Sketching people
December 30, 2015 11:33 PM   Subscribe

I would really like to practice drawing portraits, or at least do figure drawing from life. However, I'm afraid that my subjects might want to see or keep the drawing in the end, and I am afraid of giving them a totally disappointing, bizarrely unrealistic rendition of themselves, because I'm not very good. Has anybody navigated this smoothly before?

Do I have to meet some sort of minimum artistic or technical ability before this becomes acceptable, etiquette-wise? Additionally, where might I find willing subjects? My city doesn't have drawing clubs with models that I know of, and I don't have the energy to organize one at the moment. I won't be able to pay high sitting fees, as I am a student.

One thing I am considering: I work at a hospital and think it might be worthwhile and fun to draw patients while I chat with them (I've chatted with patients before, and I feel like some elderly patients in particular would not mind, and might even enjoy the company), but who knows if there are red-tape issues with that, or if it's a bad idea for other reasons I have overlooked...
posted by gemutlichkeit to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
A lot of people draw strangers in public places. A lot of people draw themselves in a mirror. Surely a friend or family member may let you sketch them while they read a book or something.

Look into what your local colleges or art museums offer in terms of one-off figure drawing classes. I've seen classes open to the public for like $20 each from art museums. My art school did a students-only session on Sundays for $5. (Any student, not just art.) And if you're currently a student - can you take a figure drawing course? Can you ask art students if they're willing to model or sit for a few dollars? If you hang around campus, that usually a place where you can find people sitting for long periods in the library or drinking coffee that you can sketch. If you're desperate you can put up flyers to meet people in public and sketch them for a few dollars. Lots of students might take you up on it in exchange for money - not at all caring what it looks like.

You say you don't know of these things, but start calling the art museums, art collectives, school art departments, etc. and asking. Surely there's something or someone can point you in the right direction.

I would not personally ask to sketch patients. I feel it's a conflict and mixes personal and professional too much.

Source: I have a marketing degree and did a lot of art classes in college and my entire life.
posted by Crystalinne at 11:43 PM on December 30, 2015 [3 favorites]

How do you feel about working with photographs? I know has an artist's reference library. You could also mine Flickr for Creatives Commons images and sketch those.

I feel like drawing people where you work is going to be stressful. Even if you do it when you're not on the clock, your patients aren't going to necessarily recognize that. They may want you to perform your work duties while you are drawing them, or they may complain that you're sketching and not working.

Public spaces are fair game. If you draw from the heart, and trust yourself, you can make quick little sketches unobtrusively.

Also, there's nothing wrong with the good old self-portrait!
posted by Ostara at 11:57 PM on December 30, 2015

If you're talking about longer portraiture sessions, how about friends and family? I personally wouldn't draw hospital patients, I feel like that would be too tricky and sensitive (and potentially damaging to your job/patient-relationship. Also there are probably some sort of classes offered where you are, you just gotta know where to look. Crystalinne above is absolutely on the money when suggesting that you check out school art departments/museums/etc. Also on the museum side, you can definitely do portraits of busts or literal human models that they have there.

Maybe you're thinking longer sessions, but shorter cafe-drawing outings are also excellent practice--trying to capture a likeness of a moving subject can teach you a lot about line efficiency and choosing the right strokes + caricature. I work as an artist and my friends and I do this frequently. Plus when you are at a cafe/coffeeshop/bookstores many people stay in the same position anyway, glued to their phone/computer/conversation partner/latest pulpy read.

Most of the time when I sketch I try to do it relatively discreetly, I don't hide my sketchbook or activity but I don't make it obvious either. You'll mostly be snatching quick upward glances anyway. As such not many people are aware that they're being drawn, or if they do they politely ignore. It's not such an uncommon activity. And most of the time even if they do notice they will shift--after which I'll move to another subject--or they'll just keep working, I very rarely get people coming up to me requesting my drawing. If someone does come up it's usually just to look out of curiosity and comment. They are usually complimentary, not just out of politeness but also because I think if they themselves are not artists they simply enjoy being drawn without any particular judgment against the actual drawing. I mean, even if it doesn't look like them or it's not satisfactory to you, what can they say? It's art! People have varying styles anyway :)

No need to meet any minimum of artistic/technical ability--most artists I know do this to hone their skills, after all. You can't get better if you don't practice, and practicing from life is great.
posted by sprezzy at 11:58 PM on December 30, 2015

I'm an art professor. I know a number of public universities that offer open figure drawing sessions. As in free and open to the public. Even more offer free and open to all students but will be willing to bend the restrictions if you're polite and there to work. You can google the name of universities near you and "figure drawing sessions" to see if there's one in your vicinity. You say you're a student - you can also see if your current place of study offers courses or a club or at the bare minimum an art major or minor. I can guarantee, because it's repeatedly happened, that my art students would be totally fine with posing for a portrait for pretty much anyone and would not be offended if the end result was a beginner's work.

I will say almost anyone who knows you're drawing them will want to see the end product. It's human nature. Sometimes jaded models won't look, but to get that jaded means they do it enough that you probably won't want to pay their fees yourself. If you get family/friends/strangers to pose for you, I'd be up front that you're learning and be if anything overly humble about your skill level so they can calibrate their expectations and time investment accordingly.

I think you would need at minimum to run your patient sketch idea by your boss and HR; I think it's unlikely they'll approve but they'd be the ultimate deciders.
posted by vegartanipla at 12:00 AM on December 31, 2015 [7 favorites]

Oh, and definitely emphasize both to any models and to yourself that you're currently discussing portraits - far more people will be willing to do that than nude figure drawing. It's just that figure drawing is what the free university sessions will be called.
posted by vegartanipla at 12:03 AM on December 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

As a student you can draw professors. I love to draw teachers while they lecture. As a bonus, with my visual memory, it helped me take better notes and remember lectures better. It's good practice for speed and I've never had a teacher comment.

Rather than sketch the patients you work with- what about volunteering at something like a nursing home expressly to talk to people as you draw them? Same idea without the conflict of interests.

I teach art and have mastered drawing with people watching and I still get a bit embarrassed when someone asks me to draw them. Subjects (not already models) that are eager to be drawn tend to be curious and exceedingly polite. Be kind and gracious. Practice being comfortable with where you are in the learning stage and that will influence your subjects.
posted by SometimesChartreuse at 12:17 AM on December 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

If you asked me and told me ahead of time that you were uncomfortable sharing because you're just starting out - I would happily say YES!

That said, like Crystalinne, I took a lot of drawing classes in high school and college. Like vergartanipla suggests, you should look towards your school's art department or local art school, or even adult Ed classes in your area for $5 sitting fees. It's a little intimidating because more accomplished folks are sitting beside you - but fuck it - their first thousand sketches were crap, too :)) No one is judging you like you think they are :))

Don't sketch me in public without telling me. Stalker.

Hell's yes you should feel OK asking friends and such! But them a coffee drink and a pastry and sketch away!

This is cool. And normal. And very nice. Anyone groovy will oblige you in your endeavor. Just ask!
posted by jbenben at 12:28 AM on December 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

Please don't ask patients if you can sketch them. In addition to red tape from HR or bosses, you're almost certainly putting some people who are already vulnerable in a position where they're feel they have to choose between potentially displeasing someone on whom they are dependent for care and protecting their own privacy/drawing boundaries around the use of their body.

Even if you're not directly responsible for patient care--if you're in food service, or custodial, or whatever--they're people who are already vulnerable and already in a position where their needs and wants hinge upon the whims of other people. I've spent more time in the hospital than I care to admit, and it's remarkably dehumanising. You lose much of your bodily autonomy. Many people--especially women, myself included--feel terribly guilty asking for anything, even just another popsicle, even just an explanation of what's being done to us. If someone associated with the hospital, in any capacity, asked me if they could [do thing], I would almost certainly say yes, regardless of my actual feelings on the matter. Please don't do this to people.
posted by MeghanC at 1:06 AM on December 31, 2015 [16 favorites]

No bit of drawing practice goes to waste, and it is important to give yourself variety not just in terms of subjects but how you are drawing - medium, size, length of sketch, level of detail, realism vs abstraction, color, and more. So you might only be able to find a person every two weeks or so who has the free time to sit for a portrait, but drawing the movement of pedestrians on your lunch break, or practicing shading and line control from videos and photographs can happen every single day. These things will help you improve, even if it's just a sketch of the shadows on the floor you did in three minutes with a ballpoint, or laying down someone's facial expression from memory in a few lines.

I think drawing patients crosses a weird line though. People in the hospital already have lost bodily autonomy, and although I can see where you're coming from on this, you can't read their minds and you need to tread lightly. Something that might work is if you have a nice camera and were willing to invest in some lighting equipment (just some large white board to bounce and diffuse light, maybe a fill light) taking some really nice portrait photos of your elderly patients, hopefully with the things they have around them that they love, could be a nice thing you could do for their families, and you could discuss with everyone that you will also be using the photographs to practice drawing - with their permission of course. It wouldn't be the same as drawing from a live subject but you could take dozens of shots that don't end up being good ones for the family that would make good practice for expressions and shading. Even that seems a little exploitative and you should speak to some kind of patient liaison supervisor person or some appropriate hospital authority about it.

Anyway, don't worry so much about getting the right subject. Just draw as much as you can, from life and photos and video as much as you can, of all subjects. Play around with what you use to draw and what you are drawing on to find the medium that suits you best, and don't be afraid to combine or change them depending on your subject and goals. Don't keep your sketches unless you really like them, just draw on every inch until filled up and then recycle them. You will improve no matter what as long as you keep looking at things and drawing them, and that will translate to portraiture when you have the opportunity.
posted by Mizu at 2:14 AM on December 31, 2015

You can see if there's a Dr. Sketchy's branch in your area, or something similar - figure drawing sessions with unusual settings, frequently modeled by burlesque and bellydance performers and the like. (caveat: I know several people who model for the DC branch, altho I'm not directly involved myself)
posted by FatherDagon at 6:46 AM on December 31, 2015 [3 favorites]

I used to like to go to shows and draw the musicians. They expect you to be looking at them anyway. Maybe it's because New Yorkers are too cool for school, but none of them ever asked to see my sketchbook.
posted by the_blizz at 7:42 AM on December 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

While you're improving your skills could you draw animals? Pets, zoo animals, squirrels. Then move on to people when you're a liitle more comfortable showing your work.
posted by eisforcool at 8:18 AM on December 31, 2015

Maybe don't sweat it about people wanting to keep your work? I modeled for art classes for a couple years in college. While I saw some drawings and paintings of me that were pretty cool, I think it would have been kind of weird, inconvenient, and/or boundary-pushing if I'd asked to keep one. Like, I'm aware the art wasn't for me, sometimes it was for a grade or a portfolio, and I figure people often want to keep these things on hand for reference.
posted by clavicle at 8:21 AM on December 31, 2015

Seconding Dr Sketchy. I've been to a few in my local area - nice mix of rank amateurs (like me), people are who are pretty good (like my partner), and pro artists. You can sketch to your heart's content and you'll get "assignments" on the spot that'll challenge you (in a good way). I really enjoyed going and could see my skills improve.
posted by kariebookish at 9:04 AM on December 31, 2015

I have taught life drawing for a number of years. You might find the website of Glen Vilpuu helpful: Vilpuu has great Classical drawing skills, and offers poses and material information to get you started drawing confidently. If you are drawing in public, people often move too quickly for someone who has not had a lot of drawing experience, and some folks will look over your shoulder and offer advice or some other input which can be a bit frustrating. My favorite site to draw from life is at the beach, where there are a lot of barely clothed people lying in the sun or doing some other interesting activities. Have fun, remember there are a lot of different styles of drawing that are loved, so let your unique voice emerge. Practice a lot; that's the best way to get better at it quickly.
posted by effluvia at 9:48 AM on December 31, 2015

My mother is a professional artist, and also teaches. She's always said sketching is a skill that can be learned with practice. Speed is also part of this skill - if your goal is to have people sit for an impromptu sketch, you have to be quick!

I would recommend getting your practice in by sketching people from afar everywhere you go. Carry a small sketchbook, and find somewhere public to sit and watch - the cafeteria/food court, on the bus, a bench in the park, etc. Your subject probably won't stick around long so you'll learn to rough in the drawing and get the key details in fast.

The small face and hand details are something you may learn quickest from practicing with photos or using a mirror. There are a lot of drawing books and online tutorials that will teach you perspective (the viewing angles) of the face - the alignment of the eyes & eyebrows especially. My mother says that the eyes are the most important. If you don't get those right, it won't look like the person.
posted by lizbunny at 9:54 AM on December 31, 2015

Thirding Dr. Sketchy.

Check out Boulet's excellent illustrated guide to drawing people on the subway without being stalkerish/creepy.

Also take a look at this post from Reddit on why drawing from life (as opposed to photos) is so important.
posted by ananci at 9:58 AM on December 31, 2015 [1 favorite]

One thing I am considering: I work at a hospital and think it might be worthwhile and fun to draw patients while I chat with them (I've chatted with patients before, and I feel like some elderly patients in particular would not mind, and might even enjoy the company), but who knows if there are red-tape issues with that, or if it's a bad idea for other reasons I have overlooked...

Oh gosh, definitely don't do this. It's sort of a nice sentiment-- but just no. Even if some or most of your patients happened to be thrilled with the idea, the request is inherently vulnerability-imbalanced and really compromises your and their boundaries.
posted by threeants at 10:43 AM on December 31, 2015 [2 favorites]

There are free figure drawing groups in my area, and maybe in yours. Check Meetup. Are you in New York?
posted by three_red_balloons at 10:54 AM on December 31, 2015

I did some modeling for an art class recently, and the students had varying levels of experience. Basically, the college had me in so that everyone at every level could get experience drawing from life so it was completely non-judgemental. I was paid to pose, not to nose, and I wasn't bothered at all by wonky or unflattering sketches. Some people showed me their drawings and I kept to vague positive comments so as not to make them self-conscious. I didn't want to keep anything but it was fun to look.

Context is everything though: patients are right out of bounds, and I wouldn't welcome someone drawing me in public. You say you're a student - college is the best place to seek a group, or advertise for a model. If there is an art department, even better for finding leads!
posted by Wrinkled Stumpskin at 6:03 AM on January 1, 2016 [1 favorite]

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