Book Review: Sketch by France Belleville Van-Stone

Sketch - France Belleville-Van Stone

Sketch – France Belleville-Van Stone

I got into sketching at the right time as we’re clearly living in a golden age for those of us who like wandering around sketching our towns.  The popularity of journal sketching has exploded as more and more people realize that the classic ‘you aren’t talented enough for art’ stuff is a myth and the number of artists willing to help those of us trying to learn is extraordinary.  How did people learn anything before the internet?

What’s lagged behind is the art world.  Frankly, most still don’t get it.  They still believe that a sketch is something you do in preparation for a formal painting.  While architects, illustrators and animation types fill sketchbook after sketchbook, fine artists don’t even own one.  Even that is changing.  With any luck at all, the local art supply stores will catch on as well but for now, I find that for most of my gear I have to go online.  The choices of materials, however, are growing daily.

With all these things going on, it’s hard to imagine better evidence for a sketcher revolution but there is one.  It comes in the form of a steady stream of books on sketching that are hitting the market like fresh corn in September.  When I started sketching, the single “urban sketcher” book was Gabi Campanario’s Art of Urban Sketching.  But in the past couple years I’ve bought at least a dozen books on quick-sketching and urban sketching and there are more on the way.

And so, when France Belleville-Van Stone’s book Sketch was released I very nearly passed on it, assuming it was another ‘here’s how to sketch’ book.  I’ve followed her blog for a long time and enjoy her sketches a lot, and so in a moment of weakness I pressed the button on Amazon.

The book’s arrival made it clear that I would have made a big mistake by not buying her book.  The reason is hidden, not so subtly, in the subheading of the book – Sketch: The Non-artist’s Guide to Inspiration, Technique, and Drawing Daily Life.  This book is about how to think like a sketcher and she provides inspiration and ideas for how to approach sketching that are often sidestepped by those more concerned with telling you what paper and pen to use.  Couple this with the high quality of the writing and you can’t help but enjoy it.  While France’s sketches are fantastic, this is one art book where the words are an important part of the package.

2014-12-29pigFrance begins by addressing the nonsensical use of the word ‘talent’ by those who suggest they don’t have any.  I won’t try to recap this section except to say that both prose and insights are fantastic and put a smile on my face.

This introduction leads to chapters on materials and techniques and I love both for what is not there.  There’s no attempt to cover all the possibilities and, in fact, France says she isn’t doing that and that she’s talking only about the materials she uses.  Similarly, while France is a seasoned artist, she opens here techniques section with “There is a bit of irony in me attempting to write a chapter on techniques, knowing my last drawing lesson dates back to elementary school….”  In truth, France provides plenty of techniques in this book but not in the traditional form.  There are no sections on perspective, color theory, or the rest of the stuff you can find in any intro book on drawing.  The single exception is that she does spend some time on approaches to hatching and since that’s such an important facet of her own sketching style, this makes perfect sense.

What France gains by not filling the book with stuff you can find in any drawing book is a lot of space to talk about strategies and tactics of a sketcher.  How do you deal with drawing environments that restrict the time you have to draw?  How do you redefine “complete” when it comes to your sketches?  How might different definitions affect your approach to different subjects?

She talks about completely relinquishing the need to complete anything at all?  Here she discusses one of my favorite dichotomies – being motivated by the process of art rather than products of it.  She eloquently discusses how liberating it is to shift away from emphasis on the products, placing all of it, instead, on the fun that comes while you’re doing art.  Ever drawn something and left it on a table at a restaurant?  I have and as France describes such a though is very liberating.

The book contains a chapter on digital art, an approach that for me, misses the whole point of drawing, but then I’m a guy who likes, more than anything, the feel of a pen moving over paper.  But a good case is made for using tablets as drawing devices, though France admits that this isn’t a replacement for what are now called “traditional approaches.”

2014-12-29excerptsA big surprise to me were the last forty pages of the book.  Titled simple “Prompts”, I assumed this was yet another attempt to feed a list of ‘motivators’ or whatever they’re called to people who can’t see the multitude of things to draw that exist in everyone’s daily life.  Yawn…

But I was wrong…or right…no wrong.  It is a list that walks you through the alphabet, providing subject matter for each letter so in that sense I was right.   In the case of A, for instance, France uses Animals and Airports and talks about the value of sketching animals and the rich environment that is an airport.  But for other letters (eg -E) she’ll talk about the potency of doing Excerpts, discussing how sketching pieces of things is fun.  In each  case she provides great examples from her own work and I thoroughly enjoyed this section, and now more ideas and more varied perspectives on how to choose my subjects.

In the end, this is a wonderful book for anyone interested in sketching what’s in front of them and/or simply likes France’s art as much as I do.  Sketch: The non-artist’s guide to inspiration, technique, and drawing daily life is brilliantly written, making it more fun to read than many art books.

Book Review: The Urban Sketcher by Marc Taro Holmes

We’re in the midst of a frenzy of urban sketching book releases and I’m downright giddy about it.  For a long time our single reference was Gabi Campanario’s The Art of Urban Sketching, that introduced the topic and presented examples from around the world.  Then the architects stepped up and we heard from James Richards and Matthew Brehm who breathed some rigor into discussions of approaches to sketching/drawing and their books were a boon to the community.  Thomas Thorspecken gave us a book that was mostly about sketching scenes full of people, with answers to the where-to-do-it and how-to-do-it.  Gabi has a new book that builds on his first, providing more detailed insights into the various kinds of urban sketching being done.

The popularity of urban sketching is soaring as the art world rediscovers that drawing is still the foundation of art and we’re being shown the way to enjoy art in our own backyards and city streets.  This is all to the good.  The downside, if social media is any indication, is that a lot of people with considerable art skills struggle because location sketching is not like studio art, either in its expectations or its approaches.  And while every urban sketching book to date acknowledges those differences, provided solutions can be boiled down to “draw faster and don’t expect a masterpiece.”

coverMarc Taro Holmes has just released a book, The Urban Sketcher: Techniques for Seeing and Drawing on Location, that directs its attention to these issues specifically.  Before discussing his book I need to say what this book is not.  It is not a introduction to drawing book.  Marc starts with the assumption that you know the basics of  drawing and/or you have a book that will teach them to you. There are no long sections explain what paper, pencils and pens are, though he does mention his favorites so you know what’s being used to create the workshop he presents.  There are no drawn out discussions of perspective or where the eyes go on a human.  There are no discussions of color theory.  He assumes you know this stuff.

He assumes you can draw the buildings, cars, plants and people in his examples slowly, while sitting in your studio.  His concern is for how to do it when your time is limited, when your subjects are moving, and when you’re out in the elements.  The entire book centers on how to sub-divide drawing to minimize the number of things you have to think about and capture at any one time, with the goal to speed up and compartmentalize each step.  And oh boy…does he do a fantastic job of that.

The book is done in workshop style, with explanations, demonstrations and then with exercises.  He warms up to the subject by telling us how cool urban sketching is, why we should do it, and how a simple sketchbook and pencil are all that’s needed to get started.  But the bulk of the book consists of three chapters:

Chapter 1 – Graphite Draw Everything You See
Chapter 2 – Pen & Ink: Expressive Lines, Powerful Contrast
Chapter 3 – Watercolor: Bring Sketches to Life with Color

Chapter 1 – Graphite Draw Everything You See

1This is the shortest chapter, but it’s the basis for the other two.  Marc is an advocate of the divisive, rather than additive drawing.  He calls it “outside in.”  No matter what you call it, it simplifies the drawing process and won’t leave you saying “oh, I ran out of room for his feet.”  Mostly outside-in allows you to organize in such a way that you can draw parts of a scene or object with the full knowlege that one part will fit with the next.

He starts this discussion with some standard measuring methods and provides insights into their use.  This is similar to Matthew Brehm’s discussion of this crucial, and oft-overlooked step.  Marc has a section on the use of shading to provide depth to your drawings as well.  His discussion of “gradient of interest” is worth reading and practicing he uses several methods to draw the viewer’s eye to whatever it is you choose to be the main subject of your sketch.  This also provides some solutions to the problem of the endless urban landscape and how to deal with the edges of any particular sketch.

The outside-in approach alone can cut your drawing time in half but all of the things in this chapter can help an artist whether you’re working in a studio or on the street.

Chapter 2 – Pen & Ink: Expressive Lines, Powerful Contrast

2Here’s where Marc picks up the pace and attempts to increase yours.  He presents his three-pass sketching approach.  Drawing is a complex skill.  An artist must deal with the dimension and shape of each object as well as their relative locations.  He/she must think about the actual shape of each of those objects and then there’s the matter of shading and, possibly color.  It’s too much when you are trying to draw something transient and everything in an urban landscape is transient.  Even buildings reflect constantly changing light regimes.  So, what to do?

Marc’s answer is scribble (capture the proportion and relative relationships), calligraphic line drawing (do the actual line drawing), and spot blacks (add shading/contrast to improve depth/form).  He walks you through several demonstrations of this technique and it’s invaluable, though I’m still struggling with the scribble portion myself but it’s brilliant as even if your subject leaves, you’ve still got the overall shape upon which to generate an actual drawing.

Once the basic technique is described, Marc moves on to people, specifically people in motion.  Here’s where many give up.  “They move too much,” it’s often said.  From my own experience I’d say they’re right about that moving stuff but Marc shows how to apply his 3-pass approach to this dilemma and adds to your sketcher toolkit the notions of  compositing people (using several models to produce one sketch) and multitasking (working simultaneously on multiple views of a character in motion).  His sections on drawing people represent a significant number of pages of this book and I’m still in the process of consuming them.  I hope to spend the winter months practicing these techniques.

Chapter 3 – Watercolor: Bring Sketches to Life with Color

4Marc opens this chapter with a quick description of his materials and a few of his favorite watercolor techniques, like charging-in, and edge-pulling.  Good stuff all but the real power of this chapter comes from sections on using sparing amounts of watercolor to bring pen & ink drawings to life and to further direct the view to the center of attention.  He also provides an interesting view that most scenes have “three big shapes”, the sky, ground, and subject.  He admits that it’s never that simple but that approaching watercolor with that in mind allows one to better structure your color.

The centerpiece of this chapter, though is his Tea, Milk, Honey approach to watercolors that he has advocated over the past couple years.  If you’re familiar with his work you’ve probably seen it via the internet.  It’s essentially a 3-pass approach to watercolors, using every thicker washes and increasing detail to complete a painting.  I think it’s not much of a stretch to equate Tea = scribble, Milk = drawing line and Honey = spot blacks to bring things back full-circle to his 3-pass sketching approach, though the Tea, Milk, Honey approach does rely upon on pen or pencil sketch as its foundation.

We live in an era of rebirth for drawing and Marc’s book, in my opinion, will become one of the cornerstone books of that rebirth.  I know that sounds like hyperbole but I own a lot of drawing books and most of them don’t seem to understand the notion of structuring a drawing before you draw details, dividing the process of drawing into sub-goals that capture particular aspects of the scene being drawn.  And yet, when I watch professional artists draw, they ALL do this, whether they realize it or not.  Buy a copy of The Urban Sketcher: Techniques for Seeing and Drawing on Location.  Become better at what you do.


Book Review: The Drawing Club

Drawing Club coverThere’s a heavy emphasis on drawing naked people in the art world.  It’s said that this is how one learns to draw and schools everywhere practice it, if they teach drawing at all anymore.  My feeling is that this practice harkens from a time when artists made their living drawing naked people, or partially naked people and that it doesn’t do much for me.  So I’ve completely ignored “life drawing” classes and workshops.

But back in 2001, Bob Kato started the Drawing Club, attended by Disney and Universal creative department artists.  It wasn’t traditional life drawing.  It was drawing where one of the artists would dress as a gangster, pirate, steampunk character, showgirl, or whatever and the artists would draw them with their own personal flair.  Thus was born the Drawing Club.  It is now a regular part of the L.A. artist scene.

characters1 characters2

The book by Bob Kato, The Drawing Club, documents those activities and more.  The book includes chapters like “What is a good drawing?”, “Concept and Drawing”, “Improvisation”, “What is funny?” and generally discusses drawing characters and how different moods, goals, and even materials affect both approach and outcome and a bunch of other interesting stuff that is applicable well beyond drawing posed models.  For me, though, the highlights come in the form of seeing the model and then what creative artists do with that model as they move their image to paper.  It’s extraordinary.

Drawing1 Drawing2

This isn’t the typical urban sketching book that I generally talk about but I thoroughly enjoyed this book and wish I could attend sessions like this.  Much more interesting than naked people.

Book Review: The Urban Sketching Sketchbook: Architecture And Cityscapes

coverGabi Campanario’s long-awaited book, The Urban Sketching Sketchbook: Architecture and Cityscapes, as finally arrived.  Gabi is the guy who launched the urban sketching movement that is now a worldwide love affair and his first book, The Art of Urban Sketching, is still the best tour of the worldwide urban sketching community.

ruleofthirdsI’ve had this new book on pre-order for quite some time and I was thrilled when it showed up in my mailbox because it’s about drawing BUILDINGS.  Of all the things I draw, architecture is, by far, my favorite.  Architecture just says so much about a city and the people who live there.  And let’s face it, there’s a lot of architecture in an urban landscape.

centerpointIf you’re a sketcher you just have to smile when you look at this book.  Excepting the beautiful reproduction of Gabi sketches that grace both back and front covers, this book looks just like a sketchbook, complete with the elastic band that most of us very much appreciate on our sketchbooks.  I sure wish my favorites, the Stillman & Birn sketchbooks, had them.

patternsWhen you release the elastic you find a book that’s formatted similarly to his first book and features not only his sketches but those of many of the top urban sketchers on the planet.

The real meat and potatoes of this book is that Gabi takes on topics such as perspective, composition, drawing organization, simplification, and others while using architecture as the principle subject.  In spite of its small size (5×8 and 110 pages), it’s jam-packed with information for someone wanting to draw architecture.  This, in fact, is a gotta have book if you’re so inclined.  Highly recommended.

Quick Sketching With Ron Husband

CoverAs a street sketcher I’ve wondered why there are so few resources for those of us who want to draw people on the streets.  It seems that every other book is about drawing portraits.  Another third talk about life drawing, mostly of naked people.  What’s a guy to do if he wants to learn to quick-sketch people, doing real life things?

The answer comes in an amazing book, Quick Sketching, by Ron Husband, a 30 year veteran of Disney Studios.  His day job is animation but, it seems, his hobby is drawing folks in the lunch room, in the mall, and everywhere else he finds them.  He’s compiled a book of hundreds of his sketches and provides an amazing amount of information to help sketchers quickly sketch human behavior.

BalanceThis is not your typical art book that spends a third of the book talking about materials.  Ron assumes that you know that paper is the flat stuff and pencils and pens are the devices used to make marks on it.  Ron is more about teaching you what to look for, how to depict the body in motion and how to simplify those images so they can be done quickly.

Everyday Sitting Standing

He begins by talking about the importance of quick-sketching, the goals of quick-sketching and some of his general philosophy.  He moves on to discussions of simple shapes that, when added together, equal a human body.  This is followed by a discussion of different body types.

There is a major section on analyzing action, thoughts on body language, and the value of props in quick-sketches.  The rest of the book is composed of  chapters on people standing, walking, dancing, doing sports, and working in various occupations.  Each of these chapters discusses how clothing reponds to the positions and how balance is affected by the activity.  Each chapter is heavily illustrated with sketches by Ron and these alone are worth the price of admission.  There’s a separate chapter about sketching children and others that concentrate on animal sketching.

WalkAnalysis Walking

If you’re interested in quick-sketching people this book provides a lot of bang for the buck.  It’s 343 pages of text are jam-packed with information and I can’t recommend it highly enough.