Saturday, 8 October 2011


Listening to her Walkman
Someone recently asked me about sketching out of places where people can see you at work, and might look over your shoulder.  How to get over the fear of feeling silly, or of being ridiculed.

Well, it is a very natural reaction, but I want to reassure you about this, and encourage you to give it a try.

Of course,  it is wonderfully relaxing to sketch in your garden. Or to sketch family, or children,  like the image on the right here.  But what about sketching in a secluded bit of landscape, all alone?   I am always worried about being in the landscape on my own after an unpleasant few minutes thinking I was about to be murdered on a Portuguese hillside by the village drunk who came staggering toward me waving a VERY large carving knife!  I collected up my stuff faster than you would ever have thought possible, and ran like the wind!  He might have been harmless....but I wasn't about to hang around to find out!  

Anyway, there are marvellous subjects to be found away from the safety and security of your home and garden, and you will have the chance to try them out, if you pluck up the courage. However, the "outside world" tends to have rather a lot of PEOPLE in it. People who will want to see what you are doing, and people in your field of vision too.   Now I know it isn't always easy to draw people, but it is worth the effort, they make great subjects, and it is so rewarding when your people pics gradually begin to look better than you ever thought they would.  Why not start a "people" sketchbook?

Just think about it.  Waiting for a train, or a plane, you have subjects galore.  Sitting in the library.  At the park. On the beach.   Markets are terrific places to sketch in, but without people, they would look most odd. Just look at this Greek fisherman, stick in mouth, dog with stick in mouth too.  Wonderful! How could anyone resist sketching such a scene? They were so accommodating too...hardly changed position for ages.

 So how do you cope with drawing a scene with people in it, and at the same time, deal with people looking at your work?

  • Always sit (or stand if you prefer) with your back to a wall, so that nobody can easily creep up behind you to gaze over your shoulder.
  • use a small sketchbook and just a pencil to begin with.
  • Don't worry about finishing your sketch, particularly if your "subject" gets up, changes position, walks way.  Just move onto another sketch.   
  • someone once told me to put down a hat with a few coins in it.  This keeps the tight-fisted ones away! :)
  • If someone does determinedly come up to talk to you, try NOT to get engaged in a conversation with them, they will want to know how long you have been an artist;   why you chose that spot;  what type of pencil/sketchbook etc you are using, where they can go to buy them, or have art classes, and you should definitely see what their little granddaughter/daughter/niece can do, they are naturally gifted you know (unlike you......) You can avoid this kind of conversation if you concentrate hard on what you are doing, sighing occasionally to show that it is REALLY hard work and they are obviously interrupting your concentration.  Bit mean, I know, and not very sociable, but don't say I didn't warn you.....
then...sketching people......practice, practice, practice.  I don't want to bore you to death in this blog, so here are just a few important pointers.

  • Try hard to get proportions right when sketching figures in the distance, simplify the shape and aim to get the stance right, as above.  
  • When two or more figures stand together, squint to get the whole shape and then add just enough detail.  Dont worry about hands or feet...simplify them, as in the sketch to the right.  
  • Always make heads smaller than you think they are.
  • If you have the chance to study some people "up close" - for example while waiting at the airport, or when on a train, you can spend time working on more detail. 
  • If you have time, hint at the surroundings to a figure, it will provide a sense of scale.
Greek street corner.  Blot of paint at the top is NOT a cloud, it is my messy sketchbook!
venice carnival figures, captured in a cafe.
Cafes are good places to sketch in.

The more you practice sketching figures out of doors, the more confident you will feel about eventually putting figures into your paintings.  It is a really worthwhile way to spend sketching time.  In fact, what you most certainly will find, even if someone does approach you to see what you have been doing, is that they will be complimentary.  Most people admire artists at work, even beginners will receive encouragement.  Only someone rather jealous, or mean-spirited, will make adverse remarks.  Just smile politely at those people, and keep drawing!!!

waiting at the airport
Ait Sidi Ibrahim Ali.   I sat on a hillside in Morocco.  He came, watched, and would not stop talking.  In the end, to stop him talking, I sketched him.  He felt most honoured, and was delighted...even tho I didn't get a brilliant likeness, he thought it was great! ( Moroccan women will not allow you to sketch them;  they hate being studied and rush off.  They dont like cameras pointed at them either, they say "it hurts".)

One of the good things about occasionally chatting to your watchers, is that you might get to meet interesting people!  Never be worried about having watchers.
Just get out there and DO IT.


  1. Great sketches and wonderful, helpful post! Thank you for sharing your experiences with us.

  2. great post! I don't get to sketch people very often, I'm usually outside in my fields, but I do like doing it. I used to sketch them all the time while riding the buses in college.
    I also find that if you try not to 'meet' someones gaze, ignore people, they often won't bother you. Or if you feel they're coming your way, close your book and look thoughtfully away into space?? hahah...Might work.

  3. These sketches alone would make anyone want to try it. Such a useful post Jackie. Thank you.

  4. I shall try the looking thoughtfully into space idea! :) Keeping one eye on my handbag and the other on my kit, mind you....neat trick if you can do it.

  5. Excellent post! Beautiful sketches too! I love drawing in public too. I like three-quarter angles - the people often don't see you and it is the best angle for them anyway. Also sketching folks that are involved in conversations so they won't notice you!

  6. Great post! I know a lot of people get nervous about sketching in public. I never did because I was always a showoff, so I wouldn't chase them away. It surprised me more the few times no one came up to watch.

    I do know a little about fear though. I've overcome several phobias in my life - irrational fears that when I was a kid got laughed at so much that the bullies made them worse.

    I got over them by slow successive approximation. I deliberately sought out what I was afraid of in a milder form, the mildest form I could stand. Then faced it, kept on at that level for a while, tried something harder.

    For sketching with people around, it might start by sketching with several other artist friends. Even outdoors in public, if you go in a group with other artists someone else is bound to be less shy and take up explaining to people. The most shy in the group can stick to the middle where the people on the ends are more likely to get the questions.

    Or sketch in front of family some night, while they're busy watching television. They might get curious but at least they're people you know well and timing it for their favorite show, they'll be distracted enough not to bother you.

    Successive approximation works against specific fears. I can't think of one time when I was drawing in public that anyone insulted me or my art the way kids picked on me in grade school. Art changes the context for people. The ones who talk to you are interested in art and you have that in common to begin with.

  7. Great post that makes me think I should just do it! I am a self-confessed coward in this area now (which is a shame, because I used to have no qualms at all about sitting on a bus sketching everyone). I also love the tip of 'making the head smaller than you think' - so true, I always end up with giant heads and dis-proportioned bodies!

  8. I am hanging on every word you type....and loving your artwork too! I think even if we have experience, we're always looking for more advice...something we hadn't thought of already!

  9. Great post! I like the idea of keeping a sketchbook just for people sketches.

  10. how nice of you all to comment. If you do come back to have another look, please note that I am planning to try to post weekly....but this week is more than a little hectic, so do forgive me if I miss this one.
    thanks for all the encouragement and comment.

  11. Love your information - - -but really love your drawings!! They are so distinct, and are so yours!! And do make me want to work harder! I take all of these things seriously - - but have fun with it too. Thanks! I am enjoying the email updates as well.


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