Sketching Techniques: Drawing From the Outside In

Today’s newsletter features Marc Taro Holmes, who has worked as an art director and conceptual designer at studios such as Electronic Arts, Microsoft and Disney. Now you can learn to sketch with his new book, The Urban Sketcher: Techniques for Seeing and Drawing on Location. 

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Beginner sketching tips

Lisbon, Jeronimos Interior (pen, ink and watercolor on 140-lb. Canson Montval block, 15×20) by Marc Taro Holmes

From The Urban Sketcher by Marc Taro Holmes

“Urban sketching is about observing the world, witnessing and recording. Thus, we want to be able to draw reasonably accurately. That does not mean photographically real–that kind of drawing is for studio artists who want to spend a great deal of time on a drawing. As urban sketchers, we want to simply sketch in a descriptive way to show people our stories. We want them to not only see what we’ve seen, but also to feel what it was like to be there.

“To that end, we must be able to draw anything we might encounter. We can’t be good at faces but not at architecture, or avoid cars because their shapes are complex. We need an all-around comfort with drawing, where any subject is equally achievable.

Beginner sketches

Sight Measuring and Angle Checking: You’re probably familiar with the image of the artist with his arm extended, holding a brush upright, thumb up like a hitchhiker. This is not just a funny stereotype of an artist–it’s a real measuring technique. In this shot I am checking things like the angle of the sloped street, and the height of the windows.

“Drawing from the outside in is a principle I’ve adopted in approaching all my sketches. The idea is to work larger-to-smaller, establishing the big shapes before investing time on the details. It’s a very fast way to sketch and a lot of problems with these outside shapes can be solved by doing corrections when things are still simple outlines.

Try to spot any errors in proportion in the first few minutes of a sketch. There’s nothing more frustrating than drawing in a lot of interesting details, only to realize you’ve drawn an important element out of scale. Or that you haven’t judged the height right, and you’re about to go off the edge of the page. That has happened to me many times, but there are two simple techniques I call “sight measuring” and “angle checking” that can help you spot these issues early on. They’re a simplified version of what is taught in fine-art ateliers as sight-size drawing.

Sight size, when done in the traditional manner, is a technique for the perfectionist. The artist must stand at a set distance from the subject and draw the subject to the scale it appears from that distance–the exact size that is in sight. The drawing is positioned vertically on an easel, directly parallel to the model. Precise measurements (using calipers and plumb lines) can be accurately checked between the drawing and the subject. It gives you a perfect drawing, but it it’s only for the most patient and determined of artists. ~M.T.H.

Learn more about Holmes’s sketching techniques in The Urban Sketcher: Techniques for Seeing and Drawing on Location.

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