Urban sketching, though a relatively simple style of painting, is nevertheless one of the richest introductions to any city out there. It’s akin to scrolling through the Instagram page of a local, but instead of only seeing from their physical perspective, you also gain insight into what about the scene resonated with them — which colors, which angles, which details. Urban sketches are elegant snapshots that capture real moments of life in a city.
The popularity of urban sketching has skyrocketed over the past 15 years, but as an art form it has been around as long as cities, paper and drawing tools have existed. Known for his graphite and watercolor sketches of buildings and streetscapes in Penang, Kiah Kiean Ch’ng is one of the pillars of the urban sketching community in Southeast Asia. He’s held 18 solo exhibitions in the past twenty years, published four art books and co-founded the Penang chapter of Urban Sketchers, a global non-profit collective of artists.
“When you go outdoors to sketch, you learn something from the location,” he commented. “You get to observe the details, you can feel the space, it is very real. It is very different from drawing from a picture.”
While urban sketching isn’t abstract, it’s not overly focused on accuracy either, an aspect of that attracts a great many casual and aspiring artists. As the goal is to sketch what you see, you’re not obligated to produce creative inspiration from a void. And by its very nature, a sketch is imprecise, freeing you to approach the subject without the pressure of ‘getting it right’.
One of the things that makes Kiah Kiean’s art stand out is not only the quality and resonance of his sketches but the tools he uses. In 2011, he began experimenting with twigs (specifically Water Jasmine twigs) and Chinese ink to create dry brushstrokes, a style he quickly became known for. A vivacious teacher as well as an artist, he insists: “Sketching is very easy and simple. Everyone can do it. All you need is a pencil and paper.”
If you’d like to deepen an upcoming visit to Penang, Kiah Kiean leads a StraitsJourneys experience as a means of exploring the city, where he guides participants to create their own unique sketching tools from dry twigs and sponges, and to sketch urban scenes with Chinese ink.
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An Irish-American residing in Singapore, Laura Jane O’Gorman Schwartz is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. Her work has been featured in publications such as The Wall Street Journal and The Shanghai Literary Review.