Seven sketches showing ways to interpret complex scenes

September 26, 2022 | Leave your thoughts

Following on from my last article, where I was discussing the importance of interpreting a scene and creating a focus (story) I decided to choose seven sketches to further explain this concept.

These are sketches taken from my travels over the past 9 years and as a special treat for you… I’ve also tracked down photos of the scenes. 

I hope that you’ll enjoy seeing the differences between my sketches and the photos based on how I interpreted the scene.

As a general rule, I don’t want my sketches to be too realistic and my favourites are normally ones where I do a lot of simplification or I adjust the colour and sometimes make my sketch more interesting and beautiful than the original.

This reminds me of an inspirational quote from Hawthorne about seeing the beauty in the ordinary. None of these scenes are ‘ordinary’ but it’s a good reminder to me that this is my goal even with boring everyday scenes.

“Anything under the sun is beautiful if you have the vision-it is the seeing of the thing that makes it so. The world is waiting for people with vision – it is not interested in mere pictures.

We must teach ourselves to see the beauty of the ugly, to see the beauty of the commonplace. It is so much greater to make much out of little than to make little out of much-better to make a big thing out of a little subject than to make a little thing out of a big one.”

Okay… now for the seven sketches…


Barcelona 2013

This first example wouldn’t make it into my Top Ten list but it is significant as it really showed me at the time that it was not too hard to simplify highly complex street scenes.

This sketch was done during a great workshop by Norberto Dorantes called Dynamic Ink at the Barcelona Urban Sketchers Symposium back in 2013. During this workshop, I learned how to use water-soluble ink and reduce the lines that I include in a sketch. It was also was a good example of a reduced colour palette.

I don’t often use water-soluble ink so including this sketch in this article is a good prompt to try it again.

Read original article

I didn’t take a photo at the time, but here is a Google Street view of the location that gives you an idea of what I was sketching.

Penang 2013

This sketch was done at an Urban Sketchers Penang meetup and I was initially a bit overwhelmed by the complexity of the scene and the work of some amazing watercolourists sitting nearby. I was also watching KK work his magic right next to me.

I actually abandoned my first attempt at this scene and then decided to focus on the market, the buildings and the vertical of the tree and only hint at the temple structure in the background. At the time I didn’t feel confident including the background as well so I included it just as a simple outline.

There was a lot going on in this scene, hey? Read more about this day and see the other work done by the group here.

Little India – Singapore 2015

The next three sketches were done during my 2015 trip to Asia for the Singapore Urban Sketchers Symposium .

This sketch was done before the symposium with a few of my USK buddies. We all agreed that this was a wonderful spot to sketch.

Like many Asian streetscenes, there was a lot going on, so I decided to focus mainly on the building in the foreground with the yellow and blue walls. I then suggested the busyness of the rest of the lane – picking up on other coloured walls and the shape of the sky. So even though I did include all of the air conditioning units and the exhaust duct in the distance I didn’t define them with a lot of detail.

I don’t have a good photo of my exact view but these two photos give you an idea. You can see how much I ‘pushed’ the colour in this scene and made it ‘prettier’ than it is in real life.

Chinatown – Singapore 2013

The next sketch was done on the Monday after the symposium (sketching with Nina Johannson) and this time I didn’t have to make the colours in the scene more intense.:-)

This sketch was all about the overlapping shapes of different colours and so I didn’t add a lot of detail at street level.

Photo and more about this day of sketching here.

Cambodia 2015

A group of us went to Siem Reap Cambodia after the Symposium (see here) and I have to say that sketching the temples of Angkor Wat was one of the most challenging sketching adventures I’ve ever had. The humiditiy was horrendous, the lighting was flat and the buildings were dark and super complex plus lots of locals and other tourists were constantly invading our personal space. 

On the last day Marc and Laurel Holmes and I (we stayed an extra day to the rest of the group) explored some of the lesser known temples and this one Banteay Kdei was a bit feature-less in comparison with some of the other ones we had visited.

I decided to record the different planes of the buildings with different colours (turquoise, pink and green) and add colour to the scene to enliven it.

And here is the photo!

London 2016

A little change of pace… here is a really quick sketch of Trafalgar Square done at the end of a huge afternoon of sketching (see here). 

I wanted to record the relationship between the National Gallery and St Martins in the Field facing the square. So I did this by a loose sketch of the two temple fronts (and associated dome/tower) and some of the crowd. I started with paint and then added the ink lines.

I didn’t take a photo of the scene at the time but you can see in this ‘hero shot ‘how much I edited out. BTW I do actually like all the red accents and if I was to do the sketch again would work out how to include them.

Chicago 2017

The final sketch was done at the end of a two-week stay in Chicago associated with the Urban Sketchers Symposium there.

During my time in Chicago I was trying to find ways to do loose sketches of the skyscrapers but was finding it hard (so many storeys and so many details) and this was one of my last sketches in the city.

Alternating between line and colour and alternating the colours of my lines was a fun way to achieve what I was looking for. The story in this sketch was the variety of designs in the Chicago skyline and so once again I added more colour to my sketch than there was in the scene.

And here is the photo 🙂

So there you have it…7 different sketches of complex scenes from around the world

But I just want to end with two sketches from the last 12 months that are a little more local…

Closer to home…

Of course, complicated scenes don’t have to be urban ones! And so most of my Lane Cove National Park sketches use similar techniques to simplify the complexity of the Australian bush -separating the scene into planes and simplifying the colours. This is one of the first Carters Creek sketches I did back in September 2021 when I was on My LGA staycation.

And finally… Many of the historic towns in my state of New South Wales have very complex main streets. The streets are very wide (often with angled parking) and lined with delicately detailed verandahed buildings. 

I haven’t yet worked out a loose approach to these scenes, so part of the reason for putting this article together was to remind myself of sketches I’ve done in the past and to see if there are any ideas I can use for this challenge. 🙂

I hope that you have enjoyed seeing these sketches and photos of the scenes and that you can see the importance of interpretation!

You don’t have to include everything in your sketch and in fact, I would argue, it’s more interesting if you simplify and create your own story. In doing so you will edit out some of the details of the scene and often might adjust the colour too! This selection of sketches highlights how often I modify the colour!

Oh ah! I love discussing this topic! And I’ve got a lot more to share inside my Watercolour On Location course which is starting this week! Find out more about the course and the Live Version starting on Wednesday 28th Sept here. I can’t wait!



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