drawing strangers in public

Drawing People In Public and Tips on How to Sketch Someone Outdoor

by Zamali
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Drawing People In Public and Tips on How to Sketch Someone Outdoor

This is my experience in drawing people in public. Drawing strangers from everyday life and how to sketch someone outdoor, such as on public transport, on a flight and even during sports or live music events.

These are my tips and best practices that I’ve developed from being inspired by other artists and in my own trials and errors.

Please keep in mind; this is how I do it and I don’t proclaim this to be the best or only way. Do feel free to disagree or experiment in your own way and style.​

Inspirations and interest in the art of drawing people in public 

It may surprise you to know that I used to dislike the art of portraits, characters and drawing people in general.

Why? Because it’s really hard and there is so much to take into consideration when you sketch humans; from shapes, light, movement, impression and likeness. It gets even more complicated when we have to draw people in public.

This requires you to possess an almost superhuman hybrid power of patience and speed (more about that later…)

I honestly didn’t have the patience for that. To constantly be on the lookout for that perfect sketch. It takes time and many tries before you catch a good moment.

Yet, it happens. Sometimes you just stumble on someone interesting, at a perfect angle and with good lighting. Then you may be able to simply move seats or adjust your angle to the subject.

When that happens, and you find the perfect model for your sketch, just remember that you have a limited amount of time before they move, get obstructed or the light direction changes (like during a train ride or flight). This will considerably affect the live drawing, and it gets complicated and harder.

Inspiration: Art of Nicolas Sanchez & Galina Ershova

I would like to credit two particular artists that I followed for a long time (I think you should too), who have inspired me a lot. 

They are: Nicolas SanchezGalina Ershova (See above)

I remember one day I came across one of Galina’s posts on Instagram. I saw some of her sketches on a train, which is what inspired me the most to attempt to sketch people during train rides and in coffee shops. 

In the last couple of years, I also got really into life drawing and was attending many events in London. It was during that time I started to realise that my technique in drawing expressions and the human form can be improved by drawing people more often and fast. This is what really got me into sketching people anytime anywhere.

How to Draw People on Transport.

My favourite way to capture people in public has to be during a train ride. The reason being seated people on a train tend not to move much. Add to that, a regular commuter is often sitting back reading or asleep, and the lighting is usually better than in other places; mostly coming from above or from side windows.

Sketching people during train rides is not as hard as you imagine it.

Now, to draw or sketch someone in public (while they are unaware) is still quite difficult. You have to be fast and discreet. (Although, it’s pleasing if someone finds out you are drawing them as they are almost always flattered). Still, it’s best to be discreet, and fast. 

For this, I recommend using a pencil, especially for a beginner. A 2B pencil is best as it’s light to carry around and fast to use. I don’t recommend inky pens in the beginning as they are slower than a pencil. As for charcoal, although it’s fast and usually my favourite medium, it’s also messy and generally requires a larger work surface. This is why it’s not for this kind of sketch.

The type of pencil I use is 2B (not HB). I find this to be the perfect balance between dark and light and I can get some mid-tones with it quite fast. 

harold speed drawing

…honest they are, but honest not to a cold, mechanically accurate record of the sitter’s appearance, but honest and accurate to the vital impression of the live sitter made on the mind of the live artist. 

The Practice & Science of Drawing by Harold Speed

Tips for how to draw someone in public:

  • At the start, keep it simple and choose a person that isn’t moving much (someone reading or sleeping for example). This ensures their movements are limited and you don’t also have to observe their pattern of movement.
  • Choose someone sitting under or close to a dominant direction of lighting, e.g. someone sitting next to a window (if it’s brighter outside than inside) or close to a strong light source.
  • Avoid anyone sitting in the centre of brightly lit rooms or train carriages, or under diffused light (until you have more experience).
  • Choose someone at an angle from you (if possible in profile or a side view). This is easier to sketch than someone facing you directly and more interesting than someone looking away.
  • If you have to draw someone moving, then start with sketching the big shapes very loosely. Slowly, as you start to see the pattern of movement, you can add the details.
  • Keep a focal point in mind – it’s totally unnecessary to draw everything. Focus on one area of interest; this could be the face, hair, dress, even a hand or any feature you feel connected to.
  • Notice in the drawing (below) this timeless Da Vinci sketch: Although he captured the whole face, the focal point and the entire focus is on the gaze. The eyes are so striking, he didn’t even bother with the hair. All other features are there, but you can sense the emphasis and focus is less than the eyes.
leonardo da vinci, head of a young woman

Notice in the Da Vinci Drawing how incomplete it appears


Drawing people in public is fun, and very beneficial to your artistic journey. It’s not easy but it gets easier with time. After a while and some practice you will be able to compensate mentally for changes in lighting, such as the direction and shape of the light. You will also be able to draw much faster.

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