Suhita Shirodkar

Watercolor seems to have its own mind.

Suhita Shirodkar, a local artist involved in the Urban Sketchers Movement, fills the pages of her journals with watercolor sketches capturing snippets of everyday life. Rather than rough pencil-drawn outlines, Shirodkar composes intricate watercolor sketches of her surroundings, such as the façade of the historical California Theatre in downtown San Jose (pictured below).

What is the Urban Sketchers Movement?

Urban sketching is about drawing on location, drawing the world around you, and creating visual storytelling and reportage. It is different from other forms of drawing on location, like plein air painting, in that it is not just about color, line, tone, and painting, but also about being a part of the world around you, and sharing it through your sketches.

How did you become a part of the Urban Sketchers Movement?

I always drew in a sketchbook, and while some of my work is purely from my imagination, a lot of it is just capturing snippets of life around me. One question I constantly got when I drew was “What will you do with these? Will you make paintings of them?”—which really confused me. I see what I create in my sketchbooks as my art; it records how I see something or react to my environment in the moment. To refine, gloss over, or recreate a more “finished” form would be to lose that first, immediate, and fresh vision.

I found the work of urban sketchers on Flickr and found that there was a growing community of people worldwide who did just what I did. So, I started sharing my work online through their Flickr group and found this treasure trove of a community!

How do you choose your locations?

Sometimes I choose locations based on an idea or a current obsession. Right now, I am on a hunt to find the fast disappearing artifacts of a time before Silicon Valley was as it is today: vintage signs, old-fashioned diners, old buildings…things that harken back to an earlier time, a different aesthetic, and just a very different place than what Silicon Valley is now.

Often, I don’t pick my locations; it is just where I am. I draw on family vacations: Mexico, Hawaii, India, all of it makes its way into my sketchbook. I draw at home. I enjoy it all; it helps me look at the world around me with the fresh and inquisitive eye of a traveler.

And then there is just my everyday life: I sketch in parking lots, when I have 20 minutes before a meeting, I sketch my kids as they play, as they eat dinner. Everything is fodder for my sketchbook. It’s a visual diary I look back at over time.

What is it about vintage signs and landmarks that attract you?

As a first generation immigrant that has only seen Silicon Valley in its present incarnation [Shirodkar moved here from India in 2000], it is fascinating to look at these landmarks and buildings that speak of a different time. It is also sad to see how quickly they are disappearing and being replaced by homogenous malls, parking lots, and chain stores. I feel a need to draw them all before they are gone.

I have only been drawing and blogging these vintage signs for a couple of months now, but I already have people writing to me to tell me about signs in the area I haven’t drawn, things that are going to be torn down, sold, closed…I love that connection with people, that sharing of knowledge. I love that people actually want to see me go out and sketch something they remember from a long time ago. It speaks to the power of a sketch, that someone might want to see this place captured as I see it.

How long have you been painting?

I have drawn and painted most of my life, but this current form of working on location in watercolors? I’ve been doing it for almost five years.

Why watercolor?

Watercolor is, perhaps deceptively, simple and versatile: I carry around a compact little kit with me everywhere, so I can paint as soon as something catches my eye. Watercolor also reacts beautifully to the environment. For example, on a muggy day, it sits wet on the page, refusing to dry, and I’m forced to work wet-in-wet, resulting in a piece that reflects the day.

Watercolor seems to have its own mind. You never control it completely, but it often surprises you with beautiful mixing and textures. The accidents and mistakes, the stuff you cannot correct and cover up in this transparent medium, I love those. They say so much.

Written by Lam Nguyen
Photography by Daniel Garcia

Shirodkar’s book of vintage San Jose signs in urban sketches, Sign of the Times, can be purchased on her Etsy site.

Article originally appeared in Issue 6.2 “Device”
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