I love meeting artists. I love seeing the world through a different set of eyes. Eyes that see in a palette of colors. The sky isn’t just blue. It’s cerulean. The bark of a tree isn’t brown. It’s burnt sienna with a touch of yellow ochre where the sunlight finds its way through the leaves.
I suppose I’m creative through the use of words and photos, but I’d love to be able to sit in a shadowy corner somewhere with a sketchbook and a field box of watercolors and transfer a single, perfect moment in time onto paper. No electronics. Nothing digital. Just me, my hands, my eyes and a few simple colors.
Every now and then, in a fit of artistic delusion, I’ll take an art class, spend a huge amount of money arming myself with art supplies that in my dreams accompany me everywhere I go, a well-worn moleskine notebook tucked into my leather satchel… then woefully crash back down to earth. It’s happened before and it’ll happen again.
So when my friend Bridget March asked if I wanted to meet an interesting Argentinian urban sketcher she serendipitously crossed paths with in Hoi An, Vietnam, I jumped at the chance.
I met up with Jorge Royan at a trendy cafe in downtown Saigon earlier this year, his gangly teenaged daughter in tow. I invited Tony from 20YearsHence along and we joined another former art student of Bridget’s for an informal workshop.
Right away, I was taken with this swarthy, animated man whose blue-green eyes seemed to take in everything as they darted around the corners of the cafe before settling into an intense gaze.
Jorge started by talking about his past, his many lives, first as a successful architect, then as a photographer and now, in the more leisurely stage of his life, an urban sketcher based in Buenos Aires.
First, though, he had to explain what the growing movement called “urban sketching” was — a group of like-minded individuals finding camaraderie through a shared love of paper and ink, drawing on location, sketching everyday scenes using pen, pencil, watercolors and other media.
Originally involved in Urban Sketchers, a network of thousands of artists across the world who draw cities where they live or travel, Jorge now manages a much smaller Facebook group called Sketching Workshops, with around 150 even-level members, including this great, free drawing tutorial the group put together.
We talked about his trip through Vietnam, armed with pencils and ink pens with calligraphic nibs and a set of watercolor paints, sometimes stored in a jerry-rigged Altoids box or a tin of Starbucks mints. His website shows delightful vignettes, some incredibly detailed, of places he’s traveled: a café stairwell in France, a barbershop in Seattle or a piazza in Bologna.
“In the US, people may be sitting and eating together in a McDonald’s, but you feel nothing from them. They’re hidden behind a mask. In Buenos Aires [where Jorge lives], there’s a long history of insecurity, so everything is secluded, everything is behind doors. You go to the West, you have the cars and the front of houses ― that’s all you see. They’re capsules. Here in Vietnam, you see the shops, the houses; people eat out on the street so you can see what they’re eating. On motorcycles, you see everything they carry. Amazing! There’s also a huge sense of community, people living in swarms of social hubs, eating, working together. Everything has color. Here, things have texture, depth, light and dark. In Vietnam, everything has a soul.”
Jorge referenced a quote from Steve McCurry, photographer of the iconic “Afghan Girl” image:
“In the secular West, where nothing is sacred, everything seems hidden; yet in Asia, where nothing is hidden, everything is sacred.”
McCurry was speaking of India, “where millions have no home but the streets, virtually every life event is carried out in public: prayer, eating, sleeping, nursing, crude dentistry, even bodily functions”, but as I read his description, I thought that it could easily apply to Vietnam, where life, in all its gritty glory, is lived on the streets.
In his month-long trip, he’s been drawing the length and breadth of Vietnam, waking up early or staying out late so as not to inconvenience his daughter.
“In my country [of Argentina], we live in constant fear. In Buenos Aires, there is a lot of violence and social confrontation. It’s not safe. [When I sketch outside] I sit with my back against the wall. Guys could just walk up and say, ‘I like your watercolors. Give them to me.’ That’s not a joke. But here in Vietnam, I’ve been working late nights on the streets and it never crossed my mind that I was in danger. I can find myself in a narrow alley, in the dark, and people will look at me but they’ll be friendly.”
Unlike Bridget’s gorgeous ethereal watercolors, Jorge approaches his sketching with the eye of an architect, seeing the world in straight lines and exact proportions. This was something my linear left brain could latch on to.
“As a photographer and a sketcher, you must be like a bird. If you dropped a bird here, he would see all the corners, high and low. If the best angle is up there [as he points to the corner of the café], you have to find a way to get there. When you begin moving, things change their position and space. It’s amazing how things change even if you move 10 cm to the side or to the front. For me, half the fun and half the problem is to find the right angle. Climb something, get under the table, put things in front of something else to get depth.”
In his kit, Jorge often carries a Da Vinci frame, a graduated cellophane window, used to determine perspective and proportion, to help re-create 3D images in 2D.
As we talk, Jorge asks us to show him what we’ve been drawing. Tony whips out his iPad to show off handsome pet portraits he’s been commissioned to do, utilizing his fine arts background. My much keener fellow classmate pulls out his sketch pad, filled with drawings he’s been doing. (Alas, since art class ended months ago, I have yet to take out any of my art supplies, the thought of drawing being more alluring than the act itself, it seems.)
Jorge gravitates to the drawings and proceeds to shred them to bits. “The proportions are all wrong here,” he says bluntly as he points to some objects that are half off the page. He then advised on how to move objects around (“It’s a drawing, not a photograph!”), place things in the foreground for depth and how to best frame the drawing to utilize the dimensions of the paper. I slowly but quietly nudge my bag, the one that contained my sketchbook, further under the table with my foot, casting guilty glances at my classmate whose skin color had progressively gone through all 50 shades of grey.
But Jorge was just being Jorge. He means no harm and every word he says makes perfect sense.
Drawing lesson mercifully concluded, we instead turn our attention to our red velvet cupcakes with cream cheese frosting and speak of happier things.
Only reluctantly introduced to sketching about three years ago (“I thought it would be boring”), Jorge says he was instantly hooked. “It became about where to sketch and with whom to sketch. I used to work in photography and there’s no people there; it’s highly competitive. Everyone hates everyone. But with sketching, people are very friendly.”
“I believe sketching is the best thing I’ve found for the benefit of many because sketching is really an excuse. Sketching is the ‘what’. What comes is the ‘how’. Through sketching, you can connect with people all over the world. You can exchange ideas and make friends and make something that’s pure, that doesn’t depend on screens, that’s not made on an iPad. It’s something so basic, so natural, so pure that it helps people join together and meet all over the world through the simple pleasure of drawing. It’s not about the sketch itself. Who cares about the drawing? It’s about the exchange.”
When he’s not able to draw in situ, Jorge often falls back on his photography skills, collecting images which he can sketch back in his Buenos Aires studio, eschewing the romantic notion of drawing inspiration from direct observation.
“There’s a myth in my eyes that you have to draw right there to get the movement, the atmosphere of the place. Me? I feel nothing. It’s not about the atmosphere, the smells. Things are not things. Things are carriers of patches of color, black and white. I don’t care about the things. I don’t give a damn whether you can smell the steam from the food. I admire people who can feel the atmosphere. I wish I were like that but it’s not me. I think you can find the right angle, capture it in a photo and transfer it into art with all the time in the world.”
“There’s something wonderful with only a piece of paper and a pencil, nothing more. Your generation is missing out. With AutoCAD or an iPad, you cannot add in all the details. You need to be able to sketch. I see how my daughter uses the pencil and her hand trembles. It’s like a different animal to her.”
Photography is different, he’s quick to point out. “Digital is better than film. It’s amazing what colors digital can pick up in the shadows. Shooting film is like hunting your own food. It’s heroic, but who wants to be a hero?”
For the most part, Jorge is a proponent of simplicity. “The fewer tools you use, the better. On internet forums, you’ll find mostly people talking about equipment, lenses. But to talk about composition and framing, it’s much tougher. If you get rid of all that and you just want to focus on an idea, the fewer tools you have in your box, the better. To choose something is to renounce other things,” he adds philosophically.
That afternoon chat with Jorge has left a lasting impression on me. I find myself “framing” images in my mind as I walk by the most pedestrian of scenes. I’m more acutely aware of how much activity goes on on the streets of Vietnam, where “nothing is hidden, everything is sacred.” I’ve also been following #urbansketchers on Instagram and love seeing a different side of travel images.
Sadly, not even two weeks ago, Bridget emailed me to say that this vibrant, passionate man so full of life had suddenly passed away due to a stroke and subsequent surgery.
RIP Jorge Royan. The world is a sadder, darker place without you in it.
Photo credits: Photos of Jorge by Tony Kuehn
A version of this article originally appeared in Oi Vietnam magazine. Please click on the image to read the article in its entirety.