Sketching the people glimpsed from the corner of your eye

There are many advantages to going outside and sketching people going about their daily business (see: many sketchbook posts). Unfortunately, for one reason or another, it’s not always easy.


paint-water jug and candy (dice) jar

Many of the people-less options for sketching lose the spontaneity, the unselfconscious (or over-selfconscious) movement, the serendipity of people just going about their lives. But I’ve been trying out a few alternatives.

So last night when I was meant to be planning the week I started sketching household items as people. (Watercolour because I had some in the palette).


If I’d been sketching the wine bottle, the kettle, the vase of proteas, I would have been entangled by the static detail and a desire for accuracy. But since these weren’t people, I had to work briefly to capture the potential in them to be people.

I then pulled details out a bit more:


(This is a reversal of my usual line-then-colour process).

In some of them I can still see their origins (wine glass at top left, vitamin bottle at bottom right), others are more obscure. My kettle was more emo than I knew. I’m particularly fond of grocery-bag dude (an actual grocery bag).


Later, I made a more formal study. This page is all a bottle of Cottee’s cordial (top and centre). I don’t love these sketches (and I wouldn’t usually sketch the same passer-by more than once) but the multiples were useful for working out what I was noticing. A lot of it was about the weight distribution and the centre of gravity, and the gestural lines: where the motion is or could be — from there it’s about extrapolation into a likely person.


You can see it a bit more clearly with the little milk jug I use for my painting water. At the top right is a little diagram of the weight and the sense of movement in the shape, followed by a series of people that could be. The details of the jug (angles, ornament) suggest other details.


Here are the elements I most noticed myself noticing and working with:

  • Angles: these quickly hint at a gesture, a movement, a story
  • Weight distribution: this is quite fun, and also reduces an inclination to idealise the figure — you have to work with what you’ve got, and that’s often a lot closer to real people
  • Balance: related to weight distribution — knowing where the centre of gravity needs to go, how people would hold their hands to stop themselves tipping over, helps to instantly fill out a lot of information about the person
  • Attitude: all the points above contribute to this, and attitude in turn suggests any of those elements that aren’t obvious — it’s pose and posture and emotion
  • Consequences (action/reaction): which way a coat blows, how grumpy men in pyjama bottoms feel about grocery shopping
  • Existing knowledge: this is, of course, not the same as sketching real people, but it made me work consciously with a lot of what I learned from doing that
  • Personality: different from attitude, but a combination of that and shape and the hints given by colour and pattern — the boldness of a deep red enamel, the sort of person who wears stripes or flowers in certain combinations

I also tried using one of the objects to suggest a group pose. Here’s the paint-water jug again.


It’s a fun process, both for what it teaches about what I already know, and how it shakes it loose.

Art/writing exercises:

  • Do super-quick sketches of objects around you as if they were people passing by. Or when designing a character use a nearby object to inform it (texture, attitude, colour). The trick is to move quickly: fill a page with different objects in as little time as possible.
  • Try the same in writing. Find a household object, deduce the most obvious aspects of attitude, physicality, style, and write a snapshot description of that person — just three or four sentences. Then on to the next. Try quick-writing four or five characters. E.g.:
    A thin woman with wide sloping shoulders and a long nose, dressed in too-neat, too-glossy green. Whip-smart with sharp fingers and a habit of prying. Clangorous and clashing with coworkers, sober and supportive with her employers. A model employee and a terrifying boss.
    – Honest as a window, with a pale top-knot of hair fine as fibre-optics and eyes bright as daylight. A sturdy figure, bubbling with thoughts, ideas, distractions. A comfortable stance, a little jaunty, a little off-kilter, just enough to always seem ready to begin a game.)


Edit: There’s now a Part 2 — A discovery of headstrong, obstinate girls (or: simple time travel)

15 thoughts on “Sketching the people glimpsed from the corner of your eye

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  2. Love these exercises! The micro-descriptions especially seem like a great way to break out of one’s default cast of characters. :)

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