Observing People on Seoul subways

line 9aI take the subway to get around the city a lot. It’s silly not to. The subway station is almost at our doorstep and a ride costs slightly over a dollar which is great value for money considering how big Seoul is and how modern, clean, safe, punctual and fast it’s subways are.

Another benefit, relevant to the curious eyes of a sketch artist is the ability to observe people at close quarters! It’s even more fun when you’re fresh off the boat and your senses are so alert that they pick out the slightest nuances in your brand new environment.

In our early days in Seoul, all my brain did was to compare and contrast. When I saw people in the subways or cafes I didn’t just notice their physical features, I also involuntarily observed their posture, demeanour, hairstyles, fashion choices, personal habits and idiosyncrasies and compared those with people I had observed in other countries.

line 9bIt was a wonderful phase of learning and discovering!

One year down the road, it still is and I attribute my unabated curiosity to sketching because it always leads to uncovering interesting insights about the place I am currently living in.

For example sketching people on Seoul subways has led me to spot innumerable Seoulites reading online comic strips or enjoying baseball games on their phones.  A little digging unearthed the profound love for Manhwa (Korean term for comics and print cartoons) that I did not know about.

Engaging storylines, unique plot twists and attractive colourful artworks have made these webtoons (Korean comics released online on a weekly basis) so popular that some have been adapted into successful Korean dramas!

Line 9cThe love for baseball, the most popular spectator sport in Korea runs equally deep. It is believed to have been introduced to Korea by American missionaries in 1905 during the Korean Empire. The sport gradually attained prominence in the later years. And today there are 10 pro teams in the Korea Baseball Organization and over 8 million people watch the sport annually.

I am yet to add a South Korean baseball game to my list of experiences but if what I’ve heard – the electric music, roar of drum beats and the rhythmic swinging of people dressed in uniforms lending the game a rock concert vibe – is correct, then it’s going to be even more exciting that I imagined.

Line 9dSee some folks wearing surgical style face masks in some of my sketches? I was blissfully unaware of the poor air quality in Korea until I started sketching people wearing face masks not just inside subways but almost everywhere and kept wondering what could they be for. Fine dust, technically known as Particulate Matter (PM) has been acknowledged as a serious public health issue in Korea and it’s common practice here to wear these fine dust masks, available at almost all convenience stores and pharmacies, to block out harmful air pollutants.

Another observation I owe to subway sketching is about the popularity of the blunt fringe hairstyle with Korean me. Not captured in the sketches are the occasional hair flips by the said men to adjust the fringe followed by casual finger-combing and stretching the fringe dangerously close to the eyes possibly impairing vision but I wouldn’t know for sure.

Line 9eAlso, the number of people taking selfies (see above) and women seen applying make-up inside Seoul subways can put the most self conscious of us at ease. I have yet to wield a hand mirror to touch up my face while balancing without the support of a handrail on a moving train that’s packed to the gills with people but the day I manage such a feat with the practiced ease and nonchalance of Seoulites, I’d consider myself to be truly assimilated.

Until then I’m happy to be looking in, documenting what I see, feeding my curiosity and slowly adjusting to the place I now call home.

Hope you enjoy these pen and ink drawings on toned paper.












8 thoughts on “Observing People on Seoul subways

  1. Zezee

    That’s a lot you’ve learned from your observations while sketching.
    I’m curious to know if it was easy for you to observe people for your sketches. When I think about sketching people in public (I’ve never done so but have thought about it), I get a little apprehensive because I think I’d have to openly stare at the person/people. The same happens when I took an art class and had to observe at the models to draw them.

    1. Somali Roy Post author

      Hey! Glad you I asked coz I felt very awkward sketching people too when I started out but these two things have helped me – One, being inconspicuous in the crowd. By using a small pocket sized notebook and a regular pen you won’t draw attention to yourself. Picking a subject that’s slightly away from you and with whom the chances of having a direct eye contact is almost nil, really helps. Also, I try not to stare at my subject for too long in one go. Looking multiple times for few seconds and putting quick lines on paper will do the trick. Two, practice, practice practice. The more you draw, the less you have to stare simply because you will start retaining a lot more details about your subject. Even when the subject changes posture or leaves, which happens a lot you would still be able to complete the drawing from memory.
      Just start and keep going! I am definite that you will get over the hesitation that you’re feeling now 🙂

      1. Zezee

        Thanks for the tips! 🙂 I appreciate it. I guess I kept think I’d have to stare because it’s what I did in class. Well, not stare but one long look to draw one small thing.

  2. Gina

    You’re so clever with your sketches. If only I could be just as talented as you are. I love your everyday observations and how you capture what you see in your sketches.
    It’s a very refreshing way to see the moment, instead of using an iPhone to capture it in photos.

    1. Somali Roy Post author

      Hi Gina,
      Thank you so much for your lovely comment. I am glad you see value in capturing moments via hand draw sketches! Believe me when I say that I wasn’t good at it when I started out. I just kept drawing anyway because I was interested and gotten better eventually. You can do it too! If you are interested, I could point you towards some books and art communities that could help you get started and spur you on.
      Thanks again for writing to me!


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