2.2 Drawing on location

The purpose of this exercise was to start to think about how choice of materials, format and approach can be used to match/enhance the dynamic of the subject using reportage.

Key words from the brief:

  • Use your sketchbooks to produce a series of drawings and notes that documents an event of your choice
  • Choose something that offers you the opportunity to explore your particular style of drawing,
  • Think about the dynamic of the event and how this relates to how you draw


I interpreted ‘event’ as being an Urban Sketching Bootcamp in Prague that took place across a long weekend in July 2019. The event was facilitated by Melanie Reim and Veronica Lawlor.

In my response to this exercise I’ve tried to capture my experience and learnings from the weekend along with my drawings.

The bootcamp was an amazing experience. It involved experimenting with strategies and tools to bring more dynamism, expression and narrative into our drawing.

The bootcamp

We were reminded of the meaning of bootcamp. Its an American term that describes the first 6-weeks that a new recruit spends in the army. It’s hard work and full of exercises. It’s designed to turns new recruits into soldiers.

Much of what you’ll see are my attempts at exercises. They are not finished, polished illustrations and are not supposed to be.


The weekend started on the Friday evening with a meet and greet session and an introductory talk entitled ‘I’m on location, now what’. Melanie and Veronica walked through a series of topics and used the work of a wide range of artists and illustrators to illustrate particular points. What I enjoyed were the anecdotes and experiences from their own practice, lessons they received from their teachers, the methods they use and people they’ve worked with.

Coincidently they both mentioned Franklin McMahon who they worked with and who I’d been researching earlier in the day. They used his work to illustrate the importance of composition and design in reportage drawing.

This was the key learning I took from the session. The need to design and think carefully about composition. This point was emphasised many times and was a revelation to me, because in the short time I’ve been drawing on location I hadn’t ever started with thumbnail sketches to test and experiment with image design.  I don’t know why as this is standard process for my other types of work.

Some memorable quotes:

  • “Design first. If there’s no design it’s not a drawing”
  • “Design is most important”
  • “Your beautiful drawings come out of good design”
  • “Recognise shapes that are important”


We met at 10 a.m. outside the Estates Theatre and went into the shaded entrance of the National Gallery for a briefing.

Exercise 1  picked up on the key point from Friday’s talk. The importance of design and the rapid production of thumbnails to explore options and points-of-view before committing to more involved drawing.

The exercise was a simple challenge: 20 thumbnails in 20-minutes.

The point was to just focus on the simple shapes and avoid detail.

I only managed 15 thumbnails, but this was another key learning point. In a very short period of time I’d explored 15 different points of view that in my normal ways-of-working I would have missed. Usual practice for me is to rock up and start drawing the first thing that looks of interest. What was interesting is that having to find 20 different views made me explore the location and see things for the first time. It wasn’t until thumbnail 11 that I found a composition that really ‘clicked’. It was not one of the beautiful buildings in Prague (my go-to start point), but people resting under the cool shade of some trees.

The second exercise introduced the idea of building image composition out of different planes: Foreground, midground and background. The 30-minute exercise involved redesigning the composition of two thumbnails by switching the priority of the layers using scale i.e. A figure in the mid ground of one image would get promoted to the foreground of the next.

For this exercise it was permissible to add slightly more detail to the image.

Image planes composition 01 – the same elements switched
Image planes composition 02

All sketchbooks were shared and reviewed.

After lunch the focus moved to drawing people. I struggled with this exercise but learned alot from doing it.

The briefing included a ‘how-to’ draw figures rapidly that have posture and narrative. The method, at least for beginners like me was to break the figure into shapes and use a guideline to indicate the key line of posture. Rapid figure drawing is my weakest area and I saw this as an opportunity to improve.

The exercise was to draw 20 figures in 30-minutes. The figures needed to have posture.

The location was packed with tourists so there was no shortage of subjects.

My first two pages of figures were drawn in ink pen and felt all over the place. It wasn’t going well.

I did a massive cheat and swapped to 6B pencil and did the final six figures sitting on two benches.

Figures 10

I was slightly more pleased with these.

The feedback was positive and along the lines of ‘you need to practice’. The problem with using a soft 6B pencil was that it hides the underlying form which was the purpose of the exercise. The advice I was given was to try using a sharpened 6B pencil which is what I used for the final exercise of the day.

The last exercise was to move from drawing single figures to drawing groups of figures. The task was to draw at least two groups of figures in 30-minutes. The people should be interacting with one another i.e. there should be some kind of narrative.

I went back to my shaded location and sketched groups of people sitting outside a cafe.

Groups of figures

After finishing for the day I decided to do some more figure drawing practice:


The workshop started at 10 a.m. back in the entrance of the National Gallery where the group was given its next exercise.

The weather for the day was variable with thunderstorms and rain forecast in the afternoon.

The first exercise of the day was about mark making. The exercise involved selecting a location and composition using the thumbnail method and then using this as the basis to create of an image using only marks and no outline.

I was excited by this task because experimental mark making is something I feel very comfortable with. Illustration sketchbooks 2.2 Investigating a process really got me thinking about this.

I decided to build on the previous exercise and went straight back to the location under the trees. A van was parked right in the spot I had been working on the day before so I did several thumbnails to try out different designs and compositions.

Mark making thumbnails

We were given about 40-minutes to complete the exercise. Towards the end the heavens opened and I had to complete the drawing slightly early which was a shame because would have liked more time.

Mark making sketch with rain drop smudges

Everyone shared their work. I received two helpful pieces of feedback.

The first was don’t use a pencil sketch as reference. I usually don’t but in this case I felt like I needed some guidelines to help with the shape and direction of the patterns emanating from the base of the tree trunks. The reason for not using a pencil sketch as a guide was interesting. Working to a pencil line stifles observation and spontaneity, both characteristics that should be maintained and encouraged.

The second feedback was specific to some of the marks I used in the background leaves. I had drawn them using a continuous unbroken line. The feedback was that these may have been more effective drawn as individual marks.

We were given a 90-minute lunch break that included another exercise. The task was to create a small number of sketches that described lunch in some way.

I immediately saw this as a narrative sequence and used that format to describe my experience. I added written content to elaborate on the visuals.

Lunchtime narrative 01
Lunchtime narrative 02

The final exercise of the workshop was to pull together all of the learning from the previous two days. This time we were given 90-minutes to identify and create either one large image or a number of smaller pictures with a narrative that we wanted to explore. The task was to return to the location used the previous day and re-explore it to identify suitable subjects.

I wanted to draw inside one of the beautiful Baroque churches so I thumbnailed several different external views that got closer and closer to St. Nicholas Church which is opposite and to the right of the square looking out from the entrance to the National Gallery.

When I went inside the church I knew I wanted to draw the space. It provided an interesting challenge and the need to work in an extremely long thin vertical format. I had to crane my head upwards to see the ceiling arches and then down to my toes to see the tiling on the floor. I felt this made for a strong design with the visual hierarchy moving a viewer from the foreground patterned tiles up the vertical lines of the columns into the vaulted ceiling.

As I was drawing there was a thunderstorm outside, and lightning flashes lit up the interior which made it all the more memorable.

St Nicolas Church interior
St. Nicholas Church, Prague, 2-pages of and A4 (landscape) sketchbook

After the 90-minutes we gathered together as a group for our final review. The work was amazing and it felt humbling to be around such talented artists.

Additional sketches

I did a couple of additional sketches during the evenings that are included here for completeness.

View from the street behind the Airbnb I was staying at
A sketch made over breakfast the the Ebel Coffee Shop


What went well

  • The bootcamp was a great challenge to my engrained approach to drawing. It gave me permission to experiment and bring more of myself into the work rather than being overly worried about trying to achieve a realistic representation.
  • The exercises were brilliantly explained and illustrated with simple and important objectives. I make a commitment here to practice them until I integrate them into my ways-of-working.
  • The figure drawing exercises were particularly important for me because I needed a gentle kick to get me to do what I need to in order to strengthen this area of my practice.
  • I’ve noticed a really important thing in myself. If, when making a picture I begin to feel safe and secure or take the safe option, creativity dies and the image will probably fail. I think this describes what with hindsight how I feel about the final artwork for Assignment 1 – Invisible cities.
  • My best pictures are the ones where I push myself out of my comfort zone – out onto the wire.
  • I benefited from working with a fountain pen. I bought a Lamy Safari pen but didn’t really get on with it; I realise now that the smooth thin paper in my current Moleskine sketchbook isn’t suited to fountain pen. At the bootcamp I was advised to try a broader nib to help me create more expressive marks. I’d like to achieve the same range of line weights that I can get using a dip pen.
  • I started using an A4 landscape sketchbook which is a new format for me.
  • The people on the bootcamp were great. Melanie Reim and Veronica Lawlor were inspirational and I hope I get a chance to do further workshops with them in the future.
  • I will continue to develop my figure drawing by using the same techniques I was taught in Prague in 2.4 Everyday fashion.

What I would do differently/better

  • Almost all of the work produced during the bootcamp is not great drawing but it was a genuine attempt to try new things, that, with practice will help me to improve.


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