Direct Sketching with Pen and Ink: Drawing People from Life

March 18, 2011

The full post outlines a step by step approach.

110304Woman Left: Woman waiting in a doctor's office. Staedtler Pigment Liner in a handmade journal (now defunct drawing paper). Approximately 8 inches square, right edge clipped because of gutter in book and narrow scanner.

On February 28, 2011 I wrote a post on "Direct Sketching with Pen and Ink: Just Jump into the Deep End of the Swimming Pool." Several people have since written in saying they are going to try this. But just as many have written in saying they are still spooked. So today I want to break it down a bit with a step-by-step post that might not seem so overwhelming.

Let me be frank with you (I try to be so every day, but let's really pull out all the stops)—if you or a group of interesting, delightful people are standing before me doing delightful, entertaining, history-making activities and there is a pigeon anywhere in the city block area, well I'm going to sketch the pigeon. That's just the way I'm wired. This goes way, way back to childhood. In fact my first form (7th grade) art teacher, Mrs. Osbourne knew early on that the way to ensure that all the other students would have a great art class was to allow me to go out into the park and sketch birds.

But you know what, birds aren't always around when you want to sketch them and sometimes you just have people to sketch.

So here's what you do. Sit opposite a person in a waiting room, city square, restaurant, train, etc. Wear a billed-cap that hides your eyes. If you can work obliquely, looking at the person to your side, well go for it. Next, take out your pen and uncap it. Stare for a second at the person you want to sketch. Will they sit there for any length of time?

Now you're wondering how I can ask you to ask yourself that? Well here's the thing: the more you practice determining when someone might leave the better you'll get at judging whether or not someone is going to sit in the same place for any length of time. Watch for signs of fidgeting and constant checks of a  wrist watch, cell phone clock, or wall clock. Look at the reading material they have in their hands—are they interested in it? How far into the reading material are they, e.g., are they on the last page of a novel or newspaper? If you're in a doctor's office over time you'll have a sense of the average patient wait. Once you find a subject you'll subconsiously start an internal countdown clock based on when the person arrived and the average wait. These are all great observational skills to have. You'll also pick up cues regarding strange and dangerous behavior and be better able to respond appropriately—but that's a post for another day.

Now stare at your blank page for a second and imagine how that person's image might fit on that page. What is the most important part of the person (or bird) that you want to capture on your page? Start there. Look at the person and start drawing. When they start to look up or at you, you anticipate and look away before they can get eye contact with you (again it's practice). Practice will also tell you when it's safe to look back, which you need to do now so you can gather more info for your sketch.

Continue looking and not looking. It's a dance. Just like dancing it requires timing. And practice.

And after each look make a mark on your page with your INK PEN. When you look at your subject you will constantly be assessing whether what you have on the page is accurate or needs correction. Make a new line as needed.

At first your lines will be small, maybe even tentative. Someday you'll do lovely sweeping lines that capture the gesture in one sure movement.

Practice with your pen so that you know the types of lines it will make. Practice making light lines that can guide you and thick definitive lines on which you can anchor your sketch. Each pen will have different characteristics and the one you settle on will say something about the type of sketching you want to do.

Deciding on when to use a line is another skill learned in practice. Sometimes an area or shape is best defined by not putting a line there to define it. Other times you'll need a line to give you a hard edge. Only practice will give you a clear understanding of these nuances. When working tonally with soft smearable media you can often fudge your hard edges and soft edges. Don't fuss when working directly in pen and ink. Make a decision and go with it. It isn't the last drawing you'll ever do, you'll get to make a different decision in ten minutes if you're still practicing.

In the above sketch the woman's halo of silver gray hair in a spikey, expensive cut, caught my eye. I started there and worked my way down, comparing the angles of her face and visually noting the measurement from forehead to eyebrow, etc. This also gets faster and better with practice.

Some artists make tentative lines and shapes to act as place markers as they work, e.g. an oval for the face, a cylinder for the neck. I prefer to start with a series of lines and work out from there, comparing the spacing between the lines, the angles, etc. Remember—having extra lines is not a thing I'm ashamed of, go read the other post.

Next, on this day, I moved down the shoulders. At the mid body there is a bit of a skip, a no-man's zone of no detail, because I was worried that she would leave and I really wanted to draw those Ugg boots.

In situations like this you can do one of two things—1. You can guestimate the placement of the item in your original sketch and just go for it as I did here, or 2. You can do a side drawing focusing on just that one element, i.e., the detail of the boots; then return to your main drawing and work in a more orderly fashion. (I do that more than leaping.)

Ultimately the person (or bird) will leave. And that will be that.

Take a moment to write down everything that is important about the encounter such as measurements of scale (X is as large as a Y), or color notes, or overheard dialog, or behavior ticks. All of these notes will help you complete a painting later, or simply identify your subject the next time you encounter her.

  1. Reply

    I love this! You articulated the steps of drawing someone in public so well.
    Sketching in pen is a must as far as I am concerned. It forces me to draw decisively and not fuss about erasing or mistakes and it never looks messy later in my journal (no smudging). I find when I sketch in pen I worry less about drawing wrong and find it causes me to look more closely before I make a line on the page, which always yields a better drawing.

    • Diane
    • March 18, 2011

    So much information, Roz. Your blog is better than a How To book on sketching! You provide both the how to and the encouragement to go do it. Have you ever considered writing a book?

  2. Our city recently got light rail and when i ride it, it gives me 30 minutes to draw people. I can’t draw on the bus because it’s too bumpy. I don’t have a lot of time to decide whether or not a subject is going to move around so I do have some false starts. I can sit on a slightly raised seat with a barrier in front of it so no one can see what i am doing with my hands. Works quite well!

  3. Reply

    Suzanne,thanks. And I agree, for me too, working in pen causes me to think a little longer and look more closely before making that line. It slows me down a bit in the best of ways!

  4. Reply

    Miss T, I’m so glad that you are going to join in to IFJM and focus on people. Using IFJM to focus on one aspect of our sketching and learning is a great thing. I think it will be an eventful month for you seeking out models and capturing them in your fake (and real) journal.

  5. Reply

    Thanks Diane, I want to write 10 books, but I just am not getting around to pushing those efforts forward. I have other projects that need to be finished first. We’ll see what happens. But thanks for the encouragement.

  6. Reply

    Mimi, I’m so glad that you are using your transit time on light rail for sketching people. False starts are just fine (I have more to say about this in some up coming posts). I’m glad you have a sitting arrangement all worked out! Keep sketching.

    Cully Long is a wonderfully talented artist who draws people on the train trips he takes to work and he published sketches in a book called “A Line.”

    It’s on one of those print on demand sites, not Blurb, but the other big one I can’t remember right now (there is no notice in his book on the company so I can’t get it from that).

    Maybe someone reading will remember the other big company that does this.

    Anyway, it’s a great book if you are interested in seeing what other folks are doing on their work commutes.

    • Christina Trevino.
    • March 18, 2011

    Roz, there is a great place to draw pigeons around here. It’s Louis Burgers in LA. First of all, they have a great deal on a burger combo with the best fries that I remember, second, at the corner is the huge donut place, very good donuts. But, there are always many pigeons and seagulls looking for scraps, all the time. It’s a drive inn and has tables outside, so you would be in fries and pidgeon heaven here. You are invited, anytime.

  7. Reply

    Christina, if I get out to L.A. we are going! Thanks for the heads up. It sounds perfect—burgers and pigeons. And Donuts!!!!!! Oh my. (and I love gulls too!)

    • Allison Moore
    • March 19, 2011

    Roz,I first started drawing in pen with my non-dominate hand (left). I figured “what do I have to lose?” It took away the fear factor for me. I have a whole sketchbook devoted to “left hand art”. Now I can sketch with right or left hand with the same skill. Have you ever tried drawing with your non-dominate hand?

  8. Reply

    Allison, at various times, typically because of injury or strain I do work with my non-dominant hand. I find that I am slower, but fairly ambidextrous. After a day it’s pretty natural.

    Now drawing with my feet—that’s a fun experience. I have done that several times, including in class demos. I usually get something that is sloppy but which I enjoy better than other drawings!

    I like that you took the “what do I have to lose?” attitude. You’ve gained a great deal!

  9. Reply

    Thanks, this was really helpful. I can’t say how many times I’ve started to sketch a stranger in a waiting room or airport and chickened out as soon as they looked up the first time.

  10. Reply

    Laurie, I’m glad the post is useful. Keep on trying to sketch in public. It gets easier and easier and your timing gets better and better!

    • Carolyn
    • March 20, 2011

    Good post. Thank you, Roz. I love how you talk us through your sketching process, and the tip wearing a billed-cap to hide your eyes is good. I’d love a mini periscope attached to my sketchbook, one that would allow me to see the whole person I’m sketching, and could be aimed at any angle to myself.

    Drawing with the non-dominant hand is good practice. I sometimes switch sketching hands when sketching on an easel (in class) while trying to get the left edge of the model down. My dominant hand and wrist are particularly arthritic and sometimes it is less frustrating to just switch hands briefly. It would be great to use both hands at once, although I haven’t tried. (There are youtube videos of drawings being done with both hands.)

    • Linda
    • March 20, 2011

    Roz, Thank you so for these articals. Im teaching myself and can you explain what line is? I know I should know but in teaching yourself theres alot Im not aware of. Maybe a book or dvd you can recommend our some where to see what all this looks like Im a visual person. Having problems with shoulder withs how wide are the shoulders supposed to be sorry for all the questions Roz but you really are such a great teacher.
    Thanks again how are you doing Roz hows your head doing? Has your drawing gotten back to where it was?
    Have a wonderful day,

  11. Reply

    Carolyn, I think you could probably find such periscopes, but I don’t think you would enjoy drawing with it. You’re viewing through the lens then and not the actual model from life. The lens flattens the model.

    I’m glad that you are able to work with both your hands, especially since you have arthritis. It is important to keep going and as you say, just switching briefly, will enable you to do that.

    The only drawing with two hands at once I’ve ever done is with the etch-a-sketch (sp?) children’s toy.

    I think I’ll have to stick with one hand at a time.

  12. Reply

    Linda, that’s actually a very complicated question when I think of it. In the simplest definition a line is simply a connection of several points (at least two). But when you’re drawing, then “line” can be the contour of a shape (the outline) or it can be the “edge” where two “shapes” of different value meet and create contrast, and so the appearance of a edge or line. Then of course there are lines that are used for texture as in cross hatching and shading of curved lines, all bunched together to create darker values.

    Seeing line is something that is important if you are going to make art. How you make lines will actually define your particular style.

    I would suggest that you look into Betty Edwards’ Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. I don’t recall that she defines line in any particular way, but I do know that she has excellent instructions on making blind contour, contour, and gesture drawings. These are all exercises that you need to do and do repeatedly so that you can begin to see line, and value, and shading and so on. I don’t know of a DVD on this I’m sorry.

    As for how wide things are supposed to be, again, doing exercises like those in Betty’s book will help you develop an internal measuring system that allows you hand-eye-brain coordination. She talks about making visual measurements. (It would be an involved post that I’m sorry I won’t be able to get to any time soon. Maybe in May or June.)

    My head is not back to normal—there are some frustrating and difficult issues, but I keep drawing, keep trying to rebuild. Thanks for asking.

  13. Reply

    Roz, I always enjoy your posts but especially your descriptions of your creative processes are great reads. I am sketching directly with pen and ink for several years now and I find that it is much easier for me than to sketch in pencil! When doing sketches in pencil I tend to work faster and start erasing lines as soon as I put them on paper. Not very good when drawing in public since it arouses too much attention. But when I use pen and ink I think a bit more about what I’m doing and have way better results. Anybody else experiencing this?

  14. Reply

    Birgit, I think it’s interesting that you sketch faster in pencil and then erase immediately. That slows you down then. What happens if you work in pencil and don’t erase?

    I think working in pen helps keep attention away for another reason—people see you with a pen and assume you are taking notes and don’t look any more closely.

  15. Reply

    In some way you are right but there are sites online where you can watch tutorial.

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