Love Your Bookshop Day sketches

It was Love Your Bookshop Day today! My most-frequented (and beloved) local bookshops are Avid Reader/Where the Wild Things Are and Pulp Fiction, but I know and love many others, including a variety of those I haven’t yet visited in person.

So today I finished cutting out silhouettes early (mid-afternoon, after Pulp had closed for the day, alas) and snuck out to sketch in bookshops (as opposed to sketching on bookshops, as I did for the launch of Flyaway).

Avid Reader — Window Drawings

This time I bought books, delivered books, chatted about books, got advice on books, and then sat on a chair behind a column and drew people.

I thoroughly enjoy drawing people in bookstores. There’s this quality of arrested movement. People deliberately settling to read tend to have very stable poses, but browsers are like living statues.

A friend met me there and we stopped for a drink and live music across the road (very quick backlit bar sketch, there!) and discussed scandals and the possible uses of observation journals.

Another bookshop that feels local is Book Moon Books in Easthampton, Massachusetts — these are some sketches from last November.

About 2/9 of Travelogues is actually me travelling to and from Book Moon Books.

It was at Book Moon that I finally discovered that my ideal of bookshop work (although I very much enjoyed my time on staff at Avid a few years back) is doing my work in the centre of the store while people murmur about books around me.

And finally — here are some rather older sketches from a Love Your Bookshop Day six(!) years ago, done for Avid Reader.

Sketching adventures

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A continuation of my pursuit of ways to draw people without people (previously: Beyond the Main Event; A Discovery of Headstrong, Obstinate Girls; Sketching the People Glimpsed From the Corner of Your Eye.)

This time I was drawing a story as I listened to it unfolding. This is very similar to how I sketch through projects anyway, but usually I’m reading, and can stop and go back, think and do research. Having to keep up with spoken descriptions has the advantage of forcing relatively fast decisions and shorthand for something that is happening mostly outside my own brain — and, like sketching domestic objects as people, it calls heavily on existing banks of mental references.

I do quite like this little background character, though.

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Beyond the main event — experiments with sketching

I’m testing ways to sketch in the absence of my usual opportunities to people-watch. (Of course, unusual opportunities still show up.)

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I’ve posted about using household objects as stand-ins:Sketching the people glimpsed from the corner of your eye, and A discovery of headstrong obstinate girls.

So in an effort to find people going about their daily lives, I tried sketching people in the background of TV shows.

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Advantages:

  • The background business is frequently less composed and dramatised than the main action (not always).
  • Generally, the full figures are shown.
  • There’s less detail, and so there are fewer distractions from considerations of pose and movement.
  • It’s pacy, especially with rapid-fire changes of camera angle — you have to sketch or lose the moment.
  • Watching just the background actors and extras is frequently delightful, and also a great way to rewatch shows.
  • Keeps my hands busy while watching Midsomer Murders.

Disadvantages:

  • It’s still cast and staged and costumed of course. I want to try this with background views in news or tourism or documentary footage.
  • Sometimes the camera cuts away too quickly — but then, passersby are often lost to view in the ordinary course of affairs.
  • The temptation is there to freeze-frame and sketch, but that would be defeating the whole purpose. (Leading to thoughts about sketching and temporality.)

I have more experiments to try, but this one was quite enjoyable, a pleasant challenge and an excellent excuse to watching the goings-on on Midsomer.

Writing/art exercises:

  • As above — have a sketchbook (or notebook) handy and sketch (or describe) background characters while watching a show (no pausing the show). Concentrate on movement, distinguishing poses, unusual lines — it’s about noticing, and training your eye and hand to communicate people.
  • When watching (more especially when rewatching) a show, pick a background character and imagine the scene or story from their perspective (sketch or write accordingly). I watch Pride and Prejudice with my dad a lot under ordinary circumstances, and much as I love it, I find myself reframing it as a different person’s story each time.
  • When looking at pictures (Pinterest, an art book, a virtual gallery tour), allow yourself to quickly acknowledge the main action. After that, you can only look at the background. What is going on there? Textures? Sidelong glances? Centurions being thrown off cantankerous horses? Tiny gilt angels no bigger than sea-monkeys? (I tried this with a friend once in a Renaissance exhibition and ended up in a very strange conversation? conspiracy theory? with a guard about rabbits in art).

Sketching with words

The post on Illustrating Flyaway, over at Tor.com, has a few location sketches on it from when I went to Hanging Rock with Belinda Morris (yes, that Hanging Rock, and yes we had a picnic), trying to figure out how Joan Lindsay did it.

I also went out to the area around where I grew up, and which partially suggested the region of Inglewell in Flyway, and although I did get a few sketches on the way, it proved difficult for two reasons.

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(Thanks to the Cecilie Anne Sloane Postgraduate English Creative Writing Research Scholarship made both trips possible)

First, I was driving alone, and it turns out I find it easier to say “stop! pull over! back up!” if I am not in fact the person trying to get from A to B before nightfall. Second, I draw with line and shape more than light, and it was the light that twisted something in my heart and stomach.

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But I’d also deliberately abandoned any photography skills I had back when I first started seriously sketching, and there are qualities it requires real skill to catch in a photograph (looking back to Hanging Rock, it’s as intensely, dizzily beautiful in real life as in the book, but in photographs it is just as eerie as in the movie).

So I started dictating as I went. Not dictating paragraphs of prose — I haven’t got into the stride of writing that way. Just… sketching. Going over words, looking for phrases or descriptions or similes or ten ways of seeing a set of silos, in the same way I’d draw a Blue-faced Honeyeater again and again, trying to find the shape, the line, that means the light that I see.

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Not all of these show up in Flyaway. I went on this trip as part of the editing process, confirming my memories and tightening what I’d already written, checking the way the light shifted over a day, what it did on the road. What the road did. Recording bits of other places, for other stories. Memories. Small wonders.

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Beautiful horrors.

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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.

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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).

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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:

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(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).

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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

Sketch as sketch can

I’ve mentioned that I like sketching people (and sketching helps me like people): The Madding Crowd.

Since many of my preferred methods of relaxing (cinemas, cafes, people) are somewhat curtailed at the moment, I’m working out alternative approaches.

But for now — taking the opportunities where I find them.

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Cats

Cats are great fun as decorative elements, but often difficult to catch on paper.

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Saffy, a descended ceiling-cat

When I visit friends with cats, I spend a lot of time chasing their cats around trying to draw them.

This is further complicated by cats who gradually vanish between the sofa cushions while they are being sketched.

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From Cassandra Clare’s December 2019 newsletter

It’s fun to glance back occasionally and see them over time — both changes in the cats and in my pursuit of an explanation of how Scottish Folds work.

Here’s Reginald (and Maggie) in 2017.

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And some bonus lions from the Melbourne Zoo the same year (“lion-coloured” is one of my favourite colour descriptions):

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The Madding Crowd

Sketching makes me like people more.

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I liked these people anyway

People in crowds become individuals. (This does relate to yesterday’s post: Sketch Notes).

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Why NOT dance with an inflatable unicorn?

The first time I went to the British Museum, I tried to see the Rosetta Stone. It was easy, crowding forward, to resent everyone else who was in the way. So many people. It can’t mean to them what it does to me.

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Some access issues

But when I retreated and got out my sketchbook, suddenly each person was an individual, to whom the stone meant something that made it worth seeing, and I was drawing a picture of people loving it.

And sometimes I’m drawing individuals I love, and realise they are a crowd, a whole.

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Readercon 2017, tag yourself

This is one of the reasons I like to sketch during O-Week (Orientation Week). It makes me more benevolent in general, which is always nice when I’m about to start teaching again.

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Fairy floss!

Everyone comes into focus, busy in their own way. There’s a degree of headshaking around the annual toga party, but look at them! All those teenagers in bedsheets.

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The phones, the wings, the Hercules, the occasional serious cosplayers. Body language is 75% funnier in an inexpertly constructed toga and rugby shorts.

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Sketch notes

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Sketching through a manuscript last night.

I don’t have a good mental template for goats.

Pigs are also tricky. Their legs are so stiff. I need to spend more time sitting on a fence drawing them.

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One of the many  excellent reasons to sketch from life is that your mind and hand start to learn the basic lines that make up an animal or person or a movement — the top picture suggest I’ve spent more time drawing people interacting with clothes than drawing goats at all — and what makes a shadow mean things, and where the drama is in tiny far-off airport workers.

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I love sketching people in hi-vis.

It’s the same with writing. Taking notes out and about is a good way to get an appreciation of the range of habits and rhythms of interactions, and Angela Slatter has occasionally given me homework in the form of sitting under a tree for an hour and describing the leaves without using the word “green” (but more vehemently).

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I don’t have a picture of the tree-description page, but here are some rainy-day notes.

Even if I never go back to refer to these, even if I’m inventing worlds, the act of noticing gets the world into your fingertips, in all its textures and varieties, and it’s there when you need it.

Of course, it doesn’t just give a template. Sketching reminds me when to deviate from a template. Those are the details and textures that bring a picture or a world to life.

How do people actually interact with plinths?

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And it’s suprising how often the person holding out their arms and twirling in a cafe is not, as might be the obvious conclusion, a little girl, but a man demonstrating the move to his daughter, who is holding a stuffed tiger and regarding him with doubt.

 

The Ministry of Silly Walks

 

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Still a bit wobbly at this point, but look ma, no walking stick!

Some thoughts about walking:

 

  • I’ve just subscribed to Rob Walker’s Art of Noticing newsletter, which today recommended Elastic City‘s book Prompts for Participatory Walks. Since it sounded relevant for several projects, I ordered a copy and unduly complicated the procedure, leading to an exchange of emails in which I was at least able to clarify for the pleased but startled Elastic City the probable reason for a sudden surge in orders.
  • Years ago I was sketching in San Francisco and a man stopped to chat and ended up taking me on a short walking tour of various Painted Ladies and other significant buildings. He usually specialised in tours of the San Francisco watershed (ThinkWalks). And Katharine and Matt and I loudly discussed spurious histories in the hopes of misleading other tourists.

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2012?!

  • The Elastic City project reminds me in turn of Joël Henry‘s collaboration with Lonely Planet, the charming The Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel. I enjoyed this for the stories it suggested as much as the ideas: I wanted to read about people finding each other in unlikely ways, or someone earnestly sightseeing through Melbourne on a penny-farthing. The book seems to be out of print, although there are some ideas on the Latourex site and the Lonely Planet travel blog: 7 ways to experiment with travel.

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Teenage magpie hiding under a beehive, in the rain

  • I’m also reading a book Terri Windling recommended to me, Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse: Women Walk the City She lent it to me in Dartmoor, when I was going out (being taken out) walking on the moors or through fields nearly every day, and it was both affirming (I adore Dartmoor and love walking there, but so many books about Walking™ are about the wild, and I also quite like cities) and set up a bit of cognitive dissonance (being very much not in a city at the time).

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It’s always “caterpillar grass” to me

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He gave up. There’s still just an alley of mown grass through the middle of this backyard forest.

  • I’ve been thinking about this because I’m just getting back to walking regularly after being laid-up. My doctor wants me to go swimming but I’m staunchly resisting, even if it means walking in rainstorms and crouching down to watch earthworms, and trailing home wringing wet.

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No-one else was using the swing.

  • I’ve been keeping an observation journal for a project, and while I’ve been walking the same suburban circuit, it really is marvellous how many new things there are to notice each day. How quickly the teenage magpies grow up (they’re twitchy New Adults now, unsupervised, and look like they put their whites through the laundry with their dark clothes). What the spiders are doing. How the tiny soccer players follow their teenage coach like ducklings and gather around to take off his hat and play with his hair when he kneels down to talk to them. How some thoughts and memories get stored on a walk, and I only rediscover them when I revisit that ibis-tree, those bent reeds with their cross-hatched ripples. I don’t take a phone or notebook with me, but I list the things I remember when I get home.
  • And the students are returning to campus, which means all sorts of interactions to see and overhear while strolling through the Great Court, people stalking corellas with their phones, societies recruiting on Market Day…

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Obviously I had my sketchbook with me at this point.

  • I like ambling, not bounding up mountains. I like games without scoring. I like walking without having to take a survival kit. I like pocket-sized adventures.