How to Sketch without Being Sketchy
Just imagine that’s what all of the people are saying while waiting to board a flight this summer. (Which will probably be delayed.)
Waiting for your trip to start is a tedious experience we’ve all shared, but we have a few tricks up our sleeve to help you (creatively) pass the time. Michael Chesley Johnson explains in The Artist’s Magazine‘s July/August issue how to sketch people at the airport without seeming, well, sketchy.
Tools of the Trade
I like to keep my travel materials simple and small. In the past, I’ve taken wood-cased 6B pencils, a sharpener and any sketchbook that fit in my traveling backpack.
Lately, I’ve taken mechanical pencils so I can leave the sharpener behind. I have two mechanical pencils that I like. One is a Paper Mate ComfortMate Ultra with a 0.5 mm HB lead. It’s great for fine lines and anatomical studies.
My second pencil is a Staedtler Mars Technico Lead Holder with a 2 mm 4B lead. It’s softer and broader, so it’s great for massing in form quickly and making dark marks.
Since I use soft lead, I need to keep my drawings from smearing. The best way to do this is to use a small sketchbook with a sewn spine, rather than a spiral-bound book.
Moleskine’s Art Plus Collection has some good options. Pages shift easily in a spiral-bound book so, if you do use one, stretch a rubber or elastic hair band around the covers when the sketchbook is closed; this keeps the pages from rubbing together and smearing your work. When you get home, give each page a spray of fixative.
Choose Your Subject
People in airports are typically one of three things:
- The runner
- The walker
- The sitter
This is the person hurrying to a gate, running as fast as the carry-on luggage will allow. You may have 30 seconds—or less—to sketch. There’s no time to do a detailed study of form; instead, all you can capture is the gesture.
I like to make quick thumbnail silhouettes. A lot of artists worry about being caught in the act of sketching from life. The scurrier doesn’t have time to pay attention to you, so sketch all you want!
Pay close attention to posture. I mentally drop a plumb line from the subject’s abdomen (where the center of balance is located), and observe how the arc of the spine and legs relate to this line. I just mass in the form with shading.
Also, note the way carrying luggage changes posture. Often an arm carrying a bag creates a pleasing opposing arc to the figure’s overall gesture. Sometimes I even start the sketch by noting the weight and position of the bag—it can be an anchor around which you can build the figure.
This person has plenty of time between connections to stop by shop windows and think about a gift. You, too, have more time—and the opportunity to study physical types, walking styles and the way carry-ons and personal items affect the figure. The stroller probably won’t notice you sketching either.
I observe the way the walkers carry their weight. If they’re standing still, they’re most likely carrying the center of balance over one leg.
The faster they move, the farther the center of balance will be ahead of the trailing foot. I may drop a plumb line from the center of balance and build the body around that line.
Again, I look for how luggage is carried. Shoulder bags, backpacks and carried bags all affect the body’s posture in different ways.
This person is “shopped out” or maybe patiently waiting for the gate call. If you can work discretely, you can sketch these types for an extended period.
You can study a variety of seated postures as well as the anatomy of the clothed figure. This person also provides a great opportunity for a head study.
Sometimes the sitter is a sleeper so you won’t have to worry about getting caught. You’ll probably even have time to erase and correct the sketch!
When I’m sketching the sitter, I have a lot of fun. The positions are almost limitless—slouched, perched forward on the seat, sitting upright or leaning with head held in hand. Sitting at a cafe or bar, this person may be eating or drinking; at the gate, the sitter may be reading, texting or watching TV.
Any of these airport personas is worth studying. I observe folds in the shirt or pants and the way clothes hang on the body. If the head is interesting, I sketch it.
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What’s Next? Try Your Hand at Urban Sketching
Get excited about drawing and painting your new favorite places with urban sketcher, Marco Taro Holmes. In this preview of Drawing & Painting in a Travel Journal, you’ll get an introduction to Holmes’ three-step process: pencil, to pen, to brush.
Let the pencil capture the composition, the pen provide the fun details, and the watercolor add the harmony and life to your subjects. Happy sketching, artists!