Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Lessons from my TEDx Naperville experience

On Friday, November 6th, I participated in a creative experiment at TEDx Naperville. Arthur Zards, founder of TEDx Naperville, had challenged me to create flag designs for the event. The flag designs were to be modeled after each presenter's speech. On the surface, this sounds like another graphic recorder assignment until I learned that there are very specific principles that have been established by the International Vexollological Association, an organization whose sole existence is the scientifically study the art of the flag. Like Urban Sketchers, the Vexollological Association has many many chapters across Europe, Asia and North America and abide by some basic governing principles. Sound familiar? 

Here is the TED Talk shared with me to help inspire my flag designs.
Spoiler alert: Urban Sketchers Chicago, the flag for our great City of Chicago is upheld as the best designed city flag of all time!

The biggest principles that changed my approach were to simplify the design to its essence and that no lettering was allowed. What? I could only use pictures or symbols to capture 18 minutes of content. Was this possible? By the end of the day, not only was it possible, it was empowering.

Here are my takeaways from this experience that will now play into all of my future design efforts (with a slight variation on the flag design principles):

1. Keep it simple. In the flag design world, as well as company logos and user interface icons alike, it should be so simple that it can quickly be scribbled and understood in a game of "Pictionary."

2. Limiting your color palette is actually stronger than having an arsenal of paints, pencils and markers. Besides, any Urban Sketcher will tell you that drawing on location forces you to make some tough decisions about "how much of your home art studio do you really want to schlep around with you all day?" Decide what kind of sketching you will do that day and just grab those tools. Andrew Banks may only bring his ink pen while Don Colley will carry 5 grey markers and one black liner pen. 

3. Boil the sketch down to only it's essential elements. Leave out the parts that do not help the viewer see what you want them to see. Sometimes a drawing of a gas meter or fire hydrant is more captivating than an entire landscape (and it will take less time to complete over your lunch break).

4. Be distinctive and relevant. In urban sketching, there is a wide range of styles that are both impressive and personal to the artist who created them. Embrace your style and own it. As I once heard author and public speaker Seth Godin say, "Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken."

Here are the final flag designs I created during each of the TED Talks, applying the above principles:

Thursday, January 29, 2015

A Farewell to A Couple of Special Ladies

From time to time, people come in and out of your lives and the way they touch your life can have a lasting impression. Two such examples of these kinds of people are caricaturized below.
Alyson came to us as a graphic designer specializing in package design and, during the short six months that she was at our company, she had managed to become an integral part of both digital and print projects. After a persistent campaign to chase after an incredible opportunity, Alyson is now headed out west to go work for Mickey Mouse. I created this caricature of Alyson as a tribute to her contribution at Maddock Douglas (MD) and her future at Disney. This was a lot of fun and I created this with a Uniball Vision Micro gel pen and Prismacolor color markers.

This is Kate and she came to Maddock Douglas to work with our Marketing Team. Her super powers are centered around the social media space and she realized one day that her 1.5 hour commute each way was taking its toll. She needed to work closer to her big city home with a shorter commute. I created Kate's caricature with the many social media devices that display her craft. The crown on her head represents the city where she lives and that, 
for us, she was our Queen of Social Media.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Free Art Supplies Found in Nature

I am a graphic designer by trade and I bridge that transition between the old school art supplies (like you see on the AMC TV show "Mad Men") and the invention of the personal computer. Simply put, I use a lot of drawing templates and old-school art supplies when I sketch. I am used to cleaning up my sketches with straight edges and ellipse guides to create sketches that are in reasonable perspective and scale.

Most times I am only armed with my sketchbook and a pen. For those times I will freehand my circles, ellipses and straight-edged objects because I have been drawing long enough that it does not intimidate me. But if the opportunity presents itself, I will do a little searching within my surroundings to see if I can't produce a reasonable substitute for a ruler or drawing template. If you aren't opposed to rummaging through a recycling bin or a friend's desktop, you can discover all kinds of free art tools. 

The following is my suggestions of found objects to help you realize that art supplies are all around us if we only look for them.

Other found items that I have often resorted to as make-shift drawing tools include (for a straight edge) a notebook, a yardstick from the hardware store, a piece of cardboard from a pizza box, and a board from a construction site. For a circle I have often found a piece of string with a pencil tied to the end makes a great compass if you hold the loose end down and draw around it. Also every cup, vase, planter, music CD and jar also provide lots of diameters with which you can find the right size circle.

Long ago when I was a member of the Boy Scouts, we even whittled end of a stick and dipped it in ink to create a rustic fountain pen on paper. You can get some pretty interesting lines from a twig that has a sharpened end. I am sure there are many more items that you will discover. Please go out and explore and let me know what you have found that works as your quasi-art supplies in the field. The important thing is to have fun.

Monday, January 19, 2015

The Benefits of Warming Up for Sketching

Anybody who has spent time amongst first responders such as firemen, paramedics, military personnel and all levels of athletes will know that practice, warmups and drills are an essential part of being ready at a moment's notice when duty calls. Practice keeps the team in shape and alert for whatever comes their way. It also lets the team leaders work out the details on how the team will communicate with each other so there is clarity and simplicity across the group. Another part of the practice and drills are in becoming familiar with all kinds of probable scenarios the team may face in a real life-or-death situations so that they do not panic under pressure.

Am I suggesting that sketching requires warm up and practice to prepare for life-or-death situations? Not unless you are faced with the eleventh hour of turning in your final project for master's thesis or a big client presentation. What I am suggesting is that there may be some value in warming up your hands and brain before you attempt your sketch. 

Here are some of the main benefits to warming up.


- getting yourself in the right frame of mind

- learn to search for a scene that resonates with you

- look for a story to tell and create a sketch that tells that story


- loosen up your wrist and arm

- increase your range of motion

- quick studies that help synch up the hand and eye coordination

- play around with basic shapes and scale


- practice making mistakes on purpose

- try out new ideas without fear of messing anything up

- test out your drawing tools, make sure they are in working order

  and find out how they will behave on certain papers

Fear of the Smear

One of the most frustrating aspects of drawing with pen and ink is the accidental smear that results from not allowing ample time for the ink to dry. A smear can result from an object coming into contact or sliding across a wet part of a freshly drawn line.

I like to pencil in my sketch lightly and then trace over it with pen and ink. Of course, I am a little bit of a neat-freak and cannot wait to erase the grey lines of the pencil--sometimes a little too soon after inking the line--and create a smeared line. Other times I have inadvertently rubbed the heel of my hand across a wet line when I am working swiftly back and forth across the drawing and created a mess.

Thankfully there is no need to slow down the speed at which the sketch is drawn because there are a few tricks to keeping this from happening.

5 Ways to Sketch People

Did you ever wonder if there are some quick-and-easy trick to adding people in your sketches when you may not be strong at sketching people? In urban sketching, adding people to the scene is less about capturing a person's likeness and more about the following benefits:

A. To give scale to your environment

B. To add a human element to your environment

C. To observe how people live, work or play

D. To capture movement and gesture

E. The Unintentional Portrait

Here are some techniques and examples I use when adding people in my sketches:

1. The Stick Figure Silhouette: 

stick figures thickened up to look like clothes. Perfect for subjects that are further away and the people are not the main focus.

2. The A-Frame People: 

A variation of the stick figure based on the simple letterform “A”. It is the suggestion of a person without having to be anatomically correct. Perfect for subjects that are further away and the people are not the main focus.

3. Basic Building Block People: 

The human form made up of blocks and circles. No facial details needed and the pose contributes to the scene.

4. Detailed Building Block People: 

The human form made up of blocks and circles, but more detail is added such as clothes, hair, and the suggestion of faces.

5. The Close-up Portrait Study: 

A more time-intensive study of the subject focusing on anatomy, shading, details, clothing and environment. Careful observation and attention to small details are important here. Shading can come in many forms such as watercolor, hatching, markers or pencil.