Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The ethics of sketching on the subway

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.
Previous GurneyJourney posts about making contact with people who noticed I was sketching them:
Logger in Supermarket
Tattooed Guy On the Train
Caught Sketching Girls in a Pizza Shop
 Read the whole New York Times article
Thanks, Patrick


rroseman said...

I used to sketch on the NYC subway all the time....once I was drawing a young man standing quite still in my view. After several stops on the way to queens he turned to me and apologized that he had to get off at the next stop! He had been standing still so that I could draw him...this was 40 years ago.

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

You are right they do take it as flirting sometimes. Sometimes I use drawing as an icebreaker. As an introvert I've made it something of a habit to force myself to meet new people. One time I sat down to talk with a girl in a coffee shop and asked if I could draw her (I've never had one say no). This one time in particular the girl wrote her number in my sketchbook when I showed her the drawing. I never asked for that, but it was flattering none the less.

James Gunter said...

I find adults easier to sketch than children. Adults are more likely to be preoccupied, so I can sketch them without being noticed. I once tried sketching several children at a city playground. After a few quick gesture studies, one of the kids suddenly yelled, "Hey - that guy's drawing!" And I suddenly found myself surrounded by children - something I wasn't ready for! I showed them the sketches and then beat a hasty retreat.

Karen Eade said...

Thank you for this piece - so sensible and practical. When I was "caught" drawing a stranger the other day I was so embarrassed I stopped immediately and scuttled away. All that had happened is he caught my eye! I'm afraid I need more practice at this drawing in the wild business; i am very inexperienced and thus shy.
It never occurred to me there was an ethical dimension actually (not to sketch book work anyway - I suppose if you were going to become a superstar and the work went viral it might be different!).
In the UK we are pretty much observed 24/7 by CCTV ironically.

Tiffany Miller Russell said...

Wasn't there something in the news recently about an artist being arrested for drawing people on the subway? The talk show host (there's the problem, of course,) made it sound as if it was creepy and weird. I've never faced that kind of reaction personally, but it has made me somewhat afraid to sketch people in public.

Roca said...

It’s so great that you address this. I am inherently uncomfortable with drawing in public, even if it’s not people, I dislike the looks over the shoulder and the often weird comments I get. This gives me some things to think about.

Do you have any comment about bans on sketching in museums? I went to an art museum near my hometown, the Greenville Museum of Art in SC, which has an excellent A. Wyeth collection, and there was a prominent sign that said, “NO SKETCHING.” Is this something common? What is the reason for it? (This is not a large, popular museum where you might find big crowds of students who might block paintings. It is a smaller community museum, albeit one with an excellent collection.) I find it sad because I often like to find sketching inspiration in museums.

Dan said...

I personally find the ethics question ridiculous. I mean the fact that there is any question.

Suppose I keep a journal of my thoughts, and I decide to write in my journal, "I noticed a man and his young daughter on the train today. The girl seemed to be awed by the experience." Would I have to ask their permission before doing this? If a stranger comes up and asks what I'm writing, wouldn't it be none of their business?

Sketching is just another way of recording your thoughts. People have no right to tell you what kind of experiences you are permitted to have in their presence, nor how you are permitted to make marks in your sketchbook to document those experiences for yourself or even to share with others (provided you are not sharing anything personal about them).

Nowadays people seem so alienated from the people around them that they only feel comfortable when they are almost certain that nobody is aware of their presence.

I think it's mostly fear that raises "questions" of this nature. People are afraid of what they don't understand. They don't know what you're doing; they don't understand why; they are naturally uneasy about being scrutinized or observed too closely.

The ideal course of action, if you were really a master, would be to observe and remember people, then draw them later! It's been said that if you are a friend of Hayao Miyazaki, you pretty much can't escape the fact that you or someone in your family will end up in one of his films. He's just always watching, and then he uses those observations later when he designs characters.

Since we can't all be Miyazaki, remember three things (all three of which are said in the article and in numerous books and articles on urban sketching): (1) There is no ethical question, so relax. (2) You don't want to make people uncomfortable or angry, so it's best to either have their permission up front or else be very clandestine about it. (3) Once people understand what you're doing and why, it takes away the element of the unknown, and quite often they'll relax and enjoy being part of the experience.

(I say none of this from personal experience, since I'm a neophyte. It's just that this is what all the advice people give seems to me to boil down to.) :)


Gavin said...

I've only ever done gestures of people walking at a distance, from the obscurity of a car. I'm quite self-conscious and I think if I made eye contact, even if I explained what I was doing, I'd be aware that they are aware and distracted too much by what they were thinking. It's a shame because I'm sure most people are flattered or don't care, but I just can't do it!

James Gurney said...

Dan, that's really eloquently said. Anyone with a notebook ought to have the right to put down on paper their thoughts or sketches about what's around them. Infringing on that right in the public sphere almost sounds like Thought Police.

I suppose we Americans have become more anxious in the public realm since 9/11 and the Boston Bombers and the press's preoccupation with pedophiles. I believe there are some laws on the books banning sketching just outside of nuclear facilities, and in other countries I've been warned about sketching or photographing police or military installations.

I remember when it was normal and expected to strike up a conversation with a stranger in a supermarket line or a waiting room, and ordinary people were more accustomed to navigating slightly awkward public situations with words. I think people are almost always potentially friendly in these sketching situations if you give them a chance, but it's up to the artist to break the ice.

However—and this relates to the discomforts that Gavin and Meredith expressed—if we as artists expect to have the right to sketch people in the public sphere, we also have to yield to the right of people around us to watch us sketch. People are so curious, and sometimes don't know how to ask.

James Gurney said...

I meant to add too that the rights to photograph or sketch people in public settings don't necessarily apply equally to places like bars, restaurants, shopping malls, theme parks, or museums, which seem like public spheres, but which are generally privately controlled by security forces who might have rules against sketching. Doesn't mean we shoudn't try sketching there, but we might run into issues.

Meredith, I have run up against such rules even in great big museums like the Metropolitan which will let people write notes, but will sometimes bust you if you seem to be drawing (go figure). I believe they only enforce it in special exhibitions, and they reasonably don't want people splashing ink or paint around.

Matt Berger said...

I have had many encounters with ninja sketching in public. It teaches me to sketch fast before they catch me or they move. Then I move on to the next subject.

Usually people shrug you off and don't care one bit. I've never had anyone mad at me for sketching them. I have been caught a few times, yet it ends well.

I need to go up to them and use your tips on interacting with them. Thanks for this post!

Artcrab said...

The reason people can't sketch in some museums or special exhibits is for copyright reasons. There are many exhibits that are okay to photograph or sketch, either because they are publicly owned (taxpayer funded) or in the public domain. However, special exhibits are on loan from other institutions or private collections, and for various legal reasons copying in any form is not allowed. Wyeth paintings are usually still under copyright protection.

Luca Marini said...

I sketch everyday on the train I take to go to my job, about 1hr and half. Usually I take care not to be noticed by the subjects, even because there are some really terryfing people that can react in a very dangerous way.... So, my suggetsion is, take a sketch of a punk ony if he's sleeping :)

Luca Marini said...

Anyway, here in Italy, sketching people sometimes is not so easy and free as it should. Sometimes ago a friend of mine was sketching at the postal office while he was waiting for his turn. Someone noticed him and called the police, so he had to explain that he was not taking notes to prepare a robbery!!!

Unknown said...

I used to . . . and still do draw people on the subway whenever I'm in New York. I got into it like it was my job. Anyone don't like it can turn away . . . which really only gives me a different view of them. Someone who knows what I'm doing (I don't try to hide it) if they don't want to be drawn, they just keep moving around. That's the only thing that will stop me. It's my job. I see something and I TAKE it. That scene . . . it's MINE, not theirs. In more than 20 years of drawing every day on the trains in NYC only two people have stopped me. One was a gansta who I had by memory by the time he said, "Wut de FUCK you look at? !" The other was a crazy woman, late at night who asked what I was doing and when I showed her the sketch came over to try to rip the page out of the book and break my pen. I fended her off until the next stop and got out of the train. I've got lots of stories from drawing on the trains and most of them are good.

lee kline said...

I draw in public everywhere I travel. The reaction you get sometimes depends upon the culture you are visiting. In North America, I am seldom confronted or asked about what I am doing, although I KNOW my subjects often notice me. In less developed countries, people are interested, and I have often gather an audience of curious onlookers who ask questions, talk and even critique! I have had great encounters with people through my drawing in public. Learn to do gestures. You will draw faster and more truly.

Charley parker said...

Train station platforms can be advantageous. People often stay in the same position long enough to sketch them, but if the crowd is thick enough, it's hard for someone to assume you're looking at them rather than someone nearby. Outdoor platforms are better for this than subway. I've also found libraries conducive to sketching, particularly in larger reading rooms in which you can position yourself to sketch people who are facing a direction in which you are not directly in view. No one thinks twice about someone who appears to be writing in a library. (Though I've had the uncanny experience of sketching someone from behind, in a position from which they could not possibly notice me, and have them suddenly sit up, turn around and look straight at me.) A university campus is another place where sitting and "writing" are seen as normal (and of course, the campus or area around an art school is completely fair game, as are art fairs). If you're willing to give your sketch away in return for the experience, you can ask people if you can sketch them. I've had wonderful experiences, particularly while traveling, by giving small quick sketches away.

Amelia James said...

Thank you for this. I know it's an older post, but just what I wanted to hear discussed. I have been sketching people on the train going to and coming home from work and have wonderful sketches from it. I have come to value certain corner seats on the train where no one is behind me and I can sketch pretty freely. If I think that someone is bothered by this I would stop immediately, but so far it has been fine. Mr. Gurney, I would be curious what you would think about taking the basic information from these sketches and using the information to make imaginary fantastical people. If the final image was not recognizable as the original (unknowing) model in public, would this be okay to use in a painting or finished drawing? This is along the lines of your Fantasy in the Wild video : ) creating imaginary things from ordinary scenes. Just curious, and thank you for reading this. I LOVE your blog and fully appreciate how much time and energy you put into it.

Not Sorry said...

The guy you quoted doesn't seem to understand the difference between a look and a stare. Staring IS unethical because it's not only rude but also objectifying. So many men love to sit in public spaces and stare at people like they're watching a movie. Yes, that is creepy and rude and WRONG because it dismisses the person's feelings. You can sketch people without staring them down like a psycho, treating them like entertainment, or undressing them with your eyes. But we live in a society where men don't have to consider other people's feelings, so they don't know how to do anything respectfully, including looking at people in public.