“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.
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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…”
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.
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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.
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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:
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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.
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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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