Artist on the go: an interview with live sketch artist Jeff Lai

Artist on the go: an interview with live sketch artist Jeff Lai

On the bus. On the train. On the street. Jeff Lai can create art anywhere.

Better known as jeffandpencil on TikTok, this local university student has been making waves with his on-the-fly realistic sketches of everyday people.

Armed with his trusty drawing pencils and paper, he’ll create impromptu portraits that could feature anyone from fellow commuters on public transport to patrons and staff at cafes and fast food restaurants. He then surprises these people by gifting them with the sketch, much to their delight and pleasure.

His TikTok videos showing the process are moments of pure wholesomeness that have earned him a following, with some garnering over a hundred thousand views.

Drawing a fellow student at school

The A List caught up with Lai to learn what inspired him to take this approach, his beginnings as an artist, how he selects his drawing subjects, and more.

When and how did you hit upon the idea of live-sketching portraits of strangers?

I have been drawing on my desk with reference images for a very long time. Being a self-taught artist, I never thought of specialising in art. I was encouraged to pursue an education in STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics), which I have no regrets about. It has, however, made it difficult for me to be involved in the art community, as the two disciplines do not overlap most of the time. 

Being apart from the creative community, along with the lack of creativity in my journey, has been both daunting and uninspiring. So I had to think of something new – some way to improve my drawing skills and make a positive effect on the community. One Saturday, I blocked out the whole afternoon to draw someone in a café, and that was my first step to approaching art in my unique way. 

Did you always intend to show them the finished artwork, or was it something you began doing along the way?

Yes, my motivation to go out there to draw is the opportunity to give the drawing to that person. Not only do I want to give them the drawing to cheer them up, but I also hope it will spread the message of generosity and making kind gestures to those around you who are sharing the same space. 

Drawing a person enjoying a burger

Who or what kindled your passion for drawing?

Believe it or not, I do not have anyone that I look up to in particular. I am constantly inspired by many artists out there but it is those who view my drawings that motivate me to continue this art journey. People’s reactions and feedback upon seeing my art are what teach me how to improve.

Are your sketching sessions an organic part of your day, and do you have a favourite spot?

I draw when I am commuting, visiting new places or events. I do not have a fixed plan when it comes to drawing outdoors – that’s the secret to keeping me motivated to draw. 

What drawing tools do you carry with you at all times?

The simple tools I use are a kneaded eraser, pencil eraser, paper blender, 7B pencil, 2B mechanical pencil, and of course, drawing paper (card size or A5 size).

Is there something about a person that draws you to sketch them, or is it a random selection?

I like to draw someone who is working, serving people or simply doing things they enjoy. I hope to capture the emotion when they are engaged in those activities. I think of two things most of the time: are they going to stay for the next 20 minutes, and will they be good with me drawing them? 

Drawing everyday people also gives me a chance to observe details of how people dress up and how they portray themselves. Everyone is different, and we can never treat one person the same or categorise them in any way.

Drawing a noodle master

What are some challenges you’ve faced when carrying out your sketches?

Time, and the uncertainty that comes with it, is always the challenge. At the start of the drawing, I am always worried about the person leaving. Some drawings take longer and it is hard to estimate that because the difficulty only surfaces while I’m drawing. Essentially, there is NO TIME to plan how to draw. I just try to find a good angle and finish the drawing as fast as possible so I can give it to them.

What do you enjoy most about live sketching – any extra memorable encounters?

I enjoy passing the finished drawing to the person the most. I love talking to people and learning more through it. Some interesting instances were times when someone offered me money as a form of appreciation, when someone offered me a drawing of myself, and when a little girl wanted a drawing of herself after seeing her brother get one!

Who would be your dream person to sketch live, and why?

It would be my honour to draw Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong. I am very fortunate to live under the leadership of Singapore’s politicians.

Drawing a government minister

Do you have plans to build on your success and popularity?

I plan to travel and draw people in different places, capturing the unique experiences of individuals doing all kinds of activities. The goal is to spread joy and increase awareness of different rituals around us.

People need more emotional connection and intelligence as technology advances, and one component that technology cannot fully replace is the humane aspect of creating art. As technology increases its reach, we have to keep pace and develop our networks as well. I would love to expand on the idea of human networks and personalisation in art.

View more of Lai’s work on his social media accounts on TikTok (@jeffandpencil), Instagram (@playingwithpencil) and YouTube (@Jeff Draws).

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

(Photos: Jeff Lai)

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