Thursday, September 10, 2015

Single Line at Gas Works Park

No. 1: Single-line drawing in ink
Like several other sketchers in the blogosphere, I’m following the exercises in Marc Holmes’ latest online Craftsy class, Travel Sketching in Mixed Media. A major part of the course so far (I’m at lesson 5) is the technique of drawing an entire landscape, scene or building with a single, unbroken line. Similar to blind contour, the concept is that when drawing with one line without lifting the pen from the page, one is able to draw quickly (handy while under travel constraints) by avoiding all the picky details and being forced to simplify the scene. Spending no more than about five or 10 minutes on this single-line contour, Marc then goes back into the sketch with a brush pen to emphasize the dark “shadow shapes,” which helps to give the sketch a focal point as well as three-dimensional form. Finally, color is added, again relatively quickly.

No. 2: Shadows added with brush pen (plus a few details)
In another lesson, Marc uses water-soluble ink to make the single-line drawing, then applies water to “melt” select lines, again adding instant shadows. While this technique is one I have been using myself for most of the time I’ve been sketching, I’ve generally reserved it for when my subject is people. I really like the soft, gradient shading this method allows me when I want to make the delicate contours on faces (much more difficult to do with watercolor, at least for me). I’ve used the technique on buildings and other subject matter only very rarely.

No. 3: Watercolor added.
With these lessons fresh in my mind, I took my sketchbook to Gas Works Park yesterday afternoon. I’ve sketched the gas works several times, including most recently just last month. It’s a challenging scene (see bottom of post for a photo), but I chose it for these exercises for a couple reasons: One is that the scene looks complex, but the basic shapes of the gas works are relatively simple cylinders. The other is that cross lines from the pipes and railings are everywhere, giving me lots of places to back-track my pen if I need to get from one place to another without lifting it from the page, Etch-a-Sketch style. (Clever, aren’t I?)

Image No. 1 is the single-line drawing. No. 2 shows the addition of brush pen shadows (plus some cheated-in detail work with the finer side of my fude pen). Finally I added watercolor, trying (not very successfully) to emulate Marc’s “charging in” technique. I left the gas works themselves unpainted to differentiate them from the somewhat muddy background and foreground.

No. 4: Water-soluble ink
Image No. 4 shows a second sketch of the two right-most towers done in water-soluble ink.

Interestingly, although sketching quickly is one of the purposes of Marc’s methods, I found that it took me about as long to finish the first sketch (ink, brush pen, watercolor) as it generally takes me to finish any sketch of the same size. But I did enjoy the experience of drawing with one line, and I see the value of being forced to simplify the scene, especially something that could get overly complicated like these gas works.

More surprising was how quickly I made the water-soluble ink version – less than 10 minutes, including the washed lines. That shouldn’t surprise me – another reason water-soluble ink is my medium of choice when sketching people is that I need to work quickly in case the person leaves – but for some reason, I haven’t applied that benefit to sketching other subject matter. I think this technique will really help me in travel situations or any situation when time is limited.

Marc recommends doing the single-line exercise at least 15 or 20 times to really get the hang of the loose, fast line. The technique feels very weird, and my sketch today doesn’t seem very accurate, but maybe with more practice, the lines will flow more easily. That’s the idea, anyway.

If you’re working on Marc’s class, what do you think of the single-line technique?

The Gas Works: Complex and at the same time relatively easy to simplify.


  1. I like seeing your sketch as it progressed from the single line, to shaded, to wc added. I can't imagine doing all that pipe detail that is in the photo. Nice job! I don't know what size you were sketching these, but I didn't have a lot of success with the "charging in" either. I think he was working on a much larger sketch so he was able to do small amounts of paint for details and leave a lot of white areas and just had more surface area to play with the paint. I think the single line technique (once I perfect it) is a handy way of sketching quickly when I don't have a lot of time, especially if I am with other people. I can pop off for a few minutes to do a quick sketch. I think I still put too much detail in the single line sketches I've done...but I seem to have a hard time leaving out details. lol (I'm the recording secretary for one of my art groups and I do the same thing with the minutes of the meeting...which is a good thing I think.)

    1. Thanks, Joan! This sketch was my usual 6x9, and I agree that a bigger sketch to work on would have made the painting part easier. The devil is in the details! ;-)

  2. Great post, Tina, and great sketch results. I'm seeing lots of people trying the single-line method, or rather interpreting what it is. It seems to me that if doing one took you as long as it takes you to do a regular sketch, you've missed the point a bit. I did the same thing in some of the ones I posted. But this isn't a method for creating what you're already creating. It's about working (and finishing) really quickly. The end result should have a lot less detail than your normal sketches. That's a good deal of the point of it in my opinion.

    I really think the big problem is the assumption that this is "similar to a blind contour." With a blind contour emphasis is on moving the pen, slowly, along the contour without looking at your paper. Emphasis is placed on following those contours exactly. "Draw your hand, moving your eye and hand simultaneously along the contour."

    Blind contour is a slow process, whereas single-line is supposed to be a fast process. If you watch Marc, he draws an entire scene in a minute. He adds the darks in less than a minute, so after two minutes, all the ink work is finished. I think he's right that you've got to do a bunch of these very quick exercises before they start looking like anything reasonable.


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