– Why I'm doing it, and why you should, too.
One of the scariest things I do as an artist, is to practice drawing strangers. I'll take my sketchbook and pencil with me, go out and find people standing still long enough for me to use them as references. All the while, I am hoping that they won't see me looking at them – I don't want them to feel uncomfortable! (It can sometimes be wise to ask permission from whoever you're drawing.) Why do I do this, then, if it's so nerve-wrecking? Here are my reasons, alongside some general advice about drawing from life.
1. Learning to see
Life drawing is very different from drawing from a picture. You need to learn a new way to see, in order to transfer what you see onto paper. In this process, you will rediscover how light, shadow and perspective work. Your senses will help you pick up on things you never would have seen or felt when looking at a photograph, and environmental additions such as smell, sound, temperature and setting will influence your drawing. I will say that drawing from life can help you to add more meaning and impact into your artistic style and skill.
2. Finding characters
As an illustrator, I might have use for different characters. What place is better to find inspiration than out in the public? Of course, my family and friends will always be there as reference models and inspiration, but think about how many different people I can observe in public! Every day when I am traveling with the metro or by train, I spend 5-25 minutes in a room full of people that are staying still long enough for me to sketch them. I also find it entertaining to draw people I find in cafés and similar places. There is always something about a person that catches my eye, and inspires me to make a little story about them or to "save" their characteristics for later use. I find that a sketchbook and a pencil is the perfect way of selecting what to hold on to about this human being in that moment. If I just snap a photograph of them, it won't have the same effect later (plus, it would be incredibly rude). By using my own line on paper, the essentials of that memory will be alive on that piece of paper.
3. Using time well
When drawing people that are unaware of you drawing them, you need to be quick. This is no time to make a detailed study, you need to decide what it is that you want to capture. What is most important? Is it the angle of a body, the light and shadow in a face, a movement, an outfit, a facial expression, or perhaps their body shape? Sometimes you will only have time to draw a few lines before the person is out of your sight again, and that's okay. You don't have to make a finished drawing of the person, this is no time for creating a masterpiece! All you are doing, is practicing and experimenting. As time passes and you're doing this, you will become better at sketching out a person's characteristics. Some artists will call their sketches and studies art and show them in a gallery, and some never really show their sketches to others. Either way is fine. Every drawing is full of different qualities.
4. Feeling safer in social settings
I find that drawing in public is making me feel more confident about my role as an artist in the public space. People will often be looking over my shoulder, curious as to what I'm creating. It used to make me nervous, because I wanted people to see a masterpiece when they looked – and all they got was a few scribbles looking like my 3rd grade drawings. Now I'm just ignoring people, and continuing my work, quite unaffected. It works because I plunged myself into cold water, and I've started to appreciate my sometimes childish sketches as well as my other work.
Perhaps it also can help you to feel more secure and confident? If sitting alone and drawing in a public space seems too daunting to you, then bring a friend or two! Either you all bring a sketchbook each or they just keep you company. It can be easier to do "abnormal" things in public when you're together. If you really don't want to be drawing strangers, then ask your friends if they would like to model for you. Ask them to focus on something else, or to change their pose often. That way you won't end up drawing one detailed portrait, but several quick and interesting sketches. Basically you're doing croquis, which is always useful practice for an artist.
5. Meeting people
Sometimes I'll be wondering about why we don't speak to the people we meet and sit next to on the bus or in the park. Not all the time, it would be exhausting! But every once in a while, as an outgoing person, I feel the urge to speak with random people. I want to say something nice, perhaps make their day a little brighter. Asking to draw them is the perfect excuse, because they will most likely be flattered by my interest and say yes (or no if they are uncomfortable), and they will love to see the sketch afterwards. A little bit of art will spread joy in our everyday life.
A really nice effect of reaching out to people in public, is a kind of networking. I never know if the person I'm approaching is need for an illustration at the time or later on, and the odds are high for them remembering me! At least I hope so. I'm carrying a couple of business cards all the time, just in case.
6. It's fun
Above all, I enjoy drawing strangers. As I have said, I find it daunting, but that way it is even more rewarding when I go home with some new experiences in my sketchbook.