Trade Secrets!

I received a great email before Christmas from a guy called Fergal. He comes from an architectural background. He has arrived late to sketching. He is particularly interested in Architectural & Urban Sketching. I’m sure Fergal won’t mind if I quote chunks from his email to answer his specific queries.

“Whilst I have been told I have a talent, I haven’t till now had the courage of my convictions to give things a try & to let things go so to speak.”

I’m sure a lot of artists recognise this comment, if not in themselves then through people they meet and talk to. I think I received my first Moleskine sketchbook in 2007 as a leaving gift. I felt so nervous about messing it up that I didn’t make my first drawings in it until I visited Florence in August 2015! I started by incorporating my drawings with text as a daily diary/ travelogue and pinched a bit from my favourite architectural historian, Bill Riseboro. If you haven’t read his books on the story of Western Architecture and his history of Modern Architecture then I cannot recommend them highly enough. This approach gave me the confidence to treat each page as a composition and fill with a mix of drawings en plein air and from guide books, etc. My attitude now is that it’s just paper, some sketches work, some don’t. If you’re precious about opinion, don’t show the rubbish ones to people! Get stuck in to it and just enjoy yourself, it’s way less stressful than producing working drawings for buildings!

“I find myself comfortable with a pencil & drawing from my imaginings but find myself baulking when it comes to reproducing a live scene, applying ink & applying colour. I’m sure practice will be the key to getting over this but I would love to get some insight into how you produce your stunning pieces.”

Practice is a given, the more you do something the better you get, unless it’s Golf. That might just have been me though! The other key is to learn from other artists. Instagram was instrumental in this for me. Seeing how many fantastic artists are out there is so encouraging. The diversity is brilliant because all styles, materials and levels of competency are available. There is always something to aspire to. There is a huge resource on social media to seek inspiration from and to slavishly copy if necessary! I also bought a lot of Urban Sketching books which included better images of the drawings of my “Insta” heroes and heroines and usually adds their thought processes and tips on technique.

I have no pearls of wisdom to explain what I do really. As an architectural technician I was always able to draw. I pre-date CAD. However, I have always wanted to learn to paint. I tried landscape in watercolour sessions for a couple of years with very mixed results. Then I started life drawing as well. I found life drawing was more exciting and honed my drawing ability much more than the watercolour sessions did. It reminded me of my Art teacher at school. Mr Lynch would always say still life drawing was 80% observation, 20% drawing. That rule holds true for life drawing and certainly holds true for urban sketching and en plein air painting.

“Your confident brash free flowing bold style is particularly appealing to me & I hope you wont mind me enquiring about the pens, inking, colours and materials you use to produce your work. Whether you use a pencil to set up your scenes or just go for it.”

The temptation is always to have lots of kit. I took a huge amount of material with me for both the heat and the semi-final of LAOTY. I ended up using no more than the kit I normally take with me for a sketching trip plus some large sheets of paper.

For prep sketches I use a Moleskine watercolour sketchbook. Occasionally, I will draw with a pencil, I use a Pentel 0.9mm with 2B leads for practical purposes. Most of the time I will draw straight off with my favourite Kaweco Sports fountain pen with Kaweco water soluble inks in various colours or Uni Pin fineliners, in my sketchbook I start with a 0.1mm pen. I always carry a range of Uni Pins from 0.05 to 0.8mm. I never draw in pencil and go over it in pen.

For colouring I currently use three travel palettes of:

  • 12 Winsor & Newton artist quality half pans
  • Daniel Smith ‘Serene to Dramatic’ set of 6 blue half pans supplemented by additional pans filled with Quinacridone Gold, New Gamboge, Undersea Green, Green Apatite Genuine and Green Gold and Pyrrol Scarlet.
  • Kremer Pigments palette of 14 monochrome colours ranging from Titanium White to Furnace Black

I carry three palettes because I can and they are small. However, the Daniel Smith palette is a recent addition and is almost certain to replace the Winsor and Newton palette on the road.

Special word for the Kremer Monochrome. My love of this palette comes from Instagram and the use of the palette by Simone Ridyard. A perfect example of how social media can benefit your art.

“I am particularly taken by the effectiveness of the strong outlining technique you used in your Semi Final piece…”, “your thinking process behind the selection of elements to outline & the materials you use.”

OK, so you might have to bear with me on this one, it’s easy when you think about it but it’s quite hard to explain. I used to work with a technical illustrator in an architectural practice which specialised in technical literature for construction materials. Neil told me to imagine a fly walking on a surface. If the fly walked across a line and disappeared by going around a corner, then that line should be heavy. If the fly walked across a line which marked a change in material in the same plane then it should be light. I apply this rule to my drawing of details such as windows but I also use it to emphasise the elements of a drawing I want to pull out of the drawing. I also apply a hierachy of line weight to emphasise distance.

It probably isn’t that obvious at this size, but I drew this whole piece with a 0.05 Uni Pin. I then used a 0.3 mm pen to emphasise the line created by St Paul’s Cathedral to Blackfriars Bridge and the buildings in between. I then used a 0.2mm pen to pick out Leadenhall, NatWest Tower and the Lloyds Building. I finished with a 0.1mm pen to highlight the Gherkin and the Walkie Talkie. I hope this hierarchy of line helps to give the impression of depth to the drawing.

I won’t go in to paper, it’s not me area of expertise!

3 thoughts on “Trade Secrets!

  1. Great article Brian – lots of useful stuff here! Might need to try out the Kaweco brand. 80% looking, 20% doing was something similar my tutor Terence Clarke used to say, or ‘eyeballing’ to paraphrase David Hockney. Ps, Inverary the day before your heat was thankfully drier for us, but congrats for defying the soggy odds and winning your heat!


  2. Brian, great article and really interesting as an oil painter to understand more about your tools and techniques. If you do discover more about paper, I’d love to read about it as it’s a blind spot for people who work on canvas or boards and fancy playing with their gouache or watercolours a bit more!


    1. I’ve discovered a lot about paper! I’ll share soon.


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