Drawing (with) a crowd…

My favourite things to draw are people, not people posing, but people living out their lives – strolling together, drinking tea, reading on the train, speedily walking to work or shopping in a market. I love the action, the shapes, the stories that are present in capturing gestures and place together in a single moment. Yet, not only are people famously difficult subjects to draw, without confidence it can be extraordinarily hard to find subjects. These scenes are everywhere, yet actually being comfortable to sit among a crowd and sketch them has been quite a journey…

When I first came across the urban sketchers movement, I was quite overwhelmed. I have always loved to draw, for the act itself as much as creating a finished product, and here was a very active global movement filled with people that just love to sit out in the world and capture it, as it is, in the time they sit there. I felt so joyous, I felt like I had found ‘my people’. Yet, when I discovered this, I was in Ulaanbaatar, the capital of Mongolia and heading into winter.

This is what – 38 degrees Celsius looked like from my apartment window – pretty hard to sit outside and draw

This meant not only months of subzero temperatures, but also air filled with smoke – definitely not an easy place to begin trying this act of sitting in public and sketching. I wanted to race outside and begin – driven even more so by how unique my new surroundings were, yet if I’m honest, it wasn’t just the cold and the smoke that held me back. I was actually so very scared. Scared of people watching, scared of what would happen if someone saw me drawing them, scared of what they would think of my drawing. So, I drew mostly from my apartment.

My first moment of sketching outside/in public whilst in Mongolia came when I left the city. Less people meant less potential for a big audience, so one evening whilst out in the middle of the grasslands, I got out a pen and paper and drew.

Possibly my first ever public sketch – we were out on the Steppe with only 8 or so other people, and many of them were busy preparing dinner (the sheep at the door), so only 2 people actually stood and watched me draw

This gave me confidence, but also made me aware how much worse my drawings were when someone was leaning over my shoulder. This was the pressure I had been worrying about – how do I stop worrying about what they are thinking about my drawing, and just draw?

I then moved to Kathmandu, again a city of great inspiration in terms of drawing. So busy, so many crowds, cows in front of mobile phone stores, people on the roof tops of busses, so much colour, chaos and wonder. Yet, again I struggled with drawing in public, despite how much I wanted to. Every time I tried to sit down outside I would draw a large crowd, usually of bored men. I wasn’t strong or brave enough, the crowd and their distraction was too overwhelming. So, again I drew mostly from the safety of my apartment.

The view from my kitchen – on a good day the mighty Himalayas appeared beyond the hills.

The breakthrough for me, from fear to going out and doing it anyway, came predominately from simply making sure I drew everyday. This daily drawing habit that I had learned from my classes at the wonderful sketchbookskool, filled me with determination, resilience and also such better skills. Drawing everyday made me realise just how better my days were when I fitted it in – I noticed things properly, I appreciated all the tiny small details, I stopped and focused on just one thing for a short time – all definitely a source for me of contentment and happiness. I also got better. With the daily practice I felt my skills growing and with it my confidence, and through both these things I began to care a lot less when others saw me draw.

Drawing everyday also forced me outside – as I started to run out of inspiring things inside to draw. I began to draw regularly in cafes…

A quiet cafe in Kathmandu – a perfect place to gain confidence!

and moved back to Australia where I started to manage to sit out in the streets and in busy markets and draw.

Early morning in the Vic Market Deli, one of the busiest places in Melbourne
Pre-work at the infamous hot jam doughnut van, Melbourne
One of the most beautiful and famous (and busy) places in Melbourne – the beautiful Block Arcade

I feel so excited that I have now managed to quell my fear, ignore the uncertainty, not worry about onlookers, and sit out in public and draw. People often watch. Yet, their interest is almost always positive – driven by curiousity, and often an unfulfilled desire of their own. I’m yet to have had any negative feedback, or criticism, even when I have been caught drawing a particular person. I was with a group, the Melbourne Urban Sketchers, when I drew the girl with the red coat (above) in the beautiful Block Arcade. The owner of the arcade came down to watch, took many photos of us and our sketchbooks, and was just generally so excited we were drawing the life in his gorgeous old building.

When I draw now in the cafes in my small town, the owners and staff often check in with me to have a look at what I’m sketching, sometimes browse through my sketchbook, and comment – again always positively. In one cafe, one of the regular waiters told me that after seeing me draw he has bought a sketchbook and started sketching classes.

Drawing a crowd at one of the busiest (and best) local cafes – Das Kaffeehaus

Having the confidence to sit among a crowd and draw it, is so very wonderful. It gives me a never-ending pool of subject matter. And although there are times I may perhaps still wish to be able to wear some kind of invisible cloak (e.g. it would be quite an interesting view from under a table, yet not sure how fondly that would be looked upon) – I also have begun to also be able to enjoy the crowd that often gathers to see what I’m doing. There is something so universally appealing and accessible about the act of drawing. It not only transcends language and culture, but also technology. Unlike photography, everyone can afford to access it as you don’t need anything fancy to do it – a pen and a piece of paper is all. Sharing my vulnerability in making these sketches in public, seems to inspire others to embrace any of their own closet drawing desires, and the crowd can bring an energy, the positive comments a wonderful encouragement.

Last week – sketching from the time of opening, watching the crowd grow at one of Melbourne’s busiest cafes

My one regret is not having found this confidence whilst in Mongolia and Nepal, or in all my previous travels. And the only negative about having found this passion and overcome the fear – is that it is hard to want to do anything other than travel and draw.

Yesterday, at Adelaide airport


17 thoughts on “Drawing (with) a crowd…

    1. Hurrah! Thanks so much Cath, it has been a pretty big time of discovery for me – and thanks to support from people like you that I think I’ve kept going. Thank you!


  1. These are awesome , I really like the simplicity and the splash of color which really makes the drawing stand out a bit more. Ive started getting into observational drawing with pen and ink and they really are great to capture motion and give a particular feel to the overall sketch.


    1. Thank you so very much! Pen and ink is just such a great medium I think and you’re right, I think because they are simple, they are really good at capturing quick gestures and things. Thanks for reading and commenting!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Really appreciate this thoughtful reflection about drawing people in public. If you are in Hong Kong please come and say hello to People Drawing People. We meet in cafes mostly and draw each other. One of our members shared your blogs. We love it!


    1. Hi Simon, Thanks so much for this lovely comment. Your group sounds so amazing – and I’d love to come and meet you all if I am ever in Hong Kong. I love Hong Kong, but don’t get there as often as i would like – what an amazing city to sketch in! Thanks again, so nice to know you enjoyed reading it!


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