Life Sketching vs. Studio Montage
My video class on Sketching People in Motion is in full swing. Which means I’m getting lots of great questions from students.
The course starts with the basic techniques of speed sketching, followed by tinting in watercolor, and some demonstration of direct watercolor sketching.
In the later lessons, I get into some discussion about ‘reportage’. The practice of using your sketches to document events.
This montage of sketches from the Corning Museum of Glass is one of the more complex examples I talk about near the end of chapter 7. We do an animation showing how it’s put together, but I’ve had a question about it in the class discussion, and I’d like to go into more detail here.
To some extent, every sketch done on location is a documentary. But in these reportage drawings, I’m consciously trying to show a sequence of events. To visually describe a process.
I suppose it’s just part of how I learn. I have a very short attention span. I’m not sure if it’s pathologically short – but it seems to be sometimes. The act of drawing things allows me to slow down. To stay locked into something long enough to try and understand it.
I always feel, when teaching sketching, that there are two things I’m responsible for.
Primarily we’re here to learn the actual skills. That’s what most people are wanting. This is in fact the easy part. Hand skills are just a matter of showing clearly what to do, and tricking the student into a lot of practice.
But secondly, I feel I have to touch on Aspirational Goals. What we are ultimately going to do with this skill. Fun as it is to simply sketch, with no motivation beyond doing it (Life Drawing) I think we must have, in the back of our minds, a real world application.
Maybe we want to be travel sketchers, seeing the world and reporting in our sketchbooks (sounds great right?). Maybe we want to be investigative journalists, or biographers of great individuals (or all three!). Whatever your goal – the question is – how will you use your sketches to communicate?
I don’t want to actually start quoting the lesson from class. But I do want to show exactly how I did this particular composition.
The heart of the question is Location Sketching vs. Studio Work. How much do you draw on-the-spot, and how much do you finish later.
I firmly believe the best drawings are completed entirely on location. You have 100% of the information you need right there. All the color, composition and detail of real life to choose from. Anything you do after is going to require visual memory (which is a trained skill), or reference material (which is impossible to collect at the same time as sketching – unless your wife is a photographer), or you might even be tempted to fake things (aiee!). This all means, I prefer to do it right there, beginning to end.
However. There are practical concerns.
I can, and do, bring large sheets of paper on location. My largest field sketches are 18×24″. The only limit to how wide a view and how many details I can get in, is the size of the board I can carry around all day. That’s why I’ve started to do diptych’s on location. So I can use two boards, spread open like a sketchbook, and go even larger.
But – when you’re seated in an auditorium, or standing in a small space, or are with an audience of folks who don’t want to be distracted, sometimes you simply have to work on a smaller scale.
The actual original drawings for this montage are done in a Stillman & Birn Epsilon at 6×9″. I’m sketching these as quickly as possible, doing what they call Key Framing (freezing motion).
It is a juggling act between A: what can you see from your vantage, B: what you have time to draw before it’s gone, and C: what you need next to explain the action – what part of the operation is missing? The goal is for every sketch to show something new. Usually, you don’t have time to repeat yourself. Collect information and keep moving. Prioritize – what is the anchoring activity, and what doodles might support it. (Here’s an older example).
Doing all these small sketches allows me great flexibility. I never have to erase – just flip the page. I can do a few very rapid ones, because I know they are going to be in the background, or used as ‘supporting cast’ for the main actors. I can write notes about color or action, that I will erase later.
In my head, I’m already combining them into a collage. The old-school method for the actual combination is to trace your drawings – or transfer with graphite paper. I do this digitally these days, simply because it’s faster. Collage in Photoshop, and print to the final paper.
Nobody regrets the vanishing art of tracing. In fact, mid century illustrators didn’t trace either – people used to physically cut and paste sketches and do large photo prints to paint over. Talk about costly and time consuming. I’d rather take my chances doing it all in one drawing if it came to that. I suppose that is part of why illustration used to be a highly paid career. (I suppose it’s still ok? Will let you know re: that).
Here’s a few steps from the in-class animation showing how all the loose sketchbook pages are combined together:
After that, it’s simply a matter of tinting the drawings. (That’s lesson 4 in the series).
OK! sorry for the long winded post – but I wanted to be able to fully answer the questions that came up. I hope it’s interesting for anyone who is thinking to take their field sketching further – illustration, journalism, fine art – even comics and cinematic story boarding.