Try this: Without moving your head, pick a focal point in front of you and then take in what you can see in your peripheral vision. I’m guessing that it goes beyond what you normally include in a drawing, if for no other reason than because the paper isn’t big enough. Marc Taro Holmes, who has made a career out of urban sketching (watch his workshops here), has found a solution and he’s here to share it with you.
Keep reading to discover his advice for sketching panoramic views, so that you can capture the essence of a place more deeply, and make the results of your urban sketching experiences come to life on paper. ~Cherie
Sketching a Panorama in Pen & Ink and Watercolor by Marc Taro Holmes
On a recent painting trip to the Algarve region of Portugal I found some time after the main event to take a driving trip up and down the Western coast.
I had brought some homemade panoramic sketchbooks with me, and was making quick pen-and-ink drawings as we went, which I’d tint with watercolors when we stopped at a café, or back at the hotel. These booklets fold out to 7.5×22”, which is a nice length for drawing 90 to 180 degrees of view.
I find that these wider shots give me a better sense of being in a place–as compared to a close-up portrait of an individual building or architectural detail. You can see more of the world, so it’s that much more like being there.
I’d brought along my usual fountain pens, but right now I’m in a phase where I can’t be bothered to clean and load them. After one bad experience with leaking in-flight, I’ve started to pack fountain pens more carefully. I unload the pens, clean them, then refill again them once we arrive. I empty and flush them again before flying home and reload yet again back in Montreal.
During this trip, for various timing reasons, I didn’t get around to all doing all of that. Instead, I went back to using old fashioned dipping nibs.
I’m really starting to prefer the simplicity of these basic pen nibs. I love the wider range of marks they make, as well as the ease of changing color. Just swipe the nib with a tissue, and you’re off and away with a new colored line. Sometimes on a larger calligraphy nib there’s some ink trapped in the reservoir and you get a few nice strokes where the two inks mix. Yes, they’re messier (drips!) and they can be balky, skipping, spritzing and stuttering. But actually–I kind of like all those artifacts in the drawing.
Thin To Thick
I do a lot of painting in watercolor, so I’m always working large-to-small and light-to-dark because, of course, that’s how it works with transparent watermedia. You have to build logically from lighter shapes towards the final dark notes. You can’t come back on top with lighter values. When you draw with pen and ink, you’re reversing that logic.
Your bold pen marks, often in a black ink, are almost always the darkest darks in the image, even if you’re planning to tint your sketch later. But you can still think of it as drawing light-to-dark if you think about the widthof your pen marks.
I almost always use my pens in a thin-to-thick order, starting with my thinnest nib and working up to the boldest. You’re putting down slender lines initially–as you plan out the drawing–but toward the end you might be laying on some aggressively bold line work!
Roof Line / Ground Line
The first two lines I draw go all the way across the panorama. They enclose the entire subject of the drawing. The first line is the upper horizon–such as a treeline or a mountain range–or, more typically, the upper edge of the buildings lining the street. The second line is the lower horizon–the line where the buildings meet the street, or where the land meets water, or a road. The lower horizon grounds your scene and connects the midground to the foreground.
I sketch these two lines in just seconds, planning to finish the entire drawing in around 15 or 20 minutes. Sometimes a little less, sometimes a little more, but not too much more, otherwise you’re likely to run out of time at your location. Things always happen. Weather. Hunger. Your friends getting bored This will all make more sense if I just show you a demonstration!
Urban Sketching Demonstration
Old Town Faro: Sketching a Panorama with Thin-to-Thick Pen Nibs
Inks Used for this Urban Sketching Demo:
• Noodler’s Red Black: a very dark red with a lot of bloom in water.
• Noodler’s Rome Burning: a chocolate brown that tints out to a golden yellow.
• Noodler’s Fox: an intense scarlet red, with decent washability.
• Noodler’s Lexington Grey: which I’m using ½ strength, or a 1:1 water/ink mix. Good for subtle details that don’t need to be high contrast lines, and for cast shadow.
• Black Fox: Not a real ink. My mix of Platinum Carbon Black (a water proof ink) and Noodler’s Fox 4:1 when I want a super dark with a red undertone that doesn’t wash out nearly as much as Red Black.
• Roher and Klingner Blue Mare: highly reactive bright blue that I love for sky and water.
• Higgins Sepia: a nice middle brown line with an orange washed out tone, perfect for the cliffs of the Algarve. This is a very affordable ink compared to some overly well marketed fountain pen inks these days.
• Fine: Hunt #107 Crowquill nib: This is a small cylindrical style of dip pen nib.
• Medium: Brause 361 Steno: called “The Blue Pumpkin.”
• Medium Bold: Hunt #22: a very flexible nib.
• Bold: Speedball C-0 (4mm) and C-3 (2mm): these are flat ‘chisel’ nibs used for calligraphy. Great for expressive lines that taper when the pen is twisted.
This plaza is the Largo da Se in the old town section of Faro. The Se, or Cathedral, is just out of the frame to the left. There’s an old stone gate–but the majority of the structure fell in the 1755 earthquake that remodeled this entire region. You can go up into the church tower on the left side and see the old bells (which still ring, so watch out if you’re up there at the top of the hour). There’s a great view of old town Faro and the surrounding salt flats.
Inside the church walls is also a Capela de Ossos, or Bone Chapel. Which is pretty much what it sounds like. A small space lined on all walls and ceilings with stacked skulls and bones. Apparently these remarkable places were created all over Europe from the 16th century onwards. Partially to preserve all the bones accumulated in centuries old graveyards, and partially as a reminder to visitors of the inevitability of their death, and thus the wisdom of being faithful.
This is kind of a strange reference photo–shot on my phone using the panoramic mode. But it gives you an idea of how to look at 180 degrees of view as a single composition.
So, here’s the first line: The Roof Line. In this sketch the first line isn’t actually the peaks of the roofs, but is rather the horizontal line that runs below all the peaks. That’s an easier horizon to see, and if you get it right, you can already identify each building in the block just from this Roof Line.
This is sketched in Noodler’s Red Black, using my finest nib, the Hunt #107 crowquill.
You might see some little dots that reveal I actually did a little planning using a Dot Plot. You can read more about that little urban sketching trick here. This is similar to what I call the Post-and-Rail method in my video on panorama drawing. < It can help to make note of the important high-points on that first line before you jot it in.
Now the second line: The Ground Line. Here we have the base of the block–the building’s foundations. I include the entrances to the buildings, because they will contain dark shadows that should connect with the ground, so I think of them as one passage. This is done with the Brause #361 Steno nib–one step bolder.
Then I go back and finish the drawing by adding details on top of those two lines. I find this step fast and easy because my guide lines tell me where everything goes. It’s a simple matter to place the windows and doors, flagpoles and balconies. They just fit into place in between the guide lines.
If I happen to find I’ve gotten something wrong, I just go with my lines, rather than worrying about reality. I don’t feel it’s all that important to count the right number of windows or draw every traffic light and street sign. I’m after a swift impression of a place. A memory I can bring home with me. Or a notation I can write about in a journal.
You might note how I’ve changed ink color for the red tile roofs (Noodler’s Fox). The windows and doors are done with Noodler’s Rome Burning, and a ½ mix of Noodler’s Lexington Grey and water. Then I come in with R&K Blue Mare for the clouds and trees.
In the final stages of the drawing I bring in the broad C-0 nib, mostly using that ½ Lexington Grey. This pen’s broad stroke might as well be a brush. I’ve also done some work in the main entrance and windows with a C-3 (a smaller flat you might just call an Extra Bold).
Sometimes I might want to leave the drawing there–just the ink lines. Between the colored ink and the broad chisel nib, it’s already a finished drawing in my mind. That’s the kind of sketch I love. A simple notation of a place I’ve visited. The kind of thing you’ll find in a 19th century travel journal. But, of course, I can’t resist coming back with some color.
I won’t go in depth about the watercolor painting here today because that’s a whole demonstration on its own. (See from start to finish in my urban sketching video on Travel Journaling). Note that the thing I love about colored fountain pen ink is the way it melts and blends into the watercolor. Unlike artists’ drawing ink, a fountain pen ink is usually water soluble. Look for ink that’s call “washable.” This refers to cleaning your shirt after your pen leaks, but I like to think they’re made for tinting with watercolors.
By changing ink color as I go, I get a more lively drawing but I’m also planning ahead for the colored accents and bleeding lines that appear automatically as you wash in watercolor. I love the randomness this introduces, and how it can soften the ink drawing, making it more painterly.
Thanks for reading. I’ll close with a few more sketches from my travels in Portugal. To find out more about my travel sketching and painting on location, follow my always free sketching blog at https://citizensketcher.com.
Bio: Marc Taro Holmes is the author of the instructional handbook: The Urban Sketcher: Techniques for Seeing and Drawing on Location. He has recently released four video demonstrations on ArtistsNetwork.tv about sketching on location in pen and ink and watercolor:
Marc blogs at CitizenSketcher.com, offering regular free updates featuring painting demos like this one, interesting experiments with art tools and materials, art book reviews, and stories from his own travels with a sketchbook.
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