Sketching People Part 1: This year's progress

October 20, 2017 | 10 Comments

I mentioned in an article reflecting on my recent CA-TX trip that I had a breakthrough in my approach to sketching people during my week in Austin.

This breakthrough didn’t come out of the blue so I thought it was important to explain a little more about how it happened. My hope is that this will inspire you to keep working on the areas where you feel your skills are lacking.


The struggle of sketching moving people.

I have been sketching people in my sketchbook for the last few years and I reached the point where I was comfortable sketching ‘iphone people’ on the train. This sketch is from 2015.

But despite being relatively happy with these sketches, I was struggling to achieve consistent results in other situations – such as cafes – where people were moving more. Another problem was that I rarely catch the train, so drawing people was such a part-time exercise. I didn’t get the chance to build any momentum.

Accountability and anatomy research

This year Chris Haldane and I decided to really focus on sketching people so we met up fortnightly to discuss our progress. A huge part of this was sharing our research into anatomy. I recommend you read this article about my strategy as it explains a lot of background.

At the time I wrote that article I was drawing people in a separate book and my goal was to have the confidence to sketch people in my daily sketchbook.

A big push to get people in my sketchbook

The #oneweek100people challenge was great to force me to get people in my book and the goal of sketching 20 people in a day pushed me through that ‘cringe feeling’ which occurs while sketching the first person or two. You might like reading an article about the challenge here.

This weekly challenge certainly gave me the flow that I had been looking for, but sadly it wasn’t a magic switch that meant I started drawing people consistently.

Hard to make developments when I have a different focus

I was a bit disappointed that in my recent trips to Italy/Scotland, Chicago/Montreal and San Francisco my sketchbooks were still devoid of people.

A big reason for this was my teaching load and the fact that my sketching stayed in the safe zone as I was preserving energy for teaching.

But also when I am travelling my focus is on the places I visit. As a general rule ‘drawing people’ in a local cafe while I get a quick coffee (without having an interesting story to tell) is less inspiring for me than getting back outside and sketching the streets of the town I am in.

Making it hard for myself by sketching in ink only

A major part of my challenge in drawing people is that I want to draw simply in ink and that is super hard. It’s so hit and miss, and my lines are generally so loose making the chances of instant facial deformations even higher.

It makes sense from a learning point of view to try a more careful and controlled approach with pencil setup lines, but I just can’t do that when my general sketching style is so free and loose. So part of this whole journey has been accepting that I will have a lot of wonky sketches!

The second round of 100 people challenge during the week before the symposium was good in forcing me to sketch a mass of these wonky ink sketches in my ‘special’ travel sketchbooks. There is safely in numbers – if I draw enough ink sketches on the one page I will be happy with a few of them and then overall I will be okay with the composition of the whole page. But my confidence was still lacking in regard to drawing a one-off sketch of a specific person (or group) to record a distinct event.

What about watercolour?

I was reminded of how difficult ink only sketches are when I was sketching on live TV. On that occasion I just painted in watercolour – more about this here.

This use of watercolour was a very important option but I didn’t fully realise it at the time.

Out of touch and afraid to go for it

As mentioned above, when I was in SF I didn’t sketch people at all. One evening at Suhita’s we all sat around a table sketching. It would have been the perfect time to sketch my friends but I was too out of practice to feel comfortable to attempt it.

And perhaps there was also a little pressure from being with other expert ‘people sketchers’. Yes, I chicken out at times too!

Setting a public goal

I was in Austin to attend a conference associated with seanwes, an online business community which I am part of. I had stated within the seanwes community that my goal for the conference was to sketch everyone. Here is a screen capture of what I wrote!

On the first day in Austin hanging with the my seanwes friends, it started pouring with rain after lunch. We ended up stranded in Stubbs BBQ all afternoon as the rain didn’t stop for hours. Someone discovered a pool table downstairs so we went down for a game. I wasn’t interested in playing but I did try to draw everyone getting ready for their shot. This was a great way to loosen up (only had seconds to capture their pose), but my big goal was in the back of my mind.

Time to go for it – but in the back of my book

A wet afternoon sitting around a table for hours was the perfect opportunity for me to take action, wasn’t it?

I had my sketchbook on my lap, under the table and I was sketching in the back of my book using a waterbrush. How tentative is that? But my friends loved my sketch and that encouraged me to push through the fear.

I determined the next day, whatever happened, that I would start sketching in the front of the book… and that is when something special happened. But this article is long enough, so please keep reading…

Click here for Part 2.

Can you relate to any of my struggles? Have you found ways to push through these challenges or are you just giving in?




  • Jennifer Rumford says:

    I am so with you on shyness on sketching people. I can’t wait to see part 2.

  • Bernadette Russ says:

    Yes, I can relate to your timid sketches on a notebook held in your lap! It takes a leap of faith to trust the drawings will improve with practice. My head tells me I can improve if I press on but too often I hold back. With that said…I love your sketches! You inspire me to continue to try.

  • Fi says:

    It’s wonderful to hear you talk us through your process, (some of those learning experiences are very familiar – including drawing at the back of the book!) Like the cliff hanger too – looking forward to Monday ; )

  • I do sketch people but not often enough to feel 100% comfortable doing it. I know the 100 people a day challenges really pushed me and made me more comfortable. I just need to do my own 100 people challenges every few weeks so I stay in that comfort zone. But that is hard to do when involved in so many other things…and I don’t even have teaching as a reason.

    It was good to see your process and how you studied the anatomy of the head. That would help me too. I’ll be waiting to see Monday’s Part 2.

  • Tina Koyama says:

    I’m pretty comfortable sketching people. . . what I should be doing is 100 buildings! 😉 It does surprise me that you were sketching in the back of your book. . . you are such a process-oriented sketcher that I would have guessed you would have wanted to keep them in chronology as a documentation of your progress, just as you do with all your other sketches. But I admire your courage and determination to push onward, despite your discomfort and lack of confidence. Very interesting post, and I look forward to the next one.

  • Peter Joscelyne says:

    (Wailing in dismay)…and I thought I was clever “inventing” the back of the book trick. Sigh….seems I’ve been gazumped by others. So…have you ever cut a sketch out of a book? : )

  • Chris Juricich says:

    Hmm. My ‘problem’ is that all I do (95%) is sketch people, and I’ve even developed certain skills to set my subjects at their ease so they don’t become self conscious. But that aside, i LOVE drawing people but need to spend more time on ‘things’ and landscapes and cityscapes. Living now as I do in the Philippines, there is a lot to look at, to discover. I enjoy your blog.

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