Public “Live Action” Sketching: thoughts on my first fumblings

Paul from the band Rabbit Stampede playing mandolin.

Paul from the band Rabbit Stampede playing mandolin.

Lately I’ve been following a lot of artists on WordPress, Google+ and Instagram. Thanks to the internet, I can surround myself with incredibly talented people I’ve never met, and learn from their art. Many post works in progress, and I can watch their ideas unfold and evolve. It is an amazing thing, in the truest sense of the word, to have access to all of this creativity.

One particular artist, Marc Taro Holmes, has caught my attention — not just because his art is gorgeous, but because he tries to help the rest of us out with tips and instruction. It was with his suggestions in mind that I decided to try my hand at drawing people in motion. My husband’s band, Rabbit Stampede, had a local gig and I happily tagged along, tablet in hand, eager to try to draw them as they played.

Kirsten of the band Rabbit Stampede playing pennywhistle.Normally when I draw, I either work from my imagination, or I refer to a photograph or something I’ve found online. This is a slow, contemplative process for me. I get lost in my ideas and in trying to create something that captures some small essence of what I’m seeing. It is an experience of savoring — the lines, the feel of my subject, and the quiet in my head that comes with focus.

Trying to draw real live people doing things at the normal speed of life is an entirely different experience. Life moves a lot faster than I can draw. But that, after all, is part of the challenge. It forces a completely different approach to sketching, and I’m finding that trying new things is how I learn best. Since I work digitally, mostly I’ve been exploring a variety of software applications — as with anything else, different tools foster a different process, yielding different results. But this was an experiment in setting, speed, and in making the best of a situation over which I had no control. Imagine trying to draw a still life where the loaf of bread turns its back on you, the onions keep rolling off the table, and the vase of daisies scratches its ear, bends over, laughs, and then saunters off.

Paul of the band Rabbit Stampede playing harp.I was expecting this to be challenging. The reality was that I suddenly felt like any scrap of ability I might ever have had magically vanished, leaving me awkward, struggling, and off balance.

The first and completely unanticipated problem was this — I was utterly unprepared for the public aspect of public drawing.  My inner critic gained a foothold and took the form of every stranger who happened to glance my way. And within three minutes of my starting to sketch, the proprietor asked if I could send her some of my drawings from the evening’s event so she could post them on Facebook. I was there to try a new technique for sketching people in motion, and spend an evening fumbling so that I could learn something. Suddenly it mattered if the results sucked. I found myself drawing a crappy line, erasing it, redrawing it, glancing around myself nervously, and drawing it again.

Paul of the band Rabbit Stampede talks while holding his fiddle in one hand, and the bow in the other.In reality no one was paying any attention to me. But I felt conspicuous. It’s one thing to work alone and to share the results when I am done, or midway at a point of my choosing when the results look promising. It’s another to draw while wondering if the person sitting next to me is sneaking furtive glances at my work and comparing it to that of her preschool-aged relatives. So I reminded myself firmly that my intention for the evening was to experiment, that’s all, and that I have the right to draw badly whenever and wherever I choose. This is important, because that’s what happens a good deal of the time. And I had the right to kindly tell the proprietor, “no, sorry, I didn’t draw anything that I’m comfortable sharing” if she asked me about it later.

I did learn a number of key things. One was that choosing the angle at which you view your subject is important. As this was a small boutique on a First Friday and not a concert venue, I couldn’t get a good angle on two of the three musicians — shop displays partially obstructed my view, and my ability to move around was limited by the need to not block foot traffic, etc. — and that made everything a lot harder. As a result I spent most of my efforts trying to draw the one member of the band I could actually see, and mostly ignoring the other two.

Chris of the band Rabbit Stampede grinning wildly while playing guitar.I also spent most of the evening looking at my floundering efforts and thinking, “This is shit! I am shit! Everything is shit!” But by the end of the evening I had one or two sketches that I sorta liked, and I felt marginally better about the whole experience.

It was a huge surprise to me when I went back and looked at my work the next morning. There was something in almost every sketch that captured something well. A lot of the sketches were incomplete — the fiddler’s head and arms and instrument, with no body below. A sketch of the flautist headless because I realized three quarters of the way in that she was holding the flute directly in front of her face while talking, and that particular point of view just wasn’t going to look good. Some of the sketches looked more like the actual musicians, and some of them didn’t, but a few of the latter ones still captured the angle of the head or the posture in a way that was evocative. Thirteen or so sketches and a good night’s sleep later, it felt like a really productive exercise, and one I should try again.

Paul of the band Rabbit Stampede playing the fiddle - torso and head.One of the things that was helpful about a concert setting for “live action drawing” was that while the musicians never stood still and the constant rapid motion of playing instruments (especially the violin!) made it really hard to draw them, I knew they weren’t actually going to leave until the show was over. I found myself constantly ditching sketches midway through and starting new ones as the musician I was focusing on changed instruments. But when he returned to an instrument, I could go back to a previous sketch and pick up where I left off. It was a good middle ground. Sketching random strangers from a seat in an outdoor café sounds romantic, but trying to draw people who were likely to suddenly get up and wander out of sight probably would have been a great deal more frustrating for a first try at this.

Paul from the band Rabbit Stampede playing the fiddle - head and shoulders only.As a final aside, I offer my thanks to the proprietor. The next day, I was able to take three separate sketches from the evening before and combine them into one.  I added boots where they were missing, and painted the whole thing, creating a more polished-looking piece which I emailed to her for her shop’s Facebook page. The truth is that it was tremendously kind of her to take an interest in my work without ever having seen any of it, and her friendly nudge pushed me to try harder — to go back to what I’d done, shape it up, and create something presentable. I’m pretty happy about that.