Thursday, May 21, 2020

Things to Do at Home: Urban Sketching, Picture Book Style!

Baby werewolf in a coffee mug. Every home should have one!

Greetings from Albuquerque! And greetings from another day of, well, stuck in the same old place with no relief in sight. But stuck doesn't have to mean running out of ideas or things to do. Sure, there may be days (weeks) when it feels impossible to wring another ounce of inspiration out of lock-down, but, hey, we're creative people--we can do it! 

Like so many others in the world right now, here in New Mexico we've had to place our lives on hold while we wait for our health statistics to improve. The two things I personally miss the most are 1) the library, and 2) meeting with my various creative groups. I especially miss my art groups, but fortunately Albuquerque Urban Sketchers has done a fine job of staying in touch, encouraging members to keep drawing, even if it's just sketches of our home life. 

With the instruction of "drawing in place" however, comes the caveat of "drawing the truth." Didn't wash the dishes? Show us those dirty plates! Laundry piling up? We want to see! Be real, be honest, be exact. No fancy-pantsy Architectural Digest staging for us sketchers

I have to admit that when I read these "be honest" guidelines I wasn't particularly thrilled with the idea of using my sketchbook as a visual to-do list ("Mop that floor!" "Scrub those sneakers!"). Instead, I needed to shake things up a bit, color outside of the lines, as it were. That's when I thought of sketching at home from the viewpoint of a child: What if I crawled under the bed? Or, What if I lived upside-down on the ceiling? In other words, I could sketch out a picture book.

Some of the tips I considered to help me get into picture book mode included:
  • Thinking in terms of height and size: e.g., what do the items on my kitchen counter look like if they're above my head? Or, if I were only four years old, would a flight of stairs seem as deep as the Grand Canyon? 
  • Ask what a child would find interesting about a house. While the neighbors might admire a well-kept lawn, a child might notice that there's a gopher hole right in the middle, or that birds are building a nest in a rain gutter. Adults might disdain an old piece of furniture, but to a child it's a time machine or the entrance to Narnia.
  • The same goes for any ornaments or household objects. For instance, you could bring a cat figurine to life, invent new uses for a potato masher, or create an entire story around the items in your closet.
  • Explore small objects: egg cups, button collections, jewelry; even the junk drawer can be a source of interesting things to draw. 
  • Toys and their varied surfaces and textures can provide an infinite amount of sketching ideas. Try posing and arranging them in unexpected places. (For some of the best examples you'll ever see using this technique, I suggest viewing the work of Dare Wright--my absolute favorite children's book creator.)
  • Don't overlook your own backyard (if you have one, of course. For me it's a balcony, but I do see trees!).  Is there a mysterious, neglected part of your yard? Use it to the full. Make a "fairy garden" and sketch the results.
  • Study and copy patterns found on wallpaper, draperies, bed linens, or tile work. Patterns can be useful additions to creating a lively border or background to a picture book page.
  • Think back to your childhood home and/or the place where you grew up. Can you reproduce from memory anything you loved or that was unusual or visually interesting? Don't worry about quality, just get the general ideas down and worry about perfection later.
  • Even though we're temporarily cooped up for much of the day, it's important to get out and into the fresh air whenever possible. Can you visit the exterior of a museum or playground to sketch for a little while? How many details can you observe? Taking your own photographs can be a quick and easy option if you choose not to linger anywhere.
  • Go wild: if you're sketching your toaster, why not color it pink and covered with gold stars? Or replace the cars in your garage with a herd of antelope? 
  • Sketching for children is a good opportunity to consider your color palette. Rather than just aiming for primary colors or anything "bright and shiny," give some thought to mood. Are you feeling happy, sad, wistful, or nostalgic for your own childhood? Play with watercolor washes and draw over them later.
  •  Set up some reference files from magazine cut-outs or sites such as, e.g., Toys, Children's Clothing, Play Rooms, Bedrooms, Animals.

Can we go play??

I must say it's been an eye-opener these last few weeks lying on the floor sketching chair legs--and not just because I discovered my base boards needed a good dusting, but because it's made me think seriously about illustrating a children's book from the perspective of an urban sketcher. Sketching is, after all, a way to explore ideas, collect data, and experiment with mediums, palettes, and composition. And where better to start than at home? 

Tip of the Day: If you find yourself getting bored with your own supply of pots and pans and coffee mugs, experiment with designing an entirely new set on paper. Draw a household from your imagination, one set on Mars or ancient Greece. Place your characters on a pirate ship or living in a log cabin. You don't have to be accurate, just playful. Have fun and let me know how it goes. See you next time!