The Art Of Urban Sketching

Berlin Illustrator Rolf Schroeter talks about his passion for sketching the city and the relationship between art and place…

I was born in a small town near Cologne in West Germany. After an apprenticeship as a stonemason I travelled to Italy, then took a degree in architecture from RWTH Aachen. During all that time, and especially during my architectural studies, I used sketchbooks. I worked as a tutor alongside Professor Heiner Hoffmann, who put a strong emphasis on filling sketchbooks with observational drawings as an essential part of architectural education.

Sketch: Rolf Schroeter, Berlin

During these Aachen days we were a group of very intense sketchers. We looked at, and commented on, each others work very passionately and there was a competitive spirit that kept things going. The multifaceted surroundings of Aachen, Belgium and Liege and other towns in the Netherlands like Maastricht  were very useful for sketching day trips.

I finished my studies in 2000, moved to Berlin and started a family—we had our first daughter in 2001. Without the challenging presence of my co-sketching friends and with the new needs of a young family, sketching fell into the background. I worked in Berlin first as an architect, then since 2003 at the illustration studio of Markus Junker. In my work as an architect and even more as an illustrator, sketching is an important part of the process, but this ‘design’ sketching is different from observational sketching on location. At we illustrate using Computer Graphics, mostly 3D-based, so the sketch is mainly a mean of communication and ‘image-finding’.

Around the beginning of 2009, I was told about the Urban Sketchers Network, founded by Seattle Journalist Gabi Campanario in 2008. I watched it for a while, slowly reactivated my own sketching and in July 2009 I felt confident enough to create my own Flickr account, join the group and post some drawings. I got totally caught by it. The feedback I received and could give was similar to the environment of the Aachen student days. Not quite the same passionate, bar-based roughness but with a wider range of people from multiple cultural backgrounds.

Bus Stop, Berlin

In contrast to my student days I rarely go out with the main aim of sketching now. Paid work and family-duties (and joys) don’t leave much time for that. But I always carry a small notebook and pencil in my trouser pocket that I get out whenever I find a suitable occasion—on public transport, while supervising the kids or evenings out at the theatre, bars, etc. When I pass by something that really appeals to me, I might stop for a 15-20 minute sketch, rarely longer. Mostly I color the drawings digitally at home before posting them. When there’s time I use watercolors on location.

Although it’s only quick sketching there’s always this feeling of ‘stepping outside of the moment’. You’re outside the movement and everybody else is in it. The drawing gives you a reason to stand and watch, a gesture that would not be always be accepted socially without a sketchbook in hand. In this state my relation to the environment changes, because I am not heading towards anything—I try to let the sketching just ‘happen’. I start to see things—and the relationship between things—that I would not have noticed before; if things go well, this might find its way into the sketch and be of some kind of common interest at the same time.

Since I reactivated my sketching, my relation to Berlin has changed from being the city I accidentally live in to become…not a ‘hometown’ but something I explore with continuing curiosity and that’s always challenging me. This hasn’t just happened by exploring the ‘scenic parts of town’ either, but mostly just around everyday Charlottenburg where I live.

Cafe scetch, Berlin

The same thing happens when travelling (though not with family as we don’t ever seem able to travel ‘slowly’ enough—we will improve on that). I am rarely interested in drawing yet another view of well-known sites, but prefer to roam around and find something that’s more atmospheric, something that visually appeals to me personally. So sometimes my sketching needs to lead me to remote parts of the town and gives me a reason to stay there long enough, to let something new and unexpected ‘drip’ into my experience. And, if I am very lucky, I carry a bit of it home. Sometimes this also creates some interesting contacts with the locals.

At the moment the Urban Sketchers network is an important part of all this. It’s a great environment for learning from others’ examples and testing the effect of your own stuff. Maybe it’s vanity, but I don’t think anyone sketches when no one else is watching. The network is well structured, with the public Flickr group (which anybody can join) and a few group rules, like the drawing having to be made on location, with an ‘urban’ topic, and a bit of a story that explains the drawing. There’s also the Urban Sketchers blog, where only ‘correspondents’ can post and a ‘Sketchcrawl‘, initialised by Enrico Casarosa, where everybody is encouraged to sketch on a special day together.

You can see more of Rolf’s work on his website