How To Draw in Public: The Experience of an Artist

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Kevin Hayler: Professional Wildlife artist, author, and traveler.

What’s it like to draw in public? A question many artists ask themselves and if you’ve never done it before you really don’t know what to expect. So how does the public react? In this blog post, I will share my experiences of drawing in public for over 20 years.

Most people don’t notice you are there and display no interest. Of those that do, most are too polite to interrupt, a few will apologize and ask permission to look, some will ask a question, and a tiny minority will make a silly comment.

This post reveals everything an artist has to deal with when drawing in front of other people, what they say (or don’t), and what they do. It also provides advice on how to deal with these reactions.

Let’s start.

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Why Do Artists Draw in Public?

First of all, we must ask why, in this day and age, does an artist need to draw in public? Well, there are a number of reasons.

Sketching outdoors from life is a great way to explore and learn about drawing. The artist is forced to work from a real-life perspective. It enables them to really study the subject matter more intensely.

It makes an artist select the most important elements without being trapped by unnecessary detail. The eye edits out the irrelevance in a way the camera can’t.

Outdoor sketching forces the artist to use the minimum linework to produce the maximum impact.

Another reason to draw on location is to capture the atmosphere of the moment. It’s almost impossible to recreate that from a photograph back at home. The momentum and urgency are lost.

Urban sketching also has a more prosaic advantage over street photography. No one cares what you’re drawing. Sitting down with a sketchpad and making notes is fine, whereas pointing a camera at people is intrusive.

Imagine that you are trying to capture a crowded scene? There are times when photography would be either inappropriate or possibly illegal. What if there are children in your picture? You couldn’t photograph children playing on the beach or in the park, no matter how sublime the scene.

Quite apart from behaving suspiciously, having a camera makes people self-conscious in a way that a sketchpad doesn’t. An artist can capture all those fantastic relaxed poses photographers only dream about. Urban sketchers have a distinct advantage.

Another reason to draw in public is to attract passers-by. It can be used as a passive marketing tool. This is why I draw in front of people. I’m not trying to avoid the public, quite the opposite, I want people to stop and see what I’m doing.

This is related: Is Drawing From Photos Bad? Are You Cheating?

I encourage onlookers and reach out to them. My intention is to invite a reaction, not to shrink away from one. I want to sell my prints and one way of doing that is to draw an original outside (en Plein air) and drum up some trade.

I work next to a portrait artist and he does the same thing. He attracts more customers by drawing in the middle of the street. It’s advertising.

Street portrait artist drawing in public
Street Portrait Artist

How Do You Draw in Public and Concentrate?

Speaking personally, I can draw in bursts of concentration because I’m drawing from photographic references while I’m in front of the public. I’m demonstrating my skills and as such, I can stop and start at will.

I find myself working for 10-20 minutes and I’m super focused on what I’m doing. When I draw I can zone out of all the distractions around me.

The portrait artist I mentioned, has to zone out for 30 mins at a time and devote his attention to the task at hand. The drawback, in his situation, is an interruption breaks his concentration. He wants an audience to attract customers, while at the same time not being able to engage with them.

It’s a sales paradox.

I, on the other hand, will drop everything to engage with my customers and pick up where I left off.

We are professional artists actively selling our wares, but for artists who are simply sketching in public, it’s easier to go unnoticed and have more time to yourself.

Drawing from real-life, in urban settings, forces you to focus on what’s important in any given situation. Light changes, shadows change, people come and go and trucks will block your view. You only have time for a quick sketch, but it’s amazing how you filter out the noise with practice.

Related post: Should You Teach Your Art Skills in Public? (Pros and Cons)

If you are drawing street views from the sidelines the chances of being interrupted are very low, but sometimes the composition places you center-stage, in which case, a pair of noticeable headphones will do the trick.

Not only will they deter unwanted approaches but they also put the world on mute so you can concentrate more.

Do You Need Permission to Draw People in Public?

You don’t have to ask anyone’s permission to draw them but it would be strange to get too close. Drawing people within an urban setting and as part of a general scene is fine.

Ideally, your subject is not aware of what you are doing and continues to behave naturally. Avoid eye contact, wear sunglasses if you have to, and use a small sketchbook. Once a person suspects you are drawing them they’ll become self-conscious and that defeats the purpose.

For the most part, you will be looking for a pose and not an exact likeness anyway. Your sketch is not going to look like the person it’s based upon.

What Do People Say to Street Artists?

If they say anything at all, it’s usually complimentary. Most people are kind. For anyone with an interest in art, it is very tempting to stop and try to catch a glimpse. It’s often amateurs who get curious and want to see what you’re up to.

In my experience amateurs want to know the art materials I use and to talk about drawing techniques. That’s fine, as long as it’s a reasonably brief encounter. I’ve got no trade secrets so I’m happy to explain what I know. You meet some lovely people.

Occasionally you get someone who wants to engage in a debate, but this is rare. It’s usually an angst-ridden art student wanting to know why you don’t draw a different way. It can be tiresome, especially if, like me, you tend to draw realistically.

I tend to cut off that kind of negativity straight away. It serves no purpose.

I relate more to the other kind of student who tells me how disappointed they are with their art fine art degree. The ones that hoped to pick up a paintbrush and actually learn something. There are a lot of unhappy students out there paying top dollar for degrees they’ll never use.

Read this for more insight: Is Art School Worth it? Is it a Waste of Money?

The best comments are made by children. I love being interrupted by kids. It happens all the time when I’m drawing at my market stand. In many ways, they are the best audience. If they love what you do they will tell you. If they don’t, they’ll tell you too!

Spotting art buyers. A family looking at my art display
Kids love to look at art. Especially animals

For the most part, kids get entranced. They love what I do because they know how hard it is to draw well and they’re fascinated by realism. What’s more, I draw animals so I can’t go far wrong.

I can deal with everyday comments quite well, I get more perplexed by people who appear suddenly, grab a quick look at my drawing, and walk away without a word. I’m always a little bit offended by their dismissal, I can’t help it.

Plenty of people try looking from a respectful distance and give me the thumbs up before walking away, or say something encouraging like “Keep up the good work”.

Nowadays, some people also want to take photos. There was a time when I didn’t care for it, but now I just go along with it. It makes no difference after all.

How to Respond to Public Praise

There are different types of praise and not all are welcome. Some people go way over the top and make you cringe, and then there’s faint praise. I suppose people mean well but they miss the mark.

I answer gentle praise with sincere thanks, it’s welcome of course but I play it down. I acknowledge their kindness and at the same time let it be known that I don’t take myself too seriously.

Often as not, I will reply with a joke to put everyone at ease. I am in a selling environment so it’s a good way to make people relax. That said, some people get it all wrong.

There are people who go overboard with praise and talk in wild superlatives. They just LOVE everything you do, you’re the BEST, the MASTER, blah blah blah. It’s uncomfortable and ultimately dispiriting because you soon realize that it’s insincere and they talk this way to everyone.

And then there’s being damned with faint praise…

  • “Not bad”
  • “You’re nearly as good as..”
  • “You’ll get there”
  • “They’ll be worth something when your dead”
  • “You deserve more than this”

…and words to those effects.

I’ll never get big-headed when I’m drawing in front of the public that’s for sure. There’s always someone to bring you down to earth. It’s no bad thing in a way. Many artists have distorted egos and a dose of realism is healthy.

And that takes me to the next issue, is anyone ever unkind?

Are People Ever Unkind to Street Artists?

Drunks are an occupational hazard and not everyone has a full deck of cards so sometimes you have to deal with unwanted attention.

Drinkers are the worst, they don’t have the restraint to hold back. It’s not just the hard-core street drinkers that can give you some grief, the weekend party crowd can get out of hand too.

I work in a party town and the tempo changes around 6 pm in the summer. It’s then that the workers have gone home and people emerge for an evening. That’s when I go home. Artists are a magnet for revelers ‘having a laugh’.

Think of the poor portrait artists surrounded by a group of drunken friends and you don’t need me to tell you what it’s like.

But it’s not always the drink talking. Abuse happens, usually when young lads try to show off to their mates. It’s usually on the level of “I could do that” or “You traced it” but sometimes the harshness can take you by surprise.

This will help when you reach a dead end: Art Block: What is it? Its Causes, and How to Overcome it

Many of my drawings are photographic and weirdly this brings out hostility in some people. Some people refuse to believe that I draw them even as I sit down drawing an original in front of them. I’ve been called a cheat and a liar to my face quite a few times.

I’m saddened more than offended because something is lacking in their lives to respond in such a way.

And let’s not forget that I have a male perspective. It’s easy to be an old man and be ignored. Young women will have to deal with pests.

These things, and many more I won’t mention, happen because I’m selling my art and not just drawing for its own sake. They wouldn’t occur in most circumstances. Besides, I’ve been trading for over 20 years and my tales of woe are condensed, it’s not as bad as it sounds.

Baby elephant drinking from a bottle. A pencil drawing by Kevin Hayler
I drew this on the street over a number of weeks.

What’s it Like to Sketch Outside in a Different Country?

You are a product of your own culture and when you travel abroad you take that baggage with you, whether you like it or not.

One element of our upbringing, that most people are unable to shake off, is personal space. Different cultures have different rules and your drawing area can be quickly invaded. Privacy is not the same everywhere.

It’s only when you sit down to sketch in a foreign land that you realize that it’s not always possible. I’ve tried sketching in developing countries only to find myself surrounded by people watching me in silence.

Sometimes it’s impossible to escape onlookers. I remember opting to draw in my room at one point, only to see two heads pressed against my guesthouse window when it became known that I was drawing inside!

If you are on the move read this: How Do You Travel With Art Supplies? (A Practical Guide)

At least the western world gives you some space to work in and I used it to my advantage on my trip Downunder.

I paid for much of my 9-month trip to Australia and New Zealand by sitting in hostels and drawing in front of the other guests. It was a great way to break the ice, get to know new people, and make some holiday cash too.

I traveled around drawing the hostels and doing portraits. All hand to mouth but I was a young man and what more do you need when backpacking?

I did something similar in Kenya. I sat down in beach hotels, ordered a drink, and finished off my paintings. I waited for guests to get curious and come over. I used the money to make a side trip to Uganda.

It’s a good idea to plonk yourself down in front of people and draw. It’s not only a way of selling your art, it’s also a way of meeting people.

Drawing in Public: Final Thoughts

The experience of drawing in public is a strange one. You are sketching in the middle of a crowded street, drawing something that may or may not be of interest to anyone, while at the same time, people walk around you.

Some might stop for a moment and watch but most will just keep walking past without even noticing. Sometimes people will say something about your work and usually, they’re kind words.

Unless you are actually pitching for a sale no one will bother you. Certainly not enough to put you off. 

In other words, go for it.

Lion Country - A pencil drawing by Kevin Hayler.
‘Lion Country’ by Kevin Hayler

If you like the way I draw and want to try things for yourself, this is my basic kit

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Is it OK to draw in public? - the experience of an artist
The artist and Author Kevin Hayler

Hi, I’m Kevin Hayler
I’ve been selling my wildlife art and traveling the world for over 20 years, and if that sounds too good to be true, I’ve done it all without social media, art school, or galleries!
I can show you how to do it. You’ll find a wealth of info on my site, about selling art, drawing tips, lifestyle, reviews, travel, my portfolio, and more. Enjoy

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