Some thoughts about crowd scenes, by way of the sketchbook

A month after the residency at Concordia, I went back for their 75th anniversary. Here’s a sketch of a portion of the choir. I wish I’d had more time to draw them — it was delightful — the hairstyles, the hats, the attitudes, the varying degrees to which uniforms had been bought to be grown into.

I’ve been thinking lately about sketching groups (here’s one from the sketches I previously posted from the residency).

It’s good practice, of course — it increases speed and as well as observing motion and proportions you need to watch how these interact, and how people interact in groups. How they respond and evade, how they make different movements to reflect the same emotion or to distinguish themselves from the people nearest, or how they choose to ally themselves with another. Who is distracted, who is peering over shoulders.

I think the picture below was of a game of Werewolf at the end of IMC 2017. This is also when I started trying to draw groups more often, thanks to Irene Gallo’s advice.

(This is also why I like to sit close enough to see the orchestra at classical music performances — all the little dramas and differences among people who are allegedly working on the same task.)

And then there is the study of ways to unite people into a coherent group — overlapping them, demonstrating attention, using colour and shadow to create larger overarching shapes, ie. the blue shadow above, and the green cameo-backgrounds below (vs the independent shape of the roving photographer). These sketches were from Library Next at the State Library of Queensland.

Sometimes they are joined by light or props or patterns (of light, of poses, of uniform).

Sometimes they set themselves apart from each other deliberately — breaks in a pattern are fascinating. (These are from a Defence Innovation Bridge day at UQ).

Tiny black-line drawing with dashes of blue and yellow marker. 
Three groups sit at tables, one discussing a person in a helicopter writing a media release, others discussing a radio, and the third saying POLICY

All the little problems of perspective and distance this creates are charming, too — dancing is particularly enjoyable to sketch because while no-one holds still, they often repeat key movements so you get a chance to confirm your impressions.

And then there is all the variance and variegation of a group of people even engaged on the same very pointed activity. I’ve mentioned before, in relation to many of these same images, that sketching makes me like individual people more. However it also makes groups (as entities) more interesting.

I love this crowd around the Rosetta stone, with all their various easy-to-judge behaviours (I didn’t feel so benevolent when I sat down to draw them).

Being in the habit of seeing crowds this way does, I hope, feed into art. I do plan to do more deliberate exercises working on group scenes — here’s one where I was using kitchen objects as a guide to composition.

And I’d also like to think more deliberately about crowd and group scenes in writing — how to take all these same considerations and render them in prose. As with this example from Lilian Jackson Braun’s The Cat Who Ate Danish Modern which features (among other things)

  • A generic specificity of the description, describing a group by the sub-groups (rather than individuals) within it.
  • The contrast/linking effect of only describing one element of each group’s appearance.
  • The pleasing way hats/aprons etc falls into the repetition of cuffs/cuffs/cufflinks.
“We'll take your cushion and put it on the new refrigerator, and you'll feel right at home.”
At the Daily Fluxion an hour later, Qwilleran reported the good news to Odd Bunsen. They met in the employees' lunchroom for their morning cup of coffee, sitting at the counter with pressmen in square paper hats, typesetters in canvas aprons, rewrite men in white shirts with the cuffs turned up, editors with their cuffs buttoned, and advertising men wearing cufflinks. 
Qwilleran told the photographer, “You should see the bathrooms at the Villa Verandah! Gold faucets!”

And here’s a great episode of Every Frame a Painting which touches on (among other things) the movement in Akira Kurosawa’s crowd scenes (and also the effect of emotion in a crowd scene):

Writing/drawing exercise:

  • Find a clip of a crowd scene (not CGI) — movies, documentaries, train station cameras, news footage (movies obviously are usually more choreographed). Search “good crowd scenes” or perhaps “[your large railway station of choice] at rush hour”, etc. (Or find a real-life crowd, if that’s a reasonable option where you are.)
  • Do a quick sketch of the people in the scene. This is fastest and least rigorous if you don’t actually stop the video (you could try playing it at a slower speed rather than stopping it). I recommend this step even if you aren’t an illustrator, because it’s a good way to make sure you look closely at what’s going on.
  • Write a paragraph novelising the scene. Try to get across the effect of that particular crowd scene. Can you keep a similar pace/mood to the original video? I recommend this step even if you aren’t trying to be a writer — some things (e.g. movement and noise) can be more obvious when writing.

2 thoughts on “Some thoughts about crowd scenes, by way of the sketchbook

  1. Pingback: September 2021 — round up of posts | Kathleen Jennings

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