Friday, August 12, 2016

Urban Sketching

Many artists, me included, tend to avoid outdoor sketching or painting. In my own case I have made any number of excuses for not painting on location outdoors. It's too hard to haul equipment to a painting spot. Or it takes too much time to scout out a place and then sketch. Some people are shy or introverted and don't want to expose themselves to the public eye. There are dozens more.

Nevertheless, on-the-spot sketching of nearly any subject can be fundamental to making realist art. For one thing, photos don't provide enough accurate visual information. It's possible to paint believably solely from photos, of course, but not unless you have an enormous visual library in your head. And while the old masters probably didn't paint outdoors very often, if at all, they very likely made drawings outdoors while observing their subjects. Whether the subject was a house, or a city street, animals or farm life artists of the past must have spent time with each, building visual familiarity, drawing either entire specimens or their parts. Leonardo was keen on horses, for example, and his drawn images are clearly made from life. J.M.W. Turner was well-known for his outdoor watercolors. Many began to paint outdoors in the 19th century, of course. And even if you aren't going to do a painting start to finish outdoors, like Pete the Street, who was featured here not long ago, sketching on the spot allows notations of everything from shape and size of objects and buildings to value and color. Photography supplies such information too but sketching forces the artist to actually see and record in the mind and on a surface.

Besides being a useful painter's tool, sketching is enjoyable in it's own right. Sketching is not only a way of recording the look of something but also a way of enhanced remembering and telling the story of where one was at the time. In the hustle-hustle internet world of today, opportunities to sit, be quiet, and concentrate deeply as one must when making a picture, seem fewer and fewer. Luckily, the pleasures of sketching, whatever the medium, are becoming more well-known. Organizations that promote outdoor sketching have proliferated. One prominent organization is Urban Sketchers, which actually began less than a decade ago. Although fairly new, Urban Sketchers has become perhaps the largest and best-known sketch site online. They take a practical and down-to-earth approach to drawing or painting their surroundings. Here are their stated purposes, from their website:

  1. We draw on location, indoors or out, capturing what we see from direct observation.
  2. Our drawings tell the story of our surroundings, the places we live and where we travel.
  3. Our drawings are a record of time and place.
  4. We are truthful to the scenes we witness.
  5. We use any kind of media and cherish our individual styles.
  6. We support each other and draw together.
  7. We share our drawings online.
  8. We show the world, one drawing at a time.

Although in years past I've been a reluctant outdoor sketcher, these days I find drawing outdoors more engaging. I've begun doing more and more outdoor drawing and painting, particularly on city locations but also in the back garden. As do many sketchers I usually draw the scene with graphite or ink and finish with watercolor. Sometimes the underdrawing is fairly detailed but sometimes I paint first and accent with ink. If I'm going to make an ink drawing I make certain to use waterproof ink. Over the last several months I've made a number of pictures. Here are a few.
"Coneflowers in Sunshine," watercolor & ink, 3x5
As you can see, these were done using ink and watercolor. The coneflowers were done on a 3x5 page in a watercolor sketchbook that was toned with a thin acrylic wash. The flowers are actually in my back garden, not a city street.
"Taco Loco," watercolor & ink, 2016, 5x7


















Des Moines passed an ordinance a year or two ago that allows gypsy food trucks to park and sell on the street in various parts of town. One of them is a taco vendor who parks near the downtown sculpture garden every Friday. I went down there a couple of weeks back for tacos, then sketched the truck. The owner was very cordial and even gave me a cold drink in exchange for a picture of the small ink and watercolor.



"Food Trucks Downtown,"watercolor & ink, 2016, 3.5x11
This is another sketch done from almost the same spot near the sculpture garden. No cold drink this time.
"Florida Fan Palm," watercolor & ink, 2016, 3x5







The last image here was done last January in central Florida while visiting family. There are palms all over the place--maybe even more than the number of alligators--and this giant specimen borders a greenbelt that runs through the subdivision where we stayed. For a guy like me from the upper Midwest, painting a palm tree is a significant challenge since I have so few visual memories of them. 















 Urban Sketchers website
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