Urban Sketching

I mentioned in my last post that I’d become intrigued with urban sketching.  Until a few weeks ago I’d never heard of it.  I was searching on Amazon for things that might help me tackle plein air painting in urban settings and ran across a book called The Urban Sketcher by Marc Taro Holmes.  I bought the Kindle version and read it cover to cover in just a few days.  I subsequently also bought the paperback version because it’s one of those books I may want to use for more extensive study.

TUS Cover

I learned that urban sketching is actually a worldwide movement of artists who go out and capture images of the world with sketches rather than a camera.  Most use pencil, ink and watercolor, but some use other media.  There’s a website, www.urbansketchers.org, where people post their work. Marc Taro Holmes also has a blog called citizensketcher.com.

Mr. Holmes is a Canadian from Montreal who seems to be one of the premier urban sketchers.  His sketches are beautiful.  He used a three-pass technique for doing his watercolors called tea, milk and honey.  Tea represents the light washes done in the beginning.  Milk is adding the details, and honey is adding the bold colors that really make it pop.  Sounds simple, right?  NOT!  I tried to incorporate what I learned in my plein air paintings, and while the results were better than they would have otherwise been, I still have a long way to go.

Another aspect of Mr. Holmes’ technique that I struggled with is that he inks before he paints. On one level I like this idea. If you think about it, it’s kind of like creating a coloring book. In execution I found that I over inked in places and of course, watercolor doesn’t cover up ink. That said, I see that some urban sketches have a lot of ink showing through, so maybe I’m just over sensitive to it.  Still, I like softness in some things that over inking doesn’t support.

One of the things I really struggle with in urban scenes is the people. Mr. Holmes talks about doing composite sketches of people in his book but its easier said than done. I went looking for more specific instruction on this and found a recently published book called Sketching People by Lynne Chapman, also an urban sketcher.  While this is an excellent book, it is primarily about sketching faces and details.  I really need the form and function side of things to capture the feeling of a cityscape. Detailed faces aren’t important.

I just started another book called People in Watercolour by Trevor Waugh.  This one is also a Kindle book that is not available in paperback through Amazon. It may be out of print.

I’m still evaluating this one, but I’ve had some fun doing some simple exercises drawing silhouetted forms.  It’s good practice. I want to see how well I can translate it into real world situations capturing real people, rather than imitating the sketches in the book. Here are a few from my early practice.  I actually used brush markers to do this. I’m sure it will be much harder when I try it using watercolor.

WC People Sketches

Seeing Color

One challenge I have when I’m painting is getting my engineer’s brain to see color rather than seeing what color I think something should be.  For example, mountains are green in the summer, right?  Of course that’s true when you are standing next to them, but as they retreat into the distance and are subject to viewing through more atmosphere they fade to blue.  Getting the right color of blue is a challenge for me.  I never could get this right in the picture below although I painted over the mountains at least three times.  I love the scene and may try it again, but I decided I’d need to start from scratch.

OAT Overlook

The first example where I really realized that I wasn’t seeing color was in my class with Jean Barrett (which I wrote about in an earlier post).  When I was painting the scene looking out the dining room window of Il Casale di Mele there was a splash of light on the dining room table.  My engineer’s brain wanted to see this as a lighter color of brown than the table.  That made perfect sense to me since if you shine a light on a color you just get a lighter version of that same color – shadow and light.  Jean looks at me and looks at the photograph and says that splash of light is bright blue.  After a period of denial, careful consideration, and eventually acceptance I finally agreed that it was indeed blue. I adjusted my painting but Jean and I never agreed that my version was blue enough.   Below I have included the painting and the original photo.

Il Casale di Mele sm

ICDM Dining room

Then, in my class with Andras Bality at Nimrod Hall we spent a lot of time analyzing the color of the sky and the clouds.  My engineer’s brain thinks the sky is blue and clouds are gray and white.  In fact, the sky is not pure blue especially depending on what time of day it is, and clouds include white, gray, pink, purple, blue and often other colors.

I found a book that has helped me get past the color blindness of my engineer’s brain.  It’s called “1500 Color Mixing Recipes for oil, acrylic & watercolor” by William F. Powell.  Actually this book is a compilation of several color mixing recipe books he’s done.  I use the landscape section the most (of course) but there is a section for portraits, which I can see would be very useful.  There is also a special section for watercolors.  I will probably use that more after I take my next class at Nimrod this summer.

The way it works is that the book has pages of recipes.  It shows you different color swatches, and what combinations are used to make them.  I have found that it helps me see colors better, including the subtle differences, by comparing the swatches with the photograph I am painting.  It also helps me mix more vibrant colors.  Before, my colors would get “muddy” because I would mix too many colors together trying to get subtle differences.  Now I plan and mix my pallet with the aid of the recipes before I start the painting.  I’m very happy with the results so far.  Below is an example of a page from the book that I hope will help better show what I mean.

One last note, the index of this book is amazing. You can look up a color based on a detailed list of items including different kinds of trees at different times of year, skies at different times of day, different kinds of rocks, etc.  It’s really amazing.  I have included an example page below.