Sunday, December 1, 2013

Book Review: Sketching On Location

Matthew Brehm’s book Sketching on Location is perhaps the most complete and thorough volume on the subject that I’ve read to date (and I try to get my hands on any title related to sketching on location). An architect and urban sketcher, the author views location sketching as a craft – accomplished with the hands, using skills developed over time and much practice. “It is easier to ascribe someone else’s ability to ‘talent,’ as if certain individuals are born with advanced sketching skills. Yet it has been my experience that anyone can learn to draw and constantly improve their skills of observation and representation. . . . What is required is not innate ability, but rather the desire, the patience, and the perseverance to learn.” I share the same attitude about sketching, which made me an eager student of this believer and follower of the Urban Sketchers manifesto.

In the introduction expressing his approach toward sketching as craft, Brehm includes suggestions for cultivating a continual learning process – all of which I could enthusiastically get behind (paraphrased below): 
  • Draw regularly – every day, if possible.
  • Always carry a small sketchbook with you.
  • Try to avoid frustration. If a sketch isn’t going well, turn the page.
  • Keep practice sketches small: 2” x 3”.
  • Study other people’s drawings, and apply their techniques to your own drawings.
  • Carry images of sketches you like to learn from.
  • Target your weaknesses. Focus on aspects that give you trouble and practice those.
  • Invite constructive criticism of your sketches.
  • Try using media that you haven’t used before.

Next Brehm discusses material and media choices (with his own hand-drawn illustrations of the materials). The Getting Started and Setup sections explain basic techniques on planning, composition and perspective. He believes initially “setting up” a sketch – using light lines to lay out the entire composition before drawing – is one of the most important steps in making a successful sketch and shows how to do this effectively.

The next section, Value, is one of the most thorough discussions I’ve read on achieving relative values during location sketching (and probably the most useful to me). Strong value contrasts, he says, attract and excite the viewer’s eye. “Value has the potential to bring the view to life.”

The chapter on Color focuses on colored pencils and watercolor for their portability and ease of use in the field. Again, he stresses the importance of establishing relative values even when color is added.

Entourage (an architectural term that was new to me in the context of sketching) is everything surrounding a central sketch subject – people, street furniture, plants, cars and even the sky. As an architect, Brehm shows with his sketches that his primary interest in the urban landscape is buildings, but he stresses the importance of including appropriate entourage elements to give the building context in time and space.

The book’s final chapter discusses ways to store, reproduce, display and share completed sketches.

The only thing I don’t like about this book is its price: $57 for a 186-page paperback. The full-color sketch reproductions are beautiful and plentiful, and the content is certainly worth the price. But I would expect any commercially available book with less than 200 pages and a price of more than $40 to be a hardback. I hope this isn’t the trend in publishing.

(This book review also appears on


  1. Sounds like an interesting book, but pricey.

  2. This is my favorite art book, for the reason you've mentioned. That price comes from the fact that Brehm is an academic and thus has an academic press as his publisher. Anyone who has a kid in school knows that the universe is being ripped off by the price of academic books. James Richard's great book suffers the same price inflation, though it is a hardcover.

    Cheers --- Larry


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