Sketches: New York

It is a city that inspires obsession. British illustrator Lucinda Rogers recounts a decade of visits with her sketchbook. But first, Tyler Brule, a lifelong devotee, describes why it is the perfect subject for an artist's pen
Click to follow
The Independent Online
Of course, New York is not short on the fabulous and the freaks that make up city life anywhere, although it has changed a lot since I first went there as a child. I spend about a month there altogether every year. It's an amazing city, although I feel it has lost some of its edge recently - not in the financial, capital sense of being a global centre of commerce and the home of the United Nations, but there's not the same sense of discovery of different neighbourhoods. Mayor Giuliani, with his clean-up operation, has done such an incredible job of turning the city into one big shopping mall.

For the first issue of Wallpaper three years ago, we sent London-based illustrator Demetrios Psillos to New York to capture the scene outside SoHo food store Dean & Deluca. From the outset, we wanted to use illustrations, not just for scenes of street life, but to capture fantastic apartments, interiors and more conceptual images. Photo-reportage can catch a specific moment but it's quite literal. With illustration, there is a degree of artistic licence. You observe, punctuate a scene with colour, accentuate things, compress moments together and capture a vibrancy to create a bigger image that you just can't do with a photograph.

There are two camps in illustration at the moment: the paintbrush and gouache set who paint to board and the ones who use a Macintosh. Some do both. Many were resistant to computers at first: even three years ago they'd say "don't mention the Mac to me", but now many are moving in that direction. There is a notion of the craft changing. Computers can certainly help the turnaround process. We can say: "We need this new submarine rendered by tomorrow." They can e-mail it the next day, when the process used to take three days. But board is wonderful - you can use other media to add to the image - and it's exciting getting a FedEx package still.

And, of course, we're amassing a huge collection of original artwork that we can hang on the walls in our new offices.

Gas station on Houston and Lafayette Street

"I painted this at night, and it took about two hours, standing up, resting my board on a bollard. I had been on my way home and suddenly came to that corner and saw a fantastic view; Houston Street is wide, and at night the car wash looks like a fairground, and the taxi was sitting there like a big slug. I've developed a shorthand over time - for example, the way to draw a traffic light, a subway entrance, a kerb, a phone booth. You see these motifs repeated, all over the city, so much so that people say it looks the same. While you're painting, you notice little vignettes made up of familiar elements."

The New York Stock Exchange from the Federal Hall steps

"This was the day after a major financial panic, and gangs of news crews were there, interviewing brokers about their lucky escapes. Everyone was going, `Hey, I didn't lose anything.' I like the way the reporters stand on a box so that their faces make a nice composition with the building on the monitor. This was done from the steps of the Federal Hall, slightly away from the action. I like being a surreptitious observer - in some ways, it's the best thing. This afternoon was very cold, and you can only draw for 45 minutes then you have to get up and get warm."

this

51st Street and 6th Avenue

"I love the abstract nature of the title of this building - I wanted everything else to be less specific. For the painting I was sitting almost on the road: I map out a drawing quite roughly and then just start the real thing. By occupying a small part of the street for a while, I have noticed the city in a new way. There is a small independent world of people who know each other - cops, pretzel sellers, donut vendors, hawkers and street sweepers - on each patch. All around, everything else is in perpetual motion, but their territory is fixed, and by stopping there I too became part of the group and was looked after. In this way New York has never seemed overwhelming or inhuman to me."

Officer Reilly and his horse Cannon

"Cannon is named after a murdered policeman. Reilly was on patrol on part of 47th Street (the Hatton Garden of New York). Apparently a horse is a great deterrent against diamond thieves. He is there for two hours, until the horse gets restless, at which point he moves over to another street near the Rockefeller Center. He told me that was his beat and I was able to return to do several drawings. He was slightly self-conscious and got comments from passers-by and other policemen, who seemed to wish they were being drawn. Cannon is a quiet chestnut mare, but she definitely knows when two hours are up."

West 14th Street, the Meat District

"These amazing iron canopies are there to stop the meat getting too hot. They are now very delapidated. After I started going to New York 10 years ago, I began noting down street corners and doorways where I could see something I wanted to draw. I like markets because of their routine, but I realised I wanted to do the picture once the actual activity had died down, over lunchtime. All that was left was birds picking over the scraps. One man said to me `What a dump'. He couldn't believe I was drawing it, which is a common reaction. I asked some men if I could draw them but they weren't happy about it; they felt they were being used as a backdrop."

Sixth Avenue, looking downtown

"This is my favourite view in New York, on the corner of 53rd Street. You feel like a tiny speck. Some people don't like mid-town, because they associate it with big corporations, but I find this particular corner incredibly thrilling because of the chasm between the buildings. This was done in the early afternoon when the sun had just gone over from one side to the other. The challenge is getting a balance between the technical job - to get it down and what to leave out - and how to stop it just being a straight representation. On this one it is the light, which is there only briefly, that gives it the atmosphere."

Grand Central Station

"I wanted to draw the Chrysler Building, but as part of everything else. Usually you see it in photographs as if it is alone but I love the fact that when you come out of Grand Central, you see it. The idea is not to slavishly draw all the obvious sites, but it wouldn't really be New York without at least one view of the Chrysler Building. Three boys came up while I was there and wanted me to draw them in front of Grand Central. They were just in from the Midwest, a hip-hop band seeing a record company. Outside, I am public property and so is the drawing; when people approach it's hard to ignore them. The brief bits of communication are good. Although once a man went past shouting `Don't draw buildings, draw people! draw people! draw people!'"

Eisenberg's Sandwich Shop

"I went in first to ask if I could draw, and went back the next afternoon when it was less busy. It would have been impossible to draw before the afternoon as it is narrow and always full. I quite like the after-hours feel: it becomes more intimate. The place has been in business for 70 years, and it's one of those places where the customers are real devotees and everyone hopes it won't be bought up and turned into a Starbucks. There was a big debate about who should be in the picture; nobody wanted old Jimmy to be in it, because he was a bit of a pain. They didn't think he deserved it. But I wanted to draw him just because he was wearing a hairnet." Interview by Rachelle Thackray

Comments