Thursday, December 21, 2017

Book Review: 5-Minute Sketching – Landscapes

When I think of Virginia Hein’s work, two things come to mind: light and composition. She is a master of both, and when I heard she had a new book on landscape sketching, I was thrilled to be able to learn her techniques.

5-Minute Sketching – Landscapes: Super-Quick Techniques for Amazing Drawings is the latest in Firefly Books’ series on drawing from life that focuses on speed. (Other books in the series that I’ve enjoyed are on architecture, people, and animals, by Liz Steel, Pete Scully, and Gary Geraths, respectively.)

Although the term “urban sketching” appears nowhere in the description, all of the principles and techniques covered by Virginia’s book could apply to any type of on-location landscape sketching – urban or rural, desert or tropical, land or sea. Almost all of the sketch example contributors are familiar to me from the Urban Sketchers community, including Shari Blaukopf, Laura Frankstone, Don Low, Shiho Nakaza, Melanie Reim and Pat Southern-Pearce, to name just a few. And of course, Virginia herself, a Los Angeles resident, Urban Sketchers symposium instructor and USk correspondent, contributes many of her own urban and other landscape sketches to the book.

Divided into four main sections, the book begins with an overview of composition, perspective and observation in See the Big Picture. I was particularly interested in topics on seeing large shapes, emphasizing the light, and learning to simplify a complex scene by identifying a strong focal point – all strategies that I see Virginia employing so well in her work.

Drilling down further, the second chapter covers specific strategies and techniques for sketching on location, including an exploration of various tools, materials and support formats. Because I know Virginia works frequently in watercolor, I expected the book to have a heavy emphasis on that medium, but I was happily surprised to find that it takes much more of a mixed media approach. For quick sketches, she advises working on a small scale, not only because small sketches are faster, but also because it encourages more exploration and playing without the fear of wasting materials.

Chapter 3 focuses on specific elements we encounter in most landscapes such as trees, sky, water and foliage. In this section, I especially appreciate Virginia’s emphasis on observing these elements closely so that they never appear generic. For example, many trees in a particular terrain may look similar, but drawing them requires seeing each tree as a unique individual and capturing its personality. At the same time, she gives ideas on how to see and evoke large masses of foliage so that we don’t attempt to draw each leaf. Finding this balance between the specific and the general is a key to sketching a landscape quickly and yet accurately capturing its essence.

The last section, Take it Further, offers fun and creative ideas for using improvised materials (coffee, anyone?) and unconventional formats and breaking out of habitual ruts. As an intrepid urban sketcher, Virginia encourages telling stories by creating montages of small sketches, developing a sequence, or simply writing notes directly on the sketchbook page. She urges spontaneity and being open to whatever the moment offers. For example, if birds or a blimp appear suddenly in the sky, put them into the sketch!

Overall, I highly recommend this delightful resource of ideas and tips for almost any kind of on-location sketching from one of my favorite artists. 

What I’m going to say next is not at all a criticism of Virginia’s book, but it’s related to the whole series. While I enjoy the subject matter and material covered in the 5-Minute Sketching series, I’m not sure the material is always served well by the “super-quick” approach the publisher has taken. Throughout each book in the series, the format is consistent: Each topic gets a page of five “tips to get you started,” and on the facing page are small sketch examples from the author and contributors. While many topics can be covered with this approach, others might require more explanation or more than five tips, but the author is constrained by the rigid format. It would be nice if the format allowed showing some of the examples at full size, for example (only the chapter introductions include large images), instead of tiny reductions, or more than one paragraph per tip. Instead of “5-minute sketching,” maybe the series should be called “5-minute reading,” as the books are written so that it’s easy to grasp a single concept by reading the tips and scanning the images next to them. But learning how to sketch in five minutes probably takes more than a quick read.


  1. Thanks for an interesting review of her book. You must have every urban sketching book out there.

    1. I do have quite a few, but I got this one at the library! I've been doing that the past couple years instead of buying -- my bookshelves are over-flowing!


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