Book Review: The Urban Sketcher by Marc Taro Holmes

Book Review - The Urban Sketcher: Techniques for Seeing and Drawing on Location by Marc Taro Holmes
Fellow urban sketcher Róisín Curé takes a look at this how to guide.
The Urban Sketcher: Techniques for Seeing and Drawing on Location
Written by: Róisín Curé
A very worthwhile book for aspiring urban sketchers.
5 / 5 stars

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I recently read Marc Taro Holmes’ new book, The Urban Sketcher: Techniques for Seeing and Drawing on Location. While Marc and I have only known each other personally for a short time, I have long admired his beautiful, loose technique. Here is a review of The Urban Sketcher by Marc Taro Holmes.

This is the kind of stunning work that Marc creates, and I was intrigued to discover his secrets…which, as it turns out, he shares with candour.

The book is divided into just three chapters, which lends the book an air of accessibility from the beginning – it demystifies the whole business of sketching, which is a big step for anyone who has in the past been daunted by the process.

Chapter 1 takes the reader by the hand, and leads him or her into the world of creating shapes from observation. Marc is a passionate urban sketcher, and he describes in his book some of the many places he enjoys sketching in his home city of Montreal. He shows us how opportunities for sketching are all around us, all the time, and offers many suggestions for uncovering chances to sketch of our own. He makes it very clear that no matter how self-critical you might be, if you concentrate on quantity, then quality will take care of itself, and follow naturally. This first section is a clear guide to becoming a habitual and competent sketcher, starting with offering encouragement and tips for developing a sketching habit, and continuing into the nitty-gritty of gaining confidence as a drawer. There’s plenty of advice on how a strong composition works, and Marc explains his technique of drawing “from the outside in” – starting with an accurate silhouette and filling in the shape within. He also offers easy-to-follow techniques for using shadow to bring your drawing to life, and refers to common pitfalls.

Chapter 2 leads you from pencil into ink, suggesting that you can achieve a lot of drama very quickly this way. He understands that this can be daunting for the uninitiated, but offers lots of clever tips for getting past this.
Marc uses a simple but effective technique he calls “three-pass sketching”, whereby you make a quick sketch in pencil and follow it with a very loose ink line, and finally lay shadow shapes on top. He suggests ways to develop this technique, using things that you’ll find anywhere (like cemeteries, as illustrated here: he calls them “public sculpture gardens”).

After this, Marc suggests to the reader that they might try jumping straight into ink, and reminds us that mistakes are not something to be worried about. There are lots of suggestions for dealing with moving people, from those who are making the same action repeatedly – workers for example – to those who are only moving their hands, to those who move in and out of your view in a flash. The tips are very sensible, but I would say that, as they are the same techniques I use for drawing people in motion (like using bits of lots of swiftly-moving people to make up one person). Now that I think of it, we are not a million miles apart in our approach to drawing, so from that point of view reading this section was like agreeing vigourously with someone as to how best to approach a drawing.

Here is one of Marc’s beautiful figure drawings, using a live but “captive” subject – a tattoo artist at work:

You can clearly see the three-pass sketching technique at work here, resulting in a loose and expressive, but still accurate, drawing.

Chapter 3 is a different story altogether. This is the section on using watercolour to bring life and magic to your sketches, and (if the final result is anything to go by) Marc and I differ entirely in our respective approaches to the use of watercolour. For this reason I was very curious to learn about his method.
Marc’s technique is a “painterly” way to paint. He appears to love the interaction of pigment and water, and is very happy to allow the paint to be in control much of the time. I could learn something from this: I have a very tightly-controlled, straightforward approach, and I think it would be great to loosen up somewhat (or a lot). I was fascinated to learn how he uses values to achieve the desired effect, and he describes clearly his very own Tea, Milk and Honey technique, namely a transparent wash followed by a more opaque one, with details picked out at the end. The techniques are very clearly laid down, and I imagine anyone would get a lot out of it, no matter what their skill level. The results speak for themselves: Marc’s paintings are expressive and sensitive, so he’s doing something right.

I liked his use of spot colour when approaching figures. This illustration demonstrates it well: the author tells us that as long as your shadow shapes are right, and your tones are true, you can be quite free with your colour.

I decided to put Marc’s techniques to the test.

The first technique I tried was Marc’s suggestion to draw an outline first, and then fill in the details afterwards. I don’t normally work this way: rather, I draw basic sort of rounded shapes and straight-sided shapes before redrawing them carefully.

It was dark and wintry in Ardrahan, Co. Galway, when I dropped my daughter down for a lift to stay the night with a friend. Of course I stuck the sketching kit into the bag and sneaked a quick session after her friend’s granddad came to collect her. I have to say I liked this approach, of drawing an outline and then filling in “the bits”. There wasn’t a sinner abroad in the village, not a creature stirred, and the signpost was the only thing that inspired me – it was also the only thing I could see, as the village’s single street lamp shone nearby. I would definitely have made more of a mess of this sketch without using the “drawing-outside-in” technique. The only (very slight) issue I have with it is that it does presume you’re able to draw an accurate outline, which you may find difficult without the use of lots of “cheats” which make it easier to see what you’re doing.

Marc also suggests drawing your subject lightly in pencil first, and then using it as a guide for your subsequent loose and expressive ink line. Again, I don’t usually draw like this, preferring to wade in from the start with an indelible, warts-and-all ink line, happy to take the consequences. But in the interests of research I decided to give it a try, because I genuinely love Marc’s style and I liked the idea that you would still be free to keep your line loose and expressive – Marc stresses that this isn’t in any way “tracing”. Here’s what I came up with:

So…what did I think of it? I know it’s clearly very accurate – a lot more accurate than my work is most of the time these days. My daughter’s reaction was that it was fantastic, but she’s nearly fifteen, and while she’s extremely critical of pretty much everything I do (whilst secretly admiring it, I think), she does admire “perfect” work. Likewise, I same got a hugely positive online response when I posted the drawing, but I am well aware that Joe Public loves work that shows great skill. For my part, I don’t. Well, I do, but not the skill that could be described as “accuracy”: I can achieve this easily enough and it’s not what I’m after. Personally I prefer to allow a line to take its own course, while still using my best efforts to keep it on the straight and narrow. I want the “art” to flow, unimpeded by guidelines. I’m too big for stabilisers! I know that Marc is after the same aim; he reiterates time and time again that his aim is only to have the lightest of guides in pencil, which – for him – is the very element that gives his art the freedom to soar. Maybe he’s right: the difference between Marc and me is that, unlike him, I do not make a sensitive line, delicately twisting and turning as the muse instructs, but rather I almost gouge my line into the paper – subtle, it ain’t. But for many people, sick to the back teeth of the line obstinately refusing to go where it’s supposed to, I can see how this would be a fantastic way to achieve control of their output.

I’ll admit it won’t be the last time I’ll do it though…watch this space.

You can buy Marc’s book at Amazon:-

The Urban Sketcher: Techniques for Seeing and Drawing on Location

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