Friday, April 10, 2015

Composition Lesson from Bardahl

4/20/15 DeAtramentis Document Brown ink, watercolor,
Caran d'Ache Museum colored pencils, Canson XL 140 lb. paper
After leaving Fremont Coffee, I gave Nilda a ride to Ballard, and that gave me an opportunity for a second chance at sketching the old Bardahl Oil sign. I first sketched it earlier this year from a less-than-ideal parking spot behind it, but today I had a better angle of the front.

This sketch was a good lesson in why making thumbnails is useful. Most of the urban sketching instructors I’ve taken classes from advise taking a few minutes to make multiple small thumbnails before committing to a sketch. The purpose of thumbnails is to experiment with various compositions, which can save time if you use them appropriately. Despite that advice, I never make thumbnails. It doesn’t occur to me until too late. Like today.

I wanted to make the Bardahl sign the focal point of my sketch framed by the two utility poles. With not much more than that in mind, I made the sketch below and was almost done before I realized it was a bad composition. I wasn’t interested in the foreground buildings or parked cars, but I had half-heartedly started to put them in . . . why?

4/20/15 DeAtramentis Document Brown ink, watercolor,
Caran d'Ache Museum colored pencils, Zig marker
Abandoning that one, I started over, this time giving more thought to the composition (above). It’s still not the best – someday I’ll get back there on a warm-enough day that I can get out of the car – but at least it’s clear what my focal point is intended to be.

Note to self: Next time, make thumbnails.


  1. Nice sketch of the oil sign. I very rarely make thumbnails for sketches or plein air paintings. On the rare occasions that I do I'm usually glad I did. It is a hard lesson to learn.

  2. The logic of thumbnails is fine. For me they don't fit into a street sketcher approach. My sketchbooks aren't plans for a painting; they are a record of what I see. Different goals I think.

    One thing I do sometimes is use my cell phone to 'plan'. I have the camera give me a grid and I can change the orientation and zoom in/out to look at different scene framing. It's quick, probably not optimal, but it works for me and doesn't get in the way of the spontaneity of my sketching process.


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