Drawing People in Public—Ethics, Morality, Possibilities

February 5, 2014


Left: Sketches made of various people in a waiting room. Staedtler Pigment Liner on light blue Magnani Pescia (scrap about 4 x 6 inches carried instead of a journal because of injury).

I get asked all the time about drawing people in public. People ask me the hows and the wheres and the whys (the last is easy—I just like to be looking and sketching wherever I am).

People also ask me if I think it's an invasion of privacy to sketch people in public places. One blog reader wrote to me and asked that in February 2013. What follows is an expanded discussion of this topic:

Obviously from my life's work I do not think sketching people in public places is an invasion of privacy, and never have.

I sketch people wherever I am when I'm out in public. I've written extensively about this on the blog. I think it is totally OK.  

I do believe you need to be respectful. If someone sees you sketching him/her and comes over to you and is upset, I suggest you apologize and cease drawing. That's really all you can do. That and back away slowly. Let's face it, your eyeballs have already scanned them.

In my entire life, however, I can't think of more than two or three instances where someone came up to me and demanded that I stop sketching. That's a lot of hours sketching out all over the world with no hostile feedback.

Most people don't notice. 

Now I know I've perfected the ninja cloak of invisibility. I also know that large duck-billed hat I have sure helps hide my real purpose. But the truth is people are usually too busy doing whatever it is that they are doing—reading, working on a computer, texting, talking on their cell phones—to notice what I'm doing.

I'm just some middle-aged woman dressed in baggy khakis and a polo shirt. Heck I've got my hair in pigtails and most days there is probably paint all over me.

I'm the last person anyone is going to look at and I planned it that way when I left the house.

The only thing I do that one could argue draws attention to myself is that I hum when I really get going sketching. (Apologies to everyone who's ever been in life drawing with me and I promise I am really working hard to break myself of that habit.)

When I was much younger and the World didn't have Facebook or reality shows, more people used to express a desire for privacy in general conversations (which yes I overheard and noted down) or in letters to the editor of newspapers (remember those).

Now with everyone having cameras and posting on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter, everything that happens to them at any second, it seems that people who do notice me sketching them are more bemused than anything else. Some of them even come over and demand to take my photo and post it and my drawing of them on Twitter. That's so meta. All you can do is give in, even if you just did the shittiest sketch of your life.

The reality is that 99.9 percent of the people I've sketched while I've been out in public were oblivious to the fact I was sketching them, because they just weren't alert to their surroundings. That's the human condition.

When I've been out sketching and found someone who was alert to his surroundings 99.9 percent of the time that person was a pickpocket, and he moved on. (Or she.) So an argument could be made that sketchers provide a valuable service to society by creating pickpocket free zones.

(Beware however if you become so involved in your sketching that you lose track of your own surroundings and lose your belongings to those more watchful!)

The obvious reason people don't notice I'm sketching them is that typically I wear a duck-billed hat. This prevents people from seeing my eyes. Even in waiting rooms when I don't have a hat on people don't seem to notice me (see the above description of my nondescript-ness and ninja invisibility cloak).  


Left: Three quick sketches of people in the Physical Therapy waiting room. Sketching with a Staedtler Pigment Liners on a small scrap of paper later stuck down in my journal. Bottom of the scan flawed, but you get the idea.

I don't sketch in cafes much because I don't go to coffee shops and sit around sipping coffee like a lot of sketchers do. I DO NOT LIKE THE SMELL OF COFFEE so to sit in a coffee shop all day is actually tortuous to me.

What I have found at restaurants that I've sketched in is that if the majority of the patrons are young or middle class, or both, and I focus on tables that are distant, not immediately adjacent to me, they don't notice either.

In fine dining establishments I have had the maitre d' come over and ask me to stop. This happened a lot in Chicago. Some people don't want their photo taken, and those same people don't want to be sketched. It doesn't matter if you're doing a bad job and creating an unrecognizable portrait. There are people in society who do not like to be regarded.

As you develop as a sketcher you'll learn who those folks are. Frankly I think that's part of the fun.

You'll learn, if you travel, where, when, and whom it is appropriate to sketch. That's where being respectful comes in. 

But being respectful still leaves you a lot of places to sketch, because, as I've written, most people don't pay attention.

So I'll sketch people in any public building or concourse type structure (airports, train terminals, etc.) that I might be at for whatever reason, if I have some down time.

I've only been called to jury duty once in my life time (and I've always been a registered voter once I became old enough). Of course I sketched through my time in the jury pool. I was worried that I'd actually have to serve on a jury and my journal would be taken away from me (I don't know what the rules are in court as I never made it there). Seems odd: you're asking me to be hyper attentive so I can make a considered decision, and you're taking away my best facilitation tool. Hmmmmm.

If you do look at the jury sketches or other waiting room sketches you'll see that I tend to sketch people who are quite a distance away from me. Often a large room is broken into different sections with partitions. If you draw someone several sections over you'll most likely never hit his radar. It helps limit his ability to notice you.

When I'm at the allergist's after getting my shots (I have to wait 30 minutes afterwards in case there is a reaction) I sketch people I can see through the door of the waiting room I'm in—people who are in the main waiting room. They are totally oblivious to my very existence, but I have a direct view of them.

Not only is it interesting to draw these people, but I find myself wondering about how they move through life. I can't remember ever, even as a child, not knowing, the moment I entered a room, where all the entrances and exits were, how many people were there, how they were grouped, and why they were grouped that way—that last from reading body language.

Sketching people shopping in stores as you sit outside on a bench also renders you pretty invisible. That glass "wall" isn't something shoppers tend to look beyond.

Sketching people a couple rows in front of you at a lecture or sports event is something that you can do without being noticed—and it's always fun to work on different "views" of people. 

I draw the crowds of people at zoos, the Bell, art museums all the time. Anywhere people will be focusing their attention on something else. I admit I also listen to their conversations, and write them down. I think the patterns of speech are infinitely entertaining and interesting.

I probably would not sketch people at a funeral I was attending. And I wouldn't crash one to sketch. But if I were some great distance away from a grave site I could envision situations in which I would sketch the mourners.

Sometimes when I'm sitting and there are only people sitting next to me I will sketch people's shoes. It means I can keep my head down and look back and forth from the shoes to my journal, and they won't see that movement at all. It's all practice. And shoes are very interesting. I did a whole series of portraits of friends and family simply by drawing their feet in shoes. You could pick any of them out of a line up.

When I'm in close quarters with a really aware person I'll actually ask if he or she minds if I draw his or her shoes. No one has ever said no. No one.

If in your heart of hearts you believe sketching people in public is an invasion of privacy, end of discussion, don't do it. 

I'll keep doing it. My friends will keep doing it. But we don't have any ethical or moral qualms about it.

If you do, you should not do it.

But you also need to ask yourself, "Am I upset because I'm invading their privacy, or because if they notice me I'll have given a tacit invitation for them to talk to me and that is an invasion of my privacy?"

I bring that up because 90 percent of the students I've had who express discomfort over issues of "privacy" when drawing in public, turn out, when questioned by me about their art practice, to actually be more concerned about the discomfort of someone coming up to them and telling them their drawing sucks.

Once those sketchers can get over that discomfort, perhaps through improved skills, or simply a mental adjustment, then they can happily get out in public and sketch.

I write about advice I've given students in the past, on the blog too. Most obvious is to prepare a couple statements to say to people when they interrupt you: "I'm sorry I can't talk with you I'm concentrating," "What did you say, I was concentrating and didn't hear you?" etc.

Have some funny or light things to say if they criticize you (which is different than a person being upset about you drawing him/her). If they tell you your sketch of a hippo doesn't look like a hippo, or they say that their Aunt June can draw better than that, have something light to say like, "I'm glad you have an artist in your family." And get back to sketching. If they are upset that you drew them then just apologize and stop.

Happily there is one easy way to overcome the discomfort of drawing people in public—do it constantly. That remedy is in your own hands.  

All you have to do now is ask what is true for you and apply it to your life.

If you decide that you want to draw people but live where there are no life-drawing co-ops or classes and drawing people in public is something you are ethically troubled by then call on your friends. Get any like-minded friends together and take turns posing for each other (clothed). Someone can read a book for 10 minutes in the same pose, with a lamp set up to throw some nice light. Then it can be someone else's turn to "read" and so on. In that way quite a lot of practice can be accomplished. (This practice simulates drawing in public, because people in waiting rooms and other such public venues are typically not around for too long.) Have the person modeling sit in a chair, sit on a stool, sit on the floor, recline on a couch, etc. In all these things you will have a different aspect of anatomy and fabric folds.

I recommend you find reasons to sketch whenever you can. 

Note: the "related items" below this post might not suggest my favorite related posts to you so here are two:

Direct Sketching with Pen and Ink: Drawing People from Life

Your Own Personal Sketch Out—Sketching in Waiting Rooms

  1. Reply

    I have been drawing in public for about 7 years; I used to draw patterns and doodles, but in the past year started to draw “things” like buildings, chairs, people etc. I have only had a small number of people mention the fact that I was drawing. You are right in that most people are oblivious or focused elsewhere. I feel like I would be aware of someone drawing me! But who knows? Usually people are nice; a Starbucks barista asked about my pens, a homeschooled tween asked a bunch of inquisitive questions about my work, a mom asked if I was an art teacher… a tourist in Venice looked at my work, smiled, and said “good job” in broken English. I loved this post, loved reading your perspective on all of it. The most important thing is that the more you sketch out in the world, the more natural it feels to do so.

  2. Reply

    Tammy, Keep sketching out! I’m glad you’re taking it all in stride. I love that you could help the homeschooled tween. Yes, it just gets to feel more and more natural. Thanks for writing.

  3. Reply

    Karen, I’ve got a different bunch of seniors to deal with. You have the active elderly. The ones I see couldn’t be less aware. I have had people of all ages stand behind me to watch, and comment! Often not kindly; it makes me laugh to think of it. We are providing entertainment for the world.

    • Tina
    • February 5, 2014

    Right on, Roz — I agree with everything you say in this excellent post. I sort of take it on as a personal challenge to avoid being “caught,” and in two and a half years, I’ve never been confronted. Also, I think it helps to have gray hair. I know that some women “of a certain age” complain that they turned invisible and get ignored by retail clerks, etc. Well, I say hallelujah to that: Gray hair is now a superpower (especially when sketching in public).

  4. Reply

    I’m with you Roz.

    I’ve been sketching people in public for 20+ years and I’ve never once had a problem.

    My one rule is thought that I never try to achieve a likeness. That’s my ethical boundary if you like. I will sketch the shape of the head – some aspect of their face – but I’ll never ever try to do a portrait sketch. I’ve got far too much to keep me going with the rest of what they have to offer.

    Here’s my gallery of interiors on my website – which is another way of saying lots of sketches of people in galleries, cafes and restaurants!

  5. Reply

    Katherine, I love your sketches showing people in the complete setting. I think your personal rule of not achieving a likeness is a wonderful one. I love the shading and mass that you capture in your sketches and don’t miss being able to identify people from a police line up. You’ve focused on what is important to you, the whole scene with people in it, people recognizable as people if not recognizable as a particular person, and I think it makes the scenes richer.

  6. Reply

    Tina, keep at it. Keep rocking that stealth gray hair!

    • david young
    • February 6, 2014

    Here’s my take on the subject:

  7. Reply

    David I love your sketches of people—the fluid and assured line. Just wonderful. Thank you for sending the link!

  8. Reply

    i do go for the portrait, i consider it a point of honour! i find my unwitting victims on the tube and cafes. the tube ones are given a false narrative as titles. if you want to see

  9. Reply

    evelyn, keep going for it. I LOVE your tube drawings. Fantastic. Thanks for sending the link.

  10. Reply

    Roz – I think you have it so right – apply it and see if it doesn’t work for you. What do you think about freeze framing TV shows, movies, etc and sketching from the still? Is that against copyright?

  11. Reply

    Pattie, I’m afraid I can’t give you legal advice on that. I’ve asked a lot of people who are artists and who are lawyers and I get a lot of different answers back. I just know for myself that I only sketch from TV for personal practice and not in any of my commercial work. Some have told me it falls under fair use and go ahead and do it commercially. A publisher once even told me that If I drew something I owned the copyright and she skirted the whole issue of derivative art—but then we had a contract where all the burden and penalty fell on me if we were wrong. (I ended the contract.)

    When I’ve been asked to create a portrait of a person I’m not able to meet, the client has always provided me with photos they paid to either have taken or to use as reference.

    If you’re going to to begin a single work or a series that is more than just practice—something that you are going to make for commercial use—I recommend that you go and see a copyright lawyer working within the visual arts field.

    There are just so many issues involved. I think it’s better that you protect yourself at the beginning and err on the conservative side before you put time into your project and find that you can’t do anything with your work.

  12. Reply

    I am lightly aware of these things – it seems so complex when you get right down to it, but it should be simple. Practicing with it – probably the best bet – I love that ‘dramatic freeze frame’ you can capture on a video – so many gestures that a model would be unable to hold or you would readily find a reference photo to suffice. And using artistic license, I can always NOT do a complete likeness. Thanks Roz, your posts always create that cognitive tension for me!

  13. Reply

    Pattie, one entertainment lawyer told me once that it’s all ultimately going to be decided in a court by a judge it’s so complex, so the best thing to do is just stay out of court by avoiding the issue.

    If I have to have bizarre or odd facial expressions for commercial work I usually take a photo of myself or friends mugging for the camera. I’ve also hired models to pose for a photograph. And there are books you can get that are just photos of faces compiled for artists—so that’s something you can look into as well.

  14. Reply

    Thank you! I think I will stay away –

  15. Reply

    Casinos are pretty off limits with sketching, which is a shame because the people that are there are so random and pretty interesting looking. I actually had the security guard ask me to stop drawing or leave. That was my only time in 10 years of sketching that I have ever been asked to stop.

  16. Reply

    Yes Becca, casinos are a no-sketching zone. It’s a security issue. I haven’t been in a casino in 20 years because they hold nothing for me to sketch, but I have wondered what they are doing now with everyone walking around with a cell phone camera. I would think that would be a nightmare to them.

    • James
    • February 16, 2016

    do you ever sell your sketches? in which case would that change things? also any tips for drawing houses? specifically I want to draw houses when I am standing on a sidewalk or parking lot but am afraid if the house is occupied they will think I’m a creep. (and I’m too chicken to knock and ask permission)

  17. Reply

    James you raise an interesting question that I didn’t address in this post because I do not sell my journal sketches. They remain in my journal.

    Basically if I’m in a public space and there’s a public event and such, I wouldn’t think twice about doing a sketch and selling it.

    But since I sketch in places that are a little more private, if I were going to make a sketch for sale I would ask permission, and in fact have them sign a model release.

    People do feel odd about people sketching their houses however, and there are even some recent laws creating “copyright” or “trademark” protection on iconic structures or “things” like the lone tree at Pebble Beach which is used for the golf club logo, and the Empire State Building.

    Since I’m not a photographer who sells images I haven’t kept up with that, and I don’t draw many buildings anyway, but I suggest you research laws relating to photography and buildings to see you can find a way to proceed.

    I can tell you that about 15 years ago I was sitting in my car waiting for an appointment time and it was a dead end and there were some plants in the center of the round about, so I got out my sketchbook and sketched from the car, and one of the neighbors called 911 and they sent police around. I had to get out of the car, give them my license and explain what I was doing. Well, I started to explain but the younger cop who’d taken my journal when they first started questioning me kept trying to wave his partner off because he could see I wasn’t doing anything nefarious.

    By the time we parted company it was time for my appointment.

    Good luck.

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