Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Drawing Hints for Complex Subjects

Drawing complex subjects can be intimidating for even experienced sketchers. We often take the easy way out and end up drawing just a small part of the scene rather than deal with the overwhelming complexity of a subject like this....

Well, there's no need to run from complicated scenes that you'd love to sketch. The key is to break the complex scene into smaller, more manageable parts. Let me show you how I did just that when I drew this quick 30-minute sketch of the altar of the Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal, Canada. (Click here to see the complete collection of sketches from my Canada trip.)

5" x 7" ink sketch in an Earthbound sketchbook with 90 lb. paper

I always start any sketch by roughing in the image with pencil. This enables me to judge a sketch's proportions, size, and position on the sketchbook page. Then I ink the sketch, adding additional detailing as needed. I find that I can draw very quickly with ink once the major shapes are correctly roughed in with pencil.


For this sketch, I first drew the columns on the left side and had them arch across the page, leading the eye into what would be the altar, framing it, and giving a sense of depth.

All of the guidelines shown in the following steps are similar to what I drew in pencil when I laid out the altar sketch. For this step-by-step explanation, new guidelines are shown in red and guidelines from previous steps are blue.

I studied the altar to find a pattern or a repeating measurement that I could use to figure out the proportions of the sketch. The uppermost turret was about 1/4 of the total height, so I used that as my measuring unit. The entire altar was four turrets high, so I divided the sketch height into fourths with horizontal guidelines. By holding my pencil out in front of me and marking with my finger how tall the large turret was, I could hold that measurement and move it down the altar, noting what elements would fall at each quarter guideline on my sketch.

Here's a good tutorial from urban sketcher Andrew Banks that explains further how to use sighting techniques when drawing architectural subjects.

The three largest turrets were the dominant vertical elements, so I drew guidelines running down through each one. (Remember, I was drawing this very quickly, so my sketch isn't absolutely accurate...but you get the idea, right?) This also served to divide the sketch into fourths horizontally.

Then I continued dividing up the sketch into smaller sections. I drew guidelines for center lines on the turrets and to mark heights, columns, and niches. I looked for relationships between the various elements of the scene. How did they relate to one another? Is the top of that turret slightly lower than the larger one next to it? Is the statue 2/3s as tall as the niche it's in? Is that crosspiece about halfway between the turret top and the column base? I kept comparing sizes and positions to estimate where things should be drawn and how large they should be. I drew as many pencil guidelines as I thought I needed to position elements for inking, but I did not waste time drawing all the details in pencil.

Once the main elements were drawn, the hard work was over and it was time for the fun stuff! I grabbed my pen and began inking the larger sections and adding all the little details like the triangle tops on the turrets, the turret bases, the statues in their niches, smaller crosses and columns, and other minor details. This was fast and furious sketching! (And I was having trouble with my fountain pen while I was doing it!)

The sketch is messy and not entirely accurate, but it captures the essence of what I saw that day in Montreal.

Let's look at another example of dividing a subject into manageable-sized sections to make finalizing the details easy later on.


This is the exterior of the Notre-Dame Basilica in Montreal...

and this is my sketch, which was drawn in about 20 minutes...

Looking at the church, I noticed that it was divided approximately in half vertically by a broad band across the center. I checked the measurements by sighting with my pencil.

The upper half divided neatly into thirds, and the lower half was divided into two sections. I drew these guidelines in pencil on my sketchbook page.

I decided to draw the church in perspective rather than straight on. I thought it would emphasize the height of the cathedral and make the sketch more interesting. First I drew a center line, so I could judge the angles of the towers to be drawn next.

Measuring with my pencil, I could see that the space between the towers was wider than the towers themselves, so I allowed a wider space in the center when I sketched guidelines for the sides of the two large towers. I paid attention to the angles of the lines, trying to make the left and right towers mirror images of each other.

I continued adding guidelines that would help me when inking the sketch. First I marked more of the major horizontal divisions on the towers and center section.

Then I added vertical guidelines for the side columns and center lines for the arched openings.

With the large shapes blocked in, it was time to rough in the arched shapes for the windows and doors. Then I inked the sketch, adding detailing like crenellations, statues, windowsills, etc.

I hope this gives you an idea of how to handle complex subjects when sketching. Just focus on large shapes to work out your sketch size, proportions, and placement on the page, then gradually break the shapes into smaller, more manageable section, as I've shown above.

And remember, it's unlikely that your sketch will ever be compared with the original scene to see if it's accurate. Energy, enthusiasm, and capturing the essence of a place are what's most important. Wiggly lines, tilting walls, and lopsided figures just add to the charm!

There's a whole big world out there just waiting to be drawn. Why not dive in and give it a try? Remember, all that's at stake is a piece of paper.

Creativity takes courage.
Henri Matisse

Be courageous, and sketch something wonderful today!

Monday, June 17, 2019

Sketches from Montreal and Quebec City

My husband Fred and I were in Canada last week for a real honest-to-goodness vacation. No teaching for me or work for him, just a chance to relax and enjoy some time together in a place that neither of us had visited before.

I debated about taking a sketch kit along. I'm feeling burdened lately by all the unfinished travel journals I have - I'm a person who likes to tie up loose ends and complete projects, so it's weighing on my mind that I haven't had a chance to complete my sketchbooks yet from Greece, Sicily, Sweden, and Spain. I didn't want to add to my frustration by starting another travel journal that I wouldn't be able to complete during our trip, so I decided on a different approach. I would eliminate the watercolors from my usual travel sketching process and simply draw.

5" x 7" Earthbound sketchbook from Cheap Joe's Art Stuff

I bought a pretty new journal from Cheap Joe's to try out. It's an "Earthbound" coptic-bound journal with an embossed leather cover. The sketchbook is filled with 90-lb textured handmade acid-free paper made from recycled cotton. I just loved the look of it, and even though the paper is only 90 lb, I figured I could make it work if I decided to use it for watercolor at some point. And for drawing during my Canada trip, it would be just fine.

The sketchbook has 100 pages!


I also had a new fountain pen I was anxious to try. It's the Himalaya fountain pen with steel ultra-flex nib from Fountain Pen Revolution. I was excited about it, because it has a super flexible nib that gives lines of varying widths when sketching or writing.

Isn't it pretty? :)

I took along a brand new bottle of Rohrer & Klingner SketchINK, color Lilly, to fill it with, and also threw a couple of trusty Pitt pens and Pigma Microns into my bag, just in case the new pen didn't work out. Hmmm, a new sketchbook, new pen, and new ink - never tested - never tried before...I'm nothing if not daring!

We flew into Montreal and spent three days there before moving on to Quebec City. The historic district of Old Montreal was our first stop, and the Notre-Dame Basilica, a masterpiece of Gothic Revival architecture, was the subject of my first sketch of the day. I loved the intricate wood carvings and painted patterns on the ceiling, walls, and columns and, during a 30-minute guided tour, I decided to seize the moment and sketch the complex altar that fills the front of the basilica. Our group was seated in pews while our tour guide talked, so I pulled out my sketchbook and dove right in. Each time she led us to another area of the church, I positioned myself so I could still see the altar, and I kept right on working. It was kind of crazy to even attempt to draw the elaborate altar, but I wanted to at least capture an impression of the intricacy of the design. My drawing may not be technically accurate, but I think it succeeds in capturing the feel of the place and my emotional reaction to it, and that's what's most important in sketching on location.

We took a mid-morning coffee break at a cafe directly across the street from another historic church, Notre-Dame de Bonsecours, and I sketched the top of the bell tower while enjoying a cappuccino and a slice of warm carrot cake. Lettering was added later at home.

We visited Chinatown, and I sketched the Chinese gate while Fred browsed through some shops. Total time for this sketch was only about 15-20 minutes, making it easy to squeeze into our day. (Lettering was added later.)

I had been having problems with my new fountain pen on all these sketches. The ink wasn't flowing well and it kept skipping, then sometimes, if I used more pressure, it would let out too much ink which would feather and bleed on the soft Earthbound paper. I became increasingly frustrated with it. I'm not sure if it was the ink, the paper, or the pen, but I finally gave up and used my reliable Sailor Fude fountain pen for this next sketch. I'll try the Himalaya pen with a different ink and paper at some point and see if it performs better.

Montreal has a wonderful botanical garden, Jardin Botanique, which features 190 acres of thematic gardens and greenhouses. It was my favorite spot in Montreal.We spent the entire day there exploring different themed gardens, and before we left I did a quick sketch of the "Flowery Brook" area, a meadow with curving beds of annuals and perennials punctuated by soaring trees and flowering shrubs. What a treat, to sit there amidst all that beauty and draw just for the fun of it.

The next day we left for Quebec City. It was a gorgeous day and the 3-hour drive took us through vast stretches of farmland. I sketched this from the car while Fred drove, combining pieces of farm scenes that we passed along the way into one sketch.

We both loved the European feel of the old town area of Quebec. It felt just like a quaint French village - in fact, it seemed more French than France! There were fewer signs in English than I saw when I visited Paris and Provence. But almost everyone spoke English, so it was easy to communicate. The people were welcoming and friendly, and the town itself is beautiful, with old stone city walls, a citadel, historic homes and churches, and even a castle! (The Chateau Frontenac)

There's a wide wooden promenade in front of the Chateau Frontenac It's a perfect spot for strolling, people watching, and taking in the views of the St. Lawrence River. On our first evening in town, we walked down through town to see the castle, then sat for awhile on the Dufferin Terrace, watching the ferries going back and forth across the river. I pulled out my sketchbook and started a drawing of the elaborate teal green wrought iron railing that edges the terrace.

The next morning, we had breakfast on the top floor of our hotel where we had a perfect view of Old Quebec (Vieux-Quebec). Feeling relaxed, and with no particular agenda for our day, I decided to get a second cappuccino and try to sketch the view out the window, or at least a small part of it. I did a pencil sketch first to get things blocked in, then grabbed my trusty Pitt pen (size S) to ink the drawing. Little by little, one building or tree at a time, the whole thing came together like magic. I was pretty tickled with the outcome. All told, it took about an hour from start to finish.

On our last morning, Fred went on a guided tour of the fort and I went sketching. This cute cafe had been tugging at me ever since I first saw it. This was my chance to sit for an hour and finally draw it. I wish you could see the vibrant colors I saw that day: golden walls, bright green awnings, yellow and purple flowers, and red, white, and blue flags. But I'm leaving this sketch and all the others in my Montreal/Quebec travel journal unpainted. I'm trying to be satisfied with the line drawings I did and not feel like they are "less than" because they don't have color.

Giving myself permission to draw without feeling obligated to add watercolor felt very freeing. I liked knowing that I could quickly complete a page onsite in 15-60 minutes. I captured some memories of our trip together without taking too much time out of our days. But the truth is, as much as I like these drawings, I can't help thinking how much better they would look with watercolor. I'm just a fiend for color!

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Sketchbook Journeys: Spain

Spain was wonderful! I loved every moment and came home with a journal filled with memories. Travel changes me. Living in a different country, eating the food, walking the streets, meeting the people, learning about the history of that place - it alters my perception of the world and makes me realize how rich and varied other cultures are. Travel broadens my mind and makes me want to see and learn more. And a good way to do that is to keep a travel journal during a trip. It's amazing what a memory jogger a sketch can be.

These first two pages of my Spain sketchbook serve as a sort of introduction to what follows. I completed the map before the trip to give myself a better idea of where I would be traveling, in relation to other places I've been in Europe.

The quote page was begun at home, added to on the flight back from Spain, and painted after the trip. There's certainly not time to work on a design like this when you're traveling! I had lettered the quote and inked the layout of diagonal squares before I headed to Spain, thinking that I would look for some simple tile designs while I was there. It wasn't until I was having lunch at the airport hotel restaurant my last day in Spain that I finally found what I had been looking for. The top of the table where we were eating was covered with tiles. The patterns were definitely not simple, but I never shrink from a challenge, and I managed to work out the designs for my sketch.

The sketchbook I'm using is a 5-1/2" x 8-1/2" Stillman and Birn Beta series softcover. I knew I wasn't going to have much time to work on finishing up this journal in the months following the trip, so I decided to approach it a little differently than I normally do during my travels. My goal was to make it quick and casual...and finish-able! To that end, I...

  • journaled everyday in my regular printed lettering style - nothing fancy, nothing to worry about or stress over. 
  • standardized the border style on all my journaling pages, so I had fewer design decisions to make. 
  • incorporated collage into many of the pages. It brings back memories and helps to fill the space on a page without having to devote a lot of time to painting. 
  • limited the time I spent on drawing. Rough pencil sketches were done quickly, so I could get to inking and painting sooner.
  • took advantage of small chunks of time to add drawings to my sketchbook.
I reminded myself at the beginning of the trip that "Done is better than perfect" so I dove in and filled an entire 50-page sketchbook in two weeks. Of course, I still have a lot to finish up in it here at home, but the emotions, the wonder, the awe, and the joy of being in that amazing place are all there, just waiting for the finishing touches.

I dove right in that first day, jet lagged though I was, and sat by the pool for a few minutes on the rooftop terrace of our hotel, with all of Barcelona spread out below me.

The Andante Hotel is in a great location, close to the harbor, museums, and one of the main pedestrian walkways in the city. We walked miles and miles every day, absorbing the sights and sounds of this spectacular city. It was so much greener than I had expected. Tree-lined streets, parks, and gardens made me feel at home, and the architecture reminded me a lot of Paris. So, despite my not being a city girl, I would happily return to Barcelona some day.

The title page for the Barcelona section of my travel journal started out simply, then morphed into a design inspired by the stained glass windows at La Sagrada Familia, Gaudi's masterpiece basilica. It all came about because of a boo-boo.

Some gel pen ink from the facing page had transferred to this page when I closed the sketchbook too soon. See?

All through the trip, I debated about what to do to fix the mistake, then finally decided I would have to glue something over the offending ink blots. Since our time in Barcelona centered around the work of Antoni Gaudi, and I had been absolutely blown away by the beauty and creativity of Sagrada Familia, I chose to paint a stained glass window inspired by the rose window in the cathedral. Some of the sections on my page are fairly close copies of designs in the actual window while others were modified somewhat. In Gaudi's windows, the cool colors on the eastern side of the church represent the nativity while the warm yellows and reds in the windows on the western side represent the crucifixion or passion. I included both on my page.

I first designed the window pattern on graph paper, then traced the design onto watercolor paper. I penciled in the lead lines then inked and painted them. Next I cut an overlay out of heavier Canson Mi-Tientes colored paper, used a thick black Sharpie to color it black, glued it over the painted piece, then glued the whole thing to my sketchbook page. The last step was to make the "Barcelona" title piece, which I cut out and glued in the center of the black piece. (By the way, the lettering style is called Amadeus. Isn't it fun?)

I think this page is a great example of how thinking creatively while fixing a mistake can turn a page into something better than what you had originally planned.

More sketches from Barcelona and Costa Brava will follow soon, but for now I thought I'd give you a very abbreviated tour of our time in Spain. It's tough to choose from the hundreds of pictures I took, but here are the highlights....

The view from the roof of our hotel was fantastic, but the infinity pool kind of gave me the willies!

The outside of La Sagrada Familia is stunning, but when I took this picture, I had no idea of the beauty that awaited me inside.

Even on a rainy day, the windows glowed.

It was ethereal....

Gaudi was a creative genius, and it was a high point of my life to see his work in person.

A side trip to Montserrat took us up into the mountains.

We even caught a glimpse of the Pyrenees off in the distance.

After four days in Barcelona, we headed off to Costa Brava for my workshop in the village of Calella de Palafrugell. This view from our hotel is one I'll always remember. I took a picture of it at least once a day, every day, while we were there. It was just that pretty!

We sketched it the first day of class.

The color of the water makes my heart beat faster just looking at it!

I could spend a month sketching in Calella and not run out of inspiration.

One perfect day we sketched at the botanical gardens just up the hill from where we stayed.

Perched atop the cliffs, it was a little piece of heaven.

We had dinners together...

and time alone...

We spent a day in Figueres, shopping, sketching, wandering, and visiting the Dali Museum.

Another day, we visited the tiny medieval village of Pals. It turned out to be one of my favorite spots on the tour.

And one evening, as I sat at the table in our apartment working on my sketchbook, I happened to glance up to see this....

the most spectacular rainbow of my life! Can you see the treasure at the end of the rainbow? It's Costa Brava itself!

It was an amazing trip with wonderful group of people, but no matter how much I love my time away, there's nothing like coming home again. When my mom and I came down the escalator in the Pittsburgh Airport and saw these smiling faces waiting for us, it felt really good to be home.

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