(If you haven’t already, please start with Part 1 of this three-part series of musings on my sixth anniversary since I started drawing.)
Yesterday I said that I am less frustrated and more likely to retain and use techniques I’ve learned when they fit into my already-established style. I hope that didn’t sound like I was saying we shouldn’t try to learn things that are a stretch or outside our comfort zone. Indeed, what’s the point of taking a class or reading a book if we are already doing what is being taught? In addition, when we’re inexperienced, we don’t really know what we might enjoy doing, so it can be beneficial to explore a wide variety of things. But if you try enough techniques or materials, eventually some will “stick” while others don’t.
Here’s something I’ve experienced often: I learn an interesting technique or idea in a book or a workshop. While I’m doing the exercises, and for a short time afterwards when I’m sketching on my own, I incorporate the new technique or idea. Eventually, though, I forget about it and go back to doing my own thing. Even if I haven’t forgotten, it just doesn’t seem to “stick.”
More rarely, I have a different experience: I learn an approach or an attitude that changes my perspective in some way. An example is Sue Heston’s “sky shapes,” which changed the way I approach skyline compositions, or Inma Serrano’s way of animating buildings, which made me lose my fear of drawing architecture. I find that the workshops that tend to stay with me long-term are those that are less material- or technique-based and more related to changing my viewpoint while remaining compatible with my style.
To learn a new medium and the specific techniques that go with it, a typical four-hour or one-day workshop is simply not enough time. I need the structure and continuity of several consecutive weeks to gain long-lasting benefit. The courses I’ve taken in pen and ink or colored pencils at Gage are good examples of that.
In the last few years when I’ve considered a short workshop, I’ve chosen instructors more carefully and with certain criteria in mind. I look for approaches and attitudes more than a new material or technique. I’ve found that if an instructor has a strongly distinctive style, I look for something that I can apply to my own way of sketching. If I see work shared online by the instructor’s students that are simply bad imitations of the instructor’s style, I avoid those instructors.
In the interest of experimenting, I sometimes try materials that don’t appeal to me for one reason or another, usually because they are too messy (charcoal and pastel pencils) or smelly (alcohol-based markers). While I often like the results, I can’t get past whatever it is about them that repels me, and they don’t last long in my bag.
Inspired by other urban sketchers, I also sometimes experiment with materials or tools that I enjoy using but that aren’t conducive to sketching on location (for example, dip pens and ink). I tell myself, “Well, if they can use those materials on location, so can I.” But with all the usual challenges of urban sketching – uncomfortable seating or lack thereof, weather, changing light, distractions, the weight and bulk of carrying all my stuff – I’ve learned that I need to minimize further challenges from my materials. I want to make it as easy as possible to sketch, because then I’m more likely to do it. (Even watercolors, commonly used by many urban sketchers, eventually proved to be too cumbersome, and I stopped using them altogether.)
All these experiences have led me to believe that it’s important to use media that I truly enjoy all around – both their use and the results – and that are conducive to sketching on location. I think I learn more quickly because it’s a pleasure to practice and experiment without being physically hindered. And while the materials I use don’t necessarily define my style, they are part of it, because they are among the many choices I’ve made that result in the sketch.
This is the end of my brief naval-gazing series on the occasion of my sixth drawing anniversary. I don’t have any insightful conclusions from it, but if you can glean some useful nuggets from my process, then I’m happy for the additional benefit. I’m always interested in hearing thoughts about your process if you care to share them in the comments. Thank you for reading!
(Once a year on my sketching anniversary, I write a retrospective post. You can read the previous years’ posts here: 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012.)