Tacoma’s Urban Sketchers are a dedicated group of intrepid folks who get out into the urban landscape and document the contemporary life of our beautiful city with nothing but their eyes and their hands and the most basic and inexpensive of equipment: pencil and paper. (Okay… high end paper is not cheap and the sketchers often use more than mere graphite in their renderings of the visual life of the city, but the case holds; these are people out there using their eyes and their sensibility to document our place in the world as it exists in this time that we share.)
Sketching a scene brings with it an awareness of place like no other. Even the photographer can’t absorb and ruminate on a scene the way a sketcher can. The sketcher becomes acutely aware of the relationships that exist between forms, shapes, lines and light. The sketcher may notice and lay emphasis a poetic harmony of shapes within a scene – maybe there is a series of triangles and domes to play with. Other sights might strike the eye with interesting contrasts. Often these are not found until the sketcher is already absorbed in the work. The objects within a scene may take on a symbolic meaning and the sketch becomes a visual haiku that can immortalize and aggrandize a fleeting visual scene.
Tacoma is so visually rich with scenery that is can provide a lifetime’s worth of subject matter for even the most dynamic and driven of sketchers. Here we have lush greenery, distant mountains, rolling hills, lakes, exquisite architecture and all of the romance of our maritime inheritance. It is the latter item, the maritime scenery, that is the subject for a show of work that the Tacoma Urban Sketchers have on display at the Foss Waterway Seaport Museum. In the museum’s art gallery area, there are more than 40 images created by our local sketchers, all involving the watery world in and around Tacoma. The show is called “Art Afloat.” There are scenes of various waters and land masses of Puget Sound as well as pictures of the multitude of pleasure craft, ships and working vessels that are always out there in Commencement Bay or travelling through the Narrows.
Some of the sketches were even done within the walls of the Foss Waterway Seaport itself.
Examples of the latter include Pam Jenkins’ “Treasures of a Bygone Era,” a scene of some of the museum exhibits done in watercolor and ink. With “Luscious Lines,” Jenkins captures the graceful shapes of some of the vintage, wooden boats that reside in the museum. Meanwhile, Daisy Abreu’s scene of the same boats is done with thin, easy lines of ink to form shapes that are filled in with light washes of watered down pigment.
Each of the artists has his or her own style. Darsie Beck’s scenes are expertly composed and beautifully drafted. Ken Fulton’s watercolor sketches are softly blended. KaCe Whitacre’s pictures have the crispness of a commercial poster. Frances Buckmaster’s “HMS Discovery” – a depiction of a model of Captain George Vancouver’s ship – is done with nothing but crisp, black line.
Gary Knudson’s pictures of ships are classical, masterful drawings of some of the working vessels of the Pacific Northwest. I enjoy his simple depictions with black ink on brown paper. His picture of a ship at Tacoma’s seaside grain storage (in ink and watercolor) is a gem. I want to give a tip of the hat to Knudsom for submitting only original work for this show.
I was disappointed to discover that more than half of the images in the show are not original sketches – torn straight from the artists’ sketchbooks – but are instead “archival copies.” A copy is one step removed from the physical hand of the artist. And it is this encounter with the hand of the working sketcher, that seems to be the point of the whole endeavor. In some of the work, the difference between the original and the copy is negligible, but in others, a great deal is lost. R.J. Lane’s beautiful gouache paintings are robbed of much of their richness with the loss of texture that comes from a copy. The presence of so many copies is a flaw that mars what is otherwise a very charming show.
The Tacoma Urban Sketchers is open to anyone in the greater Tacoma area (including all of Pierce County and beyond) who wants to draw on location and share some of their work in exhibits and on the group’s social media sites. You can join for free with the click of a mouse on the group’s Facebook page:
Any level of experience and ability in sketching is welcome. Members can go sketch on their own and post their drawings or they can participate in group excursions to locations with good things to sketch.
“Art Afloat” runs through Aug. 27 at Foss Waterway Seaport, 705 Dock St., Tacoma. For more information visit
The Urban Sketchers Manifesto
- We draw on location, indoors or out, capturing what we see from direct observation.
- Our drawings tell the story of our surroundings, the places we live and where we travel.
- Our drawings are a record of time and place.
- We are truthful to the scenes we witness.
- We use any kind of media and cherish our individual styles.
- We support each other and draw together.
- We share our drawings online.
- We show the world, one drawing at a time.
- We also encourage members to write descriptions and stories associated with each sketch.