Documenting daily life in Colombia through illustration

By Sarah Shaw
Dec. 30, 2015

Just over a month ago, I finished my Peace Corps service in a peri-urban fishing community located 25 minutes north of Cartagena, Colombia.

I’m still thinking about scenes that I need to draw—the lime green cart filled with fritos surrounded by red plastic tables and chairs, the aggressive hat vendors in the Centro and the bustling, chaotic Bazurto Mercado. Cartagena continues to inspire me.

Throughout the last 27 months in Colombia, I documented my experience through a series of full-color illustrations and daily drawings. During training, before I knew much about Colombia, I began making collages of scenery from the beaches outside of Barranquilla, typical meals, and street scenes with kids riding bikes and playing soccer. However, on a trip back to the States, I discovered a set of Prismacolor markers that I hadn’t used since high school. The fuchsias, turquoises, and bright yellows reminded me of the colors I saw everyday in Cartagena, and I hadn’t realized the extent of their absence until I was once again surrounded by the calm blues, whites, and muted tones of a New England summer.

boquilla fishermen
An illustration of some fishermen at my Peace Corps site, located on the beach north of Cartagena. It’s always exciting to see the fishermen bring in their catch.

Back in Cartagena, I began posting my sketches on Facebook and received a very positive response. Colombian friends, Peace Corps Colombia Volunteers, my family and friends from the States, co-workers and friends from Korea, and people I’d met from all over the world began commenting and following my posts. This personal endeavor turned into a third goal project, where I suddenly felt motivated to illustrate images that subtly combatted prevailing stereotypes of Colombia being a dangerous, drug-ridden country. My work showed the daily, monotonous beauty of fishermen working on the beach, a watermelon vendor sending WhatsApp messages on her smartphone as she waited for customers outside of a run-down building in a rural town, and indigenous kids playing soccer outside their home in the mountains. Through art, I was able to show the complicated beauty of my Peace Corps site, a community struggling through cycles of poverty while trapped in the midst of a rich, booming tourism industry.

As I constantly observed my surroundings, inspiration struck often, no matter where I was or what time of day. Luckily, my Peace Corps cell phone had a camera function, which allowed me to document daily occurrences. Once I decided on a scene that I wanted to illustrate, I would use photo references to create a composition, often researching other details that I wanted to add into the story—a stray cat or dog, a certain facial expression or vendors selling various types of street food. After sketching the initial composition, I would outline the drawing with black pens and India ink, and add color with Prismacolor markers and colored pencils. The colored pencils were mostly used for adding highlights. 

Although I’m now shivering in my over-sized sweater, rather than sweating through my shirt before noon, the coast is still within me. Songs that I’d hear every day play in my head as the bright colors continue to evade my sketchbook. I plan to keep illustrating scenes and telling stories from my service in Colombia to eventually combine them into a graphic novel.

30 circles poster
A poster I created with 30 illustrations of circular objects that I see on a regular basis (or have seen) in Cartagena.
Sarah Shaw