Inspired by fragments of glass and broken ceramics pieced together on a street corner in Philadelphia, I painted this page, along with the words written next to the original mosaic. All those colors, all those tiny broken fragments taken together create something bold and beautiful and compelling— what a great metaphor for life.
When the world has been brown for months, the first emergence of green is a wonderful thing. Skunk cabbage has been unfurling for several weeks now and is a most welcome sight along woodland streams and wetlands. In late winter, it sends up a maroon-striped spadix, which encloses its unpleasant smelling flower, and then in early spring it unrolls bright green leaves. I recently spent a pleasant afternoon sketching on the edge of a wooded steam, enjoying dappled sun and birdsong, and feeling grateful for this one beautiful color.
Tips & Techniques– Deciding what to sketch is sometimes harder than actually sketching. Likewise, figuring out what you want your page to look once you’ve chosen a subject may seem daunting. Here are a couple of ways to get past the blank white page:
- Option 1: Start with a couple of quick thumbnail sketches. These will help you figure out whether you like your subject enough to devote time to it and whether you think you can tackle it in the time you have. Thumbnails will also help you consider different approaches to page layout. They can help you map out where the lights, mid-tones, and darks are too, which will give you a road map for the full page version.
- Option 2: Just begin! Rather than thinking you have to figure out everything before you start, consider that your sketching journey can begin with a single step. Make a mark. Make another. Keep looking, keep going until you feel satisfied with the page.
- Option 3: Be thoughtful. Consider what drew you to sketch this particular subject. Think about it for a minute- was it the color? The light? The scene or object? The story? Your experience? When you have an answer, you’ll have a better idea of what to emphasize and how you want to approach the page.
Short on time but long on patience, I often need to quickly put pen to paper in my journal, get a first wash of color down, and then come back to finish later. The result is a journal full of sketches that took five minutes to start but five days to finish. I don’t really mind—working fast and loose has its merits. For one, my sketchbook would be empty if I waited until I had a big block of time for art. It has improved my hand-eye coordination. And it has kept in check my prior tendency to be slow, controlled, and precise.
Tips & Techniques– Practice a few 30 second, 1 minute, and 3 minute contour and semi-blind contour drawings with a fairly simple subject. Fruits and vegetables are perfect. Work in pencil or pen, but don’t erase. See if you can get most of your subject down in just a few minutes. Next add a loose and light wash of watercolor. Let it dry. Then repeat; add two or three more layers of paint to deepen the colors and add depth.
One trick to this method is to suspend judgment in the early stages. My sketches often look downright sloppy at the start, but I know that the watercolor will transform them. You can always tighten up as you progress, but it’s hard to make controlled sketches seem loose after the fact.
I introduced this technique with participants at a recent workshop on illustrated watercolor journaling that I offered at the Vermont Watercolor Society. Look how great this 1-minute sketch by one of the participants turned out with a just a couple of washes of watercolor.
I recently hosted a Sketcher’s Tea—an excuse, really, for sketchers to come out of isolation in March and share a cup of tea and an afternoon of painting together. Sketching tea cups seems straightforward enough. And yet, there are lessons to be learned each time I do it. Perspective, shadows, painting whites, lost edges, reflections, patterns…the art of mastering the simple and the complex is what makes sketching tea cups both challenging and fun.
Tips and Techniques– I often start by making a small value sketch so that I know where the lights and shadows fall. It can be hard to tell with all the patterns on the cups or if the lighting is coming from multiple sources. The paper sketch makes it easier to translate the values to the painting. You don’t need to spend a lot of time on this– couple of minutes might be fine.
Obsessive, distracting, challenging, fun. Sketching 100 people in a week has been a crazy ride. Instead of eyeing the artistic properties of carrots and beets in the supermarket, I found myself wishing I could draw the man with the waist-length gray beard or the woman in the colorful scarf. I became a spy in the coffee shop and at the library: casing the joints for subjects, finding seats where I could be unobtrusive, stealing glances, occasionally getting caught.
I’ve learned a lot in a week.
- The more you do, the better you get—with a major caveat. If you keep doing the same thing over and over, you’re just doing the same thing over and over. Taking time to learn (e.g., anatomy, technique, accuracy, etc.) or trying different materials can jump you to the next level. The combination of learning and practice is how you improve.
- Sometimes working from photos is a good thing. By stopping the action and giving yourself time, you can really study your subject. You can mess around, make mistakes, and clean them up. Your sketches might be less lively, but when you go back to working from life, you just might be more prepared.
- There’s no substitute for working from life.
- Studying the work of other artists—whether Masters in a museum or fellow sketchers online—opens up new doors of possibility.
- You are in the driver seat. Sketch what you love, but push the boundaries and take risks every now and then to see what you are capable of.
Click on any sketch to view larger and see notes. (See 1-50 here)
Sometimes it takes a big push to try something new. That’s what I’m getting this week by participating in the worldwide drawing event One Week 100 People 2017*, started by Urban Sketchers Marc Taro Holmes and Liz Steel. I barely see 100 people in a week, let alone draw them, so sketching 100 people is taking me to new places, spurring me to experiment with new materials and techniques, and forcing me to study faces and figures after many, many years of not drawing a soul.
I’m just past halfway to the finish line and here you can see the good, the bad, and the way off the mark. But it’s all good and fun, really, and I’m learning a lot. I’ll share the second half and some lessons learned when I reach 100. (Click on any sketch to view larger and see notes.)