World Sketching Tour is what led Luís to Hong Kong, where protests erupted this September in response to a government decision that disallowed civil nominations.
Have you ever used a stereogram? The idea is that there is a 3D picture embedded within the photo you see in front of you, you just have to look at it a certain way to see it. Some people find the image the first time they try, while others stare at it from every which angle and see nothing.
In a way, people are like stereograms. Sometimes “seeing” another person, on a who-you-really-are level, is intuitive and effortless. At other times, the vague 2D picture is all we ever manage to find.
Luís Simões spends every day searching for these “3D” moments of shared vitality with strangers, or with the world around him. When a moment comes, he paints what he sees – sometimes a person, a landscape, or a crowded skyline.
This is how World Sketching Tour came to exist, a passion project that Luís began in 2012 in order to travel the world and document his encounters and experiences the way that makes him the happiest: by sketching.
World Sketching Tour is what led Luís to Hong Kong, where protests erupted this September in response to a government decision that disallowed civil nominations.
Students and pro-democracy citizens gathered in the city’s financial district to peacefully protest, and when showers of pepper spray could only be shielded with umbrellas, the Umbrella Revolution was born.
Luís quickly immersed himself in the protests, traveling daily to Admiralty to find new vantage points to sketch and interact with the protesters.
His watercolors depicting the student occupation soon went viral, as his portraits of life on the front lines provided a unique, humanizing perspective. In a sense, he created a new genre photojournalism – one born in human connection, without a lens.
Last week I had the opportunity to Skype with Luís about his serendipitous involvement with the protests, and the pocket-sized watercolor kit that propels him from one continent to the next.
After meeting Luís, a charmer full of wisdom and positivity, it feels reductive to explain his journey as “5 years, 5 continents, and 1 dream.” To define him that way would be to see him in 2D.
What kind of expectations did you have for World Sketching Tour? How have you changed since the tour began?
I think I’m a totally different guy in terms of what I think about life, what I want for me, and what I treasure. This is the most important thing about World Sketching Tour – it’s that I didn’t realize how much I could search for myself, and how much the truth could just open my thoughts. Sketching is just how I talk. It’s what keeps me on track. Maybe it’s also what people can appreciate in the future, and how I can appreciate my memories.
I’m passionate about it. I sketch people because I’m happy. That’s the truth. When you travel you get so much inspiration.
What cities have you visited that had the biggest impact on you?
Of course there are countries that will change you forever. In Mongolia, everything you have on you fades away. Phones: don’t matter. Clothes: don’t matter. People are so poor, they don’t care what brand you’re wearing, or if you’re wearing a shirt at all.
It’s just you. What do you have to say, and why are you here?
They get so curious to know more about your life. So when you build surface things, you’ll find that you have nothing to say, and that’s when you’ll start to search for yourself.
I think that’s when you confront yourself with different realities. It’s when you come to Hong Kong, so money-oriented, and you feel connected or not – and want to keep moving or not. I think the balance is where you find your place, when you can understand why Hong Kong can be very positive for you, and why the desert can be very comfortable for you.
To find the comfortable part, this is the process of traveling that makes you understand who you are.
How long do you typically spend on each of your sketches?
My traveling has time; I’m not rushing. I have time to do whatever I want. To observe, stay there, breathe, feel the ambiance and then draw the perspective I want. For this, you really need to respect your feelings, and not just rush. Also the way I sketch is very loose, I try to make it fast, but accurate.
For example with the (Hong Kong) protests, sometimes there are really tense moments, violence, or the police are too close and people move fast. If you’re going to do it with a lot of details you’re going to lose the moment, so you have to be very express.
If it’s detailed it means I’m comfortable, the scene hasn’t moved too much, so I can do the details. It depends on how comfortable I am in the situation. It is how you want to enjoy the moment, and how you want to talk with your art.
You do many portraits of those you encounter during your travels. How do you come to draw the people you meet?
It depends on the story I’m telling. It has to touch my life. I’m not just going to the streets to draw people randomly, just to pick a curious face. I try to get in touch with them, talk a little bit, and see if we have a connection. If we share some moments, after words I will ask if I can capture the moment.
Instead of a selfie, I just draw a picture.
His story can bring me to other stories – his friends, places he loves, and so I can explore his story. This will build my story too.
When I go to a place, of course there are icons you wish to see, but you also want to see how the icons connect with the people. I just randomly bump into people on the streets or in hostels or traveling around and you see how you connect. I need to connect with people, not just because she’s very beautiful or because he has very interesting hair.
It’s very different to draw someone by hand then to take a picture. It’s more personal.
How you express your line, it’s your language. It’s not one camera using a camera language – ultimately you’re forced to use the camera. With your hands, you can smudge for an accident, some guy can drop some food on your sketch; it’s a living thing.
It’s an icebreaker, when I show my sketches people look and because my sketches talk, they want to say something too.
Tell us more about using your sketches as a language.
In Thailand, I couldn’t speak to the kids, but I opened my sketchbook and the kids were saying the names of the waks, the tuk tuks. It was the first time I felt, I’m talking. Without saying a word. That was the most surprising thing. In Russia, I can’t speak Russian, but I would open my books and people would love to take photos and talk to me back in Russian, and I would just say “yep.”
You’ve spent the last ten months in Hong Kong, and the last two months sketching the protests. Do you feel like a participant in the protests, or as more of an observer?
The only way that I found that I could participate was to sketch: to show the world what I’m seeing. I don’t speak the language – I can speak to them in English but I cannot understand Cantonese. Even though I have a lot of friends that can help me translate, it’s not the same thing.
This is my way – this is my vocabulary.
People know me, if I appear on the protest sides, people know my spots and say hi. I think I become one of them, just “occupying,” but because my life is already very democratic and I have a lot of freedom already. I can choose where I want to go, I don’t need to stay. I’m not searching for a job, because my job is to be free and sketch. So I’m already there – where they want to go – in my mindset. I can only share my thoughts with them, and when I pick people on the street and talk to them, I cannot say I’m one of them. They’re fighting, and they have their hopes and dreams.
How do you feel about the protests?
These two weeks I’ve been talking with lots of people to (ask) questions about one side and the other side to find a balance. When you spend a lot of time on Admiralty (one of the spaces occupied by protestors), you feel a little bit brainwashed. I like to go out and try to understand what other people think – they didn’t convince me – but its nice to understand why they are against the protest or against democracy. It’s interesting to see how young this country is, how much they have to develop in comparison to Europe or the States, countries that have had democracy for a long time.
I think Hong Kong is trying to search for their identity, because they don’t exactly know what democracy is, but they want it.
Public artwork played a huge role in the Occupy Movement in the United States. What is the art scene like in Hong Kong right now?
It’s an art gallery right now – you can’t avoid it. It’s booming. Locals are seeing this great opportunity for exposition very fast. You’ll be amazed and shocked and sometimes very touched because the messages are very emotional, people trying to find their freedom and fight for their freedom. Freedom…is very beautiful.
The people here are very conscious of respect, they hate to fight, and they preserve this peace – they’re always spreading the word of Lennon, “you may say that I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.” They have this feeling, very utopian. They really think they’re going to win against China. I think its very inspiring for an artist to come here and see, wow, I can put my stuff here.
So it’s a huge platform for self-expression, everyone has a voice.
Yes, normally for this expression you need a gallery…that costs a lot of money. For all the attention you need to be on a show, that costs money. Here you are free to do whatever you want. You can cross the street naked: real freedom, no judgment. It’s really this perfect moment to be an artist. Everyday there is more and more and more.
You’ve been in Hong Kong for a long time. What’s next?
The finish line is really in my mind. Two things: I’m very stubborn, and I like a challenge. Finishing this is a goal for me. It would only be health problems that would make me stop.
So is the plan really 5 Years 5 Continents?
The “5 year” concept for the project started because people need to believe that I’m doing something, not just for myself. When you want to go, you just want to go. You don’t need to find excuses to go.
I found that the project (helps) to find sponsors, to tell your family you’re not a crazy guy, and three, so people can connect easily with you. That’s the way the project exists. Because I was a designer, I created the brand. For me the “5 years 5 continents one dream” was a slogan that just popped into my head. When I was counting the years and the places I wanted to go it ended up 4 years 7 months. That’s how it began. Now it’s not one dream, it’s one life.
So do you think you’ll be doing this…sketching and traveling…forever?
So my house is where I am – if I want to stay here for one year, it’s my decision.
Of course, I know I want to finish this, because there are a lot of things that I cannot have right now. To build something you need to commit to someone or to a place. You need to stay, to settle. About the 5 years I really don’t care. I will finish. Nothing is going to stop me.
Do you get lonely on the road?
I think (for) everyone that travels alone more than 6 months… you’re going to find yourself pretty alone sometimes. But it’s when you grow up. If you’re not alone you’ll never have time to think.
That’s when you start to be a backpacker, to become an explorer and a traveler. You enjoy the way. You don’t want to reach that place, you don’t want to know where you’re going to get, but you enjoy every single step you take. The present becomes more powerful than the future, and the anxiety of what the place will be like, or the people, will just fade away. You’ll be fine with yourself.
It’s hard work to try to live in the moment and not worry about getting from Point A to Point B.
The young hearts, especially girls’… girls have two things I admire, which I cannot be. They are organized, and they think a lot. I cannot. Planning for me is the next five minutes – eventually. Being organized is, look here (shows his watercolor set, all of the colors bleeding into one another).
But you are a thinker!
I try to think in an easy way and go with my thoughts. Others try to find all the answers. Don’t try to find all of the answers, because then you become a label person.
You need your ground to know where you put your foot, but just go easy on your thoughts. It’s a learning process that I’ve been through. Even when you become emotional or very sensitive, or cannot control the situation, just watch. See how you can do things. Do fast actions – they make you less of a thinker. Respect your actions and respect your action, that this was the best way you could do it.
When I was a referee, I was alone. Every second, you have to judge. You have to judge in one second and let it to. Judge-clean-judge-clean. If you keep in mind a previous call, you’re going to keep whistling with that in your mind.
If you could give someone advice about finding their passion in life, what would you tell them?
How much do you dream about this? Do you wake up and every single morning wanting to do this? Is it just a fetish? An adventure? Or something you really dream about. We have a lot of dreams, and sometimes we pick the wrong dream.
Ask yourself two things: are you passionate about it, and would you love to do it even if you are super tired and have no energy. That’s your element.
Be practical, don’t listen to others, and lock yourself in your ideas. Write everything you have in your mind, and build something that is practical.
Think: If I have a dream, what do I have to do to make this dream happen? Money, time, effort, put it on an excel page if you need to. The process to your “dream come true.”
When you see this paper you won’t have a reason to not make this dream come true.
And how did your dream come true? Is this what happened for you?
(Before World Sketching Tour) I came from Croatia, super in love with that country, from a trip with friends. On that trip I said to myself, “Man – you’re going to travel the world. And you’re going to sketch.”
I got home on Friday, and on Saturday, I wrote the project, I built the logo, I built the blog (at that time) and by the end of the night I had the last dinner for the group on the trip. I showed them the paper, and they said “Wow. How long have you been working on this?” And I said, “Today.”
I remember when I started to work for myself it was the best feeling ever. Every little second I put time into my own stuff, I could see the feedback. And the more time I put in, the more growth I felt. At the time I was still working, having two jobs. I worked from 9 – 6, a regular job as a 3D motion designer. Then I would get out, do some sports, come back, have dinner, and then work until 4 in the morning sending out emails for –
No, no no it was the best time, working late, because I was working for me. I was just trying to find sponsors, contacting urban sketchers, spreading the word. I went to bed with my eyes, “poof,” open.
So what was it like when your dream becomes a reality?
You become an explorer. The more you search the more inside it (the dream) you are. Dreams are cool, but (you should) be realistic. Do something, don’t just wait for the moment, do your own moment, to be honest.
Money will never be enough. The right time is for you to decide. Of course you can have a boyfriend or a girlfriend, and it’s hard because you’re in this love relationship, and that’s your passion right now. You want to be devoted to your guy/girl. But if that’s not the reason, your job – that’s not going to be important.
People are afraid to take a little step, to put them on the (track) to work toward that dream. If you don’t work you’ll never know. It’s like tasting food; you never know whether you like it or not if you don’t taste it. You don’t know if you like to play drums or guitar if you don’t play it. It can be hard in the beginning, but you will feel how much you want to put in.
It’s like a relationship, in the beginning you are too afraid to lose, you are too scared, but if you keep giving a little bit every day, and keep feeling it incoming, then maybe you have something there. It’s a little bit like your dreams.
What #JetsetWisdom can you impart to our readers?
Nowadays, this is the world of connection. You have Facebook, you have Whatsapp, you have iPhones: everyone is connected. What I could say is, don’t feel like everything in your life will last forever.
Don’t feel like everything you do has to be perfect or is the masterpiece of your life.
Ultimately, you’ll feel the masterpiece in your life was the time you spent doing the things you love, when you are searching for your passion, or searching for things that make you laugh or give you a lot of joy. And the things that scare you – every time you are scared you have to search things inside of you that you never could. Find contrasts, find places that will make you explore both sides: the frightening side, the passionate side.
Is there anything you’ve never been asked, that you would like to share?
Do things that you really care about. Don’t do bullshit. Don’t be with people you don’t really care about. You only have a short life. Once you do more, once you know more, you need to find your way. The way of living is: be simple. Simplify. I think that’s the biggest advice that I could give, try to simplify – it’s so easy to complicate.
It’s this happiness – and this sounds cliché – it’s from the simple things that you find happiness, not the big picture. It’s not the “5 years around the world.” The moment that I’m talking now with you, I’m really happy, and I’m going to keep sketching or get some coffee, and that’s all. I don’t really think about it. Then I have a commission work so I’m going to paint for this guy and he’s going to pay me and I can keep living.
If I could open the eyes up to people, it would be that you can be whatever you want, but do it happily. And be more humanized. If you’re doing something, do it as a human, do it truthfully, do it with meaning for yourself, and try to connect with other people.