Sunday, February 27, 2022

Book Review: Every Person in New York


“There’s something about the idea of every person in New York that my mind could get around, more so than the idea of every person in America, or every person in the world. In New York I could realistically, physically, get around the city to draw more than I could get around the entire world. Living in New York is something I think about a lot and I was looking for more ways to learn about it. . . . The project is now over six years old. Every day I am in New York I draw for this project, and I’ve drawn over 30,000 people (I still have a bit to go).”

So explains Jason Polan in the introduction to his book (which has no page numbers but is an inch-and-a-quarter thick), Every Person in New York, about what compelled him to begin drawing everyone in a city of more than eight million. He was an urban sketcher following the Manifesto, perhaps without even knowing about it. In fact, he was possibly more literally “truthful to the scenes we witness” than most of us, who may take artistic license when drawing people who walk off. Instead, Polan tried . . .

“. . . to be as authentic with the drawings as I can. I only draw the person while I can see them. The majority of the drawings are done (mostly) while I’m looking at the person, not at the paper. If they are moving fast, the drawing is often very simple. If they move or get up from a pose, I cannot cheat at all by filling in a leg that had been folded or an arm pointing. This is why some of the people in the drawings might have an extra arm or leg – it had moved while I was drawing them. I think, hope, this makes the drawings better.”

Looking through the massive collection of sketches done from 2008 through 2014, I couldn’t help but be moved by that authenticity and lack of self-consciousness. The works have a pureness of motive like children’s drawings, “certain things I find that I’m so excited to see and draw and share.”

Some sketches are nothing more than scribbles. Among my favorites are ones in which he tried to capture large crowds milling about a museum or train station; those masses of scribbles are exactly what it’s like to draw such a crowd. Others are exquisite gestures or portraits. There is no doubt that each was captured from direct observation in a brief moment in Polan’s day.

While most of the drawn are anonymous strangers, quite a few are celebrities, whom he names, sometimes with an excited exclamation point. “Christina Aguilera on Mercer June 11, 2010,” is sketched right next to “man eating pizza at Ray’s on Prince Street He isn’t wearing any shoes June 11, 2010.” Occasionally the sketches are autographed by the subject. Every drawing is documented with a date and sometimes the time.

Published in 2015, Every Person in New York is optimistically designated Volume 1. Very sadly, there will never be a Volume 2. In 2020, Polan died at the age of 37. I viewed every drawing with amazement that he chose to spend his short life documenting New York in such a unique, singularly focused way – and gratitude that he chose to share that documentation with me. That, by any definition, is urban sketching.


  1. I love how he just went for it when he was drawing crowds. The one of the people at the Museum of Art is so great! What an ambitious undertaking this was.

    1. It's really inspiring, isn't it? And it makes me miss sketching people all the more.


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