2016 USk Symposium reflections…

(Here’s the longer version of the piece I wrote for the USk blog, with an additional ‘next steps?’ section at the end. I’d love to hear your comments/reactions…)

I’ve been urban sketching for five years, and this summer went to my first Symposium. It was wonderful! I had expected something like a convention, but instead experienced a lovely cross between a mutual support group (“Hello, my name is Ed, and I’m a compulsive sketcher…”), and a potlatch where everyone brings something to share (techniques, approaches, enthusiasm). I tried to compare it to other large events I’d been to but there was always a key difference. It was like a music festival, but one where you got to jam with the headliners. Or an athletics meeting where you’re running alongside the elite athletes instead of watching them from grandstand, and it wasn’t competitive…


The overall atmosphere happily reflected the origins of the word Symposium (‘drinking together/convivial discussion’!) and was very relaxed as everyone indulged their sketching habit whenever and wherever. I had a strong sense of being among ‘my people’; it was lovely walking through Manchester noticing fellow sketchers lurking in doorways and perched on benches. There was sometimes a hall of mirrors effect, with sketchers sketching sketchers sketching sketchers. We had somehow infiltrated the whole city without anyone noticing!


A large comics convention was also in Manchester that weekend and it was interesting seeing another tribe enjoying their shared enthusiasms; they were easier to spot…


It was a very rich experience and I spent a fair amount of my time there pondering what it was that made it so different from the other festivals, conferences and gatherings that I’ve been to. I chatted with other participants and presenters trying to work it out, and realised that the largest part of the magic was the specific character of Urban Sketchers as a movement, and three key qualities stood out in particular.


Firstly urban sketching hits a sweet spot between amateur and professional. It is something that’s almost entirely done for love, providing a personal gateway for many non-artists into creative expression, but also complementing many people’s professional practise as architects, illustrators, designers etc. This helps to create a very healthy artistic eco-system with a huge variety of styles and approaches being shared. At the Symposium there were urban planners exploring how to bring life to their schemes, animators learning how to describe city life, and non-professionals getting tips on perspective from architects, and graphic design advice from illustrators. Everyone’s learning from everyone else, which leads me to the second characteristic…


Sketching from life and sharing the experience with others encourages a set of habits that are generally good for you and make you feel better (I’m not sure about the buying of art materials part…). Sketchers usually/often/sometimes (delete as appropriate) have the direct experience of incremental improvement through personal effort, helping us understand the rewards of practise and application. Sketching has a very effective feedback loop of reflection at its heart, the result of our effort is very visible, and we encourage others to help us in this reflection through sharing our creations on the various USk forums. The strong sense of community creates the sense of security that allows risk-taking and trying something new, another key part of effective learning, and this is extended by the coaching model used at Symposium workshops. As a result our sketching is also a great way to create ‘flow states’ and a sense of settled well-being; we take on a challenge, have a sense of personal improvement, become deeply engrossed in our practise, more sensitive to our surroundings, time stops, our brains stop chattering… On a sketch-crawl, and especially at a Symposium, all these positive effects are amplified, creating a very supportive and mellow learning environment. It gives us the direct experience of some great values in action, which brings me to the last characteristic…


Urban Sketchers is driven by a clear set of values that are positive and focussed on relationships; the relationships between us and our subjects, and between each other. Instead of a long list of rules focussed on specific media and techniques the USk manifesto simply describes a principled approach and a supportive community. At the Symposium there were sketchers using twigs dipped in ink alongside others using iPad Pros; the materials used were a source of mutual curiosity and conversation, but never a limiting factor; differences in approaches are explored and celebrated! The manifesto encourages direct engagement with the world around us, and an appreciation of the everyday; leave your home, notice what’s happening and try to express what you observe and experience on paper. It supports generosity; the sharing of ideas, opinions, encouragement, materials, advice and time is at the heart of USk online forums, sketch-crawls and the Symposium. It is international, inclusive and democratic, partly reflecting the key role social media have played in its formation and growth. Online each individual sketch stands equal next to the others that are posted; this was echoed in the silent auction at the end of the Symposium where everyone’s sketches were laid out alongside each other on long trestle tables in no particular order.


The manifesto’s focus on values gives the movement a great combination of strength and flexibility, the living of these values makes us feel good, and also helps to make the urban sketching crowd such excellent company!


So, are there any threats to the continuing growth and flourishing of all this loveliness? Not really. The possibility of a doctrinal split seems highly unlikely given the range of approaches currently embraced; we’re not a fragile mono-culture. Given the popularity of the last Symposium scale will become an issue, so maybe there need to be more regional/continental equivalents? Could it be exploited for personal gain? Well, some commodification could happen, but there’s only so many ‘signature range’ brushes and paints that anyone would want to buy, and there’s also a strong DIY/tinkering element within USk to balance this. USk is an ‘all volunteer non-profit’ organisation, making money is not its goal and the only riches to be had are social, educational and creative.


However, I think there are some opportunities for growth that we might miss. How can we share our observations of city life with the cities and people we sketch, not just our fellow sketchers? And how could we take our approach to sketching to other places and people? Three presentations at the Symposium show possible ways for this to happen; Lynne Chapman’s on being a ‘sketcher in residence’ within an institution, Karina Kuschnir teaching drawing to social science students, and Nelson Paciencia teaching drawing in prison.


Now the movement is well established, how can it evolve? What’s the next step? Which direction do you see urban sketching travelling in?


3 Responses to 2016 USk Symposium reflections…

  1. Pingback: Post-Symposium reflections… | Mostly drawing

  2. Viktoria says:

    It sounds like such a great experience. I hope to go one day!

    • Ed Mostly says:

      It’s the international distance and the resulting cost that makes it tricky for more people to attend. But it’s also the international mix that helps to make it so special. I suspect that we’ll start to have more smaller, regional Symposia (Europe? South America etc), especially as demand has made the annual so large and such a vast thing for volunteers to organise…

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