Yes, I said it. I called out one of the elephants in the room. Finding a sketching/art buddy to go sketching with might just turn out to be detrimental to your drawing practice.
This is difficult for people to digest, especially during the pandemic when most are craving more contact with people.
Let Me Break It Down For You
Things to Look For in a Sketch/Art Buddy
If you are looking for a sketching buddy to accompany you on sketch outs it’s important that you assess a candidate’s suitability. I recommend you look for or are aware of the following:
Seek Someone with Similar Goals
Dickens wrote, “There is no disparity in marriage like unsuitability of mind and purpose.” Keep that in mind when finding an art buddy.
Seeking someone with similar goals doesn’t mean that the two of you both share the goal of winning a Caldecott for Children’s illustration. What I mean here is that you both bring the same seriousness (or lack of seriousness) to your sketching activities.
The worst thing that can happen to you setting out for a morning of serious sketching is to find yourself shackled to someone who thinks a sketch outing is time for chatting.
This isn’t a coffee klatch—that comes AFTER we draw. At least you need to agree on when the talking happens.
It can be very annoying to spend even an hour with someone who doesn’t shut up.
Why is this a problem? If you’re out just to socialize it isn’t. But if you’re out to actually work on your sketching and in the process overhear the comments and conversations of others, then having someone sitting next to you droning on and on about some drivel he watched on TV the night before; or about some art show he entered when he was 19 (and he’s 58 now); well let’s just say after 15 minutes of that continuous stream you’ll begin to feel the blood leaking out of your ears.
UNLESS both of you are the type of person who wants to go out sketching for the social aspect, not the sketching. If you fall into that category, well then chat away. Throw your own drivel into the mix. But think of this—if you’re there for the social then why not just go out for coffee?
If you’re there for sketching, the coffee klatsch comes AFTER the sketching period.
Find someone who is in sync with you about how long you’re going to be sketching, how frequently you’ll change your location, and of course whether or not you can be separated.
It is equally annoying when someone finishes his sketch and wants you both to move on, because he’s finished and he wants to move. If your sketch buddy isn’t the type of person who can stand to sketch alone, then don’t plan an outing with him. If you plan to be out for more than an hour you’re going to be moving around and your buddy needs to be as comfortable being alone and meeting up with you later at a designated spot, as you are.
Before you go out on a sketch date with someone ask clear questions about his expectations. How long does he want to sketch? Is he OK setting up a meeting location? Does he want to chat continuously? If you are going to a county fair for instance and he wants to sketch barkers and you want to sketch animals, work that out before you get into the car not while you are standing at the Corn Dog stand!
I’d tell you to check what types of treats or coffee he likes, but I think that’s a bit petty and small. If the point, after you sketch, is that you have a chat, then it doesn’t really matter if the doughnuts are stale—don’t eat one. Have some water, buy a stale doughnut, sketch it while you chat, enjoy the chat, and go home. (On the other hand, if the eating qualities of doughnuts really matter to you—arrange where you’ll have coffee before you leave the house!)
Seek Someone with a Greater Skill Than You Have—It Will Help You Push Yourself
I am really fortunate. I have tremendously talented friends. When we sketch together we don’t spend time sitting next to each other, or wondering where the other person is, etc. (Big Duh if you’ve just read the beginning of this post.)
Sometimes I’ll be in a position where I’m near someone and I’ll watch them sketch for a short while. I find it fascinating to see how other people wield their visual vocabularies.
But typically we simply chat after the sketching is over. We look through each other’s books and make comments or ask questions.
Because I’ve had really talented artists to sketch out with I know it has made me work harder on my own sketches. I’ve stared at angles and made them work, rather than give up on an exhausting passage.
I even go out sketching with architects so that I’m sure to sketch a building now and then. (Not my first choice for subject matter.)
See, it pushes me beyond what is comfortable and I think that’s healthy. Sketching with someone more skilled than we are pushes us out of our habitual responses to the visual world around us. You quickly learn what you need to work on. Hint: there is always more to work on; that’s the fun and adventure.
I would also advise you to not treat the outing with someone more skilled than you are as a lesson. If you want a lesson, ask for and pay for a lesson. Don’t infringe on someone’s free time during which he or she is going to be sketching, by asking for instruction. It’s just polite to refrain from that type of behavior. You wouldn’t go to the theater with a doctor and then at the lobby start asking her to diagnose the bump on your elbow would you?
Seek Someone With a Similar Endurance Level
Sketching in public is a physically and mentally taxing activity. You can treat it like a fast paced marathon (me before my eye surgery), or a leisurely stroll, or anywhere in between. But if you and your art buddy aren’t in sync as to the level of functioning you’re going to go for then one of you will feel as if he is on a forced march.
Seek Someone Who Is Interested in the Same Things That Interest You
I have a friend who likes to sketch at sports events. I don’t like sports events. I never go with that friend to sports events—but we do sketch together at other events and outings because we share an overlapping of interests.
If you’re interests don’t overlap with your art buddy’s you’re in for a long day of accommodating to their interests. Or you might be left feeling like a jerk because you are dictating each stop on the itinerary.
By all means stretch. by sketching with someone who is interested in something you’re not interested, simply for your own growth. But don’t expect that to be a sustainable relationship if it is one-way. And don’t let the repetition of it weigh down on your own drawing habit.
Seek Someone Who Is Flexible
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone out with someone and we arrive at our destination and they don’t have the ONE PEN IN THE WORLD they are able to draw with. Or they forgot something else. Or they didn’t pack their parka…
Right away they are gummed up by their internal critic who tells them all is lost.
All is not lost! A flexible person person will simply say, “Fuck it, I guess we’re going with the brush pen today.” (At least that’s what I would say, heck, I’ve painted in watercolor with my own spit.)
It’s important that if you’re going to spend a couple hours (or more likely four to six hours) in the company of someone that they be able to zig when zagging isn’t possible, and vice versa.
Otherwise the air around you gets heavy with their frustration and discontent.
You want an art buddy, who like a duck, sheds circumstantial frustration “rain” off his back with a quick and definitive shake.
You want someone who realizes in her heart and bones that this is not the last time she’ll go out sketching, so adaptation would be a good thing, and she can plan another outing later.
I was once on a road trip with an art buddy and we stopped to visit the “Spam Museum” in Austin, Minnesota. It had been on my bucket list. (I don’t eat Spam, but I like to sing about it.) We arrived to find it shut. No one there. A huge sign announced it was closed for relocation at a far distant date.
Look. I could have stood there and pouted about not being able to get into the “Spam Museum.” But that really would have been a waste of time and energy. My friend and I had a great laugh about it. (Usually we check these things in advance; it wasn’t our final destination so it fell through the cracks.) And we sped along to our next destination.
That’s being flexible.
So is stopping and talking with a farmer, or business person at a site you planned only going to spend a few minutes at. Let your human curiosity come out. Having an opportunity to meet a resident of an area and ask some questions is priceless.
Schedules need to be adjusted. Be prepared to go with the flow. Find an art buddy who is flexible. If your interests match well (see above) it’s easier for both of you to exert flexibility towards each other.
Things to Watch Out For in an Art Buddy
In some ways this list is the mirror of the previous list, and for some of you, if your goals for sketching out diverge far from mine this might be the list of criteria that you look for in an art buddy, but I hope not. I think the following are less than desireable.
Someone with Less Skill Than You
Going sketching with someone who isn’t as skilled in the “sketching arts” as you are is not a deal breaker. It’s nice if they follow etiquette and don’t ask for a free lesson. It’s great if they don’t follow you around like a puppy while you’re trying to sketch an animal and their energy is upsetting your subject.
You get the idea.
In general someone with less skill also won’t be able to teach you by example—but maybe…
Here’s where it gets murky.
I believe we can always learn things from anyone. Sometimes we learn things about a person they didn’t intend to teach us and didn’t want us to learn. I think that learning is an essential part of being human and if it happens during a sketching date, well, OK, the journal is already at hand and I can start writing my treatise.
The most important reason to avoid going out with someone who has less skill than you is that you might find yourself caretaking them. You can care about how they do, but you can’t caretake them. Caretaking means you’re stepping in and becoming responsible for them. You are depriving them of their own energy, and they need that to take action as an independent person.
If spending time with someone who has less skill than you always puts you in the position of planning where you’re going, setting the agenda, stating the interest points, and even giving a lesson—then you need to sit yourself down and ask yourself how healthy that relationship is.
And how unhealthy your ego is.
Check yourself. Just because you have skills doesn’t mean you should always be teaching. Sometimes we need to step back and learn that people get their own timing and their own path to learning. We need to just listen.
We are all of us going to bump up against people who are more and less skilled at a variety of things than we are. It’s good to have a realistic assessment of your true skill levels so you are open to learning from people at both ends of the spectrum. It think that’s just a basic human trait we need to cultivate.
So while going sketching with someone with less developed skills than you have can be a good thing I’ve included “Someone with less skill than you” in the Watch Out List because it’s an ego black hole. A healthy art buddy relationship not only involves give and take but silence, and simply sitting.
The relationship needs to be companionable to be healthy. When you’ve had such a relationship with an art buddy for over 15 years then we’ll talk about the nuances of this dynamic.
Someone Who Is Extremely Competitive
There is healthy competition which pushes the parties competing and then there is the loud-mouth, boorish person always telling people what he has been doing. And how great it all is.
I don’t know about you, but I find that very uninteresting. The work speaks for itself.
Personally I think you have better things to do with your time than to be trapped in a car traveling to a location, or at a location, with someone who can’t shut up about what they have done.
I also find that while they are talking I’m busy sketching and then at the end of a session they usually complain that something wasn’t “right” and they just couldn’t get into it. Excuses.
Inherently competitive people who aren’t seriously engaged have a lot of excuses.
That’s the land of the internal critic and I don’t spend time there, even to make a bus transfer.
Life is too short. There is too much to see.
If you want to get to know this type to educate yourself, fine, go for it. But at some point you simply have to take yourself seriously enough to simply, and politely walk away from these people.
Someone with a Thriving Internal Critic
I’ve written a lot about internal critics. I’ve helped students for over 35 years deal with and excise their internal critics. As a teacher I can pinpoint the issues (as uncomfortable as they might be; sometimes I just suggest around the area so it isn’t too painful because after all they have to do their own digging for the fix to take).
But as a friend, as someone’s art buddy, I can’t save someone. That isn’t the friendship contract. You can’t have a healthy and mutually beneficial friendship based on that. You can have a teacher-student contract, but not a friendship.
And if you are someone who easily sees the internal critic acting in the world, it’s very difficult for you to be with someone for social reasons, who has a strong internal critic.
You know these people, you’ve met them before. These are the people who splash their negative energy on you because they are frustrated. Some have outbursts because they weren’t properly socialized as pups. Others have outbursts because they were damaged by adults who were damaged themselves.
If you’re on an art outing with someone who has a healthy Internal Critic expect that negativity to come sailing over to you. With luck it will just splash on your feet, but expect it to hit you mid torso.
I believe the best way to deal with someone who has a healthy internal critic is to not go on an art trip with them. It simply isn’t fun.
But if, for whatever sad reason, you decide to do this, practice being RUBBER and imagine everything they say bounces off of you.
Remind yourself that you trust yourself. And when they aim for buttons they think you might have, remind yourself that you have done your work, have your goals and expectations clearly defined, and can accept that others disagree, and it doesn’t devalue what you’ve done.
And then turn your open heart towards them because they have just shown you their weak underbelly where they have been hurting for a lifetime, and suggest something they can do to get out of all the pain they are obviously in.
Sounds like work doesn’t it?
Yeah, I just don’t go out with them. Three strikes you’re out rule for me.
Life is too short. And sketching, until last year was always too important to me to spend it with someone so caught up in inaction, frozen by the thoughts and dictates of others now internalized.
Now sketching is even more important to me as I can do it for less time, and with less scope.
Remember this: You can’t save anyone else.
You can act to clean up your own shit.
But you can’t save someone else.
Be Your Own Art Buddy
I spent 40 years sketching alone. Yes I was often with other people, but for the first 43 years of my life I was the only one sketching anywhere that I went. In 2000, thanks to my friend Linda Koutsky and the Minnesota Journal Project 2000, I was introduced to lots of artists who also sketched. Many became great friends. I’ve sketched out with many of them. I’ve enjoyed that immensely.
But I am still my best sketch buddy. I know what I need to work on. I know how much time I can take away from the studio. I know what my stamina is on any given day.
Sketching has always been “serious” for me—serious in the sense that it’s something I do and pay attention to.
I am respectful of my drawing practice and have been a “self-starter” all my life.
The sooner you learn to be a “self-starter” and just pick up and walk out the door with your sketch gear, the sooner your drawing habit blossoms into an integral part of your life which you direct and cultivate without any loyalty to anyone else but yourself.
If Turner can walk across the bandit-ridden Italian Alps or traipse about the highwayman-infested moors of his own country, all the while sketching, I think I can get myself to the zoo, or the Fair, or that goat farm a couple hours away.
Alone with your own focus you are forced to see, to decide, to choose, what is important to you. And your true self emerges on the page, uninfluenced by another soul.
My Favorite Art Buddy
My father-in-law CR, who died last year was my favorite sketching buddy.
First of all he was also my favorite model. He loved to pose. He was rock solid. His vanity insisted on it. He would break for a peek at what you were doing, or to greet someone who entered a room or walked by, but then he always returned to the same pose he’d held before. He knew the best side of his face. He was always maneuvering you into a seat so you had no other choice of a view. And if he saw you were getting ready to draw him he composed his face in to a meaningful look.
What made him such a good life model? He was engaged. Look at any sketch I’ve ever done of him. He is either staring intently at me, or staring intently at someone else—for the effect. Both take engagement.
And that’s what made him a great art buddy, not just a great life model.
He was engaged in the world, curious about the world, interested in the people of the world. He was passionate about knowledge and excellence in his field.
He expected excellence from you. He gave excellence back.
A great art buddy doesn’t whine at you when you pull the sketchbook out again. If he wants lunch he’ll go and get lunch and come back to where you are or arrange a place to meet you. A great art buddy is independent.
A great art buddy cares seriously about many aspects of his life. And that allows him to respect the care you have for the various aspects of your life including your art practice.
A great art buddy who is also a great life model—well that’s a whole other level of engagement.
The sketch in today’s post is one of the last sketches I made of CR while he was alive. Yes, I sketched him dead in the hospital. He would have expected nothing less. He was fully invested and engaged. And we had a project to finish.
Definitions and Other Considerations…
I understand it may be confusing to some readers that I use art buddy and sketching buddy interchangeably. I see them that way. You go out with someone and you’re going to make art or sketch. Whether they make art or sketch is actually not vital. They may simply be the type of person who sits and watches, actively engaging his brain in some way, while you work. Or he may be the type of person who when it is coffee klatsch time can talk to you about art—a museum buddy.
And finally I want to say something about sketching groups. These groups are now everywhere. They have formed and expanded all over the globe, especially in the past 16 years or so with Urban Sketchers.
Like any really large group there are people with a variety of skills, interests, and seriousness levels in these sketching groups. I believe that the majority of these groups—at least the ones I’ve started and the ones I’ve attended, have all had a serious yet playful aspect. And the coffee and sharing comes at the end. I recommend you look for a group like that.
If you start a group with your friends, be clear with them up front how you see the group being structured, the seriousness you want to give the sketching portion of your time together, and any other conditions you want to put forth (such as the doughnut shop of choice).
Then listen as they put their views about the structure and seriousness level on the table.
If there is a meeting of the minds set up a few sketch outings and try it out. If there isn’t, walk away.
It is easier to walk away from an art group or an art buddy before you start going on art adventures. Once you get into a car, bus, train, or plane to go somewhere with them your level of expectation increases, even though you know it can’t be met (based on the different aspirations you each carry). Yet you keep going thinking that things will change. They won’t. Or worse, you will—your drawing habit will change.
If history shows us anything it’s that there is nothing inherently good about a group.
Protect your drawing habit.