Monday, June 29, 2015

Chandler on Urban Sketching

6/27/15 ink, watercolor, Stillman & Birn Beta sketchbook
A long-time fan of the work of Chandler O’Leary, I was thrilled when I heard she was offering an urban sketching workshop in Seattle! I especially admire the Tacoma book artist, printmaker and avid urban sketcher for her dynamic compositions (not to mention quirky sense of humor that is apparent in her sketches as well as her blog writing). The past year or more I have been trying to focus on improving my sketch compositions, so I hoped this workshop would have something for me.

I wasn’t disappointed! Offered through the School of Visual Concepts, Saturday’s all-day workshop included useful lessons and tips on improving compositions as well as on understanding perspective, achieving a sense of depth and watercolor painting.

The day began with an overview of the Urban Sketchers manifesto and its emphasis on sketching from life. I’ve taken several urban sketching workshops the past few years, and I think some instructors may take for granted that anyone signing up for a class with “urban sketching” in the name must understand its principles, but I don’t think that’s necessarily true. About half of the participants in Chandler’s workshop yesterday said that they had never sketched at all before, so I think it was important to mention why sketching from life is different from sketching from a photo. Her presentation included an inspiring slideshow of examples from global urban sketchers who have a wide variety of styles – illustrating that we each have a unique sketching perspective to share.

With the basic principles covered, we all headed out for Lake Union Park a short walk away (although that walk seemed a lot longer on the way back when the afternoon had seriously heated up!). Chandler began with a demo on perspective and simplifying a potentially complicated city view. She showed how to use the addition of color to attract the viewer’s eye and at the same time de-emphasize areas like a busy background.

Thumbnail for the sketch above.
To make better compositions, she recommended thumbnailing a number of options before beginning the sketch. Hmmm . . . where have I heard that advice before? Just about every urban sketching class I’ve taken – and yet I never seem to heed that advice. Yesterday’s first exercise, however, drove home the value of making thumbnails. Outlined in red (at left) was my original thumbnail, which did not include the smokestack on the ship on the right side. I immediately realized that the composition would be stronger if I included the smokestack, so I shifted the view slightly to the right. I think the sketch that resulted (above) is better for it.

My second sketch (below) of the downtown Seattle skyline punctuated by no less than five construction cranes was an attempt to push the buildings further into the background by painting them a uniform grayish-blue so that the bright yellow-orange cranes would pop out in contrast.

6/27/15 ink, watercolor, colored pencils
After lunch Chandler gave another demo, this time showing how varying the sketching line width could be used to bring the foreground forward (with a heavier line) and push things behind it further back (with a finer line). This technique is commonly used by cartoonists, Chandler said, and I had déjà vu of the ink-drawing class I finished recently at Gage. Instructor Eric Elliott often talked about this technique when making contour lines. Although I had practiced the technique in his class, I had forgotten about it when sketching in “real life,” so my third sketch was a quick attempt at practicing that technique in an urban sketching context. Chandler also demo’d how to paint Lake Unions water – in multiple glazes that fortunately dried very quickly in the hot mid-day sun.

6/27/15 ink (varying line-width exercise)
The last hour of the workshop was spent back in the (thankfully) air-conditioned SVC classroom sharing sketches from the day and exchanging ideas about portable sketch kits. It was a day well spent and packed full of everything I went there for. Chandler says that there’s a good chance she will offer the workshop again next summer. I recommend it!


  1. Sounds like a great workshop. Looking at your sketches and reading your text made me really see the concept she was suggesting. Nice sketches especially the one of the boats and the cranes. I like the idea of varying the line widths...sounds like common sense which I guess I don't have. lol Thanks for sharing what you learned!

  2. Sounds interesting with great results Tina.
    btw I don't do thumbnails either - but keep hearing it.

  3. You kids in Seattle get to do all the cool stuff. I agree with you about covering the basics. In some ways, USK is moving away from its original goal of getting people drawing simply because the quality of 'urban sketches' is becoming more like plein air painting than sketching. We all should be aware that the strength of the organization comes from the more simple recruitment message(s).

    People here don't know what urban sketching is, though I'm heading to Montreal next weekend to visit with the USK Montreal group and I'm very excited about that.

  4. Oops...meant to ask about the boat with the smokestack. What is it? And you're right, the composition is better for the smokestack.

    1. Thanks for your comments, everyone! Larry, I'm glad you asked about the Swiftsure. It's a 100+ year old lightship. Here's an article about it:


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