Urban Sketchers Penang: drawing places to truly see them

Urban Sketchers Penang: drawing places to truly see them

Learn how this group grew from just two friends to a whole movement of sketchers recording a rapidly changing heritage city.

By Nicole Chang

Have you noticed a group of kids, youths, middle-agers and seniors sitting at the corner of a street on a Sunday morning, focusing on their sketchbooks? They’re from Urban Sketchers Penang (USk Penang), a local group born out of a larger global urban sketchers community called Urban Sketchers (USk).

A typical Sunday morning outing for the sketchers

Founded in 2007, Urban Sketchers is dedicated to fostering a global community of artists or sketching enthusiasts who share an art manifesto to cherish the stories of places through drawings. They sketch scenes they come across in any preferred medium or style, sharing these visual stories of places among themselves digitally.

As an architecture graduate who enjoys sketching buildings and streetscapes since his schooldays, Ch’ng Kiah Kiean was easily attracted to the idea of urban sketching when he came across USk’s blog. Impressed with the initiative, he joined USk in 2009 and became the first correspondent of USk in Malaysia.

A year later, together with his sketching companion, Khoo Cheang Jin (a professional architect cum watercolour artist based in Penang), Ch’ng visited the Bangkok Sketchers. They experienced their first group sketching in Bangkok city which then inspired them to initiate Penang Sketchers Group Facebook in June 2010.  

Ch’ng (top row, right) and Khoo (second row, fifth from left) with the Bangkok Sketchers, 2010

Through updates of their routine sketching activities on Facebook, Ch’ng and Khoo slowly linked up with a group of hobbyists and artists based in Penang, who stayed connected virtually. With weekly updates of the next sketching venue, anyone interested was welcomed to join their Sunday morning outings. Sketchers gathered to capture scenes of landmarks, festivals or events on the streets of Penang. They ended each session by sharing their completed works for the day with each other.

In December 2011, this group, previously known as Penang Sketchers Group was renamed Urban Sketchers Penang and became a part of the global USk community. USk Penang’s Sunday sketching gathered nearly 30 active sketchers from all walks of life to consistently sketch to record Penang’s locals and surroundings.

Besides weekly outings, USk Penang interacts with global sketchers by participating in events hosted by USk and other USk groups. In 2012 and 2014, USk Penang hosted the first and second Sketching George Town events, gathering Southeast Asian sketchers in the historical city for sketch outings, workshops, sharing sessions and group exhibitions. Soon, sketchers from Batu Pahat, Ipoh, Kota Kinabalu, Kuching and Kuala Lumpur (and many other states) started to form their own groups.

The International Urban Sketching Symposium held by USk in Barcelona, Spain in 2013

Ch’ng was an instructor at the symposium, sharing his signature style of sketching with a dry twig and Chinese ink

‘Unlike other art societies, USk Penang is a non-registered group. It requires no specific commitment. We openly welcome and encourage people to join us to appreciate and share what we see in our surroundings through sketching together’, Khoo explains.

He is impressed that USk Penang has constructively helped art enthusiasts to develop their passion and skills through sketching – a fundamental technique in art. The weekly sharing of the day’s drawings and the annual showcase of sketchers’ drawings encourage sketchers to further develop their skills and expand their engagement in art. ‘I noticed some who joined us as hobbyists earlier are now actively engaged in art-making. Some started to join other art exhibitions and events,’ said Ch’ng.

Sketching George Town I in 2012

‘Some sketchers join us along with kids. Sketching could likely become a family bonding activity too. Besides, the sketches capture memories and history of places. From my old sketches, I found that some buildings or scenes captured now no longer exist due to development or particular incidents.’

Ch’ng agrees that sketching and sharing the sketches of the landmarks and surrounding environment, both natural or built, may help in nurturing the ‘sense of place’ among the community. That consequently improves their sensitivity to what is existing or happening around them, encouraging them to cherish and embrace what they have.

USk Penang’s Group Exhibition – See George Town One Drawing at a Time, at Jetty 35, December 2019

Ch’ng himself attributes his personal growth to being part of the USk community. ‘Through visiting different places and interacting with sketchers or artists in different countries, I have opportunities to keep myself updated with new knowledge and continue to be inspired with new ideas, not only about art-making but also about living in different places at different times’.

Besides being a branch in art, urban sketching could be a positive social interaction that builds connections among sketchers or between sketchers and places. Through sketching, sketchers act as witnesses to the progress and development of a place.

Cover image: Sketching George Town II, a gathering of Southeast Asian sketchers in 2014, organised by USk Penang.

All images courtesy of Ch’ng Kiah Kiean.

Nicole Chang is a social science PhD graduate interested in the art sector’s contribution to creative city-making.