Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Stalking The Urban Sketcher Way


Let's talk about people in urban sketches. In my first post for this Tuesday Tips & Tricks series, I wrote “How to Add People to Your Urban Sketches.” In this article I made the case for adding people in order to give your landscape sketches “scale and interest” by using various forms of stick figures. This is particularly useful when sketching people are not your forte. 

Well that post worked for a long time but now many of you have asked about the elephant in the room--how to sketch real people. “Wes, how do I sketch a complete unknown stranger when they are seated only a few feet from me? How do I sketch them without getting caught?” In response to requests such as this (and I recognize this real fear) I submit the following ideas for staying hidden while sketching your favorite subject.

Sit behind your subject.
You will only get the back of their head but at least it will build your confidence and you can focus on the surrounding environment. Sometimes you can pretend to be looking at the back of someone's head and over their shoulder is a more interesting subject (sneaky).

Sit across the aisle or across the room from your subject.
By positioning yourself so there is a protective barrier of distractions, you will be better able to focus on your subject without them “feeling” your eyes. Just remember that the farther away you sit, the less details you will be able to observe. Wearing a set of binoculars on your head is no way to keep your anonymity.

Sit in a balcony or upper level above your subject.
By sitting above the line of sight your subject will not even notice your gaze. It does, however, challenge your knowledge and skills of foreshortening. Sitting in direct line of sight (or below them) makes you more vulnerable for being discovered because peripheral vision works best in a horizontal fashion.

Sketch with a friend.
Another tactic I have used from time to time is to invite a friend to breakfast, lunch, dinner, coffee, drinks, etc. Sit at a table across from each other and let your friend know that they have your attention but that you are also going to be sketching the person over their shoulder. This way your friend will not develop a complex if they think you are not paying attention. No one will suspect that you are sketching them if it looks like you are having a conversation with another person. If all else fails, sketch your friend while you talk or sketch each other.

Find a subject who is totally engrossed in their personal electronic device. The funny thing about PDAs and laptop computers is that you could literally stand right in front of them to politely ask a question and they would never notice you until you said something. Perfect for staying undetected as a sketch artist.

Likewise, if you see someone who is reading a book, magazine or newspaper, their eyes are directed downward or blocked by the oversized newspaper so your subject may not notice you, even if you are seated in front 
of them.

If two people are engaged in conversation, they are usually focused on each other and will look away occasionally to collect their thoughts. They move around a lot with hand and body gestures, but they generally stay in the same spot. If you are lucky, or unlucky, enough to happen across a couple who is arguing EVERYONE in the room will be looking at them so you will blend in nicely.

If you see someone who has fallen asleep, BINGO! you have all the time you need to focus on clothes, wrinkles, clothes patterns, nostril hair and even all of the people who are wondering if this guy is ever going to stop snoring.

Lastly, wear a hat or sunglasses, if your surroundings permit, in order to hide your gaze upon the unsuspecting subject. By all means, try not to snap photos because that crosses over into the “creep factor.” People get all defensive about how another person intends to use their photo. If you have the time, sketching a person will improve your observation skills and people are generally relieved when they discover that you chose to sketch them--most times even impressed.

Enjoy and have fun. Next time I will cover some basics on the human anatomy and why clothes wrinkles look the way they do.


  1. Another excellent, useful blog post! Thank you! (I find that it helps to wear the kind of glasses that enable you to peer over the top rather than having to lift your whole head up and down, back and forth. People seem to notice the motion.)

    - Tina

    1. Good point Tina! I have prescription sunglasses and it gets a little tricky to keep switching back and forth between distance and close up but I agree that the more you can minimize the head bobs, the less attention you will bring to yourself. Of course many of my fellow artists think that worrying that you will get "caught" is a pointless worry since most sketch subjects are rather pleased when they see they have been sketched. It is a great way to break the ice with someone who you've only met through your sketch.

    2. I disagree that getting 'caught' is pointless, Wes. In my experience, the second someone notices you drawing them they cease to be a viable subject for a natural sketch and become a stiff, portrait subject. I agree that worrying about people being unhappy with you sketching them is silly. I've only been met with 'can I see it and friendly banter.'

    3. Hi Larry and thank you for your perspective. I personally have never met anyone who had been upset with my sketch of them after the fact. I put that point in because I have heard time and time again other sketchers who have told me they have a dreaded fear of sketching people because they don't want to deal with the consequences of getting caught. As you have probably found out, most people are relieved that a sketch is less incriminating than taking photos.

  2. This post is very useful and funny! Good one Wes, thanks!

  3. Oh I'm glad you found it useful...and funny. There was a slight attempt at humor that I could've had some fun with but I didn't push it. Thank you for checking out the blog Adriana.


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