Tag Archives: design

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coffee drinkers of Seoul

This is the latest bunch of observational drawings from the sketchbook I just finished.

If you have been following this blog, you know that I like to visit cafes often, which Seoul had no shortage of (every other building has one), to observe and sketch people drinking their coffee and doing whatever they do while they are at it which is a great variety of things.

There’s light reading for pleasure, there’s heavy-duty studying for entrance exams, then there’s intermittent reading and checking online stores on the phone by the side; there’s celebrating life’s important milestones, there’s debating with colleagues, arguing with family, catching up with friends, there’s watching a soap opera with a loved one and there’s working alone knee-deep in reports and presentations, there’s lunching while on a break from work, catching a break in between shopping and once in a while there’s staring vacantly into space.

My sketchbook bears testimony to all that happens over a cup of coffee.

This particular set was drawn during the winter months, which is why you see warm clothing on people’s backs or piled on chairs and tables next to them depending on the heating inside the cafe.

Hope you enjoy seeing the drawings as much as I enjoyed drawing them!

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This guy was having an animated conversation with his friend (not imaginary) and was thrusting a lot of thumbs-up in front of his face

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(L) Studying but also checking the phone for updates (R) Looked like their’s was a long-standing friendship

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(L) Someone other than me who owns a lurid pink jacket in Seoul (R) Someone who likes to fold their scarf neatly even when no one’s looking. 

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This couple was so captivated by whatever they were watching that they remained still like statues glued to their iPad for the longest time. 

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(L) Two Zara employees on their lunch break (R) Someone straight from Bruno Magli, consuming a $6 salad and tapping her feet to cafe music. 

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(L) She’s no Jack and she’s not dull (R) Somebody kept this guy on hold for a very long time and never for once did he lose his temper. 

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(L) Thick glasses and a big fat SAT study guide (R) She ate the cake and saved the cherry until the very end. 

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One sassy lady in green pants and round glasses catching up with her friend. 

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(L) Nose in the cup, finger on the screen (R) Ruminating in a power suit. 

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(L) Edgy hairstyle on someone who looked rather mild-mannered and affable 

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Girl at the next table turned 15 and I got to sketch her! That delicious cake with strawberry topping was from Tous Les Jours.

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When I sketched an argument in progress. “Explain yourself, Bob. Linda, calm down”

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I could never pull off a pixie hat with a straight face but she did it so well

Flash Card Illustrations: How I did it and what I learnt

I rarely talk about the process behind a finished illustration but this particular project I recently worked on also turned out to be one of the most interesting ones! And besides the fun element, a given on a job like this, I learnt some valuable lessons along the way which in the hope that they prove helpful to someone, I am eager to share.

The project was called EREY, an up and coming language learning platform for English speakers who wish to learn ‘Somali’, the language of Somalia, an East African nation located in the Horn of Africa. To make learning fun and interactive, Erey makes use of flashcards, each having a Somali word, a pictorial representation of that word and its English translation printed on it.

My task was to create illustrations for five ‘Somali’ words and

the challenge was to create images that would best represent the country and its local flavours and embrace the client’s vision at the same time.

Here’s how I went about it.

Illustration for Bakhaarka (the store)Bakhaarka final copy

From my research I figured that stores in Somalia are essentially these one storey brick buildings with strikingly bright coloured facades that sometimes have hand painted images of the items sold in the store.

Forever the food lover I settled for a tan coloured fast food store for my illustration. The picture of a camel on the facade indicates availability of roasted camel meat in the store. The shop signage ‘Moos iyo Baasto’ translates as ‘Spaghetti and Banana’ which is also Somali comfort food.

What I learnt while working on this was how attention to details gives your work that extra edge. By studying tons of local Somali stores on the Internet, I was able to incorporate relevant architectural elements to my store illustration such as the wooden door, metal shade roof, the decorative air vents and the steps leading to the store with the ‘welcome’ sign, all of which increased the credibility of the final image.

Illustration for Dugsi (the school)Dugsi final copy

For Dugsi I wanted to show the interior of a classroom. Acting on one of the client briefs I drew some of the female pupils with head scarves and some without (reminiscent of the pre civil war and less conservative days). The co-ordinates on the black board are of Somalia itself and the motivational quote at the back of the classroom ‘Qoriga Dhig, Qalinka Qaad‘ translates as ‘Drop the gun, pick up the pen’.

What I learnt here was to make an effort in understanding the client’s vision for the illustration, which in this case was a stronger representation of women.

I wove that thought into my illustration by drawing a female teacher at the blackboard, taking the lead in teaching the class. I drew her in the foreground to draw focus and in a slightly larger size compared to the male teacher, who is seen helping a student in the background.

Illustration for Caanaha (the milk)Milk final copy

By illustrating Canaaha as such, I wanted to draw attention to Camel milk, a staple food of Somali pastoral communities and also to the traditional hand woven vessels they use to carry and store that milk.

I drew a traditional Somali rug underneath to bring the image together and add some colour.

The challenge while making this illustration was providing suitable context to the image of ‘milk’ which seemed tricky because milk looks exactly the same across the world! I could get my illustration to work by incorporating elements of local culture and lifestyle. Creative prop choices can make your image relevant is what I learnt here.

Illustration for Bilaha Sannadka (months of the year)Bilaha Sannadka copy

I had a few good ideas for this one but was also curious to know what kind of images others had when they heard this phrase. So I asked around.

And concluded that somebody’s mental picture of a personal planner one-upped mine of a date calendar. I provided context by writing the names of the months in Somali and personalised the planner by adding important events like birthdays of Aabe (dad) and Hooyo (mom). It’s interesting how the planner offers a peek into the person’s life and personality! Our planner owner does not want to miss cheering for Somalia at the Bandy World Championship in January and has plans to join a Somali Book Club later in the year.

What I learnt here was sometimes it’s worthwhile to look outside of your head for ideas and inspiration.

Illustration for Buug (book)book final edited

The brief for Buug was to create several shelves of books. I could draw a library or a bookcase but instead chose to illustrate my secret fantasy which as a book lover and passionate reader has always been to spend hours in a Victorian study, curled up in a plush armchair reading in the warm glow of a vintage lamp that overlooks a polished dark wood table and shelves upon shelves of gleaming books.

The table has a half read book by a popular Somali author and a loose sheet containing a list of Somali authors whose books the owner of the study plans to read.

Looking out for fresh ideas is worthwhile but what I learnt here is looking in and tapping into personal interests and passions for ideas is also invaluable.

Here’s how the final product looks with the illustration – Somali_Words_bakhaarka

You can see the rest of the flashcards in this slideshow-

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EREY is active on both Facebook and Instagram if you’d like to give learning Somali a go!

The two of us

Canada sketchbook 1st page

Yes!

I made this illustration on the first page of my Moleskine Japanese album, a 48 page concertina sketchbook I am taking with me on this trip.

This is just a warm up drawing before the real travel sketching begins which would be quick and messy, sometimes drawn in comfy chairs inside nice cafes with a fascinating scene unfolding outside the window or sitting on hard ground in a really uncomfortable position under the midday sun or in a breeze so strong that you have to use binder clips to secure the pages so they don’t fly away and with people gathered around and watching every stroke you make.

In short my travel sketches are nothing like this illo which I patiently created in the comfort of my studio! But that doesn’t detract from the fact that I love travel sketching.

I love its ‘unfinished’ nature and its immediacy. I love that I am able to pin down a moment, a scene, a season, a dialogue, a trend or say an emotion I witnessed on paper using hasty lines and scribbles.

But what I love most is cracking open my travel journal long after the trip is over.

Sure you remember the rice paper rolls and coffee you had for lunch at Melbourne’s Federation Square three Christmases back because you drew them but the joy of remembering how warm the sun felt on your face is unparalleled and the scores of seagulls hopping around begging for food and that the staff at Starbucks who got your name right the first time. It all comes back!

So here I go again for two weeks touring Vancouver, the Canadian Rockies, Quebec City, Montreal and Toronto and I am planning to sketch as much as I can and when I am back I hope to eventually share the drawings here on the blog.

By the way, you couldn’t tell that we love playing Scrabble, could you?

 

 

Six months in Seoul

The allure of travel has kept us on our toes. Literally.

During the last ten years we have moved from Delhi to Munich, Munich to Singapore and this week we complete six months in Seoul. Being peripatetic has its rewards but it also means getting to know a place intimately, calling it home, making ourselves comfortable and then leaving everything we were drawing comfort from for another place.

Before this new leg of the journey gets interesting, before you realize it was all worth it, moving is plain scary, no matter how many times you may have done it.

Countless nights are spent laying awake in bed, staring at the ceiling, riddled with doubt and anxiety that invariably comes when you are about to push yourself out of your comfort zone.

Moving to Seoul felt no different until at my farewell dinner a friend gave every attendee a fortune cookie and I got this message inside mine.

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Never has a moulded scrap of flour made more sense.

Do something you always wanted to do. It’ll be fun. This message hit the nail on the head!

Sometimes we are so worried about the outcome of a decision that we forget why we took it in the first place. In our case it was because we wanted to live in a new place, make new friends, explore yet another part of the world, learn about its history and culture and traditions, read its books, hear its songs, watch its sunsets, drive on its roads, work at its offices, learn its language, taste its food, drink its coffee, basically spend time discovering it at our own pace.

We spent the last six months doing exactly that and truth be told the ride has been bumpy at times but it sure has been very enjoyable, especially with a sketchbook in hand.

Insadong’s charm

lies in its alleys as I found out on one of my sketching trips.

I had been waiting to go out sketching for a while but I’m slowly realizing in my first year in Seoul that to wait for the perfect day in the months of July and August is to wait forever. After two weeks of oppressive heat it has been raining incessantly.

Needless to say that I arrived at Insadong on a rainy afternoon and after securing a map with tons of information about the area from the tourist office (out of exit 6 of Anguk Station), I decided to do away with it. The rain was turning it into pulp.

Lying straight ahead was the 700 meters long and 12 meters wide pedestrian (on weekends) street called Insadong Gil, stretching from Anguk-dong to Jogno 2-ga. It has a 7 meters tall Korean calligraphy brush sculpture at the beginning which I had already seen on my earlier visit.

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Ajumma standing in front of her hanok and the neighbourhood delivery guy passing by

I was also done browsing through the street’s innumerable souvenir shops, folk handicraft stores, art galleries, Korean paper shops, had tipped my hat to world’s only Starbucks with its signage written in local language, visited a traditional tea house and checked out the quirky Ssamziegil mall.

As per the guidebooks I could have checked Insadong off my list of places to see. What more was there?

A curiosity laden turn away from the main commercial street into the atmospheric side alleys revealed the answer.

What I saw and then sketched seemed like an alternate Insadong, one I didn’t know existed – a watered-down version of the deeply cultural neighbourhood of 1930s selling antiques, books and art, way before its colonisation by coffee chains and cosmetic shops, before Korean war even.

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Insadong 16-gil

First thing that hits you when you make this unplanned diversion is how quiet and empty the alleys are, a welcome respite from the neurotic busyness of the main strip. Barring a monk, a school girl and a delivery guy I hardly saw anyone. And then in the course of exploring this labyrinth of narrow arteries, one leading to another and sometimes ending abruptly in a cul de sac, you get a whiff of old Seoul that maybe gritty and rough around the edges but is authentic to the core.

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One of Insadong’s many narrow alleys

With Insadong’s popularity with tourists in the recent years, rents on the main street have soared such that it can only be afforded by big commercial establishments, thereby pushing older, smaller businesses and artists to the winding back alleys laid out 500-600 years ago (dating back to the Joseon dynasty), where life is still quaint, unhurried and very ordinary.

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Another beautiful alley in Insadong

I saw laundry drying on wires, potted plants outside wooden doors, beer bottles stacked in crates, cracked egg shells lying near a trash can filled to the brim, a plastic broom, a wind chime, music wafting out from open windows, someone napping on a red chair by the kitchen and pigeons hopping around, drinking rain water collected in little potholes where the road had caved in. An ajumma (as middle-aged Korean ladies are respectfully called) was standing in front of her hanok (old Korean cottages) turned restaurant, caressing a snarly lap dog and staring at me with utter intrigue.

I was sitting on the steps of a closed bar in an alley I had just wandered in, and had started drawing.  For the longest time ajumma maintained a distance from me, trying to understand what I was doing while pacing outside an imaginary fence that seemed to be between us.

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I got to work, started tracing lines with my eyes and then put ink on paper.

Slowly but surely. A bunch of Absolut Vodka bottles, window slats and a door emerged.

I am always amazed how drawing makes you lose all sense of time. You surrender to this repetitive cycle of seeing, comprehending and mark making. Everything else becomes invisible. I find this heightened sense of focus the only way to connect with my new environment. You get to immerse yourself so deeply and wholly in the process that when you emerge, you feel a kinship with the place you were drawing. It doesn’t look as foreign as it did when you started out.

I like to believe that by connecting with my environment in such a way I blend in and don’t look as foreign to it too and become an ordinary person sitting in the corner doing something innocuous. That’s when imaginary fences vanish. Ajumma comes over. The dog too. They are thrilled I drew their house. The dog shows its appreciation by not snarling at me anymore and Ajumma by bringing me a steaming cup of coffee in a paper cup.

Insadong linework

A sketch and two steaming cups of coffee. I added the delivery guy later.

I must accept it, she insists. Then she takes my sketchbook and shows my sketch to her neighbours. They come closer to meet me. We huddle on the stairs, touch shoulders and giggle at our communicational ineptitude. Another cup of coffee is placed before me. When the neighbourhood delivery guy passes by, everybody raises their hands to wave at him.

I raise my hand to wave at him too, on impulse and realize that it doesn’t look out of place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

New kid on the block

Shopping, eating, drinking and sometimes gawking at the mind bending architecture of shopping malls is what we relate Orchard Road with in Singapore.

Sitting with a book in a quiet meditative corner isn’t what you particularly come to Orchard for. Well, you can be adamant and try sitting in a cafe perhaps, burying your head in a pile of text, but what you can’t do is obstruct the relentless stream of people gushing in and out through its doors with shopping bags, the drone of their collective orders of latte and green tea jabbing your focus, their hot fervent gossips about the latest bag, gadget or underwear tingling your ears, and their restless animated bodies scuffling to find that elusive ‘perfect’ seat’ making you want to stand up and offer yours.

Library at Orchard Gateway

Library at Orchard Gateway – a section of the wooden theatre-style seating gets sketched here

Well, the good news is, as incongruous as it may sound, Orchard Road – the queen of glitz and glamour, has gained a public library in its armoury. And as soon as we got a whiff of the news, my friends and I rushed to check it out, sketchbooks in tow. Clearly the space wasn’t designed in a hurry – the new kid on the blocks, spanning across two floors, has lot of style and panache! One of the floors have wooden wiggly, wave shaped book racks flanked by a theatre style seating affixed with plug points and lights.

Upstairs has even more interestingly designed seating areas – some with a glimpse of the streetscape, some reminding you of an airport lounge and some cozy and secluded, just the way you want it. Though primarily stocked with design and applied arts books, the fiction and cookbook section is pretty verdant. The book drop off and borrowing points are niftier and there’s a huge section of magazine drawers aligned in straight rows with lush glossy covers staring out at you, giving the impression of a heavily postered wall!

While the Central Library at Bugis, still remains my mecca, this one’s a new favourite. Finally, Orchard Road isn’t all about spending anymore.

 

 

Weekend morning trip to a bookstore

I have seen people queuing up for croissants and baguettes outside bakeries on a weekend morning, or waiting for breakfast at cafes after walking their dogs or heading to yoga classes with a lurid pink mat under their arms, but I’ve never spotted people huddling outside a bookstore, checking their watch, waiting for it to open its doors.

These people are my idols, my brothers (or sisters) in arms. I could have been any one of them or will be when my love for books trumps my desire to sleep-in on weekend morning. But today I am here with a different motive. Urban Sketchers Singapore have been allowed to invade the 43,000 sq feet space of Kinokuniya’s flagship store at Ngee Ann City for 3 hours. Why the privilege? Because the store is moving out and when it does, our sketches will serve as sentimental memorabilia.

Now before you start brooding and beating your chest in agony, Kino is not vamoosing for good. It is just moving to the floor above, which – here comes the caveat – will be a smaller space. So if anything, you should be worried about the possible downsizing of your favourite section.

As for me, I am rapidly using my Kino gift cards to buy more books to propitiate the mighty book goddess, praying that my favourite Art and Design section remains forever bountiful. Add to that the travel literatures and also the cookbooks. And the classics.

 

The books were calling my name, especially the art & design section. It was very hard to concentrate.

The books were calling my name, especially those from the ‘art & design’ section, right behind me. It was very hard to concentrate.

In the age of small screens, it is reassuring to see people buy the real thing.

In the age of small screens, it is reassuring to see people buy the real thing.

Thumbs up for this mother (also an urban sketcher) who brought her munchkin to a bookshop early morning.

Thumbs up for this mother (also an urban sketcher) who brought her munchkin to a bookshop early morning.

Ignoring the resounding book pleas and sketching more shelves. I am a saint!

Ignoring the resounding book pleas and sketching more shelves. I am a saint!