The 10th International Urban Sketching Symposium, Amsterdam, July 24th-27th 2019

The 10th International USk Symposium has just wrapped up. It took place in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. The 9th USk Symposium was held in Porto, Portugal, in July 2018. One of the organisers, Nelson Paciencia, stood up to say a few words about the experience during the introduction one morning.

“The Symposium is not about the drawing,” he said. “It’s about the people!”

Then he said it again for emphasis.

Nelson’s words hit home with me. We all love sketching, but we love getting together more.

Two nights ago we said goodbye to a sweltering Amsterdam. It was a bit warm for comfort in Amsterdam for many, but that didn’t dampen the fantastic time we all had. Nelson was right. It was about the people. It was very special to catch up with old friends and to make new ones. Clichéd perhaps, but true.

On our last evening the urban sketching gods showed mercy and the weather cooled down enough that we all stopped looking quite so bedraggled and red (speaking for myself). Next year the 11th International Urban Sketching Symposium will be held in Hong Kong, and we are all very excited.

It was a super few days. I only made four sketches: all were done at my sketching location in Rembrandtplein, but what a location. A statue of Rembrandt stands on a plinth and is surrounded by shiny black soldiers who turn out to be the very subjects Rembrandt depicted in his famous painting The Nightwatch.

I had been quite playful with my proposal – the fun element of sketching is the best bit for me – and so I had promised to make the same ink and whittle the same feather quills that Rembrandt would have used when he sketched in the 17th century for my workshop.

Once I had committed to making ink and quills, and my proposal was accepted, I had to do it. And I did, and it worked, and as stood in Rembrandtplein and looked around me at fifteen sketchers scratching away with white goose feathers and ink made from my oak trees I felt a surge of pride. My garden, my ink, my feather quills. They were having a really good time, give or take swapping an inexpertly-carved feather for a better one, and to see the beautiful sketches they made was a special sight indeed. Without those 45 sketchers (three mornings of fifteen each) using my quills and ink, they were just feathers and black water on a table in my studio.

It’s about the people.

It was astonishing to me that it worked, sort as if I’d invented a machine and it worked – which is ridiculous, because iron gall ink and feather quills were used successfully for well over a thousand years of writing and drawing (albeit not by novice feather-carvers). The knowledge that I could chuck the feathers on the grass after we were finished and it would not even count as litter – not really – felt pretty cool too. (We didn’t. They work, and I will let others have a go.)

The playful bit done, we moved onto the main thrust of my workshop, which was to get my students familiar with using a 55-degree fude pen, and using it with confidence. I showed them its secrets – which aren’t very secret – and they all fell in love with the pen, just as I had hoped.

That done, I wanted to show them how much can be done with a single colour: from the white of the page to the most dilute colour to the very deepest it can go. I wanted them to see how it applies to any colour, and how conserving the whites and building up darks makes a subject spring into life.

In the above sketch from my first day, you can see the entire workshop, really – how to become familiar with the different line widths of the fude pen (top left), how to get different strengths of colour (left) and how to use layers of ink to build up colour.

I loved the contrast between the tourists acting the clown and the seriousness with which the soldier-statues are taking their job. Tourists took photos all day long: shaking hands with the statues, women embracing them, men pretending to fire their make-believe guns.Two burly Spaniards even climbed the statues, making them wobble under their weight. It’s tempting to think we live in sillier times – but then didn’t many painters of the Dutch Golden Age depict people acting the fool? Plus ça change, I guess.

I brought my family with me this year, as my youngest turned fifteen on Thursday. No-one likes the crowds in Amsterdam, but we urban sketchers were part of that.

“You know in a movie when there’s a fight scene, and then you look over the hill and there are thousands of soldiers coming,” said my son Paddy, who is nearly 18. “That’s what the sketchers were like in Amsterdam.”

Despite the extreme heat, the atmosphere was, as is always the case with urban sketchers, wonderfully convivial. The volunteers were stellar. The organisers had thought of everything. The city was beautiful. Everyone came away a better-informed and inspired sketcher. There were well over 1000 urban sketchers in Amsterdam this July…

Look out, Hong Kong!

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