James Richards, Freehand Drawing & Discovery

April 24, 2013

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James Richards, “Freehand Drawing & Discovery: Urban Sketching and Concept Drawing for Designers”. Foreword by Francis D.K. Ching. Hoboken, NUJ: Wiley, 2013. ISBN 978-1-118-23210-1

It’s customary for urban sketchers to move from online dissemination of their work to hard copy publishing and James Richards has joined the fray with this excellent book, linking urban sketching and professional hand-drawing associated with architecture, landscaping and urban design. It has been published around the same time as the intriguing compendium of travel sketchers’ work (Danny Gregory) and the eminently practical “how-to” of location sketching (Matthew Brehm).

Richards provides a refreshing slant on urban sketching because of his lyrical visual style, characterized by spare line, nutty texture and bright color. He acknowledges the influence of Paul Hogarth in this respect and Richards’ work has the unfailing ability to make me smile. Not all urban landscapes make me smile – far from it – but in Richards’ world, it’s always sunny.

His approach to the practical aspects of location sketching was presented succinctly at the Lisbon symposium of Urban Sketchers a few years ago and his pithy lecture there forms the backbone of his opening chapter. His second chapter develops these ideas and, like the first chapter, should be required reading by anyone interested in urban sketching. I myself have been adopting his messages about simplifying tools and message and technique since reading the Lisbon lecture and this book and his advice is ringing true for me, even though my worldview is much darker.

Many of us in the world of urban sketching or location sketching or plein air drawing will appreciate his third chapter on elements and entourage: how to ‘situate’ what we draw with things like cars, trees, sky and water. This contextual stuff moves us from Object Drawing or “portraits” of buildings stuck fast in the middle of the page. These elements of context will be old hat for architects and landscape designers and for anyone working, for example, digitally, in other creative industries, but Richards provides for non-architects friendly ways to adopt these vitally important elements. Initially, these may appear to be slick devices used by architects, but those of who don’t sketch this stuff for a living can work from these generic elements to the specifics we see on location. We can thus make our people more human and our motor vehicles more lifelike, our skies full of “actual” clouds, but we need Richards’ guidance as a starting point.

Chapter 4 discusses perspective,  not limited just to buildings but to landscapes in general. For any urban sketchers moving from the “object drawing” of buildings, this chapter allows us to fearlessly capture the streetscape and surrounding landscape.

These four chapters of fundamentals occupy half the book and then branch out into the more specific areas alluded to in the book’s subtitle. Richards’ mission is to link the worlds of urban sketching (drawing the past) and creating new worlds in the workaday world of architects, landscapers and digital artists (drawing the future or the imagined). As a non-architect urban sketcher who draws the world as I see it every day, I don’t inhabit the world of the future. I don’t cause buildings or gardens to be created, but architects, landscapers and designers do, so the importance of hand-drawing for them is under the spotlight. Not that drawing from imagination is not important for non-professionals; after all, it wasn’t so long ago that Sketch Clubs set a formal test for wannabee members involving a drawing, done in half an hour, of an imagined scene, fitting a particular theme as set by the Membership Committee.

Richards makes the case for hand-drawers learning more about digital tools as much as the case for digital artists discovering hand-drawing, so there is a lot of attention in the second half of the book on concept sketching and digital sketching.

Usually hard copy books on sketching focus on the efforts of the author-artist, but Richards very cleverly draws on his contemporaries, filling the book with a wide range of work by other artists. This large, 263-page book, with hundreds of illustrations, is further enhanced by access to online tutorial videos, bridging the gap between hard copy book and the digital world. Highly recommended!

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