Urban sketching, what is it, exactly? I don’t think many of us USkers consider ourselves artists. For most of us, this is a part-time pursuit. The idea of becoming famous or doing this full-time never occurs to us – at least, not to me. We are busy enough with life already. We draw when we have a moment and when the mood takes us, or if we just happen to find ourselves staring at pen and paper with nothing else to do. Say, at a meeting, or on the subway, or waiting for a bus, or while having a coffee. It is a hobby, a way of whiling away a few moments and maybe impressing a friend. We sketch, and we stick the paper away, and perhaps don’t do it again for a month or a year.

Then one day, years after you doodled something, you find it again. You are there. You remember every second of the sketch, but more. You remember the smell and the sounds and the temperature. You are transported back. The funny thing is that it doesn’t just work for you. A true Urban Sketch, when you draw something and immerse yourself in a location, has the power to transport anyone who sees it. And the funniest thing of all – you don’t even have to be a pompous artist to do it. You don’t even have to be a good drawer. The quality is less important than the act. Anyone can be a successful urban sketcher. Just sit down look around and draw what you see.

This is the power of the Urban Sketch.

Over the next weeks and months, I am going to do my best to travel around and do some sketching. You are more than welcome to tag along through the blog or in person. I’ll gladly answer questions. And I’ll feature art I receive in a gallery each week here in the badlands of The Washington Post’s nether regions of blogs.

If you do enough Urban Sketching, no matter how hard you try to avoid them, eventually you are going to find yourself drawing people. People are hard. No way to soften the blow, I am afraid. They don’t sit still. They have minds of their own. Some of them have personalities. They are all different shapes. They wear clothes, glasses, hats and headphones. They are a complex confusion of angles, folds, textures and contours. They are enough to make any Urban Sketcher’s life miserable. There you are having done a great drawing of a building and decide at the last minute to include the couple on the bench. Eaaargh, of course they move. And you are left trying to fudge them in from memory, and you end up with some alien blob in front of your expertly rendered cottage. Bugger!

The answer? The answer is more pain I am afraid. Do it. Do it more. Then do it more often still.

My new home north of D.C. leaves me riding the Red Line each day. This gives me a train full of artist models for a half-hour every morning. Now you are looking at the best of the work, so don’t get disheartened. I don’t post all the bajillions of crappy sketches I do. Those do make fantastic cathartic fire kindling, though.

Here are a few recently learned tips on choosing whom to draw on a train.
1. The cellphone and iPad focused are better than newspaper readers. People with newspapers move their heads up and down and from side to side. Cellphone and iPad users stare at the tiny screen without moving. Usually while dribbling.
2. Start multiple sketches at the same time. Most people adjust their position for comfort every five minutes but will often adjust back to the previous position – so draw both. Standing figures adjust more often than sitting ones.
3. Choose people who have just gotten on. Odds are, they will stay on for longer.
4. Draw the glasses first. They create a great frame to hang and scale everything else from.
5. Face backwards. The bumps and stops are less jarring that way.
6. Lastly, choose the characters. They are more fun to draw.

Oh, and watch your stops – or you’ll be late for work. Got caught out on that a couple of times. Sorry boss.

In the past eight weeks of commuting this route, I have gotten gradually quicker, better and more confident in my ability to nail key ingredients of a person in a few strokes. I have become like a big-game hunter. I chose my targets carefully. With luck they never even know I am stalking them with pen and paper. At the end of the hunt I leave with my trophy. So after eight weeks I am setting fire to a lot fewer rubbish sketches than I used to. That newfound confidence has led me to stop drawing D.C.’s troglodyte commuters, and I have started drawing people aboveground in the actual daylight.

There is a little old homeless lady who sits just outside my subway exit that I have attempted to sketch a couple of times. She generally sits very still apart from the gentle shivering. I have drawn her twice now. Standing and drawing her in all her quietness, it is difficult not to feel a bit overcome by the world that surges and rushes past her as the lights change and another subway spits its load onto the street. A sign behind her written on cardboard says “I am Hurnguy.”

The drawing goes pretty well. The street cleaner guy with the neck tattoo tells me he likes it. He also tells me that this is one of her two corners, and that she doesn’t speak English much. I can’t help but feel a little bit like I have taken something from her without her even knowing. I give her the dollars I have in my pocket. It disappears under her blanket in a flash.

So once more, the final paragraph, in which I say something inspirational that slaps your lack of motivation in the face and has you rummaging around your junk drawer for pen and paper. If that worked, send me what you sketch. And remember the rules. We draw live only and we share what we have drawn. This flickr group is a great place to do that and to get feedback (Urban Sketch Group) and don’t hesitate to use urbansketchers.org as your baseline for inspiration and brilliance.

Got a question? Ask me at richardjosephjohnson@yahoo.com
Want to see more of my work www.newsillustrator.com