Hong Kong iPad artist Sketcherman captures street scenes so quickly his subjects don’t notice

With just a stylus and the Procreate app, Sketcherman builds multilayered, detailed snapshots of Hong Kong life, with his human subjects often unaware they’re being drawn

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 June, 2017, 4:48pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 June, 2017, 12:09pm

If you’re reading this on public transport, Rob Sketcherman would rather you put away your mobile phone and looked around you instead.

“I don’t want to sound preachy,” says the artist with a laugh. “But in Hong Kong, it’s only the tourists looking out of the windows. Every local is tied to their phone.”

For the past four years, Sketcherman (the 47-year-old’s real name is Robert Tan, but he only goes by his online moniker these days) has been scribbling down the sights and scenes of the city on his iPad with the group Urban Sketchers Hong Kong, which he credits with helping him to start noticing the details of his surroundings.

With just a stylus and the Procreate app, Sketcherman builds multilayered, closely detailed snapshots of Hong Kong life. Instead of posed studies, he prefers capturing candid moments, observed so skilfully that his human subjects often don’t notice he’s drawing them.

To illustrate this point, he lifts his iPad and begins to sketch a cigarette-puffing man with a blond beard sat close by on the table to his left. The man, chattering away to his companion, barely notices as Sketcherman’s gaze flicks to and fro and his stylus crisscrosses quickly over the screen. Within 30 seconds, a recognisable portrait is complete.

It’s hard to imagine one of Sketcherman’s subjects taking offence even if they did notice they were being drawn. Warm and animated, the artist says with a hearty laugh that one of his favourite things about urban sketching is how it “breaks down barriers” that would ordinarily prevent people interacting with him on the street.

I love the iPad because it’s very forgiving … When you get a fresh sketchbook, you’re always afraid of screwing up on the first page
Rob Sketcherman

“In Hong Kong, people usually avoid you,” he says. “But if you’re drawing, they’ll be curious and come over and ask what you’re doing and why you’re doing that. It’s such a simple practice, but it breaks down walls in so many ways.”

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Using the iPad as a creative tool is not new. British artist David Hockney has been using the iPhone as part of his practice since 2008 before moving onto the iPad. “I was fascinated by it, because I think it’s a stunning visual tool,” he told The Telegraph in 2010. “It took a while to master how to get thicker and thinner lines, transparency and soft edges. But then I realised that it had marvellous advantages.”

What Sketcherman does with his iPad is to document street scenes in Hong Kong. He says that preservation is a motivating factor in his work – not only for architecture, but also for lifestyle.

“The old General Post Office would be such an iconic spot if it was still here. It’s Worldwide House now. We don’t think about these things; we just tear [buildings] down and build something ugly. It’s such a shame because there used to be so many beautiful buildings,” he says.

Sketcherman, who has never formally studied art, began drawing as a child, when he would copy the characters from his beloved comic books.

Those who haven’t seen the Hong Kong-born artist’s scenes may at least recognise his work from the 11-metre-tall film star mural outside the Madera Hollywood hotel on Hollywood Road in SoHo. Marilyn Monroe beams out from the picture, beckoning guests inside the hotel, while Frank Sinatra, Audrey Hepburn and Charlie Chaplin, gleaming in their red carpet glamour, look on, laughing. The hotel is decked out with cinema memorabilia bought from auctions in the US, so the owners commissioned Sketcherman to complete the Old Hollywood ambience.

Sketcherman tried many jobs – graphic designer, photographer, voice actor, copywriter, marketing – before he found his calling as an iPad artist. A fan of Apple computers since the ’90s, Sketcherman was one of the iPad’s earliest adopters when the device was launched in 2010.

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When he joined Urban Sketchers in 2013, he was one of the only ones working digitally. He admits that he went through a process of acceptance by those who felt working on paper was the only way to sketch.

“In the beginning, people would say I was cheating as I had the option to undo. I’d say I was making full use of the tools that are available to me. It’s helped me create art that I feel is very accessible,” he says.

As well as the space-saving and mess-free benefits of creating art with his iPad, Sketcherman loves seeing others try out Procreate for the first time. “When people try it, they regain that childlike sense of wonder of painting and drawing. It’s fun,” he says, adjusting the opacity of his digital palette and the width of his brush size.

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“I love the iPad because it’s very forgiving. You have undo – you don’t have to rely on it, but it gets rid of the fear of the blank page. When you get a fresh sketchbook, you’re always afraid of screwing up on the first page, which sets the tone for the rest of the book.”

Sketcherman may love the freedom of being able to delete and start again, but his work will stand the test of time, preserving the memories – and streets – of the city.