Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Recording Life

3/29/16 brush pen, Field Notes
Yesterday Liz Steel wrote a great blog post about the difference, for her, between “creating art” and “recording life.” Here’s what she said:
  1. If your goal is to create art you will be looking for an occasion to ‘do a sketch’ making sure that the scene is inspiring and that you have appropriate time to complete it. Of course in the process you will be recording part of your life, but the motivation is to create a beautiful image.
  2. If your goal is recording your life then you will look for any opportunity to record events or thoughts in a variety of ways – quick sketch, more planned sketches, notes, collage, info-graphics, diagrams etc. You might create a beautiful piece of art in the process but that wasn’t ‘the driver!’
She also talked about the ideal occasions when No. 1 and No. 2 merge seamlessly, as when she has more leisure time during her daily life or when she is traveling.

Last in line in my sketch (and in reality) was Greg.
I really appreciate it when I read posts like Liz’s, which make me think about my own sketching process. (Many readers shared comments on her post about their own processes, and they were interesting also.) I, too, seem to have at least two or three different ways in which I approach a sketch, although sometimes the choice is made unconsciously.

I don’t think I’ve ever begun a sketch with the intention to “create art” or “make a beautiful picture,” although occasionally the result might end up being beautiful. However, I do sometimes set out with the intention (Liz’s term, which I find appropriate also) to make a sketch that I want to tell a “story” of some kind.

Yesterday at the UW light rail station, I started my first sketch with that intention: I wanted the sketch to tell the visual story about a station finally opening in north Seattle (a big deal in my ‘hood where light rail has been very late in coming). As it turned out, the unexpected cold and rain changed my motivation and intention, and the sketch ended up being more of a “record of my life” type of sketch. I was a little disappointed that I couldn’t spend the time I wanted to on it, but not disappointed that I still got the moment recorded.

After that, my intention for the whole day changed, and I decided I would approach the rest of my sketches as recorded moments rather than “stories.” I probably spent about the same length of time on the second station sketch as I did on the first, but for that one, I pulled out a brush pen to make faster, bolder lines than a fountain pen. Without the goal to “tell a story,” I found that I enjoyed the process more, and I also ended up liking the finished sketch more. Between those station sketches and throughout the day, I made small, quick sketches that were definitely in the “recorded life” category rather than “stories.” But collectively, they do end up telling a story of the day.

Today was a redux of yesterday, this time with Greg. After hearing about my adventures on the light rail, he wanted to check it out himself, so this morning we hopped on the same neighborhood bus and then on the train southbound to Capitol Hill. My intention from the get-go was to simply record the day – not make “story” sketches. I filled several pages in my red Field Notes with people on the train, in the pub where we had lunch, and waiting in line at the transit pass office where we had to stop. Again, collectively, they became a record of our day, riding around on public transportation.

As you might guess, these were enormously fun sketches to do. Something about the brightly colored paper in these Field Notes takes the pressure off, and the sketches seem to make themselves. What pressure? I’m usually not even aware of it, but the desire to tell a story with a sketch does set a certain threshold I feel I need to meet. Having a threshold is not a bad thing – I think it pushes me to want to continually improve my drawing skills. But sometimes the day is only asking to be recorded – not be a story.

I have at least one other way in which I approach sketching, but I’ll leave that for another post.

How about you? Do you have different ways of approaching your sketches?

In addition to bus and light rail, we even made it onto the streetcar!


  1. I agree that sometimes a sketch is a record of the day and sometimes a story. When you've done multiple sketches they may tell that story when seen together. I like that you went back and did the trip again today with Greg. Which was the more relaxed outing?

    1. I think today was more relaxing, Joan, if only because the sun was out! :-)


    2. I think today was more relaxing, Joan, if only because the sun was out! :-)



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