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Report from the Urban Sketchers Symposium, Chicago 2017

August 16, 2017

We’re recently back from the USK Chicago Symposium, followed by somewhat of a prolonged after party, which we’ll be talking about in due time.

As usual I’m looking over the sketches we brought home and thinking – what have we learned from the workshop?

I think we learned that Direct Watercolor (no drawing – all brushwork) is hard!

But really worth the exercise.

It’s not that I’m going to give up drawing. This is not a religious conversion. “Burn your pencils!” (not).

You’ll see that I go right back to drawing as soon as the symposium is over. BUT – the thing is, if you try it, for even a few days, your painting instincts can take a big jump forward.

You learn first hand how much you don’t have to draw. How much you can really do with a brush.

So when you do return to the safer world of drawing under a watercolor – maybe you’ll break away from slavish coloring-in. Maybe you’ll have gained some of that freshness we love in watercolor.

We began classes each morning with two examples of Broken Silhouettes. One positive, and one negative shape.

Fortunately, there were plenty of sculptural examples right near the workshop meeting place.

If we look back at my outline for class, I think these first two subjects were easy enough to follow.

Combining line and shape together, in a single pass, using just the pointed round brush to either draw a shape – or to draw around a shape – using the background tone and then going back for interior details.

But after that we took a leap of faith, and had people dive into a classic skyline view of Chicago.

Which I think, on reflection, might have been a big ask :)

Looking north we had the Magnificent Mile in the distance, looking south (my favorite) the park surrounding the Field Museum and some glass towers rising above the train yards.

It shouldn’t matter what you are sketching – even if it’s an intimidating view. Everything can be reduced into a set of silhouette shapes.

A row of skyscrapers is no different than the lone statue. Think of it as a row of bricks.

Especially if you decide you don’t care about architectural rendering, and you’re just going to make a lively sketch. You can still feel the presence of the city, even if you reduce those huge buildings with hundreds of windows into flat shapes.

Just keep thinking about the silhouette edge of the horizon, and make sure there are some tiny elements for scale in the foreground.

I asked people at various times to try either the positive shape approach (as above), or the negative shape approach (below) – where the sky is used to cut out white silhouettes of buildings – which we go back into with shadow shapes.

The very best thing about the symposium is the enthusiasm and excitement everyone brings.

Everyone rose to the challenge of this unreasonable assignment!

Students are here to push themselves. To try new concepts with different artist instructors each day.

For an instructor, the symposium experience is different than any other workshop. These are the most passionate sketchers from their various home towns. The ones crazy enough to fly across the country, or even across the ocean, just to spend a long weekend drawing with 400 other people from sunrise to sunset.

So, I honestly want to thank everyone who took my workshop. I always head home from a USK event with a newfound passion for sketching that I pick up from my students. Thanks to all of you, and I hope we’ll get a chance to sketch together again soon!



11 Comments leave one →
  1. Jason Mullins permalink
    August 16, 2017 9:48 AM

    Good Stuff Marc! Thanks for sharing.

  2. melepling permalink
    August 16, 2017 11:29 AM

    Thank you Marc. You are always so generous with sharing tips and insights. So sorry I couldn’t make it to Chicago. Meet you in Porto?!

  3. Carmela R permalink
    August 16, 2017 11:44 AM

    Hi Marc,
    Thanks for sharing your insights. Your enthusiasm is infectious. Also thanks for making the images clickable, so we can see some of the detail that you add to make the image lively. I’m a faithful follower and always learn something to incorporate into my skill set. This technique is more adventurous for me, but I like being encouraged to step out of my box.

  4. August 16, 2017 11:45 AM

    Well said Marc. It was a pleasure to meet you Please do post when you do that multi-city/regional gathering of sketchers you mentioned while at the symposium.

  5. August 16, 2017 12:10 PM

    Wonderful sketches! I love especially the horse; it is so loose and lively!

  6. August 16, 2017 12:15 PM

    Your worksjop was excllent! Learned allot and I did push myself. I like direct watercolor.. and BTW I figured out the brush you were using, the WN with the shaped handle.. I did buy quite a few Rosemary brushes, a #10 travel Kolinsky, with a great point. And a rigger travel as well.
    Chicago was awesome!! See you in Porto!!

    • August 16, 2017 12:30 PM

      I hope so Eileen! I’ve been google-mapping Porto – omg, so much to draw in that town.

  7. Carla permalink
    August 16, 2017 2:11 PM

    Loved the workshop, Marc! Yes, it was rather hard . . . . . especially the negative painting of Abe! But like you said, it pushed us & I did something new. I agree that by doing exercises where you are not drawing, but instead painting directly, can help you to draw less under your paintings. Thanks. So much for sharing your wisdom with us!

  8. August 17, 2017 12:10 AM

    I was not able to attend, but I feel like I got a bit of the classes here. Thank you – what a fabulous experience.

  9. Glenn Tyler permalink
    August 17, 2017 8:34 AM

    Thank Marc. It was great to be able to attend your workshop. The entire symposium experience was inspirational and challenging. So many methods and styles.

  10. juliekessler permalink
    August 18, 2017 5:28 PM

    Thanks for a great workshop, Marc. It certainly was a challenge to paint directly, and I made some real duds while I was there, lol. But the concepts you taught are solid, and intriguing, and now they’re in my head–for when I feel up to them. For now I think I’ll stick to the drawing, tea, milk and honey routine until I’m more confident with those skills. Great meeting you, and thanks again for sharing your knowledge and love of painting with us. It was a real treat.

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