British illustrator Michael Gage, 45, spent 16 days in Cuba in early 2007 and produced more than 100 sketches that are a beautiful and unique visual record of life and places on the Caribbean island. "It's amazing how much work you can do if you keep your sketchbook in your hand all the time," he says. As soon as I noticed his bright and sunny sketches appear on the USk Flickr group I knew I wanted to know more about his experience and checked in with him recently.
A graduate in Fine Art and Art History, Gage says he didn't touch a paintbrush for about 10 years after leaving college. It was rediscovering the joy of sketching that got him back into art, and he has been working intermittently as an artist, illustrator and graphic designer for about eight years now. He lives in a village halfway between London and the South Coast of England.
Left: 12 February 2007, 9:10 a.m. Early morning traffic on the main street in Camagüey, from the balcony of the Hotel Colón. No cars; just pedestrians, bicycles, and “bicitaxis”. Right: 14 February 2007, 4:35 p.m. Palacio de Valle: A Moorish style palace built 1917, now a restaurant.
How was it like to sketch in the streets of Cuba? What prompted your trip to the island?
My trip to Cuba was the realisation of a twenty-year old dream, after seeing Alec Guinness in the film "Our Man In Havana." It was the last Western film to be made there before Castro's revolution in 1959, and it was fascinating to discover that Havana has not changed in the 50 years since. The streets are lined with brightly coloured buildings from when the island was a rich Spanish colony, and everywhere there are classic American cars, still in use after half a century.
I was determined to make the trip unforgettable, and the best way of doing that is to draw. However, Cuba was such a culture shock. Culturally, socially, politically and economically, everything is the other way round to what I'm used to. My sketchbooks became a way of trying to make sense of it all.
As an obvious tourist, you get a lot a hassle from people trying to sell things, mainly cigars and Che Guevara souvenirs. However, sit down engrossed in a sketchbook, and you turn invisible. When you stand up again, you reappear as a potential customer.
18 February, 2007 — Houses on the Paseo del Prado. This was once the smartest street in Havana: on each side stand Spanish style buildings from the late 19th century, colourfully plastered and richly detailed. But they haven't been touched since they were built. They are in tragic state of disrepair: plaster is falling off; windows are boarded up or just missing; sometimes entire walls that have fallen away. And then you realise that people are still living in them.
What steps do you take when you sketch? What tools do you carry with you?
After years of travelling with far too much equipment, I've at last got my tools down to fit into a small camera bag: Moleskine watercolour sketchbooks —I like the landscape format, often a drawing sprawls over two full pages; a Winsor and Newton field box which includes watercolour pans, a palette, and a bottle for water —though I like to get water from where I am painting: a fountain; the sea or a river; even out of a swimming pool; a Pro Arte retractable brush; Rapidograph pens; and pencils cut in half so they fit in the bag. Oh, and a pencil sharpener (don't take a knife; it's liable to get confiscated at the airport — someone in Havana is better off to the tune of a very nice Swiss Army penknife that used to be mine...).
I start by finding the nearest bench or wall to sit on. Ignore what you're told to do about finding an interesting composition or unusual viewpoint; there isn't time. And while it's tempting to paint the obvious attractions, those buildings and sights that I've flown halfway round the world to see, the scenes which make the most memorable and characteristic images are those where I've just drawn whatever happens to be in front of me.
I use pencil to get everything roughly in place, especially things like people and cars which are likely to move before you've finished. Then I draw in pen. With a pencil in your hand, it's obvious that you are drawing, and everyone wants to see what you're doing. With a pen, it looks as if you are writing, and no one wants to come and read. Finally, I get the paints out. Now everyone wants to see what you're doing, but I always try to finish the painting on the spot. I don't like to add colour later away from the scene —the important thing is recording the experience of being in a place for half an hour; not trying to do "a nice painting."
Havana — Memorial bench in the Parque John Lennon. The park-keeper tells us that he has to remove the spectacles at the end of every day, otherwise they get stolen in the night. The writing engraved on the ground is a line from "Imagine": "You may say I'm a dreamer, but I'm not the only one."
• Michael Gage's website.
• Michael Gage's Cuba 2007 Flickr set.
• Besides sketching, Gage is also currently working on his first illustrated book for children, the early stages of which are on his Floating Rabbit blog.
Have you ever sketched in Cuba or any other unusual locations?
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