Tag Archives: peoplewatching

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.




A little victory and the big win

Two kinds of people attract unwarranted attention at cafes.


Out of office but chained to work – I saw this guy sitting at our neighbourhood Starbucks with one hand on his head and the other checking emails on the phone oblivious of the beautiful breezy evening, the sound of  birds and music flowing in the air. 

One, babies because they are tiny, cute, cuddly and non-judgemental humans who if you happen to catch after a recent feed-poop-nap session will bear smiles that will warm the cockles of your heart. From what I’ve seen one doesn’t even need to know the baby. It is perfectly acceptable to nod, wave or point at them from your table  without offending anyone around.


(L) How many ways are there to hold a pen? This girl was wielding it like a dagger! (R) Here’s a elderly woman seen at Tiong Bahru Bakery wearing a short polka dotted dress and red lipstick( with matching nail polish!) rocking her wrinkles and laughing with wild abandon. I never liked the phrase – ‘twilight years’. This is how you turn it upside down.

The other kind is me. I have nothing in common with babies. But I still get pointed out, fussed over and smiled at by strangers. Shy reluctant children have been shoved in my direction by mothers with utmost urgency.”Go kiddo go, see what she’s doing!”. And then right behind the kiddo you find the guardian standing at a safe distance peering at me with equal interest.


Spotted at Coffee Academics on Scotts Road. This guy demolished a heaped plate of food in mere seconds and left. I had a really hard time keeping up!

The sight of an adult playing with crayons and watercolours in a room full of adults doing adult stuff like buying bread and drinking coffee is often met with the same amount of incomprehension as is reserved for all kinds of anomalies. What’s interesting though is how people react to this anomaly!


(L) Even though it’s difficult to hold a large baguette sandwich in one hand and eat, do not ever, not even for once free the other hand by letting go of the phone –  that kind of guy.

That same reluctant kid would turn around chuck the phone, notepad or whatever he was being engaged with and demand a sketchbook pronto. If not that day, I will see him or her appear the next weekend armed with a colouring book, efficiently applying a green crayon over a lion’s mane. Little victory!


(R) Quick sketch of my husband eating his free birthday cake (from Starbucks), reading Vikram Seth’s Suitable Boy on kindle and watching the 5th One Day International : India vs NZ on his phone, all at the same time. Indians beat the kiwis by 190 runs that night. 

Adults on the other hand need an acceptable reason for doing something they were weaned off in fifth grade. “You must be an architect/ engineer/designer.” – I am not asked this but told. Only then can they explain to themselves why I have the permission to sketch or paint and they don’t because they are none of these things.


A passionate speaker seen at Starbucks who used her hands much more than her voice to get the point across. I was very convinced even though I don’t understand a word of Malay.

I do it for fun, I say and am met with blank stares. Even an year ago I’d have been uncomfortable with such attention and would have looked up Craigslist for a cloak of invisibility. But not anymore. I’ve been sketching rather feverishly over the last couple of months to know that practice not only makes perfect, it also makes courage and confidence in reasonable amounts.


(L) This guy had a laptop cover that looked exactly like a shiny marble countertop! I had a teeny weeny urge to chop vegetables on it but it passed very quickly. (R) This lady was eating alone at the table next to mine and before taking each bite she’d hold the sandwich in front of her with both hands and contemplate.

So now I hold my ground and sound convincing not to defend my actions lest I am adjudged frivolous but to get at least one of them to pull out the child that got buried under years of adulthood. And sometimes it works.


The most common sight at our neighbourhood Starbucks is that of students of all ages studying alone or in large groups.

I am plied with questions starting from how expensive my sketchbook is to what paints I use to where I bought the paint box from. And then I’m invariably told how much each one of these people loved to draw when they were small.


(L) Girls in cropped halter neck tops, nose rings, green hair highlights and beaded bracelets. The cuddly soft toy didn’t seem to fit in but it was trying very hard. (R) Stripey here had little hope of getting his assignment done that night coz he constantly looked up to check out every passing girl. 

I don’t see them wielding a sketchbook the next day or the week after but the stares become infrequent. Maybe some day I’ll catch one of them absentmindedly picking up a stray pencil and doodling the coffee mug they’ve been drinking from on the back of a receipt. What a big win that would be!


Behold the rare sight of a man holding and reading an actual newspaper, turning pages instead of scrolling up and down or zooming in and out on a screen. Sorry about the morbid headline but that’s what he was reading.


Two random people eating and drinking at the same cafe, minding their own businesses, oblivious of each other’s presence but united on a double spread.  I like when that happens.


This lady looked like someone who’d look fabulous in a mid 19th century Victorian gown complete with a flowery hat, silk gloves and a parasol! 

These sketches above are from my latest sketchbook of random people I’ve seen in various cafes in the city along with my observations. I hope you enjoy looking at them as much as I have enjoyed drawing them!

What Neil said

wasn’t new to me. But when a silver haired stranger with wise deep set eyes leans in from the other table to look inside your sketchbook and goes,’drawing is really good for you, much better than photographing. You know why?‘, you pay attention because from the way he draws in a deep breath and turns himself around to face you, you know he has a story to tell. And I am a sucker for stories. Also a stranger telling you a story makes a great story.


My husband reading Jeffry Archer’s The Prodigal Daughter on kindle. We shared a sausage roll and had tea and coffee at Tiong Bahru Bakery.

Like every Sunday we were spending the morning at Tiong Bahru Bakery. My husband as you can see above was reading as per usual and I was scanning the room for interesting people to sketch while sipping on ginger lemon tea. That’s when Neil , ‘an IT guy from Sydney” as he called himself settled down at the next table, finished eating whatever he was eating and turned his attention to us.


(L) A couple in Starbucks; (R) A couple in Tiong Bahru Bakery

Can you remember phone numbers?”, he asked. “We didn’t. Neither did heBut my mother remembered every phone number in her contact list until her dying days because she never relied on a machine to do the work for her‘. He said the last bit looking somewhat disparagingly at our smart phones or so I imagined. In any case, my husband quit looking at cricket scores and pushed the phone aside pretending it wasn’t his.


This was my late Sunday night view at our neighbourhood Starbucks which is open for 24 hours every day. These high stools and shared table are especially meant for people who need to work or study. Don’t miss the girl with the Micky Mouse hoodie!

But Neil wasn’t there to deride technology; nor was he there to randomly dish out avuncular advise on how to disengage from technology. All he wanted was to talk about an epiphany he once had while watching the northern lights in Iceland. “For someone who loves photography..”, he said “..this was a chance of a lifetime”.

The last thing he wanted was a smudgy camera lens. Refusing to take chances by trying to clean it himself at the hotel, Neil went seeking for professional help, hoping to receive top-notch service. Here’s where the story goes downhill- the girl at the counter whose job was to only receive the item and pass it on to the appropriate person for servicing decided to be useful that day and took the matter in her own hands. She started wiping the lens with a cloth and before Neil could say stop, his only camera lens was irreparably scratched.


(L) People reading physical books is becoming a rare sight. When I saw someone the other day lost in the pages of a thick novel, I had to draw her;(R) This girl was toiling away on a Saturday night with the help of a Frappuccino and gospel music.

The northern lights were beautiful..indescribable really!”, he said. Neil had slipped into a reverie. His head was tilted to the side and his eyes glazed over. “We watched the sky for hours y’know…and as far as I could see I was the only one without a camera“. We were crestfallen on his behalf. Before I could offer my first word of commiseration he said, “..but the incredible thing is without my camera, I could really see! Instead of looking through the lens I saw everything with my eyes..E..V..E..R..Y..T..H..I..N..G.. you know what I mean?”. He pointed to his head and said, it was all stored up there, intact and distinct, even though he doesn’t have a single picture to prove to his friends that he watched the northern lights. But I believed him.


(L) This sketch is of a bunch of girls who were trying to study but couldn’t stop talking about the movie they came out from. Also they didn’t finish their popcorn! (R) This extremely hairy and incredibly talkative guy seen at Tiong Bahru Bakery was juggling two different conversations with two diff families on either side of his table. Whoa!

He asked whether he could flip through my sketchbook. Of course he could. We had to leave but were greedy for more stories and Neil, a lone traveler having found two perfect listeners in us was eager to share. ” So as I was saying to you..” He started again. We slouched back in our chairs. “..when you draw, you see things, observe things more keenly than ever..“. I didn’t check the time, but he went on for a while. We let him.


(L) Just a guy seen at Tiong Bahru Bakery wearing a neatly ironed shirt and a very shiny wedding band. Seemed like he was new to the game! (R) How to make a statement: the case of rugged boots vs. chunky costume jewellery

These are some of the sketches of random people I did on my recent visits to cafes around Singapore along with my observations. You can find more under the ‘people sketches’ category in the side bar.

Neil was right. I only just realized that I may have sketched over hundred people in the last few months spending about 10 minutes per drawing but the incredible thing is I remember each one of them. Every page in my sketchbook takes me back to the actual scene. Every minute spent is accounted for. It is not just fun, drawing is a fulfilling exercise and you know it. But sometimes we all need a silver haired stranger with wise deep set eyes to sit beside us and tell us a story to help make sense of what we so love doing.



Things no one sees

are the ones that keep me occupied for hours. If you’ve read my earlier post –  Had people watching – you must be aware of my penchant for practicing flânerie, especially at cafes and how I channel my people watching / observation skills into making art.


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Just a guy alone with his coffee savouring a quiet moment

So far it’s been fun! Sketching is a mindful exercise and extremely gratifying, but sketching people is enlivening. There isn’t a moment of dullness or monotony because no two people you sketch can be alike. They differ not just in their attire and mannerisms but also in their interaction with/reaction to their surroundings.

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This couple started out acting all lovey-dovey, listening to the same music, leaning on each other, holding hands and then everything went downhill from there in the next 10 mins until one of them stormed out. Ah, the capriciousness of love.

These people captured in my sketchbook can be generically labelled as say, the coffee drinkers of Singapore because that’s what they’re technically there for but that’s not the only thing they do or if you’re observant enough, that’s not the only thing you see them doing. I once sketched a chain-smoker with a lot of swagger sipping coffee and blowing smoke into the ‘No smoking ‘ sign right next to him.

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Two very fashionable ladies and a guy sitting in between them with hand on his head. One of the women was ranting in Japanese and the two were mostly zoned out, I think.

That same week I had also sketched a girl who was part of big group that ate and drank quite liberally at the cafe but right before leaving she was the only person who cleared every bit of trash on their messy table before walking out.

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This bunch of pimply faced boys were from Anglo Chinese School and were studying ‘O level Topical Physics’ at Starbucks. They were all plugged in to their phones, swinging shoulders from time to time and sipping Macha lattes. These surely are different times!

With each sketch I get to peep into a stranger’s life for few minutes and capture them living an ordinary moment which otherwise would have gone unnoticed, unaccounted for. For example the Chinese grandma wearing jade bangles and a frumpy top on what seemed like her first trip to Starbucks was another fun subject to sketch.


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(L) This cute grandma had a strident voice, a blue clamp holding her red hair and jade bangles around her frail wrists. From the way she surveyed the place and the patrons sitting around her from time to time and inspected her cup of latte, it seemed like her first time here at our neighbourhood Starbucks. Don’t miss her colourful shopping trolley!

She looked out of place and excited at the same time to be holding probably her first cup of latte in her wrinkled hand. She may never know this, but 2 meters away I was touched to have witnessed that moment and document it in my sketchbook.


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It was really hard to believe that this guy was eating Tiong Bahru Bakery’s Kouign Amann ( which by the way is top notch) with such indifference.

All sorts of students, specially pimply restless school students plugged in to their music sipping frothy matcha latte are common sight at the local Starbucks and always make great subjects for drawing.


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(L) – Serious discussion taking place. The guy in the centre doesn’t look amused and kept quiet through the entire conversation.

You see them day and night hunched over a pile of books, fervently highlighting something or the other with coloured markers on their notebooks with their laptops open on the side. This subculture is unique to Singapore, something I haven’t witnessed in any other country I’ve travelled to and therefore having them in my sketchbook is also special.

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(R) The rare sight of someone reading a physical book and then looking up to think about and then reading again. That’s an indie comic book in her hand and a guitar by her side.

It’s hard to imagine that only three months ago I had this incredible fear of drawing people which I write about in the post What if and how I get over it and now have come to enjoy it because it feels as if for once I’m not rushing through life and letting it pass by me but consciously stopping to smell the flowers.

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(L)- This woman had an impermanent tattoo on her hand. The word ‘Love’ written in bold with a glitter pen stood out and and yet seemed incongruous with her austere style. She was alone and seemed lost in thoughts. (R) – I spotted these two women on a late Sunday night. They were mostly gregarious but at one point I saw one of them point finger at the other in a menacing way.

Well, I don’t know where it’s going to take me and if anything will come out of this but as long as I cherish these little stolen moments and revel in the ordinary stories of ordinary people, I will continue to document them in sketchbooks and share with you. Hope you can stop by!

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(L)- A chain smoker with a lot of swagger. He didn’t care about the ‘No Smoking’ sign next to him; (R)  – My husband reading ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ on the day it got released.






Had people watching

been a competitive sport, the shelves in my house would be heaving under the weight of trophies. It’s true! Given the bonafide introvert I am, observing the world keenly from inside my bubble of solitude has always been my schtick, perfected with years of practice starting with those long train journeys my family took during school holidays when I’d keep myself endlessly entertained while my sister and parents nodded off as soon as the train moved.

Between looking out the window and reading or pretending to read, I’d scrutinize fellow passengers, examining their face, expression, posture, hairstyle, attire, demeanour, language, idiosyncrasies, almost anything I could see, hear, smell or touch and build colourful profiles in my mind and fine tune them as I gathered more information. If someone snacked, I’d take a peek at what they were eating, if someone spoke I’d try to discern the accent or diction, if someone read, well, you can tell a lot from the kind of book/magazine a person reads. By the time my parents woke I could single out the person most likely to be trusted with our bags while we took a trip to the toilet.

It wasn’t just entertaining and edifying (from a sociological perspective) but a great way to feed a curious mind. It still is.

Replace the stifling railway cabins with university dorms, doctor’s chamber, social gatherings, long queues at taxi stands and now cafes – my  venue of choice for practicing flânerie with all the flair it deserves.

This is where I must tip my hat to the French for coining a word for ‘sauntering aimlessly’ but (mind you!) not mindlessly and thank early 19th century flâneur writers such as Balzac and Zola who strolled the grand boulevards of Paris actively observing passersby for raising a seemingly frivolous practice of ‘people watching’, the prerogative of the indolent, up the lexicographical and social ladder to an art form even.

And to cultivate this pursuit in the same spirit, this 21st century denizen has picked up sketchbooks, pens, watercolours, crayons and what not.  Observing manners and mores of people can be amusing but immortalising them in drawings is certainly more gratifying. All these drawings done on location capture fleeting moments that I, the flaneuse had witnessed on several occasions over the last month.

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(L) This old man had ordered an incredible number of pastries which he finished at lightening speed before his wife ambled into the cafe. All she saw was a cup of coffee on the table.  (R) My husband reading on his kindle while I was drawing.

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(L) This bald guy in green had a very difficult discussion with the woman sitting opposite him. After she stormed out, he looked extremely despondent.

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These three guys who I drew around my husband (to keep him company on the page) were having a heated political discussion about the relation between China and Hong Kong.

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(L) This old guy wearing very colourful clothes and a funky hairstyle with spikes seemed like someone who did not want to age at all.

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(L) A little girl making her daddy feed her soft toy before she agrees to take a bite! (R) My husband reading a Jo Nesbo thriller.

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(R) A Starbucks employee on a cigarette break. He looked exhausted and seemed to be contemplating something.

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(L) A studious guy with the most innocent smile had three fingers missing from his left hand, but he couldn’t care less. (R) From his formal attire, this guy looked like someone straight from work winding down at the cafe. He was tapping really hard on his phone screen.

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Two intense gamers who looked liked they were in a serious relationship

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(L) I couldn’t hear what she was saying but whatever it was, she was saying it with plenty of gusto. Don’t miss the clenched fist!

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(R) The cafe I walked into had at least 30 people plugged in to their laptops, tapping away at the keyboard with a drink on the side. They looked like corporate clones.

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This guy had really tiny hands which seemed to have a life of their own. His audience (whom I didn’t get to draw) were at the receiving end of his frantic gesticulations.

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(R) The girl was reading, writing, consulting a book, listening to music, checking her phone drinking latte all at the same time.

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She said : “So if I die, you get 2 million?”. He said, “..Yes, that’s right, in Singapore dollars”.

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Spied upon two guys with pompous hairstyles. They had an incredible number of wires coming out of their various devices.

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She threw away every bit of trash on her table into the garbage can and wiped the table clean before leaving. It says a lot about the person.

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(L) This hip grandma was fawning over her grandchild the entire time. She was wearing green eye shadows and just before leaving she touched up her makeup, put on red lipstick and gave me a thumbs up for drawing her. (R) A guy who kept fidgeting and sweating in his chair until he couldn’t take it anymore and left.

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Just two guys chilling at our neighbourhood Starbucks.

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People eating lunch at a food court on Orchard Road. And since we’re in SE Asia, you see a a lot of noodle bowls and chopsticks.

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A guy wolfing down his breakfast.

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Ending this series with the sketch of this very cute grandma I found dozing at a cafe yesterday. She was waiting for her granddaughters to finish shopping and fetch her.