Thursday, February 22, 2024

Urban Sketches as Comics


2/20/24 Maple Leaf neighborhood

During my 100 Day Project two years ago, my exercises in imaginative drawing eventually led me to cartooning. I’ve taken a workshop in observational cartooning, and I’ve also tried cartooning in a more editorial style as part of a different workshop. Some part of me obviously wants to be a cartoonist, but I haven’t found an expressive form for it yet that pushes me beyond one-off single panels.

Known as Drewscape on his blog and YouTube channel, Andrew Tan is both a published cartoonist and an urban sketcher. As such, he brings his comic book narrative style to his urban sketching in a way that doubly appeals to me. In a recent video, his focus was on how he sketches in small snippets of time, but he briefly touched on a subject that I found more interesting: He often captures scenes on location by making multiple small panels using varying viewpoints. All on one page, he will draw one wide-angle view, one view in the middle ground, and one closeup. He uses a similar format for comic books to add visual variety as well as to create more dramatic tension in the action – like watching a film. He explained all of this in a few seconds by showing examples (the whole video is only 6 minutes), and it opened my eyes to a new way of approaching urban sketching.

The adventures of Faucet Handle, Soap Dispenser and Scissors gave my cartooning
imagination a workout during my 100 Day Project in 2022.

I was thinking about all this on my walk one day when a fire engine’s siren came blaring from behind me, stopping a few blocks ahead of me. I knew there was no fire by the pace of the firefighters as they approached a condo. I started at the upper-right box to draw the fire engine’s rear (because I’m a lefty, I tend to start sketches from the right). Knowing that I probably had only a short time, I walked around to the side of the engine (upper-left box). Right about then, the EMTs showed up in the white ambulance and pulled into the alley (lower left). I wasn’t sure what else to draw in the remaining space, but as I walked around to the front of the fire engine, I spotted its big, bold number 40.

The story – a medical emergency in the ‘hood – would have been the same in my head, but if I hadn’t seen Drewscape’s video, I probably would have sketched only one of these scenes. His comic book approach pushed me to think in a more narrative way. In addition, I had to think fast about how to arrange multiple small images on a small page (4-by-6 inches). That part was aided significantly by my ongoing practice of making thumbnail-like compositional studies, which require drawing a box first to define the proposed frame. The layout that resulted isn’t the most visually interesting, but I was happy with the way I filled the page, especially considering that I had no time to plan the layout.

"Get Off the Stage" - a 2020 attempt at editorial cartooning.

In this case, the narrative didn’t require a time sequence to make sense, but if I see a story that is important to capture in a chronological way, I would probably draw it from left to right in the normal reading sequence.

I’m going to keep this approach in mind, especially for my relatively static walk-sketches that usually give me more time to think about and plan the page.

If you have any interest in making comics, I recommend this excellent Drewscape video on the topic. It’s only about 12 minutes long, yet he manages to succinctly explain many basic principles of cartooning with good examples. (The more I view [or rather, stop viewing] way-overlong YouTubes, the more I admire – and will subscribe to  people who can explain concepts succinctly!)


  1. Replies
    1. I enjoyed Andrew's vidio of how he does quick sketches. He gets a lot down in a short time.

    2. Yes, he's a master of fast sketching and composing in a narrative way!

  2. I’m a Drewscape fanatic! -Roy

    1. Yes!! I love the way you use comic-like frames around your sketches, Roy!


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