Furtive Phone Art: Adventures of a Sketch Ninja*

Chris leans with his head on his fist.

Chris leans with his head on his fist.

I’ve been doing a lot of phone art lately. It’s a great way to squeeze in some creative time in the odd moments here or there, when all I have is five minutes and a smartphone.

A bunny with one raised eyebrow sits while electricity flickers between his ears, surrounded by a purple electromagnetic sphere. The words Electro-Bun are written across the bottom.Sometimes I just doodle, but mostly I’ve been continuing my attempts at “live action” sketching. A phone is the perfect tool for this. The smaller screen size forces me to keep it simple and focus on the most important details of what I’m drawing. This is critical, given that my subject, like as not, will get up and leave before I’ve gotten more than five lines down. Better yet, phone art is stealthy — as I mentioned in my post Public “Live Action” Sketching, doodling on a tablet in public can feel distractingly conspicuous. But if you look around in a crowd, a large percentage of the people you see will be doing something-or-other with their phones. Scribbling on my smartphone, I blend right in and I can draw the people around me without calling attention to myself. *I was talking about the sneaky aspect of phone art with an artist I admire on Google+, and — best compliment ever — he called me a Sketch Ninja. I’m probably not cool enough for that moniker, but I love it so much I’m going to run with it anyway.

My mother-in-law gestures in exasperation.I discovered the covert nature of phone art fairly recently. Up until a few weeks ago, I only drew on my phone if I didn’t have my tablet with me. But then I found myself at a family gathering. And even though my tablet was within reach, I felt like if I got it out, my relatives would be curious about what I was doing, and I’d feel self-conscious about my half-baked doodles, they’d feel self-conscious knowing I was drawing them, and the whole thing would get awkward fast. So I whipped out my phone instead. It turns out that phone-fiddling has become so culturally ubiquitous that in more casual settings, you can be doing something with your phone even while having a one-on-one conversation with someone, and most people don’t think it’s rude, especially if you maintain eye contact most of the time and hold up your end of the conversation. (HINT: context is everything. Don’t do this during a job interview. And unless they are also big smartphone fans, you probably shouldn’t do it with your elders either.)

Chris gestures with his hand over his heart, his wedding band shining and gold.My husband’s family are an animated bunch, and they gesture a lot. This is great because even just standing around talking, they are visually interesting and expressive. It was ridiculously hard to draw them, because they never stop moving. But it was also a good challenge. What I’m trying to develop isn’t just artistic skill — it’s the ability to take a mental snapshot of what I see, and work from that after the person has changed position, or walked off entirely.

Drawing my in-laws forced me to work really, really fast. And the results are sloppy, sure, but they also capture body language that I don’t think I’d know how to draw (yet!) if I stopped to think about it. Instead of thinking myself into paralysis, I just do. Speed is a great teacher.

I did probably a dozen sketches that day. Of the speed sketches, only two are keepers, but that’s fine. The goal isn’t to produce fantastic art — it’s more of an exercise in seeing and training my hands to respond. If I get anything worth sharing out of it, that’s icing on the cake.

Speed drawing is not an easy exercise for me, though, and eventually I wore myself out. So I was delighted when my husband settled down into a long conversation at the dining room table, head on fist. He was gloriously, beautifully still. I settled in for a more considered sketch. He started to move before I was done, and I gasped “No!” in protest. With a raised eyebrow and a wry grin, he shifted back into position and I finished the drawing. Not exactly a speed sketch, but it’s my favorite from that day — the one at the top of this post.

Roberta's fuschia-flowered geranium, in a yellow pot.I also took breaks periodically to work on a drawing of one of my mother-in-law’s geraniums. In between bouts of frantic scribbling, it felt luxurious to slow down and revel in the lines of a thing, knowing I could savor its curves and the way the light illuminated its leaves without fear of it ambling off and leaving me hanging.

I feel like speed sketching is a great metaphor for life. We’re all trying to capture a sense of things before they change and become something else, when we have to adapt and begin again — and again, and again.

My next phone art field day was a week later at Wizard World Comic Con in Philly. We spent a lot of time standing in line at the Con. I pulled out my phone and started drawing the people I saw.

There was the guy we met early in the morning, with slicked-up hair and sunglasses.

A guy wearing sunglasses on his head and holding a water bottle.

There was the guy with the spectacular beard. I don’t think I did that hairy appendage justice, but I had fun trying.

A guy at ComiCon with a spectacular red beard.

There was the cop who seemed mildly disdainful of all the costumed hooligans in attendance. His job was to look at all the cosplay weapons people brought, make sure they weren’t actually dangerous, and then attach an orange cable tie to each one as proof of passing inspection. I got the feeling this wasn’t the most exciting task he’d ever been given, but that he was basically happy to be inside enjoying the air conditioning. I also think his bullet-proof vest was too small, but what do I know?

A cop at ComiCon looks suspiciously at cosplayers in attendance.

There was the Masked Man in line in front of us.

A young man wearing a black hat, a white mask, and a cape, with a red bow tie.

There was the wearied woman waiting patiently with the rest of us, who looked as if, like me, she was longing for a chair in which to do her waiting. I saw her again the next day, and this is actually a pretty good likeness.

A woman stands in line at ComiCon, wearing a sling-bag and looking tired.

There was the woman in red. In my drawing, she looks less like herself, and more like a comic-book version of herself, but that seemed appropriate given the setting. It wasn’t what I was going for, but I like how her face and hair came out.

A woman in a red dress wears her red hair up in a bun and ornamented with hair sticks.

Eventually I got tired of trying so hard, stopped sketching people, and let myself just draw whatever bizarre thing came out of my head. That turned out to be a psychedelic flying fish. It’s cool that the phone version of SketchBook Pro includes a variety of gradient tools and infinite color selection, and I had fun playing with that.

A multi-colored fish-like creature has wings instead of fins.

Life moved on, and I got tangled up in other projects until a morning last week when it was time to set my coffee aside, get up off the couch, and clean the cat’s litter box. But he had me pinned in place, and really, drawing the cat is more fun than cleaning up after the cat, so I stole a few minutes to sketch his peaceful napping before getting on with my day.

My cat Hiro was napping across my legs, so I drew him instead of getting up.

That weekend found me in a rented house with college friends I hadn’t seen in 20 years. Of the dozen or so phone scribbles from Saturday morning, only one is worth sharing. I posted it to Facebook, and it made my day when the subject recognized herself — morning doodles for the win! The original was pretty rough, with a half-drawn leg and weird daggers for fingers. Since she liked it enough to tag herself, I figured I should do a cleaned-up version with more human-looking fingers and a few less stray lines. The result is a much better drawing.

A side-by-side comparison of the original version of a sketch on the left, with the cleaned-up version on the right.What you see above is the original sketch on the left, and the final version on the right. I tend to think of speed sketches as something I just do, and the results either suck or they don’t, and either way I move on. But so much of what I love about working digitally is that it’s relatively easy to tweak things and make them better. Her liking the drawing encouraged me to go back and tidy it up. And now, even though the other sketches were pretty awful, I have one from that morning that I really like. I know I wrote earlier that actually getting a good drawing out of speed sketching is just icing on the cake — but I really, really like icing.

In the spirit of revisiting past doodles, just this morning I pulled up my flying fish on my tablet. It’s been bugging me that the poor guy has been stuck suspended on a blank white background. The contrast between the more cartoonish lines of the original phone art and the swooshy environment I just painted for him is a little awkward, I think — but at least he’s no longer homeless. He’s even got some buddies to keep him company.

A multi-colored fish with wings against a background that's part water, part sky, surrounded by fish and one bird.

If you have a smartphone and you like to draw, there are a lot of apps to choose from. My favorite for Android phones (as well as tablet PCs) is SketchBook Pro. If you have a Windows-based phone or tablet, try Fresh Paint — it’s free, very simple and intuitive, and the colored pencils and watercolors are really stunning (it includes crayons and oil paints, too, but I haven’t used those much). All you need, besides a smartphone, is a finger — and if that feels awkward, you can buy a capacitive stylus on Amazon. They’re so cheap they often come in packs of ten. Fine-point capacitive styli are a bit more expensive, but are probably worth it for the added precision. If you want pressure-sensitivity and precision, I highly recommend the Samsung Galaxy Note phone series (that’s what I have) — the built-in Wacom digitizer stylus really makes a difference. Whatever you choose, have fun with it, and tell me what happens!

6 thoughts on “Furtive Phone Art: Adventures of a Sketch Ninja*

    1. Wow, thank you so much! That means a great deal, coming from you!

      I’ve found that in doing speed sketches I usually don’t have time for color – but I’ve been having fun adding just a splash when I’m finishing up, to add interest – the gold wedding band, the red bow tie, etc. I want to work with color more though – I’m really drawn to lush colorful work (like yours!).

      Liked by 1 person

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