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Urban sketchers take on Seattle

The Seattle Urban Sketchers group, at its monthly meetup. Credit: Ronald Holden

In the beginning, if you wanted to record what something looked like, from a woolly mammoth to a soaring cathedral, you used the stub of a burning log and the side of your cave, or a pencil and a sketch pad. Then along came digital cameras, along came the Internet, and pretty soon there were a million photo blogs. But the old-fashioned way of seeing things — eye to hand to pen, brush or pencil and then to paper — never went away.

Drawing and sketching are back in vogue. The New York Times has had great success lately with a series on drawing human forms. And the goal of the new wave of sketchers, whose epicenter is here in Seattle, is to render the world, one drawing at a time.

The Seattle Times’ popular feature, Seattle Sketcher, features the work of one Gabriel (“Gabi”) Campanario. In addition to his newspaper illustrations, the 41-year-old, Spanish-born Campanario also has a personal blog where he discusses his work. A year ago he founded a group called Urban Sketchers, which quickly went global. There was a world-wide meetup of urban-sketching bloggers in Portland this summer.

So just as Salon’s Julie/Julia Project launched 10,000 food blogs, Campanario’s success and initiative have triggered a cascade of sketchers. The international blog UrbanSketchers.com highlights contributions by a parade of virtuoso artists. The Seattle group meets monthly to train eye and pencil on a specific subject (Sunday it was that old chestnut, the Pike Place Market), then gathers after two hours to share and discuss.

The dean of the local group is Frank Ching, a prof at the University of Washington. He quietly mentors newbies, comparing lines and perspectives on cellphone images and paper sketches. The group’s monthly meetup is managed by the talented Gail Wong, an architect and UW professor. Stars emerge: Jane Wingfield, for example, lives in Olympia and came to Sunday’s event with her sister. No question that her sketches belong in a category that could be deemed “commercial” without being condemned as “sell-out.”

Here’s the group’s “manifesto” (perhaps “mission statement” would sound less dogmatic):

1. We draw on location, indoors or out, capturing what we see from direct observation. 2. Our drawings tell the story of our surroundings, the places we live and where we travel. 3. Our drawings are a record of time and place. 4. We are truthful to the scenes we witness. 5. We use any kind of media and cherish our individual styles. 6. We support each other and draw together. 7. We share our drawings online. 8. We show the world, one drawing at a time.

One comes away from with this meetup with a profound sense of hope.

It’s not just that nothing escapes the notice of these artists (who have the inestimable talent to record it); it’s the reassurance that evanescent electrons may fade and fail, but — be it on the wall of a cave, on a papyrus, a canvas or a Moleskine notebook — a human being’s memory of what we created here will endure.

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