Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Book Review: The Urban Sketcher

The Urban Sketcher – Techniques for Seeing and Drawing on Location is a useful book on drawing and watercolor painting technique illustrated with a selection of Marc Taro Holmes’ dazzling works. It’s certainly worth the $17.30 price (Amazon.com), especially the small watercolor section. I’m a bit puzzled, though, about who the intended audience is.

The book begins with an introduction to the concept of urban sketching and its inherent joys. Daily, habitual sketching – with quantity trumping concern for quality – will bring rapid skills improvement to most sketchers, Holmes says, and his own pleasure from the habit is apparent. “Urban sketching gets you out in the world looking for things worth drawing,” he says. “It puts you into the mindset where daily life is part of a larger artistic adventure.”

The first two-thirds of the 143-page book focuses on relatively basic drawing techniques that a beginner could grasp and practice without feeling overwhelmed. It begins with an introduction to the pleasures of urban sketching and essential materials used. Then, starting with still lifes, Holmes shows, step-by-step, how to use simple measuring and sight-sizing techniques to draw accurately. Very quickly he moves to applying those same principles to urban landscapes. Useful to beginners as well as more seasoned sketchers, he shows how to break down a complex subject into simplified shapes and angles.

Most of the drawing instructions and exercises are based on Holmes’ three-step process: a rough pencil “scribble” followed by a defining pen line and finally a brush pen to darken “shadow shapes,” giving dimension to the drawing. This process is reinforced throughout the book. Some exercises are devoted specifically to sketching people in the urban landscape using these same principles.

So far, I could see a highly motivated beginner or intermediate sketcher using Holmes’ three-step process to build skills with continual practice. But a sheer beginner will not find important instruction on perspective when drawing buildings, for example, or understanding proportions when drawing people. (I suppose plenty of other books on the market cover these basic topics.)

Where I really felt confused about the intended audience was the final third of the book on watercolor techniques. The first instruction demo is on the “grow a wash” technique, followed by one on charging-in, and then edge-pulling. If I had just opened a new set of paints and were using watercolor for the first time (as implied by the book’s introduction to materials), I would be befuddled and frustrated by these sophisticated techniques right out the door.

In Step 1 of a demo, it says, “Keep aware of your color variation, going back for a slightly different hue every time. Never use just one color. Always modify the base color with warm and cool neighbors.” Warm and cool neighbors? All of this comes without a single word related to color mixing or showing a color wheel explaining warm and cool colors. (OK, again, I suppose plenty of watercolor technique books on the market cover these basics.) After having read numerous books on watercolor painting and having taken a few workshops, I feel ready to be challenged by these relatively advanced techniques, but I was surprised to see them in the first few pages of the watercolor section in a book with basic drawing instruction. All of that said, I’m looking forward to trying out these techniques, along with his “tea/milk/honey” principle of paint dilution.

Now that I’ve heard myself talk, I realize that the intended audience might actually be me: Someone with three years of experience in pen, ink and watercolor sketching, looking for new challenges to improve my skills. So if you’re like me, you’ll get plenty of value from the slim watercolor portion of the book; perhaps less from the drawing section. If you want to learn drawing, then perhaps this book is for you. It has some good basics, but definitely not all. If you want to learn watercolor, then I’d say you need to read at least one book on beginning watercolor painting before this one. (For inspiration about why to sketch on location and to view a full range of what artists worldwide are doing with urban sketching, then Gabriel Campanario’s The Art of Urban Sketching is still “the bible.” If you are a complete newbie who wants a comprehensive book about how to urban sketch, including beginning basic skills, James Hobbs’ Sketch Your World would be my answer.)

One complaint may seem minor, but I see this so often in books published today that it’s no longer a minor offense to me. Much time and care were taken to prepare beautiful, step-by-step demo illustrations and examples. Why, then, couldn’t the same care have been taken with the text? It’s riddled with typos and sloppy editing. One of the photo cutlines doesn’t match the photo. The step numbering on one of the illustrations is wrong. I’m going to give the author the benefit of the doubt and assume that the publisher is at fault. (I’ve read other books by North Light Books that were equally sloppy.) It’s a shame when budget cuts in the hard-copy publishing world can’t afford a proofreader.

1 comment:

  1. Good review and from my quick look at the book that Mark Liebowitz had with him two weekends when our group met, it seems pretty accurate. I found some sections captured my interest, but there are other books on urban sketching that I liked much better. I seem to enjoy his blog more than the book, but I will give it another look.


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