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: