If there’s ever been a perfect time to stroll through a graveyard, this is it: A crisp mid-October morning slicked with dew. The mossy headstones and memorials that populate Walnut Hills Cemetery jut solemnly into a cloudless sky. About 12 bundled-up folks in folding chairs speckle the surrounding lawn, hunched over their sketchpads. They’re mostly silent but linked by a common determination.
This is the second meeting of the month for the Cincinnati chapter of Urban Sketchers. It’s a stark change of scenery from the group’s prior trip to the zoo, which took place just three days earlier.
They’ve met at least once a month since early 2017, becoming an official chapter of the Urban Sketchers nonprofit organization last October. Founded in 2007 by Seattle-based artist Gabriel Campanario, the community has grown from a web-based Flickr group to an international movement with over 200 chapters.
Christina Wald, the main administrator for the Cincinnati chapter’s official Facebook group, sketches the cemetery’s stone chapel from the front. An arching tree branch frames her view of the Victorian structure. The foreground is studded with stones and the vague outlines of other attendees. She’s just as focused on accurate documentation as she is her technical artistry.
Wald has been sketching seriously since 2011, when she attended an illustration workshop led by local artist Amy Bogard in Taos, New Mexico. When Wald found out about the Urban Sketchers, she began attending the organization’s regional meetups and, in 2017, the international symposium in Chicago.
Invested in the urban sketching subculture, Wald spoke with her friends about starting a local chapter.
“They have several people start the group so it doesn’t die — so me, Robin Ewers Carnes, Amy Bogard and Jeb Brack started to run it,” she says. “It took six or seven months because it’s all volunteer work, but we got approval last year to become part of the international group.”
Since then, the Cincinnati Urban Sketchers have made regular trips to city landmarks. Over the past 12 months, they’ve drawn exhibits at the Air Force Museum, used a karate practice as an opportunity to sketch moving subjects and presented their work at the local Wyoming Art Show.
Wald finds that spots showcasing Cincinnati’s unique architectural makeup — like Art Deco, Romanesque and Gothic— tend to inspire the group’s best work.
“Over-the-Rhine is probably one of our favorite spots,” she says. “There’s Washington Park, the Music Hall and the Art Academy, where I teach illustration. There’s a really great view from the windows there.”
The group’s experience ranges from beginners to seasoned veterans, architects and professional illustrators. The more experienced sketchers hold regular workshops for the new members, many of whom join to practice keeping a travel sketchbook.
“It’s amazing how much people that sketch with us a lot improve,” Wald says. “Everyone used to learn to sketch a little bit in school. Now they’re introducing learning how to sketch in science for college freshmen, because you observe so much better when you draw than you do just taking pictures. Many scientists used to keep field journals — it helps you think better.”
Jeb Brack agrees. A self-taught illustrator (and part-time magician), he’s been sketching with Cincinnati Sketchers’ founders long before their efforts to make it an official chapter. The group outings have served as a way for him to learn from fellow artists and push his work further. Though Brack started sketching exclusively in pencil, he’s begun to flesh his work out in pen and filling in empty spaces with watercolors.
“Meeting with these guys has improved my skills immeasurably,” he says. “Plus, it’s just a thing to do with people who have the same interests as I do. In the past, I was never much of a leader of things like this, but somebody’s got to organize these things. Each one of us (admins on Facebook) is busy in our own way, so we divide the load between us. Urban Sketchers gave me the chance to be a leader of a thing in Cincinnati.”
Some of the group’s trips have led to more immediate benefits, too. Point-in-case: While sketching houses in Wyoming, one of the neighborhood’s homeowners stepped outside and offered to buy each member’s drawing.
“She loved her house and the work they were doing on it,” Brack says. “She saw the different sketches and thought it would make for a really cool thing to have in her house. It was a good feeling — something we were doing for fun had some value to the people living here.”
Toward the center of the cemetery, Lauren Wells and Amanda Schrader sketch a headstone sculpted to look like a cloaked figure.
Considering its proximity to the curb and its spooky appearance, the pair consider the grave to be an ideal subject for sketching.
“We really liked the draping of her hood and the tree around it. It’s nicely framed,” Wells says.
It’s Wells’ third outing with the group and Schrader’s first; both are from Dayton, Ohio. While Wells, who has a bachelor’s degree in art, follows the Sketchers to practice drawing buildings and structures, Schrader is here for the fun of it.
Whether you’re a hobbyist or a pro, Urban Sketchers events are free and open to anyone who’d like to attend. The group’s schedule of future events is updated regularly on their Facebook group, titled “Urban Sketchers Cincinnati.”
For more on Urban Sketchers, visit uskcincinnati.blogspot.com.