Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Don’t Look Now!

Well, don’t look at your paper; do look intently at your subject and draw it. 

Tuesday Tips and Tricks

Blind-Contour Drawing 

Too Much Espresso

 A blind-contour drawing is essentially drawing the outline of your subject without looking at your paper. I’m using the term contour rather loosely. It’s really a combination of contour and continuous-line drawing. Doing blind contour exercises can have real benefits for your sketching technique.


  • Choose your subject and decide where you are going to start. 
  • Put your pencil, pen or marker on the paper at your starting point and begin.
  • Do not look at your paper until you are finished! I know it’s hard but don’t cheat.
  • Believe your pen is touching the edge of your subject and begin to move along the form with your eye on your subject and your pen on the paper. Imagine your pen feeling the line, the curves, each nook and cranny.
  • Draw without lifting your pen off the paper.



  • Think in terms of line, shape, direction, sharp, rounded, etc. rather than objects.
  • Draw at a consistent pace.
  • When you reach a point where two lines intersect or two forms meet you don’t have to stay on the outer edge but keep your pen on the paper.

When you’re back where you started take a look at your drawing. You’ll probably see some distortions, way off proportions but some areas may be remarkably accurate. You may also see an energy and sensitivity and an expressive line that aren’t present in other drawings. Whatever you see there are real benefits to blind contour exercises.

One Hanger,Three Times


  • Improves your eye-hand coordination.
  • Encourages you to draw what you see, not what you know.
  • It helps you understand your subject.
  • You become more involved in the process rather than product.
  • Continuous-line, blind-contour drawings are a great way to warm up for a drawing session. 
  • For urban sketchers it’s good experience for when we’re drawing in the dark, in our pockets or under the table!
  • It’s fun.
If you enjoy our Tuesday Tips & Tricks you'll love our July sketching seminar! Check it out on FB, Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and our 2015 Seminar Blog!

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Urban Drawing Tools


I am a graphic designer by trade and I bridge that transition between the old school art supplies (like you see on the AMC TV show "Mad Men" art department) and the invention of the personal computer. Simply put, I use a lot of drawing templates and old-school art supplies when I sketch. I am used to cleaning up my sketches with straight edges and ellipse guides to create sketches that are in reasonable perspective and scale.

Most times I am only armed with my sketchbook and a pen. For those times I will freehand my circles, ellipses and straight-edged objects because I have been drawing long enough that it does not intimidate me. But if the opportunity presents itself, I will do a little searching within my surroundings to see if I can't produce a reasonable substitute for a ruler or drawing template. If you aren't opposed to rummaging through a recycling bin or the utensil bin at a coffee shop, you can discover all kinds of free art tools. 

The following are my suggestions of found objects to help you realize that art supplies are all around us if we only look for them.

Other found items that I have often resorted to as make-shift drawing tools include (for a straight edge) a notebook, a yardstick from the hardware store, a piece of cardboard from a pizza box, and a board from a construction site. For a circle I have often found a piece of string with a pencil tied to the end makes a great compass if you hold the loose end down and draw around it. Also every cup, vase, planter, music CD and jar also provide lots of diameters with which you can find the right size circle.

Long ago when I was a member of the Boy Scouts, we even whittled end of a stick and dipped it in ink to create a rustic fountain pen on paper. You can get some pretty interesting lines from a twig that has a sharpened end. I am sure there are many more items that you will discover. Please go out and explore and let me know what you have found that works as your quasi-art supplies in the field. The important thing is to have fun.

What are some of the drawing tools you have found in the wild? Please share :)

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Sketching Architectural Details


If you have ever finished a sketch, held it up and compared it to the actual subject only to realize that something about your sketch was just not right, this post is for you.

Between Barbara Week's recent post entitled "Off The Grid - Designing a Page" which talked about guidelines as compositional tools, and a recent architectural sketch I made, I wanted to "piggy-back" off of the topic of guidelines in urban sketching and talk specifically about how guidelines can help you simplify and map out the different parts of architectural details.

Buildings and architectural details can seem like daunting subjects to draw.  Thankfully, there are several observational cues to pick up on that will help you map out your drawing and establish an educated guess about the sizes, proportions, patterns and elements that make up your specific detail.  You don't even need to know the technical names of the architectural elements, or how they go together.  You just have to have the ability to make observations.  After all, that's half the battle of urban sketching is, isn't it?

(A couple quick side notes: 1.Check out a couple of my previous and related posts for a more full set of tips on architectural sketching.  "Perspective for the Urban Sketcher" and "Drawing Architecture: Sighting Size and Proportion" AND 2) these ideas can be applied to other subjects including figure drawing, landscapes, and most other types of subjects as well.)

Here is the scan of my sketch.  As you can see more clearly here than in the picture above, I used several guidelines in my initial pencil sketch before adding value in ink.  I left the pencil guidelines in for aesthetics.  Personally, I like how guidelines can add to the story of a sketch.  Guidelines show your process.  They add a level of technicality to the drawing. Many of the greatest artists left pencil underlays partially visible in their masterpieces. I think guidelines give an added personal touch, but this is just my opinion.

The image to the right is fairly self explanatory, however, I will share a little bit about how I approached this drawing.

I began by drawing the center line (dashed) guideline.  Since this detail is symmetrical, the center line is the most important guide to get you started.  Recognizing that the left and right sides of the detail have the same width, I added two more vertical guides, spaced equally as far away from the center line as I could have approximated while standing up, holding the sketchbook.

After I had determined the overall width of the detail, I used the sighting technique (explained in more detail here) to approximate how many widths (D) tall the detail was.  I found that the details was about 1.75 widths (D) tall.  Basing all of the approximate sizes off of one or two of the dimensions in your detail will help you keep all of the different parts of the drawing proportional to the detail as a whole and in relationship to one another.

I then drew a few horizontal lines.  I found larger shapes that I could use as benchmarks for the detail, so to speak.  So as you can see, (bottom to top) my horizontal guidelines fell on the base of the column, the center line of the window, the top of the middle column, the top of the two side columns, the bottom of the entablature, as well as the top of the arched pediment at the top.  Like in all other forms of design, there is a method to the madness in this detail's composition, which is why the sizes of A, .5A and 1.5 A all work well together, and were easy to approximate.

I drew the guidelines at the center line of the window, the top of the middle column, and the tops of the two side columns first.  A quick approximation told me that the bottom and top portions were half the height of A, and that the curved pediment on top was about 1.5A.

Now that the major heights and widths were mapped out, I filled in all of the rest of the details. (Column capitals, window mullions, arched openings above windows, additional lines on the entablature, as well as the dentils in the molding).  I did not draw guidelines for every single detail (although if you want to you can.)  Instead, since the major sizes and proportions were laid out, I could then "eyeball" the sizes and proportions of the smaller details since enough information was already mapped out for me.

This is something that may take a while to get the hang of, but once you do it a few times it will begin to make more sense.  At first, sketching like this may take a little longer than just "winging it".  However, the more you do it, the more it will make sense and will end up increasing your sketching speed in the end.  Learning how to sight size, proportion and perspectives were the most valuable urban sketching skills I learned when I was first introduced to urban sketching.  They are skills I use in almost every sketch I do to this day.

I hope this post, along with the previous posts on sighting and perspective are helpful.  Feel free to ask any questions.

Lastly, don't forget to follow us on Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.  If you live in the Chicago area, connect with us through Facebook.  We sketch as a group every third weekend of each month at different locations throughout Chicago.


Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Stalking The Urban Sketcher Way


Let's talk about people in urban sketches. In my first post for this Tuesday Tips & Tricks series, I wrote “How to Add People to Your Urban Sketches.” In this article I made the case for adding people in order to give your landscape sketches “scale and interest” by using various forms of stick figures. This is particularly useful when sketching people are not your forte. 

Well that post worked for a long time but now many of you have asked about the elephant in the room--how to sketch real people. “Wes, how do I sketch a complete unknown stranger when they are seated only a few feet from me? How do I sketch them without getting caught?” In response to requests such as this (and I recognize this real fear) I submit the following ideas for staying hidden while sketching your favorite subject.

Sit behind your subject.
You will only get the back of their head but at least it will build your confidence and you can focus on the surrounding environment. Sometimes you can pretend to be looking at the back of someone's head and over their shoulder is a more interesting subject (sneaky).

Sit across the aisle or across the room from your subject.
By positioning yourself so there is a protective barrier of distractions, you will be better able to focus on your subject without them “feeling” your eyes. Just remember that the farther away you sit, the less details you will be able to observe. Wearing a set of binoculars on your head is no way to keep your anonymity.

Sit in a balcony or upper level above your subject.
By sitting above the line of sight your subject will not even notice your gaze. It does, however, challenge your knowledge and skills of foreshortening. Sitting in direct line of sight (or below them) makes you more vulnerable for being discovered because peripheral vision works best in a horizontal fashion.

Sketch with a friend.
Another tactic I have used from time to time is to invite a friend to breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee, drinks, etc. Sit at a table across from each other and let your friend know that they have your attention but that you are also going to be sketching the person over their shoulder. This way your friend will not develop a complex if they think you are not paying attention. No one will suspect that you are sketching them if it looks like you are having a conversation with another person. If all else fails, sketch your friend while you talk or sketch each other.

Find a subject who is totally engrossed in their personal electronic device. The funny thing about PDAs and laptop computers is that you could literally stand right in front of them to politely ask a question and they would never notice you until you said something. Perfect for staying undetected as a sketch artist.

Likewise, if you see someone who is reading a book, magazine or newspaper, their eyes are directed downward or blocked by the oversized newspaper so your subject may not notice you, even if you are seated in front 
of them.

If two people are engaged in conversation, they are usually focused on each other and will look away occasionally to collect their thoughts. They move around a lot with hand and body gestures, but they generally stay in the same spot. If you are lucky, or unlucky, enough to happen across a couple who is arguing EVERYONE in the room will be looking at them so you will blend in nicely.

If you see someone who has fallen asleep, BINGO! you have all the time you need to focus on clothes, wrinkles, clothes patterns, nostril hair and even all of the people who are wondering if this guy is ever going to stop snoring.

Lastly, wear a hat or sunglasses, if your surroundings permit, in order to hide your gaze upon the unsuspecting subject. By all means, try not to snap photos because that crosses over into the “creep factor.” People get all defensive about how another person intends to use their photo. If you have the time, sketching a person will improve your observation skills and people are generally relieved when they discover that you chose to sketch them--most times even impressed.

Enjoy and have fun. Next time I will cover some basics on the human anatomy and why clothes wrinkles look the way they do.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Off the Grid – Designing a Page

Tuesday Tips and Tricks

Many Urban Sketchers use sketchbooks as a journal of their daily lives and travels. We add titles, text, and occasionally ephemera to some of our pages. It’s a natural to want the composition of those pages to enhance our sketches rather than distract from them. One way I design a page is by using the grid method.

A grid is a plan made up of a series of intersecting straight (vertical, horizontal, and angular) lines, similar to graph paper. It provides the skeleton of a page. It supports the elements on the page and makes them work in relation to each other.

Years of working in print production designing layouts for magazines, promo pieces, etc. has given me a lot of practice designing to the grid. It's second nature to me and a sketchy version of aligning on a grid is my go-to method for designing pages in my sketchbook. In graphic design the grid comes first. In my sketchbooks it can show up at anytime. It can be the before or after guide for a loose alignment of page elements. I want to emphasize it’s a loose alignment. The casual use of the grid is in keeping with the spirit and look of sketching.

Where, How, When?

Applying a grid before the sketch 

When I’m  traveling I sometimes choose a theme for a few spreads. On this trip to San Francisco one theme I was exploring was the trees. I drew the four frames freehand before I did any sketching and added the sketches over a few days. To keep the layout from being too static I left a section open for a possible surprise. Note the top and bottoms of the frames align, the bottom of the surprise pine cone and the baseline of the lower text align. The title on the left balances the lower right text.

Applying a grid after the sketch 

These sketches were quick observations at the ice rink in Millennium Park in Chicago. The frames were hand drawn to unify the spread after the sketches were done . The frames are lined up on either the vertical, the top, or centered on another frame. The skater on the left escapes the frame for a little surprise and aligns with the frame around the coffee drinker on the right. 

When the muse strikes

If you use a ruler on the examples above you’ll find the alignments aren't labored over but are guesstimates. When I’m sketching it’s about the fun and joy of sketching and I go with the flow. I don’t always stick to the pre-drawn plan as you can see in the sketch below. Take note where the text is placed. Can you tell why I placed it where I did?

When disaster strikes

This is a series of doodles done at Starbucks in our local Target. One disappointing scribble after another provides the perfect challenge for the my grid theory.

Creating a loose alignment on the (or near) grid lines can strengthen your sketches and the composition of the page. The sketch below is a demo I did for the Urban Sketching for Beginners workshop at last summer's USk-Chicago's sketch seminar. Look at the line up of the added frames and the added text. They add organization to the page. If you want to give the post-sketching grid a try without committing use a piece to tracing paper to work out your plan.

One More Tip

I almost forgot the most important thing – no matter what the Tuesday tip or trick, be brave and have fun!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Ruin Your Watercolor Sketches!

Wait, what?

That's right, I said to ruin your watercolor sketch.

In my opinion there is no other sketching experience to compare with the horror of watching your lines unintentionally smear. 

I vividly remember the horror of the first time I put watercolor paints on a sketch in water-based ink. The sketch was in a Moleskine pocket watercolor notebook and I'd spent about an hour placing the fountain, shadows, and luscious leaf canopy. The green I was adding for the copper fountain smeared with purple from the black ink. I'm pretty confident that I threw away the pen I used that day. 

But following last week's tip and looking through my old sketchbooks I realized that I really liked my "ruined" sketch! Well, at least part of it.

Frustration with my disappointed ideal had kept me from exploring the potential of water-based inks in watercolor sketches. So I invite you to join me as I begin exploring intentionally challenging my ideal of hard lines.

Statue from the Field Museum on Stillman & Birn Zeta in water-based ink

Last week I tried two methods to help me play with this technique.

1. Add watercolors (or water) to a sketch you aren't happy with or didn't finish – regardless of ink!

I took some watercolor to an unfinished sketch from our outing to the Field Museum. I'd begun a sketch of a statue but lost perspective and stopped. Normally I'm happy to splash on color and see how things take shape, but I'd done this sketch with an ink I knew was not water resistant.

I added watercolor any way.

The water didn't suddenly fix all the problems with my sketch, but it did change it.  As my lines smeared I realized water on water-based inks was a whole new technique I hadn't considered.

2. Test the variations of water resistance in your favorite sketching pens

This week I sketched the same building with three different pens, just to see.  I used blank note cards from Paper Source. They are inexpensive and hold watercolor fairly well considering they aren't watercolor paper. That means they are just about perfect for sketching in my opinion!

Building sketch on Paper Source blank note cards  in (L – R): Micron .5 , Uniball, and Sheaffer Skrip ink in a Lamy EF nib

Here are the pens I used from left to right:

A. Micron .05: Generally when I sketch around the city I use a Micron .05–.005. I like the level of detail it allows for and it dries quickly without the risk of smearing – by hand or water! Some folks find the smaller tips too scratchy to enjoy.  I like the way my .005 occasionally skips to give me some line variance.

B. Uniball micro roller ball: These pens were the first ones I ever saw suggested on a sketching blog. They are advertised as having fraud protection ink (for checks). In theory they are water resistant, but depending on the paper I've found they will sometimes smear. Also, these skip badly regardless of the paper. I love their line, but they skip too much for me to use all the time.

C. Lamy Safari (EF nib): I used a rich black ink I inherited from an older relative in this pen. Shaeffer Skrip black ink (date unknown) to be precise.  It flows without skipping from the EF nib, but it takes a long time to dry, and if it once had water-resistant properties they have not stood the test of time.

Sketches with watercolor
I used the same three colors on all three paintings and tried to use similar "wetness" in each piece to see how the ink would respond. As expected, the Micron and Uniball did not move much. Because I let the ink dry for about thirty minutes, the Shaeffer ink didn't smear as much as I expected either.

However  I was surprised at what a difference the moveable ink made when I was blending colors on the paper! The undertones in the ink made a marked difference. In some places this blending had a muddying effect. In other places it seemed that the ink colors added to the pigment of my paints.

Detail from above, right.
You know what else I discovered? 

I liked the painting with the smeared lines best! What I had thought would ruin my sketch turned out to be a technique I want to continue using.

Do you ever intentionally mix "un-mixable" elements in your sketches? How do you feel about intentionally ruining your sketches? What makes a "ruined" sketch for you?