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I discovered urban sketching in 2012 in Mauritius. Looking at those first drawings you could be forgiven for thinking there had been a bomb scare just before every sketch I made, as most of them are deserted. I regret this heartily now – all those Mauritians, well-known for their ethnic diversity, in saris, galabeyas, hijabs, shirts and swimwear that I missed. I visited again and sketched as many people as I could, but that first time I just didn’t know where to start. Sketching people moving isn’t always easy. Long after you’ve got your technique down for things that don’t move, you’ll find drawing people in motion is a whole new challenge. But as an urban sketcher, there are always opportunities to get in a bit of practice. I bring my son to the barbers about six or seven times a year, and I now use each trip as an opportunity to sketch. In this article I’ve put together a sort of “barbershop quartet” – in seven parts! – to show you my progression from wobbly scribbles to a confident gestural line in ink of people moving fast, as they go about their business.
You may already know a few tricks which make this easier, and nothing beats practice. If you are presented with an opportunity on a regular basis to draw someone in action, so much the better. Maybe you’re in a band, or work in a restaurant, or visit the same one regularly. You’ll get loads of opportunities for sketching people moving if you do. But, drawing barbers at work is a challenging middle ground between drawing a person making a repeated gesture, and drawing someone who’s going to disappear at any moment. Barbers move around the client’s head continually, so you’ll never get them for more than a few seconds, but they will return, and you’ll get another chance to get that line down.
Here’s one of the lovely chairs they use in the barbers – but without people in it, a sketch loses its heartbeat, so to speak.
Each time I went to the barbers, I had a wait of between half an hour and an hour. I knew it was a great place to sketch, but those barbers with their flashing scissors were tricky. Here’s the first sketch I made.
I tried to paint all the colours I could see in front of me. I tried to draw everything. I made all kinds of errors in my attempts to capture those people in motion. It was hard.
I tried again the next time (all the while enjoying every minute that I sketched at the barbers, the waiting time flying past):
More mistakes – of observation, and also at that point I hadn’t learned that mixing a brush pen (thick line) with a fine-nibbed fountain pen (very thin line) doesn’t always work. But I did include in bits of chopped-off hair, which I like.
A new barber joined, and I liked his neat figure and Paul Weller haircut (that’s him on the far left). That didn’t make drawing him any easier. I tried to concentrate and put everyone possible in. You can see how there are far fewer re-drawn lines in the seated figures…but I was determined to lick this people-in-motion thing, and I kept trying.
The new barber is there on the right again. The lady barber who used to cut my son’s hair was always so pleased when I showed her my sketches. She is a very tiny lady from Brazil. I was still falling short of the mark.
I tried to be more free-styling, drawing my son like a little pasha, with two sets of flying scissors hovering over his head. I love this sketch because it captures a boyishness of my son that is rapidly disappearing. But while drawing in pencil is beautiful and sensitive, it suits my nature to throw down an unambiguous line in ink.
A new year, and a new barbershop. Same small town, but down the road, our move inspired by an exceptionally sharp haircut sported by my daughter’s boyfriend. Now I’m finding something has changed in my sketching. I have moved to a new level of confidence when making a line. My line was always somewhat confident, but now I can draw without hesitation. That doesn’t mean it’s right – but I’m not bothered about getting it wrong, which frees me so much that it generally results in a line that’s more right than wrong. Right-ish, which is fine by me. I’ve stopped using the fine-nibbed fountain pen and use a slightly thicker one, which I suspect helps.
Here are a few other things that might help you sketch people moving.
1. Be fast. Start to draw as soon as the person takes a seat. Watch them, judge whether they look like they’re going to settle down for a few minutes. This is a lot of fun.
2. Don’t worry about mistakes. Take your pen for a walk and see what happens. If and when you get the line right, this is the line that the viewer (or you) will notice.
3. If you’ve spent ages getting the arm right and he moves, then be patient, bide your time and wait for him to take the same position again. Or give him three arms.
4. If the person is moving quickly, draw what you can, then fill in the bits from the next passer-by, or the next person to take the chair, or whatever.
5. If the person is carrying out a regular action (such as playing an instrument) then be patient and wait till the action repeats itself.
6. Look up, look down and sketch, repeat – so fast that you can still see the line on your retina. Really, it works, but you have to be very fast. Eventually your brain starts to understand the human figure in its own unique way, even if what you draw isn’t really “correct”. (For example, I always do dots for eyes – I don’t know why, it’s just what I do.) But don’t give in to the temptation to draw them if more than a few seconds have passed – the image has gone.
7. Look away if you’re worried about being spotted sketching. Or wear sunglasses, or headphones. Or do what I do – smile, hold up what you’re doing and say “I hope you don’t mind, but I needed a figure in the scene.” That way they don’t feel scrutinised and are usually very pleased. Most people laugh and say “You didn’t get my good side” or “Just take a few pounds off me!” This doesn’t always work. I’ve been told that the subject can get annoyed to see that they are being sketched. I personally dislike the awkwardness that can result from that eye contact. Here are three solutions: remain at a safe distance, choose subjects who are engrossed in their phone or sketch the scene around them first – this gives them time to become used to the fact that a sketch is happening, and they may stop watching what you’re doing after a while.
8. Do try and accept that people move away. That’s part of the fun of sketching people moving – and it has the added benefit of taking the focus off “is my drawing right” to “will I have long enough to get the whole figure down”. This will do wonders for your sketch!
9. Seek situations where you get to draw people from life. A library, an airport, a train, the barbers – anywhere people gather. As I mentioned, they’re often engrossed in their phones, which gets a bit monotonous after a while for sketching, but it’s still good for practice. Seek out other places for sketching people moving, and make the most of them.
10. Use a water brush. That keeps everything flowing – literally – and the all-important concentration won’t be broken.
11. Stick to a limited palette. This means you don’t have to worry about cleaning your brush or choosing colours. Small issues like that can mean the difference in catching the moment your subject takes the pose you needed.
12. Lastly, remember it’s about having fun and enjoying your hobby, not about drawing perfectly.
I hope you have enjoyed this Barbershop Quartet – in seven parts – and if you get one useful idea for sketching people moving then I’ll be very happy…I welcome any comments you might have, and if you have any more ideas I’d love to hear them!