How to make sketches into compositions

Drawing of dad with baby
Sketching at the Farmer’s market
Dad with baby
Sigma Micron pen in Stillman & Birn Delta Series sketchbook

As I’ve grown more comfortable with my sketching abilities, I’ve begun to think about creating compositions rather than making isolated sketches. This comes from looking at other urban sketchers work; I admire the completeness of their drawings, the way they are like little stories rather than disparate elements on a page. I want sketchbook pages that look like  whole pictures rather than a spotty collection of scrawls.

But it’s taken me a while to get to this place, to exert control over my drawings rather than my drawings controlling me. But once I began trying to design my sketches, it’s like a whole new artistic world opened up to me.

Here are a few things I’ve learned.

  • Establish the center of interest Of course, the focal point is almost always the figure that attracted my attention in the first place. I like to place that initial figure in an interesting position on the page, using the concept of the rule of thirds for an arbitrary placement of interest.
  • Start building a grouping around them People are always moving, so I have to be quick to capture multiple figures in a composition. But other things—tables, buildings, windows, chairs—don’t move much (if they did, I might be running for cover!). So I like to inanimate objects soon in the composition.
  • Let figures overlap Overlapping figures and objects help create depth. I make sure I’ve got the perspective of objects advancing or receding through space by measuring angles and size as carefully and as quickly as I can.
  • Don’t worry about detail I’ve had to give up my love of niggly little detail when sketching, so the people in the background don’t have developed eyes, noses, and mouths. It really doesn’t add anything to the sketch, and anyway, is hard to do on the fly. I’m looking for the big shapes.
  • Look for framing I find ways to frame my center of interest. Sometimes that’s easy. Maybe I can add a window, a wall, a square of some type behind them. Other times I look for ways that figures in the background can be manipulated to strengthen the center of interest.
  • Don’t give up too soon I keep working at my sketch, even if I think I’ve destroyed it. Even though I want my sketchbook pages to look like pictures, I realize that my sketchbook is also my place to play around, experiment, have some fun. I don’t have to show it to anyone if I don’t want to. My sketch book is my personal playground. I can run around in it however I want, pen screaming and my hand turning cartwheels, drawing like I’m swinging from the monkey bars and flying from the swings. It’s the fun that keeps me at it, and it’s the perseverance that builds skills.

Happy sketching!

Sketching at the Farmer's market Nap time Micron pen in Stillman & Birn Delta Series sketchbook
Sketching at the Farmer’s market
Nap time
Micron pen in Stillman & Birn Delta Series sketchbook

Figure grouping and stories I tell myself during life drawing

 

Life Drawing Group
Shakespeare while waiting for the train
10-minute poses in charcoal on smooth paper.

Life drawing can quickly get out of control, with the figure’s head and feet disappearing off the edges of the paper, or a little  drawing floating lost in a sea of newsprint. One way I like to corral my drawings is by arranging the figures so that they relate to each other on the page. This forces me to design the perspective (what size should they be for the figures to make sense?); imagine overlapping forms (correctly layered, the forms will then indicate depth); and practice size and proportion control (no more figures falling off the paper). And I have to do this all on the fly, as the model changes position.

I often tell myself stories while I do this. I’m a compulsive story teller (yeah, you say lies, I say plot) and I often create narrative arcs, complete with build up, climax, and denouement, when I’m drawing. That inner literary tension, coupled with the stresses of figure drawing, makes life drawing doubly exciting for me.

The drawing below, for example, became a scene from a book the Fiddler and I are enjoying right now, World Without End by Ken Follett. My drawing is not about the main characters, but the faceless prisoners of war that might have been taken during Edward III campaign in France (Yes, I realize those luckless souls were probably not taken alive, but in my story they lived at least bit before they were chopped into bits.) Telling a story entertains me as well as directing the placement of my figures, and the discipline of grouping the figures really improves my life drawing.

Figure drawing group
Prisoners of war
5-minute drawings with charcoal on smooth paper

Class alert

I will be teaching a figure drawing class this Thursday, June 11 at 9:30 – 12:30, at Town Hall Arts/Galerie Copper in Copperopolis in the Central Sierra. We will be studying how the head fits on the torso. All you need is a pad of newsprint and some charcoal (that’s the beauty of drawing), and you can buy those items at Town Hall Arts.