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Hello! My name is Candace, and I'm a sketch artist with a passion for helping you connect with the world through art. Pull out your sketchbook and watercolors and find your favorite view — I'm glad you're here!

Tips for sketching in public

“Working outdoors or from life puts you in direct contact with the life force, not just the light and the landscape, but also the vitality of the world around you.”

— George Carlson

Happy Monday, my friends! Over the past few years, serendipitous encounters have become one of my favorite reasons to sketch in public; indeed, I now often set out to sketch anticipating who I might meet that day through my sketchbook.

But today, I want to share with you that it hasn’t always been that way.

In August of 2011, just seven months after I picked up a sketchbook for the first time, I created an audio slideshow about my new hobby of travel sketching. And here’s an excerpt from what I share in the video:

“What I love about this new travel habit is how it makes people stop. When they see me sketching, sometimes they turn around to what they’ve only just passed and look at it again…It seems to make it okay for complete strangers to walk up, hover over my shoulder, and ask if I’m an artist.”

If you have a moment to watch the slideshow today, you’ll hear how much my voice rises when I say “complete strangers,” so unusual and foreign were these spontaneous interactions to me at first. At the time, I was more focused on pursuing travel writing as my profession, and never before had anyone approached me when I was out writing notes in my notebook — but things were immediately different with my sketchbook. To me, that’s one of the most incredible things about sketching:

Art is a magnet, and people can’t help but be drawn to it.

Candace Rardon sketch artist sketching in public

Two examples of art’s magnetic power: Meeting a group of students in Kyoto, Japan, and friendly locals on the Indonesian island of Nusa Penida (I’m sitting just beyond the right edge of the photo, with my sketchbook on my lap).

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I now love this magnetic power of art, and I look forward to the encounters each sketching session may hold — but I can also easily remember how I felt at first, when meeting people through my sketchbook felt more strange than serendipitous.

If you’re also hesitant about the idea of strangers approaching you when you’re out sketching, this post is for you. I’m excited to share three simple tips for handling encounters and interactions with people while you’re sketching — but before I do, I thought it might be equally helpful if I start by sharing my own approach with you:

My five-step process for a successful sketching encounter

Step 1: Feel someone looking over my shoulder.

Every and then, I might be so absorbed in my sketching process that I don’t realize someone has approached me; usually, though, I can sense right away when there’s another person’s presence around me and they’ve started looking over my shoulder.

Step 2: Wait a few seconds before interacting.

Because I know that whoever has approached me has probably done so to see the sketch unfold, I try to keep working for a few seconds. If I’m working on a part of the sketch that’s tricky for me, I might quietly switch to an easier section of the sketch — i.e. sometimes, the sudden arrival of an ‘audience’ as I’m working can make me feel self-conscious, so I’ll return to working on some aspect of the sketch where I feel more comfortable and at ease.

Step 3: Look up, smile, and say hello.

After I’ve kept painting for a few seconds and given that person time to enjoy watching me at work, it feels right to break the moment, look up, and say hello. I might then ask them how their day is going or what their name is, and I also like to introduce myself. Finally, I love asking people if they draw too, as I’ve often been able to connect with other artists this way.

For me, this step is an important one — I’ve found that the more open I am, the more rewarding an encounter usually is. If I’m sitting on the ground, I might eventually stand up and speak to the person at eye-level. And in the rare instance when someone is a bit more persistent at talking and I’m ready to get back to my sketch, I’ll try to politely bring an end to our conversation and say something like, “Well if you don’t mind, I need to be finishing up here…”

Candace Rardon sketch artist sketching in public

I loved meeting this friendly mother and daughter while sketching on-location in Yangon, Myanmar.

Step 4: Be prepared for a photo, if they ask.

I’ve also learned that people might ask to take a photo of my sketch. I’ll then hold up my sketch for them to photograph; or sometimes, they’ll even ask to get a photo of me sketching, or a photo of us together.

At first, this felt like a strange role-reversal, as it’s usually me taking photos of others when I’m traveling; but I’ve gradually realized that if someone asks to take a photo of me or my sketch, it’s nice to think I’ve been a positive part of their own journey, and that they’re simply wanting to remember our encounter, too.

Step 5: Share one of my business cards.

The last step I’ve noticed is that people sometimes ask if I sell my sketches. I don’t usually sell my original sketches, but I do have an Etsy shop where I create custom watercolor paintings. So I’ll tell them about my Etsy shop or my blog, and I always try to have a few of my business cards on hand, so they don’t need to write my website down.

I love ordering my business cards through a company called Moo, where you can have different images on the reverse side of the cards — so I have four different illustrations on the back of my cards, from Japan, Thailand, and Paris. For me, giving business cards to the people I meet through sketching fulfills two purposes — it not only helps me share my blog with more people, but it also gives them a bit of my art to take away with them.

If you have a blog, Etsy shop, or even an Instagram account you’d like more people to check out, keeping business cards with you as you sketch in public could be a fun, authentic way of spreading the word.

Sketch artist business cards

Keeping business cards with you while you’re sketching could be a fun way of sharing your work with a wider audience.

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Three simple tips for sketching in public

I hope the above breakdown of a typical sketching encounter for me helps you feel more at ease about meeting strangers during a sketching session — and to make sure you feel even more confident the next time you set out with your sketchbook, here are three simple tips for sketching in public:

1. Start sketching outdoors where you’ll have less chances of meeting people.

It might be easier to gradually transition from sketching indoors to sketching in a public space full of people. Rather than heading to a bustling café on a Saturday morning, you might enjoy sketching in a park or quiet museum courtyard instead.

Starting in a less crowded setting outdoors will help you adjust to the challenges and rewards of sketching on-location — i.e. finding a comfortable place to sit, working with the weather, looking for inspiration — but without necessarily needing to manage unplanned encounters and conversations at the same time.

Candace Rardon sketch artist sketching in public

Sketching in California’s Desolation Wilderness held gorgeous scenery, but no chance encounters.

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2. Trust that the encounter will be a positive one.

Before I’d had many encounters through sketching, it was hard to imagine what kind of people would approach me during a sketching session — and so of course, I imagined the worst: What if a professional artist or drawing instructor comes up to me, is utterly unimpressed by my amateur efforts, and immediately points out the myriad ways I got the perspective wrong?

Isn’t it amazing how so often in life, we focus on the worst possible outcome? When what we should be asking ourselves is:

What’s the best thing that could happen if someone talks to me while I’m sketching?

Because over the past six years, I’ve realized there are basically two types of people who approach me while I’m sketching:

1. People who want to sketch.

2. People who already sketch.

Never once have I had someone come up and actually criticize my sketch — and the majority of people who approach me don’t often hang around long enough for an extended conversation. They usually just stop for a second, say, “Nice work,” and keep walking. Instead, I encourage you to trust that the people looking to engage with you in a meaningful way either want to start sketching, or they are already artists themselves.

The people we meet through sketching are often people who share in our joy, not take away from it.

Here are just three examples of the amazing artists I’ve had the honor of connecting with while sketching on-location:

Candace Rardon sketch artist

I’ll never forget meeting Há in Saigon, Vietnam, a university student and incredible watercolor artist (we’re holding each other’s sketches here).

Candace Rardon sketch artist

Sketching on-location in Athens, Greece, led me to meet Antonis, a painter and art teacher who surprised me by sketching *my* portrait.

Candace Rardon sketch artist

One of my most moving sketching encounters was meeting Maggie in San Francisco’s Chinatown. When she saw my sketch, she went back up to her apartment and returned with the only painting she’d ever done, in 1973. A fellow neighbor told me: “She’s never brought that down, ever.”

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3. Think of yourself as an ambassador for sketching.

Once, when I was sketching Monet’s gardens in Giverny, France, I remember meeting a pair of women — one from the U.S. and one from Switzerland — who at first told me that as much as they wished they could sketch, they couldn’t draw.

“I couldn’t either when I started!” I immediately shared with them. “Seriously, my first sketch was just a bunch of quick lines and messy watercolor pencils.”

I then went on to share with them that consistent practice has been the key to my improvement…not art school or private lessons or anything other than sitting down with my sketchbook — day after day, year after year. By the end of our encounter, I think I’d managed to convince them, just a teeny tiny bit, to give sketching a try.

You, too, are an ambassador for the rewards of sketching — because the more open we are about our journeys as sketch artists, the more we can encourage others to begin their own journey.

Candace Rardon sketch artist

In Mostar, Bosnia, a chance encounter led me to sketch the city’s iconic bridge with two local high school students, Lejla and Alma.

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I hope these simple tips will help you feel a bit more confident about sketching in public!
And if you have your own tips for handling sketching encounters, I’d love to hear them below 🙂

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  • Sunil Shinde

    A wonderful, uplifting article. Bravo!

  • Marilynn Brandenburger

    Thank you, Candace. Great article.You never know how encounters with “visitors” may turn out. I was once out sketching on the grounds of the John Campbell Folk School, where I used to teach, and a student from the cooking class brought me a slice of warm-from-the-oven lemon meringue pie! And once, a delightful little tail-wagging dog leaped into my lap, right onto my sketchbook and palette and made himself at home.

    • Thank you so much for reading, Marilynn, and for sharing some of your own sketching encounters with us! I’m not sure I can imagine a better sketching scenario if someone were to offer me a piece of lemon meringue pie, straight from the oven 🙂 That must’ve been divine! And you’ve reminded me that I completely left out four-legged encounters…I just remembered meeting an adorable pair of dogs while sketching in Spain once, so thank you 🙂 I so enjoyed reading about your own serendipitous moments!

  • Cindy Soper Murdock

    I really like that statement …………Ambassador for sketching. Nice way to put it. Thanks for sharing this and love following you.

    • I’m so glad to hear that phrase resonated with you, Cindy! And I really appreciate your kind words as well–thanks so much for taking the time to share them 🙂

  • Brenda K

    This is fantastic! Those pictures of you with others watching you sketch, or with people who sketch alongside you… what a treasure! I love all your tips here. Ambassador for sketching… that’s great! I guess my biggest hesitation with sketching in public is because I’m not yet confident of my skills. I feel like they’ll be thinking ‘she doesn’t even know how to draw!’. I know, it’s crazy! I love your optimism and enthusiasm and agree that the positive connections made outweigh any possible negatives. Another question. When you are travelling with friends or family, do they just wait while you take an hour (I’m guessing) or more to sketch a picture? Or do you tend to be on your own when planning to sketch?
    Thanks for another great post! 🙂

    • Thank you so much for this great comment, Brenda! First of all, I just have to say–you are an incredible artist, and I daily look forward to seeing your sketches on Instagram. So I really hope you won’t hesitate to sketch on-location, if you’re nervous people will think anything other than “wow!” when they see your sketches, okay?? 🙂

      Also, that’s such a great question about traveling with friends and family! I have to admit that in the past, I’ve generally preferred to travel alone, as I’m a very slow sketch artist and don’t love the feeling of being rushed and knowing I need to meet someone soon. But in a couple of instances, I’ve traveled with my mother to Prague and on another trip to Paris with my boyfriend, and both times, they were gracious enough to entertain themselves for a few hours while I sketched.

      The trip to Prague and Vienna with my mom was especially memorable–we still joke about the days we spent doing a slow tour of Vienna’s beautiful coffeehouses…where I would sit for 3-4 hours sketching, and my mother would order a new hot chocolate or pot of tea every hour as she patiently waited 🙂 I’ve gotten a little faster now, so I think the next time I travel with someone else, I’d maybe look for pockets of 1-2 hours where I could sneak off to sketch, and make plans to meet back up later. Hopefully whoever you’re traveling with will understand your passion for sketching, and you will be able to make the trip work for everyone!

      Again, it’s so lovely to be connected with you, and I can’t tell you how much I love following along your creative journey! <3

  • Kim

    As someone who loves connecting with strangers by chatting on long bus rides, I find it fascinating how much you’ve been able to connect to other sketch artists over the course of your travels. Such amazing pictures and stories! I feel like what i realize through your posts here and on Instagram is that there are so many people harboring these talents privately, but need more ambassadors like you to encourage us to take our talents public. 🙂 Thanks for encouraging me to just get started and trust that practice will help my sketching skills develop over time.

    • Kim, I can’t thank you enough for this wonderful comment–and I also couldn’t agree more with what you said about people keeping quiet about their creative talents! It’s been amazing for me to see so many people begin sharing their sketches online through the Moment Catchers challenges–people who may have never thought of themselves as artists, but their sketches are truly wonderful. So it’s been an honor for me to help them find the confidence to be more open about their art 🙂 I was also so thrilled to hear you’re planning to get started–please know how big a role practice and perseverance have played in my sketching journey, and I have no doubt your own journey will be just as rewarding. Can’t wait to see your first sketches, Kim! <3

  • Kar

    Your natural gifts are not only in creating art, but also in connecting with strangers in such a seamless manner. And your biggest gift of all is in your art of giving. Thank you so much for sharing the tips, inspiration and your insight.

    • You are so very welcome, Kar! It’s an honor for me to share the insights and experience I’ve gained through sketching, so I love hearing that it resonated with you. And as I think about it now, I truly do think that my ability to connect with strangers developed simultaneously as I grew as an artist. For me now, I’m not sure I could have one without the other, so it almost makes sense that they grew together 🙂 I’m so glad you enjoyed this post! <3

  • Roberta Charles

    Hi Candace, There was a time when I used to sketch outdoors and never really had folks peering over my shoulder. Mostly, they stayed well back so as not to disturb my work. Since I have moved to an apartment, I didn’t have the room for my studio, sold the makings to an artist who was looking for a studio to set up in her home and she was most happy to have it. In the midst of a blizzard right now and thinking back on my earlier sketching places, it was mostly when I was on vacation, It never seemed to happen in my everyday life, other than perhaps working from a photo I had taken earlier, of someplace else. Thank you so much for sharing your experiences and how joyously your serendipity filled life is expressed in both words and pictures. Happy trails.

    • Thank you so much for your lovely comment here, Roberta, and for sharing about your own experiences of sketching outdoors–they were fascinating to read about. I also completely understand how you often sketched on vacation…it can be rather challenging to make time for it in our daily lives, can’t it? That’s one thing I’m trying to do more of now, especially with a little mission I’ve set for myself to sketch once a day during Lent. As you know, it’s part of a greater challenge to bring what I’ve learned through traveling and incorporate it into my everyday rhythms even when I’m more settled and “at home” 🙂 The Adirondacks must be absolutely blanketed in snow by now, so please know I’m thinking of you and sending thoughts of spring your way! <3

  • Treava

    Candace, another great informative article. It is easier to relate to things when you share your personal experiences. Thank you. I love your business card idea (and your cards!) – that people can take away a little piece of your art. You’re also right about thinking positive and being an ambassador. Thank you again, Candace!

    • Hi Treava! I’m so happy to hear this post was helpful and that the ideas resonated with you–and I’m especially glad that my own personal stories and experiences helped bring the tips alive, too 🙂 I think that for me, because so much of what I’ve come to know about sketching, I’ve learned through experience and practice, it just feels right to share these stories with you! Thanks so much for reading and for letting me know you enjoyed this post. <3

  • Linda Roesch

    Very true! I love interacting with the public when I’m out sketching (children are the best!). You never know when you’ll meet an interesting person, hear a truthful story, or ignite a spark that encourages an artist to try something new. Great advice and observations; thank you!

    • Thank you so much for sharing that, Linda! And you’re so right–children are indeed the best 🙂 I have so many fun memories of connecting with kids while out sketching–they’re just so open and curious and approachable, and I can only imagine you must be enjoying your current teaching opportunity as well! I also love how you put it as well, in terms of hearing a “truthful story” and “igniting a spark”–those are both wonderful intentions to set for a sketching session, so I really appreciate you sharing them. Thank you again!

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