Left: Woman waiting in a doctor's office. Staedtler Pigment Liner in a handmade journal (now defunct drawing paper). Approximately 8 inches square, right edge clipped because of gutter in book and narrow scanner. Click on the image to view an enlargement.
On February 28, 2011 I wrote a post on "Direct Sketching with Pen and Ink: Just Jump into the Deep End of the Swimming Pool." Several people have since written in saying they are going to try this. But just as many have written in saying they are still spooked. So today I want to break it down a bit with a step-by-step post that might not seem so overwhelming.
Let me be frank with you (I try to be so every day, but let's really pull out all the stops)—if you or a group of interesting, delightful people are standing before me doing delightful, entertaining, history-making activities and there is a pigeon anywhere in the city block area, well I'm going to sketch the pigeon. That's just the way I'm wired. This goes way, way back to childhood. In fact my first form (7th grade) art teacher, Mrs. Osbourne knew early on that the way to ensure that all the other students would have a great art class was to allow me to go out into the park and sketch birds.
But you know what, birds aren't always around when you want to sketch them and sometimes you just have people to sketch.
So here's what you do. Sit opposite a person in a waiting room, city square, restaurant, train, etc. Wear a billed-cap that hides your eyes. If you can work obliquely, looking at the person to your side, well go for it. Next, take out your pen and uncap it. Stare for a second at the person you want to sketch. Will they sit there for any length of time?
Now you're wondering how I can ask you to ask yourself that? Well here's the thing: the more you practice determining when someone might leave the better you'll get at judging whether or not someone is going to sit in the same place for any length of time. Watch for signs of fidgeting and constant checks of a wrist watch, cell phone clock, or wall clock. Look at the reading material they have in their hands—are they interested in it? How far into the reading material are they, e.g., are they on the last page of a novel or newspaper? If you're in a doctor's office over time you'll have a sense of the average patient wait. Once you find a subject you'll subconsiously start an internal countdown clock based on when the person arrived and the average wait. These are all great observational skills to have. You'll also pick up cues regarding strange and dangerous behavior and be better able to respond appropriately—but that's a post for another day.
Now stare at your blank page for a second and imagine how that person's image might fit on that page. What is the most important part of the person (or bird) that you want to capture on your page? Start there. Look at the person and start drawing. When they start to look up or at you, you anticipate and look away before they can get eye contact with you (again it's practice). Practice will also tell you when it's safe to look back, which you need to do now so you can gather more info for your sketch.
Continue looking and not looking. It's a dance. Just like dancing it requires timing. And practice.
And after each look make a mark on your page with your INK PEN. When you look at your subject you will constantly be assessing whether what you have on the page is accurate or needs correction. Make a new line as needed.
At first your lines will be small, maybe even tentative. Someday you'll do lovely sweeping lines that capture the gesture in one sure movement.
Practice with your pen so that you know the types of lines it will make. Practice making light lines that can guide you and thick definitive lines on which you can anchor your sketch. Each pen will have different characteristics and the one you settle on will say something about the type of sketching you want to do.
Deciding on when to use a line is another skill learned in practice. Sometimes an area or shape is best defined by not putting a line there to define it. Other times you'll need a line to give you a hard edge. Only practice will give you a clear understanding of these nuances. When working tonally with soft smearable media you can often fudge your hard edges and soft edges. Don't fuss when working directly in pen and ink. Make a decision and go with it. It isn't the last drawing you'll ever do, you'll get to make a different decision in ten minutes if you're still practicing.
In the above sketch the woman's halo of silver gray hair in a spikey, expensive cut, caught my eye. I started there and worked my way down, comparing the angles of her face and visually noting the measurement from forehead to eyebrow, etc. This also gets faster and better with practice.
Some artists make tentative lines and shapes to act as place markers as they work, e.g. an oval for the face, a cylinder for the neck. I prefer to start with a series of lines and work out from there, comparing the spacing between the lines, the angles, etc. Remember—having extra lines is not a thing I'm ashamed of, go read the other post.
Next, on this day, I moved down the shoulders. At the mid body there is a bit of a skip, a no-man's zone of no detail, because I was worried that she would leave and I really wanted to draw those Ugg boots.
In situations like this you can do one of two things—1. You can guestimate the placement of the item in your original sketch and just go for it as I did here, or 2. You can do a side drawing focusing on just that one element, i.e., the detail of the boots; then return to your main drawing and work in a more orderly fashion. (I do that more than leaping.)
Ultimately the person (or bird) will leave. And that will be that.
Take a moment to write down everything that is important about the encounter such as measurements of scale (X is as large as a Y), or color notes, or overheard dialog, or behavior ticks. All of these notes will help you complete a painting later, or simply identify your subject the next time you encounter her.