Sketching in the Field
The Crafty One
Rules of Art
The Art and Life of Sulamith Wulfing
Making It Last!
EMG news for February 2008
Sketching in the FieldBehind the Art
by Melissa Acker
Sketching is something that we should all do. It improves your hand-eye co-ordination, teaches you about your subject, and gives you practice in technique and composition, as well as perspective. Even if your artwork has nothing to do with anything you'd be sketching, it will make you a better artist. But actually going out and doing it can be intimidating. There's a lot to consider: what to bring, where to go, etc. Here we'll go through some of these things so when you go out you can just concentrate on drawing!
Where to go and What to draw
There are tons of places you can go to draw; pretty much anywhere! Here's a list of some places you might find interesting:
Keep in mind some places may have restrictions on what you as an artist can do there; one of the museums I go to for instance allows drawing but not painting. It's a good idea to investigate before you go to find out if there are any restrictions.
As for what to draw… well you can draw anything! People, buildings, animals, furniture, whatever. Drawing anything is better than drawing nothing. If there is something in particular you want to draw, then chose your location appropriately. If not, then go a random area and just start sketching.
What to Bring
If you're just starting to sketch outside your studio, then you should start small. The absolute minimum you need is something to draw on and something to draw with, and maybe something to carry it all in. Here's a picture of my sketching kit right now:
I have my sketchbook, my camera, and an assortment of drawing materials. Currently I'm using a white and a sienna conte pencil, several water-soluble graphite pencils, my favorite drawing pen, a mechanical pencil and my watercolor brush. These are all kept in a wonderful roll-up case I got years ago, and with my sketchbook and my camera fit comfortably in my purse. I also bring my MP3 player for music if I want it and my cell phone so I can stay in touch; this is particularly important if you are going on a hike alone!
When I'm in the mood to do something different, I'll bring different materials. Other interesting things to bring are colored pencils, watercolor brush pens or felt-tip pens, watercolors, and markers. Basically if it can make a mark and it's portable, you can try it!
You also have a lot of choices when it comes to drawing surfaces. Even if all you want is white drawing paper, you can still chose how rough and how thick you want it. A sketchbook dedicated to sketching is a good idea. Keep it small; between 5 by 7 inches and 8.5 by 11 inches is fine. Bigger than that and it will be too bulky to haul around properly. You'll need it to be hardbound if possible, so you'll have a hard surface to draw on. If you decide on loose sheets of paper instead of a sketchbook, get a clipboard to bring along. You can also make your own sketchbooks, with whatever combination of different papers you like. You can get them bound at most copy centers. And of course you can also buy pads of various papers, such as colored pastel papers, watercolor papers or blocks, etc.
The important thing to do is experiment with different combinations of materials to find what you like. What works for one person might not work for another. Just remember not to bring too much at once, and to keep it portable. Keep in mind how long you plan on drawing. If it's only a half hour or so, bring maybe one drawing material. If you are spending the day somewhere, bring whatever you feel up to carrying.
If you plan on sketching outside, dress appropriately, but don't bulk up too much in the winter. If your arms feel constrained by your huge coat, you'll be less inclined to draw and less mobile in general, and the whole thing will feel like a chore. Bring two pairs of gloves: a warm pair, and one of those cheap thin pairs to wear underneath. Drawing with gloves on is hard, and if you are going to do it you need to make sure the gloves fit perfectly and don't inhibit your finger motion. In the warmer months, sunscreen and sunglasses are a good idea. And wear good footwear! There are only two rules: it must be comfortable, and it must be waterproof!
There are a slew of other things you can bring, depending on where you are going, how long you are going to be there and how light you want to pack. A thermos of coffee or tea can be amazing in the cool weather. A bottle of water or juice is always a good idea. You can also buy little, rather light portable seats to bring with you if you are going somewhere with little seating (a hike, or a museum for instance).
How to sketch in the field
The very first thing you must do when you begin sketching from life is this: lower your expectations. Considerably. Your first drawings will be terrible. Possibly even horrible. It will take weeks or months of practice to start churning out a pattern of acceptable work. Don't expect to pull out detailed studies for a year at least. I don't say this to discourage you from trying, but from giving up when you first start. So many artists give up at the beginning because they see their first drawings and think they are terrible artists who have no business trying. If you commit to practicing, you will definitely improve, and your life will be richer for it. Don't give up!
The other important thing is to only draw what you actually see, not what you think you see. This can be much harder than it sounds, but it's the key to drawing from life in general. Your brain has this sort of pre-made conception of What Things Look Like. Problem is, it's usually wrong. So really look at what you're drawing and pay attention.
Now, on to the fun part!
Most of what you will be doing in the field will be what we call 'gesture' drawings. These are quick little sketches, done to explore the movement or energy of the pose. You should start with small line drawings. Once you are comfortable doing these, start to work a little larger and add a little more structure and form. Keep them loose. It is more important, at first, to capture an impression of the energy, action and attitude of the subject than a super-accurate drawing. Draw through your subject instead of just drawing contours. I know when you look at my sketches down below, it looks like that's what I'm doing, but I've been doing it long enough that I do my rough work in my head. And even then some of my sketches are still pretty messy. The time will come when you have developed your skills enough that the contour sketches will just start coming. When you have been drawing for a period of time, you will find you start to develop your own shorthand and definite style. Style in particular will just sort of happen, and don't try to force it.
These sketches were done of the same birds on same outing, with different materials. The left side was done with a water-soluble pencil on watercolor paper. The right side is my pen and regular drawing paper. Which do you like better? What do you like or dislike about either method?
Pen sketches of my brother's hockey team (you really can bring a sketchbook anywhere!). Notice how they are in different stages of completion. Some are very stick-man-like drawings, some have a little more structure, and one is a rather finished rendering. This is what most of my sketchbook pages look like, with sketches at all stages of completion. The simple sketches here are what you should master before you start trying more complicated styles.
Sketches done at a cafe I used to go to a lot. The small rendering of the cafe is about as detailed as I get with the pen. I use crosshatching not only to define my values but also to define the contours of the object I'm drawing. Drawing these sorts of set-ups will test your knowledge of perspective, which is always good to practice. Once you are comfortable using this technique your drawing will become much faster.
On the left-hand side are some sketches of orangutans, done with my pen and a smudging technique I've developed with it. It's very good at giving the impression of thick, woolly fur. The middle sketches are ibis, which I love drawing. Not only are they usually kept in flocks, giving you lots of opportunities to draw different poses, but their striking black markings allow for a lot of experimentation. Birds in general are a good animal to start drawing. On the right are some toucans. I used a little smudging here and there, but it's mostly just my trusted crosshatching to suggest the feather pattern.
An Indian rhino, as detailed as my sketches of living creatures tend to get. I usually only do this when I can sit down and spend quite a lot of time watching the animal. I make tiny little sketches of different body parts and textures. This can be quite fun!
There you have it! There's a lot more to drawing in the field than I could have possibly covered in one article, but this should be enough to get you (hopefully!) interested and get you started. Once you've started drawing, read through this article again, as it will start to make a little more sense the more experience you have. I know as much as anyone how frustrating it can be to churn out terrible drawing after terrible drawing. But this kind of sketching is not about making pretty pictures, it's about learning how to draw and learning about your subject. The 'pretty pictures' are something of nice reward after all your practice. The most important thing is not give up, and remember that every great artist started out just where you are right now. Good luck everyone!
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