Drawing Without A Subject

Being cloistered by winter isn’t great for a street sketcher but if you live in Quebec City, it’s a given for several months of the year.  There are museums and coffee shops but even so, there’s a lot of sketching time going down the drain if I don’t do some drawing at home.

This year I’m looking around for things to do that will improve my street sketching.  My mentor has been after me to spend time drawing from my imagination for a long time and for just as long a time, I’ve ignored the idea because I like drawing on location.

But, he says, drawing from imagination improves your visual memory in a number of ways.  It improves your visual memory.  It also requires that you engage your brain as you go through life to capture visual information that can be used when you’re constructing a drawing from memory.  It also allows you to draw more, because you don’t need a subject.

Visual memory

Even street sketchers need visual memory.  It’s a misnomer to talk of hand-eye coordination except for the ability to look at a piece of paper and have the ability to guide the pointy device to describe a circle or straight line.  When we actually draw objects however, the process looks more like

See –> Memory –> draw

and it’s the brain, and short-term visual memory that is involved in the filtering and translation of what the eye is recording and what you end up putting on paper.  The better your visual memory, the better that translation will be and the more time you can spend drawing vs looking at your subject.

Training the brain to record

Most people go through life not seeing most of what they are seeing.  The eye records everything in front of it.  The brain only keeps what it thinks you need.  A robin needs to identify worms, or parts of worms sticking out of the ground and it does so far better than you can.  We biologists call this ‘search image’ but in reality, it’s what the brain has been trained to see.  I never even noticed fire hydrants until Pete Scully drew them.  Now I always notice them.

Brains are flexible and can be trained.  From the view of a biologist, most of art training is brain training.  If your brain is going to build a visual vocabulary for you, it must be given a reason to actively record, for use later, stuff you see as you walk and sketch your way through life.  Most of us don’t do that.  We draw what we see and move on.  Drawing from imagination gives your brain the required motivation to turn on its recorder when you look at stuff.

Lest you doubt its applicability to location sketching, think about the architect.  When an architect goes to draw a building, they have a huge pile of visual stuff stored up in their brain from studying building shapes and their construction and design.  Clearly that helps them do building sketches more quickly and accurately.  Ask Liz Steel or Frank Ching if that’s true.

So, if you spend time drawing from memory, you will be frustrated by the fact that you don’t know what this or that looks like but you’ll also start getting your brain to build a visual vocabulary that you can use.  Because you’re a sketcher, these memory images/symbols will be more sophisticated than a ball on a stick for a tree, but they will have the same use that a child has for their symbols when you sit down with a blank piece of paper and nothing to look at.  And with a fully stocked visual vocabulary, your ability to work on location will improve as well.

Anyways, given that I’m stuck inside for the next few months, I’m going to work on my visual memory and I’m starting to build my visual vocabulary while I’m wearing half a dozen layers and out for a walk.

I’m really new at it but I’m finding it fun.  I’m doing a bunch of really quick, vague scenes that don’t amount to much but I just start drawing and adding stuff that pops out of my brain.  I’m also drawing more “little things” that exist in my world that, by themselves, aren’t really a drawing but the quick-sketch helps me capture the shape as I tell my brain “I want to use this in a sketch some day.”  None of this is great drawing as I’m suffering that ‘frustration’ thing I mentioned, not really knowing how to draw most of the things I want to add but can’t.  But here’s  a 2×4 sketch that started with a tree and I just started adding stuff to it.

2015-12-16memoryYesterday I was playing with some watercolor paper and decided to draw a scene that I saw in a newspaper a few days ago.  I doubt that it is close to the photo but I remembered a woman looking across a river at a house.  This one is 5×7.  Maybe winter won’t be so bad after all.

2015-12-24imagination

Quick Stop At The Coffee Shop

I was out for a walk today and stopped into a coffee shop for a quick cup of coffee.  In a time when everyone is paying $5 for their fancy, five-word named coffees, it must seem odd to the barista when I just say cafe noir when I’m asked what I want.  But they give it to me anyway and I don’t even have to stand in line with everyone else who are waiting for the steam machine to produce their orders.  Then again, they get fancy stuff drawn in the foam of their drink and I don’t.

I sat down, drank some coffee and looked out the window.  I decided to draw an old guy who was sitting on the opposite side of the room but before I was very far along he got up and left.  One must pick targets wisely and I hadn’t.  I continued, trying to complete his shape as best I could but eventually I gave up when it came to his extremities.  Instead I drew the lamp over his head and then, back to looking outside, I drew the street light.  A bit of fun and a bit of coffee.  It was time to walk some more.

2015-12-23brulerie

Hitting The Streets On Christmas

I had an exciting experience today.  It’s Christmas, December 25th, and I’m in Quebec City.  Our average December high temperatures are 15-16F.   But I got a spiffy new pair of gloves for Christmas and I decided to give them a test drive.  There is no snow on the ground here, which is almost a miracle. but what definitely is a miracle is that it’s over 40F here today, or 25-degrees above normal.  It was warmer yesterday 🙂

And so, though my purpose was to take a walk, I couldn’t resist the thrill of doing a street sketch on Christmas day.  I sat on a bench at the edge of a park and drew this little sketch of a gate across the street.  The sketch is trivial and yet incredibly significant to me at the same time.  Outdoor sketching on Christmas; who’da thunk it?

Xmas Day sketch

Stillman & Birn Alpha softcover, Namiki Falcon, DeAtramentis Document Black

Thursday Museum Sketching Group

Some of us in Quebec City have met at our Musee de la Civilisation for a while now, sometimes on Tuesday, sometimes Thursday, and sometimes both days, but we seem to be making the Thursday morning meetings a regular event, mostly due to emails sent out by Claudette to let us know what day we’re supposed to show up.

These sessions are really fun and quite different from a typical sketchcrawl.  Rather than an all day affair, these are only two to three hours.  We sketch for most of that time but then meet in the cafe for coffee/tea and to talk about drawing.  If we’re lucky we can get Yvan talking as he always teaches us something interesting about drawing.  Mostly, though, it’s just a regular, fun get together that keeps us all in touch and yet doesn’t require the commitment of an entire day.

At the last session I drew this Egyptian musical instrument called a sistrum, or at least that’s what the sign said it was.  I’m not sure how it’s supposed to work or what sounds it makes but I suspect it’s sort of like a tamborine and that you shake it.  I suspect there are supposed to be wires running through the other sets of holes.  In any case, it’s a paradox of simple, rusted strap-metal with small, carved characters stuck onto it.  Very interesting shapes to draw.

Egyptian musical instrument

Stillman & Birn Gamma, Namiki Falcon, DeAtramentis Document Black

I wandered around, had a conversation with Claudette and knew I was running out of time.  Claudette had shown me her sketch of this little guy so I sat down and did this quick drawing of him, or her.  Hard to tell with otters.

Egyptian river otter statue

Stillman & Birn Gamma, Namiki Falcon, DeAtramentis Document Black

Right now, there are eight of us who are regulars at Thursday Sketching Group.  We won’t be meeting Christmas Eve day and probably not New Years Eve day, but otherwise, why don’t you come out and join us.  You’ll have fun.  I guarantee it.

Sketchcrawl at Pavilion Laurentienne

In what seems a recurrent theme, I’m way behind in blogging.  Maybe it’s the season, or maybe I’m just slowing down.  It was a week ago that we held our monthly sketchcrawl, this time at Pavilion Laurentienne, which is a building on the Université Laval campus.  They have a series of statues and they were our targets.  I missed them entirely, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I arrived about 15 minutes ahead of schedule and since it wasn’t bitter cold (probably 38F) I decided to try to do a quick sketch of the building entrance.  While probably not the right format, I decided to do it in my new, 3×5 softcover Stillman & Birn sketchbook.  I sketched it quickly but even so, I was pretty cold by the time I finished so I didn’t add any color until I got warmed up inside.

Stillman & Birn Alpha 3x5, Namiki Falcon, DeAtramentis Document Black

Stillman & Birn Alpha 3×5, Namiki Falcon, DeAtramentis Document Black

Once inside there was the normal meet and greet that starts most of our sketchcrawls.  We ended up with eight people and the day was really fun.  Everybody but me was sketching statues but I was into ‘testing’ my new sketchbook so I continued with the tiny format.  Instead of statue sketching, I began to draw fellow sketchers.

Andre Gagnon was my first subject.  He’s not only a really fun guy, he’s a wonderful artist.  This day he was doing some fantastic work with a white pencil on black paper.

As I did this sketch I thought about testing something I thought of after I did the review of the Stillman & Birn softcovers.  Since the Alpha paper buckles slightly if you use a lot of water, I wondered how not having a hardcover would affect how the book would close.  With the hardcovers the buckling isn’t a problem as it happens as the sketch dries and once the cover is closed, the paper tends to flatten out.  So, as I added color to Andre, I really dumped a lot of water onto the paper.  In fact, it was too much for me to manage as I’m mostly ignorant of wet-n-wet techniques.

Andre Gagnon

I continued these little sketches, avoiding the statues for the day.  Here’s one I did of Yvan Breton, artist extraordinaire, who I consider both mentor and friend.  Note the “easel” he’s using.  It’s hung around his neck, very portable, and it can be used whether standing or sitting.  We’ve sort of jointly been improving the design and I’ll do a blog post about it “real soon” (which means I have no idea when I’ll get to it).  Again, I went heavy on the water as I wanted several pages that had been abused badly.

Yvan BretonThere’s one thing I noticed from my sketches that day.  I made everyone much fatter than they really are.  I wonder if they’re going to speak to me after I post these.  We’ll see.

After lunch Yvan started drawing a fig tree that was in the atrium.  He said it was hard to capture without adding all the details and I quipped (it’s easy to advise if you don’t have to take the advise), “Just draw it in two minutes and you’ll figure out how to do it.”

Unfortunately, my brain was listening and it decided that I was going to draw the tree quickly.  I exceeded “two minutes” by an order of magnitude but I did draw it fairly quickly, leaving out much of the detail.  I used watercolor pencils to color this one.

Fig treeAt this point we wrapped up the sketchcrawl and some of us headed for the bus stop.  Yvan and I ended up on the same bus and he started drawing a woman he could see in front of him.  She had a bright red hat that was an eye-catcher but I couldn’t really see her face because of a “thingie” that blocked my view.  I drew her anyway, or at least her hat.  This was done in a Field Notes book and thus the gridded paper.

2015-12-13busOh yeah…my watercolor/softcover experiment.  The paper holds up better than it should for a 100lb paper, but those of us who use S&B Alpha paper have come to expect that.   And I think I’m correct to be a bit more concerned about these softcovers staying closed after soaking pages with watercolor.  It’s not a big deal but as there’s no weight to the cover, it simply won’t squish the paper flat.  But, I now carry it with a rubber band wrapped around it and all is well.  I may even install a more typical closure band if I can ever get caught up on the blogging (grin).