Drawing cars #2

January 30, 2014

I consulted various urban sketching textbooks on the matter of cars. Matt Brehm highlights many things, including the fact they are largely subsidiary to the ‘main event’ because they, like people, have the ability to draw attention to themselves, at the expense of other things like buildings. I’ve learned from experience to leave cars “unfinished” in streetscapes for this reason. James Richards gets more technical in describing the three ‘thirds’ required to draw a complete vehicle.

I extracted some photos from a newspaper – the smallest photos I could find – and drew these as quickly as possible. I ended up following the advice of Bert Dodson in this instance: halving the distance and establishing the mid-point of the image, then building up the sketch around that. I’ve discovered recently that drawing people becomes easier if I practise drawing extremely small, then slowly enlarging. So I’ll have a go at drawing a pose 1cm high then increasing it in centimeter intervals to 25cms. By working small with cars, I’m not as likely to be seduced by small detail as I otherwise might. The night before I’d been reading the chapter in Richard E Scott’s book concerning lost and found lines, that is, hard and soft edges; that advice crept in as well.

I’m still attracted by the reflections; for example, the range of browns in the car upper right. This puts me at odd with traditional car sketchers of the type you see, for example,  in the tutorials at http://www.carbodydesign.com. They concentrate on the vignette, the car as Object Drawing; their interest seems to be mainly in (aerodynamic) contour, or the ‘lines’ of a car. I will however keep studying the work there, if only because they cover various paper and media types.


drawing cars

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

Cars re-worked I

January 29, 2011


Re-worked the Messerschmitt micro car in several different versions, both working from the memory of Wednesday and a single photo taken at the time. Each variation sheds new light on its “anatomy” as I discover new things in the shadows and make connections about the machine’s construction. Still ignorant about some of the details, my next step is to find other pictures of the car via Google Images. It’s a bit like life drawing really: you start with what you know then go away and build up your knowledge of anatomy proper!

Two pages, 10×12″ 1110gm cartridge and I thought it fun to mimic the three-wheeler in three sketches on each page, still working smaller than I’d like: Staedtler 0.1mm pen, pen and HB pencil, pen and watercolour from my W&N watercolour field box. The first two involved pencil guidelines, but the third was done freehand in pen.

The second page shows three emulations in the style of urban sketcher colleagues – Gerard Michel (two shades of watercolour), Eduardo Bajzet (pen against a background of COPIC marker) and Christian Tribastone (here on white, so imagine a white border all around and the whole thing done on a brown paper bag)

Of course, none of these have the immediacy of the original sketch, but this all about me playing with different media and about tackling a small (yet sufficiently complex) subject without the fear and loathing linked to a proper four-wheel car. More four-wheel cars a bit later!

Where to now? Well, I’ve been busting to work bigger, so I will, adding some people who happened to walk into frame when I photographed the car.

I couldn’t draw a car to save myself. I haven’t owned a car since 1995 and I’d have to look far and wide for a sketch or drawing of the 1979 Mazda 626 I used to own. This major event in the Sydney calendar was completely unknown to me – cars stretching from Park Street to the Opera House, the entire length of Macquarie Street. Thanks to the Sydney Sketch Club though, I am re-discovering my hometown in totally unexpected ways. The static parade of veteran and modern cars, 1904 to 2010, has been running for the last twenty-five years.

Prep and warm-up

I got around to no preparation for this event at all. No car anatomy, except a quick look at an old pen and ink textbook and several weekends’ worth of Drive motor car supplements of the Sydney Morning Herald. The latter were useful because they reinforced two things: being largely metal, they have defined edges, e.g. doors and windows; the simple anatomy of two boxes has been skewed by contemporary carmakers so that the lines are ultra-smooth and lastly, cars tend in reproduction to come up with three or so distinct tonal values – a light (very high reflection where the light hits hardest), mid-shadow and dark-shadow – which lends them quite well to tonal treatment.

USK has several excellent examples – Christian Tribastone comes to mind – where cars are ‘closed’ objects, often set without any sort of context and thus very illustrational. Given the context of architecture, and heritage sandstone architecture at that, the NRMA MotorFest provides all sorts of interesting challenges: how to set the cars against the architecture? The fact that it’s a major Australia Day event begs the inclusion of the Australian flag, flown on many of the cars themselves.

I had thought of just taking along a ballpoint pen on this occasion: the relative ‘coldness’ of pen matching the hardness of industrial metal of the cars perhaps. I went instead for pencil and shadows and tone and working small, on the basis that the night before this Sydney Sketch Club meetup I was propped up in bed with Ernest W. Watson’s book on pencil drawing. Having read this many times over the decades (it remains a long-time favourite) and having emulated a few drawings from the book, I drank in anew his advice about what we would now call “thumbnails”, especially for beginners, and the fact that Watson himself rarely moved beyond an 8″x10″ format for his most complex drawings. He is very strong on looking for dramatic shadows and working at the pattern of shadows. These aesthetic considerations are a step up from mere reportage sketching; what I particularly like is his Figure 41 which is a sketch ‘report’ and not an interesting play of shadows, an example of what not to do.

Tempe Railway Station, 9am.  H, 3B and 6B pencil. 10 minutes. 2″x3″. This was today’s most successful rendering, if only because I’ve been looking at the subject matter daily for twenty years! Or was it the deadline of jotting it down before the train arrived?

We met at Archibald Fountain at 10am and again I was focussing on three depths of shadow – guidelines in H, mid-shadows in 3B and darks in 6B. The public bench provided the distraction of the lightpole, but otherwise I would have opted for a vantage point without the pole!  I’ve left these sketches exactly as they are, without touching up the obviosu errors. This page shows the first and last sketches at the event.

I’ve left this unmodified, not even erasing some of the guidelines which are distracting. There is scope for adding a touch of colour via a flag on the three-wheeler. I may in fact re-do these sketches with the help of shadow-work captured in photos, notwithstanding any loss of spontaneity arising from the stops-and-starts associated with passers-by!

Another tonal thumbnail, with fierce resistance in terms of drawing detail, though I did move to a second and guidelines for a third car. I had trouble with the people sitting between me and the cars and I’m not skilled enough to have worked through them. First long study was an electric car which ran the Paris-Dakar race of 1926, near a popular 1904 vehicle, the oldest on show. Somewhat deliberately drawn at a fair distance in order to concentrate on the tonal values.

Moved up to Sydney Hospital and found the steep entrance steps vacant for an aerial view of a Valiant. I’m old enough to remember when this car first hit the roads in 1961! I was enormously gratified when a colleague immediately recognised the marque from the thumbnail sketch, so I feel I must have at least captured its essential features!

I went on to Martin Place, with hot rods and muscle cars outside the Reserve Bank, and mercifully getting a seat and out of the direct sunlight. After several serious tonal sketches, it felt great to play and relax with some contour. My scanner didn’t capture the very sketchy linework at all, so I will do them again on separate pages, adding people and buildings from photos taken. I suspect my mashup will end up having a false, inauthentic collage feel, but I’m keen to tackle this liminal area of sketch-cum-drawing.

Time for just one more, a small three-wheeler Messerschmidt, just prior to breaking for lunch at 12.30pm. The excessive heat and humidity required me to break after lunch, with the best part of the event – the spread from Martin Place to the Opera House – left untouched and unseen.

All the cars were particularly popular with the crowds so it was a real test of patience to wait for the passers-by to move.  This adds to the time taken for each sketch, of course. I was aware of the strong feeling on the day to add motifs relating to Australia Day, to contextualise the event in ‘time’.

I’ll come back to the NRMA MotorFest in future years for car-drawing practice. Optimal time is before 10am; event setup is always the best time. I’ll go for some of the buses and veteran fire engines next time! I’m amazed at the sheer number of photos uploaded from this event on Flickr, though they tend most often to be closeups. It would have been nice to include with sketches of the cars,  the doting, proud car owners sitting with their antique picnic sets and umbrellas nearby: something to aim for next year.

I believe that if Mr Ernest Watson was around these days, he might use a digital camera to document his sketches.



Watson, Ernest W. The Art of Pencil Drawing. New York, Watson-Guptill, 1968.

Gill, Robert W.  The Thames and Hudson Manual of Rendering with Pen and Ink. London: Thames and Hudson, 1973.