I stop and scan the area carefully. I choose a table where I can sit with my back to the wall, making it easy to see entrances and exits. I order coffee while watching the sun-drenched square and the occupied tables in the café. Finally, I take out a sketch-book and hold it in such a way that it is difficult for others to see what I am doing behind it. I sit for an hour, indulging only in the occasional refill of my coffee cup and then retreating behind the barricade of my book.
Suspicious, right? If someone were watching me closely, they might think I was a spy or a criminal.
But I am that most innocent of people, a sketcher, and hopefully a recorder of the reality around me. My aim is to capture the scene using paper and pen. If the sketch is good, it will convey something of the light in the square, something of the tone of various conversations. Maybe it will even hint at how the air smells and what the temperature is. With luck, my sketch will turn out well, but even if it’s a poor one, it will have helped me really see the place and the people in front of me.
I notice, for example, that all the staff are male and that they wear clean white shirts and black pants. Each one sports a gray vest with four brass buttons. I see that the coffee cups have the name of the café running along the inside edge. The spoon resting on the saucer is well used, with hundreds of tiny scratches on its surface, but there is an elegant stylized “SC” engraved on its rounded handle.
The purple awning I am sitting under turns the shadows a shade of lavender and sharpens the edges of the silhouettes thrown by the sunlight in the square. The woman beside me is smoking, and her lipstick has left a smear on her coffee cup.
None of these details are important. What is important is that I am seeing them. When you look carefully and really see, even the ordinary becomes special. That is the true gift of sketching. It has taught me to see, it has slowed me down so that I pay more attention, and it has helped me connect with a whole tribe of people who share my passion for drawing.
Grace in the Everyday
Rediscovering grace in the ordinary has been the most important gift that drawing has given me. Frederick Franck, in The Zen of Seeing (Knopf, 1973), expressed it well: “I have learned that what I have not drawn, I have never really seen and that when I start drawing an ordinary thing, I realize how extraordinary it is, sheer miracle.”
By learning to draw, you learn to see differently. It is a way to silence that chatty, judgy left hemisphere, the part of your brain that says, Right, we’ve seen a bridge before. No need to look closely. That’s the left side’s job, of course, to filter and select, and it serves an important function. It puts blinders on us so that the massive input of data doesn’t overwhelm. But that also means that much of the world’s rich detail becomes a fuzzy background. To really connect and notice, it is important to silence the left brain and listen instead to the visual and intuitive input of the right brain. Sketching can accomplish that.
When I was sitting on a bench in the Putney district of London recently, drawing the Thames and the rowers, a little girl of about 8 or 9 sat beside me and asked what I was doing. Her name was Annabelle, and her sister was in one of the rowing sculls, practicing for a competition. Her mother was arriving any minute, but Annabelle was very interested in my sketch. “You could take a picture with your phone instead,” she suggested helpfully.
I asked her how long she had lived in Putney, and she said forever. So I had her stand with her back to Putney Bridge and asked her how many arches the bridge had.
“Four,” she said. “No, three, no four. Yes, four for sure.”
“There are five arches. You’ve been looking at them all your life, and you haven’t really seen them,” I responded. “But if you tried to draw the bridge you would know its details.”
When her mother arrived, she asked her to buy a sketchbook so she could draw. A convert!
The difference between taking a picture of something, an artificial kind of observing, and drawing that something is intensity of focus. When you look with the intention of capturing what you are observing on paper, you enter a whole different level of seeing.
Achieving Focus Through Sketching
When you sketch, you have to slow down. The process demands it. Even a quick sketch requires a static focus. For example, I recently spent two days walking the streets of Bogotá, Colombia, by myself, visiting museums, touring the main square, and absorbing the city. There was so much to take in that the result was a blur, a mishmash of impressions. It wasn’t until I spent time in a quiet and sunny square, sketching one of the villas in the old town and a few of the street vendors, that I was able to focus calmly on the true character of the city.
The lines of the villa were classically European, but the pale yellow walls and the strong sunshine that highlighted details of columns and window ledges were decidedly Colombian. Vendors chatted with customers, friendly but a bit wary and watchful. A group clustered around a cart selling coffee and arepas, talking casually. The cobblestones were warm, the sky was blue, and the shadows were sharp-edged. That was my closest contact with Bogotá, when I watched and listened and attempted to record its nature. I felt immersed in the city.
Sketching has also provided me with a connection to people. I feel I could land in almost any city in the world and find kindred souls who would welcome me into their sketching group. In England, I discovered an organization called Drawing London on Location and signed up to sketch in the Victoria and Albert Museum. Our group met outside the museum to connect with the group leader, Fabiola Retamozo, a full-time professional artist committed to building community connections through art. There were six of us, of different ages, from different countries, and with totally different styles of sketching. We then split up and found the places inside and outside of the museum that most interested us.
One of us sat on a bench across the street from the museum and sketched the architecture while the French girls in the group drew paintings in the main galleries. We met up after two hours and had coffee and cakes together in the museum café, sharing our drawings and getting to know a bit about each other. There was no judgment, no competition, just a really open and friendly hangout.
Retamozo believes that the drawing experience connects people, building relationships in a very short period of time. The post-drawing coffee talk often lasts longer than planned, she says, as the participants learn about each other through their sketches.
How to Connect to Drawing Groups
Organizations like Drawing London on Location make it easy to arrange to hang with like-minded people. Urban Sketchers is another organization that facilitates group sketching sessions in many cities. Drink and Draw sets up meetings in pubs in different cities and encourages attendees to share a pint while they sketch together. You can find others promoted through Meetup. It is a perfect way to meet locals and other travelers who share a love of art and drawing.
Passersby also like to strike up conversations when they see you sketching, which is why I often try to sit with my back to a wall. I initially felt embarrassed to have people looking over my shoulder while I was drawing. I am not a master painter by any means, so I am shy of my scribbles. But the people who stop to talk to me are, without exception, both kind and curious. Many are artists, or would like to be artists, and talk to me about their hopes of one day finding the time to return to creative activity.
Slowing Down to Really See
Today, when everything is on fast-forward, we can so easily just scan our surroundings instead of truly seeing them. Sketching forces us to slow down and relate to our surroundings. Looking with the intention of drawing what you see is slow, meditative, and connecting. Your drawing may not be very good, and it may not ever be finished, but sketching is not all about the finished drawing.
I have done some terrible drawings, but I’ve never done one that was a waste of time. Each one got me closer to the scene I was drawing. I can look back on drawings I did years ago and instantly remember what it felt like to be there—and I also recall the various people I connected with along the way.
So next time you are out somewhere and have a bit of time, try to draw the scene or the people in front of you. Don’t worry about the drawing being bad; no one needs to see it. Just draw what you see and look with intent.
You might like it even better than meditation!
This article appeared in Unity Magazine.
The article, designed by Mark Szymanski, was a finalist in the 2023 Folio: Ozzie Awards.