I love sketching. It is basic art. Grassroots creativity.
Every person does it, whether as an artist or not; doodles, scribbles, diagrams, maps, sketches of mum, the house or the neighbour's cat. We use pencil on paper, pen in notebooks, brush on canvas, sticks in sand, fingers on wood, chalk on a blackboard, scratches on the back of an envelope, a stylus pen on an Ipad, paintings in caves. We see the world in images and we connect with each other by drawing. Like music, it's one of our international languages.
All artists do it. Some don't admit to "just sketching," but if nothing else, they draw with the paint they are using to plot their canvas. Leonardo Da Vinci sketched people in pubs. He used them as models in many of his paintings, including the Last Supper. Michelangelo sketched people on street corners and he used those sketches as models for the Sistine Chapel. Can you imagine the fellow he used as his model of God?
We have all sketched something. It's a part of our nature to communicate our ideas, our dreams through the creation of images. It's a way to create understanding. It is something that everyone knows and in its simple form, it's a way of passing time in a fun, instinctive and creative way.
In small ways, I have been sketching all my life. Like most, I started at school with scribbles. But thinking back through my life, I have sketched to get a point across or to design a pictorial, to draw a map or to simply pass a moment or two by sketching a building or a relative.
Since moving to Victoria and being inspired by the worldwide Urban Sketchers movement, I felt as if I had found my tribe. Hence, my wife and sketching buddy and I decided to start a sketching group. Island Sketching started with the two of us. We have now expanded to more than 250 members and it's going strong. Thank goodness they don't all show up at once. We average about 20 enthusiastic members at a meet-up in the summer and about 10 -15 in the winter. We now both feel compelled to sketch, at least, once every two weeks on our meet-up days.
Picture a group of dedicated sketchers sitting around a subject on small camping stools. Quiet and in a meditative state, they are drawing, scratching, marking and staining small pads or books of paper with graphite, pen, watercolour; and what emerges is art. Wow. What an amazing thing to do.
People who pass by glance and wonder what's going on. Some don't understand and would rather be golfing or watching football. Some show respect and walk on while others wave. Others, oblivious to our purpose, walk in front and totally block what we are trying to sketch. Some take pictures. Some take selfies. Some stop because their kids feel the basic human instinct to want to sketch. Some are curious. Some are jealous or envious. Others gasp in astonishment at something of beauty emerging from a blank sheet of paper. However, there are a select few who show total interest and want to politely chat. They ask how to join the group, how often we meet, what tools they will need to start sketching. I usually tell them a pencil, a piece of paper and their brain.
"Is that all?" they ask.
"Yes", I say. "The rest comes from observation, learning and practice, practice, practice. The more you do the better you get. After that, and as you get better, you will need to refine your tool set and grow your creativity."
There are no rules. Like most sketchers, over time I have developed a set of tools that I carry with me. Artists are very different individuals and we all have our own unique style, but many of us use the same or similar tools.
So, other than your brain, what are the basic tools of today's urban sketcher?
Well, as this blog is from me, I will tell you my own personal approach.
I use an F pencil. This is the middle of the graphite range. It gives me a medium look without being to light or too heavy. I don't want my lines to be overpowering because I pen over the pencil lines later. I need the pencil to make fine lines and marks that will draw my intent and vision, as most of my sketching time is spent plotting out my composition and perspective with a pencil.
I like a sharp pencil so I carry a tiny Staedtler sharpener. I also have a mini Swiss army knife that is very sharp and is great for graphite pencils. I always collect the shavings in a paper towel or napkin for disposal later, or throw them in a flower garden as they are bio-degradable.
This is a very important tool for me. It helps me see. It helps me find and unify my composition and perspective. And, of course, it helps me correct my mistakes seamlessly. I use a Staedtler PVC free eraser. Good for wide swaths and to eventually get rid of the pencil marks that I cover with pen. I also have a pull-on eraser that fits on the back of pencil. Great for those quick corrections.
Fine tip pen.
An extra fine tip Micron 005 Archival Ink pen is my pen of choice. 500 signifies the sharpness of the tip. Sometimes I use a Lamy fine-tip fountain pen for just pen and ink sketches or sketches where I intentionally smudge the line of the ink with a water pen or brush.
I prefer the Pentalic 5 x 8, 140 lb, watercolour sketchbook or a Moleskin 5 x 8 watercolour sketchbook. These books are a wonderful archive of your drawings and as a matter of personal observation, I truly think that some of the best art is hidden in small sketchbooks on peoples shelves and in boxes around the world. I also use larger watercolour books, pads and blocks including: Arches and Fluid brands. For quick pen & ink sketches I use a Robert Bateman 5 x 8, 90 lb sketchbook.
I purchased a couple of small, tin paintboxes into which I squeeze fresh watercolour paint out of the tube. I use Winsor Newton watercolour paints. I also experiment with M. Graham and Daniel Smith watercolours. I usually work with basic colours because I can mix almost any other colour with them. But, I do like a good selection.
I use a small Nalgene screw top jar in which I carry a small amount of water. I also carry a drinking bottle of water. Good for replacing my watercolour water, should it get too murky.
I have a couple of good travel brushes and a small set of synthetic brushes. On occasion I use a water brush. This is a nylon brush that has a mini water reservoir within it. You squeeze it and you have as much water as you need.
Some people think, and adamantly so, that sketching is just sketching with a pencil or pen. They will almost fight you for this basic idea of sketching. However, many of us, including some of the great masters who sketched, i.e. John Singer Sargent, J. M. W. Turner, Winslow Homer, etc. also used watercolour. Watercolour is easy to transport, it has rich colours, it's adaptable to different styles and it dries fast. And for the dedicated amateur, like myself, it looks good. It adds a fresh completed look and its amazing what great effects you can create on your drawing with a varied approach to watercolour.
I have a canvas school bag which is good for an over-the-shoulder, relaxed outing. It carries everything for the small quick sketch. I also have a typical back sack for larger trips. As well as having three, good compartments, it has two side pockets for containers. These I use for an umbrella and a small camping type stool.
A floppy hat to keep the sun off my face.
Sun glasses, because drawing with the sun on a white piece of paper shining back in your eyes, leads to eye strain. Sun glasses help cut the glare.
Rain poncho. This is good for those wet days when I feel that I must complete that sketch on location.
Umbrella, for those pesky little showers. But the way, I love the rain. To learn to sketch and paint different weather patterns is a wonderful way to educate myself.
A camera, to take pictures for reference of the colours and location. This, so I can complete the painting process later at home.
Sunscreen. It's amazing how time flies when you're sketching in the same place for two hours. You get burnt and you don't notice it until later when it's uncomfortable.
Small camping stool. It's always good to have somewhere to sit or somewhere to put your tools.
Extra layer - sweater or jacket. Your body can cool down when you sit still for a couple of hours. Extra layers can go a long way for comfort.
Bottle of water - keep hydrated. Also used to replenish your watercolour water.
Energy bar or snack to help keep you alert.
A pack of tissues or a roll of kitchen paper towels. I use these when working with watercolour.
So, where do I start?
I am often asked how I choose subjects. What do I sketch? Well, anything is sketchable. As a creator, your job is to create something out of nothing. It is for the individual artist to turn, what some see as, a mediocre subject into an inspired piece of art. Some like sketching buildings while others like to draw trees and flowers. One of our artists in the sketch group has spent the last couple of years sketching faces. Subjects are everywhere; the cows in the pasture, the ornament on your desk, the fire-engine around the corner, the fancy hotel downtown, the kids on the swings, the washing hanging on the line, the knots in a tree trunk. I like unusual structures; airplanes, antique cars, curved buildings, grave yards. However, find something that has a unique flavour where you can attempt to capture an interesting angle with your sketching tools. If it doesn't inspire you, use the occasion as a practice to turn nothing into something.
After I grab my tiny, traveling, camp stool, I sit where I can see my composition perfectly. Sometimes it's better if I stand but I like to sit.
Usually, I find a composition with my eyes first. This comes with experience. I have been a photographer and cinematographer all my working life and I can place a camera in a good spot at a moment's notice. This skill I carry through to my art work and sketching. After I have found my subject, I usually find a composition quickly. For others it may take some time to find a subject that inspires them to start a sketch. There are many books that you can find on the subject of composition, as well, you can study the great masters; how they formed their compositions, what makes a balanced picture etc.
In pencil, I draw a border line around the paper onto which I will sketch the composition. This leaves me with a frame and some "spill room" in case I need to extend my composition or painting outwards. I then plot out the composition and pencil sketch it lightly. Here I can make mistakes that I correct later with an eraser. I sketch the perspective and the background and later add foreground people or objects. The pencil sketching process takes me the most time as this is my blueprint for the whole art work.
The sketcher sees, draws and captures things that most people never see or even comprehend in front of them. People go about their daily process and pass buildings, people and areas, yet they rarely take the time to see the life around them. Whereas sketchers study the things they draw, they ponder the shape, size, colour, contrast, dimensions, connections of every little corner, crevasse, join and detail they want to include in their drawing. Some sketch more detail than others, while some scribble a likeness of something to be shaped with colour later, and somehow it ends up a masterpiece. Go figure.
Only the sketcher knows what he or she sees, because we all see things differently. I am truly amazed at the varied quality and styles within our sketch group. Everybody is truly unique when it comes to art. It's very refreshing to see.
I am very much a realist with my drawings. Although I do like to use artistic license and not include items that get in my way. I use a light pencil sketch as a basic outline drawing of form and light, and when I am happy with it, I pull out my fine lined ink pen and go over the pencil lines. Here, I also add some shading and nuances that I have missed before. I then take my eraser and rub out all the pencil lines leaving a pen and ink drawing, which will be improved upon later.
So this is the sketch. Here, I decide if I am going to keep it as a pen and ink drawing, or move on to create a watercolour painting. If it's to remain a drawing, I will add more intense light and shadow and refine the elements that will bring it to life. If it is going to be a watercolour painting, then I will plot the colours, the light and shade, and all the elements needed to accentuate the painting.
With watercolour, I usually start with a wash; sometimes with the sky where I might add threatening storm clouds, sunshine or sunbeams. I next add colour, shade and texture to the sketch. I am forever trying to emulate English artist John Constable's, puffy clouds. He was a master at clouds. He studied them endlessly.
Am I ever satisfied with my sketches? Sometimes I can find a rare piece of which I'm proud, but mostly there are sections in each drawing that I like, but not the whole piece. From my point-of-view, I am learning to control the medium and that takes time. It's a hobby and I enjoy the learning process.
Do I ever use other mediums? I have used coloured pencils in the past but I really enjoy using and learning watercolour techniques for now. Sometimes I will not use a pen. I will use the pencil sketch as a form to create a watercolour painting.
For me, sketching is better than golf or any other hobby I can think of. Although I do like to ride my street bike and listen to great music. This I can do while I sketch. I can bike to a good sketching location, get out the tools and the ipod and find a good composition to sketch. I often listen to some classical music while creating something special, or I put it away and listen to the sounds from the location.
My goal with sketching is to enjoy the moment and get better. Yes, it's the journey not the destination that matters. It's about doing it, it's not about the finished sketch or painting. I have sketched some interesting places and my sketchbooks are filled with great memories. But the best memories are of actually sketching.
On a recent visit to England my wife and I sat down among the reeds on the banks of the River Avon in Stratford-upon-Avon. There we sketched a spring scene in the shade of some willow trees with the river flowing beside us. We were immersed in a landscape of perfection. Swans were taking their babies for a swim, while a tiny, man-powered, ferry boat was plying back and forth across the river. And the focal point of the sketch was the church, just down river, where William Shakespeare was buried. Yes, I value the sketches, but the memory of that moment is so very precious.
When I sketch, all my senses are alive. I hear the seagulls or the crickets or the waves lapping on the shore. I smell the salt air, coffee brewing or I get a sniff of the hotdog vendor barbecuing a smokey. I hear the kids playing or the skateboarder wiz by. I feel the cool wind on my face and sense the approaching rain. And I see things that others pass-by and miss. I am a slow sketcher. I don't do it for speed and I don't do it for anybody's approval. I do it for me. It's very much like a meditation. Being in the zone.
Sketching is a revery, a muse of contemplation, concentration and application. It's an art and as a creator you can turn it into anything you want. You can move buildings to enhance a composition, you can remove ugly power lines to show a mountain top, you can add colourful people doing colourful things. You can be as creative as you wish.
Here are a few items to illustrate the sketching tools I use.
StaedtlerÂ® Handheld Metal Pencil Sharpener 510-10
Staedtler STD525B30 Lead Pencil Eraser, Latex-Free, Smudge-Free, Small
Micron 005 Archival Ink
Sakura 50034 6-Piece Pigma Micron-005 Ink Pen Set, 0.20mm, Black
Pentalic 100-Percent Cotton Watercolor Journal 5-Inch by 8-Inch
Watercolour Paint Box
Empty Metal Watercolour Box : will hold 12 Half Pans or 6 Full Pans
Winsor & Newton Artist Watercolor
Jack Richeson Plein Air Travel Brush Set
Pentel Arts Aquash Water Brush Assorted Tips, Pack of 3
Nalgene screw top jar
NALGENE POLYPROPYLENE JAR
Small camping stool
ALPS Mountaineering Tri-Leg Stool
“I am interested in art as a means of living a life; not as a means of making a living.”
“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.”
~Vincent Van Gogh
~Vincent Van Gogh
“The whole culture is telling you to hurry, while the art tells you to take your time. Always listen to the art.”
“Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.”
“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time”.
“The earth has music for those who listen.”
"Photography is an immediate reaction, drawing is a meditation."- Henri Cartier-Bresson