Ever since last summer, artist Elizabeth Alley has been "spreading the good word of sketching."
"People can do it regardless of their level of ability," she says. "If you're interested in drawing but haven't gone to school for it, you can just pick up paper and a pen or a pencil."
Alley, a painter who did the Memphis in May poster in 2007 and a former project manager for the UrbanArt Commission, founded Memphis Urban Sketchers in September. The group is affiliated with the larger Urban Sketchers organization, a network of artists from around the world who "draw on location, indoors and out," "share our drawings online," and "show the world, one drawing at a time."
Started by a staff artist and blogger at The Seattle Times, the Urban Sketchers have about 100 correspondents who post sketches on a blog, which Alley has been following for the last few years.
And this summer, when the group held its first international Urban Sketching Symposium in Portland, about 60 people registered. Alley was one of them.
"It was really inspiring," she says. "When I got there, I thought about how I almost didn't go. I would have kicked myself if I had missed it."
At the symposium, the sketchers met in groups of 10 to 15 people twice a day and, with an instructor, focused on topics such as nature, people, color, architecture, composition, and line.
At home, Alley would often sketch while she was waiting for things, but the symposium changed the way she thought about the practice.
"Sketch groups are a way to set a certain time to go and sketch just for the sake of sketching," Alley says. "I wanted to have that same experience here."
After telling a few friends and posting the idea on Facebook, Alley and several others met at the downtown Memphis Farmers Market in September. Since then, they've met at Elmwood Cemetery and the National Ornamental Metal Museum, locations with a variety of things to sketch, whether it be people, buildings, or nature.
"Right now, we're just doing a couple of hours," Alley says about the most recent outing to Elmwood. "I think we all wanted to stay a little longer, but we weren't prepared to."
Though the group welcomes all skill levels, even the occasional child, there's no doubt it's a practice that can help working artists.
"Anytime you draw from direct observation, it improves your artwork," Alley says. "It gives you an understanding of what things really look like, what colors exist in nature, how shadows work."
Sketching together in a group can help even more.
During the group's sessions, a comfortable silence develops, punctuated only by occasional conversations.
"You're doing something with other people, but you're only focusing on your work," Alley says. "It's a solitary endeavor with a group."
Chandler Pritchett teaches art classes at the University of Memphis; for her, drawing is a professional requirement.
So far, she's been to all the meetings of Memphis Urban Sketchers and says she likes the energy the group has.
"It's fun because you get to show your work as you're doing it. I have to work a little bit faster than I usually do," she says. "It's exciting."
"It gives artists an opportunity to get together and work. ... We can talk without being competitive," Pritchett adds.
Though the Memphis sketch group is informal, Alley makes sure all the artists come together at some point to look at each other's work.
"It gives us an opportunity to get to know each other and to see what materials people are using and how they're achieving certain effects," she says.
The group also provides a vivid example of how people see the world from various perspectives.
In Portland, there was one bridge that most of the symposium's attendees ending up sketching at some point.
"Sometimes you end up doing the same thing, but it always looks different," Alley says. "It's in the different way people approach the same subject."
The Memphis Urban Sketchers meet the first Saturday of each month. Their next meeting will be Saturday, December 4th, at 10 a.m. at Bluff City Coffee on Main Street.