With World Watercolour Month coming up in July, join us for an exclusive interview with Charl Marais, an architect and watercolour artist. Charl shares insights and tips on his creative process, shaped by his European adventures and architectural expertise. Learn the techniques that bring his urban sketches to life and get inspired for your own artistic journey. Don’t miss this opportunity to enhance your skills with guidance from a master as he hosts our upcoming Urban Sketching & Watercolour workshop using the renowned Daniel Smith Watercolours.

Q1. Your journey blends architecture with watercolour artistry. What sparked your passion for intertwining these two creative fields?

A1. In 2006 I worked in Europe for a few years and I’ve decided to travel as much as possible in those few years to really grow my mental archive of architectural details and understanding. Architecturally speaking, Europe has just so much to take in. I decided to sketch buildings or street scenes wherever I went. This is always the best way to really understand the language of architecture. First it was simple sketches, and then over time they started to become more complex as my sketching muscles became more and more fit. From about 2013 I started a sketching blog where I would share this with the community. The sketches turned into watercolour artworks and so it evolved. 

Q2. When you’re sketching an urban scene, what materials from The Deckle Edge Art Shop are essential in your toolkit, and what makes them your favourites? 

A2. A soft pencil and a good eraser is always the best way to start. I hate erasers that smudge! I don’t even know why some brands carry on making them. A nice watercolour sketch book is of course also very important. I don’t like rough texture, as they don’t really allow for much detail. Cold pressed or smooth is my favourite. A compact little water colour set with a mixing palette and 2 or 3 brushes are enough. It is amazing what you can do with those little sets. A good quality ink pen with NON Soluble ink is essential. The combination of ink and wash is a wonderful game to play. But the ink must be waterproof!

Q3. How do your watercolour skills breathe life into your architectural projects, and vice versa?

A3. Through urban sketching and doing urban scenes in watercolour, you learn a lot about the language of architecture. When you sketch a new building, you will observe it in a way that you have never done before. Over time, one’s mental library of architectural archetypes and details grows tremendously. When you then design a building in your career, you can draw from this mental library so much easier. Of course, when you become really good at sketching, then you can quickly communicate ideas to clients, which is a great skill. 

Q4. Reflecting on your early days as an artist, what’s one piece of advice you wish you could give your younger self?

A4. Never stop drawing. It does not matter how crap you think it looks or what other people may think, just never stop. Eventually it’ll all come together. 

Q5. What unique experiences and insights can participants expect to gain from your upcoming Urban Sketching and Watercolour Workshop?

A5. I have a unique way of observing the world around me. This is a skill that was cultivated over time. In the workshop I will challenge participants to develop a different way of looking at their environment. I think just about anything can be beautiful if you are willing to see the beauty in it. I also have freedom in my expression, and I think people could learn from this. There are some basic skills in understanding composition and perspectives, which will also be useful. 

Q6. When you’re out in the city, how do you choose the perfect spot to set up and start sketching an urban landscape?

A6. I love it when I come across a quirky street scene or a funky little building that is tucked away in an alley. Older, weather-beaten, slightly cracked buildings with character really are the best ones to sketch. They just have so many stories to tell. Of course, I also check if there is shade or a coffee shop with a good window or some practical place to sit nearby, otherwise it could be very uncomfortable!

Q7. For those just starting with urban sketching and watercolour, what common pitfalls should they watch out for, and how can they overcome them?

A7. Don’t try to make perfect sketches. Don’t even try to make good sketches. Just make as many as you can. Just do it! (If I may quote that famous brand.) Don’t be shy, don’t be self-conscious (yes people always come and stand behind you and look over your shoulder.) If you churn out as many sketches as possible, eventually they will evolve into a style and technique that is uniquely yours.

Q8. How does your background in architecture shape your approach to capturing the hustle and bustle of urban environments in your sketches? 

A8. Architecture obviously trains you to look critically at the built environment. So, with a degree in architecture behind you, you can never really look at any urban scene the same way, ever again. You will see shapes and balance and details and flow that few people are open to notice. 

Q9. Do you have any favourite sketching spots in Cape Town that hold special meaning for you? What makes these locations so inspiring?

A9. The older streets of the city, Woodstock or Observatory really provide those quirky, layered and historical scenes that translate so well into Urban Sketching. 

Q10. If someone is picking up a sketchbook for the first time, what’s the first thing you’d recommend they do to dive into urban sketching?

A10. Just a pen and pencil is necessary. In fact, I would challenge you to sketch with a pen only. In the first couple of years, I forced myself to work with a pen only. I would embrace the fact that I would make mistakes that are not fixable (because you can’t erase!) and just work them into your sketch. Also, when you have a pen in your hand, you tend to think harder and be more observant right from the start. But don’t worry is those sketches are messy in the beginning. 

Q11. How critical is the choice of materials in achieving the desired effect in your urban sketches, and why do you trust The Deckle Edge supplies?

A11. Good quality materials are always important. Deckle Edge offers such an amazing array of materials that really caters to all the different strokes of different folks. Be open to sketching with other media, such as charcoal, dipping ink pens, Copic markers etc. 

Q12. Who are the artists or architects that have left a lasting impression on your work, and how have they influenced your style?

A12. I love the work of Alvaro Castagnet and Joseph Zbukvic. They are both masters and their work is just so dreamy and transformative. I often try to copy what they do… but my style is just different! Nevertheless, they inspire me. 

Q13. What techniques do you rely on to bring depth, movement, and life to your urban sketches?

A13. I won’t over sketch! Try to sketch only the essence and then in later passes, with the water colour, you can decide how much you want to add. When you sketch too much up front, you “box” the sketch in and it does not allow for too much fluidity throughout the process. 

Q14. What exciting projects or goals are on the horizon for you in your journey with urban sketching and watercolour?

A14. I would like to grow more and more in this field and perhaps visit the international urban sketchers symposium and even present workshops there.  

Q15. What keeps you inspired and motivated in your dual roles as an architect and an artist?

A15. As an architect, the constraints of budgets, client expectations, and regulations can be quite limiting, making the profession less creatively liberating than it might appear. To maintain inspiration and motivation, I find it essential to incorporate a creative outlet into my daily routine. Engaging in art and urban sketching allows me to express my creativity freely and provides a refreshing balance to the structured nature of architecture.

Q16. Do you have any tips for effectively documenting and showcasing urban sketches to capture the attention of viewers?

A16. I think it is very important to maintain a constant stream of good content on social media. It sounds like a cliche, but in this case it really works. 

Q17. What’s one unexpected thing about urban sketching that you think would surprise most people, and why should they try it out?

A17. People will never bother with someone who is doing art out in public.  It is as if all people have an innate appreciation for someone who is sitting and producing a piece of art. People have respect for someone who is in a personal process. Even the dodgiest characters on the street will acknowledge you, leave you alone with your process and move on. They will even give you a compliment!

Q18. Is there anything else that you would like to share with our readers?

A18. Don’t be shy or self-conscious. Just start and produce as many sketches as you can.

As World Watercolour Month approaches, we look forward to welcoming Charl as he shares his expertise in our upcoming workshop. Don’t miss this opportunity to learn from a master and elevate your own artistic skills.


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