Matthew Brehm, Sketching on Location

July 9, 2013

matt brehm location sketching

I am prone to writing not “reviews” of new books, so much as  “responses” to them. Here below is my personal ‘response’ to a recently-published book about location sketching by Matthew Brehm. While out and about sketching, I’ve often had people stop to watch me work in silence or complain to me that they don’t have any “talent” for drawing. To the latter, I just quote the Nike slogan, “Just do it!”. But noone’s ever stopped by and asked if there’s a book published on what I’m doing. If they did, this is the book that I’d recommend to them!

This is, to my knowledge, the first book on the subject: a sketcher’s guide to working on location. Tucked away in many books on art-making or drawing, you might find, if you’re lucky, a tantalising paragraph or two on how to sketch outdoors effectively, but they pale into insignificance when compared with the range and depth of advice you’ll find in this book.

I’ve been living it with now for several months, dipping in to it at regular intervals. I’ve “road-tested” the information in a lot of the chapters, putting the advice into practice. While you will find some material duplicated in other art textbooks (e.g. perspective, watercolour, etc.), everything in the book is written with the outdoor sketcher specifically in mind.

There’s a whole host of hints and tips, valuable and practical information, e.g. goal-setting for enthusiastic sketchers is reasonable and achievable – four sessions a week at 20-40mins each, sufficient to keep competency and skills developing without becoming maniacal (yes, location sketching can become addictive!).

What I love in particular is the inclusion of reference photos and how what one sees can be translated to paper, especially in those difficult-to-grasp subjects such as fitting all that you want on to a single piece of paper or choosing among various compositional options.

This book is an excellent springboard to more detailed research elsewhere. For example, he covers linear and atmospheric perspective. Armed with these technical terms, the reader can search elsewhere for more detailed information to progress the sketcher’s particular competency in that area. In both perspective and watercolor, I’ve used this book by Brehm as a springboard to develop my own understanding and competency by tracking down specific teachers specializing in particular techniques.

The historical context of location sketching, particularly in terms of the Grand Tour tradition, is an important inclusion in the book. History will surely find parallels between the rise of contemporary urban sketching (the Internet, social media, new sketching media, reportage, etc.) and those unique factors (transport, brushes with ferrules, portable paints, etc.) which gave rise to working plein air in the painting medium among the French Impressionists 150 years ago.

The examples of sketches, whether pencil-only or watercolours, are all done by Brehm and importantly mention paper, size and on-site duration. His use of strong darks and lights help create great pictorial space and depth and for a determined sketcher, what he proposes comes across as eminently achievable – a far cry from the very elaborate and complex examples of urban sketching published in books of virtuoso outdoor sketching.

The focus is on location sketching – anything outside the strictly controlled environment of the studio. Thus, Brehm includes indoor sketches as well as outdoors.

I first became aware of the author via his very powerful lecture presented at an Urban Sketchers Symposium in Lisbon and published in that symposium’s proceedings. I’m glad this material has been developed to cater for a larger audience in the form of a very comprehensive monograph.

The book cost me $US70 and I have only very minor gripe – the publisher seems to have dropped the time-honoured tradition in book publishing of 12 words per line of text. A keen reader however will persist with the lines no matter how long they are.

There are plenty of books on the market which feature the splendid examples of virtuoso urban sketchers, artists of the streets. Those books focus on the outcome, not the process. Some books are now being written on the interface of traditional art techniques and digital processes. This book by Brehm, however, is the first “how to” book devoted to the subject, especially for the “ordinary” sketcher, armed with just pen-and-paper or pencil-and-paper. Very highly recommended!

Matthew Brehm, “Sketching on Location”. Dubque, IA: Kendall Hunt, 2012. Paperback, 8×10″, 176 pages.

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One Response to “Matthew Brehm, Sketching on Location”

  1. quirkyartist Says:

    I came back to read this review again. Regardless of the expense maybe I should buy this one. Is the Lisbon lecture still online and do you have a link to it? I searched without success last time I read this review.


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