Tag Archives: drawing

Three seasons, one sketchbook

When I finished my latest sketchbook, it struck me how this particular set of drawings reflect changing seasons.

The initial pages were drawn when the weather was still warm but not hot. People were romping about in shorts and light coloured tops and ordering cold citron tea, but Bingsu was on its way out from the menu and dainty looking Chuseok (Korean Thanksgiving)-themed goodies were filling up the shelves.

Mid-sketchbook you see traces of fall – sketches of people facing or with their back against cafe windows that frame trees ablaze with the most brilliant shades of yellow and red. Temperatures drop but those in denial keep their hemlines low. The rest of us take refuge beneath light coats and wrap scarves around our necks. Hot chocolate drink starts to look tempting but is definitely a good fortnight or even a month away from being the undisputed object of desire.

In the last couple of pages, winter arrives, but in phases. It starts innocently when a few woollen hats pop up on people’s heads here and there. Then with the first snowfall, out comes the cable knit sweaters, duffle coats and hooded parkas and finally on a day like today when it is -12 degrees outside I see people milling about in overcoats, oversized down jackets with faux fur trims, striped woollen mufflers, fitted cashmere blazers and distressed leather boots. And this is only the outermost layer.

Some cafes have their heating so high that it prompts people to peel off their winter clothing layer upon layer as soon as they get seated until everyone has a small pile next to them or on the chair while others have the temperature setting so low that it makes sense to have everything on your body, even the backpack. See the last sketch.

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A lot on the mind and on the table

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Five friends and a conspicuous bag charm. Seen at Alver Cafe, Seoul

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Office meeting in progress. Seen at Angel-in-us cafe, Seoul.

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(L) I once saw the most dedicated, zesty, sincere and patient tutor trying to teach the most distracted student who kept texting the entire time.

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Sipping the last dregs of Summer. Seen at Paris Baguette cafe.

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Seen at Paris Baguette Cafe, Seoul

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Fall colours outside the windows of Gontran Cherrier cafe, Seoul.

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(L) Fall colours vs furrowed eyebrows (R) This guy’s winter jacket looked like a satin and velour Tudor robe fit for Henry VIII’s court. Seen at cafe TerraRosa, Seoul

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Together yet distant. I drew this couple from the most coveted seat in Alver cafe, which is against a beautiful vertical garden. You can see some of it behind the lady.

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Interesting woollen hats seen at Paris Baguette cafe

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Winter brings out the puffy down jackets.

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(L) This lady bore an uncanny resemblance to the actor who played Mrs. Kim in Gilmore Girls! She had the same hairstyle, identical gait and spoke in similar staccato sentences.

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Keeping the backpack on for extra warmth.

 

 

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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.

Gwangjang Market

is worth a visit not just for the finger-licking good street food as all guidebooks promise but also for the experience of buying that street food and eating it in a traditional market. Not that I needed any convincing. I love visiting traditional markets. I have loved visiting traditional markets before they were ‘traditional’.

In the little town I grew up in Eastern India, my parents used to take me to the local bazaar every week. Too little to help in any other way my job was to hold the cotton tote bags tightly to my chest until the vegetable seller finished weighing baskets of potatoes, onions, carrots, brinjals, green beans my parents had picked out and nodded in my direction.

I would keep my eyes peeled for that signal and would immediately stand on my toes and hand the ‘vegetable bag’ to him or her. Then we would go to the fish section and the poultry section and I’d hand the ‘fish bag’ and the ‘poultry bag’.

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Sketch of a Mung Bean Pancake stall in Gwangjang Market using dip pen and ink

More than the vegetable peels, fish scales, feathers and blood strewn alleys, more than the glinting knives and weighing scales, more than the stench of open drains and smell of sweat, more than the feel of weathered notes and wet coins exchanging hands, more than the loud street cries of merchants and haggling by their customers and the screeching of chickens about to be slaughtered, more than buzzing flies and limping dogs, more than the rough leathery hands of shop owners, more than the waves of people we pushed through and more than the glow of bulbs and hurricane lamps that painted everything a lurid yellow, more than anything at all, I remember how important I felt to be entrusted with this responsibility.

For my parents it probably was just a way to keep their child engaged but for me it was a big step up. Like all my friends I was in such a hurry to grow up.

A great deal of growing up has happened since.

These days if I were to make spaghetti meatballs, I’d get a cleanly wrapped portion of minced meat off a shelf inside a clean air-conditioned space. I buy lemons that come in protective casings such that I can’t touch or smell them.

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Jeon Alley, Gwangjang Market

Only when the fish monger showed my mother how deep red the gills of hilsa were and how firm its body was and how clear its eyes were would she pay him, but not without examining a few other pieces and definitely not without the friendly haggling.

And now if I need a bed sheet, I lift a finger and order it online.

Progress is essential and elemental, I know. Progress is important. Progress is also placing experiences similar to the ones I had as a child inside invisible glass cases and labelling them ‘traditional’ as though they are rare exhibits.

Progress is sending what once was commonplace on the road towards extinction and that maybe inevitable but it is disconcerting none the less.

So when I can read about Gwangjang market, built in 1905 and called Seoul’s oldest ‘traditional’ market and one of its largest, I knew I had to go, not just to sketch but to get a feel of the familiar while I still could, albeit in a foreign country.

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Gwangjang Market

Narrow lanes lined on either side with shops cheek by jowl selling  pajeon, gimbap, sundaeguk, bibimbap and tteokbokki ran into one another like a maze. Massive waves of people from students, office workers, tourists to the elderly hikers you see a lot of in Korea rolled up from all directions to eat at those shops manned by hardworking ajummas in short perms and red lipstick. Sound of chatter and cacophony melded into the smell of hot oil and the lurid colour of shop signages. The glow of bulbs hanging low over trays of food added to the visual drama and lent the space a honky-tonk aura.

As opposed to the clinical white spaces we are used to shopping in with clearly marked aisles and properly arranged shelves, a traditional market is a place where the first order of business is to lose your bearings and be overwhelmed by what you see, hear and smell.

Check and check.

I had a vague idea of where I was.

Perhaps, the Jeon Alley.

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Jeon Alley in Gwangjang Market

Some dishes are so popular in Gwangjang Market that they have entire alleys dedicated to them! In Korean cuisine, Jeon is referred to pancake-like dishes made by pan frying a mixture of rice or flour batter with vegetables, meat, seafood and poultry in it.

I couldn’t have been in the Yukhoe (steak tartar) Alley or the Gimbap (similar to sushi) Alley considering all the fervid grinding of mung beans that was happening around me. The jerry-built enterprise right before me had 5 ajummas working together like a well-oiled machine. Two in yellow tops were stationed at the ‘kitchen’ frying Bindaetteoks (mung bean pancakes) and piling the golden discs one above the other on the counter; one was serving the pancakes to customers gathering on the long wooden table while two more were luring people in to the shop.

And in all this madness if any of them managed to catch a breath, they’d leave their stations and come over to check my progress. I was sitting on the ground wedged between two other Bindaetteok stalls. But I was sketching them.

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Sketch of Gwangjang Market with the drinks that a kind elderly couple bought me

In return the band of ajummas kept an eye on me, nothing more than a glance in my direction from time to time and once shooing a drunk guy away when he tried to get too friendly with me. I got sober visitors too. A tour guide stopped by, a magazine editor gave me her business card and an elderly couple bought me some cooling drinks (see above).

On my way out I got the ajummas to fix me a piping hot plate of mung bean pancake. And while I savoured the crispy goodness in my mouth, I saw three young backpackers doing the same and talking about how good it tasted and how cheap the food was (4000 won for two big pieces) and how glad they were to have visited. They couldn’t wait to tell their ‘mates’ all about it.

I hope they do, ad nauseam.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I won’t stay long

Romanesque architecture is the last thing you would expect to chance upon in metropolitan Seoul. But emerge out of exit 5 of the City Hall station, turn left on Sejong-daero 19-gil and there it is in its massive thick walled, round arched and decorative arcaded entirety.

If not for one of the local artists who insisted upon taking me there, I would’ve given Seoul Anglican Cathedral a pass. After drawing inside the adjacent Deoksugung Palace followed by a scrumptious bowl of Bibim Naengmyeon (Spicy cold noodles) for lunchI was ready to wind down.

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Seoul Anglican Cathedral

But I take all my foreign artist-friends there…this place is…Oh!you must see it.“, pleaded my friend who could easily be two decades my senior but her enthusiasm showed no sign of waning in the soporific summer heat.  If I was a wilting flower in the vase by the window, she was the sprinkle of cold water on my face.

I was revived, momentarily.

“Let’s go..but I won’t stay long, okay?” I said to a figure that had left my side, hurried into a cafe on the cathedral grounds and was now paying for two cold coffees. “You know, the cafe owner escaped from North Korea and is now making a living here. “, she said, handing me a cup.

But I wasn’t listening. I was looking around and wondering if we got teleported.

Seoul Anglican Cathedral

Seoul Anglican Cathedral

Only a minute ago we were trundling towards the cathedral past tourists, a construction site and a bunch of former President Park’s supporters waving flags and rallying for her release. Tall glistening office buildings closed in from all sides and the din of traffic on a muggy Saturday morning felt omnipresent.

And yet in the blink of an eye here we were, standing in the quiet shadow of a 20th century brick and granite structure with a manicured garden.

I’ve drawn this a million times.”, said my friend. I could already see her trained hand forming a rough outline of the cathedral on her sketchbook with a water soluble crayon. She was in the zone while my eyes were glued to the information leaflet I had picked up.

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Sketch of the cathedral using dip pen and ink

Interestingly, the cathedral’s construction started in 1922, during the Japanese occupation of Korea but due to financial constraints it couldn’t be completed as per it’s British architect, Arthur Dixon’s original cruciform design.

The transepts on either side and the nave had to be scaled back and the building remained incomplete until, and here’s the fun part, a British Museum worker visited the cathedral in 1993, found that the architect was Dixon, travelled all the way to England to locate the blueprints which he found in the museum archives and returned them to the Parish office in Seoul. Expansion started in 1994, and the cathedral was finally completed in 1996, 74 years later.

Happy ending, right? Mine was too. I decided to stay a while longer and sketch.

 

 

 

Life sucks but first, coffee

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Alver Cafe in Gangnam, Seoul

said the coffee cup sleeve at Alver cafe (see above) near my house in Gangnam-gu.

Without a modal verb – may or might, the message seemed frighteningly definitive, especially when I picked up the tumbler to drink and my fingers covered the last three words!

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(L) I was sketching this animated bunch of girls at La Eskimo cafe, and by the time I drew two the group left. The guy was promptly picked up from another table and put with the girls that got drawn. Talk about creative license!

It can be the strangest of things at the most unseemly places that prompt you to run a spot check of your life.

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People of Paris Baguette below my apartment.

I’m almost 4 months old in Seoul. Among other things I still pine for my friends, the huge libraries filled with English books and the well-stocked art shops of Singapore where I spent many good hours. And I am still discomfited by the fact that I don’t live a mere 4 hours away from my parents anymore and should they need assistance, it’ll take me a while to be with them. But in these 3 months, we’ve ironed out most of the kinks relating to the move and by extension, our lives because that’s what moving forward entails.

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(R) My husband was watching India vs Pakistan:ICC champion’s Trophy on his phone and reading William Dalrymple’s “Return of a King” on his kindle thus proving men can (selectively) multitask.

The initial surprises (like, what! local banks don’t have provision for joint accounts?; A watermelon costs 14 dollars?; Supermarkets don’t store half the things we are used to buying) and challenges (like properly separating trash or paying utility bills online) have been had and subsequent discoveries (you can get anything from a skillet to a golf ball home delivered; apartments have speakers on the ceiling through which you hear random announcements being made in Korean by the building management) have been made.

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(R) Two men eating Mango ‘Bingsu’  – Korean shaved iced dessert with sweet toppings at Paris Baguette. 

I don’t convert the price of every item I buy into Singapore dollars anymore. And I definitely understand the subway system better. The wide-eyed, fresh off the boat look is wearing off.

As more time passes, I feel that the memories we made in the last seven years of our lives in Singapore are migrating further into the cortex of my brain.  I don’t reach for them as often as I used to because I am making fresh ones.

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(L) Sketched this lady wearing work clothes and eating a big salad on a late Sunday night at Paris Baguette.

Just the other day an elderly lady in the subway asked me where I was from and after I answered, she said, “Welcome to Korea!” with such burst of enthusiasm and warmth that I almost didn’t believe she was real. Then she hugged me, patted my arm and went on her way.

So from where I stand, life doesn’t suck. Also I am a tea drinker. I may adore Alver cafe’s brick walls with vertical gardens and glass partitioned interiors, but I am going to be a dissident and pass up on those wiseass cup sleeves next time!

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(L) Sketched this guy in Alver cafe wearing a blue silk knotted neckerchief especially because it seems to be a popular fashion accessory in Seoul at the moment among both men and women. Most accessory shops I’ve come across were stocked to the hilt with these!