Sunday, September 4, 2016

USk Chicago Spotlight Sunday - Aaron Elswick

Spotlight Sunday is a series of interviews designed to introduce and highlight Chicago Urban Sketchers individually. Now that our chapter has over 500 members it has become more of a challenge to meet every sketcher in person and have a conversation. These posts concentrate on individuals and speak in their own words and sketches.

Interviewed by Andrew Banks.

Hi Aaron, thanks again for taking the time to be this week's spotlight feature and for sharing a little bit about yourself with the group!

Andrew Banks:
How did you first hear about the Urban Sketchers community and what made you decide to join Urban Sketching Chicago?

Aaron Elswick: A couple of years back I was sketching commuters on the Metra and I ran into Peggy Condon.  She noticed what I was doing and suggested I join Urban Sketching Chicago. Until then I thought I was the only weirdo that did this.

Andrew: That's awesome. I always enjoy hearing about how people find out about the group.  Sometimes it's through our social media accounts, or through a Google search, but these in-person introductions are always the most memorable.

Andrew: Did you sketch before finding USk Chicago?  If so, when did you start sketching?

Aaron Elswick: I have drawn and painted most of my life. My primary subject matter has always been sharks (most often drawn from reference photos).  I began sketching on location a little over 3 years ago to become a better urban designer. It was the summer before I started my Masters of Urban Design and I didn’t know much about architecture at the time. 

I decided going out and drawing architecture would be a great way to learn what I could before school started. During this same period of time I was interning as a landscape architect. I noticed that my boss – the lead designer –  was always the one drawing throughout the design process. I realized that summer that if I ever wanted to be the one drawing (and I did) I was going to have to draw as fast and legibly loose as my boss did when creating (her “cartoons,” as she calls them). 

Andrew: Can you tell us a little bit about your background? Does urban sketching ever have an impact on your day job? If so, how?

Aaron Elswick: I have a professional degree in Landscape Architecture from the University of Kentucky and a Masters of Urban Design from the Savannah College of Art and Design. I am presently employed as a Site Architect at Terry Guen Design Associates, a local landscape architecture and urban design firm. To explain what we do as simply as possible I like to say: "If you’re not standing inside of a building, then you are standing in exactly what we do." At TGDA we call this “Design for Life,” viewing our work as the backdrop, or stage, for the play of life to unfold. Our objective with every project is to design a sustainable environment that allows for the most acts of the play to occur, be it social, environmental, or economic. Urban sketching is the foundation of my design process and on a daily basis it helps me imagine, draw, and design for the future.

The Bean Context, my first attempt at using markers on location. This sketch was drawn during Wes Douglas’ 2016 UskChicago Sketch Seminar Workshop- Markers for Beginners. Mediums include: Stabilo fine 0.4 pen, ultra fine sharpie, and Chartpak Design Markers. (~40mins)

When I am sketching on location, I am analyzing the proportions, textures, scale, and context of the objects that define a place and simplifying it all to just a series of lines. As a Site Architect, I use my urban sketches as a mental reference bank to draw and design a city. Drawing is a tool and the language that I use in my career to communicate and explore ideas. Although drawing is only a tiny piece of my career, it is easily one of the most critical assets of my design process. Urban sketching is how I practice, learn and explore topics related to my profession.

The two most valuable lessons I have learned professionally, via sketching on location, is to be unafraid to fail and that the ugliest sketch is better than no sketch at all. A mentor of mine once broke it down to me like this:  the best designer is the one who is least afraid of failing. Before I started urban sketching I only wanted to show people perfect drawings, but I have learned that this hinders the design process and restricts the flow of ideas. Loosening up a bit and focusing on conveying an idea, as opposed to seeking perfection has been a real turning point in my career. Being unafraid to fail has gotten me to the “design table” at a very early in my career. I credit joining Urban Sketchers Chicago and its community for giving me a space to explore this practice and learn the truth in the advice I’ve been given.

Andrew:  Wow, that's so awesome.  Your response is not only inspiring and challenging, but also a great reminder to me (and I am sure others as well) about what urban sketching is all about.  It really sounds like urban sketching is intertwined with your day to day professional work, and is giving you some great opportunities for creative expression and experimentation all at the same time.  

I really like what you said here: "the best designer is the one who is least afraid of failing. Before I started urban sketching I only wanted to show people perfect drawings, but I have learned that this hinders the design process and restricts the flow of ideas. Loosening up a bit and focusing on conveying an idea, as opposed to seeking perfection has been a real turning point in my career."  

I really think that every single person in our group will benefit from that advice.  I know I already have.  It's so easy to get critical of our own work, wondering whether it's worth sharing or not.  But when we start holding ourselves back or aiming for some standard of perfection we lose out on a lot of creative opportunities.

Andrew: Is there a specific subject matter you are particularly drawn to or inspired to sketch?

Aaron Elswick: I am most attracted to iconic facets of Urban Design – buildings, public spaces, infrastructure, streetscapes, and everything else in a city. I like to capture the whole scene and believe in going big or going home. The public realm is my home and I firmly believe that people define great places and not buildings or landscape architecture. 

Therefore I am commonly sketching in a crowd or in places people choose to spend their leisure time. Doing this enlightened me to the extremely social aspects of urban sketching, which is now is my favorite part. I love the Q&A sessions, exchanging of stories, and impromptu workshops that sketching on location facilitates. Occasionally, I want to sketch from a distance and tend to choose public parks. However, I rarely ever sketch a singular object. For me and what I do, context is everything!
The Nature Board Walk at the Lincoln Park Zoo, Studio Gang Architects, sketched during the 2016 UskChicago outing with a Stabilo fine 0.4 pen and ultrafine sharpie. (~30mins)

Andrew: What is your favorite medium to sketch with?

Aaron Elswick: My favorite medium to sketch with is 100% pen and ink. A pen tells the truth and the whole story of the sketch. The authenticity of storytelling through my sketches is something I have recently have started to explore. I learned to draw with a pencil, but in my profession pen and ink is the standard for hand graphics. To learn how to draw with a pen, I just stopped taking a pencil and eraser with me. At first this was quite the challenge, but with a lot of practice it is now starting to come more naturally to me. 

This approach has saved me countless hours of erasing and inking over pencil. It has also changed the way that I view the world, instead of just seeing a brick building, I now see the lines and shapes that define the building. In return I have begun to develop my own style and form of artistic expression, which will always be a work in progress effort. Using only pen and paper forced me to embrace imperfections and lead me to take the Bob Ross approach: “I made some mistakes once, now they are trees.”

Andrew: The idea of truth and authenticity in storytelling through our sketches is a super interesting topic and I would love to hear more of your thoughts and approach to this sometime.  I agree though, there is something really freeing about jumping in to a sketch in ink without any pencil outlines.  It definitely forces you to be intentional with each line. I work a lot with ink myself and I like to tell people that while you can't erase ink, it's also a fairly forgiving medium to sketch with if you know how to work with your mistakes and build them into the sketch. 

Andrew: Are there any Urban Sketchers who inspire your own work?

Aaron Elswick: In all honesty, every member inspires me. Seeing how often people are posting, what they are sketching, and the techniques they are using motivates me to get out there and go do it more often.  I believe some members are in a completely different league and/or playing an entirely different game than I am. 

There are two members that really speak to me with their work and influence my sketching: Andrew Banks and Wes Douglas. Both of these guys are absolute masters of their craft. What I enjoy most about their work is the subject matter and their uniquely identifiable styles. Andrew’s hatching and spot on architectural rendering style is extremely impressive. Wes’ diversity of subject matter, techniques, and use of markers is out of this world.

Andrew Banks:  That is the beauty of the urban sketching community. There is such a wide range of styles, techniques, view points and skills levels to learn from. There is never a shortage of inspiration to be found, that is for sure.

Thank you for the compliments!

Andrew: If you could choose any location for the next group sketch event, where would it be?

Aaron Elswick: Without a doubt I would choose the Shedd Aquarium! Sharks are my weird obsession and I have been drawing them my whole life. The Shedd would offer a unique opportunity to take a crack at the plethora of subject matter the aquatic environment offers, after all it is pretty hard to draw underwater. It would be a real treat and I would absolutely LOVE to see how all of the different members of UskChicago depict life underwater.

Andrew: Do you have any websites, blogs or social media accounts where people can see more of your work?

Aaron Elswick: I am on Facebook and Instagram at the moment. I have a lot of projects in the works and a website/marketplace is in development. Once that all gets launched I’ll be sure to let the group know. 

Instagram: @acelsw2

For more information on Terry Guen Design Associates and “Design for Life” please see

Andrew Banks: Thanks again Aaron!  

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