Capture Your Family In Sketches

One of the most satisfying things I do as an urban sketcher is to capture my family in sketches. While I’m not one for putting into words the love I feel for those closest to me, it’s there on the page of my sketchbooks: every line I pull, every brush stroke I make, I do with love for my subject. I suspect you too would love to capture your family in sketches, but may not be confident enough, or not focused enough, to make an attempt. I am going to use this blog article to share with you some of the ways in which I have a whole bunch of sketches of my family after a wonderful trip to the south of England I made last week. My entire family – husband Marcel, and three almost-grown kids – travelled to see our UK relatives in Kent: arriving on a Friday afternoon and leaving on Tuesday morning gave me lots of opportunities to sketch.

The first sketch of the trip was made in Shannon Airport. After the usual panic to get to the airport in time, we found ourselves with enough time to have a cuppa on the other side of security. The challenges you may face here are as follows:

  • tense family urging you to hurry
  • short sketching window

Neither of these are easy to overcome. For the first problem, my advice is to make sure your companions have their favourite drink to enjoy. Say your teenager loves a pumpkin latte whatsit that’s absurdly overpriced – get it. Or your other half would secretly love a beer, even though it’s only 11.00am – get it. You’re buying time and silence – it’s worth it. The alternative is to tell them to cop on, and filter their complaints with earphones or just by concentrating on your sketch.

My family is very relaxed about my sketching now, and maybe yours is too – so what about the bit you can’t do much about, that short window of time you have to sketch? My suggestion is that you choose a tiny colour palette. I drew with brown ink and then I picked out the important colours, which were Payne’s grey and soft yellow, and of course a couple of skin tones. The woman in the burnt orange coat had to have that colour honoured, but I knew it wouldn’t clash with the other colours. Her electric blue trousers would have, however, so I left them out. I used clips to keep the pages open, and just held the sketchbook open until we arrived at the departure gate, by which time it had dried and I could close it.

Being reluctant to give Ryanair a cent more than we have to, our family was split up on the plane. The algorithm the airline uses to assign you a random seat does its best to make it as random as possible (yes, I know that isn’t how random works) and we were seated far apart. This meant that I was undisturbed, and could concentrate on sketching. Thank you, algorithm! So, what are the problems you’re going to encounter sketching on the plane?

  • you’re cramped
  • Security are fussy about water
  • there’s only so many navy and yellow seats (or insert the livery of your carrier of record here) that you can do before you’re bored of them
  • your pen might flood with the change in pressure

Not much you can do about being cramped, but just make sure your sketchbook is small and your kit will fit on as tiny fold-out table.

For water, bring one of those travel bottles that contains 100ml, and Security won’t take it from you. Alternatively, load up your waterbrushes. Have three in your kit so that you don’t waste the water in them trying to switch from one colour to another.

As for the subject being dull, now is your chance to practice your accuracy techniques. The humans, while probably very fidgety at first, are likely to settle down after a bit. Use the fact that everything is likely to stay still for lengthy periods to map out the position of the elements in your scene item by item. Start with the foreground (as with any sketch) and slowly and carefully work your way around it in a spiral fashion, never straying too far from the bit you’ve just done. It’s also a good opportunity to draw people without detection – no one ever looks at your sketch, apart from the passing stewards. On that note, they can take ages working their way down the aisle, so use that time to sketch them too.

The next issue, that of your pen flooding and covering everything in ink, is a clear and present danger. You must make sure you have tissues in your bag, because that steward is stuck at the other end of the aisle – being drawn by some other sketcher, no doubt – while you ruin everything in sight.

As for your subject – I was quick this time and captured a woman taking a selfie. I drew her twice, and fiddled with the layout to fit it all in in a semi-believeable way. So, I had drawn her sitting still, then when she whipped out her phone to take a pic I drew her again in the seat behind. They didn’t match up, so I drew in a dotted line to separate her in her own little box. That’s what I love so much about urban sketching – you are merely playing, not making “art”. It is this which makes it SO MUCH FUN – but that’s for another day.

My mother-in-law Erika is elderly, but still a funny and entertaining woman. I have sketched her during our visits for the last ten years – since I’ve been an urban sketcher. But when you’re with family and you want to sketch them, you are faced with a number of problems.

  • your attention is divided
  • your subject might not cooperate
  • your sketch is under pressure to resemble, even flatter, your subject

I think the most important thing is to put yourself in a mindset where you are open at all times to the possibility of grabbing a sketch. For example, I can’t count the number of times I have regretted not having taken any photos of a given event. That’s because I never think about taking photos. Ever. Making stuff to put on Instagram stories has made me a little more conscious of taking pictures, but by and large photos just don’t appear in my consciousness. Sketching does, however. I always know exactly where my sketching stuff is and it’s quick and easy to pull it out of my bag – a pencil case that opens flat, a metal water container and a sketchbook, and I’m away. Once you’re always primed to sketch, you’ll pick up the signs that you have a good opportunity. I knew when my daughter Liv started telling her grandmother about her sailing exploits that I had a few minutes, and that it would be a gorgeous scene to capture. I knew my mother-in-law was unlikely to move, and I also knew that all I had to get were the faces of the two subjects, and the pose of Liv. Once on paper, I was free to take my time with the chair, the curtains, the clothes – all these things either weren’t going to move or could be glanced at when needed.

I also knew that my lack of engagement was irrelevant – this particular scene was about my daughter and her grandmother: a good choice for that reason.

Later that evening we called in to say hello to my brother-in-law Mark, whose birthday it was. This time I wasn’t planning on sketching, particularly, but when I saw the beautiful, silky cat on his lap, which he was gently stroking, I wasn’t going to let it go. The problems presented in this sketch are as follows:

  • the cat might jump off, so I needed to be fast (the enormous family dog wasn’t far away)
  • the cat and the trousers were almost the same colour
  • Mark was in conversation, which could change

The cat wasn’t about to get back on Mark’s lap, so it had to be drawn first. There was a (remote) chance that Mark would take his position again, but I didn’t want to ask him – I try to be as unobtrusive as possible. I like to document what actually happens, anyway, regardless of what unfolds.

The fact that the cat was almost the same colour as Mark’s trousers was both a help and a hindrance. The room wasn’t brightly lit, which didn’t help, but I reminded myself to draw what I saw…even if that meant cat and trouser were amorphous. But in the second drawing (on the right) I couldn’t tell whether the thing hanging down was a leg or a tail. So – I’ve explained it in the sketch!

The big dog came in and wasn’t happy to see the wretched cat on its master’s lap, but love the dog though Mark does, he wasn’t about to turf a snoozing cat off his lap, which cat in turn knows the dog well enough by now not to feel threatened. So while the cat did move, it wasn’t by too much.

Mark turned a bit to continue his conversation, long enough for me to get a second sketch in. Neither are wholly accurate – far from it – but I think once you let that go and be free to do your thing, your sketch will be beautiful regardless. My subjects are often a little disappointed, I think, and object to pink noses, big ears, high complexions, but I am not worried about their reactions and they get over it soon enough.

This sketch presented two challenges, and one easy bit.

  • some subjects fidget incessantly as soon as they detect they’re being drawn
  • you can’t control sounds (such as those made by people fidgeting) which may awaken your sleeping subject

My eldest daughter Honor, with her back to us, was teaching her brother and sister to play poker. My son Paddy has always had an inscrutable expression, and we’ve always joked that he should take up poker. Turns out we were right – he won the game, to his older sister’s disgust. Drawing the kids was easy, as they didn’t move at all (give or take my youngest’s knees being periodically folded in front of her and replaced under the table). My mother-in-law Erika was a different matter: she shifted and turned in her chair incessantly, as she has always done once she senses she’s being drawn. Or maybe I just notice the fidgeting more when I need her to keep still. You can see my false starts on the left – I could have cropped them out, but I sort of like them.

Sketching my sleeping husband would have been easy, except that my mother-in-law started clearing her throat very noisily. This caused him to turn and shift in his seat. Luckily he’s my husband so I just told him to go back to the way he was – which he complained about (“I have a crick in my neck”) but he more or less cooperated. To a point: the crick in the neck meant the pose couldn’t be kept quite long enough.

It meant a lot to me to capture my kids playing a jolly game of cards with their cousin, with whom they don’t get together half enough. My youngest, Liv, had her hand hovering over the cards ready to strike (“like a cobra” said Mark), which I just had to record. The challenges are as follows:

  • to be sensitive with shy subjects who aren’t used to being sketched
  • to be fast
  • to include whatever prop illustrates the scene better

The answer to the first question is not to draw attention to it. I made the mistake a couple of weeks back of telling the group I was with that I was sketching people, and asking if anyone objected. This was pointless. If I had just sketched without a word the person who did object (a) wouldn’t have been in the field of view and (b) would have been none the wiser anyway. The lesson is not to ask. Years ago I read (in a Bill Bryson book I think) about someone who pointed out a sign to a man who was smoking, and said, “Don’t you know you can’t smoke in here?” The man replied in a laid-back drawl, “You can until someone tells you not to.” That made a big impression on me. So now I don’t ask about sketching anyone, or almost never. Ask and you suddenly make them feel self-conscious.

Be fast: it’s easier said than done. I use a fude pen, which is fast and forgiving. I don’t promote individual brand names but if you like the look of the ink I use then go to Anna in The Writing Desk and tell her I sent you. She knows what I use, and she sends me free samples of ink for my workshops, which is why I send everyone to her, but I certainly don’t get paid to promote any brands.

Include a prop. Here, it’s the playing cards. Put the board game in, or the cocktails, or whatever is on the table that tells the viewer what was going on.

Sometimes you want to highlight something beautiful. This cake was that kind of subject. Its colours and textures were glorious, but it needed a background. So the challenge here was simple:

  • how to showcase a subject and not let it fade it into an uninspiring background

This one is easy and straightforward. Mark’s wife Monique, my husband’s sister, made this amazing Black Forest Gateau for his birthday. I solved the question of how to keep it as the superstar of the sketch by using just one colour for the backdrop (Payne’s grey). Of course, you can get a huge variety of tone with just that one shade. If you’re wondering how come there’s a slice on a plate AND a whole cake in the same pic, it’s because I drew the cake first, then we all had at it, then we retired to be still and maybe groan for a while, then I put in the slice that had been kept aside for Honor, who had nipped off somewhere. The magic of sketching!

My daughter Liv is very happy to be sketched, and in fact often asks me to sketch her. She doesn’t have to ask twice. The question here was an eternal one…

  • how do you capture the indescribable beauty of a young woman?

There’s only one way. You have to capture it with accuracy. Anyone who knows my blog will know I teach one very straightforward way to be accurate, and I suggest you refer to one of my articles for detailed instructions! It can be summarised as such: don’t go too far from your point; estimate by eye how far it is till the next point; estimate the length of your lines in relation to the points that intersect them; draw first with a narrow nib, or the skinny side of a fude nib, to get your line right until you go over it with a more confident line. The best way to learn is PRACTICE and HONESTY, and, if you can, to come and watch me during a demo or a workshop.

Last and very much least…but a good example of a typical hurried family sketch. My family and I went to Canterbury and soon found ourselves getting drenched, on somewhat miserable streets, on a dark January afternoon. We went into a coffee shop and soon were enjoying a gorgeous hot cup in a renovated Olde English oak-framed upstairs salon. We’ve had our family troubles over the last ten years, and I was damned if I wasn’t going to record this very harmonious and happy moment with my three little people and my husband. Never mind that I didn’t have long. So, here’s my final two challenges, and how I overcame them (or not!):

  • how to make a ten-minute sketch interesting
  • what to do if you make a total mess of positioning – in pen

The answer to the first was simply to use two colours of ink. I always make sure to have at least three colours of ink in my pencil case: you can choose your own colours (The Writing Desk does loads) but mine always include brown, red and grey. The red was great for the logo of the coffee shop – and the background.

I put Paddy’s head in entirely the wrong place. What to do? Arrows and dotted lines to redirect it, of course! Let yourself off, there’s always another sketch just around the corner.

Then it was time to leave the family and go back to Ireland. The check-in guy at the Ryanair desk, and his colleague, went very “computer says No” on us and wanted Marcel to pay £8 extra for his bag, explaining with a very robotic but coldly smiling face that we risked paying £25 at the gate. I was about to pay the £8, but Marcel (who is English, after all) said, very loudly and confidently, that he had used this bag dozens and dozens of times and it had never been too big, and he wasn’t about to pay now. Then he said it again, more confidently and loudly (reason: see above). We had no trouble at the gate with the bag. On the plane, we were 5p short for the coffee, and rather than watch me rummage for ten minutes through my pockets, the steward let us off. Our coffees in front of us on the little tables, Marcel leaned across to me. “I am very happy to have got the better of Ryanair,” he said, “not alone did I not pay extra for my bag, but we are 5p up.” We were also seated together – despite the algorithm’s best efforts to have us at the four corners of the plane, it can’t do much about empty seats, which we were quick to jump into beside each other, and share lovely carrot cake from a nice counter in Gatwick Airport. That algorithm KNEW those seats weren’t bought and could be given to us. Don’t let the system get the better of you!

Keep it playful. Capture your family in sketches. And enjoy the memories that will last forever.

*Don’t Forget – just TWO places left in my Practical Urban Sketching Workshop, Dublin, 20th-23rd March 2020. Check out the post under Workshops*


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