Friday, February 15, 2013

Life Between Buildings: Capturing the Energy (Workshop E)



Instructor: James Richards (Fort Worth, USA)
Location: Plaça Catalunya

Barcelona’s public spaces—streets, squares, plazas, parks—are world renowned as settings for the city’s rich public life. The focus of this workshop is the public realm that acts as the connective tissue between buildings, where the life of great cities takes place. Here, architecture acts as the backdrop of a stage set, and the “players” in the space—people in motion, vehicles, street furnishings, trees, birds—act in concert to bring life and energy to the scene. How can this urban exuberance and “personality of place” be captured in a sketch without creating a hopeless mess?

This workshop will focus on creating energetic yet visually coherent sketches of “life between buildings,” using a combination of strategies:

  • Dynamic composition,
  • drawing people first,
  • “drawing with abandon,”
  • using strong overall shapes, exaggerated perspective and “creative lean,”
  • connecting dark shapes to create rhythm and unity, and
  • focused use of color to create emphasis and suggest a mood.


Workshop Outline

  • We’ll begin with a brief discussion and viewing annotated photos and sketches that demonstrate the visual principles involved in capturing the energy of an urban scene.
  • Next, draw a number of the individuals you are observing as a crowd populating the page. This is a technique that can break the tension of marking on a sheet of pure white paper, and can immediately give a scene a sense of life and an illusion of depth. Draw those moving in and out of the scene, with a focus on capturing them in mid-stride. Create an illusion of depth with by varying sizes, overlapping, singles and clusters, more detail in foreground figures, less in the background.
  • Add entourage—trees, vehicles, streetlights, signs, bollards, etc., with some of the elements in the foreground, breaking free of the frame, to enhance the illusion of depth.
  • Add architecture as a lively backdrop, starting with large contour shapes, then filling in key details (simplified!).
  • Add and connect dark shapes across the sketch to create contrast and rhythm, and to help unify the image.
  • Finally, add color in a focused way to create emphasis and mood.


Learning goals

  • Understanding a successful public space from an urban design perspective in terms of individual elements, their relationships to each other, and how they collectively convey a “personality of place.”
  • Editing a scene—choosing what to emphasize and what to leave out—to consciously simplify and communicate our impression in a strong composition.
  • Creating a sense of realism and depth through use of perspective, overlapping, diminishing figure size, the “fading out” of detail in the foreground.
  • Simplifying complex elements by seeking to capture their visual texture rather than literal details
  • Exploring a Cubist approach of walking around a subject, looking at it from all sides, and showing many facets of it in the same picture.
  • Developing confidence with short exercises and “drawing with abandon.”


In my view urban sketching isn’t about art, per se. It’s more about authenticity—showing up, being in the moment, honestly recording what’s in front of you, and gaining a deeper awareness and appreciation for the magic of the everyday. Mostly, it’s about experiencing the joy of the creative dance of the mind, eye and hand.

Supply list

  • No exotic materials are required beyond what most attendees carry with them:
  • Watercolor sketchbook--size per personal preference
  • Sketching pencils and/or waterproof ink pens (technical or fountain pens)
  • Travel watercolor set
  • Waterbrushes or traditional brushes, one large flat, one medium round
  • Small rag
  • Small plastic container of water
  • Small lightweight folding stool (optional)


Sample sketches