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I discovered urban sketching in 2012 in Mauritius. Looking at those first drawings you could be forgiven for thinking there had been a bomb scare just before every sketch I made, as most of them are deserted. I regret this heartily now – all those Mauritians, well-known for their ethnic diversity, in saris, galabeyas, hijabs, shirts and swimwear that I missed. I visited again and sketched as many people as I could, but that first time I just didn’t know where to start. Sketching people moving isn’t always easy. Long after you’ve got your technique down for things that don’t move, you’ll find drawing people in motion is a whole new challenge. But as an urban sketcher, there are always opportunities to get in a bit of practice. I bring my son to the barbers about six or seven times a year, and I now use each trip as an opportunity to sketch. In this article I’ve put together a sort of “barbershop quartet” – in seven parts! – to show you my progression from wobbly scribbles to a confident gestural line in ink of people moving fast, as they go about their business.
You may already know a few tricks which make this easier, and nothing beats practice. If you are presented with an opportunity on a regular basis to draw someone in action, so much the better. Maybe you’re in a band, or work in a restaurant, or visit the same one regularly. You’ll get loads of opportunities for sketching people moving if you do. But, drawing barbers at work is a challenging middle ground between drawing a person making a repeated gesture, and drawing someone who’s going to disappear at any moment. Barbers move around the client’s head continually, so you’ll never get them for more than a few seconds, but they will return, and you’ll get another chance to get that line down.
Here’s one of the lovely chairs they use in the barbers – but without people in it, a sketch loses its heartbeat, so to speak.
Each time I went to the barbers, I had a wait of between half an hour and an hour. I knew it was a great place to sketch, but those barbers with their flashing scissors were tricky. Here’s the first sketch I made.
I tried to paint all the colours I could see in front of me. I tried to draw everything. I made all kinds of errors in my attempts to capture those people in motion. It was hard.
I tried again the next time (all the while enjoying every minute that I sketched at the barbers, the waiting time flying past):
More mistakes – of observation, and also at that point I hadn’t learned that mixing a brush pen (thick line) with a fine-nibbed fountain pen (very thin line) doesn’t always work. But I did include in bits of chopped-off hair, which I like.
A new barber joined, and I liked his neat figure and Paul Weller haircut (that’s him on the far left). That didn’t make drawing him any easier. I tried to concentrate and put everyone possible in. You can see how there are far fewer re-drawn lines in the seated figures…but I was determined to lick this people-in-motion thing, and I kept trying.
The new barber is there on the right again. The lady barber who used to cut my son’s hair was always so pleased when I showed her my sketches. She is a very tiny lady from Brazil. I was still falling short of the mark.
I tried to be more free-styling, drawing my son like a little pasha, with two sets of flying scissors hovering over his head. I love this sketch because it captures a boyishness of my son that is rapidly disappearing. But while drawing in pencil is beautiful and sensitive, it suits my nature to throw down an unambiguous line in ink.
A new year, and a new barbershop. Same small town, but down the road, our move inspired by an exceptionally sharp haircut sported by my daughter’s boyfriend. Now I’m finding something has changed in my sketching. I have moved to a new level of confidence when making a line. My line was always somewhat confident, but now I can draw without hesitation. That doesn’t mean it’s right – but I’m not bothered about getting it wrong, which frees me so much that it generally results in a line that’s more right than wrong. Right-ish, which is fine by me. I’ve stopped using the fine-nibbed fountain pen and use a slightly thicker one, which I suspect helps.
Here are a few other things that might help you sketch people moving.
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