Penang: A haven for urban sketchers | Global News

Penang: A haven for urban sketchers

/ 05:13 PM May 11, 2023


Photo courtesy of Avela Semaña

With the fire of artistic passion, I embarked on a journey to Georgetown, Penang with a singular goal in mind: to find hidden gems that would inspire my brushstrokes and bring my paintings to life. Little did I know that every corner of this charming town would leave me awestruck.

Amidst the early days of the pandemic, my love for urban sketching had only just begun to flourish. Despite the challenges and restrictions it brought, I found that the forced isolation and introspection provided fertile ground for the renewed love for sketching.


As I searched the internet for artists whose style resonated with me, fate led me to two talented artists from Penang, Malaysia. Locked down in Washington DC, I reached out to Kiah Kiean and Teoh Kim Seoh for tips and tricks, and their generosity in sharing their knowledge sparked my desire to be better in this field.


For two years, I tried to hone my craft, tirelessly looking for my own style and improving my watercolor skills. I scoured the streets of Washington DC, searching for the perfect al fresco cafes to set up my easel and paint anything in front of me.

Then I went back to the Philippines, and as cities slowly opened, I sought out new vistas to explore. In Iloilo and Dumaguete, I found a world teeming with life and vibrancy, steeped in rich history, and brimming with inspiring architecture.

Penang, Malaysia

Photo courtesy of Avela Semaña

As soon as the Malaysian government lifted its travel restrictions, I knew I had to make the pilgrimage to Penang to see for myself the sights that had transformed KK and Teoh into true masters of their craft.

Late one evening, as the city lay shrouded in darkness, I stepped out of my cab and was immediately entranced by the streets before me. The buildings, the people, the very air itself seemed to project energy and life.

The town of Georgetown, located on the island, is particularly well-suited to the needs of urban sketchers. Its narrow, winding streets are lined with shophouses and colonial buildings, each with its unique charm and character. From the ornate facades to the bustling markets, Georgetown offers an endless array of subjects to capture on paper.

With each passing day, I wandered the streets of Georgetown, soaking up every inch of its vibrant culture and rich heritage. The old shophouses, renovated and meticulously refurbished, served as a testament to the town’s spirit and determination to thrive. And yet, as stunning as the town was, it was the people who truly captured my heart. Their warmth, their kindness, their quick smiles, and helping hands all spoke volumes about their empathic and hospitable nature.

KK invited me to join the weekend session of Penang Urban Sketchers. As we sat down to paint and dine, I was struck by the immense generosity of this group – they eagerly shared their knowledge about sketching, their tools, and the artists who inspire their art styles. My admiration only grew as we visited a studio filled with an endless array of captivating works, ranging from figure drawings to mesmerizing landscapes to evocative abstract art.

I once again met with KK and two of his friends, who are equally skilled artists, and they took me on a tour around the captivating streets of Georgetown, where they usually find inspiration and sit to paint. The entire city exudes an air of creativity, enticing artists to whip out their sketchpads and capture the beauty of every nook and cranny.

We worked side by side, with paintbrushes in hand, as KK generously allowed me to observe his artistic process. He not only imparted knowledge on the best tools to use but also the crucial mindset to adopt when tackling challenging subjects. He advised me to fearlessly approach the paper and embrace any mistakes as opportunities for growth.

Penang urban sketchers

Photo courtesy of Avela Semaña

It was clear to me that the tight-knit community of artists in Penang had found the perfect balance – a city that offers just the right mix of resources, opportunities, and inspiration, allowing them to pursue their careers and passions in the arts.

When I went to Kuala Lumpur, I had the privilege of meeting Teoh, who is originally from Penang. Teoh’s style was raw and unfiltered, inspired by Penang’s dynamic culture and atmosphere. He shared his favorite tools with me and advised me to enjoy the process of painting and not be bogged down by the outcome. We both shared a passion for quick sketching that allows for very loose strokes, which may seem haphazard if not chaotic.

In Georgetown, Penang, I found not only a source of inspiration but also a community of kindred spirits united in their love for the arts and their unwavering determination to make the world a more beautiful place, one brushstroke at a time.

(The author is a former economic desk assistant at the Philippine Embassy in the US and now a desk officer at the Office of the United Nations and International Organizations, Department of Foreign Affairs. Follow her at @dcsketcher on Instagram.)

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