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As urban sketchers, it’s in the very nature of it that we’ll often find ourselves sketching an event, somewhere we won’t have a second chance to draw. While we’ll often sketch myriad versions of a lily pond à la Monet or a favourite model à la Wyeth, urban sketchers will very often be sketching something to which we’ll never return. It could be somewhere you’re visiting, or a special event; either way, you get one crack at it, and it’s important to give yourself the best chance of success.
In my case, and perhaps in yours, I am often assigned to record an event in sketches: there’s no room for “oh, it didn’t work out.” It could be something as special as a birthday party or a wedding – sometimes there is no room for error. Because it’s my job, I have developed my technique so that such an eventuality is very unlikely. I’m going to share some of my sketching techniques with you here, using some of my recent live sketches of SeaFest 2018 as my examples.
Things to Think About
Composition: Think HARD at this stage. You’re only getting one chance (there’s no point saying “no pressure” because there’s no getting away from it!) and if you get this bit right you have half the battle won. You must consider the following:
– what you WANT to remember from the scene
– what you LIKE about the scene, what you’d actually like to paint
– once you’ve identified that, not to make it too small, and not to cut half of it off the page
– how to choose your subject for the time you have
– whether to orient your page portrait or landscape
Sketching: You will feel pressurised and that can be the enemy of loose, fluid, expressive drawing. I get over this by using a very thin, scratchy nib to start with (not pencil!) and I roughly sketch my shape with it. If it’s a complex scene with parallel lines or fiddly bits, I can confidently draw those in their entirety, even if only parts of them can be seen, because once you draw over the salient bits in a wider nib you just won’t notice the construction lines.
Remember that if you’re drawing people, choose poses they’ll return to, and you will find capturing them a lot easier.
Palette: You don’t have infinite time so keep those colours limited! Pick a few colours that dominate and emphasise them. For example, if you want to keep your palette to indigo, burnt umber and yellow ochre then make all yellows, orange and cream into yellow ochre, make all blues, black and greys into indigo, and make all reds and browns into burnt umber. If you paint using different strengths then you’ll get a truly wide range of hues and tones.
Take the time to wipe your mixing palette whenever you think of it – you need to keep those colours clean and it will save time in the long run.
I was asked to sketch the SeaFest 2018 event. I only had one to two hours to make a full colour painting of each subject, so I had to be efficient. I arrived sight-unseen, so had to make lots of decisions on the hoof.
The INV Granuaile
Aims: sunshine, the elegance of the ship’s architecture and a feeling of that specific ship.
Sunshine: include shadows
Ship’s architecture: choose something with lots of detail
Specific to the ship: the flag.
All these things were only available in one view, so it was quite easy to know what to sketch.
Portrait or Landscape? Once you’ve chosen your subject, it’s time to decide on the composition. To do that you must decide whether to orient your page portrait or landscape. I chose portrait here, as I wanted to get as much of the mast as possible, and to give it prominence.
It was important to use straight lines to make the most of the elegant lines of the ship. For this, I used my old trick of a scratchy pen with a thin nib to draw the construction lines, make mistakes and generally build the scaffold.
After this I used a fude pen with a wider nib to pick out the lines I was happy with.
Palette: cerulean, indigo, hansa yellow, yellow ochre, red, burnt umber
I kept the palette as limited as possible. I chose to give prominence to a small number of things in the composition: the shadows, the flag and the blue sky. It was enough. If I had coloured the (olive) building you can see behind the ship, it would have been a little unsettling.
Lighthouse Lamps and the Commissioner of Lights
Aims: the pretty shapes and translucence of the bulbs, and, with any luck, the engineer talking about them. I also had to include the LEDs, even though they weren’t half as pretty as the older lamp bulbs.
Translucence: a delicate hand is needed
The engineer: an even more delicate hand is needed! Maximum concentration is required when sketching a person in action as their movements can be very distracting.
Portrait or landscape? No question here – the lamps were in a row so it was landscape.
The most important thing here was to make sure the bulbs were symmetrical. For that, my scratchy pen was once again invaluable. It allowed me to make a few false moves before committing with a fude nib.
Drawing Brian, the engineer, wasn’t as hard as it might have been: he had strong features. I always start with a rough face shape, then immediately draw in the eyes. If you get those right, the rest of the face will speak to you. It’s been my technique for decades to draw dots for eyes: you’ll find your way. That’s not being disingenuous – everyone must find their own style of drawing eyes…practice lots of ways and you’ll find your own.
Palette: indigo, opera pink and yellow ochre, Venetian red and burnt umber
I knew that the very limited palette would work in my favour here: I wasn’t sitting down, nor had the luxury of time, so the fewer colours I could get away with, the better. If you are in a similar situation, err on the side of fewer colours: you won’t go wrong.
Aims: to sketch something fast and well.
I only had half an hour before my next obligatory sketch subject would start – the cooking demo – but I was very keen not to waste this time. I saw the shark and knew it was my subject, because I knew it would not pose any challenges.
– it was made of small shapes
– there were no issues of perspective
– the shapes were easy
– there was only one colour to worry about, as the shark was painted grey.
Portrait or landscape? Landscape made sense, of course.
I didn’t use my scratchy nib here, as I am comfortable with a simple ellipse. Drawing the shapes within the shark did not pose a challenge, as they were simple shapes of items of rubbish. However, I used the fine side of the fude nib for them, as they might have been a bit heavy drawn with the wide side.
Palette: indigo, opera pink and yellow ochre
Again, colour was easy – I used a dilute indigo, blending down to clear water towards the underside of the shark. I also used a blend of various skin tone colours (opera pink and yellow ochre in various blends and proportions) for the children’s skin.
Aims: to capture the sponsor and the activity.
It was important to get the feel of the seafood being demonstrated. I knew at least one sketch of fish was important, as well as the variety on offer. (I think I could improve the sketch by writing the names of the fish lying on ice a lot bigger.) I decided to get all three positions of the chef, as that would be fun and give a lively feel to the sketch.
Portrait or landscape? Landscape – all the action took place in a horizontal plane.
As usual, the challenge of sketching a person live is to capture the movement without being distracted or intimidated by it. The important thing is to relax in the knowledge that the person is more than likely to take a similar position multiple times. With a cook, it’s foolproof! They will wield a knife many times, rattle a saucepan, stir something, mix something…over and over. Be confident and be patient.
Palette: lime and dark green (hansa yellow, lemon yellow, phthalo green and green apatite), skin tones (yellow ochre and opera pink), indigo
It was important to use the colour palette that the sponsor had so carefully chosen and paid a designer for, so I emphasised those colours. I would suggest that the same would apply to a wedding: the bride and groom will often have chosen a tight palette, and it’s a good idea to put those at the forefront.
L.É. William Butler Yeats
Aims: To capture the beauty of the pennant flags fluttering in the blue sky, and to contrast this with the weight and mass of the ship.
I felt it was important to draw the ship from the front, as it would be far more dramatic to “face” the ship than to see her in retreat, so to speak.The challenge was that the only spot to sketch the front was in full sun. Nothing a big sun hat and a strong sun cream couldn’t handle, but my feet – which I had not put sun cream on – were getting burnt. I had sun cream in my bag: always be prepared!
Portrait or landscape: Landscape – the ship was long and so wide that it would have suited a panorama format, if I’d had such a thing available.
The scratchy, thin nib went into overtime here. I knew there were all sorts of pitfalls, but luckily, and as I have said in previous posts, a subject with lots of detail is often easier to handle than one with less detail. Each shape tells you where the shape next to it goes, and what size. I start with big shapes, and add smaller shapes into them.
As before, my fude nib was used once my scratchy lines looked good.
Palette: red, yellow, green, indigo (flags): indigo (ship and shadows): cerulean.
My choice was easy. The colours were one of the prettiest things about this subject. I chose not to colour the visitors as I did not want them to take from the colour of the flags. The ship was monochrome, with an extra layer (or two) where deep shadows lay.
Fly Boarder and the Granuaile
Aims: I knew from sketching here last year that the fly boarders were a really important part of the attractions of SeaFest, but last year I wasn’t quick enough. I determined to get it right this time, but I knew I would have to be quick. This time I had another, unusual challenge – the fly boarders would often drench the viewers with seawater as they passed! I prepared for this by being ready to flip my sketchbook upwards.
So my aims were twofold: a fly boarder and the ship. I knew I wouldn’t get a chance to sketch them both separately, so they’d have to be together.
Portrait or landscape? Landscape, just so that I could get as much of the ship in as possible. If I had been concentrating on the fly boarder, I would have oriented the page to portrait.
I knew that the ship wouldn’t move – so I could take my time with her – but I also knew that I would need her shape as a backdrop to the fly boarder, when he should make an appearance. So I drew part of the ship in, deciding I would fill in any missing bits after I had drawn the fly boarder.
The fly boarder wasn’t too hard: all that sea spray, in an ever-widening column, meant lots of white, unpainted areas.
Palette: lots of colours
Perhaps the use of lots of colour is to the detriment of the sketch, as many colours can lead to a less dramatic sketch. However, I didn’t see how to lose any: I wanted the yellow of the smoke stack, the green of the water in the docks, the blue of the ship’s hull and the bright colours of the fly boarder himself.
There you have it! A few tricks and techniques which meant I didn’t have to go back for a second go at any of my subjects.
Or did I?
There was one rejected sketch out of eleven in total. The reason I aborted it after fifteen minutes was that I disobeyed my first rule: I did not give any thought to the composition, or why I chose to include each element. The result was a focus-free sketch. I quickly cut my losses and moved on to the next subject.
I would have failed without
– thinking for a few minutes before each sketch;
– my scratchy, thin nib;
– my fude pen;
– a wide selection of colours.
I would also have failed if I had not brought
– lots of clean water
– lots of spare ink (fude pens drink it)
– kitchen paper for spills (there were many, one on the deck of a ship, which shall remain unnamed).
And I would have been distinctly uncomfortable, not to mention have suffered from sunstroke, without my big hat and my sunscreen.
Good luck with your sketching – and getting it right first time!