Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Urban Sketching with Don Colley

Don Colley teaching at the Daniel Smith store.
The mirror above reflects his sketchbook
About four years ago, only a couple months after I had started sketching, I went to a demo at Daniel Smith’s Seattle store by Don Colley. Although I had already been hooked on urban sketching by then (seeing images online had gotten me hooked long before I had actually put pen to paper), Don’s sketchbooks opened my eyes – wide. Up to that point, most of the sketches I’d seen online were of buildings and urban landscapes, and as much as they inspired and dazzled me, they also intimidated me. I wanted to sketch them, but I didn’t know how to approach all that architectural stuff. Then I discovered Don’s work – in addition to buildings and urban scenes, he makes breathtaking sketches of people sitting in cafes, sleeping on buses and doing other ordinary things – all the stuff that goes on inside those buildings. It made me realize that people and interiors were part of urban sketching, too, and that seemed much more approachable.

During his demo using Faber-Castell Pitt Artist Pens, Don let us skim through his piles of extraordinary sketchbooks, and one particular sketch stays with me even today – a woman reading in a coffee shop, head down over her book, the light illuminating her hair in a way that is nothing less than magical – sketched with dark blue markers. He did that with markers? Whew. I’ve been following Don’s sketches ever since, continually marveling at his mastery of the human form – both captured in the urban landscape as well as in the life-drawing studio.

Of course I bought a set of Pitt markers after that demo. Unfortunately, my set was defective – it didn’t come with the super powers in Don’s pens, so I soon gave them up.

You can imagine how thrilled I was a few weeks ago when I heard that Don would be in Seattle to teach a workshop called “Travel Drawing - People and Figure”! At last I could learn the magic! Although the course description said that we could use any media we wanted, I decided it would be my opportunity to give those markers another try.

9/27/15 Pitt Artist Big Brush Pens, fountain pen,
Zig marker, colored pencil
On a crispy-cold but beautiful Sunday morning, a bunch of eager sketchers arrived at Daniel Smith to learn Don’s ways. For the first hour, he described his approach to urban sketching and showed many examples from his sketchbooks. He always tries to catch the fleeting elements first – the person who is likely to walk off or other things that may change. Using a lightly toned marker, he quickly sets up his composition, including making small marks to place any figures who might imminently run from the scene. Then, using a range of cool and warm gray Pitt brush markers in a grisaille manner, he builds up the scene. Strategically placing warm and cool tones enables him to differentiate between foreground, middle ground and distance.

Using shading is the most common way to describe three dimensions in forms, but Don also likes to look for patterns to do the job. He showed examples of how sleeve stripes bending around a person’s arm or the upholstery pattern on a chair can give dimension to those forms.

When I asked how he manages to avoid the streaky “marker-ish” look, he said he uses the markers’ tendency to make bands to help describe the texture and direction of a surface. We all watched with fascination as he extended the typical possibilities of markers by using his thumbs to smudge and blend the ink before it dries. He prefers sized paper because the sizing retards absorption of ink, and if sized in the right manner, it prevents feathering and wicking so the drawn lines are crisper, and there is more fidelity to the marks. He also applies the ink directly from the marker to the paper with his thumb, bypassing the marker tip altogether. And that ink all over his thumb? He uses that, too – like a stamp to add texture to fabrics and foliage!

Don’s approach toward urban sketching is to create a “narrative” of the scene before him. “I’m not a camera; I’m an interpreter,” he said, encouraging us to be selective in choosing our composition.

Don uses Pitt markers on more than paper!
Dazzled by what we’d seen in an hour, we were hungry for more. What surprised us, though, was that we would be moving from the cozy classroom to nearby Alki Beach for the rest of our workshop. Remember that crispy-cold weather I mentioned? Had I known, I would have worn more than two layers! Brrrr!

Some hardy sketchers braved Alki’s biting wind, but not me – I ducked into a Vietnamese tea shop with Frances for my first workshop sketch. Through the window was one of my favorite scenes: a utility pole and lots of wires. As Don had suggested, I tried using the warm and cool marker tones to create a sense of distance.

During lunch, while the rest of us scarfed down pizza, Don pulled out more sketchbooks to talk about concepts and techniques. The highlight of our lunchtime “lecture” was when he used a marker on his own face to show how to place features accurately on a head!

The afternoon didn’t warm up as I had hoped, so again, while some sketchers opted to sketch on the beach, I went indoors – this time with Michele to Top Pot Doughnuts. Lucky for me, a laptop-absorbed victim gave me plenty of opportunity to try sketching a person with gray-tone markers. And lucky for both of us, Don decided to get out of the cold at Top Pot, too, so we were able to get his feedback on the spot. With a few deftly made marker strokes, he improved my sketch immensely. (And what was Don doing while we were sketching? He sketched us!)
9/27/15 Pitt Artist Big Brush Pens, fountain pen

As has been true in many a workshop, the key lesson in Dons class was values, values, values. If you get them right, the whole sketch looks right. I don’t know if Pitt markers will become my medium of choice, but one thing is certain: Using a range of gray tones is one of the fastest ways to learn to “read” and understand values. The second thing that’s certain is that there’s nothing magical about Pitt markers – it’s the man holding the markers that makes the magic.

Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post when I show the sketches I made at the Museum of Flight – more value studies with Pitt markers.

Check out the workshop swag from Faber-Castell!


  1. Wonderful summary and post! You took much better notes than I did.

  2. Good description of his workshop and you seem to have successfully put his ideas into practice. Nice pieces!! I had seem Michele's post about his workshop yesterday and followed the links she provided to videos of him sketching. He works so big!!!

  3. Hi Tina,

    We're so sorry to hear about the pens. Can you please send an email to consumer@fabercastell.com? We'd be happy to help you out.

    1. So you mean you DO sell pens with super powers included??! ;-)

      - Tina

  4. Besides Strathmore toned papers, what kind of papers did Colley demonstrate with the Pitt pens?

    1. Sorry, I don't remember! I'm sure he'd be happy to tell you himself... he's on Instagram.


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