I am often asked how I am able to sketch people in public without getting people angry or upset. After years of sketching people at airports, on commuter trains and even while in waiting rooms, here is what has worked best for me. Perhaps one of these will work for you. A special thank you to fellow urban sketchers Ted Gordon, Angie (Haugh) Novak and Emily White for their experiences and shared tips.
1. Sketch first, ask later. In my experience, when you first ask for permission to sketch a person, it may be met with initial resistance, or it will effect the pose you were originally attracted to. Besides, if you already have a sketch started and the person asks what you are doing, having a concrete example can work better than explaining what you are planning to do.
2. Creative Disguising. Normally accepted disguises, such as hats and sunglasses work well to cover your gaze. The idea is to blend in, not stand out and attract attention so sunglasses in a dark restaurant or tavern might cause suspicion.
3. Sketch in a smaller book is a great way to disguise that you are drawing.
4. Don’t Be A Bobble-head. Pick a more crowded location. If you are the only other person in the room, anything you do will be noticeable. Cartoon of head movements.
5. Leverage reflections at night. If someone looks back at you, move your head side to side as if trying to look past them. Cartoon of subject upset, on window is warning “Caution: objects in reflection are closer than they appear.”
6. Sketch from inside your car. Lots of people eat or have phone calls inside their car. Sad cartoon of lowly artist sketching from behind steering wheel.
7. Sketch from an upper level, or from the side, out of their line of sight. Sketching from below is still within their peripheral.
8. Capture first in pencil to block out the basic posture and position. Add color or shading later if you have time. For moving subjects, go for your impressions of their movements such as dancers or skateboarders at the park.
9. Pick subjects who are fully engrossed in their activity. Examples might include commuters on their electronic devices, a chef at work behind a viewing window, or an athlete during a sporting event.
10. Invite a friend to lunch or coffee and chat while sketching over their shoulder. I used this technique when I got together with Liz Steel while we planned out our WGN-TV interview while sitting at a coffee shop. She, of course, did the same and we sketched in opposite directions.
In the event that you do get "caught" and the subject confronts you, simply show them your sketch and allow them to look at it. Most of the time, people will be relieved that you were not taking photos and sketches are more flattering than photographs. Feel free to start a conversation with the person if the opportunity presents itself.
I'd love to hear which one works best for you and your stories of how it turned out in the comments below.