My son’s first look at the ocean–finished sketch, 1995 (Pencil on acetate)
Last Sunday we of the LA Urban Sketchers group were treated to a virtual demo of how to sketch heads. The talented artist who took us on this online journey was Gary Geraths. He is not only a teacher at Otis College of Art and Design, but he was also the sketch artist who sketched the court proceedings, inside and out of the LA courtroom, for the 1995 OJ Simpson trial. Do I have your attention? Wow, huh? Anyway, he is also this kind of random artist who goes way out to places like Tibet to sketch the landscape and the people. He started off sharing his many journals, which of course meant he also shared the many stories that went with his art. One journal he was particularly proud of as it had flown out of this hand as he was intermittently sketching and paddling down some rapids on one of his many river rafting trips. I was amazed that he hadn’t actually flown out of the boat with it. I was also amazed that the journal must have actually floated and he was able to find it again. I guess that was major for him as well, but he didn’t say. But he did tell us that he was very excited with how quickly the pages had dried out so he could get back to sketching on board the boat. His message was pretty clear, and that was to sketch as quickly as you can. I got the impression he was trying to tell us you need to stay focused wherever you may find yourself sketching. Be aware of your surroundings, or you might miss something. I have paddled down fast moving CA river rapids in the past. I can’t imagine taking my focus off the potentially churning water up ahead as I gripped the paddle with both hands. Putting the paddle down to take up a waterproof pen and journal would have been unthinkable to me. And even with all my concentrated effort to be part of a team of paddlers going down the rapids I have flown out of a boat a time or two. Thank goodness the people on the boat came back around to get me. And I don’t remember drying out very quickly at all!
Anyway, after his unusual introduction, he got down to the business of showing us how he sketches heads. He started by telling us that he believed there were three kinds of sketches you can do when you are out in the field, or fast moving water I guess. The first kind he talked about was a finished sketch. Gary said that when making such a sketch you needed to “bring the goods.” He further explained that meant you needed to convey some kind of expression on the person’s face that shows definite skill and/or intent. I think my first pencil sketch, showing my young son’s 1995 head, would fit that description. I so remember taking this photo. He was less than a year old and it was the first time he was seeing the Pacific Ocean. The expression on his face was indescribable. You may have noticed that there is way more than just my son’s face here. But there was way more information I wanted to share with this drawing and that included his body language as well. He was pretty excited, right? Gary said that if you were going to include a human or animal in your sketch, you needed to be aware of the angle of that organism’s head, whatever kind of sketch you intended to make. He said you should be able to look at a person or animal and decide if it was 3/4, profile, full on, or some variation of one of those. I should add here that he said learning to draw hands is worth spending time on as well. Nice that both my son’s head and hands show some skill.
Note: You may have noticed the colored pencil and watercolor painting of my son and I that heads up One California Girl each week. Here is what we looked like in 1995. However, we were far from the ocean, but instead looking at the J Lohr vineyards on Paso Robles’s east side of Highway 46. He doesn’t look as excited here to see the vineyards as he was when he first caught sight of the pounding surf at a Cayucos beach. You can see that his head is in 3/4 view in a kind of over the shoulder view. I, on the other hand, am not even facing the viewer, but instead am looking straight on at my beloved Paso Robles vineyards.)
Quick sketch from Line-of-Action.com, 5/2020 (pencil on sketch paper)
Looking at this profile quick sketch from a photo on Line-of-Action.com, you can see what Gary referred to as his second category of sketching. As this was done in a timed format, it definitely puts me in mind of his message to sketch quickly. For this second kind of sketch he reminded us that it’s always important to correctly get the angle of the head as well as other landmark features (e.g. ears, nose etc). However, maybe the visual message of the person you are sketching here is not so evident with their expression needing to be more inferred. He added that you don’t necessarily need to bring your A-game for this kind of sketch—maybe you might be exploring the mechanics of trying to capture a gesture, feeling or mood. Finally, he said you are trying to say more with less precision. For this kind sketch you may be using a more scratchy approach, where many lines somehow read as the line of a jaw, forehead etc—much less precise compared to a finished sketch.
Note: Gary said he gets lots of really interesting faces/heads to draw by looking at old mug shots online. I tried to look at some, but they kind of gave me the creeps. That’s not where I’ll be looking to practice drawing heads. You have probably already gotten the idea that Gary is pretty adventurous when it comes to his art. Welcome to LA!
Example of the third kind of sketch, circa 2016 (ink and watercolor on sketch paper)
For this final kind of minimal sketch, Gary reminded us that even though you might not be rendering much in the way of detail it was still important to maintain appropriate head and body angles—even you are drawing giraffes and elephants at the zoo. For this kind of sketch it might be hard to infer emotion or meaning, but often such a sketch includes several people/animals and meaning can be added by the way the people/animals are grouped.
Gary said that this kind of drawing technique might be what you do when out sketching people at your favorite restaurant, neighborhood laundromat or when you happen to catch a couple cats just waking up from a nap. He said you needed to figure out the composition in a hurry and you should never start with the person/animal you plan to render straight on. Gary said you need to practice with a couple of your other characters in profile or 3/4 before that. He told us that he sometimes adds one head to another’s body and vis versa. Feels a little like a zombie thing to do, right? Yeah, this is LA.
Note: Maybe I’ve been feeling a little like a zombie, or the walking dead. Can’t wait to feel comfortable enough to go out and sketch people or even places without worrying about whether I am going to get too close to someone. Of course maybe the zombie feeling I have right now has to do with the fact that it was Halloween yesterday and the election is just around the corner—not to mention COVID. How about you? Feeling a little of the zombie vibe right now too?