Inerview with urban sketcher Marc Holmes


Two months ago, I posted an interview that I made with the watercolor artist Thomas W Scaller – I got the idea, that I’d like to try and make a series of interviews with artists from my point of view as a beginner. Drawing and painting every day, in my mind, is the single best way to get better, but the second most important thing must be to look at the work of others, steal, copy – okay, let’s call it to get inspired – by the works of others. It can also be a great encouragement to hear about the experiences of someone who is more accomplished.

For the second interview in the series, I asked Marc Holmes from Citizen Sketcher some questions about his work. Instead of writing a long introduction about Marc Holmes, I’d rather let his own answers and the accompanying pictures give you an idea about his work and his style. Please go see his blog at https://citizensketcher.wordpress.com/ for more info!

Let’s get started:

First of all: What’s your story as an artist?
How did it start, and what got you going?

Well, I started art late in life – didn’t draw anything (in any serious way) until I was 19.
Thing is, I didn’t want to make any bad drawings. So for many years I didn’t draw because I believed I couldn’t.

It took me awhile to realize it would never happen if I didn’t start. As soon as I got going, it hooked into my obsessive personality and I started making up for lost time.

I ended up leaving a university program and going to an art school, (ACAD/Calgary AB) starting in fine arts, but ending up in an excellent illustration and design program. I was very lucky and went directly from that course into a job in video game design.

Thanks to more luck, and having a bachelor’s degree in design, I worked for quite a few years as an art director. But I actually wanted to be a concept artist – one of the people who pre-visualizes the game world through drawing.

So I would draw whatever I could contribute, but had to rely on other, more experienced guys for the real artwork.

I was always working on improving my drawing, mostly by going to every drop-in life drawing session I could find. And doing regular drawing jams with other game artists. When I got serious about moving to the concept art role full time, I was drawing three or four nights a week. Training hard. Almost like going back to school.  I think it was about 10 years and four major games before I managed to land a full time concept art role.

Along the way we ended up living in San Francisco, and I ran into World Wide Sketchcrawl. This is a group who coordinate a quarterly simultaneous worldwide flash mob of street sketchers.

It’s about as cool as it sounds.

I loved it so much I couldn’t wait for the sketchcrawls to come around; I wanted to be doing it every weekend. This led to starting my blog on urban sketching: Citizen Sketcher.  Closely followed by finding UrbanSketchers.org, becoming a volunteer correspondent (and a board member for awhile), and eventually my first book – The Urban Sketcher and my first online class – Sketching People in Motion.

You’ve had a career in art directing video games.
How does your this background influence your work?

In my video game work – it’s more accurate to say I’ve done fantasy role playing games – a very small subspecies of games in general. I’m very specialized. Luckily it seems to be an enduring niche.

I think RPGs are the most interesting for the concept artist. There’s a lot of fictional world building – much like writing a (graphic) novel.

Game design is a boot camp for artists. You have to invent imaginary things and make them convincingly real – no matter how bizarre they are. And you have to do it very quickly. Day after day, with no excuses about running out of ideas. You have to be able to learn any subject in a few hours of research, even if it’s of no interest to you, and then improve on it – make it more fantastic, more incredible.

So you can’t ask for a better training ground for drawing. When I started painting on location, I was able to bring all the learned hand skills and compositional thinking – plus a sense for finding the grandeur in things.

Now that I’m doing some teaching, both face-to-face and online, and writing books about drawing and painting, the art direction instincts are helpful.

Video games are a perfect tool for learning by doing. They teach you to master a confusing user interface, usually in some kind of simulated stress situation.

To do this, we have to break everything down to small interactions that build one on another. Gamers have to master challenges without ever feeling frustrated. It has to be fun from the first moments.

I’ve applied that philosophy in The Urban Sketcher. I try to present engaging tasks – sketching games really, that build up skills gradually. The student, without even realizing it, is preparing for more difficult things to come.

You describe your art as ”citizen journalism.” What does that mean?

I see drawing and painting on location as a kind of documentary film making. Like I’m making the storyboards for a film that never gets made.
There’s a movement in art called reportage – in which the goal of the art is storytelling.

So, that’s what urban sketchers as a group are all about. Witnessing and reporting. It doesn’t have to be earth shaking subjects like a war correspondent. But it can be. Check out Richard Johnson. A reportage sketcher who embeds with deployed military forces.

I’m not that hard core – but I’m doing it in my own little way, and I hope encouraging others to as well.

Being an art director and an illustrator, which must be all about creating and imagining, seems very different from being a citizen sketcher – which is more about describing and reporting. What’s the relationship between these two?

Well, I’m not sure that there is a relationship 🙂 I can say that all invention is based in research. Imaginary ideas come from cramming in reference, and re-interpreting it as drawings.

Actually drawing on location is just going right to the source. Instead of swiping everything from Google image search.

In USK circles we like to say: “Show the world one drawing at a time”.

You’re a part of the ”Urban Sketchers” group – What’s that all about?

USK is a decentralized web based organization, and a non-profit in the USA, formed to freely share, promote, and educate about the art of drawing on location.
We’re worldwide, with hundreds of active sketchers representing every continent except Antarctica.

We self-organize into local chapters that get together and draw socially, as well as publish regional blogs or social media nets.

There are a couple of big annual gatherings – one that moves every year to a new host city (think – sketching Olympics), and two big meet ups in Chicago and the West Coast (Bay Area). Plus individual artists do workshops all over the world.

The easiest way to learn about us, or get involved, is to check out UrbanSketchers.org.

What’s the difference between working from a photo and working in plein air?

Okay! This is a big topic – Let’s see.

Working en plein air: I just prefer being outside. It’s more fun and probably better for mental health. Things are going to happen that you can’t predict. Sometimes inconvenient things, sometimes cool things.

It can be as simple as finding some beautiful lighting, a spectacular view, or experiencing awesome weather. I don’t have any scientific proof on hand, but I’m sure you could easily find studies on the psychological benefits of being outside.

A photo is a fixed viewpoint. It’s easy enough to copy one exactly. So if the photo is perfect – if the viewpoint is precisely what you want – then by all means, just draw from it.

If you’re taking your own photos, probably there is no difference. I have sketches that, set side by side, you could not choose which was on location and which was not.

It’s certainly more convenient to work at home. You can take your time. Stop and start whenever you need to. Usually people end up with a more realistic, more polished result.

But – personally, I don’t see the reason to make polished realistic art.

If I wanted to do that I would just do digital art. (All my gaming work is created digitally). Or I could become a photographer and leave it at that.

Given the challenging situations you find on location – bad weather being the most common – transport hassles being the next – you can get surprisingly good results in spite of the stress.

When it’s cold or wet or you’re crowded, or in a rush -you get a quality of urgency in the drawing. By giving up and saying “screw it – this one is what it is” – often that’s your best work.

It’s a matter of enforced spontaneity. Taps right into your subconscious. The kind of thing that’s easily lost in the studio when you get too comfortable.

So – if you like an aggressive, personal, unique drawing, with an expressionist sensibility – then dealing with the random annoying events of the real world is actually a good thing. Possibly the only way to pull it off.

What’s your routine like as an artist?
Do you work consistently, every day, or is it more like spurts?

Every day, barring illness.

I like to consider art for my blog as a full time job. I’m always working on something.

I like to mix it up – balancing media experiments, art tips, studio painting, teaching, writing books, and just going sketching at whatever interesting locations I can manage – and occasionally sending out self-teaching exercises for people to try at home or use in their own workshops.

This is my “passion project” – that I hope becomes a paying gig someday. It’s sort of my research lab for the books and online classes I’m doing.

I also do freelance illustration and game contracts to keep body and soul together.

Between all that, it’s a 24/7/365 thing. No rest for the wicked 🙂

How long do you usually spend on a painting?

Being as I love to work on location, and sketch as I travel, I work pretty fast.

Of course every work is result of accumulated experience. So in a way I’m very slow.

It took me 30 years to be able to do this in 10 minutes:

Here’s one in about 45 minutes:

And one in about 90:

I few years ago it might take three hours to do a painting, but I’ve gotten faster.

Would you advice a beginner to do one painting/drawing in five hours, or to do 10 in the same amount of time?

I bet you know my answer. 10 for sure.

Better to work quickly and get a lot of practice runs, instead of sinking time into a masterpiece that will be defined by your current skills.

You can dig into more complex work when you’re ready.

As a beginner, odds are you’ll get frustrated investing too much importance in a single piece. Keep it lighthearted and fun, and you’ll be more willing to put in the months of practice required.


Do you sometimes get frustrated with your work or your skills?

Nope. Never. I’ve seen the results that come from practice, and I’m in it for the long term. Every day, a few steps in the journey.

Do you have a favorite recent painting or drawing?

My favorite is always the next one I’m about to do. I’m an eternal optimist.

Once I finish a work, I kind of forget about it for awhile. I think it takes a bit of looking back to judge.

I do like this one from about two years back: Lady Meredith House, Montreal. It represents a time when my watercolor painting was just about to take off.

What makes a piece ”good” in your opinion?

Finishing! I primarily care about quantity. Quality will rise to the top along the way.

Different people like different things, and your own tastes change over the years. So I just build my body of work, and whatever happens happens. The ones I like the best actually keep changing over time.

All I want from a work of art right now is that it mentally transports the viewer to an interesting or inspiring location.

There’s a saying that a reader lives many lives. I think of my artwork as a travelogue in words and pictures.

If I’m doing that successfully, concerns about quality or media don’t matter to me.

When does something go from being a ”craft” to being ”art” in your opinion?

I’m not sure I have a clear answer. Craft has connotations of “usefulness”, art of “inspiration”.

If you only did demonstrably useful things, you’d never make art.

But I think there’s a practical value in keeping your mind alive – if there was no art to engage our imagination, we’d be in a drab world indeed.

So I don’t see a clear cut dividing line. But it seems sometimes I’m in the minority.
It always seems easier to put a value on craft (illustration, commercial art) and less so on art-for-art’s sake.

What’s your favorite artist (living or dead) these days?

Again, the older I get the harder it is to give absolutes. I could say J.S. Sargent, or I could say Katsuya Terada. There’s different things to love about different work.

As for living artists/bloggers – again – so many choices!

Some people that stand out this moment are Don Colley, Drewscape, Stephanie Bower, Liz Steel, Gabriel Campinario, Jenny Adam, Richard Johnson – but there’s so many – I’m immediately short changing great people just by trying to make a list. Check out USK 🙂 Start with the correspondents list, and work outward:)

What kind of advice would you give to a beginner?

I could give standard drawing advice:

Always carry a pocket sketchbook, work in any spare moment. Draw what you love, not what you think people want. Draw and ignore the results for a year before evaluating your progress.

That’s the classic advice.

But, more importantly – the main thing a beginner needs is the motivation to keep practicing.

Each person who wants to succeed has to find whatever it is that makes them practice for the year or three or five they’ll need to become competent.

The first few months can seem like nothing is happening. Like you’ll never get anywhere. That can discourage some people to the point they quit.

You have to have something to push you past that.

Pride or a competitive personality helps some people.

Some people get addicted to flow state. Those people who say they have to draw to feel normal. I structure my studio work to be as much like field work as possible, in order to fall into the same rhythms.

Blogging also helped me. A friend of mine calls it “the public promise to practice”. Once you’ve put yourself on display you have that constant push – the need to perform for the audience. I don’t think I’d do art, if I didn’t know people were looking at it. I suppose that’s the reverse of some of the most successful artists of history – but there it is.

And that is the end of it! Don’t forget to head over to Marc’s blog about his art – or even better – take a look at his book about Urban Sketching!

I hope you enjoyed reading this interview! Comments, suggestions or future interview requests very welcome!

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