Saturday Sketchy: Vacation Artist

The weeks before Christmas were a flurry of packages arriving on our doorstep. Avoiding crowds and malls we’d done much of our shopping online, tho less shopping than usual overall. Not all those packages were gifts, however. I’d snuck an order of some sketch supplies into my incoming parcels, including a fresh moleskine watercolour book and a pack of new ink pens.

I had a plan and a goal for vacation. As the first trip out of the country in almost three years, I was determined to document it in art.

Now to be clear, dreams and ambitions aside, if anyone googles this post wondering “can you sketch in Disney” or looking for “urban sketching tips for theme parks” up front I’m going to suggest it is impractical… unless that’s why you went there.

If you don’t care about rides or are committed to be the guy who sits holding a spot on the curb for the fireworks or a parade, maybe you’ll have lots of time to draw.

My family never sat still long enough to do that. I had discussed my interest in doing this with my wife prior to our trip, but boots on the ground in the Magic Kingdom that first day, even tho I had my sketch supplies in my backpack, I would have had a couple sketches of her tapping her foot impatiently on the ground while reminding me how short the day was. Reality did not align with my vision.

Unlike a quiet travel holiday to a beautiful city, I would posit, vacation in a theme park is not about quiet contemplation while sipping a cup of coffee, pencil in hand.

Instead I opted to start looking for things to sketch later from a snapshot. Admittedly this was a bit cheating on the strict urban sketch rulebook, but I always drew stuff on the same day I saw it and I think in my “still just learning” mode that’s okay.

(On a side note, outside the parks, I did do some situational drawings live from a bench or table, so I’m satisfied with the chance for that opportunity at least.)

As it turns out I found strength in drawing a couple specific things: signage and wide scenes with people in them.

Signage is a curious thing in Disney World. There is a blend of actual and meaningful directional and informational signs on one hand, while on the other there are countless signs that are purely decorative and part of the theme for whatever “land” you happen to be in. This makes for some very geometrically interesting walls or signposts that are fun to sketch but also subtly unique to the place and space. For example, in one part of Animal Kingdom there are areas devoted to Africa and Asia where signage is designed to advertise make-believe tours through the jungle or made up vendors in a marketplace facade, but mixed in among that is a real sign for mobile food orders from the kiosk or directions to the washroom. A blend of fake and fun and real makes for a very Disney subject.

As far as crowds and people go, it’s fair to say it’s been tough to find strangers to sketch these days. I find myself very limited in the groups I’m around and for the last couple years lacking in opportunity to sit somewhere public and sketch real live humans. For better or worse, or whatever your opinion of the state of the world right now, Disney seems to blur the fear that many seem to feel about gathering these days. There were crowds in abundance. This added to the complexity of finding a rare seat from which a sketching opportunity might have occurred, but my photo-now draw-later approach netted a positive number of crowds in cool places scenes worthy of an hour or two of drawing back at the hotel.

Over the autumn I’d bought a book called “Drawing Expressive People” which offered some useful if somewhat vague, learn-by-example guidance and has let me leap into the rewarding realm of drawing people in public. As a result these are still rough but are among some of my favourite sketches from the vacation.

The results are the best part tho.

I’m back home with that moleskine notebook now three-quarters filled with vacation art, and in person holding it in my hands there is no comparison between the pics I’m able to share of that art folio and the real thing. It is a unique and beautiful souvenir of a weird and crazy vacation, created almost entirely as a result of being somewhere and finding moments to sketch and paint those things.

It makes me want to improve and repeat and keep creating more like it. Precious and priceless, perhaps just to me, but a perfect vacation artist effort just the same.

Words on Sketching

Learning by doing.

It can work, but at some point a guy needs to look to some other sources for guidance and advice. Like, say… a book (or ten.)

What was the best anything that you read in 2021?

As much as I’ve taken to the internets this past year in an attempt to hone my sketching technique, watching videos and reading forums, what has been most useful is the small but growing collection of art instruction books that I have in my personal library.

Books on figure drawing. Books on perspective art. Books on comics. Books on general drawing skills and books with very specific topics for very specific art-ish subjects. Even some new books I’ve picked up the past few months about urban sketching have found a place on my nightstand where I peruse them before bed many nights.

Are they deep literature and mind-expanding novels? No.

Are they reading material to take on a vacation or to relax with? Not exactly.

Are they something I would recommend? If you are interested in sketching, of course.

As with many things worth learning there is usually a book about it.

Not every subject can be taught from a loaf of paper, but I’ve found that sketching is one those subjects that can be enhanced by reading about it.

I think it has helped me.

Thirty one topics. Thirty one posts. Not exactly a list… but close. In December I like to look back on the year that was. My daily posts in December-ish are themed-ish and may contain spoilers set against the backdrop of some year-end-ish personal exposition.

Artist in Residence (but just at my own house)

I have mentioned it a few times over the last year of posts, and I have even posted a few modest samples, but I have a slow burning fascination with sketching that has kindled into something more since I’ve been spending so much time at home longing to travel.

In particular #urbansketching has wrapped a watercoloured claw around my heart (and jabbed it with a few sharpened pencils for good measure) and I find myself looking for local subjects as much as flipping through old photography looking for buildings, scenes, architecture, and adventure moments to turn into ink and paint doodles.

Urban sketching is the name of a subset of artistic pursuits usually narrowed to the specific time and attention given to capturing an object or space filled with people and buildings and life and city emotion. It is meant to be quick and rough and in the moment and replace the act of wandering through an urban space clicking countless snapshots into one’s phone with the deliberate action of pausing for long enough to draw a scene with pencil, ink, colour, or one’s medium of choice.

I try. Frequently. I’m admittedly mediocre.

But I am working and practicing and thinking the types of thoughts that I hope will come together into being much better.

What do you want
to learn in 2022?

There is a short list of things I need to focus on over the next year as I improve my sketching skillset and move towards the next level of artistic expression. As I see it, these things are:

1) Finding my own style.

I actually kinda thought this would come to me as a simple act of rote practice, but not only has a style not found me in my numerous pages of scribbles and sketches, I think the lack of a style is starting to creep into what I have drawn as a kind of looming sloppiness.

This is not self-depricating criticism. It’s just a trend I’ve noticed. That in the gaps where I don’t know what kind of deliberate line to draw to fill a space, I make something up. A personal style would inform that and steer me clear of the messy scribbles approach.

Style is a you-know-it-when-you-see-it thing, ineffible but simultanously it jumps off the page when it is done right.

I need to find mine next year because it doesn’t seem to be looking for me.

2) Working in partnership with the colours.

My wife bought me a new set of twenty-four watercolours for my birthday last month and I dug in and was immediately slapping shades onto the page to see how things looked and worked and made the sketch pop with double the number of hues.

I love the set, but I don’t think it has done me any favours. My sketches have just become a little bit more muddled. Why? Because I’m not painting with the colours that need, want, yearn to be part of the picture. Rather the literal science-technology nerd in me is transcribing the colors of the scene directly into the page.

I’m neither good at that, nor is that art. It’s this photographer guy trying to replicate something in front of his eyes with a brush and a smattering of pigments.

I recognize this as a flaw in my approach and that thinking about a cohesive palette that evokes a vibe of the scene or object is far more important that getting the right shade of green for that tree in the background.

3) Seeing.

Similarly to how I’ve tended to regard colour, I’ve always thought of myself as a reasonable photographer because I have a well-tuned sense of composition that has aided me in a way that has led to nice pictures.

I have been working on changing my perspective already, but in 2022 I need to open my eyes a little wider and examine the world like a sketch artist, rather than a guy with a camera lens… at least when I’m attempting to draw that world.

Composing a sketch on the page is a bit like framing a photograph in the viewfinder, but with a different set of tools and a completely different objective. The point of a photo is often to replicate an object or scene with clear focus, to represent it in a way that is true and clear. Alternatively, the point of sketch is often to create a model of an object or scene by use of abstraction, to use shapes and colour to trick the eye into seeing a re-creation of a simplified essence of that and to convey what the artist wanted to purposefully move from the reality of that object or scene into a feeling of the same upon the page.

I’m still thinking too much like a photographer.

4) Letting go of the literal.

And while that overthinking photographer guy struggles to see the world as a sketchable space, looking for the lines and shapes of reality and unravelling it all, in that effort is also a search for the metaphor of the art.

I’ve spent too much time enviously looking at “good” art that faithfully represents something, and while skill is a noble purpose and often a milestone towards achieving all these things I’m writing about, it is just one path.

I don’t know what the alternative path is, but I think it is shaded by experimenting, practice, and dabbling in all these things I’ve been writing about. It’s a mash up of all these points: a style, evoking feelings through colours, and seeing what’s in the scene but also what is inside and through and beyond the scene yet needs to find a way onto the page.

In 2022 I don’t expect to move from hobbiest suburban sketcher to epic, master artist, but I think I’m at the point in my drawing adventure where I need permission (if only from myself) to let go of the aspriration to draw anything but what makes me happy drawing it.

Learning, after all, never really ends.

Thirty one topics. Thirty one posts. Not exactly a list… but close. In December I like to look back on the year that was. My daily posts in December-ish are themed-ish and may contain spoilers set against the backdrop of some year-end-ish personal exposition.

Houseguests & Hobbled Pursuits

Long-time friends travelled from a neighbouring province this past weekend and used our basement guest room as a free hotel suite while they were attending their son’s sport tournament in our city.

Six hours of driving from their house to ours has not been a particularly restrictive barrier for more routine visits previously so much as a global pandemic gave everyone pause for such travel over the last two years. But as the outbreak wanes (even temporarily maybe) and as such things go, our little bubble grew to six people and two dogs for four days, and glimpses of normal peeked back into our lives, however briefly.

Much conversation happened. And as he is a creative-minded soul, much of that much conversation swirled around our respective creative pursuits both planned and paused.

I’ve been drawing. A little. Not so much as I used to, but a little.

For those who have dug deeper into the archives of this site and clues bread-crumbed throughout, it may come as no surprise to learn that for three years prior to this blog I drew a small web comic chronicling the based-on-real-life adventures of a dad and his pre-teen daughter. A weekly comic peppered with kids-say-goofball-things and bad-dad-puns swirled around a stick of light-hearted family humour.

Our houseguest was one of my fans, and since we’d last spent any quantity of time in the same room two things have happened:

a) I’ve stopped drawing said comic, and

b) he’s started writing (but not yet drawing) his own.

“I was hoping you could walk me through how you make one.” He asked over dinner the first night. “For example, show me how you put a comic strip together and publish it online.”

“Yeah, sure.” I agreed, stuffing another mouthful in between thoughts. “I mean, I can’t teach you how to draw in a weekend, but I can walk you through my workflow. Sure.”

Putting together something as complex as a web comic series isn’t a single skill after all. Ideas turn into stories. Stories are mapped out against art. Art is compiled and refined into panels and spreads, which themselves are output as files. Files are posted and promoted and shared and enjoyed. And every one of those steps breaks down into fifteen, twenty, or maybe five-hundred individual steps and skills and practiced abilities that have been honed over decades and are yet are somehow still too rudimentary to be called expertise.

“How do you know all this stuff?” He asked as I later walked him through the multitude of files on my computer, whizzed through the act of compiling a simple strip and exporting it as a web-friendly file. “And why did you stop?” he added, mostly pondering aloud why someone who could, no longer did, while he who yet couldn’t, struggled to begin.

“Time.” I offered. “Inspiration. Priorities. Hobbled motivation.” It all rolled off the tongue far too easily. “Honestly, I don’t know.” I said conclusively. “Sometimes you just lose momentum, I guess.”

“You shouldn’t have stopped.” He shrugged. “You’re so good at this.”

And I, being terrible at taking a complement, merely laughed awkwardly and continued the tour of the comic strip factory on my computer.

Sometimes, perhaps, maybe, hopefully even… it takes a detour through an old, familiar neighbourhood, like spending the weekend with old friends, to bump one out of a rut. I don’t know if I have been yet, but …