To some, a Metra train is merely a vehicle to transport them to and from their destination.
To others, it’s an art studio on wheels.
These dynamic riders are members of Urban Sketchers Chicago, which is part of an international community of artists who practice on-location drawing. Some 450 members make up the Chicago chapter, with about 10 of them regularly practicing on Metra.
Equipped with their medium and canvas of choice (pens, pencils, watercolors, sketchbooks, etc.) these artists sketch fellow passengers, conductors, stations and anything else that tells a story. They share and critique one another’s work on the Urban Sketchers Chicago Facebook page, Instagram, Twitter and blog. Once a month they meet for “sketch crawls” at locations such as Lincoln Park Zoo.
Their motto is “see the world, one drawing at a time.”
Urban Sketchers Chicago co-administrator and Union Pacific West Line rider Wes Douglas met with Metra’s media team to talk about the group and share some of the sketches he and other members of the group have created.
An edited version of the conversation follows.
Q: What do you find so compelling about the scenes on the train? Why capture those?
A: A lot of it is just compositional makeup. For example, this drawing, which was taken at the train station in Glen Ellyn, just the angles, all the different body positions. There’s just so much interest because they’re not all sitting the same way like soldiers or like mannequins. Some people are slouching. Some people are leaning forward, hovering over their phone. It’s just a lot of fun to see how many different positions there are. If you keep an open mind, you can see a lot of different things to draw. I could draw my coffee cup everyday on the train, but after a while that starts to be the same. Sometimes the cool thing about urban sketching is that you can take really mundane things and make them seem way more interesting because instead of taking a photo, you’ve now done a sketch of it.
Q: Do you find that rather than riding the train to get somewhere, you ride it to sketch?
A: Well because I work in Elmhurst, I ride to get to work. But I see plenty of people on their phones, so they’re great subject matter because they aren’t paying attention to that fact that I’m sketching them. For me, if I was on my phone every single train ride, I would have nothing to show for it. On my epitaph, they’re not going to say: “here lies Wes Douglas, who spent 5,548 hours on his phone.” Instead, I’ve got books like this to show.
I often say my sketchbooks are like my best friend because if I’m at an airport for example and they announce: “your flight has been delayed by an hour,” I see everybody go “oh my god. Why does this happen to me.” Right? You always hear all that chatter in the airport and they’re complaining to the gate agent and everything like that. I’m like, “not a problem. I’ll pull out one of these and just start sketching all the people.”
Q: You mentioned most of the time, people don’t notice you. Have you ever been caught sketching someone?
A: I don’t get caught that often. When people discover that I’m sketching them – they can always sense that somebody’s looking at them after a while – but when they do look up and they catch my gaze, then they’re somewhat relieved that I’m only sketching them and not snapping photos of them on my phone. They like to see what they look like in an artist rendering. So it’s a pleasant surprise. And a lot of the times I’ll have sunglasses on so they
can’t see where my eyes are going. Everyone has a different system because they have a different comfort level of socializing with people on the train. Most of them don’t want to get caught and they’re afraid of getting yelled at or something like that. But when we’ve gotten caught, nobody’s ever really had a problem with it.
Q: How have things changed in the past three years since you’ve been a part of Urban Sketchers?
A: I think I’ve gotten better. I’ve gotten better because you do get the critique from other members. And I had been drawing 30 years before I joined Urban Sketchers, so then to hear somebody all the sudden say I could do a little better with my anatomy, I was like, “what?” But then, if I’m being honest with myself, I probably could. You could always learn, right? I took some of that to heart and I now look at scenes differently too. I realized it wasn’t about just sketching an object on the page. It was about sketching a story.
Q: Do you have any advice for someone who wants to start sketching on the train?
A: Yes. It’s all trial and error. Nobody told me how to do it. Obviously, I knew how to sketch. But how to sketch people on the trains is trial and error.
Riders might see more sketchbooks on their trains this summer. Sketchers from across the world will descend on Chicago from July 26 to 29 for the 8th Annual Urban Sketchers Symposium.
Here are a few of the works by other Urban Sketchers Chicago members: