Friday, May 5, 2023

Pink and Spectacular (Plus Compositional Mutterings)


4/30/23 Maple Leaf neighborhood

Their time is short, so I’m sketching Kwanzan cherries as fast as I can. In the same walk one afternoon, I spotted all of these close to home – an enormous one on busy Fifth Northeast (at right), and then a row of smaller ones (below). The smaller ones had leaves that were more green than orangey (like most Kwanzans), so they could be a different variety. They were all bright pink and spectacular.

Compositional thoughts: As a pedestrian and general neighborhood citizen, I don’t like it when cars park on the sidewalk (and apparently aren’t ticketed). As a sketcher, though, I like the Jeep that is habitually parked this way (below). Compositionally, it adds an interesting visual element that wouldn’t be seen if it had been parked properly next to the curb.

As an urban sketcher who was “raised properly” to follow the Urban Sketchers Manifesto, which includes the item, “We are truthful to the scenes we witness,” I think frequently about what to include or exclude in sketches. It usually creates a bit of tension in the sketching process, which I enjoy. Like all artists, of course, I use artistic license constantly to move things slightly to improve the composition, change the colors of objects, or omit street clutter that distracts or detracts. I certainly didnt include every parked car I saw on Fifth Northeast. It’s impossible to include everything one sees, even in a fairly quiet scene, and many beginning sketchers get into trouble when they don’t know how to exclude details or simplify. I don’t think that simplifying makes a sketch less truthful to the scene if it helps to tell the story more clearly.

4/30/23 Maple Leaf neighborhood

Some artists would simplify by eliminating stuff like utility lines and poles, trash cans and even an entire construction crane behind a building because they look messy or unattractive. (Frankly, if construction is going on, that is the story!) As you know, I include most of that kind of stuff because I’m not here to make only pretty sketches. I also think that selective street detritus can be rhythmic and improve a composition.

But what about adding things that aren’t in the scene at all for the sake of an improved composition (the “design” of the piece)? As an urban sketcher, I wouldn’t dream of putting a Jeep into a sketch as a compositional device if it weren’t actually parked there – not only because it isn’t “truthful;” more likely, it wouldn’t even occur to me. But I do think more about this question as I continue studying composition through Ian Roberts’ videos. A master of eliminating and simplifying a scene for the benefit of a painting’s compositional design, Roberts is not an urban sketcher. Although he’s more likely to remove something rather than add it, he would not bat an eye about putting a Jeep on a sidewalk (well, OK, maybe not a Jeep, but certainly a boat on a lake) if it improved the composition. He’s an artist who believes in the truth of his design, not in being truthful to whatever may have inspired the painting.

(To see how Roberts develops a design for a painting by first making a drawing from a photo, his latest video is a great place to start. I do have a problem, however, with one example: His photo reference includes a woman walking a dog – and he eliminates the dog! I suppose he found it “distracting” to the design, but I have not forgiven him for that. Maybe the resulting painting would be better compositionally, but it certainly would tell a better story with the dog included.)

If I were a studio painter, I might add the Jeep – no harm done if it benefits the painting. As an urban sketcher, I have to work harder to find the Jeep – as both a “truthful” element as well as a design element – and that’s at least part of the fun of urban sketching. (And I would never eliminate a dog.)


  1. A fascinating exposition on composition! 😁 I have not seen Ian's latest video, but I am bracing myself to be outraged at erasing the dog. The DOG of all things! A dog adds life to any scene. Sometimes maybe a little TOO much life. Anne HwH

  2. I wouldn't eliminate the dog either since it is such an important element in the story. But then you would have to decide how to make him stand out a little better in the shadow.

    1. I love your work on the first tree! I tried your method of sketching with the wc pencil directly onto the wet paper. I ended up adding watercolor over it because the color didn't pop enough, but I did like the texture of the pencil marks. My pink pencil wasn't the greatest to match the color.

    2. I think the pencils do have to have pretty strong pigment to stand out well using this method, but putting watercolor over it is a great idea, too. I know Liz Steel and other sketchers often use watercolors and colored pencils together.


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