Drawing cars #1

January 29, 2014

The artist-juggler in me tries to keep various “balls” up in the air at once: still life, landscape, figure, portrait. I know it’s not very chic to generalise like this and not specialise. Some individual balls can lie on the ground for weeks at a time. For example, I’ve not done any figures for some weeks now – no life drawing, no anatomy – and that causes me some grief. Happily, buildings and trees – and today, cars – are balls which are up in the air at the moment.

I have fallen into the habit of drawing cars and other motor vehicles just once a year, on a public holiday when a multitude of cars are parked, 90 degrees to the kerb, along one of Sydney’s main streets. The row of cars is so long I’ve never walked the whole distance. The Sydney Sketch Club meets to draw the event. I say the “event” because most complain about their inability to draw cars properly.  So many opt to sketch “other things”, excluding cars altogether.

As with most things to do with drawing and sketching, it comes down to practice. Practice, and not a little research. Sketching cars is little different from sketching the human figure: it comes with a lot of practice. And some careful study of anatomy to boot.

Today, I was deterred by the fact that as soon as I started sketching around 9.30am, vehicles would change positions. With so many cars, there is endless maneouvering in the hours leading up to the event and it’s only after 10am that all the cars are in position. Hence the red fire engine which tapers off into a blur. Rain is not uncommon on Australia Day, so I’ve learned it’s advisable to choose a spot carefully, often at some distance away from the people and the cars.  Another issue is foreshortening. The 90-degree parking is far from normal; cars are almost never photographed or painted in their own right from behind and above, so it makes for very unusual drawing. However, the biggest issue is crowds of people because they obscure the subject, making sketching incredibly slow and somewhat painful.

I’ve decided to adjust my expectations about sketching at this particular event. I think I’d be far better off researching some type of truck or fire engine or car in advance and then seeking out the marque or individual car on the day. A bit like copying a famous painting from a book then seeing it in real life. The criteria for the cars are very specific, the vehicle has to be over 30 years old, so with the benefit of Flickr, it’s possible to draw a particular car to death.

Today’s vehicles are a case in point. The green truck is on display at the Sydney Tram Museum at Loftus and the fire engines originate from the Museum of Fire, Penrith. I need to spend time at those places, away from crowded events like CARnival, if I want to feel comfortable and competent about the subject matter.

There is also a lot to be said for any cars which are parked in the side streets off Macquarie Street, away from the crowds. For example, the Mustangs were herded in Hunter Street this year, it being the Mustang anniversary year.


This year I opted to stay in the one spot and sketch as much as I could within a 120-degree field of vision. I started with the Dennis fire engines, then a car and truck from the ?1930s. Across the road from them were two Rolls Royce Silver Clouds and an Aston Martin Lagonda.  I had no idea in advance what I was going to draw. I decided to simply pile up the cars, one on the other, on a double-page spread.


After the first hour, few people were crowded around a bizarre-looking green truck which I discovered was a tower wagon used to service overhead tram wires. A colleague approached the same subject in a completely different manner: she created as line drawing with no tone or colour.


I worked without an Albertian veil and without construction lines. Including context at this event was (and is) difficult. I almost decided to venture out today with no pencil at all; I’ve been experimenting with Stabilo point88 fine 0.4 coloured pens lately. Their fluorescent colours are not suited to traditional subjects like landscapes; their fine lines mean they lean towards contour rather than tone. I have discovered though that they are ideally suited to two things: Chinese temples, with their very specific colour palette, and anything man-made like cars with duco and chrome. By adding water to the sketch, it’s possible to retain both contour and create tone. Suggestions of line are left behind, amid a mass of ‘unnatural’ colour. The modern fashion is for fluorescent, bright and intense colour – in mixed media and especially in watercolour.

Why no watercolour today? Mainly because the lines are so severe, the edges are so hard. Also because the subject matter was often in shadow. I’m coming fast to the conclusion that watercolour is only for works with a high key – where everything is suffused with bright light; anything dark or shadowy is best left to another medium. I need to confirm this by checking the work of J.M.W. Turner and Thomas Girtin. Though I know in the case of the latter, he will – for example in his rendering St Paul’s Cathedral – paint colour over a layer of painstakingly-slow grey grisaille.

It’s not obvious here but the main attraction in drawing cars is the geometrical reflections of colour on the duco (and windows and chrome). Traditional drawing of cars focus more on the contours or (aerodynamic) ‘lines’ of the car, which is sad because these artists are overlooking the fact that cars are mirrors of their surroundings.

vintage cars 2vintage cars 1


One Response to “Drawing cars #1”

  1. There you are….it has been a while…..welcome home!

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