on learning to draw streetscapes and slow improvement

It has been a particularly wet, rainy week, so to fill some of the time I watched some art lessons on Craftsy in a bid to improve my urban sketching and watercolour work in general. I have wanted to improve my streetscapes for a long time because they tend to be the heart and soul of travel sketching. I want to travel more and capture the places I visit, and I want to capture my adventures in a way that is at least a little bit recognisable to me!

So on Sunday, I was looking for suitable reference photos in my stash, and I came across my holiday snaps from a trip to France a few years ago. At the time I took a heap of photos to use as references to draw from for my travel journal each evening (we moved far too quickly at the time to sit and draw or paint in situ, so I constructed my journal pages in the evenings and finished a large portion of them at home at the end of the trip), but also in the hope that I would get to draw them in a more detailed way at some stage. So…fast forward five years, and I want to draw … and I discover that I had captured some good references and some woefully unhelpful ones. Apparently this is a skill you learn over time too. What will work as a composition and what will not. What will translate to a sketch, and what will not. What lighting will produce dramatic effects.

After much fussing about I chose a photo of a street scene from inside the Mont Saint Michel village and set about doing a “quick and loose” watercolour streetscape using the techniques I had learned during the week. I sketched up a rough pencil outline with the big shapes and then went in and added detail with pen before hitting it with watercolour. This is the result. I consider it displeasing given that it looks like it is being viewed in a carnival magic mirror. :S

French street scene

What I don’t like about this piece….

  • The perspective on the left handside of the drawing is off. I lost my vertical lines at some point along the progression of buildings and it is looking a little like a fish eye lense attacked it.
  • The colours are muddy. I think I need to figure out how to exaggerate lights and darks in a bland photo to get more contrast (perhaps explore tube paint rather than pans to get juicy colours for depth too?) and experiment with using colours other than what i perceive as a direct match with the scene – ie trying to capture the essence of the scene and playing with reflected colour.

But for all the things I feel are wrong with it, I know that it’s an improvement on previous attempts.

Here’s a street scene from my “France” travel sketchbook back in 2011. It’s from a different place (a village south-west of Paris called Chartres), but it’s easy to see that I have learned some things since then about perspective and learning to be looser and lighter with my pen strokes and quicker with on the spot type sketching in order to capture a scene. I didn’t even bother finishing this one… I gave up in despair.

French street scene 2
Incremental progress is a funny thing.

We don’t see it unless we keep our “failures” to look back on. I learned that lesson when I started powerlifting as a way to get healthy. A friend who had been at it a long time encouraged me to take a “before” photo so that I would be able to look back and see progress, which as it turned out was a fabulous thing, because I didn’t feel like my body had changed but comparing photos, I could see a clear progression and improvement. I could not see improvement by looking in the mirror because the changes were so small each day, but cumulatively over months they were substantial. I am discovering the same with my art. Comparing these two pictures I can see that I have made some improvements over time, but see that there’s more improvement to be made too when I compare it to the work of artists I admire.

Here are some of the things that I am telling myself as I work to slowly improve my art this year. Michelle… listen carefully……

  • Learn and practise the rules and master the basics before you try to eyeball something  or bend the rules. Watching lessons by artists that have been at it for a lot longer than you have and attempting to emulate their shorthand is not helpful.
  • Give yourself permission to fail, but make sure you learn the lessons to be learned and move on mindfully. Realistically, failure is not something we can avoid in creating art, or in life for that matter. Take the time to examine things critically and work to improve. Always.
  • Try not to start a new venture on a project that is too complex… you are setting yourself up for unnecessary failure. Start small and simple and work your way up to the more complex tasks. I think I chose a scene that was perhaps a little too tricky for my skill level at this point.
  • Keep reminders of past flops so you can see how far you’ve come, and don’t be afraid to share them. Other people are learning too, they may be able to take a leap forward by analysing how you messed up. Or there may be someone with more skill or more acute perception that can help you improve by pointing out where to tune your technique. You will likely end up with sketchbooks and loose sheets piled up with scenes that make me cringe…but you will at least have something to compare to, and see how far I’ve come over the years.
  • Be consistent in your practice if you truly want to improve. The only way to get better at representing what you see in the world on the pages of your sketchbook is to do it regularly. Every day would be ideal, but not practical at this point, but a couple of times a week will still yield results, albeit a little slower. Sure life gets in the way at times, but if you want something, you need to make time. End of story.

I tend to talk to myself quite a lot, especially when I’m trying to learn something. I don’t always get intelligent responses, but there you go 🙂

What are you telling yourself this year?

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a rainy visit to the library – urban sketching

This month’s meeting of the Canberra Urban Sketchers was supposed to be held at the Botanic Gardens, but with a weather forecast that featured 90% chance of lots of wet stuff, the venue changed to the National Library. At least there we would find shelter if the heavens did decide to open.

As I venture out to do more urban sketching I find myself changing and refining the kit that I take out with me, depending on what I think I’ll be sketching, and what blogs and tutorial videos I’ve been watching for ideas of techniques and tips to try. This time I crammed two sketchbooks (one landscape and one portrait) and a piece of corrugated plastic board in the bag with my usual bits and pieces. I also chose to go with paintbrushes and water container over my usual water brushes this time for the sake of control and not winding up with too many huge puddles of water, as I am wont to do lately with the water brushes.

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My experiment this time round was with the corrugated plastic board acting as a hand-held easel of sorts to clip my paint, water and sketchbook to, so that I could hold all of that with my left hand and be free to draw or paint with my right. The size of the board was constrained by what would fit in my little Rickshaw bag since I wanted to keep my kit self-contained and somewhat compact. It worked for the most part, though I think I would have preferred something a little larger…I’ll play with that next time. Here’s what it looked like; my left hand held the board under the cover of the sketchbook and the paper towels for wiping off my brushes was held in the fingers of the left hand under the board.

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My goals for today were to have a go at improving my perspective for sketching buildings and to attempt a landscape that didn’t end up looking like a mud puddle as they have been of late. The rain hadn’t arrived when we started out, so I grabbed a prime position on the forecourt of the Library and set about putting into practice what I had been learning in this Craftsy course that I watched last week. I measured and checked angles as best I could while the stormy clouds rolled and boiled above me. I felt the first drops of rain as I put the last details in. Overall I’m happy with the result.

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I made it up to the verandah of the Library just as the spots of rain started to come a little faster. Unfortunately I couldn’t see a scene I wanted to paint from back there, so I ventured out a little way to get a view of what lay over the lake from me, and as it turns out I could see Mount Ainslie under the stormy clouds. I snapped out a couple of quick value sketches in pencil before I settled on a portrait composition that had lots of the purply clouds at the top and a little of the same reflected in the almost still lake below. I stood in the rain and captured the basics of the sketch before retreating to what i thought was a safe dry spot to add the watercolour…as you can see in the sky below I failed to take into account the wind factor and wound up with some unexpected “special effects” in my sky 🙂 I’m pleased I managed some decent contrast in this one…was a quickie that took about 20 minutes or so.

20151101 - mount ainslie under stormy skies

The board worked equally well standing up and sitting down.

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Not really what I was going for with the clouds, but the little raindrop blooms are kind of pretty anyway. 🙂 And as a side note…when I went to scan the pics I discovered that I had stared my new Windsor and Newton landscape book bak to front and upside down…Numpty!

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urban sketching at the AWM

I discovered, quite by accident, a few weeks ago that there is a group of sketchers that get together regularly in Canberra (one of them saw my Goulburn post and contacted me) and today I decided to stop being such a hermit and join them. Time for me to meet some new people!

Quite aside from my normal social anxiety, I hadn’t picked up a pencil or paint brush since the end of June and so I was feeling more than a little apprehensive. I figured I had best practice a little and started preparing yesterday by sketching of some blossoms in my back yard just to get the feel of it again. I had forgotten how relaxing it can be (smacks self in the head).

Here’s what I ended up with today…Nothing quite like going from flowers to artillery! I have drawn the War Memorial building itself a couple of times in the past and wanted to try my hand at something a little more detailed, and since the weather wasn’t too unpleasant outside, I settled myself down next to a 9.2-inch howitzer from World War I. I started out by mapping the proportions of the gun in pencil before going in with my rollerball ink pen and then the Pentel brush pen for the darkest shadows, and then finally with the watercolours.  All up it took probably an hour and a half or so from setup to dry paint.

20150906 - WWI Howitzer

The group met back at the cafe after a couple of hours of dispersed sketching (we all went and found our own “things” that we wanted to capture) to compare sketches and enjoy a coffee. I found it fabulous how we were each in the same geographical location, but came back with such a wonderful and diverse set of sketches.

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I’ll definitely be meeting up again next month at Floriade! If nothing else it will push me to be a little more regular with my sketching and perhaps prime the pump for some more ‘proper’ art pieces for the shop. Here’s the warm up piece I did yesterday…  

20150905 - spring always comes

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out of practice!

The past couple of months have been more than a little hectic one way or the other due to the fact that I bought a house, moved in and furnished it… and I haven’t posted the last commission that I did for my sister-in-law who runs an organic farm in Victoria with my brother. These little piggies wound up being salami … or some of them did anyway. I completed this one and mailed it off a couple of weeks before I moved and the next day packed up my desk.

Pigs' butts

At the same time as my house move, our office had a big move as well…to the other side of the city. My commute has gone from being less than 10 minutes to being about half an hour. Whilst still not onerous, it’s different and I’m adjusting. My sketchbook has been languishing in my handbag for months as I’ve taken short lunch breaks to get work done in anticipation of moving offices or to buy me time to leave the office early to do house stuff. So my normal midday sketch breaks of late have been crunched. 🙁

Here are a couple of pages that were scribbled and splotched in haste:

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These were some lovely roses I was given for mothers day. Sweet subtle fragrance and big luscious blooms that lasted for ages. I would loved to have been able to sit and draw longer to try and capture some more depth in the blooms.

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I was determined to draw “something” one day the other week, so I sketched the counter at the cafe while I waited for my lunch to come…took me 5-10 minutes and it shows … I am feeling so out of practice!

20150527 - central cafe

Life seems to be settling down now, for the most part, and I found myself dreaming about painting the other night, so perhaps it’s time to sit myself down at my new setup and get painting…..either that or I am losing my mind….dreams about pigment running into wet puddles on the page has to be some kind of sign… or not 🙂 Perhaps I’ll just opt to wonder….

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st patricks, michelago

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It’s time to decorate in readiness for the Christmas season, and because I was in need of a tree-topper, I took an afternoon trip out to the Bredbo Christmas Barn  which is about an hour or so down the highway. I was lucky enough to get the last white star for the top of my tree… and a couple of other little things that made me smile.

On the way back I passed this little church and stopped briefly  to capture it in my sketchbook. This is a very quick sketch and much looser than I normally do, I really enjoyed splashing paint around with abandon! Who said you have to colour in the lines?? 🙂

 

Remember there’s 50% off in my Etsy shop until 16/12/2014 (use the coupon: CLEARANCE50 when you check out). Click here to see what’s available…. art makes fabulous Christmas gifts!

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Buvelot St – home sweet home

Every house where love abides
And friendship is a guest,
Is surely home, and home sweet home
For there the heart can rest.
– Henry Van Dyke 

Buvelot St

 

A dear friend of mine is about to lose her family home due to a government mess up.

There is something deeply sad about losing your home. So many memories. So much love. So much time spent with loved ones and friends. And yet while the building will be soon gone, the memories of beautiful experiences and relationships will remain. The connection to loved ones will always live on.

We created this portrait to help her remember her home and to provide a visual reminder of the beautiful things that were shared within its walls.

Hugs my friend, I trust you will find a new place for your heart to rest soon.

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having a go…more urban sketching

20141118 - people watching
I’ve been reading a lot of blogs and books lately about urban sketching and slowly easing myself into drawing in public. I had fun with food and architecture last week…but I’ve been putting off drawing people I see on the street… they MOVE!!! And more often than not they’re long gone before I get the picture anywhere near done! Achieving any resemblance of correct proportion is nigh on impossible for me at the moment too… so it’s practise, practise, practise…and I hope to see improvement over time. I also hope to get far less self conscious about examining people too 🙂 Looks a bit suspicious really.

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daytrip to the coast

It’s the Spring school holidays on Antipodean shores so I took my sons to the beach for the day. It was a little windy, but totally blissy feeling the sun on my skin and listening to the waves crash as I practised some en plain air painting. Just what the doctor ordered! 20141002 - Tomakin beach

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i have succumbed

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I’m sick … I spent the day at home moaning and coughing and sneezing. Mercifully it was warm enough to sit outside for a little while with a coffee and my sketchbook to take in some vitamin D. This urn is the centrepiece of my courtyard and has deep purple pansies that are thriving and bright red cyclamen that are a little the worse for wear. Tucked in one side of the bowl is a little porcelain angel… I like to think she’s there watching over me.

 

By the way … I’ve just dropped the price on my eBook… check it out by clicking the Shop button on the right of your screen.

 

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dark rain

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It has been a sad week with the passing of one of my favourite funny men… Robin Williams. This is a sketchbook page I did during one of my lowest periods. The black dog is a persistent little bugger. Remember there’s always someone to talk to if you feel like there’s no way out.

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