|Daumier, Riders on an Omnibus, 1864|
Chuck Klosterman, ethicist for the New York Times, ponders whether it's OK to sketch strangers on the subway. His basic point is that:
"If you’re in public, people are allowed to look at you. This can be creepy and annoying, but it’s not unethical. If the individual scrutinizing you starts sketching your face, you can say, “Don’t do that,” and the person should stop (out of normal human courtesy). But the act is not inherently unethical."
Here are a few excerpts from the many comments after the piece:
- "I am amused in this day of pervasive smart phone cameras that someone is concerned with the "invasiveness" of a hand drawn sketch."
- "It's always best to ask permission if the activity is obvious or intrusive."
- "I am a stealth sketcher. The way I do it, although they know I am drawing, they can't tell who I am drawing. I draw them when they are distracted, sleeping, reading or on the telephone so they don't notice."
I believe it's helpful to consider what might be going on in the mind of of the person being sketched:
Why is the artist interested in drawing me?
Should I hold still?
Will he make me look good?
How long will it take?
Will I get to see the sketch afterward?
If I like it, can I put it on Facebook?
Are they going to try to sell it to me?
How are they going to use it?
(Young woman's perspective might be) Is he hitting on me?
If the person being sketched is preoccupied with their phone or their book and doesn't notice the artist, the artist is under no obligation to tell them they're being sketched, and doing so could make the person self-conscious. But once the subject and the artist lock eyes, all the questions start playing in the subject's head.
The artist can alleviate all the anxieties by addressing the questions in a friendly opener, such as:
"Hi, I'm just getting some practice sketching people, hope you don't mind. Keep doing what you're doing. I'll be done in five more minutes and I'll show you when I finish."
If they look annoyed after that, I'd probably try someone else, but nine times out of ten, you will have erased their worries and perhaps made a friend.
Sometimes you're sitting too far away to make such a friendly request, or you're dealing with a language barrier and in that case, I have held up the sketchbook to face them, smiled, and raised my eyebrows, and pointed from the sketch to them, which helps clear the air a bit. That gives them the opportunity to decline politely nonverbally, by waving a finger or frowning.
If you're in a waiting room where you might wish to do a portrait with a lot more commitment, rather than stealth sketching, it's best to get permission and set the terms at the outset. Then you can say something like, "Hey, are you going to be around here a while? I'm an artist traveling around here, and I'd love to sketch your portrait while we talk." Asking permission up front from parents is also a good idea if you're a man sketching children in public places.
Many times people line up, wanting to be drawn or painted. In this case, I was painting a street scene on a rainy day, and a father and daughter came up to look at the painting and chat for a bit. Before they walked on, I asked them, "After you cross the street and get to the blue sign, would you mind holding a walking pose for a minute or so?" They did so, very willingly, and then turned around afterward to give me a happy wave goodbye.