Sketchbooks Tell Stories at 8th International Urban Sketchers Symposium

Two Urban Sketchers stop to share their work

This past week, Chicago hosted the 8th International Urban Sketchers Symposium, drawing over 600 artists and hobbyists from all over the world to fill their sketchpads with the bustling life of the city. The symposium, giving hand to capturing and experiencing urban life via sketchbook (literally), featured over 30 themed workshops taught by different artists at different sites around the Loop and Grant Park area. Between workshops, the symposium also hosted “sketch crawls”, during which participants were led through the streets to stop and take it all in with their paper and pencils.

A sketcher captures the crowds around Cloud Gate (AKA The Bean)

The Urban Sketchers set off in 2007 when Seattle-based journalist and artist, Gabriel Campanario, started an online forum dedicated to capturing city travels through on-location sketching. The resulting group has since expanded upon its digital platform to a worldly (and perhaps  spiritual) inclusiveness, having chapters all around the globe participating in and organizing workshops and on-location gatherings. A major symposium is hosted by a different city each year, previous sites including Singapore, Manchester, and Barcelona.

This year, that special city was our own sweet home Chicago: flowing fountains, brazen statues, and swooping sky-scrapers in all its colorful locale. From July 26-29, registered sketchers gathered in the city for sketch crawls and workshops  such as The Grand Illusion: Achieving A Dramatic Sense of Depth, Watercolor Silhouettes, and the site-specific Lay it on the Line: Sketching Chicago’s Riverfront.

“It’s a chance to experience Chicago,” remarks one Urban Sketcher of the NYC chapter. “You see it in so much more detail when you’re trying to draw it than when you’re photographing it.”

Art instructor Suhita Shirodkar, who led the workshop, People Tell Tales: Using Action and Interaction to Tell Stories, explains it as “slow travel”: “You have to stop to look at and record things. And you come to find that people tell stories. You can capture them in your gesture drawings.”  An illustrator and graphic designer from California, Shirodkar is always gathering such stories in her sketchbook, wherever she may find herself. As couples and children and old men on scooters pass her by, she exclaims, “Look around! The great people stories of Chicago.” They’re everywhere to be found.

Art instructor Suhita Shirodkar leads a discussion about telling stories with art

The annual symposium is sponsored by art supply companies including Blick’s and Windsor & Newton, many of which came out in booths filled with art materials to proudly patron this year’s event. “The Urban Sketchers is a great thing to support,” says artist Rich Watson of Arizona, a spokesman for Guerrilla Painter. “It’s grass roots, anybody can participate, and it’s very inclusive. Just because people are artists doesn’t mean they all come from the same financial demographic. Sponsors like us are donating, financially supporting, and encouraging, so there are less fees, and no fees for the big sketch crawl involvement at the end.”

Artist Rich Watson shares his sketchbook at the Guerrilla Painter sponsor booth

The 8th International Urban Sketchers Symposium ended in encore its final day Saturday, with a mass sketch crawl welcoming anyone and everyone to join in on the action. The streets line with hundreds of sketchers, scribbling alongside one another as they create a new scene on their own: moments being captured, glances being felt, people finding stories in the angles of the city. They certainly are everywhere to be found.

Sketchers share their work after a workshop drawing session

Photos by Stephanie Lenchard Warren

Stephanie Lenchard Warren
Stephanie Lenchard Warren

Stephanie Lenchard Warren is a visual artist and nonfiction writer. Her work explores finding ourselves in nature as well as the nature in ourselves.


  1. Thank you Stephanie for such a thorough and colorful reportage of our event. While I did not get to meet you in person, I am truly grateful that you were able to swing by and get a real sense of why we are so passionate about the art of sketching on location — and the weather this week certainly helped in that regard. Thank you for your gift of covering our event. It was one for the ages.

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