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Sketching in my local grocery store

daily sketching ink and watercolor sketchbook travel sketching urban sketching Nov 03, 2020

When sketching out-and-about, the experience is rarely predictable no matter how well prepared I am.  Perhaps that's why I keep inventing new (hopefully improved) methods and equipment to maximize the opportunity to engage successfully with my environment and the people within that environment while drawing or painting in public places.

A few of the most common experiences regarding public reaction:

1. I'm not noticed at all. People are too lost in their own thoughts, talking on their cell phones or focused only on getting wherever it is they're going, not looking to the left or the right of their straight path.

2. I'm noticed by someone who's curious enough to circle around me, hoping I'm not aware that they're straining from behind to see what  I'm doing. Once the person sees, the person (A) isn't interested and wanders off (B) is interested but doesn't want to interrupt me so they watch from a distance (C) thinks what I'm doing is so cool that they can't help but tell me in a million different ways how cool it is, and that they'd love to be able to draw but can't draw a straight line, but it's so cool anyway and they just needed to tell me how cool they think it is.  Usually, there is no response at all to the drawing or painting ... it's just so cool that I'm drawing and painting in a place where they would never think of doing such a thing.

3. I'm noticed by someone who is curious and interested and who approaches me respectfully, not interrupting, smiling and glancing at the work I'm creating.  When I glance up and look them in the eye, smiling, a pleasant conversation usually follows. 

4. I'm noticed and obviously ignored because I'm thought to be a homeless person without a cup for coins.

5.  A child notices me and wants to watch what I'm doing but is guided away by a parent talking on a cell phone.

6. A child notices me, tugs on the parent's skirt or pants and lets them know that something of interest has been spotted.  The parent pays attention and looks to see if it's alright to approach and watch what I'm doing.  I always welcome them to watch and to ask any questions they might have.  I often offer the child and parent to try out a pencil or brush to see how it feels and what it's like to "be an artist".

The most common is the first ... I'm not noticed at all.  I mention this because the No. 1 excuse I hear for not sketching in public places is that the person doesn't feel they are good enough to sketch in public ...  maybe they'll try it when they get a lot better.  Sketching is how you get better!  And ... most people do think it's really a cool thing to do and are envious because they wish they had the nerve to do it, too.  They don't even care what I'm sketching or how good it is or how bad it is. 

Tip No. 1 - Don't try to look inconspicuous.  You usually end up looking like you're doing something you shouldn't be doing.  I'm not suggesting that you dress like a clown to call attention to yourself.  I'm suggesting you wear a fun hat or a bright scarf or funky socks ... something that shows you are having fun, enjoying the pleasure of drawing and sketching your surroundings.

Tip No. 2 - Travel Light!  Be mobile.  It allows you to be more relaxed, more casual about sketching.  No one, including yourself, expects a masterpiece to be created when you pull a sketchbook, a fountain pen or waterbrush and a tiny altoid tin filled with a few pigments, out of your pocket. 

Tip No. 3 - Choose who you wish to engage with and kindly ignore the others.  

Tip No. 4 - If you haven't yet sketched in public, you may want to start off using a pencil (or pen) and watercolor markers rather than watercolor pigments with a waterbrush or travel brush.  Why?  You don't have to worry about spilling your water supply and because of the drying time and logistics of transporting a damp sketch.

The above watercolor was taking a very long time to dry on the kraft paper sketchbook pages.  I clipped it to the edge of my grocery bag and took it for a stroll around the store.  It still wasn't dry.  That meant that I couldn't work on the next few pages without this page smearing all over itself.  If you're not accustomed to working with watercolors, you might not want to complicate your first few experiences of sketching in public.

There are many, many more tips to share ... at another time.

ink (fountain pen) and watercolor

Ink (fountain pen) and watercolor marker

Watercolor marker

Nurture the experience of moving the pencil pen or brush across the paper while being influenced by the people, objects, sounds and smells around you.

The video above shows quick sketches both inside and outside of the local grocery store, Aqui, in Caifon, NJ.  I'm sketching in the DIY sketchbook I made by folding one paper grocery bag.  For the sketch of the outside of Aqui, I began by drawing in ink using a fountain pen and added color using watercolor.  For the sketch inside of Aqui I began with simple shapes painted in watercolor and added a bit of definition in ink using the fountain pen.

In these little grocery bag sketchbooks I capture glimpses of my daily activities.  I'm not concerned about creating great art on a paper bag.  I have other sketchbooks in which I create intricate, detailed drawings and paintings.  I’ve found that when Urban Sketching and en plein air sketching became a trend, the idea of using a sketchbook as a think pad … as a way to work through an idea, a way to capture a moment in time ... has often been forgotten.  

My goal in posting these short clips of sketching to capture ideas and moments is to encourage artists to lighten up a bit and have fun sketching, inspired by their responses to their environment and sketching without concern about the results. Nurture your inner artist by allowing her to play a bit and make messy, scribbly sketches on a regular basis.  She will reward you by strengthening all of her skills more quickly.

If you'd like to learn how to create your own pocket sketchbook by folding one paper grocery bag, check out the first in the series of DIY Sketchbooks that I recently published on

Thank you for reading my blog.

Chris Carter


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