Being there.

(Number four in a series of ten ideas I have about sketching.)

26 August, 2018. I had an early morning meeting in the city on Thursday, and misjudged the timing of my arrival so that I pulled up to the art museum way too early. Taking up pen and sketchbook, both of which were on my backseat, I walked from the car and found myself under a stand of trees, settled in on a park bench and I began to sketch my surroundings.

Ugh! My fountain pen almost immediately ran dry… what the heck? Had I forgotten to refill? (Yes.) I finished the sketch with a different pen, one I happened to have in my pocket.

I’ve been thinking a lot about these ten ideas I have about sketching lately. Some of my students think I should turn them into a book, but honestly it’s much more likely I’d hand print something and bind it together into a nifty little handmade thing. That would satisfy me more than a “how to” publication, I think.

So these ideas: they really aren’t a “how-to” book. In a sense, they are an act of immersion. A purposeful liberation. A rebellion from the perception that drawings must look “real,” and a realization that the most satisfying sketches instead look “convincing.” Believability trumps photographic accuracy every time. These ideas are about drawing with expression, and reacting to what is there in front of you. Being of the moment. Being there.

These are not hard and fast “rules,” but suggested ideas. Like most “rules,” I tend to ignore one or all of them from time to time. But invariably, when I find a sketch is somehow lacking, somehow dissatisfying, a quick analysis generally reveals that I’ve ignored one of these principle ideas. So there you have it.

“Be” there. Sketch what you see, not what you think you know. Observe. People and things move, and so do you. Give yourself permission to let that happen in your sketches. Stuff overlaps in the real world. Things are in front of other things, and they are seldom all magically lined up like glasses on a shelf. Allow yourself to draw what you see, and react to changes in your sketches… your sketches may very well be a record of what happens during the time you’re drawing and NOT a snapshot of one second in time. Think about that.

Now, go draw.

(Duke 551 Confucius Fude Nib Fountain Pen, Uni-Ball in Canson 180 sketchbook.)


(Number three in a series of ten ideas I have about sketching.)

20 August, 2018. So, you’ve got yourself a pen. Maybe it’s a fountain pen. It fits your hand perfectly, and it makes the most wondrously wonderful lines possible. Your pen (or brush or pencil or crayon or sharpened stick – really, it doesn’t make any difference what it actually is) pairs so remarkably well with the paper in your equally wonderful sketchbook that you cannot wait to make marks upon that most pristine of surfaces, the empty page. You know exactly what you want to draw (or paint or scribble, et. al.) Pen and sketchbook in hand, you are poised. I have but one incredibly poignant question to ask of you.

Why are you drawing this thing?

Seriously. These marks you wish to leave upon the page? What is driving you to make them? What interests you so much about this subject that you want to spend time making the marks?

In other words, what is the story?

Now hear me out. I realize not every scribble tells a story. (Even as I typed those words, I questioned the veracity of my statement. Maybe I should more accurately say that not every scribble is intendedto tell a story.) But the potential for narrative is one potentially important aspect of sketching. So why are you sketching thissubject in the first place? What will be different about your subject tomorrow? Later today? In five minutes?

Who is being depicted? Where are you? Where have you been? Where are you going? How did you get there? How much of the story are you willing to reveal, and how much are you wanting to hint at? How much remains obscure, so that only you know the story?

I’ve always considered myself a simple storyteller. In the classroom I usually rely on things that have happened or experiences I’ve encountered to make a point, to facilitate the “teachable moment” with my students. My sketches – and your experience may differ – well, anyway,mysketches are usually a response to that which is in front of me at a given time and place. It’s why I often choose to notate my sketches with date and location. And it’s why I often choose to elaborate upon those scribbles with text.

I often find myself unconsciously doodling on any scrap of paper that happens to be at hand, reacting to my immediate environment. The energy of those initial strokes of the pen are what most intrigues me – I interpret these loosely sketched marks as a sort of fresh shorthand for bigger, broader narratives… a conversation, if you will, only part of which the rest of the world is privy to. I feel a gestural mark communicates more through simplicity than can be told through great detail.

in a sense, we’re all making marks, most of which are scrawled upon the world and the people around us – farmers use a plow, builders a hammer, and sketchers a pen. Personally, I treasure those marks, those small moments and interactions with the everyday ordinary, and the overlooked. I choose to pause for a moment to observe these encounters in search of the story fragment that is there if we but watch for it.

So again: why areyou drawing this particular subject? What is the story you have to tell?


(Number two in a series of ten ideas I have about sketching.)

12 August, 2018. One of the more difficult concepts to teach young art students is the idea of emphasis. Novices sometimes have blinders on when they start to draw, and this tends to emerge on paper in one of two ways. Some find themselves focusing only on the object of their attention, to the exclusion of all else. They find themselves with an object plopped in the middle of the paper with no context to place, time, or relationship to the world. A billion or two very unsatisfying sketchbook pages look exactly like this.

Others go in the opposite direction, drawing everything in their line of sight, and even some things that aren’t. I know a few artists who pull this off very well, but it’s important to note that what they are interested in sharing is the overall texture of a place or thing: all of that incredible detail is the subject. For the rest of us, too much stuff is visually overwhelming.

What I ask myself to consider as I sketch is pretty simple: Why am I drawing this thing or place? What exactly caught my attention in the first place? An object? A building? A person? When I can answer that question I know where to focus my attention, and thus my drawing. I draw that. Everything else in the sketch that contributes to the story is important. Anything that does not is a distraction from the story and from the focal point.

So I don’t feel obligated to include tons of detail in those areas that are a distraction. Maybe they don’t even need to be drawn at all, or perhaps they need to be simplified into basic shapes or values.

In the sketch above, made at yesterday’s plein air event, Paint the Forest, I was interested in the way that light played across the ground, tracing the topography of Line Creek Trail. Patches of light struck some of the other plein air artists ahead of me. And the receding perspective of the path itself helped to create leading lines, emphasizing these interesting areas.

All around was a cacophony of tree limbs and branches and foliage and trunks and all sorts of stuff. But none of it mattered, visually, because to focus on them would have meant taking away from those areas that interested me most. So all of that stuff got simplified into three elements:

  • simplified verticals and horizontals
  • simplified solids (or quasi-solids)
  • simplified lights and darks

The path and the people are also simplifications, but they contrast from the surrounding spaces, crossing over or separating from them, contrasting by breaking from the patterns of striating light and shadow. Those surrounding spaces have just enough visual information to communicate a sense of place and, perhaps, a bit of theatricality. But because they are intentionally abstracted into directional shapes and patterns, they aid the viewer by moving the eye into and through the drawing.

5.5 x 8.5 inches, using a fude tip fountain pen and Uni-Ball Signo white gel pen on Stillman and Birn gray Nova Series paper.


(Number one in a series of ten ideas I have about sketching.)

4 August, 2018. I’ve been gathering my thoughts around a list of topics I consider to be important for a positive, fun, and personally successful sketching experience. I started out with a couple of “non-rules,” simple guidelines and suggestions I found myself sharing with my drawing students and fellow sketchers. My list eventually grew to ten non-rules I more or less follow in my own work. And like most such things, I do tend to ignore one or all of them from time to time. But invariably, when I find a sketch is somehow personally dissatisfying, a quick analysis generally reveals I’ve ignored one of these ten principle ideas. So there you have it: I ignore my own advice at my peril.

So, principle number one: Scale. What do we mean by “scale?”

Fundamentally, it refers the size of things. In a drawing, scale refers to the size of one object in comparison to others. If you make a sketch of a very tall tree with a person standing in front of it, the drawn scale of those objects is important viewer information. For the sake of argument, let’s assume you’ve drawn the very tall tree so that it is about the same height as the person. Because we know the tree is in reality very tall, a viewer may assume the tree is in the background, far off in the distance. Otherwise how would it appear to be the same height as the person? If instead, we want the person to appear to be near the tree, it may be that we draw it so large that only part of the trunk and lower branches are visible; the scale of the tree is much larger than the person.

The concept is probably pretty obvious, and I’m certain a long and tediously academic discussion could be formed around this topic. Let’s keep things simple and more to the point by considering how scale in your sketch influences the viewing experience:

Be aware of the size of your drawn objects relative to each other and relative to the page. Ask yourself: Is everything of similar size in your drawing? (Booooo-ring!) Try to make somethings more important than others by varying the size of objects.

In the sketch above, I’ve used scale to create the illusion of a crowd that extends into space. The size of the people vary and a viewer understands that some are closer, while others are further away. Compare the size of people to the car in the near ground. We understand that the car is closer than most of the crowd, not only because of the overlapping shapes, but also because it’s quite a bit larger than the comparatively small people in the background. Extending that thinking further, even the people in the middle ground are large in comparison to the buildings, again cluing the viewer in on how much distance exists between them, and between the buildings and us, the viewers.

I enjoy finding ways to communicate the illusion of space as simply and efficiently as possible. Pay attention to how you manipulate scale in your sketches. I think you’ll find this is an effective tool for designing a more visually interesting composition.

Thumbnails are important.

2 August, 2018. I’m in charge of this month’s Urban Sketchers demo tomorrow night. A lot of sketchers seem to be curious about the attention I’ve been giving to gouache on gray-toned paper, so that’s going to be my focus. But it occurs to me that the technique is really only a delivery vehicle; unless the drawing or painting has been designed to create visual interest the technique really doesn’t matter much. With that in mind I decided to outline some of the steps I occasionally take when I plan a “people” sketch.

The first thing to understand is that people move. They are there and then gone. So it’s important to capture the gesture as quickly as you can (see above) if you want your figures to be believable. Focus on the most basic key lines. I seldom spend more than ten seconds doing so. (Think about it: In ten seconds, your subject is gonna be a hundred yards away, so you have to work quickly.)

Once you’ve got a gesture that you like, and a location that tells a story, take a piece of scrap paper (or better yet, tracing paper!) and place it over the gesture. Use the gesture as a guide for planning the form and how the clothing drapes. 

It’s ok to think about some general detail, but don’t focus on eyelashes or nostrils at this stage!

Figures move, but your “stage” does not. You can take more time to make as many thumbnails of the “space” as you like to ensure that the figure is placed in the most interesting position. Look for details that imply depth and scale now.

Design is important. It’s what makes a visual story interesting. Think about design as you redraw the sketch, dividing the composition into thirds. (Asymmetry is always more interesting than symmetry.) Experiment with eliminating detail, and with the figure ground relationship by massing values. Now, you’re ready to make a drawing.

This is the handout I plan to have on hand for tomorrow night’s demonstration. I’m hoping it will provide a little context before just diving into the technique. Feel free to download the image.