Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Curious Spectators: Part 1 - The Problem

Yesterday's post about sketching strangers on subways led to a lively discussion about how best to manage the encounter between the artist and the unwitting model.
Here I am painting at the Platte Clove Community in Elka Park, New York.
Actually these folks were very respectful and asked smart, observant questions. 
Here's another dimension of this issue. If we as artists expect to have the right to look at strangers and draw them in the public sphere, we also have to yield to the right of people around us to watch us paint or draw. Like it or not, artists working in public become a form of entertainment that curious spectators feel entitled to watch.  Drawing or painting is a form of magic that no one can resist.

Anyone who has sketched outside have heard some of these same questions, and probably a lot more (Please tell me in the comments).

These questions unnerve a lot of would-be sketchers, who often feel that they're being judged, or they irritate painters who need to fully concentrate on a difficult step. It eventually wears me out if the comments are too repetitive or inane.

I've gotten plenty of weird comments. A landowner once shouted from his monster truck: "Makin' money off my tree?" A lawyer who owned a property said, "Don't fall into the water and drown. That would be actionable."

Another time I had to jettison a good spot because I realized it was the unloading zone for busload after busload of bored tourists.

Here's Spanish painter Antonio Lopez Garcia facing unusual odds in Puerta Del Sol.
See also 10 Tips for Dealing with the Problem of Curious Spectators


Stapleton Kearns said...

Are you painting this here?

Doug Hoppes said...

Since I paint a lot in the morning (in Vermont), I usually get the comment: "Where's the fog? That doesn't look like what you are painting".

When I ask someone who watches me paint, if they paint or draw, almost everyone mentions that they do or someone they know that does... but could never do that I do (paint in front of people). I try to encourage them and see if they want to join me some day. Hasn't happened, yet.

Justin D. Russell said...

One of my favourites, even though I never painted/drew anything resembling one of these, is: 'You do tattoos?' I used to get that frequently while sketching portraits enroute on the bus.

M. Proszowska said...

I'm getting most question on topic of pen brushes i'm using with my watercolors (the brushes with water container) so the question I hear most often is "my wife always wanted to paint watercolors, can you recommend me what to buy?"
Also I noticed most people run away fast when I ask them to paint something in my sketchbook :D

Tom Hart said...

I really appreciate the pespective that we have something - a sort of magic, as you put it - to share with onlookers. Somehow I think that will help me to overcome the shyness that often prevents me from sketching "in the wild". Working out of doors - if we are so inclined, even a little - is a way to get our art outside of ourselves. Realistically, most of us will never exhibit or publish widely, but we can daily (if we want) enjoy ourselves and often spread some of that joy, by painting outdoors.

Andy said...

It shouldn't bother me, as I'm sure it's meant with good intent, but the one that bothers me the most is "you have a gift".

If they had the slightest idea of the internal turmoil I go through in every painting - every painting - they may feel differently but I guess I must look like a duck to them - all serene on top, but paddling furiously below the waterline.

Then there's the good old standard "I couldn't draw a straight line", to which I usually respond, with a grin, "that's why they invented rulers".

When I was a signwriter, my favourite question was "what's the stick for?" in regards to the mahlstick I was clearly resting on.

And of course, the obligatory "you spelled it wrong" (I hadn't), and "why did you lay it out in chalk, then ignore the layout anyway?"

jimserrettstudio said...

Oh. that's how you do that, just smear it around till it looks like somethings!

Anonymous said...

Love your blog, Mr. Gurney. You've inspired me to take up plein air painting this summer. Having so much fun with it!

Anyway, the other day I went out to draw and was holding my pencil up to check angles on a building. A guy walked past and said "Why are you doing that?" I explained why and he said, "Oh okay, I thought you were just showing off."

Another time a little girl and her mother walked up. The mom said her daughter had never seen anyone painting outside before and that she wanted to be an artist when she grew up. I told her, "That's great, I do too!" said...

"Another time I had to jettison a good spot because I realized it was the unloading zone for busload after busload of bored tourists."
Ha ha! You'd be in a lot of photos that day, James.

tek! said...

If you are sketching in a more cartoony style, often you can become some sort of request machine , what happened to me many times :

S. Stipick said...

My favorite was when I was painting Pakim Pond in Woodland, NJ and man walks up with his young boy in tow and loudly proclaimed, " Is it wrong I like watching you paint more than I enjoy playing with my son?"

Where does one go with that?

Tanja said...

Very similar to my first creative job while I was still in high school, drawing pastel portraits at the local amusement park each summer. Most of the comments were great, met some interesting folks from all over, and got plenty of life drawing practice. Picked up a few outside commissions, too. :)
One of the comments I remember is that the remark about how "Up close, it's just a bunch of colors, but if you stand further back it looks just like him/her!"

Lucas Durham said...

Haha, Spectators commenting can be tiresome, but let me share a quick anecdote about a viewer who decided to contribute:

I had just graduated from college, and one of my teachers invited me and a few friends to go on a painting trip with him to Portsmouth, Maine. On the third day of our trip, we were taking a lunch break in a small coffee shop. While waiting for everyone to finish, I started sketching one of the baristas.

Suddenly, I noticed a little hand had grabbed one of my watercolor brushes and was trying to paint the corner of my sketchbook. It was a four year old boy who had wandered off from a VERY frazzled mother while she was trying to reprimand one of his siblings.

Since he had already marked up the bottom of the page, I decided to let him finish. So, I propped him on my lap and handed him a brush. After about 3 minutes the mom finally realized she was missing her other child. One of the other members of my group flagged her over, and I had the kid sign his name before his mom dragged him back to her table.

As we finished our meal, and began to exit. We overheard the boy pleading with his mom, "Please, can we pull out the paints, PLEASE."

gordie said...

While sitting on a rocky beach cliff using charcoal a tourist climes down to look,sighs audibly and says "I will be back later when you have color."

Whit said...

Rarely do I draw around others, but when I do a comment that I hear often (a regurgitated one) is "I can't even draw a stick figure." I try to politely ignore the comment, but inside I'm giving the person the stink eye. I like to tell them that anyone can draw if they wanted to (with hard work and love, of course).

I don't like it when people beat themselves up for something they don't even study or practice every day because it's not their passion. Don't doubt your stick figures and just draw the best stick figure that you can!

Monika Baum said...

... when parents explain to their kids when walking by that "the woman there is painting this other person/thing/view" when all I have in my hand is a dry graphite pencil.

Mikey said...

Wow. That guy sure could use some traffic cones. LOL

It's just a fact that if you're going to be drawing/painitng in public, you'll have to deal with... the public. It comes with the territory.

Some people are friendly, some people are rude. Most people are naturally curious and it's exciting to see a painting unfold. Few people ever have the chance to see art being created. In addition, there is a lot of 'mystery' surrounding art and artists. This creates a natural curiosity, as well as bringing up a lot of the 'myths' that people have been fed.
If I had a dime for every time I heard "I can't draw a stick figure..." let's just say my trips to the art supply store would be more like unbridled shopping sprees.
(btw, my stock response it "I'll tell you a secret... my stick figures are TERRIBLE.")

A large-scale painting from life presents its own set of problems. Many of those problems could be avoided or minimized with a little planning, some research, and a few good supplies.

If I were going to create a long-term painting (more than a field sketch) in such a busy public place, I would consider a recon visit to see what the best spot would be, and see if there were a vantage point that I could see the view I needed, but not have to worry about people being in my way. (Perhaps some kind of platform or other object to raise me above their head level.)

Not only would I bring along cones or something to mark off a 'zone,' I would consider bringing along a friend to act as a liaison, answer questions, and basically perform 'crowd control.' Just about everyone has a couple friends who are talkative, social and would be good for the task, especially if you throw in that they would be 'part of the project' and offer to take them for dinner or something of the like. It's even a good idea to have the liaison pass out business cards with a website where you'll be posting the finished painting.

This is where pre-planning pays big dividends in time, energy, distraction and frustration that is averted. It turns the situation into an 'event' and possibly even good publicity or at least getting talked about, and getting people to visit your website.

One thing I've noticed is that different people have different ideas of 'personal space,' and it varies quite a bit from culture to culture.
I've had kids trying to crawl on me while I drew, to which I had to politely request an arm's length so as "not to bump my elbow while I draw." They are usually understanding once it's explained like that.
On the subject of strange questions.... oh, that is a long-winded subject. LOL

Roca said...

I suppose if you have a giant easel and canvas that onlookers have the “right to look…” but with me as I am usually sketching with a pencil in a small notebook for someone to stare at what I am doing or look over my shoulder is too much invasion of personal space and privacy. You wouldn’t read over someone’s shoulder, or try to see what is on their laptop, or what they are texting.

Keith Parker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Keith Parker said...

The spill about not being able to draw a stick person, or a straight line is probably the most frequent thing I hear. I usually tell the person that they actually can draw! It just takes practice. Just like anything else. I find most people are very down on themselves when it comes to drawing. I've been quite guilty of that in the past myself. There seems to be some sort of myth that good drawing is a superpower, or magical ability. But no one seems to think riding a unicycle, or doing two hundred pushups is magical (although those things seem just as impossible to me). I wonder why this general attitude toward art persists.

Jesse said...

I constantly struggle with this when painting outdoors. One one hand I'd like to be a good ambassador for fine art, which is lacking in today's society, but on the other hand, people constantly throw me out of the "zone". Painting is hard enough in a controlled environment!

Most folks are nice, but the handful that aren't always leave me leery of talking to anyone.

"what are you painting?" excitedly. Looks at my painting. "Oh." Walks off.

Guy and girl walking by. Girl comes by to look. Guy loudly, "is he any good?" Girl whispers something to him as they walk away.

Everyone's a critic right? :)

Christian Schlierkamp said...

A friend of mine, Graeme Skinner, made this Layout for a T-Shirt for another befriended artist, Laura Young:

Since hence most watchers approach from behind a T-Shirt like that might help to get passed the usual "FAQ"s pretty fast:

or like that:

One question that I often hear is:
"Do you do that just for fun or for a living?"

What do you answer here?
Can't "making a living" be "fun" at the same time?

Roberto said...

Working as a muralist, much of my work is done outside in ‘public’ spaces. Fortunately the really big projects take me high above all the comments, except for the occasional shout-out: “Hey, are you painting that?”
When I have my feet on the ground, most people are polite and curious. I realize I am the oddity invading their space, so I try to accommodate and give them a good show when time allows. The real problem is the occasional oblivious soul who will walk right thru my working space, even w the cones and caution-tape and ladders! I have been chased away from public hwys by police for sketching the really interesting machinery outside industrial plants.

Mikey has it right: planning ahead really makes a difference. Many public places are happy to accommodate artists, if you contact the facilities people. (here in Pasadena, I know The Huntington Gardens will issue an Artists’ Pass for using the grounds after hours!)
But as for sketching people in diners and the like, I’ve taken your advice and tell folks I’m a student, and if that doesn’t fly (cuz of the gray-beard) I say I’m just practicing, and when they see my sketch they are usually sympathetic ;) -RQ

Unknown said...

I was half an hour into painting a cherry blossom tree and a man going for a walk passed by, stopped and after an opening banal greeting said 'I'd sooner eat the paint' (than have a go at it!)

jeff jordan said...

I used to paint murals with a guy, and we were in Indio, Ca, in the desert, doing a large mural on the wall of a gas station/restaurant building. At first, when we were laying it out, people would drive by and say "Hey, when are you guys gonna get to work?"

By the time we were done they'd say "Are you guys ever gonna take a day off?"

There was a serious graffiti problem, there, and was saw a lot of gangbangers checking us out, more the graffiti angle, fortunately. One night we were putting things away, a whole bunch of lowrider guys pulled up, maybe a dozen, all covered with prison tattoos, and it felt weird for a minute, then the main guy came up and shook our hands, giving praise, it was super cool! He told us they'd warned the gangbangers, the younger generation, as it were, that if anybody messed with the mural, their hands would get broken, based on knowing each gangbangers tag.

I'm not into violence, but it seemed like a real honor to know the mural was well regarded and protected.

Gina Florio Sous said...

James, thank you for writing about this. I can tell from the comments it's a popular subject - and I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who struggles with this! Truth be told, spectators make me very uncomfortable. They're half the reason I don't sketch outside as often as I would like. I try to maintain an attitude of friendliness mixed with firmness that I need to concentrate - but the eyes on the page definitely get into my head, especially since I'm still not very confident as an artist yet. And the unabashed rudeness of some people is a constant surprise to me (as a quiet person who keeps to myself mostly). I wish for invisibility all the time! But I've had some truly great experiences as well.

Karen Eade said...

Most perplexing: why are you drawing that?
Most unanswerable: I'm a bit of an artist myself, you know - told once I'm rather good
Most practical: did you know you've dropped one of your pencils?
Most annoying: oooooh, aren't you brave sitting there doing that?
brave? why? Is it THAT bad? O well, yes, maybe it is...

Piya said...

I once heard "Look dear. He's painting. He should just use a camera; it's way faster and better!". Either the speaker was ignorant or I just need that much more practice. Probably both.

Dan said...

What a great comment thread this is!

I've done a little sketching in public, and I usually try to avoid onlookers because I'm not very confident in my skills.

Once I was trying to get the perspective right for a certain strange point of view of a foot bridge, and a woman came by and said, "Oh, another artist!" I mumbled something like, "I'm just learning." She took a look at my sketch book and then walked away without saying anything more. I suppose that (a) she could see the truth in my mumble, and (b) she could sense that I felt uncomfortable being watched.

That was a year ago or so. About a month ago I was sketching a play structure in a very busy public park on July 4. Unbeknownst to me, some young kids had walked up silently behind me and were watching over my shoulder. I became aware of them when one whispered to another, "He's a good artist." I felt very flattered by that.

I have mixed feelings that people see drawing as a kind of magic. I remember being a kid and watching the airbrush guy in the mall. This guy had incredible technique. He just picked up the airbrush like a magic wand, and these amazing, vivid, atmospheric fantasy paintings took shape on T-shirts, totally out of his imagination. It was a wonder just watching his coordinated hand movements. I'm glad he was comfortable being watched, because watching him was surely one of the things that inspired me to want to be able to make pictures myself.

The thing that bothers me is that people assume that, for some reason, art skill is some kind of rare gift, rather than something you learn by studying and practicing. This annoys people who have studied and practiced hard to acquire their skill, and it also annoys people like me, who were told when we were kids that whatever the magic is, we just didn't "have it." I have come to realize as a middle-aged man that this is nonsense. There is a variety of artistic talent to be sure, but anyone can learn to draw competently, and perhaps my passion for it would have taken me further if I'd have known that when I was still a kid.

Music was the same way. I was a professional musician in my 20s, and there people also think it's just a rare gift. I probably spent about 7 hours a day playing on average when I was a pro. Of course I could do it.

But it never bothered me that people were inspired watching me play, and I would love to be good enough at drawing to inspire people. I love watching someone who has put the effort into mastering something do it in a seemingly effortless manner. I think it really is magical that we can learn to do these things so well through practice.

By the way, personally I am of the opinion that if I can't draw a straight line, or a stick figure, I should learn how. It seems to me that an awful lot of art ability is found in those rudimentary skills. I think about how the airbrush artist in the mall could move his arms and his fingers in a coordinated way and paint a perfect circle in one swipe. Some people call that a mere trick. I call it an inspiring ability, and I think it requires not just hand movements, but also an ability to see.

James Gunter said...

Years ago, when first learning to paint outdoors, I had a pleasant, if curious conversation with an onlooker:

Him: "Hey, aren't you that famous artist?"

Me: "Who's that?"

Him: "I can't remember his name."

Me: "I'm James Gunter."

Him: "Yeah! I've heard of you!"

Me: "Cool! How did you hear about me?"

Him: "It can't remember. But it was definitely you!"

I was anything but a "famous artist", but I thanked him for the complement, and he left happy that he had met "That Famous Artist." :D

Pierre Vanderweerd said...

Oh, this is all so fun to read (and so true!) When drawing animals at the zoo, I often hear people whisper to their kids "Look, he's drawing the animals!" while they continue snapping tons of photos of the animals without really taking a moment to just look at them.

All too often I hear the "I wish I was talented at drawing." statement. Sigh... So do I. Oh well, I'll take it as a compliment and just tell people it's all about practice practice practice :)

Unknown said...

I was painting along a road and a car slowed and stopped (as many had that day) HHOONNK! I was startled and with some irritation turned to face the car owner. This older lady who looked as if she had seen her share of liquor over the years leaned over the passenger seat and yelled, "Get out of the way, I want to see what your doing!"

David Teter said...

Most of the time when I'm sketching in public I try to avoid being detected so I am not interrupted but I have had some experiences both good and bad but always humorous to me.

Once I drew a woman who was still for a long period so I had plenty of time to get her likeness.
Her boyfriend was excited and said "It looks just like you", which it did, she looked at it with a sour look and said "No it doesn't" Then looked at me with a perturbed look on her face. Me and her boyfriend just smiled at her.

Another time I was sketching the surrounding landscape and a chid who had been giving his mother fits noticed I was drawing, came over and held still for the longest time watching mesmerized much to the relief of the mother who was able to sit and rest.

I said to her "Looks like you should take up drawing" to which she smiled and said "I know, then I'll be able to rest"

@Roberto, I too have had an encounter with the police for being too near an oil refinery in the port of San Pedro( within 400 yards apparently).
He was polite professional and said they always stop and question when it is a potential terrorist target. There was a bit more to it than that but that was the jist of it.
He said had I been near the cruise ships or in a tourist area he would not have taken notice.
9/11 and homeland security issues.

Willow's Quiet Corner said...

I am too self-conscious when drawing and painting, so won't be doing any public performances any time soon! But, I have been very much enjoying hearing about everyone's experiences! It is nice to hear that it sounds like most of the experiences have been positive or at least a bit humorous.

I have to say Mark Szymanski's story really made me laugh out loud. I can just picture it! Yeah, get outta th'way wouldja? Holy cow! :D Thanks for sharing, Mark!

Kathy Weber said...

I've been told a couple of times that I owe people money because their house/ boat was in my painting. My favorite, though, was the troop of boy scouts who found me in a nature preserve and got so excited at seeing someone painting outside. They were little and very cute.

Judy P. said...

So many comments! I haven't been plein air painting long, but have developed quite a hard shell about it, and can tune everyone out.
I'm cautious now when rough-hewn men are too complimentary about my painting- too many end with 'do you have any spare change?' The answer is always NO, because I think if you give once, you'll be a constant target.

Unknown said...

This is all part of the risks and rewards of painting outside the studio.
One can't expect not to encounter people of all sorts when out in the open.
One person told me once that if you really want to get some work done, you don't take your laptop and sit in the middle of a coffee shop.
If an artist need privacy for Plein Air work, then they will have to do their best to find that space, otherwise most outdoor places are public and we have to share them.

Ursula Dorada said...

I remember this one time I was just sketching on a bank line. I wasn't in line for me, I was with a friend wo had business there. I just kept sketching while he was being attended.

When he was done, he came near me and said he was done, so I get up to leave, and out of no where this gentleman behind me gets up, and politely thanks me for letting him watch (I wasn't even aware haha!) and saying he didn't have a good time like that in a long while, and thanked me again.

It was surprising, but in a good way and I never forgot it. It's surprising how your art can affect people in ways you're not aware of, so it's always nice to get a glimpse.

Unknown said...

I really loved these posts about painting in public because I do so very much enjoy plein-air painting! It happened by chance that a few years ago, it became my practice to bring watercolor supplies for myself and my small children (ages 2 and 4 at the time) to any vacation destination we ventured to. Now 9 and 7 and another 2 year old, it has been such a marvel to see how we all have grown artistically over the years! Also we have never had a rude comment come our way, lots of photos were taken at the site of such a cute team of artists paintings their surroundings though. I'm now addicted to plein-air, and carry a mini travel set with me everywhere I go. If there's one thing I hope to instill in my children, it's to find beauty in every day and capture it the best way you can.

Deevad said...

My tip: wearing earbuds (in-ear headphones).
Good article, so true.

Unknown said...

- Why are you doing this?
- Because I like it.
- But, I mean... Are you painting to earn money?
- No, I'm not.
- So, would you paint me a portrait to give it to my wife as a gift?
- Ehhhhhm... No...

- Hi, mind if I watch?
- No, don't worry...
- How much would it cost me if you paint me a portrait, right here, as I am...
- I don't sell my paintings, but I won't be painting your portrait.
-Oh! Could I get your phone number?
-Ehhhhhm... No!

Here in Spain people is respectfully curious. I've come to notice that when I'm painting alone I get a lot of comments, but when I'm with my sketchers friends, people is intimidated.

MLHarvey said...

I used to often paint plein air in Central Park, NYC. One Memorial Day weekend (my mistake) I had an entire family of eight squeeze into a little alcove made of bushes, in which I had set up. This natural alcove in a quiet spot made me think I was immune to spectators. Within 10 minutes of the family's arrival I was enveloped in smoke. They'd dug a pit, had filled it with charcoal and were actually plucking a fresh chicken in preparation for their barbecue! Needless to say, I didn't finish my painting that day.

Anthony Koeslag said...

Restaurants and coffee shops are very comfortable places to sketch at, however yesterday I was only able to get a few hasty lines in during the time I had because the waitress kept interrupting to offer more coffee and check that I didn't need anything. It's the first time I've had this problem, not really complaining, just another thing I need to keep in mind when I have limited time to sketch.

simon said...

a number of years ago i was drawing in my sketchbook in a neighbourhood close to my house. Some guy walks up and blocks my view with his arms folded. He says to me "what are you doing?" I say "i'm drawing". He looks angry and doesn't move. I said something like "and what are you doing?" He doesn't move, except to get closer to me and continue to look threatening, then says "this is my neighbourhood. I'm watching you." I said ok and decided it was time to move on. For the next 30 minutes he continues to follow me and block my view no matter where i turn. I then decide that this guy is bonafide crazy and it's time to get out of that neighbour hood. He followed me like a watchdog all the way back to my neighbourhood then disappeared. Needless to say, i became suspicious of spectators ever since. I live in the vancouver bc area and ppl are jerks here. I also carry a hammer with me at all times for dogs and crazy ppl

James Gurney said...

Simon, wow, that is unsettling, and I would have left, too, if that happened to me. There's no charming or reasoning with someone like that. Another place to exercise caution is any active military equipment or installation in a politically unstable country.