The Washington Post

A matter of perspective

Carving out time for a little sketching is becoming harder and harder as the news cycle fills with major event after major event. However I do get a lunch hour, and this week I attempted to break the pattern of using those sixty minutes dropping jam and breadcrumbs into my keyboard by actually leaving the building. On Tuesday at precisely 1 p.m., I leapt up from my desk, startled no few coworkers in the process, grabbed my sketchpad and headed out the door. Outside was a blistering, tooth-whiteningly hot bastard of a day.

I had it in my mind to sketch the long-standing anti-war protester in front of the White House. But the area was awash in factions protesting Israel’s aerial remodeling of Gaza, and others protesting the Africa summit. And tourists. So I did a quick 180 and found myself looking at St. John’s Episcopal Church. Perfect, all I had to do was find a spot in the shade.

St. John’s has a rich history. It was originally built in 1815 and every president since James Madison has worshiped here on some occasion. Only a block across Lafayette Park from the White House, it is commonly referred to as the ‘Church of the Presidents.’ One of my favorite stories is of Lincoln. Then president-elect Lincoln first attended services the day after arriving in Washington in 1861. And although Lincoln eventually chose to attend services with his family at the nearby New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, he would periodically slip in alone and unannounced at St. John’s late in the day and stay through evensong, leaving just before the service ended, unnoticed by others in the congregation save for the reverend. For some reason this simple image of the man is much more telling to me than all the statues and paintings.

I do end up sketching in the shade, barely, but looking very much straight up into the sun, hardly ideal. Normally, it’s optimum to keep the distance that the eye has to travel from subject to paper to an absolute minimum. This sketch unfortunately left me with an aching neck on the upward glance through a head turn swing of about 120 degrees to the sketch on the paper. Hence the somewhat confused looking perspective. All in all, I got what I wanted. It certainly has enough drama. You really can’t go wrong with a good bell tower.

This tower contains a bell cast in Boston by Paul Revere’s son, Joseph. It was paid for in part by funds authorized by President James Monroe, who apparently believed he was purchasing an alarm bell for the capital. Joe guaranteed the $362.47 bell for one year after purchase. It has now been in continuous use – alerting the populace of fires, and calling presidents and citizens to prayer – for close to 200 years.

A good solid hour of sketching later and I was back in the office.

From time to time on my commute I get off the subway a stop or two earlier to remind my legs that they are for walking. I spotted this gorgeous red brick beauty on the corner of Connecticut Avenue and M Street. This is one of the busiest junctions in the city, what with Rhode Island Avenue and 18th Street also crossing within yards, and in late evening I set up my little stool inside a roadwork barrier of orange and white plastic bollards in the center median of Connecticut. Tourists and office workers streamed by intermittently on my left and a succession of police motorcades mixed with frustrated commuters roared rhythmically through the junction on my right. I, wrapped in my cocoon of safety barrier, was off limits to all. It was the prefect spot – apart from the exhaust smoke, the people and the cars.

According to the records of the Columbia History Society, the building was completed in 1880. It was a dentist’s office for a decade or so, until the Demonet family of confectioners took it over sometime before 1904. The Demonets catered the White House for many years, and during Civil War days, General Ulysses S. Grant and President Lincoln were reportedly among the customers buying candy in the original store. The purchase of this store signaled the Demonet family’s move into the more upmarket clientele of the Dupont Circle area. The candymakers moved on three decades later; since then, retailers have sold everything from makeup to furniture.

Traffic was distracting, and and even when it slowed I was left awkwardly looking directly into the tinted driver’s window of yet another black GMC Suburban ferrying Africa summitgoers. Which was weird, although very District. The ornate convoluted brickwork did test my abilities to the full. The headache started after about 90 minutes, so I chucked it in and headed home.

My last sketch this week tests my thinly veiled pretense to be drawing all over the city. This is the Russian Ambassador’s residence, precisely four paces from the Washington Post building. It was handy and it’s beautiful, although not perhaps from the angle I have drawn it. The things that you can’t see from this vantage, that you can see from inside the Washington Post fourth floor stairwell, is that inside the brick rear wall is a thick layer of inward pointing barbed wire. I’ll let you think about that one for a bit.

The ‘Mrs George Pullman House,’ as it is historically known, was built in 1910. The Russian Imperial Government bought it in 1913 for the tidy sum of $350,000. After the Revolution in 1917 ended Tsar Nicholas and family, the building then went on to serve as the Soviet and Russian embassies up until 1994. The new Russian embassy moved a safer distance from the Washington Post to a new compound on Wisconsin Avenue after that. And since then the old embassy has been the digs of the Russian Ambassador. I picture him in a silk bathrobe and slippers wandering from room to room, perhaps gazing down on his spectacular rose garden.

For this sketch I chose a spot for my foldout stool in the alley behind the Post that allowed me to lean back against some fencing so as to hopefully avoid the whole sore neck-headache thing again. It was later in the evening, and the light was quickly fading but the sinking sun did pick out most of the details. There was a surprising amount of traffic through the alley. Much of it was limo drivers, I guess, shuttling their cars to somewhere handy nearby. Much of the traffic was ignoring the one-way sign completely. No one paid me any attention. The sketch ends up being a little rough and had I not felt pressured for time I might have chosen a different angle, but I do like the contrast of the ornate windows and the more pedestrian brickwork of the rear compound and its reinforced graffiti covered rear door. Nice and gritty and urban.

That is it for this week, but before I close I’d like to give a shout out to a couple of budding transit sketchers.

The first, Jack Burbridge is doodling his commute away here in D.C. He doesn’t do it as often as he should, but his results are excellent just the same. He doesn’t have a website yet, but you can contact him at the email below.

The second is Tracey Berglund, who is sketching a living out in New York City. You can contact her on the email below or you can view more of her lovely delicate illustrations on

That is it for this week. Next week who knows?

Got a question? Ask me. Got a drawing? Send it in to

Want to see more of my work?

Richard is a field artist and visual journalist and works as a senior graphics editor at The Washington Post.



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Richard Johnson · July 25, 2014

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