The Urban Sketcher View

I’ve only been an urban sketcher.  Yes, I’ve drawn stuffed animals and a few flowers but mostly I go out somewhere, sit down and draw what’s in front of me, on location.  I like this because I don’t have to make stuff up.  I can see the objects ‘in the flesh’ and from all angles.  Drawing from photos is boring and, somehow incomplete.

But there’s a downside to urban sketching.  You’re always faced with cluttered, complex landscapes.  Drawn verbatim, you end up with confused, messy sketches.  Everyone says “simplify,” but in my opinion, this is the hardest thing to do in art.  What to leave out, what to leave in.  Where should the border of the sketch be>  How do you treat those edges?  Do you zoom in or out to capture a subject?  Too many decisions… too many choices.

I went with Yvan to draw boats.  Specifically we wanted to draw some of the tugboats that are moored in the Quebec City harbor.  I found a place out of the wind and set up to draw a tugboat on the other side of the harbor.  I had this view.

I’m not a master of composition but even I know this is a cluttered view and that having a big rope cutting across a drawing with no reason isn’t a good idea.  So, “simplify” is what I’m told so that’s what I do.

Even so, it was going to be hard to make that tugboat the star of my sketch if I drew it from that far away.  So, the solution was to zoom in, forcing the tugboat onto center stage.  I also decided to greatly simplify the background.  And I started to draw my tugboat.

I was happy with this result but zooming in did present a new problem.  If the boat is drawn that large, don’tcha want to see a lot of detail?  Of course, but because the boat is actually so far away, you can’t see the details.  Some details are faked as a set of textural marks.  Others are left out completely.  It’s a balance I guess.  A balance that makes me realize just how much I still need to learn about sketching.

4 thoughts on “The Urban Sketcher View

  1. Hello Larry,
    I do like your sketch very much.
    All those themes are part of Lesson 1) of Liz Steel’s new online course : Watercolour on Location. I started the course yesterday. Going to do my homeworks now.
    Have fun !

    • True, Diane, and maybe she can help us both. I’ll note that a lot of the difficulty people have had doing thumbnails and value studies come from too much detail being put into them. Spending half an hour on a thumbnail is an indicator 🙂

  2. Totally agree — learning to simplify must be one of the hardest things about location sketching! Even after doing it for nearly 8 years, I am still always challenged by it every time I start a sketch. You resolved the issues well with your tugboat, though.

    • It still amazes me that simplification is so hard. Afterall, can’t you just stop sooner, leaving things out? Of course not because some of those details caught your eye in the first place. We just see too darn much. We see things because of our binocular vision. We see stuff because our eyes can move in/out of the various focal planes in front of us, gleaning information from the foreground, middleground and the background. We even concentrate our gaze on particular things, having our brain resolve what they are even though we can’t actually see them. And all the while we want to do a simple sketch that reflects the important things in the scene. Where’s the brain that decides what they are (grin)?

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