Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Book Review: Urban Sketching: The Complete Guide to Techniques

I think I can safely say that I’ve read every book in print with the words “urban sketching” in the title or that I know have an urban sketching focus. Although all of them have much to offer on various aspects of drawing on location, some have left me wanting. My personal urban sketching interest leans toward people rather than buildings or urban landscapes. Some books that focus on architecture relegate humans to the general “entourage” (an architectural term for trees, plants and other stuff surrounding a building) of the sketch. Even as I appreciate the information on architectural sketching (goodness knows I need the help), I’m often left wondering, “Is that all people are? Part of the ‘entourage’?

By contrast, as a regular reader of the blog Analog Artist Digital World, I am dazzled daily by the vibrantly peopled, fully saturated watercolor sketches of Thomas Thorspecken. Compared to most other well-known urban sketchers, Thorspecken’s sketches are unique in that they focus invariably on people and their activities rather than architecture. And the people who populate his sketches are usually not passively sipping coffee or gazing at laptops (as they often are in my sketches!); they are more often busily dancing, acting or otherwise moving, performing and doing in their community. More than any other urban sketcher whose work I’m familiar with, Thorspecken is interested in documenting the actions of people.

Knowing his sketching style, when I read his new book, Urban Sketching: The Complete Guide to Techniques, I was not surprised to hear him emphatically state numerous times that people are – and should be – the center of any urban sketch. “I firmly believe that adding convincing figures to any scene is the most important aspect of any urban sketch,” Thorspecken says. “Remember that no city scene is complete without the human element, so keep an eye open whenever you are sketching buildings to catch people on the street, too.”

With the human focus clearly established early in the book, he spends a significant portion of it showing the reader how to capture the gestures and poses of people we see in urban life. Although nude people are rarely seen in the urban landscape, he strongly advocates attending life drawing sessions to practice sketching the human form quickly. (I’m happy that the time I spend in Gage life-drawing sessions is validated; I find life drawing extremely useful in urban sketching, but I didn’t think many urban sketchers agreed with me.) In fact, he encourages sketching not only the nude model but the other life-drawing participants as well, since capturing the entire life drawing session is good practice for composing multiple people in a composition.

“Although an understanding of some anatomy is important, your job is to catch each person’s individual character with as few lines as possible,” Thorspecken says. “You need to pay attention to how people hold themselves – a person’s slumped shoulders or proud stance will say more about them than their facial features.”

This diagram is worth the price of the book!
The specific techniques he describes for effectively capturing human gestures, stances and movement are invaluable – and rarely discussed in urban sketching books. Thorspecken’s background as a Disney Feature Animation animator becomes clear in this section. In particular, he shows a five-part breakdown of what legs look like when walking, which is probably the single-most-often observed human movement in the urban environment. (I’m going to study that diagram very carefully and use it well! As far as I’m concerned, it’s worth the price of the book.)

The second-strongest point I gathered from the book is related to storytelling. “Your goal shouldn’t be to just draw things, but to convey and imply the underlying story,” he says. By posting daily sketches and blogging about the details surrounding his subjects, Thorspecken himself is not merely documenting a scene; he is acting as a reporter. “When you begin sketching events every day in your city or town, you will become a journalist, reporting on the activity of your community. . . . Your art can inform, enlighten and help bring people together.” Indeed, blogs, Facebook and other social media can be treated as news media available to anyone who wishes to broadcast their sketch stories.

Another major portion of the book is devoted to composition. Instead of simply drawing whatever is in front of us, we are encouraged to shape the composition to tell the strongest story. Thorspecken does not hesitate to move or remove objects, details or people from a composition if they don’t contribute to the story he sees and wants to tell with his sketch.

Throughout the book, Thorspecken includes numerous inspiring examples of his own work and that of many well-known urban sketchers to illustrate the principles he describes.

If you need lessons on drawing convincing architectural perspective, I recommend looking elsewhere. Covering the topics of one-point, two-point, three-point and three-point curved perspective (accompanied by thumbnails of converging lines that are so tiny they are useless) – all in 10 short pages – left me dizzy (although the examples he shows of these types of perspective are fascinating to examine).

Likewise, if putting people into your sketches is not a primary interest, your needs will not be served by this book (Thorspecken’s position on the importance of humans in sketches cannot be ignored or avoided).  Fortunately for me, my perspective of the role of people in the urban landscape is generally the same as his, so my conclusion in reading this book is, “Finally – an urban sketching book for me!”

(This review also appears on

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