Travelling sketches by Sam Kulavoor
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Travelling sketches by Sam Kulavoor

STIR speaks to the Mumbai-based visual artist, who while travelling prefers to make 'visual notes' by creating real-time sketches, as against taking pictures on his mobile phone.

by Rahul Kumar Aug 01, 2019

“Drawing forms the basis of my art practice. As such there is always a sketchbook / notebook in my bag. One draws from observation, memory, and imagination while also responding to one’s immediate surroundings. More so while travelling." – Sameer Kulavoor

The artist, popularly known as Sam, likes to travel with his sketchbook and pen. On a recent trip to Indonesia, where he attended a friend’s wedding in Jakarta, and spent a few days in Ubud and Gili islands, he decided to carry a Fabriano super mini hard-bound sketchbook, all of 2 inches X 2.5 inches in size, and a few Muji micro pens in his pocket at all times. There, he made quick one to five-minute drawings in cars, cruises, and cafes. They were mostly figurative, some patterns and some non-representational abstract drawings with varying degrees of detail.

  • Untitled, ink on paper| Sam Kulavoor| STIR
    Untitled, ink on paper Image Credit: Sam Kulavoor
  • A sketch by Sam Kulavoor| Sam Kulavoor| STIR
    A sketch by Sam Kulavoor Image Credit: Sam Kulavoor

Edited excerpts from the interview:

Rahul Kumar (RK): Why do you choose to draw and not take a quick photo, possibly using your handheld phone?

Sam Kulavoor (SK): I do take pictures purely as a quick means of documentation - a phone camera is a very limiting tool because of its single point perspective. David Hockney once said, “Photography is a one-eyed man looking through a little hole. Now, how much reality can there be in that?” Drawing, however, is an immersive activity for me and it is not just about 'capturing' what is in front of me. You respond not only to the sights but also sounds and smells. Consciously or subconsciously, they are processed in the mind and then hands draw. You could be lying on a stretched couch inside a spacious airport, drawing while waiting to board (with no one to disturb you) or standing uncomfortably in the heart of a crowded market (with people asking that you draw them in the sketch). Sometimes the hand seems to have a mind of its own. At times you understand why you made a certain drawing the way you did, only after some introspection. It is also very therapeutic to draw during stressful moments - like on this trip a 45-minute boat-ride got cancelled due to rough seas and we had to take a 12-hour detour instead. This included a one-hour ferry ride to another port, three-hour bus ride, and a six-hour cruise with a lot of waiting in between. Great time to draw!

  • A sketch made by Sam Kulavoor on June 24, 2019, at Café Batavia, Jakarta| Sam Kulavoor| STIR
    A sketch made by Sam Kulavoor on June 24, 2019, at Café Batavia, Jakarta Image Credit: Sam Kulavoor
  • An untitled sketch by the artist| Sam Kulavoor| STIR
    An untitled sketch by the artist Image Credit: Sam Kulavoor

RK: How is it different to draw a scene in situ vs. later, based on your memory? Why do you prefer the former?

SK: I actually do not have a preference. Both have their own merits. While drawing from memory, you use more of your mind and while drawing a scene, the eyes play a bigger role. Naturally, when I see more details, I draw in detail. Memory makes me think, and imagine and then draw. I tend to draw freely and imaginatively when my eyes are not locked onto a scene or still life. Mixing the two approaches also can yield fascinating results. For instance, I start drawing a figure or scene live and when he/she or I leave, I tend to complete the drawing from memory. In this case, I might not remember the scene or figure in entirety but it has left enough visual elements in my mind to extend my half-live drawing to completion.

  • A sketch of a man fiddling with his phone at a hotel in Indonesia| Sam Kulavoor| STIR
    A sketch of a man fiddling with his phone at a hotel in Indonesia Image Credit: Sam Kulavoor
  • A sketch of a kid in Kuta, Indonesia| Sam Kulavoor| STIR
    A sketch of a kid in Kuta, Indonesia Image Credit: Sam Kulavoor

RK: Do these sketches become basis for final work of art, or are these works that you would declare final, as is?

SK: Occasionally, yes, they do become the basis for final works and paintings. I recently made two paintings based on drawings I did in NYC in September 2018. One of them was showcased at the recently concluded 'Shifting City', a show at Max Mueller Bhavan, curated by Kaiwan Mehta and Architecture Foundation. For the same show, I also decided to draw on-the-spot at the malls in Goregaon and Malad and the cafes of Juhu, Bandra, and Versova, because I wanted to retain the spontaneity of whatever happens while I am drawing. Most sketchbooks are so spontaneous and complete in their own way that it is hard to replicate them or make work based on them. In a way, drawing is for art what riyaaz is for classical music.

  • A sketch capturing city life of Bali | Sam Kulavoor| STIR
    A sketch from Bali Image Credit: Sam Kulavoor
  • An untitled sketch by Sam Kulavoor | Sam Kulavoor| STIR
    An untitled sketch by Sam Kulavoor Image Credit: Sam Kulavoor

RK: Do you believe hand drawing, especially to capture a moment in one’s life, is a dying art, giving way to technology? Does it impact in capturing the essence of things?

SK: Drawers will draw! The media might change but it will never die. It is one activity that has stayed since the stone ages. It comes from a deep desire for humans to express.

RK: Please give us insights on your recent travel to Indonesia and this series of sketches.

SK: I primarily made quick drawings. It was often the general scene around me, but included drawings of friends and family during the wedding of a friend, which was the key reason for me to take the trip. I drew few images at the street-food stalls in Chinatown in Jakarta, a miniseries of three drawings inspired by the Balinese sleeping woman sculpture that I happened to see at a few places, a bunch of linear drawings of characters and shapes on a six-hour cruise.

  • A sketch showing a person drawing a cat on iPad | Sam Kulavoor| STIR
    A sketch showing a person drawing a cat on iPad Image Credit: Sam Kulavoor
  • A sketch of soup, moon cake and more from Bakmi Amoy, Jakarta| Sam Kulavoor| STIR
    A sketch of soup, moon cake and more from Bakmi Amoy, Jakarta Image Credit: Sam Kulavoor

The skill of hand-drawn image will always be of interest to visual artists. Travelling sketches, like for Kulavoor, force a change of the chosen medium and scale of imagery. Size of the sketchbook itself affects how and what is drawn. As the artist aptly puts it, “I find that incredibly fascinating. It is a great exercise, saves me from getting rusty”.

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About Author

Rahul Kumar

Rahul Kumar

Having switched from corporate consulting after almost twenty years, Rahul now practices as a ceramic artist. Besides exhibiting in shows, he also teaches and curates programmes. His passion for arts has led him to write regularly for various leading journals, and with STIR, his roles extends to that of putting together the arts section.

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