Tag Archives: urban sketching

Longest monsoon

South Korea has been pummelled by torrential rains since late June and from what I’m reading – it isn’t over yet! Today marks the 53rd day of the monsoon season. The skies have been ominously grey forever. Humidity is so high that everything feels sticky all the time, even the apartment floor.

Compared to the inland regions that are experiencing floods and landslides, I’d say we’re lucky to be getting on with our lives with the least amount of disruption in this part of Seoul. If the pandemic has us wearing masks on a daily basis, the incessant rains that don’t seem to have an expiration date have us carrying umbrellas wherever we go, so much so that it feels like a part of our attire. Or an extended limb.

coffee bean in rain

I sketched this cafe scene on my way back from an appointment. We were a few days into the monsoon, a time when one could still trust the weather app and if it said no rains for a few hours, you believed it and didn’t carry the umbrella. It rained a lot and I had to take shelter here for a while. Luckily I had my sketchbook and a hot cup of tea on the side.

smoker with Umbrella

In the following weeks when the rains ceased to stop, we became inured to the wet weather and acted like this tattoed guy, probably a chef or a kitchen staff who I saw coming out from the back of a restaurant into the alley for a quick smoke. Even for a break as short as this, he couldn’t risk leaving without his most trusted accessory dangling from his arm!

Grandma in EBT

A few days back I was eating churros at Express Bus Terminal when I spotted this interesting character approach the table opposite me. She may have been in her late 60s and was wearing a bright green chequered shirt over a white tee paired with grey tights and classic slip-ons. Placed at a slightly jaunty angle on her head was a straw hat with a flower attached to it. The thing that caught my eye though was her yellow umbrella which gave this ensemble a cheery look!

Before settling down she got herself a cup of coffee. Then she kicked off her shoes, plonked the rest of her stuff on the floor, and put her feet up on the chair. An electric hand fan appeared out of one pocket and a piece of paper from the other which she held in her hand and studied for a long time.

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This year’s protracted rainy season has elevated the humble umbrella from a functional object to a fashion accessory. Instead of moping about the miserable weather, people are having fun carrying umbrellas in varying designs, colors, and fabric, sometimes matching them with their outfits! I saw some interesting ones on subway line 9. As you can see, everyone was keeping up with the times with their masks, color-coordinated umbrellas, and mindless phone-scrolling.

 

Happy Birthday Singapore

On the occasion of Singapore’s 55th birthday, which is today, I am fondly remembering the trip I took early this year to the tropical city-state and the sketches I made in the few days I was there.

To give you a bit of background, before moving to Korea in 2017, I and my husband spent seven years in Singapore and have some lasting memories of that place. Needless to stay I still have a hankering for my old home once in a while. So when the opportunity arrived for a short visit, I couldn’t refuse. I called all my friends to check their availability, applied for visa and dug out my old city transit card that I had kept as a souvenir.

This was one trip that wasn’t going to need any planning!

Starbucks at Raffles City Mall

One of the best places to meet someone in the city is at the Starbucks inside Raffles City Mall. It’s the first thing you see as you climb up the escalator from City Hall subway station. The mall air-conditioning shields you from the heat and humidity and the constant stream of people makes it an unparalleled people-watching spot.

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While waiting for a dear friend,  I made a quick sketch of some coffee drinkers, including this woman with a beige scarf draped around her body with pictures of bugs on it!

Singapore National Library

After lunch at Sin Swee Kee chicken rice restaurant on Seah Street opposite Raffles Hotel, we popped into Straits Commercial, like old times to peruse art supplies. Not only does the place have a superb collection of art materials, it is also the most likely place to bump into local artist friends, which I did! After swapped stories and checking out each others’ sketchbooks we crossed the street and walked over to the Singapore National Library.

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The library’s handsome collection of books on literary and creative arts had drawn me to its shelves more times than I can remember. Getting myself a library card was the first thing I did after settling in Singapore. While sketching this scene of people reading and snoozing on the library sofa, a little schoolgirl came over to watch me draw. Soon her friends joined me on the sofa. They seemed amused at the sight of an adult playing with colour pencils and crayons!

Tiong Bahru Bakery

For tea and cakes, I hopped into a cab with my husband and headed to our favourite cafe in Singapore- Tiong Bahru Bakery. I have sketched here so many times over the years that the bakery’s manager, Christine knows me well and was over the moon to see me walk through the doors once again with a sketchbook in hand! She got us a seat with good light, just like before. We ordered tea, coffee and a Kouign-Amann, just like before. I started sketching. There were moments when it felt like we hadn’t left Singapore at all.

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TBB

Before leaving Christine brought us a complimentary pineapple tart that had been newly introduced to the menu. I drew it for her as a way to say thank you and the sketch went up on the community board.

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TBB community board

After leaving the cafe we walked around the Tiong Bahru neighbourhood, past our favourite Art Deco buildings. Some new cafes and boutiques had sprouted while some old ones had bitten the dust. Tiong Bahru Market was still there, abuzz with activity.

Newton Hawker Center

I wanted to spend the evening at Newton which used to be our old neighbourhood and later have dinner at Newton Hawker Center. It is a food haven for Southeast Asian cuisines. Seated on these very wooden benches surrounded by food stalls, we had gorged on Bak Chor Mee, Thai pepper chicken, Aloo parathas, Curry laksa, and Nasi Goreng on countless occasions.

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Upon returning, my first impulse was to get a taste of everything! But I didn’t act on that. Perhaps the heat was taking a toll on my good senses. I let a glass of sweet refreshing lime juice help me settle down. The evening crowd was arriving and the tables around us were getting snapped up.

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The heat was also melting my crayons and they became soft and mushy, really pliable which helped me work faster than usual. By the time I finished sketching, I had worked up an appetite. I got myself a steaming bowl of handmade meatball noodles, rejoiced every bite of it and left the place completely satiated.

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Throughout this trip I realized how much I wanted to remember everything I was doing before I left Singapore again for good. So I did them well, however small or insignificant, something was, I paid attention. I really engaged. There was this excitement of revisiting the familiar – friends, food, sights, sounds and smells – but then there was also this new, unfamiliar urge of holding on to them as long as I could.

Before going back to the hotel, we walked past our old apartment building. It looked exactly the same. Apartment 03-02 was brightly lit and someone was watching TV in the living room. The building caretaker recognized us and said that incidentally, a Korean family had moved in right after we move out and left for Korea!

Sale at Olive Young

Olive Young is a popular beauty and health store based in South Korea that I had never heard of until I started living here.

There are at least five decent-sized Olive Young stores ( in addition to countless cosmetics shops) within walking distance from my apartment in Gangnam and at any time I visit one of them to buy a tube of suncream or some moisturizer I need to jostle for space because they are always crowded.

Also, the diverse range of cosmetics and skincare products displayed on the shelves can be mindboggling but not for the Korean customer who I see flitting from shelf to shelf confidently scooping up rejuvenating snail masks, eye creams loaded with collagen extracts and acne patches. I envy how well informed Koreans are about skincare products!

In recent years, K-beauty products, especially skincare has risen in popularity. Articles and blog posts waxing lyrical about the ’10-step Korean skincare routine’ or the ’13 best Korean Face masks’ keep popping up on my newsfeed. When my overseas friends visit Seoul, trips to Olive Young stores are imperative. I wanted to know why. If something exciting is brewing in my own backyard shouldn’t I be curious?

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People loading up on beauty products during a sale at a Olive Young outlet in Gangnam

So I dug a little deep and found that the global cosmetic industry makes a ton of money. In the next 3 to 4 years, it is expected to grow to 379 billion dollars! If you break down this number into product categories (cosmetics, perfumes & colognes, skincare, hair care, , and others), you find that it is skincare that’s driving most of the growth. By 2024, the global skincare products market size alone is expected to reach 196 billion dollars!

What makes skincare so popular? Industry analysts point towards increased awareness in wellness which in today’s day and age translates to clean eating, fitness and the natural, no make-up look. The wellness trend is driving consumers to take better care of their skin. And this ‘skin first, make-up second’ philosophy that has been gaining momentum across the world is believed to have originated in South Korea where skincare is part of the culture.

Not just that, the sizeable skincare and cosmetic industry of South Korea is highly competitive. In order to stand out brands constantly invest in research and development to create new, better quality, and competitively priced products which earn them an edge in the global market.

In a CNBC interview, I heard Charlotte Cho, founder of Soko Glam – a site that curates and sells Korean beauty products – explain how K-beauty created a skincare wave. “They opened the door to innovations, allowed indie brands to come to the forefront of a lot of these skin care trends, they also widened the appetite for new products and categories and they’ve been a big part of the education around skincare.

She also believes that “influencers and social media were key for K-beauty to takeoff”. The skincare boom owes a lot to social media. Skincare gurus and make up artists have huge fan followings on Youtube and Instagram where they share their daily skincare routines and explain why they prefer certain products and how those products impact their skin. As a result, consumers are discovering new products and learning about ingredients that go into these products.

Today South Korea is not just an exporter of beauty products but also a huge manufacturing base for American and European brands. As the country continues to grow as the latest beauty innovation and creation hub, I certainly have a better understanding of why my neighbourhood Olive Young stores are always buzzing with activity. I visited one recently during a big promotion and managed to buy four items I didn’t need! The sketch is from that time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Neighbour’s trash

I have never seen my next door neighbour.

But interestingly, almost on a daily basis we see stacks of delivery cartons and trash left outside their apartment door. This is true for other apartments in the building as well.

The trash, however doesn’t contain kitchen wastes! There are separate waste disposal units for that in the basement. Most of the time what one comes across lying haphazardly on the floor outside apartment doors are these empty cardboard boxes that their deliveries came in.

Ever since we moved here, I have been curious about the constant ebb and flow of delivery guys in our building at all times of the day, everyday, pushing hand trolleys stacked with cardboard boxes that they keep unloading at every floor. So what are people buying all the time? And why?

neighbour's trash

Turns out, South Korea is home to the fastest internet on the planet. Nearly 100% of households here have internet connection. Combine that with excellent service from Korea Post and you will see why this country has such rapidly growing e-commerce market, which is currently 7th largest in the world and 3rd largest in the Asia-Pacific region.

From golfball to a toilet seat cover, you can buy almost anything on the internet (Gmarket and Coupang are two very popular online shopping websites in Korea) and have it delivered to your doorstep inside those ubiquitous brown cardboard boxes I always see outside our neighbour’s door.

Once in a while discarded household items like a TV, a hoover, giant ceramic vases – things too big for a trash can but small enough to not block the hallway make an appearance. They are of course disposed off by the cleaning staff in a day or two.

Of all the trash I have seen outside apartment B1302’s door, this lot has got to be the most intriguing, hence the drawing! That tall structure I recently learnt from a pet owner is a ‘cat tree’ for a pet cat to play, exercise, relax and sleep on.

I may not know my neighbour from Adam but at least now I know he/she has a cat.

When it snowed

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Our apartment in Seoul is on a high floor and has floor to ceiling glass widows that face the road. When it snows, and it doesn’t snow much here, the world outside feels like a giant snow globe.

Couple of weeks back when it did snow, I grabbed a few crayons and a kraft paper, jumped on the bed and drew the view outside my window as snow flakes floated from above and settled on the roofs of buildings, sidewalks and on top of cars, blanketing everything, blurring edges and corners until what was left was an unidentifiable white blob under a leaden sky with splashes of bright colour peering out from places.

This sketch is a depiction of what I saw that day and an expression of how I felt in that moment!

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

Same same but different

While working on this particular set of drawings sitting at cafes, eateries and subways around Seoul, it dawned on me, especially after having moved countries recently, how different we are as humans irrespective of our similarities and how similar we are irrespective of our differences!

When we first moved to Seoul (and in the subsequent months) I was fascinated by the large groups of elderly people kitted out with serious hiking gear riding the subways on weekends, by the fearless ‘Ajummas‘ (as middle-aged Korean ladies are respectfully called) in identical solid perms, sun-visors and windbreakers, by the mini portable fans everybody carried in their hands all summer and the copious amounts of Bingsu (a lip-smacking Korean dessert) they consumed; or how most women would pull out a mirror from their bags and freshen up their make up every once in a while, by the raging red lipsticks and round framed Harry Potter glasses worn en masse and how clothing and preferences changed with season.

On the other hand these days there’s hardly anything novel about a couple sitting together, in silence, glued to their phones; or someone taking a picture of their food first before starting to eat! Don’t we all have that one friend who can’t stop talking, so much so that we mentally check out after a while, maybe doze off in the chair even? Look out for that person in this collection.

And a lady with a fetish for polka dots.

And two ‘rubik’s cube’ lovers.

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Guy with trekking poles and hiking boots, seen on the subway

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My husband on a late night conference call becomes an easy target.

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Ajumma on the left in sun visors and lurid pink jacket, drinking coffee

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(L) Sketched this lady on a hot summer day. She was wearing white, and carrying a matching white purse (R) Two ladies eating mango Bingsu. This was common sight all summer

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(R)From her polka dotted top, hand fan, umbrella and backpack, it was safe to assume that she really liked ……

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(R) This guy in green GAP t-shirt was a one man show. He seized every conversation and talked so much that one of his mates dozed off!

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(R) A lot of thought and effort goes into appearance and I see most Seoulites dressed really nicely when out which means I feel underdressed half the time.

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(L) From my table, it looked like a “It’s not you, it’s me” kind of conversation. Don’t miss the bright red lipstick on this woman, rather on every woman in these drawings.

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(R) Mini portable fan= most seen summer accessory in Seoul. (164,000 of these were sold in South Korea this year!)

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(R) Couple that plays rubik’s cube together stays together! These two were relentless in a ‘coffee be damned, let’s solve this thing’ kind of way.

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(L) Make-upping should be a word here.

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I often see business meetings being conducted in cafes. Here’s one in session. Attendees – 3 feisty women and one man who squirmed in his chair every time the discussion heated up.

Ewha Womans University

was the location of my first sketchwalk with the Seoul Urban Sketchers. I had been waiting for this day ever since we moved here and the countdown ended last Saturday when I hopped on a train from Gangnam and travelled all the way to one of the most prestigious institutions in the country, to meet a group of 20 sketchers who gave me the warmest welcome I’d ever received.

EWHA b&wThe thing about urban sketching, especially in a group like this is that it is one of the most enjoyable and unique ways to see a city and learn about it too at your own pace. It is also a great way to make the acquaintance of locals, hear their stories and view the place through their eyes.

If not for Dominick, a fellow sketcher who I met at the sketchwalk, I wouldn’t have known that the tree whose massive trunk I was gawking at was a ginkgo tree. We found it while scouting for suitable locations to sketch from, inside the arboretum-like university campus.

They turn yellow in fall, don’t they?” I asked Dominick, pointing to the fan shaped leaves. I had seen pictures of golden ginkgo-tree lined streets on the Internet and couldn’t believe I standing before something that was capable of turning into such surreal beauty later in the year.

Yes, but did you know that the female tree produces a nut that is extremely smelly? It’s a nuisance!” he said.

I did not know that! A little research back home revealed that there are 114,000 ginkgo trees in Seoul and one in 10 are female and the nuts they produce are nutritious and tasty when cooked, but the butyric acid in their husk produces an offensive smell. Some say it stinks of vomit, others say it smells like rotten cheese! I read that the city employs over 400 people to wipe the streets and the sidewalks clean off the pungent ginkgo nuts.

So is this tree a male or a female?”, I asked Dominick but he didn’t know.

EWHA finalA short walk from the ginkgo tree brought us to this charming stone Gothic structure nestled in greenery . The sky was a cool blue and except the sound of breeze rustling through the leaves and chirping of birds, it was really quiet. It took me about 40 mins to finish the line work using a dip pen and ink.

I coloured the sketch later as I had to rush off to a book club but not without the burning desire to revisit the campus again in autumn if not before to determine the gender of the first ginkgo tree I met.

 

 

 

Tras Street

 

is where I went last weekend to join the Urban Sketchers gang which meets on the last Saturday every month at a specific location. The reason why many of us look forward to this once a month rendezvous is that not only do we get to draw as a group feeding off each other’s passion and enthusiasm for art, we also meet the wonderful artists whose works we passively admire on social media and get to peek into their sketchbooks, watch them in action, sift through their tools and at times pick their brains and receive invaluable advice and feedback.

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Shophouses on Tras Street in Tanjong Pagar drawn using dip pen and ink

Having said that, one massive downside to this otherwise uplifting event- affecting only your wallet- is that you are unfailingly smitten with a certain fountain pen, brush, crayon, pigment, sketchbook or camping chair that you find one of these artists using to get those ‘impossibly good results’ in their art, or so you think. The more you watch them using it the more needy you become so much so that you cannot imagine your life without it. You find out where it is retailed and then vamoose!

I had every plan to sketch more on Tras Street, instead I have a new water brush.

 

In pursuit of the perfect location

Couple of days back, on a late afternoon I was in Kampong Glam scanning streets, alleys, sidewalks, cul de sacs in search of a proper place to sit and sketch from.

And as I was squirming in the intense heat, politely turning down offers to peruse Persian carpets on sale or to sit down for a Turkish dinner that could be had as the busboys promised with a view of the radiant Sultan mosque overlooking the entire Arab quarter, I realised that the ‘perfect location’ can be as elusive as anything good we pursue in life.

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Sketched from the lovely Working Title cafe on Arab Street

Like the perfect job, perfect partner, perfect wine or the perfect vacation, if finding the perfect location needed to be worked for and sweated over, I was doing just the same but without any success in sight. Kampong Glam cafe that normally offers an unobstructed view of the palm fringed Bussorah Street had two black vans parked right under its nose and Haji Lane packed with tourists and Friday night revellers had zero real estate to spare. My patience was fraying.

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Row of shophouses on Arab Street

Just as I was harrumphing about the lack of a single spot of shade on Baghdad Street for me to crouch under and sketch, I wondered if ‘perfection’ is subjective and therefore if it is possible to calibrate our sense of perfection and still feel accomplished? I wanted to try.

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And by that I mean, despite being occasionally interrupted and accidentally elbowed by passersby crossing the narrow ‘five foot way’ right behind me did I consider the Working Title cafe on Arab Street the perfect location? Heck, yeah! I sat by a big wooden table on the foyer all by myself for the next hour sipping coffee, looking across the road and sketching this row of beautiful shophouses.