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

Sketching at the Farmer’s market

It’s not quite urban sketching, but our local farmer’s market is in a town, and the market is big enough that there are plenty of peaches, tomatoes, squash, and cucumbers for everyone. And plenty of people for me to sketch as I slouch over my sketchbook, hiding next to the fiddler as he plays Shove the Pig’s Foot a little Further into the Fire (the naming of American old time tunes is a mystery to me).

drawing of little boy
Sketching at the Farmer’s market
Little boy with hat
Pigma Micron pen in Stillman & Birn Delta Series sketchbook

Kids are the best to sketch, as they stick around a long time to listen to the music, maybe dance a little, schmooze with the musicians, snack on strawberries. And the parents are only too happy to hang out in the shade of the big oak tree, chatting with other moms and dads, drinking a smoothie, and admiring their offspring.

Drawing of kids' faces
Sketching at the Farmer’s market
Kids’ faces
Pigma Micron pen in Stillman & Birn Delta Series sketchbook

Which they should, as all children are absolutely beautiful and so new they’re translucent. Young things are a marvel.

Drawing the shifting tides of humanity isn’t easy. They just won’t stand still!  But it’s one of my very favorite things to do. I watch closely; people will often adopt a standard position—a tilt of the head, the cocking of a hip, a graceful touch of a hand to the face—that is part of their likeness. They may deviate from that position, but they eventually return to it, as it’s where they’re most comfortable.

My job as a sketcher is to watch for these attitudes, as well as see (and here I mean see closely) the shape and angle of head and facial features, body posture and type, and then remember it all, so I can translate what I see into drawings in my sketchbook. Drawing is, after all, a memory game, and the more we develop our memory, the better our drawing becomes.

Class alert: August 13th I’m teaching a class on drawing the portrait from a live model at Town Hall Arts/Gallery Copper in Copperopolis, starting at 9:30 sharp. If you live nearby, I hope you can make it.

For your listening pleasure:

Note to self: My sketchbook is not an invisibility cloak.

Sketch of young boy, graphite with watercolor. Stillman & Birn Beta Series

I was sketching at a contra dance Saturday night. I was on stage, playing whistle and sketching during tunes I didn’t know. Normally at these things, I sketch the other musicians, as the dancers are moving too fast for all but the most brief gesture drawing, but a boy was sitting on the sidelines of the dance watching the figures. Being still. In good light.

Since I was flanked by fiddlers and behind a guitar player, I felt like I was not really noticeable. And the kid seemed to be engrossed with watching the dancers. So I began drawing.

Suddenly he whipped his head around and glared right at me, watching me watch him. It’s funny how sometimes we can feel people looking at us from across even a crowded large room, and we seem to be especially sensitive to the direct stare of the surreptitious portrait artist.

I nearly always have a sketchbook with me, and most of my friends, and the people at musical gatherings have grown used to my scratchings. But not this subject; he glared for a while longer, then got up and moved out of my line of sight, and so I was not able to get any kind of likeness, merely a sweet drawing. Oh well, sometimes that’s enough.

Detail of sketch

Drawing on the farmers market

FarmersMarketThe fiddler fiddled at the Sonora Farmers Market last Saturday. He likes me to be present for moral support and to bring him pastries. I go and spend dollars while he plays for dimes. (Folks, please support your farmers market musicians; throw quarters in the fiddle case, at least!)

After my dollars are spent, it’s lovely to sit on a curb and while my butt falls asleep, sketch the crowd. A little chair would be more comfortable, but there’s a neat thing that happens at curb level. I’m closer to the kids, and instead of looking down on the tops of their heads, I can sketch at their eye level.

I’m not sure why, but farmers markets seem to bring out the goofy in kids, and they are often beautifully dressed as pirates or fairy princesses, or pirate fairy princesses. Leprechauns. Furry animals. It’s like there’s this alternate world that’s swirling around adult kneecaps, and curb sketching gives me a window into it.


Public sketching with gold rush costumes

The Prenologist's Wife, Calliope Dodge Watercolor over graphite in Stillman & Birn Zeta series sketchbook
The Prenologist’s Wife, Calliope Dodge
Watercolor over graphite in Stillman & Birn Zeta series sketchbook

Yesterday the fiddler played at Columbia State Park for an event known as The Diggins. Why not? He has a costume reminiscent of that era (despite the back pocket), and he plays tunes that would have made gold miners stamp and strut.

I went along for the sketching.

Professor Flatbroke B. Dodge, Phrenologist Watercolor over graphite in Stillman & Birn Zeta series sketchbook
Professor Flatbroke B. Dodge, Phrenologist
Watercolor over graphite in Stillman & Birn Zeta series sketchbook

Making portraits on the fly, in real time…yeah, that’s kind of scary. But it’s enormously fun too, especially at costume events.

I’ve only recently gotten brave enough to ask someone to sit for a portrait (only if it’s not busy and they seem friendly. And bored.). And I absolutely love it!

When I ask,  I assure my subjects that while I may not catch a good likeness, I will make them look like a human (which is a big improvement over the days when my off-the-cuff portraits looked like pigs in bags).

I also let them talk. I encourage it, although it is harder to capture their likeness when they’re moving. But I hear such interesting stories, and I feel like it helps me draw better likenesses after all.

Carol Bassoni, Lace Maker Watercolor over graphite in Stillman & Birn Zeta series sketchbook
Carol Bassoni, Lace Maker
Watercolor over graphite in Stillman & Birn Zeta series sketchbook

This question runs around in my mind: If portraits are about unmasking the subject, what then, to make of a subject who’s assumed an identity  that may well be the real person under the everyday mask they put on for their pedestrian life?

Links for this post

Go to the Diggins. Costumed docents, banjo players, and bean soups that give you a flavor of what the California gold rush must have been like. This weekend (May 29-31)

Or visit Columbia State Park when ever you can.

Carol Bassoni makes lace at

You can find Professor Flatbroke B. Dodge at

How to draw figures by drawing a stick man

StickmanWalkingYou drew them when you were a child: stick people that lept, danced, fought, or just stood around in the landscape of your childhood art. And if you learn how to draw them again, they’ll help you enormously when you are sketching in public places.


Things to look for when drawing a stick man

  • Angle for position Pay attention to the angle of the head, shoulders, and the hips. I often draw those lines first, lightly, to help me capture the pose. I also make quick lines for the angles of the feet so that I know how they are positioned and if I have time, I add the knees and elbows using little circles. Getting these landmarks down on paper will help you remember the position of your subject, even after they’ve moved. Everything after that becomes a connect-the-dots game.
  • Measure! Stick your pencil out and verify that your brain is really seeing what’s there. I can’t stress that enough. You don’t have to get too detailed; if you’re rapidly sketching kids on a soccer field, or people in a park, you don’t have time for a lot of measurements. I look for the vertical halfway point and mark that quickly so I can go on to the torso. When I draw the torso, I eyeball the center line so that I can get the right perspective.
  • Torso comes first My life drawing teacher, Rob Anderson, used to say, “if you can draw the torso correctly, you can hang the rest of the body from it.” I always try to get the torso and hips first; they are the structure. All the rest is decoration. If you add lobes to represent the rib cage, it can help you see the center line.
  • Draw cubicley Think of the upper body as a box with two lobes (the ribs). The tummy is a soft ball; how much of that do you see? The pelvis/hips can be a tube, although some people use a box for the hips. I like using a butterfly shaped tube because I can see how the ball of the tummy fits into the pelvis area.
  • Transparent thinking Try to imaging the shoulder blades on the back, which will give you the correct position of the arms. Draw your stickman as though he were a ghost so you can see your construction lines.




Once you have the stickman posed correctly, you can start adding flesh to him. In the figure below, I drew him in black ink, then built his form up using blue lines. When I’m sketching in the field, I draw the construction lines lightly, and often don’t erase them when I’m finished because they can make the figure more solid and dimensional. They are also great for later reference when I’m trying to construct a new drawing, because all this public sketching, besides being fun, is fodder for future work. Stickmanslouching

Drawing exercise Get thee to a public place and draw the people in it. Concentrate on drawing only stickmen. Afterwards at home, draw other stickmen (from your imagination) interacting with the first drawings. Challenge yourself by drawing them in overlapping positions, some farther away, some closer to the picture plane. Then let me know how it goes. I’d love to see your drawing.

Hoops, and hats, and bonnets, oh my! Public sketching in Columbia State Park

Pastel drawing
Pastel and charcoal on Canson paper

I’ve long been a fan of historical reenactments. I love costumes—hats, hoops, bonnets, boots, holsters, buttons, bows, and frippery from another age—and a park full of people wearing them makes my pencil hand itch to draw.

Columbia State Historic Park in the Sierra foothills offers all of those things when the volunteer docents are out in full force. Since I’ve been longing to sketch people in costumes, I dragged an artist friend along for company, fun, and moral support, and we went drawing for a day during their big birthday celebration. (They had speeches! They served cake!)

Charcoal drawing of speechifying

The two ladies at the top of this post sat and knitted gracefully while we drew. I went full-on artiste-geekazoid mode and set my easel up in the gutter (I need the canvas to be vertical as my new-fangled specs distort my drawings if I don’t look at the paper head on. Wish I could see without the blasted things.) I even dragged out long neglected pastel pencils.

According to a friend who volunteers at the park, everything they wear is as accurate as possible. “We’re dressed from the skin out,” she says. Scandalous to tell me, but when I ask to see her petticoat, she proudly showed off her corded underskirt. “They didn’t have hoops in 1850, so they used strips of cords around their petticoats.” (Make a corded petticoat here:


Clothes from the 19th century are so flattering, and best of all, they need curvy girls who can adequately fill out corsets and stays. (Ladies, when an artist tells you that you are beautiful, don’t tell us you’re not. Smile and nod graciously. We’re artists. We know what’s beautiful.)


The docents at Columbia often have characters to go with their costumes. Isaac Dinwiddie posed for us a good long time. When you look like this, you really need to have your portrait drawn.


All the charcoal drawings were done on an ancient pad of Strathmore Charcoal paper, Pad. No. 460-1. It’s fabulous paper, with a rough laid pattern that the charcoal loves, but it’s turning buff colored from age. I haven’t played with the sketches in the studio, and I’ve left the scans the way they are because I like the color of the paper.


30 in 30: There are no mistakes in painting. It’s all just practice.

Landscape in oils of Pescadero Beach. Sometimes we all must fail.
Pescadero Beach, January 6
Landscape sketch in oils. Sometimes we all must fail.

Monday I was fortunate to attend a landscape painting class taught by Halcyon Teed. The weather was balmy, the light exquisite. I was excited to be there.

But painting that day was like trying to run through sand; a slog all morning. It’s been a while since I painted in oil, and I just couldn’t re-friend my colors. My thought at the end of the day? Fail.

I’m showing you this stinker because I think it’s important to fail. And it’s important for those of you, dear readers, who may be knotted up in your own artistic struggle, to see other artists fail. (And if you’re a successful artist, well then, feel free to snigger.)

So often when we look at the work of others, all we see are the successes, the award winners, the masterworks and show pieces. We don’t see the fumbles, the embarrassments, the groaners. The awkward marks and homely scumbles that get rubbed out before anyone can comment.

I think it’s a false picture. It’s an artistic version of the Facebook effect. Everybody is a mo’ bettah painter than I am. And when I’m scrabbling away at frustration, all that perfection from others is demoralizing.

But it shouldn’t be.

Emily Jeffords, over at Hello Beautiful Blog says,

“The first thing you have to do is pick up the brush. Then, make as many mistakes as you wish. Every stroke is just practice.”

That’s a good mantra to paint by. Part of the reason I’m playing the 30 in 30 challenge is because I want to pick up that brush everyday and make as many mistakes as I can. Spending a specified amount of time each day painting thoughtfully is also creating a lot of work, and the more work I make, the less precious it becomes. I’m better able to sort through the clinkers and find the shiny stuff.

It’s kind of like playing scales on an instrument; sometimes they’re just scales, sometimes they’re noise, but occasionally, they’re music.

Once in a while, I may make a painting.

This is part of a series exploring one 1-hour painting (nearly) every day in January as part of Leslie Saeta’s series, Thirty Paintings in Thirty Days. To see my experience with the entire series, click on the category, 30 in 30, at right.

Drawing more birds

Click on thumbnails above to see larger images

In my previous post I wrote about John Muir Laws book, The Laws Guide to Drawing Birds. Imagine how happy I was to find that he also has organized The Nature Journal Club, a monthly meet up and workshops series. I went to my first one last month, at one of my favorite places in the Bay Area, the Palo Alto Baylands. It was so much fun, with people of all ages and abilities there to keenly observe the birds and landscape.

Honestly, I could go out anytime and draw or paint, and I often do. But there’s something about being with a group of people all focused on the same thing that makes it ever so much more satisfying. And you can learn by sharing observations and techniques, stories and jokes.

If you live in the Bay Area, I hope you’ll consider coming out for the next Sunday outing, or one of the weekday workshops. But if you don’t live in the Bay, I hope you’ll organize your own Nature Journal Club where you live.

Palo Alto Airport
Pencil Sketch

The Nature Journal Club is free, but donations are welcome and encouraged.  During a time when our natural world is beleaguered unto the point of disappearance, if people will get outside and really see the world so that they feel close to it, perhaps we’ll find a way to make a healthy world as important as development.