If you were to ask Rob Sketcherman about the formula behind his impressive foray into urban sketching, he would give it to you like this: urban sketching = place + time + eye. That’s the equation Rob uses every time he sets stylus to iPad.
That’s right: iPad.
Rob made a name for himself as one of Hong Kong’s premier sketch artists not only because of his colorful and dynamic style but also because of the devices he uses to create his artwork. Rob was one of the first artists to adopt the iPad as his medium of choice, a transition that happened through no fault of his own.
No room for extra supplies
Rob blames his wife and his small Hong Kong apartment for the transition to a digital platform.
“We live in a really tiny place in Hong Kong — it’s 500 square feet total,” Rob explained. “I would have half-finished paintings on canvas, and I’d have art materials stacked in the corner and stuff like that. So at some point, my wife said, ‘You know, you have to start dealing with all this stuff.’”
The clutter had to go.
Rob decided to give the iPad a try. He took his iPad 3, found an amazing view in Hong Kong, sketched what he saw, and considered his experience. There were things he didn’t like — the iPad 3 lacked the processing power and pressure sensitivity of the newer model — but he thought he could make it work.
After he received the next generation iPad as a birthday present, however, all bets were off. “The jump in processing power made a huge difference,” Rob said, “so I modified a stylus that would work for pressure sensitivity, and then it was like a whole new thing.”
A wandering sketch artist and a fishmonger
That was about the time that Rob got involved with Urban Sketchers, an international group of artists focused on creating artwork drawn from life. The organization is comprised of local chapters, and Rob decided to attend. But his interest in the group had little to do with the sketching itself — at first.
“The first thing that drew me into urban sketching was the community,” he said. “The first meeting was in January. It was cold, and we were just drawing a bunch of statues, but I loved the fact that there were people from all strata of society.”
Though that first meeting with Urban Sketchers Hong Kong set Rob on the path to artistic acclaim, he credits the passion and welcoming environment from the sketching community for helping him find his way.
“From life drawing, I found joy in sitting in a studio and drawing a person. And I still love doing that,” said Rob, “but there was something so different about drawing a city scene from life.”
After Rob had been in the sketching community for a while, he met Luis, a traveling sketch artist passing through Hong Kong at the time and got to know him really well.
That relationship, Rob explained, made him realize that he’d be sketching for the rest of his life:
“I was in a street market with Luis. We were sitting next to fishmongers, occasionally getting splashed with fishy water. But I was sitting with a good friend, and we just loved being in that moment — watching the people go by, and the way the colors and the light changed.”
They sat in the market for an hour and a half, and Rob finished the line work for a sketch that went viral within the community.
“This was the first piece that really got attention,” Rob said, explaining that most artists at the time had overlooked the iPad as a sketching tool. “That was the piece that really put iPad urban sketching on the map, and it’s still a piece that’s really popular today.”
Rob considers it one of his milestone pieces, and it’s still selling well years later. But Rob points to that experience as the moment where urban sketching became a reality.
“I remember having so much fun when I was sketching it, I just thought that if I could do this for the rest of my life, that would be awesome,” he said.
And five years later, that’s a reality.
Getting the details right
As an artist, Rob didn’t start out sketching buildings, trees, or modern life. As a kid, he started with superheroes and lived vicariously through those stories as he learned how to draw.
“My first art teacher was Superman. The Hulk taught me musculature, and Spider-Man taught me dynamic poses,” he said. “Consequently, I couldn’t draw women for the longest time because they all had giant muscles!”
But, while Rob doesn’t consider himself an academic, his passion for art drove him to study anatomy through old medical journals. When he saw a painting by Rembrandt and didn’t understand why he liked the lighting, he tried to find out.
Professionally, Rob has been everything from a photographer’s assistant all the way to a graphic designer. Today, he relies on the sum of those experiences to connect his art to the world.
Whether he connects with people through the prints he sells or the workshops and events where he teaches, Rob wants to challenge everyone who looks at his artwork to open their mind to the details hidden all around them.
“The main thing for me about urban sketching is to get people to realize that wherever they are — whether they’re at home or they’re traveling or they’re walking on a street where they’ve walked a thousand times — there’s always something interesting to see,” he said.
Rob gauges the success of a piece on how long someone spends looking at it. If people are getting lost in the details, Rob feels like he has done his part to connect them with something magical.
That ability to observe small details and work them into a piece of art is a unique kind of superpower. But, as Rob points out, it’s one that is accessible to anyone who takes the time to learn the right techniques.
If you’re looking to get started with sketching, Rob has one piece of advice for you: Start.
“The most important thing is to start drawing and to draw from life,” he said. “Get a sketchbook and draw something. Draw something that you’re interested in, and make a collection of things you love drawing. If you love drawing trees, draw a bunch of trees.”
Rob explained that the more subjects an artist draws and the more often an artist sketches, the faster and greater the improvement. It’s also not uncommon for budding artists to add additional details to a drawing in order to make it feel more complete. According to Rob, that combination of accidental discovery and practiced repetition is how great artistry takes place and how the best urban sketches come together.
It’s something that he’s always focused on, no matter what he’s drawing or where his next adventure takes him.
“Since starting this about five years ago, I’ve found that I like the variety,” Rob said.
That ability to sketch anything — from buildings to trees to urbanites and superheroes — is what makes every sketch in Rob’s extensive body of work fresh, new, and interesting. And it’s what keeps his fans coming back for more.