Left: First page of gesture sketches of live chickens. 8.3 x 11 inches (or so) Hahnemühle Nostalgie paper from a pad and the Pentel Pocket Brush Pen. Paint smudges are residue from a painting on the previous sheet. Click on the image to view an enlargement.
Sunday, July 15, I attended the MetroSketchers meeting which was held at a Minneapolis residence where the owners keep 6 chickens. (Yes I was in heaven even though the temperatures rose above 90 degrees! There was shade.)
I arrived seven minutes early and looked over the gate. I was immediately greeted by 3 curious chickens who came up to say hi! I entered the yard and just watched for a couple minutes. Then the owner came out and greeted me, and Liz Carlson the organizer of the event arrived, so I put my folding chair out, and started sketching.
I was going to post my paintings, made on that day today, but I realized they illustrated a point I wanted to discuss so I will post them as a Project Friday tomorrow.
In the meantime I wanted to show you the three pages of gesture sketches I did as warm up. I think it's important to warm up. I don't always do it with gesture sketches, sometimes I dive into a sketch (typically of something stationary) knowing that it is going to take a moment for me to get into a grove with it. That sketch is sometimes the worst sketch of my session (but sometimes it's the best because I concentrated and really observed).
So it may seem that I'm giving you contradictory information. What I'm really saying is that you want to find your own way on this and your way may differ from day to day, hour to hour. If a warm up feels like a good idea to you, to help you get your brain, eye, and hand working together than allow yourself to have one—don't get stuck in a rut thinking that you have to go for that perfect drawing every time. You may find that during the gesture drawing warm up you get more specific information in a flash, than you will from staring at a stationary object. Your brain latches on to arrangements and relationships that later you will be able to bring forth in more finished sketches.
Don't worry about "wasting paper." You aren't wasting anything—not paper, not ink, not your time. You're laying a foundation for the session.
For some people who have trouble with their internal critic this is also a useful exercise because if your critic tries to harangue you with comments about "bad" drawings, you can simply say, "Yep, these are gesture sketches, not trying to do anything accurate right now, come back in 3 hours when I have something finished to show you."
Left: Third and final page of gesture sketches I did on the day. Click on the image to view an enlargement.
I strongly recommend when you get into a new situation that you turn to gesture sketches to acclimatize yourself.
For me gesture sketches are usually less than 30 seconds in duration. I look almost entirely at the subject the whole time and spend very little time looking at the paper. I look for spacial relationships and odd angles. I look for the negative space around the subject (like the space between the legs of the central chicken in the first image today). I allow myself to begin a dialog with my brush pen, which for me is sort of like, "Oh, this is how that shape feels."
I don't worry about overlapping gesture sketches—unless I end up with one that for whatever reason seems to capture the "essence" of what I'm looking at, then I'll work around that sketch.
I will also restate or correct lines with speed and no regard for whether or not anyone else can tell which is the line I actually favor—I acknowledge it in my mind and move on. (If I get a really significant line I might make a little written note to myself that "this is the way it bends here," or "Yes!" with an arrow. That's me enjoying the process of actually describing the subject onto the paper. It's a celebration. And later when I do more finished sketches I remember those moments and lines while I'm drawing. Also, a long, long time ago my internal critic decamped because I was just having too much damn fun during this stage and he couldn't get a word in edgewise.)
After a few moments I will feel ready to start up with a longer piece of work. I may change from brush pen (which is what I typically warm up with because it can move so freely across the page) to a regular pen of some sort, or I may keep drawing with the brush pen.
The process of the gesture warm-up sketches also tells me which pen I'm going to use that day. I just know when I finish the gestures—it's a Pitt Artist's Calligraphy Pen day, it's a Staedtler Pigment Liner day, I'm going to work in such and such a size, etc.
Sometimes, as in the case of these free ranging chickens, you'll only get a pose that lasts two seconds so you might watch the bird and then wait for the second time or third time she takes that pose, thinking about what you're seeing each time. Then you'll do a quick sketch. In that situation I would find myself looking more at the paper, quickly sketching a certain angle I wanted to note for myself.
This type of observation also tells you the typical movements of your subject. Are there poses that she returns to? Does she have an idiosyncratic movement when listening, turning, hopping, walking, etc. Or in the case of this day's subjects, how much of her leg disappears from this angle when she scratches for food? All of this information will help you decide on the final pose on which you will spend more time.
During this exercise you will also discover compositional ideas and a sense of notan that can be important in your final sketch or painting. (Remember, I said nothing is wasted when you take this approach.)
When working with any live animal that's moving around (person or fowl) it's best to just relax and watch and breathe! If the whole is too much to get, focus on getting something specific, like the shape and relationship of the feet. If you find yourself getting too fussy and your model isn't cooperating with long enough "poses" go for the large picture and no details. Keep working.
On Sunday I actually walked around the yard, looking at the various chickens all in turn, sketching for a couple seconds here and there, then walking around some more. I ultimately decided on a plan and started to work on some more finished color sketches. (I hope they'll inspire you on Friday to have a project of your own.)
Eighteen or 20 people (it was too hot for me to count, but Liz commented about the number at one point) showed up to sketch these wonderful models who didn't seem to care that we had invaded their patch of ground. Everyone created incredible sketches, capturing the personality of these birds. You can see some of the sketches from these other artists on the MetroSketchers Facebook page in an album. Suzanne Hughes was one of the sketchers and she has posted her work on her blog. Check it out. (If you were there and posted your work on a blog, please let me know and I'll put a link here.)