Croquis pendant que vous attendez | La réponse de l’artiste à l’ennui de l’aéroport

How to Sketch without Being Sketchy

Waiting at the airport for a flight can be quite a boring and tedious experience, which most of us are unfortunately familiar with. But airport layovers don’t have to feel like a waste of time — especially for artists.

Below, Michael Chesley Johnson shares a few tips and tricks for using this streamlined setting to practice drawing sketches of people in motion and at rest. Basically, here’s how to sketch people at the airport without seeming, well, sketchy.

Gold and Violet by Michael Chesley Johnson, pastel on paper | How to sketch people at the airport, feature from Artists Magazine

Knowledge gained from sketching helped Michael Chesley Johnson capture the subject’s gesture and her clothing’s drape in Gold and Violet, pastel on paper, 18 x 12.

Tools of the Trade for Aiport Sketching

I like to keep my travel materials simple and small. In the past, I’ve taken wood-cased 6B pencils, a sharpener and any sketchbook that fit in my traveling backpack.

Lately, I’ve taken mechanical pencils so I can leave the sharpener behind. I have two mechanical pencils that I like. One is a Paper Mate ComfortMate Ultra with a 0.5 mm HB lead. It’s great for fine lines and anatomical studies.

My second pencil is a Staedtler Mars Technico Lead Holder with a 2 mm 4B lead. It’s softer and broader, so it’s great for massing in form quickly and making dark marks.

Travel Sketch Tools | How to sketch people at the airport, feature from Artists Magazine

The fewer and simpler your travel tools, the more accessible they can be for sketching.

Since I use soft lead, I need to keep my drawings from smearing. The best way to do this is to use a small sketchbook with a sewn spine, rather than a spiral-bound book.

Moleskine’s Art Plus Collection has some good options. Pages shift easily in a spiral-bound book so, if you do use one, stretch a rubber or elastic hair band around the covers when the sketchbook is closed; this keeps the pages from rubbing together and smearing your work. When you get home, give each page a spray of fixative.

Choose Your Subject

People in airports are typically one of three things:

  • The runner
  • The walker
  • The sitter

The Runner

This is the person hurrying to a gate, running as fast as the carry-on luggage will allow. You may have 30 seconds — or less — to sketch. There’s no time to do a detailed study of form; instead, all you can capture is the gesture.

I like to make quick thumbnail silhouettes. A lot of artists worry about being caught in the act of sketching from life. The scurrier doesn’t have time to pay attention to you, so sketch all you want!

How to sketch people at the airport, feature from Artists Magazine

The Scurrier: Making quick thumbnail sketches is the best way to capture a traveler on the move.

Pay close attention to posture. I mentally drop a plumb line from the subject’s abdomen (where the center of balance is located), and observe how the arc of the spine and legs relate to this line. I just mass in the form with shading.

Also, note the way carrying luggage changes posture. Often an arm carrying a bag creates a pleasing opposing arc to the figure’s overall gesture. Sometimes I even start the sketch by noting the weight and position of the bag — it can be an anchor around which you can build the figure.

The Walker

This person has plenty of time between connections to stop by shop windows and think about a gift. You, too, have more time — and the opportunity to study physical types, walking styles and the way carry-ons and personal items affect the figure. The stroller probably won’t notice you sketching either.

How to sketch people at the airport, feature from Artists Magazine

The Stroller: People casually walking through the airport give you time to analyze gesture and movement.

I observe the way the walkers carry their weight. If they’re standing still, they’re most likely carrying the center of balance over one leg.

The faster they move, the farther the center of balance will be ahead of the trailing foot. I may drop a plumb line from the center of balance and build the body around that line.

Again, I look for how luggage is carried. Shoulder bags, backpacks and carried bags all affect the body’s posture in different ways.

The Sitter

This person is “shopped out” or maybe patiently waiting for the gate call. If you can work discretely, you can sketch these types for an extended period.

You can study a variety of seated postures as well as the anatomy of the clothed figure. This person also provides a great opportunity for a head study.

Sometimes the sitter is a sleeper so you won’t have to worry about getting caught. You’ll probably even have time to erase and correct the sketch!

How to sketch people at the airport, feature from Artists Magazine

The Sitter: Drawing travelers at rest is easy. At your leisure, you can study the way furniture holds the figure, the way clothing drapes and even the basic anatomical shapes that construct the figure.

When I’m sketching the sitter, I have a lot of fun. The positions are almost limitless — slouched, perched forward on the seat, sitting upright or leaning with head held in hand. Sitting at a cafe or bar, this person may be eating or drinking; at the gate, the sitter may be reading, texting or watching TV.

Any of these airport personas is worth studying. I observe folds in the shirt or pants and the way clothes hang on the body. If the head is interesting, I sketch it.


A version of this article, written by Michael Chesley Johnson, first appeared in Artists Magazine. You can read more articles like this one, as well as peruse through artist advice, art inspiration, instruction and more by subscribing to the magazine here.

What’s Next? Try Your Hand at Urban Sketching

Get excited about drawing and painting your new favorite places with urban sketcher, Marco Taro Holmes. In this preview of his video workshop, Drawing & Painting in a Travel Journal, you’ll get an introduction to Holmes’ three-step process: pencil, to pen, to brush.

Let the pencil capture the composition, the pen provide the fun details, and the watercolor add the harmony and life to your subjects. Happy sketching, artists!

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