My son Harry and I had weaseled our way into the cloistered beauty of Oxford’s Magdalen College on May Morning, a few hours after gathering with 20,000 other revelers to greet the sunrise with a hymn sung from the medieval tower, a tradition dating back 500 years. The college had sponsored a jolly day of artistic expression and laid out a banquet of tools for our use: oil pastels, Staedtler pencils, Winsor and Newton watercolour sets.
We sat on the striped lawn and sketched the arcaded front of the New Building (c.1733), adding to the plump sketch books we carried everywhere on this father and son tour of England. Increasingly, our pens and black books were our go-to recording devices, cameras staying more often in the backpacks.
A window on the second floor had once been C.S. Lewis’s room. I made a point of detailing the graceful Georgian sash. “You should flog your sketches to the college,” suggested one observer. But we didn’t: it wasn’t about that. It was about imprinting the day on our minds and hearts, capturing the moment with a physical act. Even now, five years later, I can flip open to those pages and smell the clematis that wound around the solid columns, hear laughter and the crack of a croquet ball on the lawn behind us, see the radius of the Palladian arches, feel the warmth of the May morning sun as it fluttered through the dappled leaves of Oxford. One look at the sketch and it all comes back to life.
Sketching allows all this. Drawing is to photography what walking is to driving: it’s more work, it’s slower, it demands patience and it’s something we’ve increasingly forgotten how to do. And yet, it pays dividends: The work is a rewarding pleasure, the pace allows a scene to sink in and be appreciated, concentration breeds a patient contemplative mind-set … and it’s something that can be relearned.
And it’s not all about great art, or skill. Drawing is something everyone can do. I don’t use an eraser or straight edge when I sketch: misplaced lines, side doodles, quirky shapes are all part of it.
A Princeton study in 2014 demonstrated the advantages of taking notes long-hand, versus typing them into a laptop: more self-editing and more emphasis on certain words rather than just a verbatim recording. With sketching, these same things seem to hold true, and there is more. To sketch a scene is to truly observe it. As Sherlock said to Dr.Watson: “You see but you do not observe. The distinction is clear.”
That, and the physicality of putting pen to paper. There is a visceral muscle-and-nerve connection to the scene in front of you when your mind observes a shape and tells your hand how to bring it to a blank page. There’s a pleasure in it that gives the intellectual imprint depth and substance. The wide net of digital point-and-shoot is fine for a quick pass, but it’s largely a glancing surface treatment and the real work is left to the camera. To sketch a scene challenges our notions of what really matters as we move through a new city or react to the beauty of a great, windswept plain.
It’s heartening to see that sketching is gaining the respect it deserves. At the Rijksmuseum, an important arts and history museum in the heart of Amsterdam, visitors are encouraged to put down their selfie-sticks and cameras and use a sketchbook when they visit the museum’s displays, making small drawings of sculptures and paintings rather than snapping a photo and moving along quickly. “In our busy lives we don’t always realize how beautiful something can be,” Wim Pijbes, the general director of the Rijksmuseum, told the art blog Colossal. “We forget how to look really closely. Drawing helps because you see more when you draw.” The story ran with photos from this experiment showing wide-eyed children gazing at display cases with determined intensity, pencils poised above sketchpads, fully engaged.
To our three kids, travelling with a sketchbook is not a new concept: in cafés, museums, parks, sitting on a bus or on the brink of a gorge. Not only do they seem to gain a bigger appreciation of beauty, they see detail and nuance, entering into the experience of the place. They’ve been able to be truly in the moment, rather than living in some strange parallel world of constant screen time.
If this sounds like a Luddite fantasy, then yes, that’s part of it: a yearning for a pared-down mode of travel, a rejection of the superficial and instant. Sketching is, by nature, an old-fashioned way of seeing. Kids seem to understand instinctively.
Recently, in Rome, I set myself a challenge: no cappuccino without at least a full page in the sketchbook. I haunted the streets of Trastevere and made a painfully slow progression through the ancient Forum, taking increasing pleasure in the small moments afforded by sketching little pieces of antiquity, Ducati motorcycles and crowded markets. On Via Merluna I sat at a red café table, the foamy cappuccino disappearing from my glass at the same pace that a sketch of the street scene appeared on my page. The scene was actually pretty banal; just another street. But as I sketched, it became so much more.
A little crowd, including my excited waiter, gathered around, judging my vision against what they saw and curious about my approach. They wouldn’t have stopped for a selfie-stick. I had enough Italian to know that they approved.