Sketching People in Public

August 24, 2012

I’m sitting up the back of the bus (second last seat) these days. My interest seems to be moving from perspective to people.

The last four seats are set higher over the back wheels – the bus floor is on three levels (the higher levels past the side exit door of the bus). The heads in the seat in front loom too large to draw properly. People at right angles to me draw attention to my sketching so I notice the greatest potential is for people sitting in front of me, some distance away and roughly 30-45 degrees in my field of vision.

I’m doomed to keep making the same mistakes unless I take stock and take a different tack. The main problems I’m encountering with sketching people in public are as follows:

  • I end up drawing lots of backs of skulls.
  • My seated poses look awkward.
  • Their messiness looks ‘bad’ in my sketchbook.

Backs of skulls.

It’s in the nature of sketching commuters that one ends up drawing lots of backs-of-skulls and becomes highly efficient at drawing backs of collars. I just need to get over it. Backs of skulls really require context (otherwise they are just bubbles on a page): they must be attached to a neck (the indent where the clavicles meet is always down a third the size of the skull) and to the two clavicles (the shoulder is three heads wide). A skull only looks convincing thanks to several “tricks” played by the sketcher on the viewer: even if they’re not visible (covered up by clothes), the sketcher needs to include the following to ‘fool’ the viewer into ‘registering’ it as a head: the bump of the seventh verterbra, the slope downwards of the trapezius, the ends of the shoulders and where the boney bit of clavicle comes to the surface at the shoulder.


At home. Practice sketching quickly from photos and from my imagination skulls leaning forward (as in commuters reading or checking their smartphones).

On location. Focus not on muscles or clothes, but on the skeleton: draw not what you see, but the skull and backbone and clavicles underneath. Only when the skeleton looks okay/accurate, move to muscles and then move to drapery/clothes.

Seated poses.

On public transport, one key issue is the three-quarter seated pose seen from behind. Another issue is crossed arms. Another is the obscuring of part of the pose by seats and by other people.


At home. Analyse seated poses recalled from bus trips. Practice sketching these and similar by inventing the figure. If I can draw them accurately from memory and/or imagination, then the process should get easier to sketch on location.

On my next bus trip. Regardless of surroundings (e.g. bus windows, etc.), try and focus on at least one seated ¾ pose during the bus journey. Persist with the one figure, remembering that most people adopt two or perhaps three ‘set’ positions when seated in public. The aim is to get the proportions right and the pose looking accurate; don’t focus on details.

‘Messiness’ in my sketchbook.

I used to have separate sketchbooks for Figure Drawing and Other Drawing (object drawing, architecture, landscape, still life). My figure work was so dodgy, that sketchbook never left the house. Recently I hit upon the idea of devoting the right-hand page to Buildings and the left-hand page to People, forcing me to sketch people and buildings in equal amounts. Drawing people in public means I have to have an A5 or A6 sketchbook; an A4 is out of the question – it’s simply too large. Because people come and go so quickly, pages fill up with squiggles very quickly.

The experience of others. It’s curious to note that the Urban Sketchers Singapore book is largely devoid of people, but they are documenting a city in a state of rapid change. Some architects resort to stylized figures largely to indicate scale. I’ve noticed other urban sketchers are able to draw really quite complete figures (they say they’ve been done on location, but they feature lots of detail and post-production retouching/addition of details/colour work; they say they’re 60sec sketches; they often work out at 5 or 6 figures per 5×8” page) – they look to me like ‘drawings’ rather than ‘sketches’. To make them look ‘good’ in a sketchbook, it’s possible to provide continuity by adding an abstract background colour linking the figures. Or abstract shapes in the same one or two colours. Other sketchers insist on contextualising figures with street scapes/buildings.

Options. I don’t want to relegate figure drawing to single sheets of paper (though I can always bind them into a book later on). Equally not hugely happy about wandering around with two sketchbooks – one for buildings/street scapes and one for people. The paper size has to be smaller (5×8” or A5/A6); because they will be drawn with pencil or pen (addition of colour unlikely, except for tonal value studies of drapery), paper need only be 80-90g. There probably has to be scope for gestural on-location squiggles combined with more considered sketches from the squiggles worked on at home – combined in the same sketchbook? Leave every LH side page blank for notes/re-statements at home?


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