Tuesday, 15 June 2010

How to Draw People: Sketching in Public Places


I often get emails from people who've seen my train drawings, asking for advice on how to go about sketching strangers in public.


So, although I have probably said a lot of this before, in bits and bobs, I thought I'd put it all together, to maybe help give people the confidence to have a go.


Firstly, I never, ever ask permission: if you do that, you're stuck drawing a 'portrait', which is a totally different thing; people are no longer natural, plus there's suddenly an expectation on you to achieve a likeness (as well as a need to make sure it's flattering!), which makes things quite stressful.

My 'victim' sometimes works it out halfway through, but then they tend to hold the original position and carry on with what they were doing.


There are tricks: firstly, I have found trains are perfect - when people are travelling, they have less objection than when they're 'at leisure'. It's dead time, so somehow up for grabs. I know sketchers who've been challenged for drawing strangers in a pub or restaurant: people can feel you're invading their privacy in these places.

I plucked up courage to try sketching at the hairdressers once:


Museums, galleries, cafes and queues seem to be other universally acceptable venues. Buses are too bumpy by the way, and people get off to soon.


I always choose a table seat on the train. It gives you a better view of more people. The main reason though, is I can put my handbag on the table and my sketchbook in my lap, so it's hard for anyone to work out what I'm up to.


I try not to draw people with friends: conversation makes them move constantly. People reading books are good, but newspapers are a problem: too many different head positions as they look at different articles! People sleeping, texting or at laptops are the best of all - total absorption, so they rarely see you, and they hold one position for ages.


I sometimes show people, if I'm proud of the drawing. Also, if they realised I was drawing them, it's a nice courtesy. I've had some lovely conversations as a result: it's a great way of bonding with complete strangers in a weirdly random way.


People's reaction generally ranges from disbelief or surprise, to feeling flattered. Non-plussed is the most negative I've had so far.


If you are new to it, I suggest you focus on particular details - shoes, hands, bits of faces - rather than going for the whole person.


Go for venues where folks are likely to be sitting for a while. I tried the forecourt of a station once - hopeless: everyone was in a hurry and very twitchy!


Try not to rub out - it makes a mess and takes up valuable time. If it goes wrong, either draw over the top, or move to a new bit of the page. Also, have 2 or 3 sketches of the same person going at once on the same page: that way you can jump between them as they move about:


Oh, and a hot tip if you work in pencil: I carry at least half a dozen (3Bs are my fave), ready sharpened in a pencil case, that way I never need to stop and sharpen mid-way, and miss my moment.



There are some short films of me talking about how I use my sketchbooks, as well as how I do my book illustration work here, which might be useful. You might also be interested in my how-to-draw films, which you can see on my YouTube channel.

Remember: the first sketch is the hardest, so screw up your courage and just make a start. You will get better too, honest! If you still feel too self conscious, why not get together with friends and do a sketchcrawl

I am currently working on a book about sketching people, where I will of course be able to go into a lot more depth. It will be published by Quarto books, but is still in the early stages. I'll Keep you posted.

You can view a selection from my various other sketchbooks here on my website, including those I brought back from travels to places like IndiaChina, Namibia, Vietnam, Australia and all over Europe.

42 comments:

Deborah Leigh said...

Thank you so much for this post. It is so helpful.

Tosin said...

I was really hoping you'd do a post like this. Thank you very much. =3

Story Land Farm said...

I love your work. Do you mind if I follow your blog and would you have info you can e-mail me on your services?
juleeann at mac dot com

Sketchalina said...

This is great, thanks!

raena said...

Appreciate this post very much!!

Nikira said...

Really wonderful post. Thank you so much. I have to be really brave to draw in NY Subway, where mostly you sit across each other. Love your line work.

Keith said...

Fantastic sketches. Love your shading. And the solidity of the folded arms.

How do you add the colour in ?

Lynne Chapman said...

Thanks folks - glad you like the drawings and the info is helpful.

Keith: the shading is mostly done in Photoshop afterwards, though the hairdresser one is a rare watercolour.

Jon Davis said...

This is a great guide, excellent stuff :)

BELLASTELLAGIRL said...

Thanks for sharing this with us, Lynne. I have also drawn people but find if it is a pub, they are usually quite lubricated by the time I finish and so don't care the result is nothing like!

I didn't realise much of your shading is finished off with Photoshop. I always feel under pressure to make a well-rounded sketch in situ, so you have taken the heat off.

Noxx said...

Great advice, thanks for sharing. It's scary but great fun sketching people out and about :)

I was sketching on the tube in London once, a great place but so difficult because everyone gets off too soon!

Lynne Chapman said...

Yes Noxx - the tube is very tricky.

Bella: I meant to say 'tinting' is added in Photoshop, basically I add the colour later if I have a bit of spare time.

Annah said...

Wow you are awesome! I wish I could draw that well :)

Jan said...

I might actually pluck up the courage to do it now! Thanks to your wonderful advice. BTW has anyone ever drawn you back?

Lynne Chapman said...

That would be so funny Jan! The only thing that has come close is when I did the Wakefield Sketchcrawl recently - I appear top left in the cream sketchbook: http://wakefieldsketch.blogspot.com/2010/05/wakefield-sketchcrawl-15th-may-chantry.html

Ira Robbins said...

Great sketches Lynne. The idea of 2 sketches of same person si good. Will try that.
Do you also play the 'i am drawing the person next to you eye trick?" When your subject seems to notice you sketch them you look away at a nearby subject trying to throw the person who is being drawn. You seem to be more upfront about your sketching., I always do it on the sly..especially after I got "caught" one day a few years ago and confronted. That put some stiffness in my otherwise uninhibited sketching. Its come back a bit but never the same.
The sketches and your comments are a great read. Would make fort an interesting book on this subject.

Lynne Chapman said...

Yes, I do that too!! I feign great concentration, as if the person next to them is REALLY tricky to draw. It works for a while, but they usually suss me in the end.

Was your confrontation nasty then? So far it's never happened to me.

Ira Robbins said...

It was nasty. A youngish woman walked the length of a nyc subway car to stand beside me and tell me I was breaking a law...her attitude was brazen (I should talk right) and stood beside me giving me a hard time until her station came up and she was off. I suppose it could have been worse but given that I had never been confronted before this stood out and came upon me unprepared. Oh well, such is the life of a sketch artist.

Lynne Chapman said...

Oh, poor you - that's sounds like a horribly upsetting, not to say embarrassing ordeal.

I think she must have been one HB short of a pencil case though, don't you?

Be reassured though - it's surely very unlikely to happen again.

Ira Robbins said...

"one HB short of a pencil case"

:)

birdbee said...

Great tips indeed!
Especially to draw the same person from different angles, it's annoying if you have to wait for people to go back to their position...I sometimes 'combine' different positions, but those sketches tend to look a bit odd :D
my favourite subject is my boyfriend, when he's playing on his playstation 3, the perfect moment for a sketch!

John said...

Maybe I should switch to pencil, I'd probably squeeze more sketches in that way! I've always invariably used pen for train sketching, mostly a Pilot Hi-Tec-C 0.4, though I've been known to sketch directly with a dip-pen and bottle of black ink (not recommended for crowded trains or bumpy rides!).

I'm shamefully slow on updating my blogs, but Lynne you've inspired me to dig some out. Here's a few old sketches on my Japanese blog. http://shelleyjapan.blogspot.com/2009/03/blog-post_5048.html

Lynne Chapman said...

OMG John - just the thought of an open pot of black ink on public transport...

Ellen said...

It's a gift given talent, it's no joke you were able to draw so fast those subjects you did. Bravo!
how to draw people

Anonymous said...

wow, great advice lynne

Mark Payton said...

I myself do all my drawing -so far- in and around the bus. It is my main means of transport around town. I have become known as the bus artist here in Rochester, NY. I insist on using a fine tip sharpie marker so I am forced to leave my mistakes for me to see. It has helped me be better at my work. I started sketching to help me be more expresive and to be looser with my work since my finished work tends to be overly detailed and tedius-therfore slow. I love what it has done for me and a lot of what you have said about drwing on the trains is the same on the bus but tighter quarters. I am now on the usk list as a member. Trying to build up a group of usk members here.

Lynne the Pencil said...

Welcome to Urban Sketchers Mark - I will look out for your work. Good luck with those bus drawings - tricky stuff!

David said...

Amazing work. Congratulations and thanks for sharing!

Ceetee said...

just read this..really helpful..though i still need a nice non-busy place to sketch...Singapore's too hectic to find one person whom i can sketch from afar without a hundred eyes looking down your sheet lol

Mark Pamintuan said...

Hello Lynne!

Thank you for responding through your recent post on Urban Sketchers. All your advice are really helpful! I feel the same too that if I ask permission to draw the person, the natural pose will be lost.

Your sketches are amazing! How long did these take you?

I will definitely be referring back to this post :)

Lynne the Pencil said...

Glad it's helpful Mark. The sketches take anything from 5 mnutes to 25 minutes, but generally somewhere in between. It's funny though: do you find that you spend 25 minutes on a so-so sketch, then have just 5 minutes left and so do a throw-away quickie that turns out to be a hundred times more interesting than the other?

Simple Living Blogger said...

Hi Lynne,
I recently discovered your blog thru Urban Sketchers and this post on how to discreetly sketch people in public. Today, I was sketching at a local coffee shop and tried a few of your suggestions. Putting the purse on the table and the sketchbook on my lap worked great. I sketched for an hour totally un-detected. :)
I plan to use more of these tips so I can get out and practice sketching in public more. Thanks!
Janine

Lynne the Pencil said...

Hey - well done Janine! So glad it worked for you too. The more you do it, the less you worry about people noticing anyway. Have fun! L x

Charles Tryon said...

I was actually sketching a woman while waiting at the gate for the plane in an airport. Get on the plain, and WHO ENDS UP SITTING NEXT TO ME! ;-) I finally got up the courage to show her, and maybe because I'd taken the initiative, she was actually quite happy at the sketch. (Thankfully, it was one of my better ones...)

Lynne the Pencil said...

Brillinat story Charles. Well done for showing her. I find people generally LOVE the idea of being drawn - it's something they mostly would never imagine happening!

Adrienne Smith said...

I really enjoyed reading this, Lynne! :) I once tried to draw a person while we were on an Airplane, but the guy was just too aware, even though he sat a seat or two ahead of me. I was so nervous! Hahah. And the guy sitting next to me kept staring. It was just weird all around. Haha.

Lynne the Pencil said...

You do sometimes get awkward customers, where I can tell they are uncomfortable with it. Just one of those things - best to start with someone else instead. Don't worry about neighbours staring though: it doesn't mean they disaprove, just usually that they haven't seen it happen before. Have another go next time x

Andrew Ross said...

Love the way you draw, wonder how long you take to do it.....Been thinking of going to the mall and start Sketching people. My Portraits take for ever to draw, Sketching would speed up the process

Lynne the Pencil said...

Go for it Andrew. You will probably need to adopt new techniques though, as you do have to be speedy. I take anything from 5 minutes to 40 minutes, usually about 15 minutes. people just don't stick around much longer than that, even on a train. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Great work. I do some drawing myself; I haven't taken up professionally, though. I've always been fascinated by life sketching and have always wanted to develop the hability to do it; however, I've never really gone at it in a very decided way. I tend to be detail oriented and too consciuos about my drawings, and therefore, slow. Also, if you're too conscoius, it's kind of intimidating. I feel that this post might help me summon the confidence to just go ahead and start, and be happy with the results, whatever turns out. After all, there's always another piece of paper, right?

Lynne the Pencil said...

Getting caught up in detail is probably the most common problem, so you're not alone. I'm so glad my post has helped give you more confidence. You're right - plenty of paper out there, so just go for it :-)

Kev the Kitchen Worktops Man said...

Your illustrations are brilliant, Lynne, just brilliant, keep doing what you're doing.