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This is Parts Two and Three of a series of tutorials on urban sketching, my 10 Tricks for your Toolbox. I’m running two sessions together as I missed one – I was having a lovely time on the southernmost tip of Ireland, in Schull, Co. Cork, where I was a long way from my computer! If you are a keen urban sketcher, subscribe to my YouTube channel, Roisin Cure, for more.
In Part One of my 10 Tricks for your Toolbox, I suggested some of the things to look out for when planning what you’re going to draw. I described how to make a mental checklist of some of the elements of an urban sketch which will contribute to making for a really satisfying and engrossing sketch, both for you to do and for the viewer to enjoy looking at. If you haven’t yet read Part One, then have a quick look before diving into this part.
In it I showed you how to look out for 3 of the 10 Tricks. They apply in particular to an indoor scene, but some can be applied to any situation.
Next I’m going to show you the remaining 7 of the 10 Tricks.
So, let’s jump into the lesson
First, let’s have a fresh look at the sketches I use to demonstrate the tricks.
Elements of a Composition
So, back to the two sketches of the restaurants in Galway City, and the elements, the tricks, that contributed to their lively atmospheres.
Here are the two sketches again, this time with schematic diagram of elements 4 – 10 added. I’ve taken out the first three Tricks to keep things simpler.
First Cava Bodega again:
…and here’s McCambridge’s:
We’ve looked at
1. Place-specific objects
The next seven elements I’d like to discuss are
5. Non-sequential planes
6. Reference objects
So what do I mean by these? I’ll go through them one by one, and suggest examples, and how you might approach them in your sketch..
I have found over time that it really makes a big difference to your sketch if you include some foreground. It doesn’t have to be much – just a hint or part of an object will do nicely. We process a scene in a certain way: with only one plane, it can be a little short on depth of field. But with something in the foreground, it suddenly takes on a dynamism borne of the depth that it acquires. A photograph will either focus on the foreground or the background, and if it evens out the focus, you’ll lose that depth of field.
As sketchers, we have an advantage. With a couple of clever techniques, we can create that sense of depth without losing focus on either the foreground or the background.
This can be done in a number of ways.
– We can add a thick outline to the edge of the object in the foreground. That’s my favourite technique, as it doesn’t require altering the colour or intensity of the colour in any way. I like my Sailor pen used with the nib at an oblique angle for a nice thick line, but a fine liner in a wider nib or a brush pen would work too.
– We can use muted colours for the background and strong colours for the foreground object. It’s effective but it requires discipline and planning.
– We can draw the foreground in one colour and the background in another. This is a very effective technique, but I don’t use it much because I like using lots of diferent colours. It only works if you stick to one colour for each plane.
You can use all sorts of things as your foreground. You can focus on a “star” as discussed in the last post, ie. something gorgeous like a spotty mug or a cushion with a nice print on it. Or you can use something that the viewer knows is small, but is drawn big: a chair or a table would be ideal. You only need to put in a corner of it to achieve a very effective result.
A human works too but the viewer will be so interested in who they are and what they are doing that you risk them ignoring the rest of the sketch!
Just remember to leave a little space at the bottom of your sketch. Don’t worry if you have to draw on top of a line you’ve already drawn – it won’t be noticed, especially if you give it a thicker outline.
5. Non-Sequential Planes
This is an interesting one. It took me a very long time to get it into my head that an urban sketcher is not a machine, like a camera, but a human being, and that we are free to make adjustments as we see fit. I can be quite literal when it comes to sketching, but really, it’s a huge advantage to feel free to do your own thing.
Sometimes there’s a boring expanse of wall right next to a good bit. Or there is a boring bit of wall, and then something fabulous on the wall at ninety degrees to the first one.
I say skip the dull bit.
Amazingly, it works very well to add a wall that is non-sequential in a position close to another part. You can even add a bit of ceiling and it can work.
The key is to make each little bit of wall, or ceiling, or floor, comprehensive and complete in itself. Make sure that it follows its own internal rules – so, for example, get the shape of the ceiling light right, or the picture on the wall – you get the idea.
In the Cava sketch the natural frame of things would have included the door – but I didn’t want an exit to the street right in the middle of my drawing, as I felt it would look less inviting to see your getaway! So I shifted the perspective around a little and no one is any the wiser.
It can also make a sketch very dynamic, and since the viewer knows it’s not a photograph, they will run with your idea and make sense of the non-sequential plane. So be brave and forget about making logical sense!
6. Reference Objects
If there is an element in your sketch that tells the viewer something about the place, then seize the chance to include it. In the case of the sketch from Cava, I thought that some of the paintings on the wall spoke of the sort of place Cava is. A reference object is a bit different from “place-specific” objects in the sense that it tells you about what kind of a place you’re in. So, in the case of Cava it’s a painting of a pig, as pork features largely on the menu of the Spanish restaurant. And, in the case of the sketch from McCambridge’s, I thought that the blackboard covered in descriptions of cocktails made a lively contribution to the atmosphere of the restaurant.
Other reference objects might include:
– a tyre-manufacturer sponsored calendar in a repair shop
– an ad for tobacco in an ancient pub
– a striped pole outside a barbershop
These aren’t completely unique to each venue, but are suggestive of the type of place you’re sketching. They are part of what makes a fun and informative urban sketch!
This is the corollary of Foreground: if you make an effort to include something at the very back of your field of vision, you will achieve a sense of depth in your sketch. In the McCambride sketch I did what I could to include some glass bottles behind the bar, and the tile work on the wall at the back of the room. In the Cava sketch I included the stained glass – and the reflections of the door in the mirror on the wall – which did the job nicely.
How much detail should you include in the distance? I find that if you use a thinner nib you get the necessary softening effect suggestive of distance. In the past, watercolourists often painted distance in a set palette of colours, but I don’t do this really for the simple reason that I like using strong colour everywhere. But I would definitely be less detailed about objects in the distance.
You might try sketching the distance in brown or grey; using the upright position on your fude nib; leaving the distance unpainted. Again, by outlining the foreground in a thicker line you will throw the background into the distance by default.
This is one for your discretion, and can be a lot of fun – and quite “arty” if you choose it to be! I am talking about anything at all that gives the viewer a sense of the atmosphere. For example, I always find that the first seagull I put in a sketch, swooping and soaring or riding a thermal, suddenly suggests the bracing air of the sea. If I put in the steam curling up from a cook’s station or a pot of something on a flame, you can almost feel the heat.
I try to spot something a little ethereal, something fleeting, in order to catch the vibe. One of my favourite things to include in a sea scene are the splashes of water against the rocks (use a white gel pen with a fine or thick point) or the bubbling shoreline where water meets sand.
If an object is wet, leave that bit unpainted. Be glad if you have a puddle with a reflection – they are very atmospheric.
In my sketch of Cava I wanted to show that it is on a busy street, and so I included a bit of what I could see through the window to add to the vibe. In the sketch of McCambridge’s, I added the personal touches that had been written on the board – the stars and swirls and so on that increased the Christmas atmosphere.
Ah…life. One of the best tricks of all, that make every sketch spring into…well, life. Adding life means adding animals and people, and without fail they will greatly enhance your sketch. It doesn’t matter if they look particularly polished or not: think of some of your favourite urban sketchers and I bet they have distinct, and not necessarily realistic, depictions of animals and people. If you really don’t feel brave enough to draw people you can always leave them blank, but I strongly suggest you give the middle bits a go too.
So, here are a few tips for sketching people and animals:
– Make composites of people if they don’t hang around long enough to finish.
– Same applies for animals, only more so.
– Capture unusual gestures like lifting a fork to the mouth.
– Give them a smile.
– Put more animals in than are strictly there at once. It’s more interesting.
– Develop a “shorthand” for sketching people. Practice quick mixes for skin tones, a quick way with eyes and other features and hair.
– I always put a blob of pink on a just-painted cheek so that my people don’t look too anaemic.
– Quentin Blake once said “Try to make it clear what leg the weight is on.” Great advice.
– Practice dots for eyes, especially animals.
– Practice doing tiny curves or half-triangles for noses, like you did when you were a child
– I try not to do too many people on their own, unless they are engrossed in something. Of course, there are usually lots of phones…
These are the small things found in every indoor scene. There’ll be beer and wine glasses in the foreground; teapots and tea cups, sugar bowls and water carafes. All of these are props that tell the viewer about the scene you have painted. It’s important to sketch them with care: the opposite, in fact, to the loose and suggestive way you have done objects in the distance.
With props in the foreground, there is space to include reflections in the metal surface of a teapot; the gloss on a ceramic cup; the reflection of a glass in a polished wooden surface or the label on a bottle of wine. It’s an opportunity to have some fun.
I would regard a painting on the wall close to the foreground as a prop: it’s another thing that adds to the overall aesthetic of the sketch. Likewise a signpost…use every little element that can be used as a small element to add interest – and maybe even drama – to your sketch.
Now that you are armed with 10 Tricks for your Toolbox, what are you waiting for?!