Are you afraid to sketch in public?

September 15, 2016 | 28 Comments

I know many people are scared of sketching in public. They really want to become urban sketchers but are afraid that people might see them or even worse, come up and speak to them! But honestly once you get over that fear, you might find that these interactions with locals becomes the best part – well, it certainly is for me.

In Lesson 2 of my SketchingNow Buildings course I include a demonstration filmed on location in Venice. At the end of the demo this lovely Italian guy comes up to see what I am doing. The whole conversation was recorded on video! It really was just the best way to finish off what was a truly wonderful experience.

Sketching in public is daunting when you first start, but it is really worth the effort!

Here two essential mindsets for urban sketching that I included in Foundations (a course designed to teach people the essential skills for sketching on location):

1. Never compare sketching on location with sketching in the controlled environment at home.

Interruptions will happen so be prepared for them. People will stop you right at a critical moment to tell you all about their aunt who was an artist, a truck will come and block your view, the sun will move (or disappear), the wind will blow your page over, it will start raining, you will start to get uncomfortable or cold or hot or hungry.

Ah! this is all part of the experience, so embrace it as an essential element of the process and get excited that these stories will be encoded in your lines.

2. Don’t worry about what people will think of you and your work.

You might think I am fearless but I do sometimes worry that I appear to others as a complete nutter!  However, most times the desire to sketch is stronger than this fear. It gets easier the more you do it, and once you have developed enough confidence in yourself it doesn’t matter what others think. I am not referring to the confidence that you will produce a masterpiece every time, because that is a completely impossible goal, but the confidence that comes from loving the process.

You do’t have to be a master to start, and you shouldn’t need to be afraid to say to anyone, “I have just started sketching and this is what I have been doing”, and show them your sketchbook. An experienced artist will encourage you to keep going and most other people will be full of admiration and wish they ‘had your talent’.

So, I would love to hear from YOU.

Are you afraid to sketch in public – what is your major fear?
Or have you managed to get over the fear and how?
Do you only sketch when you are with other sketchers (which by the way is a great way to start!) or are you comfortable with going out on your own?

 SketchingNow Buildings is now available as a self-directed course.


  • My WC teacher said to shake out your brush if too many come round 😉

  • Corinne McNamara says:

    I don’t mind sketching in public, but it is easiest to go out sketching on my own. I’m visiting my mother who thinks it is impolite to sketch (or do anything other than converse) when other people are around. She’s 92 with as sharp a tongue as ever. I’m 70 and think I’m getting a bit better at ignoring at least some of her critique. I have a small sketchbook with me to catch sketching opportunities as I can.

  • I do in fact engage people sometimes with a smile or a glance when I’m being watched sketching, because what does make me uncomfortable is being talked about – rather than having a conversation. It’s very disconcerting having people look over your shoulder and make observations! – but enjoyable when it becomes an encounter and a real exchange. But it’s still exasperating being interrupted. I’ve recently tried having a note visible attached to my sketchbook saying SORRY BUT I CAN’T TALK AND SKETCH AT THE SAME TIME!

  • Carmel Campbell says:

    I don’t mind sketching people in public. I have come to realization that nobody notices me sketching. There is no hiding my sketchbook while I sketch. I have got braver because I have reached that comfort zone in sketching people. I went out to sketch a building during the week and that fear returned. (Homework!) So for me, I believe, once I am more comfortable sketching buildings that fear will go. I have met some really nice people when sketching in markets, malls and coffee shops.

  • Linda Daily says:

    I started laughing when I read your comments about sketching in public! If only this handsome Italian man had talked to me while sketching yesterday! Instead, as I was sketching a great view of old buildings in Portland, Oregon I was literally stopped by ‘crazy sweeper man’. An old fellow with mental problems evidently sweeps most days this same corner of the city. He had no idea of personal space and literally swept at my feet and inches from me. I got up from my chair to give him room. Luckily a lovely woman came by and we chatted. She said he is there almost everyday and best to just let him do his thing. I have been doing urban sketching since the late 1990’s and I love engaging with the public. This was a challenge and a reminder that we are not all so lucky to have the time and ability to engage in sketching.

  • Kate Burroughs says:

    It took me several times of going out with a group to sketch that helped me get over that hurdle of drawing in public. In my mind, I was fearful that someone would come over and bust me for not being an “artist.” I have to say that I have had nothing but positive experiences with people out in public. You do have to be ready to stop what you are doing when people want to tell you that they are an artist and their stuff is in XWZ Gallery, etc. For the most part, people are very respectful and thank you for showing them your work. Now I can handle being on the street alone doing my sketching.

  • Carol Creasey says:

    Yes, I am really nervous about sketching in public! I took my sketchbook to Saumur the other day, and although I was sat in a cafe, I just looked at the view of the square and didn’t know where to begin! I ended up taking photos and drawing when I got home! I think it might be better in a group, but not sure I would be any more confident then. I am a beginner aged 72!!

  • eliza d says:

    The only time I have sketched in public was when I was studying abroad in France (several years ago now…). I sat at a cafe with a beverage and used a pencil in a regular-size paperback sketchbook. Basically tried very hard to pretend that I WASN’T sketching. I’m nervous about bringing attention to myself with a large sketchbook, watercolor palette, sitting on the ground, etc. – anything that makes me seem out of the ordinary. Part of this is because I’m a shy, anxious person. Part of it is also because a fear of “public artmaking” was kind of bred into me when I was an even shyer classroom doodler and people would come up and say “What are you drawing? I wish I could draw as good as you. You’re such a good drawer.” I didn’t want to call attention to myself and I didn’t think that I was good enough at anything to mention – and I definitely didn’t want to show off to them!

    I would really love to get out of my comfort zone and try some sketching again. I feel a little more confident in my art and I’m a little less shy and anxious than I was. I’m going to the Austin City Limits festival next month and I’m hoping to bring my sketchbook!

    • Anney R says:

      Eliza, I was very shy to sketch in public but I made myself do it and once I did, I loved it. I loved the comments people would make about my art…mostly they were comparing my artwork to theirs..which wasn’t much as they weren’t out sketching and so it was always positive. I would encourage you to try sketching in public.I have only gotten one not so positive (but not negative) comment in the last 7 years of me sketching in public. Bring your sketchbook with you to Austin City Limits. My city has a lot of fun things to sketch… if only the top of an old historic building, a window, a statue (they are all over town), the river and more. You will love Austin (if it isn’t too hot). You will get a lot more out of it if you sketch some things during your trip…don’t worry what others are thinking about your art..they will mostly be listening to the music.

  • Simone Stork says:

    Dear Liz, you are the one that made me fit to go out sketching – so here are my thoughts about it:

    After two years of joyful outdoor sketching I never had a bad experience with people watching me draw. In the opposite – I got so many nice comments and this is not because I’m a wonder-what-sketcher but because people take me as I nice folkloristic addition for their everyday’s life or touristic visiting.

    In the beginning however I missed an “invisibility cloak” , I was shy and scared to the utmost at any moment prepared to run away. Why? I think modern media allows us to compare what we see with the masterworks of all periods. And we are so small and all folks around us will compare us with the great masters of art. HELP!!!!!
    In this period I didn`t know that this was a wrong estimation of the situation. In fact people compare what you do – with what THEY do – and this is mostly not sketching on location because they are as shy as you are. And so they appreciate you being there and making the brave.

    These ideas of course can’t help anyone who is shy and wants to start. So here my secrets for the first try:
    Do not go out with a blank sheet of paper – go out with a sketchbook.
    Do not go out with an empty sketchbook – fill the first pages with stuff: Trying out colours or pens, paste family photos or whatsoever.
    There are lots of photos published online. Before you’re out for the first time get acquainted with your object. Make nice little sketches according to photos. Add some strange colours to it. Be wild. Be artistic, even if you find it ridiculous.
    Now, if someone wants to have a look, you have something to show – he/she will say “wow” and you can go on in peace.

    If there is a possibility – join others. It’s so much fun to look in each other’s sketchbooks and learn from them, to be together, to chat and to laugh.

  • Anney R says:

    I was timid to sketch with a lot of people around until I started doing it. Sometimes I am in a crowd of people and I have to move a foot or two (with sketchbook, etc in hand) to get out of someone’s way as I am standing in front of what I am sketching and everyone else is on the move. I don’t care anymore what people think…Im sketching for me not them. The only thing someone said that was somewhat negative was “i guess that’s pretty good.” …it was ok but mostly I get very positive remarks. If anyone says of you have such an artistic talent, I tell them that most of talent is 90% practice and taking some classes. That anyone can sketch…they only have to start. The part I love about being on location is seeing my subject in 3D and in person rather than flattened by a photo into 2D. I find I get much better results by doing a sketch on location. I mostly sketch in groups but often go out by myself also. Besides I’d rather be outside with people, the sunshine, the breeze etc rather than stuck in my house painting from a photo.

  • Shelley Boyd says:

    I’ve been sketching in public for about 18 months now, and I love it! I’m generally a shy person and I’ve only ever sketched alone – I’d feel a bit nervous about the idea of sketching in a group of sketchers! Majority of people around you are in their own little world, going about their day and really don’t care about what you are doing. Some will glance over trying to see your page as they walk past but they are too shy to acknowledge they are interested – you won’t notice most of these people, it’ll take someone you know observing to tell you about them one day. A few percent of people will approach you, and for me these interactions have always been positive. Often I’m struggling on a piece and am at the stage of not liking it (most sketches go through that phase I find), but people see things differently and as so many here have said, they are comparing your work to their own (which most of them aren’t doing). Kids are the bravest, they’ll always want a peek and are often fascinated to see an adult draw. I usually have one headphone in listening to podcasts, so I’m in my own world too, but I always pop out the headphone and talk to anyone who approaches. Starting out in cafes was great, they are very tolerant of people on their own working, reading etc. The other useful thing is realising your own lack of importance in the world and that the vast majority of people really don’t care what you are doing and you will never see them again so it really doesn’t matter.

  • LauraLu says:

    I’m just afraid they will agree that I’m not very good at sketching.

  • I am a brand new outdoor sketcher and like you Liz, I think the drive to try and the inner calling, overuled my fear. I have found that people aren’t the least bit interested and just walk right by (the total of 4 times I’ve been outside sketching!). Just like not everybody is going to like me, not everybody is going to like my art. Some are going to love it and say “you are so talented” and others aren’t going to “get it” or like the looseness. I taught Literacy embedded in Art in max and medium prison and predominantly their idea of good art was how close you can paint it to look like a photograph. I have found that that is many people’s idea of good art. You can’t please everybody. I try to enjoy and focus on the people that connect with my art, and the others, treat it like water off a duck’s back. I don’t think I would mind if people stop and talk. I know I’m different because such a big percentage of who I am is art. I think and live it and most people I do art with it is not a daily activity and it does not dominate their mind space, think time and life like it does mine. That’s my observation anyways.

  • Arly Helm says:

    I was waiting for a plane and sketching the kids around me. Finally a man said, “Wow, you’re so brave to sketch with a pen!” I said, ” Well, after all, it’s just paper.”

  • Leonie Brennan says:

    It is a stumbling block for me. I am so used to the ‘control’ of traditional stroke-work in my safe haven, that I find the leap into the ‘wilds’ of sketching outside with people watching a major stumbling block. Committing to paper in a medium that I can’t remove like ink, has also been a bit of a block … I love Amy’s statement ‘Well, after all, its just paper!’. But I have definitely found it a battle … takes me back to school when you started new subject books & you wanted them to be perfect …. ooops … this could be another one of my ‘issues’. Big thanks to everyone here for sharing their experiences & tips on getting out & just doing it!

  • Natalie Jayne says:

    I did go out sketching once and had one woman look over my shoulder and then walk away with what I interpreted as an unimpressed look. Result: I haven’t been out since. But that was a long time ago and I was probably projecting my own insecurities onto the situation – the perils of the artistic mind! But after reading this I think I have been persuaded to give it another go. I keep telling myself that I want to go and draw at my local church and graveyard (some fantastic old architecture and headstones there) so now I will make the effort to actually do it. Like with anything, the first time is scary, but it gets easier with every subsequent time.

    • Diane Johnson says:

      Hi Natalie
      What about if you consider that the woman who walked away may have been thinking “wow – she’s good!” !!!
      I agree with Shelley Boyd when she says that this is a good attitude to adopt
      “The other useful thing is realising your own lack of importance in the world and that the vast majority of people really don’t care what you are doing and you will never see them again so it really doesn’t matter.”
      Remember that you are doing it for YOUR enjoyment, not anyone else’s. I personally have no fear of public sketching whatsoever, I do it at every possible opportunity and I find that when people do stop to interact, they are always encouraging and mostsly jealous! So go on …. do it and enjoy!!!!!!!!!

  • Julie-Anne says:

    I have lost my fear now, as I am a naturally social person, but your comment about things changing made me smile. When sketching with the Urban Sketchers recently we were in the state library and one of the sketchers was sketching a couple (unbeknownst to them) that were doing an organised activity creating paper flowers. Before the sketch was finished, they moved on. I was given strict instructions by the artist to sit in their place so that she had a model to finish it! 🙂

  • Niki Rose Chester says:

    I have underwhelmed many passer-bys with my sketching but find that most people ignore me. I usually go out with a friend or two or better yet with a group and that takes a lot pressure off. Yesterday, my friend and I were sketching at an antique car show and the when the owner of the ’59 Corvette saw we were sketching his car he has thrilled. He said he was honored we choose his car to draw and took so many pictures of us and our sketches with his car. Felt good to make him happy.

  • I’ve actually never been afraid of sketching on location. I have a huge training as a street photographer and in these years I fronted every kind of weird situation. Street photography is mainly about taking photographs of strangers and in the vast majority of the times, people don’t want you to take their photos; so the only two solutions to this problem are: 1) be stealthy or 2) front the inevitable protest.
    It happened to me all sorts of weird things; cops asking for documents as I was a terrorist, guys trying to catch my camera and crash it, people wanting me to delete the picture (but I work with film, so I just can’t), shady chaps grabbing the collar of my jacket, boys coming to shout at me because they thought I was taking sneaky photographs of their girlfriend (which I wasn’t at all) and even railway staff telling me I couldn’t take photographs in force of some non-existing rule they couldn’t even mention.
    So, sitting in public and sketch some building it’s sort of a coffee break to me, in the vast ocean of my usual photographic work.
    Moreover, I’m an architect and I feel comfortable sketching buildings and street scenes; what I actually can’t sketch very well is people, expecially if they’re moving. I’m not that quick to fix on paper the fundamental lines of a pose which allow me to complete my sketch and I generally suck at portraits. That’s why I started, recently, to sketch people: to build skill and confidence. And as many here said, almost everytime those who are attracted by our sketches are people which don’t sketch at all, so even a quirky doodle will look marvelous to them.
    Just go out and sketch. The world is full of fun!

  • Jeanette Lee Atkinson says:

    I think it is mainly a self-confidence issue. I was nervous when I was “Artist in Residence” one year at a Florida state park, and a big part of my obligation was interacting with park visitors. I’m trained as a botanical illustrator, and I brought a full sketchbook to show other work, so I wasn’t so afraid to show my impromptu work. Some days I scarcely got any drawing done, but it turned out that I loved talking to people about my work, the park, the plants and animals. Nobody ever said anything unkind.One little boy told me where to find a beautiful spider.

    Now I am expanding to urban sketching, and I am scared stiff. I am too self-conscious to measure angles with my pencil, and I’m afraid I’ll insult people with my attempts to render some aspect of their appearance. I have no background here, and I get very discouraged myself when I’m not pleased by my efforts. I guess I just have to jump in and work out problems until I get more confident. It’s all about self-confidence, so I need to learn to practice what I preach.

  • Liz Steel says:

    thanks everyone for the great comments. These experiences are really helpful for others to read.

  • Jennifer says:

    I’m terrified of being judged. I can’t draw if someone is hovering next to me. When I get past that, I am then overwhelmed by the amount of visual information in front of me. But I know practice is the answer and living in a visually spectacular city (London), I have no excuse… Having travelled so much in the past, I really regret 1) not picking up the drawing bug earlier and 2) being too shy to take a half hour and absorb a specific spot/moment. I have photos but, they’re not the same thing. So I guess fear of regret is now my motivation!

  • Jaea Krauss says:

    This is quite convincing and somehow got me to calm down and rethink of it. I ‘occasionally’ suffer social anxiety(it hasn’t been as strong as it was thankfully) so being anxious about what other people think especially doing something so fragile for me can be very uncomfortable. I couldn’t focus on what I am doing and usually ends up with these weird looking blotches. I love drawing since I was a child, if reading turns your imagination in your mind to go full circle, drawing for me was putting those imagination into something physical. Even when I suffered depression, it was a breath of air as words of hatred and sorrow can’t be put into words. That’s what makes drawing quite fragile. It’s very special for me. Also I don’t think I could take it fully about what other people would think about my works, unless I am given with something(theme etc,) I can have an excuse. But I guess, if random strangers could approach you and make some connection with them(I’m bad with socializing) first making friends wouldn’t be as hard as it is??

  • Been urban sketching for over fifteen years. Very outgoing, I never hesitate to sit somewhere and go at it…a café, sidewalk, streetcurb, field…you name it, I’ll go for it.
    Canada, USA, Spain, Mexico, Portugal, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Norway…you name it…I went fir it and always had super quality time.
    Today, I teach it and always push my participants into the melée so they overcome this fear.

    Keeps you young and alert!

    Great site Liz!

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