Tacoma’s Urban Sketchers show their work at Handforth Gallery

Mark Ryan’s sketch of Browns Point. Photo by Dave R. Davison

Tacoma’s Urban Sketchers are exhibiting a sampling of their work at the Handforth Gallery, which is housed inside the main branch of the Tacoma Public Library. There are several dozen matted and framed works of art done by members of the group of intrepid artists who, armed with only a sketchbook and a modest drawing kit, go into the urban environment and use their drawing skills to capture the essence of their surroundings. Normally we are too caught up in the web of our own concerns to pay much attention to the complex visual tapestry that surrounds us every moment of every day.

The act of making a drawing, even a quick sketch of something immediate, forces one to pay attention to the details of objects and the patterns to be found in the way of objects juxtaposed next to and in relationship to one another. A person working with simple drawing tools (anyone can learn to draw) has the advantage over a camera in being able to pick and choose from among a gush of visual details. The draftsman or artist cannot help but render an interpretation of a scene, since it would be impossible to capture every single detail in the manner of a camera. The art is in what to draw in detail, what to simply suggest and what to leave out. “Exaggerate the essential and leave the obvious vague,” was Vincent Van Gogh’s guiding principle. When he looked at a person, a sunflower, a building or a landscape, he looked for details that captured the essence of the subject and zeroed in on that. Every artist is free to define their own criteria for how to process the visual data with which we are surrounded.

There is work by almost 20 artists in the Handforth Gallery show. Most of the sketches are done in ink with watercolor used to give color to the scenes. A few of the artists use somewhat more exotic media. The intimate, jewel-like pictures draw the viewer from one frame to the next. Most of the work depicts Tacoma and surrounding areas, but others go much further afield (like Peter Darling’s scenes from Mexico, or Gary Knudson’s drawings from Switzerland and Spain.) I personally enjoy seeing our own location celebrated by the artists, who excel in finding hidden treasures, like the Hobbit House at Brothers Greenhouse (towards Gorst) by Kate Buike, or Loretta Morgan’s lovely depiction of the Japanese Garden at Point Defiance Park. Some of the sketches are quick renderings that sum up a scene with economy. Others are full blown works of fine art, like the scenes of Union Station and the UW-Tacoma Library by Pam Jenkins. Done in ink and watercolor, these beautiful drawings are complete with elaborate titles that run along the bottom of the page. Likewise, Mark Ryan’s multi-paneled sheets of individually colored drawings are like something from a wizard’s notebook.

Frances Buckmaster has a clean, crisp style. Her “Breakwater Marina” captures all the business of boats, masts and rigging using nothing but concise lines of black ink. Some of her pictures made with ink and prismacolor have a tapestry-like feel.

This show exudes visual charm. I love Ray Cutler’s family portrait of a group of oddball objects (an old traffic light and a gumball machine among them) encountered at Freighthouse Square. 13-year-old Jayden Santana’s drawing of the Northwest Room of Tacoma Public Library is a study of geometric relationships of the books, tables, cabinets and architecture of that special repository of Tacoma history.

Tacoma’s group of Urban Sketchers trace their immediate lineage to Gabriel Campanario, the Seattle Times artist who started the new iteration of the movement in 2007. Urban Sketchers as a nonprofit organization, dedicated to fostering the art of on-location drawing, was begun in 2009. In the greater Tacoma area, the sketchers are seeking to build a group of fellow artists who regularly attend outings and are willing to post their sketches on the group’s Flickr site (www.flickr.com/groups/tacomasketchers/) or Facebook site (www.facebook.com/groups/UrbanSketchersTacoma).

If you’ve been meaning to get back into drawing or have always wanted to learn to draw, let this exhibit serve as your inspiration to take up thy sketchbook and scribble. The world is right there in front of you. Look at it. Suck it in through your eyes, run it through your heart and head and spew it out onto paper through the tip of your pen.

The Urban Sketchers exhibit runs through March 3 at Handforth Gallery at the main branch of Tacoma Public Library, 1102 Tacoma Ave. S. For information on Handforth Gallery, visit www.tacomalibrary.org/handforth-gallery.

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