Rediscovering Portrait Sketching and Adding Lots of Colour

In my previous post I wrote about urban sketching and how it had come my main art focus (urban sketching post) but without knowing it, this came at the expense of portrait sketching. However as my urban sketching group moved mostly online a splinter group formed focusing on portraits, sometimes live portrait models would sit on a zoom call with us and sometimes from photos, sometimes for 5 minutes a portrait sometimes up to 20minutes. In my own time I tend to use Pintrest for reference photos (portrait references on Pintrest) and love throwing vibrant colours down sometimes more successfully than others.

The group sketching reminded me how as a teen portrait sketching was my main go-to. It was easy to see if you’d “got it right” by whether the portrait was recognisable as the individual (often celebrity). Back then I tended to draw in pencil or charcoal almost never with a coloured medium. The style and technique were never important to me, only ever the likeness.

Here are a few of my favourite portraits from pre 2010

Looking back I’m surprised to find how much my portraits have changed, and in my opinion improved. Although the shapes and colours are vastly different in portraits and urban sketches, the skills used are very similar. The need for observation, perspective and contrast are equally important in both subjects consequently practicing these for any sketch will improve them for all. I think the most notable change is how much quicker and looser my sketches are. Being far more relaxed and confident in my sketching the final products often end up looking fresher and less over worked.

Here are a few more recent sketches using similar supplies.

I’ve also gained the confidence required to incorporate colour. My first memorable attempt was using a handful of cheap alcohol markers (chisel tip no brush tip) and I still enjoy using them.

More recently I’ve experimented with every type of coloured supply I could find:

Gouache

Watercolour

Children’s posterpaint

Felt tip pens

Digital

Markers with felt tip pens (My current favourite)

Other line drawings and 3 tone sketches

I’m glad I’ve rediscovered portrait sketching and with resources such as Pintrest to provide references the possibilities are endless. Here’s a link to a collection of portrait references I use on Pintrest.

Speed Sketching and Urban Sketching From Home

I’ve written about urban sketching previously (urban sketching post). It’s been one of the most successful New Year’s Resolutions I’ve ever made. Even in the present climate it provides a way to relate to your surroundings and and other people without requiring any compromise in personal safety. Traditionally urban sketching involves drawing the whole scene in front of you to capture the moment: people, structures, vehicles, weather etc, but in my own sketches I find I tend to focus on one thing or another. When out and about sketching I usually categorise my sketching into two groups: people sketches and architectural sketches, both require completely different approaches, skills consequently they are suited to completely different situations.

Speed People Sketching

These are sketches I often refer to as coffee shop sketches as that’s my main venue. With these my aim is always to capture a persons posture, movement or attitude as quickly as possible. Sometimes furtively so they don’t notice me staring at them and sometimes in seconds as they are walking past the window. The practice leaves no time for hesitation or perfectionism and the results are fun little moments. I always keep a small sketchbook with me with a couple of pens; pencil is no good as its tempting to try and “correct” things resulting in missing the moment or removing the essence of the sketch.

Stationary people are simpler to sketch, people on phones, reading or eating, whereas passers by provide the challenge of movement and a maximum of 20 seconds before they’re out of sight. Admittedly some of the results are unidentifiable as people but it can be endlessly entertaining. You never really know how much you can do in those short seconds until you try, and as with everything you improve the more you practice.

Architectural Urban Sketching

Architectural sketches in many ways are the easier of the two. Firstly buildings don’t move giving you all the time you need, secondly they usually involve a lot of straight lines and follow very clear rules about perspective giving you some leeway in observation and thirdly you don’t tend to offend anyone if its not a great likeness or unflattering. For a good few years this type of sketch has been my preference enjoying the lack of time constraint and clearly identifiable results sometimes with sketching groups and sometimes alone. I also enjoy the way it forms a travel journal of the places I’ve been and seen.

With the current restrictions a lot of our normal meet-ups and live urban sketching has gone online and we have utilised google street view all over the world seeing places and buildings we have never seen before and still maintaining that human connection through zoom and group pages. In additions my urban sketching group have began a weekly perspective challenge based on personal photos with the intention of developing or skill with understanding and representing perspective in the image we see.

It’s not the same as real life urban sketching, it suffers from the same problem as drawing from pictures. The screen image has already been converted to a 2D representation, bypassing the need for you brain to do the job of understanding the 3 dimensions and sense of depth and space, but it still provides useful and enjoyable practice.

Exploring Your World By Urban Sketching

At the start of 2017, while living in Gloucestershire, I made a New Year’s resolution to draw more from real life, to be specific to begin urban sketching. If you aren’t sure what that means, it is simply drawing what you see in an ‘urban’ location. The aim is draw on site using whatever supplies you brought with you. Of course, no-one is going to stop you taking your sketch home and improving it or adding colour, but the intention is the sketches are created from real life.

There is a whole global art community dedicated to the practice of urban sketching; in hundreds of cities and towns in many countries sketching groups meet up to draw their environments. This community is known as USk and they have their own website listing each affiliated group around the world. That’s not to mention all of the unofficial groups around the world. It’s exciting to feel part of something so big, their website says:

“Come join us in showing the world one drawing at a time.”

and that sounds like a great adventure to be part of. Sure photos are great, but art can be so much more interesting.

At first I couldn’t find a group in Gloucestershire to join so I would go out sketching on my own. The sketch below is my first intentional Urban Sketch. I drew it sat on a bench in the middle of March, wrapped up cozy in my big coat and hat. I chose my church (Mariners) surrounded by the historic Gloucester docks as my first drawing. I sketched in pencil on location, then added colour at home using a mixture of Posca paint pens and coloured pencils from the pound shop.

Mariners

Mariners are a very friendly supportive church, and when they saw my sketch on Facebook asked if they could make postcards from it to place in the church for visitors to have and donations would go to the church. I was more than happy to do so (its a bit like the story of the talents in the bible). Of course many artists would frown on giving work away for free however I saw it more as giving back to God, he was welcome to use my work however he wanted, plus it’s nice to think there are random strangers out there in the world somewhere with a little piece of my art work (even better a piece I am pleased with).

mariners postcard

In 2018 I did eventually find a group that met once a month in Bristol, and I would join them from time to time (work permitting). We visited all sorts of locations, all free and all accessible by public transport. Museums, parks, interesting streets, markets, docks, anything and everything and the organisers were always open to suggestions.

There are so many advantages to urban sketching, and even more to meeting with a group.

1. You actually look at your surroundings.

I am not a naturally observant person, in fact many would call me oblivious. Sitting down and consciously observing your environment and the people around you really makes you notice and appreciate things you might have missed otherwise.

2. You can explore

As an extension to the first point, I particularly enjoy urban sketching when I am somewhere new. It’s a great way to explore and understand the area you are in. I try to ensure I sketch wherever I travel. Sometimes the buildings (I love buildings, they don’t move) and sometimes the people (they do move); you get to see similarities and differences and you gain some understanding.

3. You meet other people

I am also not naturally especially sociable, however the social side of urban sketching is within my comfort zone. Everyone has a common interest and there’s easy conversations to be had about art supplies, styles, and general preferences. All the events I’ve attended have ended up at a coffee shop where everyone is happy to share ideas and knowledge whilst eating cake (an obvious advantage).

4. Seeing a wide variety of art

During the coffee meet up at the end people generally pass their work around and it is fascinating (in a non-sarcastic way). You see so many ways to create an impression of your surroundings. Sure it can be daunting and you may not feel as capable as some of the others but you don’t have to share your work if you’d rather not. Either way I’ve definitely felt inspired and gained ideas from some of the pieces I’ve seen over the years.

5. You improve your skills

As with any activity, the more you practice the better you get. In this case, you get a wide range of subjects and conditions to sketch in. If you’re drawing people then maybe you’ll have a very short amount of time. If you’re drawing outside maybe the weather or lighting will be difficult. When you only have the items you brought with you, you will find a way to get along with them.

6. Its makes an interesting journal

Many people like to keep some sort of record of their lives, these days social media and photos on your phone do the job, but some people still like to keep a personal diary or journal. I love having these sketches as a travel journal. Places and people I’ve seen, events I’ve experienced. Sure they don’t have the perfect glossy finish a photo has, but I think they’re better for it. They show your personal impression of it all rather than an often impersonal, more factual representation.

Eventually an urban sketch group did form in Gloucestershire and I attended when I could. Sometimes some of the Bristol group would join us too. The Bristol group had really grown over the 2 years I’d been attending. It was good to see, though made finding a space for us all to sit together a bit tricky.

Now I am travelling again and sketching is still my way to explore and record my life and you will see some more glimpses of my life over the next few posts.