iPad Air

Sketching Disappearing Hong Kong

My last piece of the day. Chinese signage and little bits of line work completed at home after I was chased off by stall owners cleaning up for the day. I've decided to leave this in black and white for now.

The last rooftop rendezvous at Shek Kip Mei from my previous post drew a lot interest among Urban Sketcher friends who missed out last time, so we agreed we’d go again. A date was picked, and on Saturday, 21 March, a whole bunch of them trudged up the dark, smelly staircase to sketch the view…only to find that half the rooftop was now gone!

I didn’t go that morning as I had a stack of work to catch up on, but was quite dismayed when I saw the photo the group shared, of the demolition crew crushing the building. That afternoon, we were due to meet at Graham Street, scene of yet another disappearing act of Hong Kong's oldest sectors.

I had just read about the URA's plans to 'renew' the area, but was really saddened to hear that this 170+ year old market, so unique, so Hong Kong, was slated for demolition by the end of the month! The Sketcher Kee group, also up in arms, had arranged to head down to Graham Street and sketch up a storm in order to preserve anything possible through their artwork. Many of us from Urban Sketchers HK also planned to go, and as soon as I was able, I headed down there as well.

There were many heads bowed before sketchbooks and drawing boards by the time I arrived. I walked up  from Wellington Street drinking in what I could. The narrow street was pedestrians only, and lined by stalls selling meat, vegetables, fruit and a variety of dry goods for completing a meal; noodles and rice, herbs and seaweed and spices. 

I watched the patrons too, and they came from all walks of life. Maids lugged bags of groceries for the evening meal. Tai-tais picked expertly through piles of dried mushrooms for the best morsels. Expat couples living in the area browsed, their shopping bags piled with produce from the various stalls. Locals bought their fruit, regulars traded news with stall owners, and tourists swiveled their heads constantly, eyes glued to viewfinders, or smartphones constantly raised. Click-click for posterity. Good thing too. I was updated by Gui and Alvin after bumping into them later. Apparently, scaffolding would be erected the very next day so demolition works could begin. 

To the right, a wall had been erected, blocking off the construction site that marked a block already torn down earlier. The tattoo of jackhammers filled the air. I guess that's part of the rhythm of Hong kong, like it or not. I couldn't help but feel a welling sadness at the loss of this place though. By 2017, Graham Street would be just another typical commercial-hotel spot.

My view for Sketch No.1 (below)

To the right, a wall had been erected, concealing the construction site that marked a block already torn down earlier. The tattoo of jackhammers filled the air. I guess that's part of the rhythm of Hong kong, like it or not. I couldn't help but feel a welling sadness at the loss of this place though.

I'm going to miss this place

Ben's familiar face was up ahead where the pathway opened up because some stalls had long packed up and closed, knowing their days were numbered. Looking up, I fell in love with the higgledy-piggledy facades of the block in front of me. I've been fascinated by the Kowloon Walled City since hearing about it, and looking, up, imagined that it might have looked a little like this. Balconies jutted at different angles, as did the facades. Different widths, different styles, different metalwork, yet all part of the character of the area; an unmistakeable identity that many of you reading this now, will never see in real life if you haven't already. 

My Walkstool is better than my Helinox One chair in spots like this. Easy to set up and able to squeeze into tight spaces, I set up in a snap, soaked the view in and put stylus to screen. All the line work for this piece was done on location, and color added later at home.

Wanting to make the most of my time, I packed up as soon as I was done, and headed uphill to where Graham Street intersected with Gage Street, taking several reference shots along the way. Up ahead, more sketchers could be seen at various nooks and corners, heads bowing and raising in that particular bird-like way. I had about an hour of daylight left, and eventually decided to spend what remained of that on the edge of Gage Street, in front of a closed up stall. Taxis sometimes whizzed past, honking and missing my knees by inches.

The market on Gage Street closes at 7pm, and it wasn't long before the stalls around me began to pack up for the day. I was ultimately forced to leave when a hoarse voice behind me declared that I'd be soaked if I didn't move. The fishmonger was in the process of hosing down the sidewalk at closing time. Ah well...by then, I'd gotten most of my line work done anyway.

Just before heading off, I took a final look down Graham St. There are upper sections that are also slated for demolition, but maybe not just yet. I know where I'll be sketching whenever I have some time off in the next few months.

Sketchcrawl at Sham Sui Po (and Shek Kip Mei)

Gary delivers the morning brief

I am fascinated by the area in an around Sham Sui Po.

Apliu Steet for instance, has been an irresistible draw for me for years; a Gadget-Geekland that pops to mind whenever I need a tool or little doodad of any kind. It's a rather local spot, devoid of the usual crush of tourists, apart from a few who browse the stalls festooned with LED torches, cheap binoculars, phone or photographic accessories, and other gewgaws of all kinds.

By day, there are huge sections of the area dedicated to the garment trade, and you can find here every kind of fabric, bead and button for whatever you might be trying to make. Amidst the eateries and stores that sell daily necessities, there are also little metalsmiths, hammering and welding away beside dark garages that look like rows of mechanical dentists, filled with open-mouthed vehicles, bended torsos disappearing into their cavernous maws.

Except for the vehicles in the distance, this could be Hong Kong in the 60s

It wasn't surprising then, when a couple of weeks ago, my ears pricked up at word of the Urban Sketchers Hong Kong Sketchcrawl at Sham Sui Po. Some of the buildings in the area are a hundred years old; and that's old for Hong Kong. We were going to check out some vintage signage that almost spanned the entire street that Gui had photographed wonderfully previously. That particular stretch of Tai Nan St at 10:30am is absolutely quiet on a Sunday morning. I liked the scene, but prefer to draw ones with more people, so moved on quickly.

My morning really began with curious crowds milling around a few of us who were perched on stools at a busy intersection. The locals were very encouraging, praising talent and urging on those who made attempts to tame and capture the thousands of details that popped before us. A few of us focused on an older 3-storey building at a corner, and a particularly chirpy resident of these parts volunteered the entire history of the place and the family that still owns it; how many sons, who did what, who treated the father well, the family trade (Chinese medicine), and how it's fared all these years. I only understood one in maybe 40 words, thus capturing only the broadest gist of things. (I should really bone up on Cantonese so I can fully appreciate what the locals have to offer.)

To loosen up, I opted to work fast and really loose. This was done in about 40min

To loosen up, I opted to work fast and really loose. This was done in about 40min

At lunch, we looked to Chloe, who lived nearby, and she led us several blocks over, to a little Daipaidong (street food stall) on a quiet alley in neighboring Shek Kip Mei. This place was famous for its pork chop noodle, and was packed. It took a while to seat about 20 people, and we eventually split into smaller groups, huddled around folding tables. Naturally, most of us got the house special, a reasonable HKD38 set for a tall glass of iced milk tea, and a big bowl of noodles with tasty fried pork chops.

We dispersed after lunch, though I stayed on that street. It was unlike any I'd ever seen in Hong Kong. I felt like I had stepped 20-30years into the past, the illusion only shattering when one realizes that many little old ladies today have smartphones. After craning my neck and picking my scene, I stuffed myself into a little space between the main street and a barricade at a traffic crossing. The row of buildings before me were only 4 storeys high; a rarity in Hong Kong today, where 40 must be the average. Many of the homes here looked in various states of abandonment and disrepair, but they brimmed with wonderful character to me. I sat enthralled and did my first decent sketch of the day. 

I love these old curvy buildings! Wanting to make the most of time, I decided to skip coloring, or just save it for later.

A little over an hour later, our Whatsapp chat group alerted me to the fact that some of my Sketcher mates were on a rooftop around the corner. Their directions led me up several flights of dark, narrow stairs, reeking of decay. The lower floors were inhabited, but the upper levels were abandoned. It looked like the residents just chucked stuff they didn't want on the staircase, and I had to tread very carefully around battered furniture, broken toys and close to the top, a karaoke mic and maybe the player that once went with it.

This gives you an idea...it's more fascinating in reality, but I guess that also means I need to take better photos!

Emerging into the sunlight was something else. The rooftop spanned the entire block. Overgrown and strewn with discarded furniture, it felt otherworldly to be up there. Leftover sheds that once housed vegetable patches were now wild; equal parts spreading green and brown shriveled vines. And the flowers! There were copious amounts of a wonderfully spunky, showy red variety that looked like firecrackers ready to be set off. Huge bunches of red bristled everywhere. Look closer, and there were also smaller spangles of pink and yellow, a little shyer in the shade of the wall.

6 of my sketcher buddies were spread out, but many clustered around the parapet to the west. I wandered over to see what seemed to rivet them, and soon discovered why they were excited (in a way only urban sketchers can be).

Broad strokes of pastel and liberal splatter really help to bring out the deliciously grungy feel of the place

A narrow alley separated our rooftop from another block of rundown buildings. The rooftop there was even more overgrown. Several old ficus trees had taken root, spanning at least half the height of the 4-storey block. Green shot up from every crack, and there were many. Someone pointed out a group of lazy cats down below, sprawled and napping on the tin roof. To my surprise, there was food for them in copious amounts! At least 3 open newspaper pages held mounds of dried cat food. I wondered who fed these fat feral cats, but we never found out.

Thinking the entire building was abandoned, I suddenly realized that it was not when flapping laundry caught my eye. Two whole sagging rails of it! It was pretty grungy down below, and I first wondered if the clothing had also been abandoned, but slivers of bright whites and a fresh bit of orange winked from the murk. Right in the middle of the decaying structure, it seemed like people had made themselves at home in at least two flats on the upper floors of the block. The windows were either broken or off their hinges, and the balcony rail looked like it might give way at any point, but home it was to someone. I wondered if the toilet worked.

Whatever its condition as a home, it was an irresistible sight, and I, like the other sketchers busily painting it, set to capture it as best I could.

Every corner of that rooftop holds wonders to draw. We left that evening, vowing to return soon. 


The Best iPad Sketching Equipment for Your Mobile Digital Sketching Studio

I've been sketching exclusively with an iPad for the last year and a half. I've also conducted a few workshops on the subject now (just did one for an Apple Store last Friday), and been asked many, many times about the equipment I use. While I have written about some items before, I thought I'd do a post that summarizes my top-recommended gear and accessories for easy reference.

The core of the Ultimate Mobile Digital Sketching Studio: An iPad and the app, Procreate

The core of the Ultimate Mobile Digital Sketching Studio: An iPad and the app, Procreate


I'm still using the original iPad Air and love it. The iPad Air 2 was released in October 2014, and is even lighter, and more powerful. If you're serious about sketching on the iPad, I'd suggest you get the latest model, with the largest capacity you can afford (Tip: don't buy 16GB iPads - you'll be wasting a ton of time trying to manage space). This will future-proof you for at least 2-3 years. 

If you have an older iPad and wonder whether you'll still be able to use it, the oldest you can use with a good pressure-sensitive stylus is the 3rd generation iPad, released in 2012. Apple started using Bluetooth 4.0 technology then, and this is the standard for all the best styli on the market now.

Guess what the pros use to create? After testing multiple art/sketching apps, I can confidently say that there's nothing like Procreate. Simple yet highly customizable, it stays out of your way while ensuring that all the tools you need are easily accessible in a clean UI.

Still my favorite stylus! Remember that the nib is modified though.

Still my favorite stylus! Remember that the nib is modified though.


After testing many (detailed reviews coming in the following weeks), my top favorite is still my old Wacom Intuos Creative Stylus. This is the first generation model, released late 2013. I have tested the 2nd generation model, and unfortunately cannot recommend it until Wacom fixes some of its serious bugs. The good news for you guys is that the old model is now considerably cheaper! The not so great news is that for best results, you should modify it with the Jaja nibs by Hex3 that I listed in my previous post. Fortunately, once you have the tips in hand, the modification is quick and very easy. (You could do it in 15 minutes tops.)

I have also tested the latest Adonit Jot Touch with Pixelpoint (what a mouthful!) and that's what I recommend if you'd like to get a good pressure sensitive stylus without needing to modify anything. This is a new release and is pretty good. Full review coming up in the following weeks.

This tablet holder takes sketching on the iPad to a whole new level. Absolute awesomeness!

This tablet holder takes sketching on the iPad to a whole new level. Absolute awesomeness!

iPad/Tablet Holder

This one raises eyebrows wherever I go, and after using it every day for hours on end, I can also highly, highly recommend it. The Twist 360 is an extremely versatile universal tablet holder. I love that it can accommodate most larger tablets (sorry, 7" tablets - Kindles, iPad Minis - don't fit, but I'm testing one that does and will post that later). The Twist 360 is a wonder that allows me to hold my iPad in a myriad ways, stand it horizontally or vertically, with any degree of tilt I desire, even hang it. It takes sketching on the iPad to a totally different level and I'm totally dependent on it!


Capacitive Gloves

I have hunted high and low for a pair I like and tested several that I didn't. These gloves from Agloves are awesome. Woven through with conductive silver in bamboo fabric, they're really comfortable and allow me to to use multi-finger gestures on my iPad while serving 2 purposes: keeping my hands warm in cold weather, as well as erasing smudges on the screen! haha! I like that the entire glove is capacitive, not just the tips. These are very light and pretty thin (exactly what I was looking for) and so may not be sufficient for you if your winters are very cold. Agloves has thicker, warmer versions for that.


Great Seating on the Go

I've being doing a lot of urban sketching, and when you're out and about, good, solid, ergonomic seating is paramount. While evaluating my options, I decided that what I purchased had to fulfill 4 important criteria:

  1. my choice had to be as light as possible 
  2. had to be really well-made and last me at least 10 years 
  3. pack really small
  4. support my lower back! 

Here are my favorite options, ticking all the boxes and working better in slightly different situations. The Helinox One Camp Chair was my first purchase. It's really quick and pretty idiot-proof to set up, and packs to about the size of a sneaker. Weighing in at under 1kg and under 2lbs, I can pick it up with my little finger. This beauty is also so comfortable to sit in, and yet is strong enough to take 350lbs! It leans back a bit, and is probably not for those who like to be very upright. (I do find that slipping a jacket behind me is an easy fix for that when i do want to sit up straighter.) Another plus: the curve of the fabric cups my elbow, thus supporting my arm for the hours I spend outdoors sketching. When it's time to kick back, have a drink and swap sketching stories under the trees, wow- this is the absolute best chair to stretch out and relax in!

The Helinox One has a larger footprint and takes about 20-30 seconds to set up however. When I know that I won't have much space (think museum interiors and narrow sidewalks) and want almost instant setup and takedown, my seating of choice is the Walkstool 55 XL. It comes with its own handy mesh bag that you can sling over a shoulder. I really wanted something that would fit into any of my backpacks, however. Telescoped, it's a compact 14" long, and love that this stool can be used at 2 lengths: short and fully extended. There are several sizes, so you can pick one that suits your build. The seat is large and comfy, and I was delighted to find that (in addition to lightning fast setup) I automatically sit up straight when I use it. Slouching takes effort when I'm on it, so my posture instantly improves!

Neither of the 2 seating options is particularly cheap, but pick any up and you'll feel instantly that they're built to last. I've used a lot of bargain basement clunkers that were either bad for the back or heavy as hell. Truly, you get what you pay for, and as sketching outdoors is something I do so much, I realized I should just invest in solid, dependable options. These are light, strong, very durable and ergonomic to boot! I figured if I got 10 years out of them, these would each only cost me about $10 a year. When you look at it like that, they're no brainers, really.

Do you have other equipment to recommend? I'm always on the lookout for gear that improves my on location sketching experience. Please add your suggestions in the comments! :)

Sketching with an iPad

In the course of urban sketching or life drawing, I am often approached by the curious who are fascinated by my choice of medium.

“Is that an iPad?” is often followed by “What app are you using?”

I’ve even been asked a few times, “You can draw on an iPad, but can you draw on paper?”

I thought it would be good to post some questions I am often asked, along with my replies. For those who want the really short version, here's the essential information:

I've found that the combination of iPad Air + Procreate + Intuos Creative Stylus = creative awesomeness!

Is that an iPad?

Why yes it is. I use an iPad Air and love it for many reasons. After getting used to the feel of the rubbery stylus nib gliding over glass, the lines between mediums disappear. 

What app are you using?

My app of choice is Procreate

I have tried many art apps for the iPad including Sketchbook Pro, Sketch Club, Art Rage, Inspire Pro and Brushes. They all have their pluses and minuses, but Procreate is the only app that, to me at least, makes drawing and sketching natural and efficient. 

What are you using to draw with?

I am currently using Wacom’s Intuos Creative Stylus. (My review on it is here.) 

I used to use Ten One Design’s Pogo Connect with my iPad 3, but it does not work with the iPad Air due to hardware differences that can’t seem to be fixed. I got the Creative Stylus shortly after I found that the Pogo Connect would only make chicken scratches with my iPad Air. The Creative Stylus is an amazing tool! The only thing I’m not so happy about is that the rubber nibs wear out very quickly. (Are you listening, Wacom?) But pencils need to be sharpened, and pens, paint and paper get used up… I chalk up the occasional purchase of nibs to materials I need to replace every now and then. 

The Intuos Creative Stylus comes in a great solid case, complete with space for spare nibs (you get 2 extras with purchase) and a slot for a AAAA spare battery.

The Intuos Creative Stylus comes in a great solid case, complete with space for spare nibs (you get 2 extras with purchase) and a slot for a AAAA spare battery.

Do you use your finger?

I could use my finger, and do in a pinch, but choose not to because it’s harder to see what I’m doing. I’m a huge Apple fan but disagree with Steve Jobs on this point - the iPad does need a stylus; at least for drawing and painting. But that’s just me. I am well aware that there are many iPad-based artists who are happily using their own digits.

Can you draw on paper?

The iPad has been around for about 4 years. I’ve been drawing for a little over 40. I did learn to draw on paper (although my parents might interject that some walls and furniture should be included too). 

What made you decide to use an iPad?

I made the switch for several reasons. The short answer is ‘convenience’, but there’s a lot more to it than that. 

Perhaps it would help if you understood the challenges I had. (If you’re an artist too, you might empathize):

  • lots of stuff to store: a large assortment of paper (used and unused) and sketchbooks of all sizes and types, not to mention pens, brushes and related accessories (You should know that the average home in Hong Kong is about 500sq feet)
  • the need to store and care for original artwork properly
  • smudging
  • fading
  • scanning artwork 
  • lighting and photographing artwork larger than A4 size
  • retouching scanned artwork (spend a few hours cleaning up pencil artwork, then let’s chat about how fun that is)
  • correcting color fidelity of artwork in Photoshop
  • packing gear (I used to regularly carry watercolors, an assortment of sketchbooks, pens, inks, pencils, color pencils and brushes, along with accessories like rags, water containers, palettes etc.)
  • forgetting gear
  • cleaning gear
  • the weight of said gear and associated consequences
  • the cost of constantly buying more materials all the time

This workflow might help you appreciate how I sketch now:

  • be inspired by a sight
  • find a place to sit/lean
  • whip out iPad and Intuos Creative Stylus (seconds to set up)
  • turn iPad on and launch Procreate
  • have fun sketching (a fully-charged iPad battery lasts me about 7-9 hours of sketching, making a full day out very possible)
  • export hi-resolution jpgs, and or a stroke-by-stoke video in seconds, as soon as I’ve completed a piece
  • close my iPad, return the stylus to its case and slide everything into my backpack

And at home:

  • Wirelessly back up original artwork files to Dropbox & Box and hard drives at home. The jpgs I exported are also in iCloud (auto backup), therefore available almost instantly in iPhoto on my Mac
  • upload artwork to website and social media (and if I had an iPad data plan while sketching, I could have uploaded work immediately)

Other advantages of going digital:

  • the undo button
  • painting in layers  
  • an arsenal of media with no extra weight
  • ...not forgetting all the other usual reasons people use an iPad; it's like those magic hats with no bottoms from which I can pull out my library of notes, books and magazines, my music collection etc.

The other fact some people fail to consider is, using an iPad has turned out to be much more environmentally friendly than I first thought. I hardly consume any paper / paint / ink / pens now. Have you ever thought about the resources required to produce all the paint, ink, pens etc? And not much of that is recyclable. And some of it is toxic too (think packaging, paints with heavy metals like cadmiums, and their accompanying fumes). 

“But your iPad had to be manufactured too. How long will that last you? What will become of it when you upgrade?” 

Good questions. The truth is, I keep all my gadgets and fix them if they don’t work. Or pass on stuff I don’t use. My Mom is using my first iPad. If she didn’t need it, I’d use it in other parts of my home; as a recipe holder in the kitchen, a magazine reader by my bed (ooh - more paper saved!) And in a couple more decades, I thought it would be interesting to create an art installation with all these gadgets that have contributed to my creative output.

Please note that I don’t claim to have all the facts and figures to support my hypothesis that using an iPad could be greener than traditional media. You have to admit that it’s worth contemplating though, and if you know of a reputable study that makes such a comparison, I’d love to hear about it.

Would you go back to using paper?

To that, I’d say, "Never say ‘never’ ". I absolutely love what the iPad + Procreate + Intuos Creative Stylus allow me to do now, but if there’s something I want to do that is not achievable on an iPad, sure. Paper, canvas, board or concrete… bring it on!

What’s that handle-thingy you use on your iPad?

What you see is a device called the Bracketron Twist 360. It's not an iPad case. It's more of a tablet holder that can set your iPad in any orientation you can think of.

I’ve tested many kinds of iPad cases, and whenever I upgrade my device, get a little irritated at the wasted covers and cases I can no longer use because of a few millimeters difference in size. I wanted to find something durable and extremely versatile to use with my current iPad, whether or not it grew or shrank by an inch or so. I also wanted a way to prop my tablet up in any orientation I choose. All this and more I found in the Twist 360. 

I hope this has given you some insight! I welcome questions and will add relevant ones and my replies to this list as they come up.