Looking at the scene in front of Wendy Steinberg, who sits on a picnic bench in a back corner of the grounds at Willamette Heritage Center, one can see a wildish pink rose bush, still lovely, but with blossoms starting to drop their petite petals. The roar of the Mill Race charging downhill or the insistent squawks of crows from a nearby white oak might command more attention than this unassuming bush.
Then Steinberg starts marking her pencil on her paper, urging a closer look at the bush and the scene surrounding it — at the depth and color of the plants, the way the light reflects on every leaf, the movement caused by the occasional wind puff on this otherwise sunny and calm Saturday morning. Steinberg, a retired art teacher, begins with rough, almost random pencil lines, but over the next hour, her sketch develops into a free-flowing explosion of colors depicting the roses, a bridge, the stream.
“Sometimes people walk through life and only see the green and the trees, but sketching helps you see things much more clearly,” she says as she works.
“When you draw, it’s like using another language. Your mind interprets and sends things to the hand, and the hand puts it onto paper. … With sketching, it doesn’t have to be perfect. The most important thing is to get a mark on the paper, and to enjoy it.”
That last idea is part of the drive behind Salem Sketchers, an informal group that meets monthly at locations around town for a simple purpose: to encourage people to take time to draw the world around them.
Steinberg is one of 18 gathered in early June at Willamette Heritage Center, and they’re not all professionals like her — the group ranges from trained painters who have exhibited their work to casual sketchers trying to develop their artistic sides.
Salem Sketchers formed two years ago after a workshop at the Art Department downtown, taught by Ken O’Connell, professor emeritus from the University of Oregon and a longtime advocate for keeping a sketchbook. The people who took the class were so excited to continue sketching that they organized monthly meet-ups. Many of them eventually moved on to other things, but Art Department owner Katy Vigeland and others kept the group going and opened it up to anyone, regardless of whether they has taken O’Connell’s class.
“It’s a social thing, but it’s also a way to make time to just draw,” Vigeland says. “I do other art, but I don’t often sketch, and it’s like exercise for the mind. … It makes you more observant of your surroundings when you sit down and try to draw what you see.”
Loosely organized through a Facebook group, the Sketchers meet at a different location each month. Past spots include the Amtrak train station, Willson Park, Deepwood Estate, Minto Island Growers, IKE Box and Salem Center mall. After briefly introducing themselves at the beginning of the meeting and discussing future locations, everyone disburses for an hour to create, then returns at the end to share their sketches.
With no rules for what or where to sketch at the site, the end results are quite varied; the artists focus on whatever catches their eye. At the train station, for example, one artist sketched a train that had pulled in for a few minutes, another focused on people waiting in the lobby, and another honed in on light fixtures hanging from the ceiling. They use a wide variety of media, including pencil, pen, markers, colored pencils and watercolors. Participants are encouraged to create in a sketchbook, and to think of it as a rough draft, rather than worrying about creating something worthy of framing and hanging.
The idea of drawing without concern for the outcome is part of what appeals to Linda Rindy, another of the participants at the Willamette Heritage Center meet-up. A retired elementary school teacher, Rindy jokes, “I’m trying to elevate my skills higher than the fourth grade.”
As she struggles to get the right size ratio for the windows on the back of the museum’s entrance building, Rindy says she’s thankful that the Sketchers include people of all skill levels, and that “they’re pretty generous.”
“What I like about sketching is that it causes you to slow down and think about things,” she says. “Yesterday I took my two grandkids to the (Lan Su) Chinese Garden in Portland, and we sketched the garden together. It was something I never would have thought to do before joining this group, but it was a neat way to spend the day.”
Nearby, in a quiet and shady spot next to the Mill Stream, watercolor painter and teacher Robin Christy Humelbaugh dips her brush into a pot of water-soluble graphite and creates a gray-toned picture of the bridge in front of her.
“There’s not much expectation with a sketch,” she says. “It’s not about perfection; it’s about capturing something quickly.”
Humelbaugh likes to sketch when she travels; she finds that taking the time to deeply examine a place for a drawing means she never forgets it. “It gets in your DNA, through your hand or your pen or whatever you’re working with, and then you take home a black-and-white sketch instead of a photo,” she says. “You remember so much more.”
The sketching-while-traveling idea also appeals to Carel DeWinkel. The June meet-up is his first time joining Salem Sketchers, but his sketchbook is filled with pen-and-watercolor scenes from his recent trip through Western Europe.
“You’re sitting down to sketch, you relax and you get more out of it than a photograph,” he says. “You look at the architecture in ways that you wouldn’t normally. You look at things like perspective and the horizon.”
DeWinkel critiques his current drawing of the heritage center’s Mill Building — the water tower is a bit too small, he notes, and some of the windows aren’t lined up properly. But none of that really matters, he says. The fun is in taking time away from his usual tasks of the day, in slowing down to observe, in indulging his artistic side.
“I like gardening, especially on a day like this, but this morning I decided to come try sketching instead,” he says.
He pauses and looks up at the cloudless blue sky, at the building he just captured in his book, and smiles. “The garden can wait a bit.”
Join Salem Sketchers
Salem Sketchers meets in the morning on the second Saturday of every month at locations in and around the city. The next meet-up is at 9 a.m. Saturday, July 11, at Willamette University’s Martha Springer Botanical Garden.
The group is open to anyone interested in keeping an artist’s journal or sketchbook, regardless of skill level. Just bring your sketchbook and your choice of media (pencils, pens, markers, etc.). A small chair or stool is also helpful.
To stay informed of meetings and to see the artists’ sketches, join the Facebook group: www.facebook.com/groups/SalemSketchers.
Salem Is editor Sarah Evans prefers documenting the world through words, but meeting the Salem Sketchers made her consider digging out her decades-old sketchbook.
Jesse Farrah is a Salem-based photographer with a passion for film photography. Check out more of his work at www.facebook.com/jessefarrahphotography.