Liz Steel

Nob Hill with the Urban Sketchers

Last Saturday the SF Urban Sketchers met at Nob Hill to sketch Grace Cathedral and top-o-the-city scenes. The icing on the cake was a visit from our Australian friends Liz Steele and Jane Blundell who perched alongside us on the streets sketching and enjoying a near perfect sunny day in San Francisco. The group swelled to 83 sketchers and there was plenty of socializing with old and new sketch friends.

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fountain pen and watercolor in Hand book w/c sketchbook, 8 X 8″

While we perched on our stools across the street from the Cathedral we enjoyed the photo shoots of several brides dressed in the romance of white and bouquets.

nobhill06I might have to sketch this one from the picture! I was too lost in the arches and hangings and intricate architecture of the cathedral to catch on in time for a live sketch of this.

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Sitting next to my friend Cathy McAuliffe, who always finds an elegant way to simplify a scene I thought I’d try her approach for a quick one. Maybe I should have slowed down a bit? But sometimes on the street sketching with friends that accuracy ceases to matter. It’s about the story of the moment I will definitely not forget.

At 3:30 we met in the park across from the Cathedral to share sketches and welcome our guests. I took a bit of video on my phone to capture a sense of the day. (click image to play)

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At this point some of us were a bit fried! Many sketchers would think this rather strange, but my default relax-a-sketch mode is people, especially when it’s people relaxing in parks on a lovely sunny day with their dogs.

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This is what some city folks do when the day is not the usual blustery cold SF summer weather;  hang out on park benches with their newspapers and kids and dogs. Sketching a scene like this ways feels like a fascinating expedition into other peoples’ lifestyles, and with the advantage of no electronic screen in between!

nobhill08We ended the day with a picnic on the hill at Lafayette Park overlooking the bay, with the city spread all around us below and the trees above. At the picnic table I sat next to a sketcher from Russia who’s a scientist living in the city now and doing cancer research. . .and sketching! If I ever get to Russia I’m going to contact their UsK group and sketch with them! Sometimes it feels like we’re a little United Nations of sketchers. Do you think maybe if the Sunnis and Shiites sketched together there would be more peace in the Middle East? What about democrats and republicans here?

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While the urban sketchers (and family members) tackled the landscape of trees and bay and distant hills (they never seem to tire!) I sketched the sketchers and then it got dark and we headed home.

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Buildings

Before I started hanging out with Urban Sketchers I avoided sketching buildings. All that linear stuff was too boring, I thought. Then I started wanting to be one of those cool urban sketch artists who can capture a busy city scene quickly and expressively. I should be able to pull that off, I thought.  After all, I’ve been an artist for 23 years, or longer if you count excursions into drawing since I was a child.

But it wasn’t that easy. I realized that I never really looked at buildings in the way one must to convincingly tell their stories. So it has been humbling, but also exciting, to forge new territory. It also helps with my motivation that one of my sons has chosen a career in architecture and opened my eyes to the beauty and mystery of structural design.

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Garber St. in Berkeley, fountain pen and w/c in 8 X 8″ hand.book sketchbook

You have to really be interested in building design to be willing to sit on a sidewalk and waggle your head up and down  and try to make sense of what you see. Since I got back from Manchester, England where the Urban Sketchers annual symposium took place, I have been looking at buildings in a new way. I live in the countryside, so it takes a bit of planning to find structures complex enough to offer some interest. This street of beautiful homes in the Berkeley hills was a good find.

I also signed up for Liz Steel’s online course, “SketchNow Buildings”. Liz approaches her sketches with the benefit of having practiced architecture for 20 years, and she has learned how to communicate the essentials of architectural sketching to non-architects for quick sketching in public spaces. She has a new book that just came out: Architecture: Super Quick Techniques for Amazing Drawings

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This is one of my class exercises, sketched from the parking lot of Sts. Peter and Paul Russian Orthodox Church in Santa Rosa. To follow the lesson I focused first on following edges with a continuous line, thinking in terms of shapes (sky shape, shadow shape, etc.), and 3-D volumes, moving back and forth through these as I proceeded with the sketch.

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Here’s a little house in town where I stopped to do my assignment, which started with analysing the volumes. I made the mistake of not taking time to measure properly, but I found it useful to critique the sketch and spell out the steps I could take to improve. Here’s some of my self critique:

-focus on volumes and thicknesses

-made the house too narrow

-needed to measure first

-steps are difficult

-need to go back with crucial lines left out

-difficulty of not seeing the ground line to get perspective cues

–sketching behind steering wheel in car is too restricting!

-color confusion: test to use more consistent shadow colors

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A Methodist church I pass every time I go to town.  More practice understanding the volumes and working out the watercolor mixtures for shadow shapes and more. Doing little side sketches to work out the details of areas like window insets and doors and porticos is so helpful. Also paying attention to leading edges on buildings and drawing all the thicknesses improves a drawing dramatically.

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Working from a photo to understand some issues with the structural components of some classical architecture.

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And then, how fun! I found this house in Santa Rosa which took lots of measuring and redrawing to even begin to understand how the columns related to the entablature (some things I’ve learned in past 4 weeks!)

Well I’m not ready to give up drawing people, but I must say that buildings hold a new kind of interest. Thanks to Liz Steel and Urban Sketchers, at least I won’t be so intimidated when I visit the city again and try to get all those lines to make sense!