Urban sketching is more than an art form — it’s a movement. Charlotte’s Mike Daikubara shares how his creative pursuit became a passion.
by Michael J. Solender
While ever-present cell phones capture the rarest — and sometimes the most mundane — of life’s moments, urban sketcher Mike Daikubara prefers a more conventional medium. When he wants to record a scene that catches his fancy, Daikubara pulls out a slim sketch pad, a fine-tipped pen and a tiny tray of watercolors.
A peek at his drawings reveals subjects as varied as a chicken sandwich at an alfresco lunch or a field of sunflowers encountered on a nature walk, their golden-rimmed crowns craning skyward.
“There’s something about being in the moment and capturing that instant, on location, through location — not through photos, computer screens or from the imagination — but through observation,” Daikubara says. “It is very satisfying for me.”
Daikubara, 52, is used to incorporating free-form drawing into his industrial design work as a design manager at Electrolux. With a degree in industrial design from Pratt Institute and an MBA from Marquette University, Daikubara moved from Boston to Charlotte in 2018 to work for the Swedish appliance-maker.
“At work, it’s always been important for me to visually communicate quickly,” Daikubara says. “It doesn’t have to be beautiful, but it needs to be able to communicate. That’s why I started carrying a sketchbook — to be able to draw faster, which meant sketching. From there it turned more into a passion.”
His enthusiasm led to the discovery of a global group of like-minded individuals, who at their core are captivated by quick, in-the-moment sketches drawn on location.
Launched in 2009 by Seattle-based illustrator and journalist Gabriel Campanario, the nonprofit Urban Sketchers organization today has about 300 chapters worldwide. When Daikubara learned about the group a decade ago, he leapt at the chance to meet other sketchers and ultimately become part of a community where he finds legions of kindred spirits.
“I accidentally found out about Urban Sketchers a week before the [group’s annual] symposium in 2010,” says Daikubara, who was born in Japan and came to the U.S. at age 5. “It just completely blew me away. I’m like, ‘Wow, there are people like me that enjoy doing this.’ I thought I was by myself. I immediately signed up, and a week later I was in Portland [Ore.].”
Though urban sketchers come from a wide variety of backgrounds and disciplines, they enjoy a camaraderie both with other local artists and with the greater network of global sketchers and fans.
“We draw on location, slow ourselves down, connect with our communities and share a greater sense of life around us by capturing an [immediate] sense of place,” says Uma Kelkar, a San Jose, Calif.-based sketcher and executive board member of Urban Sketchers. Kelkar met Daikubara at an Urban Sketchers conference as co-instructors in a workshop.
Both Daikubara and Kelkar are quick to point out that urban sketching should not be confused with plein-air (a French term for painting in the “open air” or outdoors). Urban sketchers don’t pose models, compose scenes or artificially influence what they sketch. By quickly sketching what’s right in front of them, the temporal and fluid nature of the scene is part of the appeal. “We don’t, for example, draw teacups,” Kelkar says. “We draw teacups in a tea stall, on the street as a part of a larger story and look to give more information about place.”
Daikubara emphasizes the urban connection. “Many times, sketches are very, very quick, because the settings tend to be city-based, and often with people in the scenery,” says Daikubara, who occasionally annotates his sketches with text and diagrams.
For Daikubara, quick might mean completing a sketch in as little as 5 minutes. “If it’s an ink drawing and I know the person is going to get up and move or the car’s going to drive away, it could be anywhere from five to 15 minutes.” Watercolor sketches with splashes of color take longer, 20 minutes to 25 minutes. “Where I feel happy, if I could spend that much time, is usually around 45 minutes. It ultimately depends on the subject and the mood.”
A key characteristic of the urban-sketcher ethos is sharing techniques and ideas with both novices and experts alike. In addition to teaching local workshops, earlier this spring Daikubara began teaching a three-session outdoor Urban Sketching class through Central Piedmont Community College’s continuing education program.
Daikubara “sets the hook” for his students by having them start with a subject that’s very accessible, Kelkar says.
“Mike has unbounded enthusiasm combined with a very grounded reality of what he can do,” Kelkar says. “Mike’s work is so approachable — this is his way of teaching, too. While teaching a workshop in Chicago, he had his students visit hot dog stands where he had them start with this easy shape to draw, only then progressing to include the scene around it. Starting with the downtown Chicago skyline would have been daunting, but Mike saw a way to ease people into a comfort zone.”
For Daikubara and tens of thousands of urban sketchers across the globe, bonding with one another through their pastime is a consuming force — even when they are time zones apart.
“It’s just part of your life,” Daikubara says. “What I like about this community is we are all over the world. We share sketches online, tips and tricks and stories. It’s an incredibly open community. Urban sketching isn’t a hobby — it’s more of a lifestyle.” SP