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)
This challenge gave me plenty of opportunity to try different materials for the same subject. Here, I swapped my usual Micron 02 for the Platinum Carbon fountain pen. I like the line quality, but had to take care not to smudge the ink while it was drying.
Here’s where the numbers started to drive me and I lost sight of being thoughtful about what I wanted to do with this challenge. Bad move. With an hour to close and few people at the museum, I became reckless.
While I like the sketches of the security guards in this set, there little else I’m pleased with on these pages. I needed to remind myself to take charge again and focus on what I wanted to practice and learn. Good move.
I switched gears in a major way—working from a photo, I wanted to see if I could manage a more detailed portrait in watercolor. The subtleties of skin tones were well worth doing. (I think this should count as more than one.)
For my remaining sketches, I wanted to achieve a more accurate likeness of my subjects (which I did not achieve on 86-88, but did better on 89). These four were done with an inexpensive Pilot Varsity fountain pen with water soluble ink that bleeds beautifully for dramatic effects. I loved this pen for quick sketches with the simplest of washes.
An hour to closing time and 10 people to go, I was back to stalking subjects at the library. Working directly in pen, I managed to capture a decent likeness and suggest form with just two rounds of watercolor wash on most of these. I’ve come a long way from sketch #1.
I went on a “sketch crawl” at the Connecticut College Arboretum last weekend expecting to draw trees. Instead, the “crawl” felt more like a race, as we were given 15 minutes to draw in a particular location before moving to the next site. Between hiking, settling in and packing up, there was precious little time for more than a very loose sketch and a hasty wash of color at each location. It was a good exercise, but I quickly abandoned the idea of doing a detailed tree study in favor of focusing on simpler plants.
click to view larger
Back at home,the warm-toned fall fruits and foliage just seemed too stark on white paper. I finished the page by adding the background wash of yellow ochre, which set off the baneberry’s white fruit nicely and helped to pull together the separate elements.
It can be hard to find the time for art when life gets busy. A whole painting or even an entire journal page can seem impossible to undertake. So I made a grid on these pages in the hope that I would be able to fill smaller spaces over the course of several days. As it turned out, I drew the entire two-page spread during an hour-long hike, pausing every so often to do a quick sketch when something caught my eye. Done directly in pen, each sketch took no more than a few minutes. I added color and text back at home.
Click to view larger
Some artistic tips:
- Making a grid is a worthwhile exercise, though it did leave me feeling a little boxed in. Make the rules, but feel free to break them, as I did, by going beyond the boxes as you see fit.
- Use the grid to your advantage. I found it especially useful in forcing me to put pen to paper without fussing, but I have seen other artists fill grid squares carefully, to excellent effect.
- Consider having a unified theme that ties the elements together. Your theme may be a particular place, experience, or even experiments with a single sketching medium.
- The risk of a grid is that if one of the elements doesn’t turn out to your liking, the entire page may suffer. That’s fine if you are experimenting and not a perfectionist in your art journal. I like some of the sketches on this page more than others, and I can live with that because my aim was to simply record quick impressions of a particular moment in time.
Page done in Stillman and Birn Zeta journal, with Micron black pen and watercolor at Indian Ladder Farms, New Scotland, NY
What if you had to draw something every hour all day, but each drawing could take only one to five minutes? That’s the challenge I issued to participants at a recent workshop on Arts and Birding in Maine…and this page is my own result. Starting at 5:40am with the clothes hanging in my closet, I found that sometimes I knew what I wanted to draw (the osprey nest), but more often, I just stopped at some point during each hour and drew whatever was in front of me (flowers on the breakfast table at 7:40am, my half-eaten turkey wrap at 12:59pm).
My aim with the challenge was to encourage participants to work fast to get something down on the page, without worrying so much about how it turned out. I also wanted people to see that it is possible to make time for sketching, even if it’s just a few minutes each day. By getting into a habit of regularly putting pen to paper, drawing skills improve!
Since it’s impossible to convey “a day in the life” on this island in just minutes of sketching, I thought I’d also give you an expanded view. Join us in 2015!
Arts and Birding 2014, Audubon Camp on Hog Island, Maine