Category Archives: Seoul Sketches

A walk around the neighbourhood

A year and a half back when we moved to Seoul and found an apartment in the Gangnam area, my first instinct was to explore the neighbourhood.

Every day after finishing work, not knowing where to head exactly, I picked a random road and kept walking on it until my legs hurt while taking everything in. And if something caught my eye I  stopped and took a few minutes to examine it, like the vending machine for flower bouquets I once stumbled upon by the roadside. crayon5

A standalone booth with multiple glass panels displaying a collection of flower bouquets  was something I had never seen before! Or the mobile tarot card reader conducting business from a lurid pink truck. I still remember being amused by the life-size Statue of Liberty replica outside Gangnam station’s exit 11, looking as much out of place as the mom-and-pop kimbap (korean sushi roll) stall beside it, both dwarfed by shiny hi-rises, plush hotels, designer boutiques, clothing retailers, cosmetic surgery clinics and cafes!

It took me a walk or two to realize how ubiquitous cafes are in Korea! They seemed to be everywhere, hidden in basements, inside shopping malls, museums, subway stations, on rooftops, under office buildings, along narrow alleys, and on bridges even. An article published in Korean Herald in March 2017 says Korea has the world’s fourth largest number of Starbucks coffee stores in relation to its population. crayon2

In the evenings, I found people gathering in front of food trucks lined in the back alleys selling barbecued meat on skewers, corndogs, teokbokki (rice cakes in hot and spicy red pepper sauce) and Odeng (fish cake on skewers served with hot broth) or making a beeline for the numerous Dak-galbi (spicy stir fried chicken), Korean barbecue and fried chicken joints.

In hindsight, not having a destination is sight was exactly what I needed to process my surroundings. I let curiosity fill the blank slate I arrived with to my neighbourhood with new impressions. Having lived in Seoul for a while now, I may not see everything with a fresh pair of eyes as I once did, but I still go on my walks, without a destination in mind and with a sketchbook in hand.

Because you never know what lies at the next corner.crayon3

Like the wondrous sight of streets covered with golden gingko leaves after a light shower. See the first sketch. On my recent walks from November to early December until it became too chilly to spend time outdoors, I observed my neighbourhood transitioning from fall to winter. Having lived on a tropical island for the last seven years and stuck with the same weather, the novelty of changing seasons isn’t going to wear off anytime soon.

And I find myself attuned to everything that enunciates this seasonal transition. From a guy furiously sweeping dry leaves off the sidewalk along Teheran-ro which is one of Seoul’s busiest roads to someone browsing winter jackets at ‘Vin Prime, the Vintage select shop’, I have them captured in the pages of my sketchbook. With the sudden drop in temperatures the mannequins at the shop windows of Gangnam’s local boutiques had changed their look too. In the drawing below, I sketched this girl checking out a bright red coat freshly displayed at Dalfactory and probably trying to find a reason to come back for it later! I know I would.crayon4

The last sketch is also of a scene observed on Teheran-ro which is lined with giant trees that were hurrying up and shedding their giant yellow leaves. What caught my eye was the caption on this guy’s sweatshirt. He was waiting for the traffic light to turn green and I was standing right behind him wondering if the hoodie looked like a shark’s jaw.

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The perfect bag

Is there such a thing? Or is it a construct of our imagination?

After losing several items of value over a period of time my husband recently decided to invest in a bag that he could carry to work everyday and around the city on weekends. Not a laptop bag, but something smaller, lighter and reasonably priced that could hold everything which until now was clutched in hands or stuffed in pockets and had been subsequently dropped or left behind in cabs, at meetings, cafes and bookstores.

You know, like pens, notebooks, phone, sunglasses, e-reader and the occasional umbrella.

crayon 1a.jpgThe search began, casually at first but actively after the loss of a fairly new kindle either at the tea house across our apartment or inside the stationary shop next door. There’s no way of knowing so we give them both the stink eye.

The following weekends were spent walking in and out of stores sometimes hopeful but mostly despondent. The perfect bag seemed elusive. If the fabric was agreeable, the colours were dull; if the number of pockets were ample, the space inside the main compartment wasn’t; if the design was fabulous, the size didn’t work, if the size was decent, the price was outrageous.

One day while rummaging the house for something I don’t recall anymore, out came an old leather satchel we had owned for years. It wasn’t the perfect bag my husband was looking for. But with time and use, it is becoming one, as most things do when we agree to calibrate our criteria for perfection.

The above drawing is of him checking out some options at the store and not looking very convinced.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lunch dates

Once every month, I and my husband go on a lunch date. We just pick a date and show up at the same place, for the same thing.

In Singapore, it used to be for what I believed unequivocally to be the best dumplings in the city-state. Old Hong Kong Kitchen’s xialongbao could make your taste buds swoon in in ecstasy. And now having moved to Seoul the tradition continues at The Pig In The Garden.

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Salad lunch at Pig In The Garden drawn using crayons

But with salads instead – big bowls of crunchy greens coated in a light and punchy vinaigrette, topped with tender proteins, plump fruits, berries, nicely roasted nuts and the sweetest and juiciest red tomatoes. Portion sizes are substantial and the food quality is consistently top notch.

We enjoy our meals at a table by the window over a nice chat and then head to Yeouido Park across the road for a stroll before getting back to work. This we repeat every month. Because wherever we may live, and how many new and exciting experiences we may collect on a regular basis, there will always be comfort in familiarity. Perhaps, our lunch dates are a nod to that.

 

 

Following the herd

I have spent two summers in Seoul and one of the most common sights during this time of the year besides every other person eating bingsu or licking ice creams while holding a portable fan in front of his/her face is every other person wearing linen.

Be it linen shirts, dresses, skirts, shorts, trousers, culottes, jumpsuits, jackets or business suits, in Seoul’s unbearably hot and humid months of July and August, linen garments in every form seem to gain significant space in the Korean wardrobe.

The clothing retailers on Gangnam-daero, in the stretch between Sinnonhyeon Station and Gangnam Station have their store fronts decorated with mannequins dressed in linen, paired with sunnies, straw hats, rattan handbags and open toe sandals. Inside the stores are sections dedicated to all kinds of linen garments ready to be snapped up.

What is it about linen that makes this fabric a classy summer staple? I wanted to know.

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Trying on some linen pants at Uniqlo, Seoul

And so I did a little digging and found that linen is made from the fibres of flax plant which are strong, durable and absorbent and dries quicker than cotton making linen garments feel exceptionally cool and fresh.

And the fact that it has been around for thousands of years – in ancient times linen used in wrapping Egyptian mummies served as a symbol of light, purity and wealth and were found in a state of perfect preservation – only reveals how timeless this natural fabric is. Linen also is lint-free, has high natural lustre, resists dirt and stain and becomes softer with every wash. I got my answer, so there was only one thing left to do.

The sketch above is of me trying on some linen pants at Uniqlo. I bought a few and they are every bit as comfortable as I had expected them to be. This summer I am following the herd but in style!

Polka-dotted brolly and a wiseass tote bag

I am forever in awe of the things I see when I am out sketching.

They are not momentous, life altering events or rare, one of a kind objects. In fact, they couldn’t be more humdrum and yet I am hooked in the deepest and most profound way. Every minute spent observing life and documenting it in my sketchbook feels more honest, real, fulfilling and joyful than any other job I have held and drawn paycheques from. And I often ask myself why that is?

And each time I find myself thumbing through my drawings in search for answers.

These sketches are from my latest sketchbook. All 24 pages filled with drawings of people in different cafes and eateries in Seoul. The sketchbook starts roughly at the time when the city was emerging from the throes of winter. The sun felt warm on our faces, the breeze wasn’t bone chilling and there were leaves on brown spindly branches. We were reaching for lighter coats and winter boots were being stowed away.

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When I saw this girl in my first drawing, wearing a baby pink flowy shirt with her sweater casually thrown over her shoulders, drinking a matching pink drink I felt spring tiptoeing into our lives. And it was. The next couple of weeks were spent hiking, reading books in al fresco cafes and chasing cherry blossoms around Seoul.

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Fresh, new, colourful could describe everything – the weather, our clothes, food (strawberries were in) as well as our soaring moods! The two women in the drawing above wearing whacky, bright coloured jackets epitomized the ‘if you’ve got it, flaunt it’ nature of the season.

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See the guy in the red glasses enjoying his meal in the drawing below? I noticed him from the end of the room and eventually drew him because in a world of distractions, it was interesting to see someone so deeply engaged in just the one thing. He used his hands to pick up the food, admired it and then put it in his mouth very gently. With eyes closed he relished each bite as if to taste the ingredients and appreciate the workings of the recipe. To me, it looked like the food was nourishing his soul as much as his body.

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After the hubbub of Spring, it rained incessantly for days. The skies were grey and everything felt wet, cold and damp. I went out for a cup of hot tea to shake off the gloom and what do I find in the cafe? The brightest polka dotted umbrella resting against a chair occupied by a guy wearing a cap so red that it could stop the traffic. He had ripped jeans on and a t-shirt with a plunging neckline that revealed a tattoo very similar to a paramecium I had once drawn in my Biology notebook.

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This drawing above is also my favourite in this series because here I was looking sloppy, moping around because the sun wasn’t out and my laundry wouldn’t dry whereas this guy was dressed fashionably enough to walk the ramp, rains be damned. And in veritable defiance he was carrying the most happy looking umbrella that screamed ‘in your face, crappy weather’ in bold letters. If something is unacceptable, there can be really creative ways to push back! That evening not only did I feel avenged, I returned home with a better attitude.

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The next drawing is of a bunch of elderlies licking on pink ice-creams. What you don’t see in the picture is how excited they were to see each other when they met at the cafe and how impatient they were for their treats to arrive after placing the order! I drew their droopy posture and wrinkled faces, but what I couldn’t capture and only witnessed was their child-like abandon at rejoicing something so basic and timeless – friendship and $1 ice-creams on sticks.

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My neighbourhood in Gangnam is a shopping mecca, the reason why cafes in this locality receive a lot of customers with shopping bags in tow. Sometimes to entertain myself when I’m drawing them I try to guess the contents of the shopping bags based on the label. It’s a fun game!

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And occasionally educational because that’s how I came to know about ‘8 Seconds’ (see the drawing above) which is Samsung’s high street brand. Did you know Samsung, the South Korean multinational conglomerate that most of us associate with phones and electronics has an established presence in the fashion industry? In fact Samsung launched ‘8 Seconds’ to compete with the growing local presence of global fast fashion retailers like Zara, H&M and Uniqlo.

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On one such day while playing the scintillating game of ‘guess what’s in the bag’ as if to challenge my speculative prowess walked in a girl with a canary yellow tote bag that said, “How to be Popular”. See the drawing above.  After finishing her food and drink I watched her walk out of the cafe with the bag held tightly under her arm.

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She didn’t leave a clue about the bag’s contents. But she left me the story – of a wise-ass tote bag sighting in Gangnam! And that I realized is what keeps me hooked and makes me come back for more. The story if you pare it down is an interesting visual which I capture in a sketch and my response to that visual stimulation which I narrate to you in words. And it’s addictive because collecting stories like these on a daily basis makes me feel like I am participating in my own life.

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Like I’m in the field, playing the game and not cheering from the sidelines. Like every day could have something to wonder about.

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Isn’t that something? This sketch above on the last page of this sketchbook is of a woman I saw the other day, probably a teacher marking an answer sheet while talking on the phone. Judging from the red marks it didn’t look good for the student.

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday Afternoon

 

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Siesta in progress in the living room of our Seoul apartment. 

is the awkward empty space on our weekend calendar that we never know how to fill.

In between active mornings spent outdoors, long leisurely lunches and evenings spent mourning the end of the weekend comforted by Netflix and a bowl of salted popcorn, lies the vacant, vanilla afternoons.

Never earmarked for anything specific, this orphaned chunk of time gets adopted differently each week. On some occasions we cozy up to our Kindles and catch up on reading. On others we play scrabble. Or video chat with our parents. Or dive into the bottomless pit of social media.

But on some afternoons when the low-hung sky darkens with ominous clouds, the lulling breeze blowing in from the windows soothes our skin and the smell of wet earth fills the rooms, on those afternoons with the pitter patter sound of the first raindrops our eyelids become heavy. And even though we squint and blink trying to stay awake, la siesta takes over.

One of us sinks into the sofa, rests his head against the cushions and puts his feet up on the table. The other drops everything, picks up a sketchbook and draws the scene!

 

 

Spring in Seoul

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Cherry Blossoms at Yeouiseo-ro Road in Seoul

is a reminder of how incredibly lucky I am to be living in this city right now.

How else would you describe this feeling of walking with your face to the sun, peeking at the most serene sky with puffy clouds floating across its chest from under the dense umbrella of pink blossoms, so delicate that the slightest hint of breeze dislodges them from the gnarly branches and sends them earthwards in a flurry of petal showers.

Suddenly your regular walk in the park is not so regular anymore. It has improved by a million degrees. At the end of each day when you’re home contended at having spent hours experiencing this unbound beauty, you find a petal stuck in your hair or coat. And at that very instant you pine to go back the next day. And the next. And the next. It’s never enough. Not just because cherry blossoms are spectacular, and when describing them you runout of superlatives but also because they are ephemeral.

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The Yeouido Spring Flower Festival on Yeouiseo-ro Road attracts tourists and locals alike

They don’t last long. And while their beauty is always laced with a sense of impending loss, I take comfort in the fact that for now, the city is abloom with thousands of cherry blossom trees, not just in the mountains, parks, gardens, royal palaces and the long stretches of pedestrian roads in certain neighbourhoods which are the best places to view them in abundance but simply everywhere.  You don’t even have to look hard. Just look around! Against a dark coloured brick house, by a lamp post or partly hidden behind the grocery store you find these lone soldiers bobbing their pink heads.

It is such a treat to be out and about at this time of the year!

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Drawn using dip pen and ink

For the last two weekends I am having my fill of the cherry blossoms by going everywhere my two legs would carry me. And so are hundreds of people, as you can see in my sketch. I drew it from an wooden bench on Yeouiseo-ro Road, right behind the National Assembly. It is undoubtedly one of the most easily accessible (National Assembly Station, exit 1) and best places to view the blossoms, 1886 Korean Cherry trees in bloom to be exact. From infants in prams to geriatrics in wheelchairs, the whole city is here and in awe.

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1886 Korean Cherry trees in bloom at Yeouiseo-ro Road, Seoul

The other places where we viewed the blossoms were in Yeouido Park (Yeouido Station, exit 3), at Jungnangcheon Cherry Blossom Road (Walk 15 mins from Gunja Station, exit 1 in the direction of Gunjagyo Bridge) in Dongdaemun-gu, stretching 3.4 km from Gunjagyo Bridge to Baebongsan Bridge, around the Seokchon Lake next to Lotte World ( Jamsil Station, exit 2 or 3), and inside Gyeongbokung Palace (Gyeongbokung Station, exit 3).

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Cherry Blossoms at Yeouiseo-ro, Seoul

There are many other popular as well as lesser-known spots across the city to satisfy your cherry blossom cravings in Seoul but if I had to pick one, I’d scoot off to the exact same spot in Yeouiseo-ro Road from where I sketched this view. If you’re planning a visit, I suggest you pick a bright sunny day and don’t look at your watch while you’re there.

Just be.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Furrowed eyebrows vs Fall colours

I saw this guy at a cafe yesterday in the CBD. Dark coloured tailored suit, slicked back hair, serious looking glasses and still like a statue with his nose buried in a book on finance and investing. And just outside the cafe separated by glass windows were trees in the deepest shade of red and in the brightest shade of yellow, branches swinging in the breeze and leaves flying around like confetti.
It was such an interesting contrast and I was glad I had my sketchbook to document that moment!

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The Back alleys of Insadong

are becoming a favourite place of mine to not just sketch but to hang out as well.

What draws me to these narrow and winding cobbled streets is the errant undisciplined, out of control commingling of the old and new that you see every step of the way.

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My take on Insadong 14-gil, Seoul

From my corner on Insadong 14-gil, I see two conspicuous and ugly looking air-conditioning ducts slapped across the face of a hanok (traditional Korean house) which I assume like all hanok houses had once looked regal and in tune with its centuries old surroundings.

The rest of the house’s facade is mired in electricity cables, wires, switchboards, gas pipes, drain pipes and commercial signages which cumulatively seem to be swallowing the house bit by bit. Its original tiled roof and sturdy wooden beams are still intact but I doubt their fate. A satellite dish pokes its head from the roof of a jerry-rigged laundry room upstairs, another add on, exhibiting a colourful range of towels and lingerie. Outside, a trashcan stands guard like a dutiful sentry.

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Back alleys of Insadong, Seoul

It is not pretty in the conventional sense of the word but the bare-all, guileless stark honesty of it all is what’s endearing to me. It’s sort of like an in-between place. It’s neither derelict or in squalor without electricity or cable nor is it a picture perfect painstakingly refurbished ‘heritage district’ where everything is made to look and feel exactly how it was 500 years ago.

In the Insadong back alleys, you get what you see and you see everything, hear all and bump into everyone. Nothing is staged.

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Insadong 14-gil sketched using dippen and ink

For the short while I was there, sketching this view I tapped my foot to a peppy Korean song someone was singing in the shower, got soaked with the plants someone was watering next to me and stopped the traffic when the trash collector parked his cart by me to a take long look at my drawing.

All in a day’s work!