At the end of our Sabbatical this summer, SE and I (ES) have decided to spend 2 months in Granada, Spain. I visited the city before and was completely mesmerised by its architecture, winding alleyways and the abundance of cosy squares. It looked like the perfect place to spend the days walking around, drawing and painting.
So I decided that I would let go of all of my inhibitions and not only sketch on the street but also sell my drawings to tourists and passers-by. The first day of going out there into the great city to sketch was probably the hardest: my stomach was in knots as I was walking down the street with the canvas bag of “incriminating evidence” on my shoulder. Even after I finally found a place suitable to sit and sketch, my hands were trembling so badly I could hardy draw a straight line.
But first, a bit of context.
As I have written before on this blog, sketching for me is one of the most important aspects of being an aspiring architect. However, I do like to take my sketching forward and away from the focus of detailing, cladding systems or structural components that architecture students are encouraged to sketch. I like to tell a story, to describe the atmosphere, express the genius loci of a place and experiment with new media and styles.
Sketching on location is what I love most: on the street waiting for the bus or while I’m sipping my coffee in a café, you can spot me doodling in my pocket sketchbook. I always get a lot of attention from people, with strangers asking things like: “Do you do painting for a living?” or “Are you selling these sketches?” So, having left my ‘proper job’ a few months ago I decided that for 1 month in Granada the answer to those questions would be YES!
I was reluctant at first, not knowing what the reaction would be from the authorities, passers-by or the locals. The law in Spain regarding this form of art/performance is very confusing. There are permits for musicians or other types of street performers, but sketching exists in a legal grey area. At the same time however, I knew that my “establishment” would also be very minimal: a little cushion to sit on, 2 sketchbooks, pencil case, watercolour set, a small plastic dish, a water bottle, and paper to put the sketches in.
Before going out, I also made a conscious decision to dress up nicely and do my makeup and hair as if I was going to work at a prestigious company. I wanted this contrast between my “respectable” look and the work I was doing to intrigue people, and also make me seem more approachable to potential customers.
I think that this is the aspect that gave me the most discomfort about street sketching: its perception by the public, and people’s somewhat general aversion towards street beggars and rough sleepers with which they might associate my own performance art. I am, of course, guilty of similar gut reactions towards these unfortunate individuals or towards the people who choose to live outside societal norms. Our society tends to look down on people that have, either by force or choice, ended up in this situation. I know personally how hard it is to change so I wanted to make people question their own misconceptions and stereotypes.
And I have to say; my own perception about street people has been greatly shaken up. During my hours spend on the busy pavements and alleys in Granada I met some weird and wonderful people, the types who reject the established ideas of career, success, family and what it takes to have a fulfilling life and to be happy; modern day hippies, vagabonds, and travellers; rootless artists, lost creatures and intriguing characters – they have all ended up in a place that seems all to eager to accommodate a different kind of lifestyle.
There was the Italian soap bubble performer who lived in one of the nicer caves in Sacramonte with his girlfriend and was one of the warmest people I’ve spoken to. There was the Belgian troubadour, a university graduate who decided to throw it all away and travel to Spain with only a guitar and a tent and who had the kindest voice. There was Dragos, the barefoot Romanian with a top hat who lived in the newer, rougher caves on the other side of Sacramonte. There was the massive guy with a talking parrot who didn’t seem to be doing anything other than walk around with a parrot on his shoulder – I never spoke to him, but his parrot insisted on calling me “guapa” every time he went past. I also met Sam, a bloke from London who used to be an art dealer but now sings blues in bars. There was Bernardo, the perpetually high Spaniard who asked for a sketch for his mother but whom I never got to give it. There were a few henna tattooists who somehow manage to grab all of their setups consisting of tens of poster boards with designs, table, stools and their tools and run through the narrow alleyways every time the police came around Albaicin (I’m guessing not very often). There was the Han player spreading his New Age peace message with the mellow sounds of his instrument in the Cathedral Square and who told me about the Earth Ship house he’s building in Northern Spain. I also saw the poor African immigrants, forced to gather their sheets of trainers and hand fans and run every time the police was in the area. In reality, the difference between their way of earning money and what I was doing is not so huge.
But on the first day, my mind was racing and anyone going past me could see my wide eyes searching for any sign of hostility. There was none to come and, slowly easing into my “role”, I eagerly awaited the first customer. With a few other sketches I had done earlier to display, the first clients ended up buying the sketch I was doing on the spot and one I had finished earlier. Slowly, my confidence started rising as I was getting more and more positive interactions. Some people just wanted to look, other were asking me about my background and education. Locals would come to me forcing me to use my basic Spanish to the maximum.
And so I ended up going out on the streets for a few hours almost every day. As the nervousness died out, a sense of eagerness and curiosity for what will happen the day ahead took over, in a way an office job can never do. I became almost addicted to the human interactions, and felt so happy to have my art – which was improving day by day – seen by great numbers of people. My communication and marketing skills greatly improved (in both English and Spanish) and I enjoyed every minute of conversation I had with strangers. A cliché sure, but this was a statement about the power of art to connect people.
At the same time, there could not have been a better way to see and experience Granada. Sure, with time I started to pick the most successful spots around the centre and stick to them, but even so, I experienced the city and its people on a very deep level and found all its little quirks and unique qualities. On the cobbled alleyways of Albaicin I felt like a seller from the time of the Nasrid kings. In the Scorched Plaza Nueva I met Gypsy flamenco singers and dancers sweating off the generations-old tragic tales. Next to the Rio Darro I learned about the Moorish architectural heritage. In the Renaisscance monasteries I enjoyed the silence and calm. At the Royal Chapel I felt like in the city’s living room, surrounded by layers of architecture history whilst listening to the best street musicians Granada has to offer. The ancient city could not have been a more suitable setting for making art – inspiration was at every step.
And I made more money than I ever imagined, which, although not the motivation itself, gave me faith that I could pursue my passion in future without worrying about the financial aspect.
The follow up has also been immense: after only 4 weeks of talking to random people who were looking at my drawings, I ended up producing a cover for a book of prose about the Alhambra, being featured in a drawing stop-motion video to promote a Spanish language school, and participating in a United States art project with other artists from all over the world.
Finally, as a word of advice for all the budding artists out there wondering how to show and sell their art outside of established gallery format, I say: just go out there, in the real world, on the busy streets, talk to people and don’t be afraid to be your artsy self!