Sketching and Memory

I’ve recently discovered C’ville Images, a remarkable resource of historic photographs showing architecture and city life in Charlottesville. The images themselves are valuable as a record of architectural history.  But I especially like seeing the dialogue that often comes up when the site’s owner shares a photo through the Trumbull Photography Facebook page. People who used to know a now-demolished intersection will reminisce, and that online conversation reminds us that cities are more than just a collection of buildings and infrastructure, they’re collections of memories.

So last week, I was delighted when local photographer Steve Trumbull invited me to do a guest post on his site. He was interested in my own views of this city, which involve a sketchbook and (lately) a camera as well. I collected some of the recent photos I’ve made of my sketchbook on-location in Charlottesville, and he put them together here. Assembling the images for the post made me think (once again) about the importance of sketching what you see, where you see it. Of course, I think a lot about the distinctions between drawing from direct observation and taking a photograph, or even drawing from a photograph. It’s a central and important argument that comes up all the time when working with clients and students, and when talking with my colleagues who work on the Urban Sketchers non-profit with me.

While I was putting together the images, I ran across this interview with Noel Badges Pugh, aptly titled Sketches of Life. I shared an excerpt that I found quite thought-provoking on my own Facebook page. I’ll include the more complete quotation here, because I think it’s quite beautiful.

Always draw from life. Consider your lines, yet avoid being overly hesitant. There really is a zone you go into after drawing and concentrating for an hour or more. It opens a part of your mind where you might be surprised to find answers to questions you’ve been asking for many moons. It will unlock memories you thought long forgotten, and rekindle ideas dormant and seemingly lackluster. If you make a habit of it, drawing from life can give you an overall more profound living experience. You end up feeling more connected to your immediate surroundings, and become confident in trusting and acting upon your intuitions.

And much like the memories that are stoked by old  images of a city, this bit of commentary on the importance of drawing on-location ignited a lovely conversation about memory among friends and acquaintances online.  One friend (who lives in Hong Kong, and whom I’ve never actually met,) wrote something that made me remember why I love to draw, especially when I travel:

All the trips I made before I have a sketchbook along, the details were mostly vanished from memory. After I began record the “pictures” down by a sketch instead of a photo, I can recall all the nitty-gritties. I think I really don’t have the “photo memory,” instead of a “sketch memory.” Sketching is always a meditation and sometimes careful calculation, how to wisely spend the limit of time I set.

As I said, I’ve never met this friend, but now I feel like I know him. We share an experience, a memory.  Sketching in a group is a remarkably calm and meditative pursuit. It doesn’t matter where you go. If you see a group of people drawing together, they’re all in the same groove. It’s easy to dismiss the “likes” of Facebook and other social networks as meaningless flakes of narcissistic data. But I can’t help but look at the geographic spread of “likes” that came from the quotation I shared that day: Barcelona, California, Charlottesville, Manila, Rome, Memphis, Israel, Sydney, Argentina, and so forth. Some are people I have yet to meet, others are friends in “real life,” and then there are those few with whom I have actually sat quietly and sketched. You know who you are, and I remember our time well.

Note: Charlottesville Urban Sketchers meets every Sunday at 2pm. Locations are announced through our Facebook group, which is open to all.  You can also find us through Twitter and Instagram. Everyone is welcome and no experience is required.