In the mid-1980s, on a hot summer afternoon in Montemolin, Spain, a teenage Gabriel Campanario sat alone on a street with a pen and paper. While almost everyone in his neighborhood took shelter indoors to cool off, he sketched a castle that loomed over his hometown. It was so detailed that his family made photocopies of his sketch and framed it inside a bar that his great-aunt owns. It is still there today, said Campanario, who attended the opening reception of “Sketching Cascadia” at downtown Edmonds’ Graphite Art Center June 24.
The latest exhibit showcases more than 100 sketches from 20 local urban sketchers, the largest one to date in the Seattle metro area. The artworks feature landmarks, architecture and natural landscapes of Seattle, Portland and even Vancouver, B.C., which were drawn from direct observations.
“Drawings made on the spot, from life, from observation, are very authentic form of expression. You just have a pen, a piece of paper, you’re recording what you’re setting,” said Campanario, the founder of Urban Sketchers, in a phone interview. “Some artists use ink, others use graphite, or mixed media, combining ink with watercolor. The records we make of places we see are very personal and unique because they cannot be copied or repeated. It’s harder when you’re photographing something to create a photograph that has your personal imprint.”
After he moved to Seattle with his family in 2006 to work at The Seattle Times as a graphic artist, his love for drawing “rekindled” and he started to sketch his new environment daily.
“Well, I got this new job and I really need to up my game in my drawing skills,” he said at the June 24 reception. “And what better way to do that than starting to draw everyday and keeping a sketchbook?”
Rather than focusing on individual drawings, Campanario thinks that looking at the collection as a whole gives viewers a better understanding of the artists’ work.
“I think the collection of drawings really shows a sense of place and time,” Campanario said. “Like you see scenes of construction happening in a city. When you draw, you’re also creating a moment of history. These aren’t timeless postcards.”
In 2007, after seeing the works of other sketchers from around the world and connecting with them online, Campanario started Urban Sketchers on Flickr. He hopes that this will gather all sketchers’ work into one online gallery rather than having to jump from one Flickr account to another. In 2009, the group became a nonprofit.
But even one account isn’t enough to display everyone’s work worldwide. Since the late 2000s, Urban Sketchers has expanded to New York City, O’ahu, Montreal, Spain, Belgium, Chile, Japan, China, Australia, and hundreds more. The group even has “correspondents” that visitors can contact if they wish to join a sketching session, including Harare in Zimbabwe, Tel Aviv in Israel, and Christchurch in New Zealand.
The name “Urban Sketchers” refers to the art, not so much the artists themselves, according to Campanario. Over the years, the blog on the website gave visibility to the artists, and also brought them together virtually and sometimes in person.
“This is not a practice that is a privilege of illustrators or architects or designers or painters,” he said. “Anybody can pick up a book and start sketching, and their skill will improve over time.”
Campanario had suggested earlier this year that the 2023 Sketcher Fest be held at Graphite in July, but after reaching out to the gallery director Tracy K. Felix, she said to him, “Well, how about doing an exhibit?”
“Tracy proposed to us to organize this exhibit, and I talk to the people at the Seattle chapter of Urban Sketchers to see if we have enough people who want to contribute,” he said. “It wouldn’t have happened without the Seattle Urban Sketchers. They are the ones who made this happen. It just kinda happened organically. We were looking for venues in Edmonds to host [Sketcher Fest]. Graphite offered to be a venue for the event and to host the exhibit that wasn’t initially planned.”
Sketching Cascadia runs from June 24 to July 29, 2023 at Graphite Art Center and is open to the public on Saturdays from noon to 4 p.m.; and daily from 4 to 9 p.m. at Charcoal restaurant.
“I hope visitors are inspired to pick up their own drawing tools and observe life around them,” Campanario said. “When you draw, you have to spend time looking at the subject, connecting with the place and noticing things that you wouldn’t notice.”
— Story and photos by Nick Ng