The Sketching Path We Travel

I’ve been pondering where I want to go with my art and thus, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the path I’ve taken to get where I am.  It’s funny, and maybe a bit odd, that I’ve been trying to get better at sketching and I haven’t done much of this kind of reflection.  Instead, I’ve plodded along as a guy “who draws stuff” and most of that drawing has been as a pen and ink guy who uses color to tint sketches, as so many urban sketchers do.

When I look back, though, I recall the early stages, where I was trying to draw things.  I would choose those things based upon what I was capable of drawing.  This is the stage where new sketchers say things like:

“I can’t draw buildings because I don’t understand perspective.”

“How do you draw a car?”

“Gardens are hard because they are complicated.”

“How do you draw trees?”

Eventually, sketchers learn that what they’ve been told over and over is true.  Everything is just a shape.  This changes things forever once we adopt this view.  It takes some time (for me it was counted in years), but you shift from looking at things and start seeing and drawing shapes.

The draw shapes path causes a change in what you try to draw because now, anything is a good subject, not just things you know how to draw.  A nose is no different from a can of soup to a shape sketcher.  For me, this didn’t come easy (maybe I haven’t even completed this shift) but it’s so liberating.

When it does occur, however, you need a new criterion for choosing a subject.  We all like to believe that we choose subjects based upon some high-art goal but in my experience that’s rarely the case.  In fact, I’d say that most sketchers, once they work with shapes, more often choose a subject based upon how much time they have, can I see it from a shady spot, and with a dose of “what’s my style?” mixed into the analysis.

And this is where we come back to me.  I’ve always been a guy who loves fountain pens and who worries a lot about proportions and relative sizes.  Translate that to mean, I’m not good at “loose” or “simplification.”  Marc Holmes has chided me into trying to draw loose and quickly a number of times.  I’ve tried.  Maybe I’ll get there some day but my sense is that I  simply like the process of capturing proper proportions, angles, etc.  All of this in spite of the fact that I’d love to be able to draw in the loose, “painterly” (his word) style he uses.

And so when I choose my subject, largely according to how much time I have, I have to choose a smaller, more simple subject than Marc would for the same amount of time.  I’m just not good enough to do it any other way.  Not a bad thing and to quote Clint Eastwood, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.”

Here’s an example where I didn’t choose well.  Heck, I didn’t choose at all.  We were out on a walk, wanted to sit in the shade and I found myself looking at the butt end of a large statue of Simon Bolivar on his horse.  At most I’d have five minutes to draw it as we rested.  In reality, given my sloth-like approach to sketching, it would have taken an hour to do a decent sketch.  BTW, this will be the last of my 5-min sketches that you’ll see.  This one was a good example of what I am talking about here but I won’t abuse your sense with any more of them (grin).

How do you make your subject choices?  Are you lucky enough to have moved beyond all this and so can draw anything in no time?

It’s All About The Miles – Line Miles That Is

Everyone instinctively knows that if you’re going to get good at anything you need to practice.  It seems harder for people to believe that artists aren’t born, they’re made, through lots of practice.  And in spite of knowing that “practice makes perfect”, we chafe against the notion that if we’re ever going to get better, we have to draw, and draw, and draw.

This is no more evident than in the endless attacks on Malcolm Gladwell’s so-called “10,000 hour rule.”  The number came from a single study he cites and how many practice hours accomplished violinists had done.  Since he wrote about this, he’s been taken to task for not making the point that it wasn’t simply “practice” and that the type of practice also plays a role.  Others have gone further and built a straw man, saying “Just because you practice 10,000 doesn’t mean you’re going to be an expert.”  They knock this straw man down in various ways (we can’t all be Picasso, so there) and feel they’ve made some sort of point.

Lots of overly-smug articles have been written to “put down” Gladwell’s commentary, but Gladwell wasn’t selling a number and he wasn’t claiming that everyone could become an expert at whatever they wanted.  He was saying was two things.  The first is that experts are made, not born.  The notion that people are born with special talents for music, art, or astrophysics just doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.  Even the Mozart, the stereotypic wunderkind  didn’t write much worth listening to until he’d been writing for a decade.  We all know that it takes practice to improve so we sort of know this but just won’t let go of the notion that some people don’t come out of the womb with watercolor dripping onto their onesy in just the right places.  That this idea is silly was the point he was making.

The second thing Gladwell was talking about in this section of his Outliers book was that we, as a society, want to judge too soon.  If it takes a long time for someone to become expert in anything, shouldn’t we be more patient in evaluating the skills being perfected?  I was told around the age of 10-12 that I had no talent for art.  I believed them.  They were the teacher afterall.  On the streets people say to me all the time, “I wish I had your talent,” and when I can engage them in conversation I often hear that they’d tried to draw but “just didn’t have the talent for it.”   These people are evaluating way too soon.  As my buddy Yvan is fond of saying “the first 2000 sketches are the hardest.”

These opening remarks are becoming quite long so I’ll wind them up with this.  I’ve been drawing for five years.  I talk with other artists who are surprised that I’ve improved so much in such a short time.  I think my progress is painfully slow and sometimes frustrating.

But once in a while I see why our views are different when they proudly tell me that they draw at least once or twice a week.  I don’t draw every day but I’m sure I must draw at least 350 days a year.  Twice a week would be about 100 days a year.   Maybe years isn’t the right number from which to judge an artist’s experience.

The encouraging thing that comes from this is that anyone can speed up how quickly they improve simply by drawing more.  I think the way to do this is to stop thinking that everything you draw need be of something significant.  Baseball players spend time in the weight room not to hit home runs, but SO they can hit home runs.  Improving your art by drawing a crumpled piece of paper is the same thing as the weight room, only funner.

This year, I’ve posted 354 sketches in blog posts.  Nothing I do rivals DaVinci, but these are mostly what I consider “good” by my standards.  Below, well below, these in quality are several times that many small, generally quick sketches done in the name of training my visual cortex to interpret what I see and translate it to movements of my pen.  Here are some of those sketches that I’ve done the week leading up to Christmas.

Shopping Center:  This time of year malls should be avoided at all costs.  But it’s hard and when I found myself there and took out my small sketchbook, a Stillman & Birn Alpha softcover, and quickly drew the mass of people in front of me.  Great practice in capturing moving masses, staying loose and flexible in how you interpret what’s going on.

Coffee shop:  I went in to grab a coffee when I was early for a meeting and I drew this guy, or at least his head, as I sipped my Americano.

Instagram, Facebook, & Blogs:  I constantly find myself drawing stuff I see on social media.  Liz Steel was talking about doing thumbnails, I think, and there was a photo of this scene in her post.  I wondered what I could do if I drew it small (5×7) and very quickly.  It was an interesting experiment and once again let me know I wasn’t Liz Steel (grin).

Train Station:  We all have ‘stuff to do’ that puts us in places where we have to wait.  Chantal and I went to the train station to pick up our daughter who was coming home for the holidays.  We arrived five minutes before her train.  Sketchbook out again.

Health Services:  Waiting rooms used to be boring.  No more.  Jodie wanted to see her doctor while she was home so I sat in the waiting room and sketched.  Lots of people sketching, but I even sketched a coat that had been dumped on one of the seats.  Great practice and goodness knows, I need it.

TV scribbles:  Now we’re going to dip down to the bottom of the barrel.  When I watch movies or TV I draw.  I might set something on a table, draw something in the room, or maybe draw something I saw during a commercial.  It doesn’t matter as I’m just exploring, trying to learn how to put marks together.  I do this in cheap sketchbooks with no rhyme or reason for what’s on a page.  I’m a bit embarrassed to show these to you but here goes.

As you can see, there’s a reason I don’t put this stuff on my blog, but the process is both fun and very important to my learning process.  I’m putting in line miles.  Whether I need 10,000 hours or 100,000 to get “good” I do not know, or care.  What I do know is that I’m several miles closer to that goal.

If you’re hunting for a New Years resolution, you could pick a worse one than to decide to draw a little bit every day and to stop worrying about the results.  By the way, here’s a photo of the inside pocket of my winter coat.  It literally takes me a few seconds to be drawing.  Contents: Stillman & Birn softcover sketchbook, Platinum 3776, Pentel gray brush pen, mechanical pencil, Duke 209.  Pens do vary from time to time.

I hope someone is motivated to draw more by this post.  I hope I’ve provided a few laughs with these scribble sketches.  AND I hope you all have a happy and prosperous 2017.














Urban Sketcher Going Into Hibernation

I’ve talked about how hard it is for me to transition from street sketcher to indoor sketcher every winter and that saga continues.  I’m starting to think, though, that my situation this year is a bit different.  I say this because the depth of my ‘doldrums,’ as I’ve called them are far deeper than normal and I believe the reason is that I’m also at a point where I want to shift gears a bit, take it up a notch, move outside my comfort zone, or whatever euphemism fits.

As the summer has worn on I’ve also started thinking about watercolors beyond using them like crayons and I want to learn how how those brush things work.  I’ve been so concentrated on learning to draw that I’ve completely ignored color, viewing it as an after-the-fact thing.  I also want to extend/expand my visual brain, improving my visual memory, textures vocabulary, ability to see half-tones, etc.  This stuff is hard and requires at a shift in my activity.  Couple this with the outdoor->indoor shift that’s taking place at this time of year and my poor, very old brain, is just a bit confused, maybe even intimidated. Getting it to act seems hard right now.

I talked a bit with my buddy Yvan and he suggested that I get up in the morning and do “something simple.”  He’s also been telling me forever that I should draw from imagination, not by drawing dragons but by drawing things I’ve seen, or at least representative of things I’ve seen.  He suggests this will change the way I see the things I draw even when I’m on location.  Since he’s rarely been wrong when it comes to things “art,” I think he’s right about this as well.

Note the wrinkles as the photocopy paper rebelled against the quick swipes of watercolor

Note the wrinkles as the photocopy paper rebelled against the quick swipes of watercolor

And so, this morning, I got up, grabbed a piece of photocopy paper (does this mean I haven’t completely bought into the idea?) and I did a quick drawing of a lamppost coming out of a pile of sunflowers that I saw on Ile d’Orleans this summer.  I’m sure it’s not completely accurate but I think it’s close to the real thing.  Most of all, I felt a process I’ve never felt before, a questioning of how big/small things were, how one thing related to another and I think this is the stuff Yvan was talking about.


I sipped some coffee and thought some about what I’d just done, which in turned caused me to grab another sheet of photocopy paper and I started doing really quick sketches of the lamp using a bunch of different pens.  No attempt was made to be accurate as mostly I was thinking about how each pen felt and what kind of line did it make.  I include it here just to document this journey, not that it is anything worthy of looking at.

Winter may not be such a bad thing for me at this point.  I’m going to try to set up a “studio,” which for me amounts to having some sort of uncluttered surface and I’m going to experiment, draw from memory, and maybe even train my visual memory.  I’m starting to get excited by the prospects.

Oh…while I’m writing, here’s a quick sketch I did from Marc Taro Holmes new book on being a concept artist.  Marc’s version is much better (grin).  I hope to talk about this book soon.


The Trials Of Creating An Urban Sketch

Many artists never do their art on location.  They’re happy sitting in a studio, laying out drawings, tracing the layout onto their watercolor paper, and then painting from a photo, or some such approach.  For me, sketching is all about the chase.  I have to go somewhere.  It might be just down the street or even into my backyard but I’ve got to actually ‘discover’ my subject.

There are compromises in this approach.  Anyone who does it knows them.  Time, weather, interruptions and sitting on a tripod stool balancing your sketchbook are among them.   Some times are better than others, however, and I’d like to share a couple “oops” sketches with you.

The first is a train engine.  I’ve wanted to sketch this small switch engine for a long time.  It’s tied to our large grainery and is responsible for moving the grain cars around.  I saw an opportunity to draw it and sat down to draw.  It was going pretty well until…well…it drove away.  I could follow its tracks (pun intended) and did, which allowed me to complete, sort of, the engine but the mood was broken.  I became disinterested in completing the sketch by including some entourage behind and in front of it.  So here it is, as is.

Stillman & Birn Alpha, Platinum 3776, Platinum Carbon Black

Stillman & Birn Alpha, Platinum 3776, Platinum Carbon Black

Last week we were supposed to meet on the Plains of Abraham for a group session.  Only three of us showed up because it was raining.  We ended up huddled under the overhang of a building with only a single subject, the realty business across the street. So we drew it.  It was cold and I had a hard time keeping my mind on drawing and I worked fast – too fast.  Sometimes urban sketching isn’t what it’s cracked up to be 🙂

Stillman & Birn Alpha, Platinum 3776

Stillman & Birn Alpha, Platinum 3776

With urban sketching you sometimes win and sometimes lose when it comes to the end product.  When it comes to the fun, however, it’s always more fun than sitting in a studio.

Editor’s note:  I’m getting behind in my posting.  I apologize for that and hope to get a bunch of sketches posted in the upcoming week. 

A Sketcher’s Resolutions

Happy New Year, Everyone

Every year, on January 1st, we’re supposed to make resolutions so that we can break them before the end of the month.  I’ve generally taken issue with this nonsense and last year announced that I wouldn’t be making resolutions.  I’m taking a different approach this year.  Here are my resolutions for 2016.

  • I will sketch almost every day, just like I have for the past four years.
  • I will do as much sketching on location as I possibly can, just like I have for the past four years (at least 90% of my sketching is on location).
  • I will sketch with friends as often as I can coerce them to sketch with me, just as I have for the past four years.
  • I will stubbornly cling to my fountain pens as my principal sketching tools, just as I have for the past four years.
  • I will work hard towards the goal of staying alive for the entire year, just as I have for the last four years.
  • I will look forward to saying that I’ve been sketching for five years, just as I have for the last four years.

Ok…that should be enough.  I am now properly resolved for 2016.  How about you?