Extreme Urban Sketching

Once upon a time I realized that it was crazy to try to sketch outdoors during Quebec winters.  I wasn’t happy about it, but I accepted it.  Then, along came Marc Taro Holmes, talking about wanting to lose weight by walking and using sketching to motivate himself.  He spoke of wandering Montreal, doing 5-6 minute sketches.  He enticed us with some of the sketches he’d done and threw down a gauntlet, daring someone to join him in this endeavour.  I accepted the challenge.

I knew it was crazy.  I knew I didn’t have the skills that Marc has.  But I was also desperate to sketch outside.  I’ve dedicated a small Stillman & Birn Epsilon softcover to this project.  I was motivated by the realization that doing this could help me develop several skills, presuming I didn’t lose my fingers to frostbite. These skills were:

1) Learn how to hold a sketchbook while sketching

I know… after five years of sketching you’d think I could hold a sketchbook out in front of me and sketch, but I can’t.  I typically sit when I sketch, resting the sketchbook on my lap or, using a larger sketchbook stuffed into my gut, I can sketch while standing.  Holding a small sketchbook (3×5) in one hand while drawing with the other – not on your life.

2) Improve my ability to draw something with fewer lines

I draw in either a cartoon or illustrative style.  To do this quickly is nearly impossible, at least for me because there are just too many lines and too much detail.  To draw quickly one must learn to identify which lines are important and draw only those.  I’m really bad at this and want to get better.

3) Improve my ability to simplify a scene so as to capture it quickly

I still get overwhelmed by the world around me, lacking the skill to see a scene on paper that reflects what I see but without extraneous details.


So with this as my motivation, and having agreed to be part of Marc’s project, I went out sketching.  The first day it was -14C, but it wasn’t very windy.  I set a timer and started drawing.  I think my timer is broken because the time passes far too quickly and my results were horrible.  But I know that early results are always horrible so I wasn’t put off by the results.  Here’s a couple of them.

The next day I was greeted by -20C and a bit of a breeze.  It was really cold.  I reminded myself that if Marc could do it, so could I.  I sketched.  I walked.  I sketched some more.

Then it turned cold(er).  When the temps were -22C and below reason kicked in and I stayed indoors.   We entered a series of days with snow, rain, and more cold, which led to ice, making walking impossible.  So I stayed inside some more.

Eventually the weather improved and I was back at it again.  I’d resolved to do 100 of these sketches.  My sketchbook was still moving around almost as much as my pen so there was a randomness in the line work.  Here are a couple more examples.

More days passed; more walking and sketching took place.  It was still frustrating but I noticed that my sketchbook was slowing down; it was becoming easier to keep up with it.

So far I’ve done 20 of these little scribbles.  When it’s not too cold, it’s even starting to be fun.  I’m beginning to think that by the time I get the 100th sketch done I may have made progress on all three of my goals.  In any case I’m getting to do some outdoor sketching and that’s a good thing.  Here are the last couple drawings I’ve done.  I think I’ve moved from doing horrible sketches to doing bad sketches.  I consider that a win.  I’ve quickly added quick bits of color to these to see how they’d look with color.  Extreme urban sketching is challenging but fun.

8 thoughts on “Extreme Urban Sketching

  1. Man, that’s extreme all right! More power (and hot showers afterwards!) to you! (I’ll be trying my version of extreme sketching tomorrow! Wish me luck!)

    – Tina

    • Your style is more amenable to extreme sketching, I think. In many ways I’m trying to view sketching more the way you do with this exercise. I do wish you luck, though your mobile sketching platform is far superior to this approach 🙂

  2. Good for you! I guess it’s not too cold to sketch outdoors here in Ohio, after all! Wish we had that beautiful old architecture.

    By the way, thus week I found Stillman & Birn at the local Hobby Lobby, which has sketchbooks 40% off every other week! They said they got them in just hefore Christmas. (The Blick’s in the same strip still doesn’t carry them in rhe brick and mortar.)

    • Who’da thunk it, eh (threw that last word in to sound Canadian). The temps I reported are crazy cold for sketching no matter how quickly you do it. I don’t advise it. But in a more sane weather regime, this is a great exercise.

      Interesting that Hobby Lobby would have S&B sketchbooks and odd that Blicks doesn’t have them in their stores. Sadly, stores seem to be quite consistent in stocking the cheaper, inferior quality products. I guess that makes sense because we die-hards will just go online and order them but it is a shame that so many attempting art for the first time are using stuff that doesn’t give them the best chance to succeed.

  3. I like all your sketches. Those wonky lines are so good. The last two with color just jump off the page. I am not sure how you did it in the cold. I recently tried sketching in cold temperatures with a strong wind near a bay. My fingers turned blue and the temp was above freezing. Nice work!

    • Thanks for the kind words, Carmel. Perhaps I wasn’t clear in the blog post but the color was slopped on (almost literally) just before I scanned them for the post. The paint would have frozen and my fingers would have fallen off if I’d spent that much time with those sketches. Five minutes is about all I can stand when it’s Quebec cold outside (grin).

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