Storytelling through sketching
How drawing a scene can tell you more than casual observation
Welcome to Story Cauldron. Each week I explore a quirky or unexpected place where we might find storytelling. This week, I want to look at something that caught me off-guard, demonstrating that story really does live everywhere.
I’ve never been able to draw. Although I loved art and learned the basics of drawing in junior high art class, I didn’t stick with it and instead moved on to photography and ceramics. After that, I tried on a few occasions to draw things around the house, or sketch things that I could paint with watercolor, but I grew increasingly frustrated by my inability to convert what my eyes saw to lines on a piece of paper.
Nishant Jain, who writes The SneakyArt Post, inspired me to give drawing another try. Rather than take a class or get a stack of ‘how to draw books,’ he suggested I jump right in and start drawing people’s photos in /r/redditgetsdrawn/. He said that if I draw every day, as often as possible, I’ll get better in time.
I started as he suggested, sketching people from still photos. So far I have dozens of small portraits of strangers from the Internet.
But Nishant also told me about urban sketchers, people like himself who draw what they see in their cities—buildings, parks, people at coffee shops, or folks walking their dogs. The idea intrigued me enough that when I had a couple of hours to kill last week, I took my sketchpad to an outdoor patio at a local coffee shop to see what I could accomplish.
From my position, I was able to sketch two different pairs of people. They were sitting far enough away from me that I couldn’t hear what they were saying and, far more importantly, they couldn’t tell that I was drawing them.
The first one is above—two women sharing a conversation over a quick coffee. The second is below.
These drawings aren’t incredibly detailed, but my intention was to simply capture what I saw as quickly as I could. I wanted to practice drawing real-life subjects, people who are moving and alive and not posing for a photo.
When I drew them, I tried to faithfully capture what I saw—the direction they were looking, how they were sitting, what was on the table. I didn’t really take the time to think about anything more than that.
What I didn't expect was how different I would view the scenes hours later. It hadn’t occurred to me that I had captured details in their body language, clothing, and posture that told stories I hadn’t even seen in the moment. For example, in the image of the two men, I hadn’t noticed how much more confident the dude with the jacket over the back of his chair was, compared to the guy in the work shirt and baseball cap, who was sitting there with his hands under the table. I also hadn’t fully appreciated how the older lady was yammering on as the younger woman was looking down at a paper she was holding.
What is the relationship of the two men, who were roughly the same age but dressed for very different careers? Are they old high school friends who made time to get together, or are they related? Their postures don’t suggest they’re brothers or lovers, but they seem comfortable enough to suggest it wasn’t an interview or consulting session.
As for the women? I don’t know about you, but I’m picking up strong mother-daughter vibes there. I’m just guessing, but I bet they meet up for coffee at least once a week and catch up over a cup of caffeine.
And there are the stories. If I were so inclined, with just this little starting point, the writer inside me could easily take these sketches and build out entire stories about their lives, how they feel about each other, and where they’re each going next.
It's weird—as a people watcher, occasional eavesdropper, and photographer, I never expected that I would pick up different details from drawing than I would from just watching. But then again, I guess I never really paid that much attention to where people's hands were or how they sat in the same way I do when I'm drawing.
It’s safe to say that since I started this new hobby last month, the sketching bug has bitten me pretty hard. So when I heard about #Inktober, a month-long challenge in which artists interpret a single word prompt each day in an ink drawing, I decided to give it a shot to add to my daily drawing practice.
What an interesting idea! Each day’s prompt can be interpreted in a number of different ways, giving me a wide range of options for what to draw. So far I’m just using Google to help me find an image since I’m not good enough to draw something without a reference point (yet!) and the opportunity is giving me lots of new ways to challenge myself. I’m also drawing over pencil sketches with a pen, which adds another layer to the learning experience.
Here are my interpretations of ‘crystal’ and ‘knot,’ days 1 and 4 of the challenge. Each day, I not only choose an image that fulfills the prompt, but I use the photos to help me work on something challenging. In the first one, below, I wanted to see how well I could sketch someone sitting in profile. I struggled with the face and hands, but I was pretty happy with how the clothing turned out.
In this one, I focused on practicing drawing hands, which are super hard. I actually did a different one first, but I think this one turned out a bit better.
(Note: the drawings I’ve included here are my beginner efforts and I recognize their flaws. Hopefully you don’t judge them too harshly!)
Bonus: books I’ve enjoyed
As an extra tidbit this week, I thought I’d share a few books I’ve read or am currently reading, in case you’re looking for something new.
I recently finished The Broken Heart of America: St. Louis and the Violent History of the United States by Walter Johnson, a historical analysis of how St. Louis became, for a time, the epicenter of manufacturing, westward expansion, and warfare. He documents how patterns of racism and economic inequality—dating back to the 18th century—continue to shape St. Louis and explain why the city is so racially divided to this day.
In just one example, I learned how the small Black neighborhood of Meacham Park near where I live now was promised the moon if they agreed to allow the affluent, white suburban community of Kirkwood to annex them—new housing, great community benefits, you name it. The residents agreed, and the city demolished hundreds of homes, cut off neighborhood access, and constructed a mega shopping center. Yet curiously, after effectively forcing out half of the community, Kirkwood never built all the new housing for the community that it had promised—a story that has played out time after time in St. Louis. But one member of the community didn’t accept this betrayal, and in 2008 he went to Kirkwood City Hall, where he shot the mayor and six others. In total, seven died, including the mayor and the gunman, Cookie Thornton, who was killed by police. What is bonkers about this whole tragic incident is that I regularly shop at the Target and Lowe’s in that shopping center, which is just 3 miles from my house, and until I read the book I had no idea any of that happened. (I anticipate that the whole story of Meacham Park may reappear in a future Story Cauldron.)
For an entirely different kind of read, over the weekend I devoured the newly-released YA fantasy novel Defy the Night by Brigid Kemmerer (whose trilogy starting with the Beauty and the Beast retelling A Curse So Dark and Lonely totally enthralled me). Defy the Night offers a story about a mysterious disease threatening to undermine the kingdom that sets two young protagonists at odds with one another (in her acknowledgments she swears it’s a pre-pandemic tale!). If you’re a fan of Victoria Aveyard or Holly Black, you’ll probably love it, and it’s a quick read to boot.
And now, for something once again completely different, I’m currently intrigued by Chuck Palaniuk’s new serial novel Greener Pastures, which the Fight Club author is publishing on Substack just like I’m doing with my Favor Faeries novels. I’ve just read the first two installments but it looks like it could be a good one. From his description, it’s a very dark YA novel. So we’ll see.
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