Sketching On Location – Matthew Brehm

I have few inherent talents.  I can’t throw a ball 100mph.  I can’t devise new laws of physics.  But I’ve got an intense curiosity and my persistence factor is off the charts.  .

I have come to art late in life and my solution to the ‘you’re old; you don’t have much time’ dilemma has been to read everything and anything about drawing, coupled with a whole lot of doing.  Nick Meglin (Drawing From Within) is right when he says that the book that will teach you the most about drawing is your sketchbook.

But there are insights one can glean from books and those ideas and techniques can have small or large effects on how quickly you can progress.  Besides, I’m an ex-scientist and that translates into a view that understanding what smart people think is good for me.

A few things have come from wandering through dozens of ‘drawing books’ written from the 1800s onward.  It’s clear there is a difference between how drawing was once taught and how it’s being taught now.  If one reads 19th Century drawing texts one is taught to draw everything and to do it from observation, probably because most jobs for artists actually required that skill.  Modern texts from the art world all seem to assume that artists draw naked people or draw from their imagination in a studio.  It’s barely acknowledged that anyone goes out and draws planes, trains and automobiles anymore and, if one looks at the art hangs as ‘modern art’ in museums, they don’t.  Deanna Petherbridge suggests, in her Primacy of Drawing, that a renewed interest in representational art is causing a renewed interest in drawing.  I hope she’s correct.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that the sketching world is full of very good sketchers, drawing from observation.  They are masters of their craft; they are my heros.  A surprising number of them are graphics illustrators, comic book and animation artists and ARCHITECTS!  Liz Steel, Gerard Michel, Tia Boom, Matthew Brehm, and my buddy Yvan Breton all come from architectural backgrounds.  And when you talk with them it’s easy to see why.  Their schooling required them to carry sketchbooks and draw everything and anything on location.

2013-09-21Brehm1I’ve finally been able to buy a copy of Matthew Brehm’s book Sketching on Location and it is one of the few books on location sketching I’ve seen.  And is it ever good.  I reviewed Freehand Sketching by Paul Laseau (another architect) and  underscored his distinction between location sketching and sketching from photos/imagination.  Brehm makes the distinction and provides an extensive toolkit for those wanting to draw from observation.  He begins his book thus:


The differences between drawing from observation and drawing in a studio are greater than most seem to understand.  The best example of this is “perspective”, a term used by artists for everything having to do with showing depth on a 2D surface, it seems.  A quick scan of art books can yield authors saying they perspective to create perspective.  But mostly the word is associated with a lot of geometry, mind-boggling geometry.  The result are people who say “I can’t draw buildings because I’m not good at perspective” but who can draw gorgeous figures, flowers, etc. where the very same “perspective” exists.

And why does this view exist?  Because nobody ever told artists the Catch-22 of linear perspective when applied to location sketching.  If you’re going to determine the vanishing point for a building wall, you’ve got to ‘see’ the angles, at least the top and bottom horizontals before a vanishing point can be determined.  If you can see the angle, why do you need the vanishing point?  While it’s useful to understand the basics of linear perspective, when doing observational drawing the building is right in front of you.  You don’t have to make up the angles; you just have to see them.


Brehm uses the term ‘composition’ as a way to build connections between objects, determine the observed angles, sizes and to identify convergences that make it much easier to capture a scene that is in front of you.  I know these methods as ‘scaffolding’ but the ‘rose by any other name…’ cliché applies here.  He does discuss linear perspective as well, but from the point of view of its more limited uses in observational drawing.

These sections of Brehm’s book alone are enough to change how you approach observational drawing.  But his approach to other, more typical drawing subjects (eg – value, color) all emphasize, as one might expect, how they are used by the observational sketcher rather than a studio artist.  I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in drawing real things, in real places.  This book will help you almost as much as your sketchbook.

Book Review: Freehand Sketching: An Introduction

“While perspective is a handy device to construct imagined spaces, it is not useful, and possibly detrimental, to sketching existing environments.” — Paul Laseau

A while ago, in a Facebook group, Liz Steel posted the quote above.  To be completely honest I can’t remember what the thread was that it was in reference to but she said that Paul Laseau’s book, Freehand Sketching: An Introduction, was one of her favorites.


I listen closely when Liz speaks but in this case her words were overshadowed by the Paul Laseau quote.  Every book on drawing is filled with ‘explanations’ on how to do proper perspective, complete with mind-boggling graphics with lines going in all directions, vanishing points, etc.  I’ve often joked that I’m afraid to read a book on perspective for fear that I’ll get too confused to do my building sketches.

I’ve long felt the sentiment that Paul Laseau’s comment is true and, for myself, I never do all that perspective “stuff” beyond noticing where my “horizon line” (eye line) is when I do a sketch.  So, I just had to buy Freehand Sketching to see why Paul Laseau’s view was so different from the art world’s descriptions of structure drawing.

I did buy it and, if you’re a location sketcher, I highly recommend you put aside your traditional drawing books and read this one – a couple times.  You’ll be the better for it.  In a mere 112 pages, Laseau will first convince you that drawing ‘existing environments’ is different from making stuff up in a studio environment and he teaches, in simple terms, how to see and organize a scene than most modern approaches to drawing ever will.

Why?  What could he say that others do not?  Well, not much, really.  Mostly he leaves out a lot of stuff that you don’t need to worry about if you’ve got the thing you’re trying to draw right in front of you.

His introductory chapters include some traditional stuff about doing contour drawings, learning how to hatch, etc. and, for me, that part is mostly ho-hum.  But the heart of this book is contained in the middle sections titled Environment: Sketch Construction and Environment: Sketch Tone and Detail.   Here, Laseau shows you how to identify/organize/and lay out with a few lines, the basic shapes of a scene.  This stuff is gold for a street sketcher and demonstrates that no fancy geometry is required but rather it’s a simple matter of ‘seeing’ angles, locations, and edge dimensions.  Once he convinces you of the method, he provides several stepwise examples.

Once a scene is established, Laseau provides an approach to tone and detail and is also directed towards the location sketcher.  This perspective, to me, is important as most drawing books assume a studio atmosphere and an interest in spending hours developing drawings.  Laseau is an architect, who has spent 30 years teaching architect students to develop their sketching skills, who have different approaches and goals from the typical artist approach to such things and very useful, in my opinion, far more useful.  If you’d like to read more about this approach, Liz Steel has just provided some great insights into the mind of an architect.

On a personal note, Laseau’s book explained something else to me.  I’ve often wondered why the urban sketching world is so dominated by architects.  I’ve mostly dismissed it as simply a function of an architect’s interest in buildings but it’s much more than that.  It’s their training.  They’re taught to sketch.  They’re taught to maintain sketchbooks.  They’re taught to think in terms of sketches that can be ends in themselves…what urban sketchers do.


When I bought Freehand Sketching I also bought Watercolor Sketching: An Introduction, Paul Laseau’s sequel.  This second book is more about watercolors than it is about constructing sketches, though there is some of that contained within its pages.  Very valuable information contained within but more a companion book to Freehand Sketching than a substitute for it.

Liz is right; Freehand Sketching is a good and potent book that any location sketcher can benefit from and well worth its small price.  It’s become one of my favorite books too.