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When I first started urban sketching, it meant a lot to me to get my drawing right. So I would draw everything in pencil first, ink on top, then rub out the pencil when the ink was dry. Accuracy is important, and it still means a lot to me to get my drawing right…but I no longer take a pencil with me when I go out sketching. I simply don’t need one. Urban sketching, and any type of sketching, is about getting into the flow of the experience. It’s certainly not (or should not be) about slavishly worrying a drawing with a pencil and rubber until any fluidity of line is a distant memory. In this article I will show you techniques for getting it right first time and drawing accurately without allowing your drawing to become laboured.
“But I don’t want to draw accurately,” say some. “I want to draw expressively!” I hear this from time to time (only from adults, of course). How do they think people learnt to draw expressively? They became fluent sketchers first. They don’t have to worry about whether their line is right because it always is – leaving them free to do what they want with their line. Look closely though and you’ll see strong perspective, people of the right size and shape with solidity, and so on – in other words, mastery of line, leading to freedom of expression.
Ignore learning to draw accurately and you will always struggle to make your sketch believable. There are some artists who have never worried about drawing accurately, and good luck to them and to you if you are in that category but those people are born with a confidence that is rare.
Drawing accurately won’t come to you overnight, but there are three techniques that confident sketchers use almost without thinking. I will introduce each of these techniques using real-life examples, so that you can become used to the principle and will find the technique easier. Many of you will already draw with ease and confidence, but for those who haven’t quite arrived at that point, there will be something of use to take from these lessons.
1. Making a Mental Grid
2. Drawing in a Spiral
3. Using Negative Space
Making a Mental Grid
The Post-Impressionist painter Vincent Van Gogh struggled with drawing accurately in his early years. Try though he might, his drawings were always slightly “off”. He knew that using a grid overlaid on his subject worked a treat, but how to do it in the open air? He put together a sort of giant iron frame, across which he strung wires in a horizontal and vertical sense, so that he could take it outdoors on a sketching field strip, look through it and see exactly where points in his scene ought to land on the paper. After a while he was able to dispense with the iron grid, as he became used to plotting where to put each point without it.
That’s what I do. I don’t need a big iron grid (thankfully): but if I am doing a complicated scene, then I grid things off in my mind as I draw. In fact, the more complicated the scene, the easier it is, as there will be more points to cross-reference as you go. (The converse is also the case – drawing a sphere is hard, because there are no features on it to cross-check whether you are in the right place.)
I am going to use the example of a street sign to explain how the mental grid system works. It’s a two-dimensional plane which makes for a gentle introduction to drawing with a grid – as luck would have it, some street signs actually come with a grid ready made. Signs made of square ceramic tiles have lines between them, providing an ideal grid for the artist to get all the elements of lettering and design in the right place.
After that we’ll go on to a street sign with no superimposed “grid” via ceramic tiles, but we’ll use the same principle.
Finally I will use a real-life, three-dimensional example, then suggest scenes you can use to practice.
Here’s a beautiful Portuguese sign that I am going to use as a model:
It’s easier to show you with diagrams how I use the “grid” formed by the tiles to draw accurately.
First, I draw a rectangle shape. It doesn’t matter if it’s a bit rough or wobbly (although you could do it a bit more neatly than I did!) Next, I count the number of tiles I can see, and divide up the rectangle so that there are the right amount of squares, each being one ceramic tile.
Then I start to position the letters. This is the start of using the grid. I just look at each square tile, and decide where in that square each letter should fall. I use each tile’s size to estimate what size to make each letter. Everything I draw is in comparison to the thing next to it.
(Two things: my drawing is very wobbly, but as you’ll see as long as you put everything in the right place it doesn’t matter too much. And I didn’t put the “a” in Pipa close enough to the edge of the tile – but it’s okay to be less that perfect, as long as you don’t allow too many mistakes to build up.)
I can now start suggesting the swirls around the edge because the tiles tell me where to put them.
I start with a square or rectangle.
I break it up into squares.
I make a box for each letter with a thin, scratchy nib (which won’t show in the end, but you can use pencil if you like).
I draw in the letters.
I go over them in a heavier nib when I’m happy with them.
I paint the first layer of colour.
I start painting in the swirly bits with a brush, confident because of the grid.
I put in the finishing touches.
You imagine a grid on top.
Here’s another sign, this time without any ceramic tiles:
I start with a rough box for each letter. That way there’ll be no surprises (surprise! There’s no room for the last “a”!).
Then I draw in the shapes of the letters…and so on as I did with the previous examples.
The beauty of this approach is that it works for things that are two-dimensional and for things that are three-dimensional.
I start off with the basic shapes, drawn lightly with a very fine nib in a scratchy pen (in grey ink if you really want your construction lines to fade into the background):
(Painting it is a different matter entirely, and one which I will address in another article!)
1. Making a mental grid is a great way to make sure everything ends up in the right place.
2. You make a mental grid by drawing a line, dividing it up in your mind into sections, then deciding where the next point or object should be placed along that line.
3. The more complicated a scene is, the easier, as there will be more points to use as cross-reference.
4. If you work in grey ink with a scratchy or thin nib, the lines will recede into the background and won’t be noticeable.
5. You don’t have to worry about drawing everything perfectly neatly. As long as your overall proportions are correct, the drawing will look good.
6. Using something that has an actual grid, like a street sign made of tiles, is a great way to get used to the grid technique.
1. Look up a Portuguese or Spanish sign on the internet made of ceramic tiles. Make a sketch of it using the techniques described above.
2. Stack up some books. Make sure they are higgledy-piggledy, with the stack misaligned and juxtaposed. Choose thick books whose spines you can read and make sure the spines are facing towards you so that you can see them. Draw their overall shapes. Use the positions of the lettering in the words along the spines to place the words in the spine underneath. Notice how you don’t run out of space that way. Use the positions of each word as a guide or reference point for the shapes of the book its on and those of the other books.
3. Look through a window. Use the window frame as the outside of a grid. Draw what you see through the window, starting at the edge where they meet the window frame. Say things like “that roof is about a third the way up the left-hand side of the window frame” and “that chimney is a quarter way along the roof ridge”.
4. Draw the mess (if any!) on your desk. Use the positions of each object to estimate the position of its neighbour.
Good luck – and enjoy! With a bit of time and patience, you’ll be drawing accurately and without effort.