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My Five Best Tips for Sketching in a Museum

In the mood for a museum.

Totem Pole sketch
Totem Pole sketch

Museums have great lighting for sketching because they tend to use “mood lighting” which creates deep shadows and contrasts.

Plus there’s no end of interesting things to draw, things you wouldn’t see everyday elsewhere. Museum sketching is one of my favorite locations for a relaxing, yet creative, afternoon. But sketching at the museum also comes with its own challenges, as does any place where you decide to sketch on location.

Here’s my best five tips for sketching in a museum:

1. Choose a great spot to sketch

The Royal BC Museum on Vancouver Island (where I grew up and now live) has a huge collection of totem poles, of varying ages and decay, from the First Nations peoples of BC. (Including the carvings from Kwakwaka’wakw, Heiltsuk, Nuxalk, Gitxsan, Haida and Nuu-chah-nulth communities.) The different styles of carving are very prevalent and easier to spot when they are all seen in one room. Getting all of that detail into a sketch, including the wear and tear and ‘weather-worn’ wood, is a fantastic drawing exercise.

However, there are other reasons I love sketching in the totem pole gallery.

It’s a wonderful space for ‘hiding in when you’re sketching in public and don’t want too many looky-loos. The benches, shadows, and tall totems all create spaces I can relax in while sketching at the museum, without being too obvious. For me, personally, I don’t like to sketch if I know a lot of people will creep up behind me for a look. I know it’s human nature, to be curious and want to see what I’m doing, but it makes me nervous and distracts me. Choosing a quiet, darkened, easy to hide in place, is on the top of my list of location sketching tips.

Choose a spot that you feel comfortable and relaxed in, when you’re sketching on location. Your art will be better for it, and you’ll have more fun.

2. Look at it in a different way

My favourite totem poles are the older ones where the paint has worn away and you can see the grains, knots and textures, but also exaggerated lines and curves. Sometimes I want to draw details, and sometimes I’m more entranced by the shadows and shapes. A pencil doesn’t always give you what you need.

When sketching at the museum, it’s a great idea to try different mediums for the same subject, and see how it changes your perspective and your art.

Each medium emphasizes a different aspect of the totem poles. Pencil work really shows off the wood grain details, while charcoal emphasizes the deep cuts, shadows and larger shapes carved into the wood. Watercolor lets you play with color and values. By bringing more than a pencil with you on location sketches, you can capture different aspects and moods of your subject.

3. Arm Yourself With all The Right Equipment

Museums change their exhibits frequently, and they often aren’t set up with artists in mind. Recently I visited a very popular exhibit and was disappointed to find that most of the areas were simply too busy to actually stand and sketch in. Not only would it have been very conspicuous but I would have very much been in the way.

Luckily, I managed to find a few corners to slip into and sketch while out of the way of foot traffic. Even MORE lucky, was that I’d brought smaller sketchbooks to use. An 8×10″ sketchbook would have been too large and been banged around by passing people.

You’ll rarely regret bringing a variety of sketchbooks and materials for those unexpected circumstances.

If all you bring with you to the museum is your favorite soft-covered sketchbook, you might end up disappointed when you try to sketch on location and it’s too floppy. There isn’t always a place to sit, or a hard surface to use. Try to pack for a variety of circumstances at the museum.

My List of Essentials
  • Bring a variety of sketchbook sizes, to fit a variety of museum display areas. I generally stick to hard-covered sketchbooks that give me support in mid-air.

  • Some museum exhibits have super strict rules about what materials you use (especially charcoal!) so always bring a basic pencil and eraser along with your other drawing tools.

  • An enclosed pencil sharpener that can catch your pencil shavings is appreciated.

  • A small battery reading light, that clips onto your sketchbook, might be useful in darker areas of the museum, as long as it doesn’t ruin the experience for anyone else.

  • A bag that is easy to access (such as a belt bag or hip pouch) is super useful and stops you from fussing when switching tools or sharpening a pencil.

  • A bottle of water to stay hydrated, as museums are often warm and dry to keep their artifacts in tact.

  • Wax paper, tissue paper or tracing paper can be used in between pages of your sketchbook when you are drawing in charcoal at the museum.

4. Know the rules before you go

Museums house important artifacts and cultural items. They’ve been charged with keeping them safe and in good condition. If you try to do anything they perceive as dangerous towards their displays, they will probably ask you to leave.

Find out the rules for all their exhibits, before you head to the museum to draw, to avoid disappointment and embarrassment.

At the Smithsonian there are a number of galleries of such a cultural significance and sensitive nature that you are not allowed to take photographs OR SKETCH. (Yes, I have first hand, embarrassing, knowledge of this) Some museums also don’t allow photos and sketching because they fear forgeries. Give the museum a call before going to sketch, and get informed. They can also let you know about rules for painting, easels and other materials.

5. Take notes (and photos) while you draw

Sketching in the museum brings so many opportunities to see things not available normally. But that also means you’re more likely to forget the details afterwards.

Maybe you want to paint that amazing mask you saw while sketching at the museum on holiday. But you didn’t take any photos of it. Sure, just look it up online — if only you could remember the name of the artist or the tribe it belonged to…

I haunt the museums in my city (and while travelling) and take copious amounts of photos and notes, while drawing. My sketches become the beginnings of ideas, but they aren’t enough to work from if I want to paint or create a more detailed piece of art. For that I need photos, or at least notes so I can do more research.

I often take a photo of the captions on the museum labels, when I draw something, so that I have all that info for later. BUT make sure to also take a photo of the display item itself (or write down the title of the piece in your sketchbook beside your drawing) or you won’t know what the label belongs to!

Writing down your thoughts and impressions can be really helpful, and spur more ideas later on as well.

Get creative! You don’t have to draw exactly what you see.

You can add in your own details and ideas to your drawings. Or combine two different drawings together on one page and create something new. It’s your sketchbook after all!

#sketch #sketching #sketchtips #arttips

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