The Sketching Path We Travel

I’ve been pondering where I want to go with my art and thus, I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the path I’ve taken to get where I am.  It’s funny, and maybe a bit odd, that I’ve been trying to get better at sketching and I haven’t done much of this kind of reflection.  Instead, I’ve plodded along as a guy “who draws stuff” and most of that drawing has been as a pen and ink guy who uses color to tint sketches, as so many urban sketchers do.

When I look back, though, I recall the early stages, where I was trying to draw things.  I would choose those things based upon what I was capable of drawing.  This is the stage where new sketchers say things like:

“I can’t draw buildings because I don’t understand perspective.”

“How do you draw a car?”

“Gardens are hard because they are complicated.”

“How do you draw trees?”

Eventually, sketchers learn that what they’ve been told over and over is true.  Everything is just a shape.  This changes things forever once we adopt this view.  It takes some time (for me it was counted in years), but you shift from looking at things and start seeing and drawing shapes.

The draw shapes path causes a change in what you try to draw because now, anything is a good subject, not just things you know how to draw.  A nose is no different from a can of soup to a shape sketcher.  For me, this didn’t come easy (maybe I haven’t even completed this shift) but it’s so liberating.

When it does occur, however, you need a new criterion for choosing a subject.  We all like to believe that we choose subjects based upon some high-art goal but in my experience that’s rarely the case.  In fact, I’d say that most sketchers, once they work with shapes, more often choose a subject based upon how much time they have, can I see it from a shady spot, and with a dose of “what’s my style?” mixed into the analysis.

And this is where we come back to me.  I’ve always been a guy who loves fountain pens and who worries a lot about proportions and relative sizes.  Translate that to mean, I’m not good at “loose” or “simplification.”  Marc Holmes has chided me into trying to draw loose and quickly a number of times.  I’ve tried.  Maybe I’ll get there some day but my sense is that I  simply like the process of capturing proper proportions, angles, etc.  All of this in spite of the fact that I’d love to be able to draw in the loose, “painterly” (his word) style he uses.

And so when I choose my subject, largely according to how much time I have, I have to choose a smaller, more simple subject than Marc would for the same amount of time.  I’m just not good enough to do it any other way.  Not a bad thing and to quote Clint Eastwood, “A man’s gotta know his limitations.”

Here’s an example where I didn’t choose well.  Heck, I didn’t choose at all.  We were out on a walk, wanted to sit in the shade and I found myself looking at the butt end of a large statue of Simon Bolivar on his horse.  At most I’d have five minutes to draw it as we rested.  In reality, given my sloth-like approach to sketching, it would have taken an hour to do a decent sketch.  BTW, this will be the last of my 5-min sketches that you’ll see.  This one was a good example of what I am talking about here but I won’t abuse your sense with any more of them (grin).

How do you make your subject choices?  Are you lucky enough to have moved beyond all this and so can draw anything in no time?

4 Responses to “The Sketching Path We Travel”

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  1. Tina Koyama says:

    I love this post, Larry, because I have traveled along many of the same thought-roads. (As I think you recall, we started sketching around the same time… 10 years ago!) I always have to laugh when I see entire series of books with titles like “How to Draw Trees” or “How to Draw Cats,” as if we learn to draw by focusing on one subject at a time. Since you’ve been following me as long as I’ve been following you, you know that my subject matter of choice is almost all mundane … whatever trash can or utility pole is standing in my view. 😉 And you’re totally right — it’s all just shapes. I wouldn’t say I can draw anything in no time. But one really valuable thing I’ve learned from all my life drawing practice is to use different media/approaches based on how much time I have. If the pose is 1 minute, then I use a brush pen so I can capture the figure with a few fat marks. If I have 20 minutes, I’ll use a pencil because I’ll have enough time for some shading. If I have longer, I might add color. I treat all my subjects this way, based on how much time I think I have (or want to spend). Sometimes if I really want to study something thoroughly, I’ll wait to draw it until I know I can comfortably spend a couple hours on it. But that’s rare.

    It’s really great to see you sketching again, however long you spend on the sketches!

    • You say some mighty important stuff here, Tina. Your description of changing mediums to suit the situation/time_available can be interpreted as you changing your goals. It’s one of my big problems. My decisions are always based upon what I can do with a fountain pen and success is determined by how much I can accurately (my personal definition) I can capture.

      I’ve always seen this as a liability but my five minute sketches are unsatisfactory to me because they always fall short of my singular goal (see above). I do loosen up when drawing people on the street and that, for some reason, seems ok to my brain but to draw a building without worrying about a modicom of accuracy… my brain rejects the notion. Part of my journey I suppose but I think I need bring some of the flexibility that Tina has into my sketching. Thanks for the response.

  2. Kate B says:

    Well, I think that’s a rather good sketch, especially for 5 minutes! Otherwise, not sure what to say to you as I’m rather a quick draw. I usually get everything done… pencil blocking, pen drawing, watercolor… in about 30-45 min. I choose my subjects mostly on what appeals to me. However, in the hot summer, shade is a priority.

    • Ya gotta have shade. I can get a lot done in 30-45 minutes but somewhere around 10 minutes and less I lose control over proportions and placement and my sketches fall apart. My brain just moves too slow I guess. The bigger problem however, is how my brain accepts its results. I know this but have a hard time with it nevertheless 🙂