Tag Archives: urbansketching

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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Furrowed eyebrows vs Fall colours

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

Tera Rosa sketch

The Back alleys of Insadong

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

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

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My take on Insadong 14-gil, Seoul

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

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

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Back alleys of Insadong, Seoul

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

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

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Insadong 14-gil sketched using dippen and ink

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

All in a day’s work!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

If not for the toothless grandma

I’d have quit. And gone home.

Since the last couple of days, the sun has been blazing down on us in Seoul and it is becoming unbearably hot. I watched the temperature rise from the pleasant 26 degrees with soft mornings and breezy evenings to now 34 degrees when the air feels like it has its clammy fingers wrapped around our necks. Every other day, there’s an ‘Emergency Alert’ text message on the phone warning us about a heat wave, asking us to stay indoors and hydrated.

And yet, I thought, how hot could it be? When I tell people I am from India, they say, “Isn’t it hotter there?” Much hotter, I say. “Then this should feel nothing!“, they say. So I left the house one day with a sketchbook and pen and headed towards Bukchon Hanok Village.

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When I reached Anguk station it was already 2 in the afternoon. The roads were empty except for construction workers and few lobster red tourists walking doggedly with a map of Bukchon in one hand and a hand fan in another.

Completely disoriented by the blinding sun and blistering heat, I decided to fold away my own map and follow them. But they – a group of three women and I should’ve known – led me to a souvenir stall first, then to an ice cream shop and finally to a jewellery store where I abandoned them and decided to take matters into my own two hopelessly clammy hands.

For a person who doesn’t sweat easily, I was melting like a candle and it wasn’t a pretty sight.

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Sketching with the help of water, a hand fan and a toothless grandma by my side

Bless the kind staff of Emart, where I went in purely for the air-conditioning but pretended to closely inspect melons, for giving me directions to Bukchon. “..keep going straight and turn left. Just 5 mins.”, they said. I bought bottles of mineral water to show my appreciation. Melons were expensive.

So once again, I was on the road, in the furnace, but this time with dry armpits. And while that lasted, I managed to find myself a spot in the shade on this quiet alley called Bukchon-ro 11da-gil.

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Bukchon-ro 11da-gil

Travelers who haven’t visited Seoul yet may already have seen pictures of Bukchon Hanok Village on every guidebook, magazine and internet article describing Seoul. This area has a large cluster of hanok or traditional Korean wooden houses dating from the Joseon dynasty. These houses are not only picturesque but have been so beautifully preserved that a stroll down the narrow winding alleys they are lined with may well feel like time travel, especially if you arrive at an ungodly hour like I did and get the place entirely to yourself sans selfie sticks. Wouldn’t that be something?

It was. I hardly saw anything or anyone for the entire hour I sat on this street corner sketching except two stray cats, an SUV and the distant figure of a person hobbling in my direction. It was easy to imagine what a 600 years old office rush hour would look like –  noblemen and high ranking government officials emerging out of these houses while adjusting their elegant silk court uniforms and hurrying towards the royal palace – but my brain cells were too dehydrated to carry on with the mental imagery.

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A quiet alley in Bukchon Hanok Village

The air was still. And clingy. There was no respite even in the shade. The thought of quitting clouded my vision such that I lost sight of the lone approaching figure that was now standing behind me. Dressed in a lemon yellow floral patterned dress was this slightly bent, excessively wrinkled toothless grandma looking intently at the sketchbook on my lap and then matching my drawing with the scene in front. With a nod of her head she asks me to go on.

Umm..no, see it’s too hot. I was leaving..“, I say to her pretending to pack up but she keeps nodding and pointing to my dip pen. She doesn’t understand a word I’m saying. Sigh! I feel like the performer who’s obligated to perform because one person showed up.

But sometimes that one person is plenty, if they care. So I start again. Grandma leans over with interest or to compensate for her failing eyesight. More nodding. And smiling. She looks pleased. So I keep going like a 5 year old being watched while she finishes her school homework. Grandma sticks by me, sometimes pointing out features I missed drawing or decided to overlook. A stickler for details, this one.

When I finish the drawing I was giving up on a while back, she was still there grinning ear to ear. I could see her gums.

 

The girl with the selfie stick

told me there was going to be a parade.

What parade?

I am the kind of a person who likes to be prepared. Wikipedia, Google maps, subway routes and the weather app – all had been read and consulted with before I got here, inside Deoksugung Palace, one of Seoul’s four royal palaces to sketch with a bunch of local artists.

Then how did I skip the part about this parade? An oversight perhaps. All I know is finding a gaping hole in my pre-trip research, something I am a self-confessed expert of had taken the wind out of my sails was a wee bit soul crushing.

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Junghwamun Gate inside Deoksugung Palace, Seoul.

It’s the changing of guards ceremony. Happens thrice a day…here they come“, she offered kindly, mistaking incredulity for curiosity. Wedged between her body and her thin arm was a fat Japanese guidebook on Korea.

I could already hear the drums and the sound of marching footsteps round the corner. Grabbing a bench facing the mighty Junghwamun – the inner palace gate leading to the main throne hall – I quickly laid out my sketching gear and waited with a dip pen and a bottle of ink in hand. The Japanese tourist had her phone propped up with a selfie stick and was standing by the road, also waiting. You can see her in my sketch.

As the sightly procession of uniformed guards carrying colourful flags passed us by, we captured the event in our own way.

Before leaving she asked me if I was a tourist too and though I still feel like one, I found myself savouring the fact that I wasn’t and therefore could visit this palace and watch this ceremony as many times as I wanted.

What was even more uplifting was when I reached inside by bag and touched the reassuring crook handle of my umbrella. “Wasn’t it supposed to…”. 

After several balmy days, it had rained very heavily that day.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

She made me look fat

Sometimes while doing the most inane tasks like staring at your toe nails for example, have you ever been stricken with a surge of creative energy that makes you feel you could do anything?

I have and before it fizzled out I rode with it and some sketching supplies on the subway to Hoehyeon station, emerged out of Exit 5 and walked straight into a noisy, overcrowded, confusing maze called Namdaemun Market, Korea’s largest traditional market with 600 years of history.

The first order of business was to orient myself and then locate a discreet corner from where I could sketch without being in the way of either the vendors or the shoppers. I got hopelessly lost instead which wasn’t exactly surprising considering I was a first time visitor to a market that has over 10,000 stores and is visited by 300,000 people a day.

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Sketching on Fashion Street in Namdaemun Market, Seoul

To give you a idea, here’s a list of the items I saw being sold on just one of the streets – hats (all kinds imaginable and more), fur coats, dried nuts, dumplings, spectacles, stone seals, eerie looking ginseng with their sinewy roots stored in clear glass jars and miles of kitchen utensils. I was beginning to believe in the saying that if you don’t find it in Namdaemun Market, you won’t find it anywhere in Seoul.

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View from my corner on Fashion Street.

A map, which I had snagged from the tourist information centre in the meantime showed entire alleys and streets dedicated to cameras, bedding items, watches and jewellery, mountain climbing equipments, women’s, men’s and children’s clothing, stationaries and more.

When I spotted yards of army green stretched out in the form of military uniforms, T-shirts, caps, blankets, boots, sacks, compasses, watches and telescopes, I knew I had hit the ‘Military Uniform Street’ on my way back from the ‘Fish and Stew Alley’. Galchi jorim, or braised hairtail fish stew, one of Namdaemun Market’s famed food offerings along with Kalguksu (Korean knife-cut noodle soup) have to wait for my next visit.

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Namdaemun Market in Seoul – Korea’s largest traditional market. Drawn with dip pen and ink.

This visit was all about channeling my chance ebullience fuelled by the mood enhancing amino acid in my matcha latte for all I knew and perhaps the fact that I had been feeling pretty sketch-deprived lately. Seoul is still new to me. I don’t know the best spots to sketch from yet. Finding out can be fun but sometimes exhausting too when you just want to get down to business!

‘Fashion Street’ had one little corner squeezed in between a fur coat vendor, shirt, pants and coat seller and a shop selling pink and cutesy Mickey mouse themed merchandise from where I made this drawing. Tons of people came to look and showed various signs of appreciation though I didn’t understand a word they said. What I clearly did understand simply because some things transcend languages, was when fur coat vendor in his excitement dragged Mickey mouse lady by the arm to show how I had put her in my sketch and she self consciously touched her waist and said, “She made me look fat!” and marched off.