Kettering-based sculptor and architect, joined his colleagues at a national architect’s conference, and spent an afternoon walking with sketchbooks, observing and putting pen to paper, capturing parks, architecture, streets and public spaces. “As you move down the street drawing together, you see where other people are focusing, but you don’t necessarily draw the same thing,” he said.
Known for his mobile kinetic sculptures, Welker also actively shares his passion for artmaking, and recognized an opportunity to bring people together to experience Dayton in a new way.“For me personally, it was about getting out of my normal routine as a sculptor to enhance my visual abilities and to see and understand things better,” said Welker.
Welker initiated Dayton Urban Sketchers last summer and began sharing his work through social media.The momentum caught on and soon others were sharing their sketches. Welker organized the inaugural Dayton Urban Sketchers event, a sketch crawl, which took place on a June afternoon in the Oregon District. Armed with sketchbooks, pencils, pens and watercolors, a small group of artists began with a time frame, a general location, and a goal of 15 minutes per sketch. The event concluded with sharing drawings and talking about the experience. “The impetus is learning about the environment by drawing it,” said Welker. “The object is to learn by drawing, not to create a masterpiece. The idea is to capture the character, the memorable things that emerge as you study a place.”
The drawings created during the sketch crawl were diverse in styles and compositions, but shared a commonality of gestural lines, with ink and pencil marks rendering buildings, roadways, sidewalks, trees and various other details. “The pleasurable messiness of the city is my favorite part,” said Welker. “The crooked sidewalk or perhaps the overhead electric lines for the trolley system. Observing buildings in various conditions.”
Inspired by the various places, Welker has sketched throughout Kettering, and on his recent travels to Chicago and Mexico. “What’s interesting is how much you don’t notice until you have to draw it,” Welker said. “You are drawing things that you walk or drive by every day, but that you are just not seeing.Sketching is a way to help you become more engaged.”
Andrea Starkey, a printmaker, participated in the Oregon District event. “The practice of quick sketches forces you to think “big picture” rather than focusing on details. With printmaking, getting lost in the details happens to me continuously. Sketching is a reminder of the big picture. Composition, atmosphere, light and dark.”
Drawing urban environments is not a new practice, however the surge of networks to share and connect have created an international community.The landmark group Urban Sketchers, with a mission to “see the world one drawing at a time,” has over 70,000 followers on Facebook and organizes workshops and events around the world. Artists from all over the world, from Bukit Mertajam, Malaysia to Boston, Massachusetts, regularly share their drawings through Urban Sketchers. “It’s really exciting to see places through the eyes of other artists from all over the world with interest similar to our own here in Dayton,” said Andy Dailey, an artist who has participated in the Dayton Urban Sketchers events.
Beyond the practice of working quickly from observation, participants find value in the social nature of the events.“The camaraderie of artists working towards the same goal is probably my favorite part of the sketch crawls,” said Starkey. “The discussions before, during and after are interesting, fun and informative. Also, there’s something about sharing a sketch that’s probably beneficial to artists. It’s different than sharing a finished work. A sketch is more like a thought process or the first steps to a ‘work in progress,’” she said.
Dayton Urban Sketchers is open to all levels of experience, from the novice to the professional artist. “It is a time to share, learn, talk and get over the fear of the blank page,” said Welker. “This has nothing to do with talent…don’t worry about mistakes or bring precise.”
Throughout 2015, Dayton Urban Sketchers met on the 29th floor of the Kettering Tower at the Dayton Racquet Club where artist-in-residence Amy Kollar Anderson helped organized sketch events. “Working from observation is a skill that I think every artist should revisit at various times in their creative process, no matter their medium. It challenges you in so many ways,” said Kollar Anderson. “I am also a person who likes to take time and really develop the image. The Dayton Urban Sketchers encourage quick gesture sketches, which is definitely outside my comfort zone.”
Seeing, sharing, and inspiring make Dayton Urban Sketchers a part of Dayton’s creative vitality. “It is a chance to meet other artists, see new or familiar places in Dayton with fresh eyes, and often includes (but does not require) drinking beer! What could be better?” said Kollar Anderson.
Interested in participating or learning more? Visit Dayton Urban Sketchers group on Facebook or visit Urban Sketchers at http://www.urbansketchers.org.
This article was originally published in the July 26, 2016 edition of the Dayton City Paper.