Book review: The Urban Sketcher by Marc Taro Holmes

By Róisín Curé in Galway, Ireland

I recently read Marc Taro Holmes’ new book, The Urban Sketcher: Techniques for Seeing and Drawing on Location, and decided to post a review of it. While Marc and I have not known each other personally for very long, I have admired his beautiful, loose technique since I first came across it on Urban Sketchers.

This is the kind of stunning work that Marc creates, and I was intrigued to discover his secrets…which, as it turns out, he shares with candour.

The book is divided into just three chapters, which lends the book an air of accessibility from the beginning – it demystifies the whole business of sketching, which is a big step for anyone who has in the past been daunted by the process.

Chapter 1 takes the reader by the hand, and leads him or her into the world of creating shapes from observation. Marc is a passionate urban sketcher, and he describes in his book some of the many places he enjoys sketching in his home city of Montreal. He shows us how opportunities for sketching are all around us, all the time, and offers many suggestions for uncovering chances to sketch of our own. He makes it very clear that no matter how self-critical you might be, if you concentrate on quantity, then quality will take care of itself, and follow naturally. This first section is a clear guide to becoming a habitual and competent sketcher, starting with offering encouragement and tips for developing a sketching habit, and continuing into the nitty-gritty of gaining confidence as a drawer. There’s plenty of advice on how a strong composition works, and Marc explains his technique of drawing “from the outside in” – starting with an accurate silhouette and filling in the shape within. He also offers easy-to-follow techniques for using shadow to bring your drawing to life, and refers to common pitfalls.

Chapter 2 leads you from pencil into ink, suggesting that you can achieve a lot of drama very quickly this way. He understands that this can be daunting for the uninitiated, but offers lots of clever tips for getting past this.

Marc uses a simple but effective technique he calls “three-pass sketching”, whereby you make a quick sketch in pencil and follow it with a very loose ink line, and finally lay shadow shapes on top. He suggests ways to develop this technique, using things that you’ll find anywhere (like cemeteries, as illustrated here: he calls them “public sculpture gardens”).

After this, Marc suggests to the reader that they might try jumping straight into ink, and reminds us that mistakes are not something to be worried about. There are lots of suggestions for dealing with moving people, from those who are making the same action repeatedly – workers for example – to those who are only moving their hands, to those who move in and out of your view in a flash. The tips are very sensible, but I would say that, as they are the same techniques I use for drawing people in motion (like using bits of lots of swiftly-moving people to make up one person). Now that I think of it, we are not a million miles apart in our approach to drawing, so from that point of view reading this section was like agreeing vigourously with someone as to how best to approach a drawing.

Here is one of Marc’s beautiful figure drawings, using a live but “captive” subject – a tattoo artist at work:

You can clearly see the three-pass sketching technique at work here, resulting in a loose and expressive, but still accurate, drawing.

Chapter 3 is a different story altogether. This is the section on using watercolour to bring life and magic to your sketches, and (if the final result is anything to go by) Marc and I differ entirely in our respective approaches to the use of watercolour. For this reason I was very curious to learn about his method.

Marc’s technique is a “painterly” way to paint. He appears to love the interaction of pigment and water, and is very happy to allow the paint to be in control much of the time. I could learn something from this: I have a very tightly-controlled, straightforward approach, and I think it would be great to loosen up somewhat (or a lot). I was fascinated to learn how he uses values to achieve the desired effect, and he describes clearly his very own Tea, Milk and Honey technique, namely a transparent wash followed by a more opaque one, with details picked out at the end. The techniques are very clearly laid down, and I imagine anyone would get a lot out of it, no matter what their skill level. The results speak for themselves: Marc’s paintings are expressive and sensitive, so he’s doing something right.

I liked his use of spot colour when approaching figures. This illustration demonstrates it well: the author tells us that as long as your shadow shapes are right, and your overall values are true, you can be quite free with your colour.

I put a couple of Marc’s techniques to the test. The first one I tried was drawing from the outside in. I was intrigued with the new way to draw, and I found it pretty good. The other technique I used was the three-pass sketching: drawing a pencil line and inking over it. It resulted in a very accurate result of which my teenage daughter approved. As a rule I prefer to jump in with an ink line and no pencil preparation, but that’s because I am very happy to live with indelible mistakes. It’s no coincidence that when I’m doing a commission I usually use Marc’s three-pass technique. So if you want your drawing to be correct, it’s a great approach.

For any urban sketcher it’s a great book, full of useful tips, regardless of your level.

More of my reviews can be read here.

Opinions expressed by our correspondents and guest contributors don’t necessarily represent an official view of Urban


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