The Observation Journal

This year I have been designing and delivering the tutorials for a new subject on creativity at my university. One of the pieces of assessment was an observation journal, and I wanted to work up an approach to it that I could use as a template for when the students first started (something beyond just their class notes), that would serve as an example of its feasibility, where I could test ideas, and which would be genuinely useful for future tutorials and assessment.

These are some of my earliest notes towards it. I had just read Lynda Barry’s Syllabus, and I liked the potential of her did/saw/heard/picture pages: five things you’ve seen/heard/done that day, and a picture of something from it — both for a manageable amount of daily observation and as a resource for other activities.

But as I’ve kept using this approach, I’ve also found it a very soothing structure — it prompts me to notice things, but not excessively; it can gently retrieve a sinking mood; it encourages me to remember things, but only just enough to make me thoughtful; it catches the tenor of a day (and an era) surprisingly well, without the time needed to construct an accurate record of events; it can be done very quickly (important for reassuring undergrads); and it’s an unexpectedly wide-ranging resource for many games, ideas, and projects (more on those later).

These are from back in January when I was on fairly strong painkillers, walking (as you can see) with a cane, and unable to sit up to write, which contributes to the overall air of illegibility. (The last picture is of a mummified gecko found in a cupboard, just fyi).


“The treasure islands were his desired landfall”

A little sketch for a little project of mine I hope will be coming out later this year (in the end, not illustrated).


It is in several ways (more than are visible here) an example of the overlap between sketching and writing. But it’s also illustrative of the dangers of reading poetry (in this case, Judith Wright’s “The Idler”), which tends to then seep back out into everything else.

Sketches and notes: their purpose


I was going back through photos and found this unused sketch from Kij Johnson’s The River Bank.

This stage of a project is very charming — the snapshots of moments, the hint of movement (or, as here, stillness) and expression. They are usually just notes for myself, but a lot of the work involved in finishing a more formal final illustration is about trying to capture that lightness. (Although when I’m making sketches that will be the final illustrations, there’s a lot of unseen work involved in trying to teach my hand the shapes of what I’ll be drawing).



Sketches in progress for Angela Slatter’s The Tallow-Wife


Something I’m gradually learning with writing is to treat the early stages in a similar way: quick notes on an aesthetic, lists of “lush language” (per Kim Wilkins), just sketching the best bits (including sketching with words) so that the heart and movement is there.


And if you are looking for a pleasant, gentle, sunlit story, with nothing more nefarious than foxes and stoats, written with a deft touch and a loving eye, I highly recommend The River Bank.

Sketching adventures


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.


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.)


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.



  • 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.


  • 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 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)

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.




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


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.


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.


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


The Madding Crowd

Sketching makes me like people more.


I liked these people anyway

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


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.


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.


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.


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.


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


Sketch notes


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.


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.


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).


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?


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.