I’ve been sketching when I watch TV with my housemate in the evenings. Currently, that means I’m sketching Midsomer Murders. This is in the service of (a) having something to do with my hands and (b) test-driving Procreate on an iPad Pro I’ve hired for a month. (It turns out this is an option! I searched for business equipment hire places, and hired it along with an Apple Pencil — they rent Cintiqs, too, and I was planning on trialling both, but the iPad Pro is already very promising and considerably more useful than the very old one I last used.)
This time I’m using it for speed-sketching characters (since I’m watching with someone else, I can’t keep pausing). It’s an effective way to watch a fairly familiar show. I definitely notice certain demographic idiosyncrasies more than usual, for good as well as ill — there are lots of great character actors with interesting faces in episodic murder mysteries, and they skew older so there’s more to work with in terms of visible structure.
Also, while people don’t hold their poses, they keep reappearing, so you can try the same person again from different angles.
It was also very good practice to draw people in the act of speaking, the different ways they move their mouths, and how their teeth fit into them, which comes up less in some fields of illustration than in others.
And of course the ongoing reminder that the faster the sketch, the more happy I am likely to be with it. Here are two of my favourites.
The left page often functions as a sort of sketchbook, anyway — little notes on the day, attempts to capture a sound or a movement or a glimpse (as here: pigeon shadows sliding up a roof to meet their pigeons). Some of these would work as drawings, but might need more work to capture what I wanted to remember (as compared to, say, a sketch of a single puffed-up topknot pigeon).
On this day, I took the observation journal with me on a walk, which is a sure way to fill the page up up far too quickly, and also to walk extremely slowly. But it creates a lovely lyrical impression of the day.
I’ve used this approach for some space/place-based projects — one is forthcoming, but of course Travelogues was written that way, and I’ve talked before (see: Sketching with words) about using this approach when writing Flyaway.
Left page: ROYGBIV
I also did a variant of the ROYGBIV exercise here (see: Observation Exercises). I was looking for colours from the spectrum (in order) in plants that I passed. This is complicated by my limited botanical knowledge, but it creates both a lovely structure for looking at the world and — as a result — a framework for an image of a place and time (Oxley at the end of autumn). Here’s the list:
Bottle-brush/poinsettia; duranta/grevillea; banksia candles/jacaranda leaves; new leaves on various/olive-honeyeater; eyes on ditto/spear on bird-of-paradise flowers; ditto/shadows in rolled tiger-tree bark in cleft; lavender-y patches of bark ditto; purply-pink berries (?); periwinkles; tips & edges of succulents.
Right page: A themed sketch / sampler
When sketching in my sketchbook, I will often pick a single topic to sketch (see sketchbook posts generally). These are frequently (but not exclusively) hands — hands in cafes, hands on books, hands on guitars…
Sketching thematically is useful for several reasons:
It’s a great way to pass time.
It makes me look closely at something obvious, and find the variety and personality in it.
It creates a framework for capturing an aspect of a setting (or moment or demographic).
It creates a useful thesaurus or sampler — even if I don’t refer back to the sketchbook, these poses are somewhere now in my hands or mind (see also: On making samplers of various kinds).
So this observation journal exercise was the same activity, but written.
It is a list of the ways people were holding their hands in a cafe.
They are loosely sorted into phone-holders (“Hand holding laptop & notebook, one finger extended to wrap phone & clasp against book”), coffee-holders (“Fingers tucked under saucers, thumbs on edges, fingers supporting sides (of saucers)”); and other (“One hand loosely clasping cardigan closed, other towing dog”).
I was surprised at the variety (although I shouldn’t have been) — perhaps because when I draw hands it’s just a matter of arranging lines and shadow — I use the same lines, the same shadows. But when I write these notes, I suddenly need to use a whole vocabulary of words for movements (flexed? extended? crooked?) that I don’t usually default to.
Take up a position from which you can observe life. I’m a fan of cafes because the life is in motion so no-one knows if I recorded it accurately or not. Socially-distanced vaccine queues are an option. Livestreams and documentary footage and birds out the window also work.
Pick a common/obvious detail of life: how people hold their hands in a cafe, or what they do with their feet in a supermarket queue, or what they do with their faces when listening on Zoom, or how dogs wait…
Fill a page with sketches (written or drawn) of just that detail — all the versions you can notice, the commonalities, the slight variations, the personalities that come through.
Switch — if you’re a writer, try sketching a couple poses (they can be diagrams); if you’re an artist, see what words you need to capture them.
If you want, do a quick (written or drawn) sketch of a scene in your preferred genre or from a favourite drawing, and see if you can incorporate that detail — a dragon waiting the way you saw a dog sprawled in the middle of a thoroughfare, a royal advisor holding a goblet the unexpectedly complicated way someone held a glass in a cafe, a detective scuffing their shoe childishly while thinking… See what it does to the scene or the character.
Note: If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a Patreon account (patreon.com/tanaudel) and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and I get through quite a bit of coffee).
I was working in a pocket Moleskine sketchbook with Pitt Artist pens — I’ve written more about why and how I use so much blue and yellow for rapid sketches here: Sketchbook colours — blue and gold.
It was a very full and interesting and thought-provoking day, organised for the State Library by Jackie Ryan (to be found at e.g. LinkedIn, UQP, Burgerforce), who has cultivated that really valuable creative gift of being able to put the right people together in the right room, and let good conversations happen.
I sketched for most of it, with occasional pauses to breathe/eat/stretch my hands. At the end, I presented the art and talked about the story of the day as filtered through a sketchbook — the necessity of selecting, the power of limitations, the charm of tiny details, the way those tiny details can accompany and elaborate on more formal records of an event, the mood and attitudes and fashion, the poses and thoughtfulness, the interactions of groups and personalities.
This is a collage of very scribbly drawings from the observation pages of the journal. I made it for a workshop about the journal I gave for SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) Queensland.
It’s a useful compendium of the variety of pictures in the journal — and the variety of quality. From diagrams of dangerous u-turns, through unconvincing cats, to badly-remembered helicopters. The point isn’t to be any good, or even large (see the soy sauce fish) — it’s just to make a drawn note of something from the day.
It’s illustration as the most short-hand version of communication — but so varied in what it succeeds in communicating (at least to me, its intended audience). Only a few have a caption, like the Uber Eats receipt symbol above (it does look like the ghost of Ned Kelly). But while I could have written a more convincing crow-in-the-window, what I was trying to remember here was its attitude — and the same for the boy in the very short tree, out of which a teacher was attempting to lure him. The hot water bottle was something simple and comforting (my back was still causing havoc), and the point of the person pushing the office chair uphill was their very specific cryptid pose.
And taken together, there’s something pleasing (to me) about the sheer volume of sketches, the resonances that appear between them (a sequence of birds, a contrast between plane shadows and a sturdy drawing board. I firmly believe that:
if you draw fast frequently you discover both a shorthand (eyebrows + nose = me) and what you like to draw
if you draw small, people think it’s detailed — the opposite is true (or scale, the grid is 0.5cm, less than 1/4 inch, and the pictures are drawn with a ballpoint: Pilot BPS-GP<F>)
if you draw a lot of small things it becomes a big piece of art (or at least an extended comic routine, which is also art)
“bad” can be an aspiration, not a criticism
if you draw things badly a lot, it just becomes ‘your style’
And these aren’t “good” pictures in the classical sense. The anatomy is dubious, the camelids are just a scribble with ears, the perspective isn’t, I forgot how sofas work. But where they work, it’s because:
I don’t care if these are good — they’re not meant to be academic exercises. The only way to get them wrong is not to do them.
They’re fast, which makes them honest while also conferring a degree of plausible deniability
They’re also chatty (although I’m primarily talking to myself) and I like chatty drawings just as much as those which look like worlds you could walk into (anecdotes vs epics)
You can see the important-to-me shapes. The curly back of the sofa below is not at all accurate to the actual woodwork, but that’s the impression it left. The cockatoo above isn’t at all correct, but all I wanted to remember was the punk hairstyle (I think the breeze was behind it). The contrast in the movement of the boy in the tree vs the pose of his teacher (the second picture above) was all I needed — everything else is just supporting context. Movement tells a story and covers over a multitude of inaccuracies.
But there’s something else I discovered putting these slides together: Seen en masse, these scribbly drawings become a time-lapse of a week, a month, a year, a cascade of days and alpacas and domestic upheaval and other people’s cats.
Last month, I sketched a matrix-game workshop at the University of Queensland — a type of roleplaying game designed not to be “won”, but to create & identify problems inherent in (or that could affect) the scenario, for later investigation.
The workshop was part of the Defence Innovation Bridge — a joint project between the UQ Business School, the UQ Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, the Australian Defence Force, and several startup companies in very interesting fields. The workshop was run by Dr Helen Marshall and Professor Kim Wilkins.
The scenario being played through involved an evacuation being conducted in diplomatically awkward circumstances, with an eye to raising questions about systems, strategies and limitations to do with communication technologies (among other things).
I was (always!) looking forward to some documentary sketching — complicated in this case by the physical people mostly just sitting at tables (no dramatic poses, I thought) and some technical things happening into the situations they were describing (for which I might not have mental reference).
Of course, the combination of physical presence and stories being told turned out to be delightful to draw. People got invested in characters and situations, which made their movements interesting.
It was also enjoyable considering how groups related to each other at tables.
Or moved between tables.
I also discovered that it can be fascinating watching what people do with their feet when sitting for a day — not as consciously communicative as hands, but definitely expressive.
Drawing what was happening in the game was more difficult than in other role-playing games where each person controls one character — this was groups and interests and technical details, and a fairly high-level view of the situation, and all being discussed and refined and changed.
I solved this by drawing the scenarios and fragmentary suggestions into speech bubbles, which at least amused me. However it also had the effect of creating rough time-stamps, capturing attitudes in the room around particular points in the game — an unusual but intriguing record alongside the more traditional formal note-taking.
The notebook is a pocket Moleskine sketchbook, and the pens are all Faber Castell Pitt Artist Pens (I posted more about the colour choices here: Sketchbook colours — blue and gold.):
Small Black Fineliner 199
Sky Blue brush tip 146
Green Gold brush tip 268.
6 solid hours of live sketching is a lot. Especially after a year of doing very little out and about.
Documentary/reportage sketching involves rather intense alertness. Not just the drawing, and the noticing what you’re drawing, but noticing things to draw, and patterns, and so on. It burns up a bit of energy.
I do like documentary sketching, though! It’s very useful for other work, of course, but there’s a liveliness and immediacy and plausible-deniability to drawing in the moment, picking out flashing fragments of the day, sharing things that charmed me, or jokes, or fascinatingly human gestures. Also, sometimes it’s nice to just draw a thing, intensely, and then be done with it.
Feet are surprisingly expressive.
Drawing conversations as speech was a lot of fun, and has worked its way into some projects since.
The blue and yellow combination feels very effective — a hint at colour difference, warm/cool separations, delineating areas. It’s starting to feel more naturally and flexibly communicative. I posted more about that colour combination here: Sketchbook colours — blue and gold.
Note: This post started as a post for supporters on Patreon. If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a Patreon account (patreon.com/tanaudel) and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel(and I get through quite a bit of coffee).
When I’m sketching, I work in a Moleskine pocket notebook, and use mostly Faber Castell PITT artist pens — often quite vigorously. However, these are three of my current favourite sketching pens (for more on favourite colours, see Loving the tools):
Small Black Fineliner 199
Sky Blue brush tip 146
Green Gold brush tip 268 (note — it’s not metallic, but more of an old mustard colour)
The first time I really started using them as a set was at the Natural History Museum in Oxford — and mostly because it was a very blue-and-gold place.
At this point I was mostly using the two colours to identify the blue and yellow of what I was looking at, as well as using the blue for some shadows.
I’d already been using blue for shading, sometimes — especially when I didn’t have the time to record more detailed colours. It’s more vivid than a grey shadow — I like how it lifts the picture off the page as a little object, instead of making the figures sink into it. (By “shading” I mean both adding actual shadows, and indicating darker colours.) And while the blue is cool, it doesn’t look cold on the warm cream of the Moleskine pages.
I began using the mustard yellow to do the same. It had a much warmer effect than the blue, but I liked its old-school monochrome effect. And neither of them seemed to say This Is What The Scene Is About in the way some other colours, such as green, do.
But since I liked both the blue and the yellow for this purpose, I kept using them together.
In these sketches (above) at Book Moon Books, I used the blue for the figures — for shadow and cold and to make them stand out, and because their backs were mostly to me — and yellow for the books and store, for the warmth and light. I really like how the use of the two colours distinguishes the figures from the background (which doesn’t really happen with the white dress in the grey sketch at Château de Comper, earlier).
By the time I got to Avid Reader for Love Your Bookshop Day last year (context: Queensland, Australia, where that was safe and legal!), you can see the use has shifted again. You can also see that I bought new pens which hadn’t begun drying and darkening.
In the Avid Reader drawings, I’m using both colours on each figure, instead of using them to separate elements. I suspect this was in part because it was daylight, and warm weather — there’s a breezier feeling to these than the Book Moon sketches! But I was also using the two colours to quickly note the direction of light and where shadows fell, as well as to distinguish some areas of different colour, even if they weren’t exactly these colours.
Recently, I’ve been sketching some workshops at the University of Queensland (I’ll post more of these soon — but the art is already up for patrons on patreon.com/tanaudel). Going back over those pages, I realised how many things the colours were doing.
Even just in the scene above, you can see where I’ve used the colours to show shadow, the direction of light, the colour of the background, to separate figures from each other and the table, and to keep the events in the speech bubbles at a remove by only using blue in them. And in the image below, I’ve also used the yellow over the blue to hint at a khaki uniform.
So! Here are a few benefits/uses of very limited colours, especially for fast sketching:
Shadow (and shape and direction of light)
Warmth and cold
Tone and more colours than you’d think
Pulling a sketch together
Anchoring a drawing to or lifting it from the page
Very quickly communicating the most important details
Unifying a group of drawings/creating a consistent style for a project
Choose two colours you like. It doesn’t have to be blue and yellow. Blue and red is another popular choice, and an image search of Risograph prints will give you some ideas of what can be done with a limited palette. Or pull out two coloured pencils at random.
Do a few small monochrome sketches (in words or pictures!). If stuck for ideas, perhaps do 20-second sketches (e.g. this very fast Ramon Casas study) or one-minute written descriptions of some famous paintings. Work in black line or pencil or, if writing, in bare-bones description with no colour.
Now, rework each sketch by adding hints of those two colours (coloured pencil, watercolour, markers, digital colour, words…). Here are a few approaches you could try:
Show the direction of light and shadow, or where the highlights are (Dorothy Dunnett does this fabulously in some of her novels, and John Dickson Carr creates lurid effects with green and red in The Waxworks Murder).
To pick out as much of the original colour as you can.
To distinguish between a figure and the background.
To show warm and cold areas.
Bonus round: Change the colours and see what happens.
Note: This post began as a post for supporters on Patreon — if you’d like to support art and posts about it, patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel(and I get through quite a bit of coffee).
I’m still only getting the chance to do it occasionally, but I’m trying to take more of those chances! I’ve missed being in practice watching little mannerisms, the way people stand or walk or put their weight on one hip, or hold bags. It’s a whole vocabulary of human movement that’s very useful to know — and the more I draw it, the more it’s likely to come out of my pen when I need it to.
My pens dried out last year and I had to replace them in order to do the QLA portraits. So I’m getting used to the colours again, and to seeing people in the wild, and to finding where the corners and chairs that I’m allowed to linger in are.
I have many excellent writing friends, and sometimes I get to illustrate their stories but very occasionally I get to sneak into the process before then — in this case at the story notes stage 4 years ago.
(I think the hovering crocodile was something to do with Peter M Ball).
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).
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.