71 – Urban Sketching with James Richards

If you’ve ever had an interest in hitting the road with your artwork and sketching the world, you’re going to love this episode. James Richards is one of the best urban sketchers on the planet. He has a background as an urban designer, artist and professor, and spent decades designing urban places and experiences to make cities more walkable, livable and beautiful – the perfect career background for becoming an urban sketcher.

A big part of learning his craft involved traveling the world and sketching the world’s most interesting places; 45 countries so far.

Jim is now a full-time traveling artist and spends most of his time sketching on location and teaching workshops around the world for veteran and aspiring sketchers, university design programs, art groups, and travel companies. He even has online classes on platforms like Craftsy and Skillshare. We know this conversation with Jim is going to leave you inspired to pick up your pen and sketchbook and head outdoors!


[00:00:00] Laura: Hi, this is Laura Lee Griffin.

[00:00:08] Nikki: And this is Nikki May, with the Startist Society, inspiring you to stop getting in your own way and start building an art biz and life that you love.

[00:00:18] Laura: We are artists who believe strongly in the power of community, accountability, following your intuition, taking small, actionable steps and breaking down the barriers of fear and procrastination that keep you stuck.

[00:00:30] Nikki: Follow along with us on our creative business journey, as we encourage you on yours.

[00:00:39] Laura: Hey Nikki, I’m super excited about today’s guest. If you’ve ever had an interest in hitting the road with your artwork and sketching the world.

[00:00:48] Nikki: Did somebody say bus?

[00:00:50] Laura: Nikki, this episode could be for you and your future bus adventures, but I was thinking more like hopping on an airplane and having a grand adventure with your art supplies in tow. And if that sounds fun for you, you’re going to love this episode.

[00:01:06] Nikki: James Richards is one of the best urban sketchers on the planet. He has a background as an urban designer, artist and professor, and has spent decades designing urban places and experiences to make cities more walkable, livable and beautiful, the perfect career background for becoming an urban sketcher.

[00:01:24] Laura: A big part of learning his craft has involved traveling the world and sketching the world’s most interesting places; 45 countries so far. And Jim, you’ve got me beat by 5 countries.

[00:01:37] Nikki: You’ve got me beat by about 39.

[00:01:42] Laura: Now James is a full-time travel artist and urban sketcher and spends most of his time sketching on location and teaching workshops around the world for veteran and aspiring sketchers, university design programs, art groups, and travel companies. He even has online classes on platforms like Craftsy and Skillshare. James, welcome to the Startist Society.

[00:02:05] Jim: Well, thanks for having me. I’m really looking forward to the conversation.

[00:02:10] Nikki: We’re super excited to have you here. So we always like to start by asking people what their startist story is, how they got started in their creative journey. But for you, for listeners who aren’t familiar with the term, can you explain what urban sketching actually is?

[00:02:29] Jim: Sure. And I’m glad you asked because, gosh, it’s just exploded across the globe as this kind of phenomenon since it was first founded – it’s coming up on 12 years now is all that it is. And we’ve got something like 350 chapters now around the world, but urban sketching really didn’t come out of art or out of design. It came out of journalism. The founder, Gabby Campanario, was with the Seattle Times and had an illustrated column that was doing very, very well, getting some attention online and whatnot.

And he actually founded the initial organization with a hundred correspondents, eventually the nonprofit and whatnot, but the spirit has always been drawing on location and drawing from direct observation. You know, if you can finish it on site, that’s wonderful. If you can, you know, get a drawing down and poof it up later, that’s fine also.

But the idea is to really record what’s going on around you and maybe even capture some of the ambience that’s happening around you. And, when you post it online, tell a little bit of that story. And, one of the other things that really kind of defines urban sketching is drawing with a group and sharing with the group and everybody learning from each other. And in that sense, it’s far and away the most generous creative community I’ve ever been a part of.

[00:03:56] Laura: Yeah, I’d have to agree. I know there is actually a chapter in Dallas that you used to be a part of; you founded that chapter. And, also I have taken urban sketching on the road when I’ve done vacations with friends. My, my friend Liane, and I went to Paris and we ended up urban sketching all over Paris, and it helps you stop and really see what you’re looking at instead of just kind of running from location to location. So I definitely see both the community aspect as well as being present in what you’re creating and that journalism aspect, like you were saying, of kind of journaling your life and your travels.

[00:04:31] Jim: That’s absolutely true. And you really hit on it and Paris would be a wonderful place to do that. But, you know, you can do it in your own neighborhood, as far as that goes. The whole idea is just telling the story and sharing it with others.

[00:04:47] Nikki: Well, I really love this quote that you have on your website where you said, “I never saw myself as Monet in the studio; I wanted to be Anthony Bordain with a sketchbook.” And I love the way that just totally captures the spirit of it.

[00:05:02] Jim: Well, thanks. You know I hit on that one day and it just, wow, that really does it. One of the things about urban sketchers that’s, I think, really unique from other arts groups is that you’ve got a range of disciplines and you’ve got designers like me, architects and landscape architects you’ve got film animators, you’ve got fine artists and whatnot. And over time you see people refine their skills in such a way that more moved from sketching in the street to becoming studio painters and some of those types of things. And all I want to do is get on that plane or get in the Mini Cooper and take off and find stories and sit in the cafe or sit on the sidewalk. Pure joy.

We did a workshop up with Madeline Island School of the Arts recently. And they’re used to having a lot of plein air painters, you know, fine artists, that type of thing. That is right on Lake Superior on Madeline Island. Hence the name, but Bayfield is the closest town, it’s a historic port town. And after a few days, one of the staff people came up to me and she says, you know, you guys are the most laid back and fun and friendly group that we’ve had in 30 years out here. She says we get some pretty high maintenance groups out here, but when I went into town and I saw you people sitting on the sidewalk and drawing our town and talking to people as you did, I said, these are good people and I of course agree.

[00:06:35] Laura: Yeah.

[00:06:36] Nikki: Of course. So, I haven’t done any official urban sketching, but, I think back to my days in art school and I went to art school in Italy in the late eighties. And we did a whole lot of what would be described as urban sketching, sitting around town on the sidewalks, on the steps, drawing everything. And I forgot how much I love doing that. And now I really am anxious to kind of get back into it.

[00:07:03] Jim: Well, where were you in italy? I’m curious.

[00:07:05] Nikki: I was in Cortona, in Tuscany. University of Georgia has a studies abroad program there.

[00:07:10] Jim: All right. I didn’t realize that you were university of Georgia, but I knew Georgia had that. And I posted some sketches from Cortona a few months ago. All these Georgia people came out of the woodwork. I sat right there. I love that place so much.

[00:07:26] Nikki: You know what I did see one sketch that looked like it was the the steps in the middle of town that I’m going to have to go back to.

[00:07:34] Jim: It’s amazing to me how that kind of a drawing just bring emotions flooding back from years ago and on the other side of the world. And that’s something that I am trying to do in terms of refining my skills, is to learn to use light in such a way that it’s so packed with emotion and people tend to recognize a place as much from the light as they do from the lines you’re drawing, the colors you use or those types of things.

But yeah, the type of drawing that you’re describing for design and art school, it’s just urban sketching, before it was called that. We got a bumper sticker name now that’s handy to use. And the people tend to gravitate to it. But my goodness, people have been doing the grand tour for centuries.

You know, if they were, especially architects or from privileged families in Europe, part of coming of age was doing that grand tour and seeing what was going on. And if you weren’t from a privileged family, you just got your book and you were obsessed and you hit the roads. So that’s kind of how I came to it as well. So…

[00:08:48] Laura: Yeah. So let’s talk a little bit about your start and your background and how you kind of discovered, you know, you said it’s been around for what, 15 years or so. How did you come into urban sketching?

[00:09:00] Nikki: Well, let’s go back just a little bit further than that and talk about what you did before.

[00:09:06] Jim: Okay. I guess I drew forever, but I was never in a context where you had access to great teachers or to even know what career possibilities were. Myself, my parents, I grew up on and off in New Orleans and I thought being an artist meant hanging out at Jackson Square and you know, hanging your portraits on the fence and, and hocking them.

And my parents weren’t crazy about that type of idea, even if I thought it sounded like fun. But I ended up going to school in journalism. It was a creative field and I was pretty good at writing and gravitated from that, just because of there was creativity involved, but I couldn’t draw, I couldn’t do the things that, being an illustrative reporter had never entered my mind, but I took a walk through the design building and there’s all these drawings on the wall, these beautiful, beautiful drawings of cities and of neighborhoods and all these things, but they were drawn from imagination.

You know, here is a place that would be a fantastic place to live or to work or to recreate it. And boy, when I found out that it was as much about behavior as it was about drawing and design, I was all over that. And it was a fantastic career for 40 years or so. We learned drawing in school and then we refined it and one of the things that, again, I was just fortunate to fall into, was that the particular professors that I had in south Louisiana knew that they had to get us out of south Louisiana. If we were going to stand a chance.

[00:10:49] Laura: I was born in Houma.

[00:10:50] Jim: Yeah, you know what I’m talking about. If you’re going to compete with designers in New York and San Francisco you need to go out and see what’s there. So we went and visited the great offices, the award-winning projects, that year and recorded a lot of that through sketching later, groups of us as alumni still travel together to Europe, to Asia, to South America. And I drew like a fool, doing all those things and started amassing a collection of sketchbooks.

And it just became something that even in my profession, I was kind of identified with. We used to do these things called design charrettes where you wanted to come in and redo downtown or something or a series of neighborhoods, but you didn’t have a year to do it. You had a week. So you brought the mayor into town and you brought the planners and you brought in the lawyers and the developers, and you got the transportation planners and all those guys in one room. And I was the guy that could sit and listen to all that input and start to synthesize it into pictures in my head and put them out very, very quickly as people were talking and hold them up and say, do you mean like this? And that would change the whole texture of the conversation because all of a sudden people are visually getting into it.

And I also had to learn to draw really fast in that job and all those things together, the traveling and the drawing on location learning to draw really fast. Boy, when I started seeing drawings online, it’s almost like you recognize your own tribe, you know, and, and I saw these people drawing on location with really confident, fast strokes and whatnot, and like a bunch of other people, I got in touch with Gabby and said, I do this, what’s going on at, well, you should join us. You should come on, this kinda thing. So that’s how I actually found the organization, but it was just stumbling upon it.

[00:12:52] Nikki: And when was this?

[00:12:53] Jim: That was, when I stumbled on it was 2010; when I actually joined was 2011. That’s when they were incorporated as a nonprofit and had the first symposium. When I was actually a speaker at the second symposium in Lisbon. And that again, changed everything, where we had only about 300 people there, but they were from a dozen or so different countries. And everybody was just so happy to really meet face to face, all these people that we’d known online. And we knew them better than if we just met at a bar or something, because you’re seeing their work and you’re kind of watching their journey.

And I got so turned on by that whole experience that I came back and tried to form Urban Sketchers Fort Worth. And I couldn’t find, you had to have three founders. And I couldn’t find two other people who were interested because they hadn’t drunk the Kool-Aid. They had no idea what I was talking about. It sounded like work. I found my architect friends and they’d say, no, no, I’m not going to do that. So I started calling people in Dallas. I couldn’t find two other people. So I called Gabby and I said, I’ve got somebody that’s interested in Houston and I’ve got somebody that’s interested in Lubbock. And we’re going to plant a flag on the whole damn state. What do you think of that? He says, go for it, man. We’ve got Urban Sketchers Brazil, we’ve got Urban Sketchers Portugal, just go for it. So that’s how that started and it started slow, built up over time and one of the last things I did before we left Texas was we split that chapter up into five individual city chapters. And I think three of them are just going bananas and one’s coming along. And one I don’t hear from, so that’s not bad odds. The Dallas Fort Worth group is just bonkers. Every time I see them having a function, I’m just really, really happy.

[00:14:49] Laura: Yeah. It’s pretty awesome. And you were mentioning Lisbon as well. And when I was in Lisbon, I went to a bookstore and they had an Urban Sketchers book that was, it was amazing that their chapter had created.

[00:15:01] Jim: Right. So, you know what’s fascinating about that is that some countries and cultures have much more of a tradition of drawing on location. And in Portugal, when we were there, I learned that everybody carries a sketchbook. It’s not just artists and designers and whatnot. It’s just something that a lot of people do.

[00:15:23] Laura: That’s great!

[00:15:24] Jim: It really is. And even architects, they are still required to do figure drawing like they were in the 1800s.

[00:15:33] Nikki: Oh, that’s cool.

[00:15:34] Jim: And this country, because it’s kind of considered the root of everything. So you get these architects that still have a real kind of humanist feeling for everything and real empathy for proportions and how things work and whatnot. So it’s been very interesting to travel and see how different countries interpret that type of thing. And I think we’re still the most Puritan that I’ve come across. You won’t find a figure drawing class in an architecture school here.

[00:16:03] Laura: Well, so you mentioned that you’d been to 45 different countries. I’m curious. Do you have a favorite?

[00:16:11] Jim: Everybody asks that and the honest answer used to be, it was the last place that I was in because I don’t go some place halfway. I am all in and I study before I go. Try to learn enough to say yes, no, thank you. And especially excuse me, because you’re always messing up, you know, and, and they seem to appreciate that. So whether it was Vietnam or Kenya or whatever it was, I just completely fall in love with the place and leave a little bit of myself there and take some of them with me. But in recent years I have spent so much time in Tuscany and boy, what a cliche, if there ever was one.

[00:16:57] Nikki: Yeah, but things are cliches because they’re true. It’s so beautiful.

[00:17:03] Jim: Absolutely.

[00:17:04] Nikki: Tuscany is amazing.

[00:17:06] Laura: Yeah, I was there in 2019 and and I actually did some sketching out at the Villa that we were at just of the landscape.

[00:17:14] Jim: Wonderful. Well, we have been working for a few years with a young couple there that are travel entrepreneurs, as well as some other things. She’s an executive chef.

[00:17:24] Nikki: Where in Tuscany is this?

[00:17:25] Jim: This is outside Lucca, which is pretty close to the shore. And they have a 300 year old villa up in the hills above town. Oh, it’s work. Do you remember the early scenes of Under the Tuscan Sun? They’re constantly working on this place, but at the same time, it’s a dream and Carolina’s cooking is just off the charts. So you’ve got that immersion in the culture from a food standpoint, from a landscape, from the old architecture, we’ll go into Lucca and see a Puccini opera concert while we’re there, as well as the drawing. And the drawing, I don’t try to get people to do great drawings or to draw like me or anything like that. It’s more learning to use it as a tool for discovery as you were saying earlier, Laura, we look at places more deeply. We concentrate on a more, we learn more about them that way. And you’re imprinting that visual image on your mind as you’re doing it, much more so than you can walking by with a cell phone.

[00:18:35] Nikki: Snap a picture

[00:18:36] Jim: Doing a quick one and moving on. So we’ve spent so much time there. We started working with them in 2017 and I’ve done a couple of workshops a year with them. And of course, during COVID all that was postponed and postponed again. We’re hoping to get back there in May of this year and again in October, so we’ve all got our fingers crossed that everything works out.

[00:18:58] Nikki: And when you say we…

[00:19:00] Jim: There’s a couple that hosts, that they call themselves Follow Tuscany. And my wife Patty. Patty is a retired electrical engineer. And she was a senior executive at an energy company. So the type of logistics for international travel and putting together groups and that type of thing just makes me want to throw up. I get so anxious and so nervous overall, that stuff is just child’s play with her. You know, it’s like a cat batting a mouse around.

[00:19:34] Nikki: It’s nice when you have that really complementary dynamic.

[00:19:38] Jim: Well, it really is. And the other thing that people write and tell us is that, gosh, this is going to sound, aggrandizing I suppose, but we’ve, we’ve truly had people write and say, you know, I learned about drawing and I learned about places, but I learned a little bit about relationships as well.

[00:19:59] Nikki: Oh, wow.

[00:19:59] Jim: Just by watching how you two work together and how much joy is there. And

[00:20:05] Nikki: That’s amazing.

[00:20:06] Jim: Yeah. How you make the people feel in terms of being welcome and, you know, just come along and we’re going to have this great adventure. So if she wasn’t able to do it, I’m outta here.

[00:20:16] Nikki: Wow. Well, that’s great. That’s great. So can we go back to your story a little bit?

[00:20:23] Jim: Sure.

[00:20:24] Nikki: I’d like to hear how that transition was from the urban planning. You discovered urban sketching got involved with that. And how did you make that transition to where now you’re all in.

[00:20:37] Jim: I started out in corporate world and I ended up founding my own urban design consultancy so that I could really focus on envisioning and then drawing those visions and writing about them. And my partner was an architect and planner, and he would write all the codes and things like that. We’d collaborate on the creative stuff and then he’d write it into law. So you had to like our ideas, you know, or go to the next town. And I was the only one of the two of us that drew, so that put me in a position of drawing all the time, drawing, having to draw really fast because I didn’t have any staff, you know and coming up with a bunch of shortcuts, not only for drawing, but for looking at places.

And you look at hundreds of towns and cities. You know, you start to see patterns of things that work and things that don’t work. And you know, whether this is a town of half a million or it’s a town of 10,000, you know, there there’s an arrival experience and there’s what I call the stranger’s path, where most of the visitors come through and form their first identity of the place. What is this place about? And you know, you pass through all the third places the public, the coffee shops and, you know, urban parks and places like that. And then there’s always a sacred heart that is what the community identifies with, you know, and north Texas, it’s the courthouse square and Italy it’s the piazza but the stranger’s path always leads to that. And so you can come in and look at places and say, oh yeah, here’s this, here’s this, I see how that’s working. And here are the influences on that. Let’s draw it up and help people see this. Sometimes locals are too close to it, and I don’t mean for this to sound like I’m trying to educate people or anything, but yeah, sometimes outside objective eyes can be really helpful in a situation like that. And I had somebody write me and say, you’ve made me see my own town differently. And that’s really something when you can pull that off. So I spent years doing that. And a big part of that, as you said in the intro, was travel. I mentioned that professor that said we had to get out of Louisiana. When a bunch of us that traveled with them as undergrads got to be in our mid forties, we were talking and saying, God, wasn’t that just the greatest thing? Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could relive that. And the professor who was then in his sixties or early seventies, where do you want to go? What do you want to do? Let’s let’s do it. And he put together a grand tour that we then repeated in different parts of the world every two years for going on 20 years now. And that that racks up 45 countries pretty quickly. It also had to do with the internet coming along and, and especially social media, when it did urban sketches wouldn’t exist without social media. Yeah, that’s true. And when I was traveling, posting all that stuff online it, I was already there. I was already urban sketching and part of the community just didn’t know that a tribe existed. So it, yeah, it was just a very natural transition.

[00:24:14] Nikki: Well, I love that. And you may have noticed in our intro I jokingly mentioned a bus, and I’m in the process of converting a school bus to live and travel in.

[00:24:26] Jim: Oh man. That’s so cool.

[00:24:30] Nikki: A school bus, yeah. A skoolie is what they call it. So I’m super excited about getting back into sketching places I go. So I haven’t done the official urban sketching thing, but I’m thinking it’s going to really fit in with the new lifestyle.

[00:24:48] Jim: Well, it’s interesting, you know, there’s a very kind of, one of the fathers of reportage art or illustration was a guy named Frank McMann. And Frank was the guy that when I was growing up, you’d get your Life Magazine or your look or your Sports Illustrated or something. And every, maybe twice a year, there’d be a story that was all hand drawn in excruciating detail. And, you know, he covered the Medgar Evers trial that way, and the civil rights movement and Apollo 11 and all these things that ended up kind of being how America saw those events in a lot of ways and helping to define them in that way as well. But there’s a great photograph of him on location. It’s a VW van, the camper van with the doors open, and he’s got a drawing table in there and he’s looking out and drawing whatever… Now his son told me that was a setup, kind of joke, but it doesn’t have to be.

[00:25:52] Nikki: Yeah. True, true. Well, that’s kinda my plan for sure.

[00:25:58] Jim: I’m excited for you.

[00:25:59] Nikki: Thanks. I’m also excited about drawing on the bus, on the outside of the bus.

[00:26:05] Laura: I think that’s going to be really cool.

[00:26:06] Nikki: Yeah, that’s going to be super fun.

[00:26:08] Jim: I think so, too. And when you get down to south Florida, check us out and we’ll go around and do some drawing.

[00:26:13] Nikki: You can count on it because I’m never spending a winter in this snow again, I’m actually from south Florida, myself. Yeah. The opposite coast from where you are, I believe. I was born in Miami and grew up in North Palm Beach and near Fort Lauderdale.

[00:26:30] Jim: Fantastic.

[00:26:30] Nikki: But now I live in Paducah, Kentucky, and I’m going to invite you to come sketch in Paducah. You should check it out. It’s a great little historic river town.

[00:26:40] Jim: I’ve heard of it. And river towns are my favorites. You know, we stayed at a BNB in Hannibal a couple of years ago that was just amazing.

[00:26:50] Laura: Well, you have an open invitation to Paducah.

[00:26:53] Jim: Thank you. We actually do that sometimes. And it’s usually in concert with a gig someplace, where we’re doing a workshop or a university lecture or something, and Patty will put together, you know, or she’ll have the concept. And you know, we’re going to Arizona State, we’re going to fly in, we’re going to do this. And she says, oh no, we’re going to do a Route 66 road trip from Oklahoma across Texas and New Mexico to Arizona. We’re going to do it that way. And all the little towns that you hit along the way, we did the same thing up in oh gosh, Washington state and to the big national parks out that way. And again in Utah, where we had a gig at University of Utah and saw the national parks and drew those. So yeah.

[00:27:39] Nikki: Well we have we have an art school and a great workshop space, so I’ve got gears turning.

[00:27:49] Jim: Let’s talk.

[00:27:49] Nikki: Yeah, definitely. But let’s get back to you.

[00:27:54] Laura: Well, you know, you talked about all of the international travel and actually, if we go back a little bit, you were doing your career, you started getting into the urban sketching and then at some point you kind of went all in and I know, I know you have a book. I know that you teach now. I know that you’ve taught at the symposiums. Like at what stage did you go, wow, this is something I can basically do for a living. You know, it’s sorta like the dream, right? Travel the world and sketch and show others the way.

[00:28:21] Jim: Well, it is, but I, this has been a sound kind of strange too. I got a lot of strange sounding things.

[00:28:28] Nikki: We’re good with strange.

[00:28:29] Jim: Yeah, I didn’t really choose it. There have been two or three 180s in my career that I really didn’t feel like it was a choice on my part. I felt like the universe was grabbing me by the collar and saying, no, we’re going to go this way now. And sometimes it took something pretty traumatic, you know, for, for me to accept that. But then all these worlds opened up and that’s how I was able to leave corporate world and kind of find my own creative voice and use that in the design world. And then again, there was this phenomenon going on where all the art and design schools, or especially the design schools were doing all the work on computer, the dropped the drawing classes basically. And I started getting calls from firms and from universities saying, we kind of threw the baby out with the bath water. Can you help us figure out how this digital world and what we used to do work together? And so we started doing a lot of college gigs and I accepted one of them. It was kind of funny for free the guy calls me up and says we were going to invite so-and-so and he wanted $3,000. And my professor said, call Richard, he’ll do it for free. And you know, there’s this awkward silence for a second. And I thought, okay, I’ll do this. And what came out of that was one of the faculty members ended up spending eight hours in there watching what we were doing. And he comes up to me afterwards and he says, surely you’re putting a book together on this. And I said.

[00:30:12] Nikki: Of course I am.

[00:30:14] Jim: No. I said, I don’t have the first idea. I’ve always wanted to do it. He says, well, I’ve got an idea, come to my office tomorrow. And he had published a lot of books and introduced me to the publisher. So these things started falling into place that made it really impossible for me to continue consulting.

[00:30:30] Laura: Right.

[00:30:30] Jim: And so then you’ve got to make a choice. Am I going to keep working in the public sector or am I going to follow this and just see where it goes? And where it went was the book and magazine articles and then Craftsy calls. And you do this first kind of big production.

[00:30:48] Laura: I actually took that class, The Energy of Spaces. You might have more than one on there, but I took that class.

[00:30:53] Jim: You’re the one!

[00:30:57] Laura: I thought it was a fabulous class because it showed people how to draw people in a very basic way and using the horizon and everything. And I thought, oh, I never knew how to do that before. So I think you’re a fabulous teacher, but yes, I was the one person in Craftsy to take your class.

[00:31:14] Jim: Thank you very much. Actually, that’s got about 6,500 students. So it did pretty well.

[00:31:20] Nikki: 1… 6500, whatever.

[00:31:22] Jim: What’s funny about the people thing is that it’s a pretty good ice breaker to get people started, because you’re not investing a lot of time. It’s a very easy little thing to do and I’ve actually had people get back in touch and say, you know, after I did that lesson, I was at dinner with my wife and some friends, and I just started doodling on the tablecloth doing what you showed me and everybody was like, oh my gosh, you’re amazing, this is the coolest thing ever. So you saved my marriage basically because of your little tricks that I can draw on the tablecloth.

[00:31:57] Laura: Nice, nice. Maybe that’ll get me some dates. So Craftsy called, you did that class, then what was next for you?

[00:32:07] Jim: Well, early on a half a dozen of us or so that were doing workshops at urban sketcher symposiums or whatnot, but Craftsy called and that really opened up all kinds of other doors, because once you had that class out and online, you kind of entered this rarefied era of just a few people who were doing it at that time.

And so more universities called, arch groups started calling, it was interesting. I got asked to come and do something at the Southwest Watercolor Society in Dallas. And I said, well, I’m not a watercolorist. And they said, no, no, no, we’ve got that. We want to do what you’re doing. And travel companies were doing the same thing. So it just got to the point where I was able to commit to those things full time and eventually phase out the professional consulting stuff, and I’ll still take on something for a past client, if it’s something that, that means a lot to them and means a lot to me, but it’s very, very rare. I did one last January for for an old client/best friend back in Texas. It’s amazing how quickly you can get pulled back into all the excitement of that city building. But yeah. So that’s kind of how it worked. Did that answer your question?

[00:33:30] Laura: Yeah, I think so. I mean, that’s how you transitioned into it and it sounds like it was a snowball effect, you know, you started with one thing and then you followed, okay, I’m doing this lecture. Oh, I’ll do the book. Craftsy called and then, you know, on from there, it was all these opportunities and you were saying yes, and getting exposure and eventually I assume you weren’t doing them for free anymore.

[00:33:51] Jim: Oh, absolutely. That’s another advantage that I had coming into it as a designer was I learned contracts and I learned how to work with clients and I learned about liability and all kinds of things. And one of the things I learned is that you don’t do things for free; people will take advantage of you if you do that.

But then when I started thinking more like an urban sketcher, an artist, it was like, you know, God’s work. Doesn’t always pay real well. You know, sometimes you do some things that lead to other things. And that’s certainly how it happened with me, but I talked about transitioning into finding my own voice. This was really transitioning into helping other people find their voice. And that became kind of the mission for the last 10, 12 years or so.

[00:34:44] Laura: Well, I know that you have the course on Craftsy, but you now have courses on Skillshare.

[00:34:50] Jim: I do.

[00:34:50] Laura: Is that right? And can you tell us a little bit about the offerings that you have there?

[00:34:55] Jim: I will. Skillshare is a great fit for me because it’s complete creative freedom and I can teach, like I want to teach and I can put lessons together like I want to. So I was able to actually build a whole series of shorter classes where people could learn, starting out here’s how to add people to an urban environment. And I promise you, you can learn this in 10 minutes, so let’s go. And that was the first one that I, did not the class in 10 minutes, but you can learn the trick and impress people at dinner that quickly. The next one had to do with a great sketch in five steps and it was typically how I will structure something. I did one on more urban street type scenes and working on one now that’s called Travel Sketching Essentials, Capturing the Light. And it goes back to that discussion about light we were having.

[00:35:50] Laura: Yeah, it’s amazing. I remember seeing in Fort Worth, actually at the Kimball, there was a Monet exhibit that was towards the end of his life and they showed all the different phases of light and it would be the same the same image, the same haystacks, you know, that he was doing from his garden. But seeing the light change was just so fascinating.

[00:36:13] Nikki: So I want to change the subject just a little bit, and I want to talk about supplies. I haven’t done this kind of sketching in a really long time, and when I did, I pretty much just used pencil. But I want to get back into it when I’m on my bus. So talk to me about getting started. What are the basics that you need and maybe, you know, some favorites, specific supplies?

[00:36:40] Jim: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. First of all pencil’s a great way to start. And there are people, obviously that are just maestros with pencils, they can do incredible things, that that’s kind of their medium of choice or one of a few choices. In my case, I like to use ink. And that started when I did a three-week tour of Southeast Asia, get it all in pencil. And when I got back, it was all smeared all over the place. And I said I had to adopt a drawing style that I’ve got now, that is, let’s put the line down in. Yeah, and you can’t erase, you gotta commit to it, but oops it’s in the wrong place, let’s do it again. And if it doesn’t, let’s do it again. Let’s just restate and kind of keep moving with this thing. And it resulted in much more organic drawings than if I was worried about erasing and getting everything, you know, just so, so well.

[00:37:37] Nikki: Yeah, and specifically for my style, when I draw in pencil or ink, I’m not fast, I’m meticulous and I’m always trying to loosen up and be more sketchy. So I think you work with fountain pens quite a lot, which maybe leads to that a bit more.

[00:37:56] Jim: It does, but I’d like to have, typically, two types of pens with me all the time, and one is a real fine line. And something that I have found that works really, really well for me actually, is this Uniball Eye Micro 10, which is a cheap little pen that you can buy by the dozen. But it was given to me as a gift by my host in Vietnam. And I thought, geez, you can give me this cheap pen, and then I used it and it changed my life. It’s waterproof; it just glides, it’s so much fun to use. So I’ll use those. I’ll also use the Pitt Artist Pens by Faber Castel. And when I’m using those, I’m using them because I love that sepia ink in it, especially in italy.

[00:38:39] Nikki: Oh yeah italy and sepia are, yeah…

[00:38:43] Laura: Go hand in hand.

[00:38:43] Jim: All of a sudden you’re DaVinci. Right. You know, you’re out there. Just, just go out of town.

[00:38:49] Nikki: Another awesome lefty.

[00:38:50] Jim: Yeah. So those are the fine line things that I use, but then I like to have a fude nib fountain pen as well, and sometimes I’ll draw with it alone. But the idea with those, you notice that they’ve got a bent nib, like a calligraphy pen. So depending on the angle you hold it and move it, you can get hair thin lines, or you can get really fat, bold lines, just like calligraphy strokes. So I’ll use that to really bolden things up and to add darks and a lot of times to do the foreground so that it appears closer, you know, then if I was doing it all in one line weight. So I like to have those two things. I like to use watercolor on top of those. So, obviously the fine liners and the fountain pens are all using waterproof ink. That’s not always real easy. It takes a lot of experimentation sometimes to to find a really good one, but I use De Artramentis archival ink. So there you go.

[00:39:50] Laura: That’s the one that I use and also the platinum carbon ink. I like that one.

[00:39:55] Jim: I’ve used that one as well.

[00:39:56] Laura: I like their fine liner pen that they have. They have one that’s like extra fine or something.

[00:40:01] Jim: I’ve never done that, I need to try that.

[00:40:03] Laura: It’s the platinum carbon ink fountain pen and they’re cheap, they’re like, I don’t know what, they are $12, $15, but they’re awesome.

[00:40:10] Jim: I’ve got a metal travel palette for watercolors and it holds 16 full pans. And I use four of them about 80% of the time.

[00:40:21] Laura: Four of the pans?

[00:40:22] Jim: Yeah. Yeah. For the pants out of sixteen. .

[00:40:24] Laura: Okay. So what are your top colors? I’m curious.

[00:40:27] Jim: My top colors are Naples yellow.

[00:40:30] Nikki: That’s a gorgeous color.

[00:40:32] Jim: It is a gorgeous color. And yeah.

[00:40:34] Laura: There’s an Italy theme today, if people haven’t noticed.

[00:40:37] Jim: Well, what are you going to do? But I actually discovered Naples yellow here in this country because I’ve drawn a lot of architecture and it makes a fantastic base over what I call everything hard, the building facades, the pavements that, unless you’re going to keep this white space for two reasons, one is it’s wonderful on its own, but then to, to add colors to it and let them mix and everything. And if you need to go more reddish for masonry, it’s real easy to do that. But the fact that you’ve got that as a beginning, kind of holds everything together from a color standpoint.

[00:41:15] Nikki: Nice secret.

[00:41:15] Jim: And not only that. Here’s the other secret. People write and they say, I don’t understand why what you’re drawing is just, they make me happy. I said, well, that’s a shameless trick. You know, if you put this undercoat of Naples yellow or whatever all this stuff, it’s a transparent medium, so that yellow’s always going to kind of shine through. Does that sound hokey? You know, but it’s true.

[00:41:42] Nikki: And it’s just a happy color.

[00:41:44] Laura: It is a happy color. I love that.

[00:41:47] Jim: It’s like sunlight. It’s a color of life.

[00:41:49] Laura: Yeah. You’re warming everything up.

[00:41:51] Jim: And in the same way, kind of that turquoise is with the Mediterranean or something like that. So I use a lot of Naples yellow. I use the red, I use as my orange and I use a lot of that. These are Daniel Smith colors. I use a Prussian blue and an alizarin crimson. Mostly to mix together for shadows. And you can make warmer shadows of more alizarin or cooler shadows with more Prussian. But really with those four colors, you can make everything pretty much. There’s a couple of cards up my sleeve that I like to have there. There’s an olive green that I just learned about in the workshop a couple of weeks ago, that is just really, really dark, you know, new Orleans olive dark and you mix it. That’s a Daniel Smith color as well. And I don’t have the name right on the top of my head, but you know, look, for those really, really almost black olives and then add things to them. And that that’s worked really well for me. I use a set of DaVinci travel brushes, number 11, number 7, the number 4

[00:43:05] Laura: And their pocket brushes that have the metal, the handle that comes apart and it goes over the brush top.

[00:43:11] Jim: Yeah, these are a little different in that it’s a really, really hard plastic and it screws in. And what happened to me with those metal ones, I had a a set of those for years. If I left the brush too wet, the wood would absorb it and break them. And it would never completely come off, but it always kind of rattle on there and, you know, ain’t, nobody got time for that. So I’ve got my little James Bond, DaVinci brushes and a nice little leather case, just three of them. And that’s about it.

[00:43:48] Laura: Okay. What about your journal?

[00:43:50] Jim: Oh, the sketchbook watercolor journal.

[00:43:52] Laura: Are you working in the sketchbook?

[00:43:53] Jim: It kind of depends on what the subject matter is, but if I had to pick one lately I’ve really enjoyed these Etcher Perfect sketchbooks.

[00:44:03] Nikki: I’ve been looking at those.

[00:44:04] Jim: Yeah I used to use the Moleskine watercolor albums like forever, and I’ve got probably 75 of those up on the shelf back there that I filled up because I was doing ink and wash and the smooth paper took the ink very well. I didn’t have one of those with me one time, and so I had this Etchr one and I took it with me and not only did the ink work, just fine on the Etchr paper, but you start to drag a brush of watercolor across that and my goodness, the magic effects that I’d always seen on these fine art watercolors magically appear because you’ve got the right brush and you’ve got the right thing. So that’s, that’s what I’m using these days.

[00:44:47] Nikki: All right. All right. Good to know.

[00:44:49] Laura: And then what size do you recommend for a beginner who wants to start out in urban sketching? What size sketchbook or journal would you recommend?

[00:44:56] Jim: People are comfortable with with very, very different things. And I always say, choose the thing you’ll use because obviously, you’ll use it, but I would say go no smaller than eight by two. And it doesn’t really matter if it’s portrait or landscape. That’s really driven more by by the subject matter that you’re going to be doing and your style of drawing. But over time I migrated up to, you know, kind of a ledger size and they for, and that’s what I use in the Moleskine and in the Etchr, because it allows me to either put 10 smaller sketches on a page or to do these big double page panoramas of a landscape.

[00:45:40] Laura: I haven’t been as brave as you in. I’ve done smaller ones. So I might have to try out a larger one now, and then you have these travel brushes, but you need water. So what do you do when you are an urban sketcher and you need water for your watercolor paints?

[00:45:54] Jim: Yeah. I haven’t found a perfect solution to that yet I see people use little bitty things. I’m showing you this like you can see them. I’ve seen people use these little bitty things, but you know, your water tends to get muddy and whatnot. I always carry a water bottle and use my water bottle to fill up my little collapsible cup and I’ve got a collapsible cup. It’s a relatively new and that Faber Castel just put out and it’s cool. It’s kind of rubbery…

[00:46:23] Laura: … and it collapses down and your brush will sit on top of that. without rolling off.

[00:46:27] Jim: That’s right.

[00:46:28] Laura: Cause it’s got little ridges.

[00:46:29] Jim: So, that’s the weapon of choice.

[00:46:31] Nikki: Do you ever use water brushes?

[00:46:33] Jim: That’s all I used exclusively for years and I was just fine with them. And if I use those now, it’s usually if I’m using a pre-packaged set of watercolors where you’ve got the cakes in there, and I’m just kind of doing really, really fast sketching and adding, adding color washes to it. There are people like Daikubara, Sketch Now Think Later, that uses water brushes exclusively because his whole thing is working really, really fast and minimum of tools and, and just get out there and do it. And he does beautiful stuff with water brushes. So it’s again, kind of what you’re personally comfortable with.

[00:47:13] Laura: Yeah. And what I like about urban sketching is it doesn’t take a lot of money to get started. You know, a lot of people get nervous about starting something new and it’s going to be really expensive. And with urban sketching, that’s really not the case. What do you do, though, if you’re on location and it starts raining?

[00:47:28] Nikki: You just paint went on wet, Laura.

[00:47:32] Jim: For one thing, I’ve got a couple of, you know, I’m usually wearing a wide brim hat when I’m out sketching. And if I don’t want to lose the spot I’m in, that will protect me just fine. Otherwise, and we did this a lot when we were sketching in Dallas, Fort Worth, we just moved the group over to the nearest kind of overhang, especially if it had a table and wait service and you could get a coffee. And that’s what we did during the rain.

[00:48:01] Nikki: All right. That’s my kind of sketching, and sketching with bourbon.

[00:48:05] Laura: And I love that during one of these urban sketching events, when people go sketch whatever they want, and you could all be in a similar location, but scattered around and everybody will notice something different. And then at the end, you come together and look and see what each person’s sketched that day. And it really is a cool experience.

[00:48:23] Jim: That’s exactly right. And, you know, you get a lot of insight into how many different ways that you can interpret something. And also just in terms of drawing styles, whether it’s really, really minimalist or whether it’s, you know, focusing on one thing and being super detailed or whatever it is.

And I think with beginners, that’s kind of how you begin to build a style, is to learn from other folks and emulate. And, you know, downright copy. Early in my sketching career, I was copying work from Ronald Searle and Paul Hogarth and some landscape architects whose work that I was in the enamoured with. And as you have to draw more and more, and in my case draw faster and faster, that your own contribution to that can’t help but emerge, just like trying to keep weeds out from cracks in the concrete it’s, going to come through.

[00:49:18] Nikki: Yeah. Yeah. Your style is going to get to develop as you’re doing it, no matter what you’re doing.

[00:49:24] Laura: And I think that’s one of the incredible benefits of urban sketching. Now I’m a detail oriented person, and so when sketch, I tend to want to put in a lot of details, but when you’re on site, you don’t have necessarily the time to do that.

[00:49:37] Jim: Right.

[00:49:38] Laura: And so for me, it was helping me get a little bit quicker at sketching, get a little looser and then also getting more comfortable with other people watching me create. Because when you’re hiding in your studio, nobody has to see what you’re doing. But when you’re out, like in public and people are walking by and talking to you and oh, what are you up to? I’m starting to get a little more comfortable with that. Which I think is a benefit. So what do you think Jim, are some of the benefits of urban sketching?

[00:50:02] Jim: Well, one of the biggest ones is what you just mentioned. I don’t think you can overstate how much richer the experience is when you meet some locals and you know, maybe out of 10 people that come and look over your shoulder, you’ll find one that wants to offer you a suggestion about, well, do you know what the statue is? Do you know the history of that? And I had a soldier with an AR 15, you know, come up and check out what I was doing. And when he decided I was harmless, he gave me a schooling about where I was and the history of the place and all these types of things. This was in the Domincan Republic and Santo Domingo, the capital there. And I was drawing this giant, 60 foot statue looking out to the sea. And this guy says, that’s the person who ended slavery here. Basically, he was the rebel that you know, kinda kind of set the place free. So you learn a tremendous amount like that and I’ve also found that it’s a great cultural bridge, that transcends language, transcends geography, transcends even political ideologies, that type of thing. I’ll try to make this real short, but I got busted by Cuban customs when I was leaving Havana.

[00:51:27] Laura: With a whole bunch of cigars?

[00:51:29] Jim: No, it was my paintings. It was my paintings and the gate agent insisted on a tip. And apparently my bribe wasn’t big enough for him to be happy. And I ended up in a green interrogation room, with the proverbial bare light bulb. And they were yelling at me and they were, you know, just really, really upset. And finally one comes in who speaks English. And I said, look, I had this exhibition, this is all my art, blah, blah, blah, blah. And she says, Señor, it will go much better for you. If you tell me what is in the box. I said, it is art. I swear. So they cut it open and started pulling out paintings. The first painting comes out and the person who had been most aggressive says, oh, que bonita! and they all start pointing to things in the paintings that, my uncle works at this bar. My mama had a car like this car that you drew just like that, this is the malecon, do you know about the malecon? And they ended up pulling them all out and talking about. And one of the customs people said, now just, wait, wait, how do I know that you’re not, that this is your art, that you’re not stealing art from my country. And I pulled out a sketchbook. And we started going through the local sketches I had done the last few days and we all ended up, you know, hugging and all, it doesn’t happen much when you’re busted in customs. And the head customs agent came to me and she says, something as bad as I had to get a translator, but basically it was the next time you come to my country, come to this office first, because I want to see more of your art.

[00:53:17] Laura: Ah, you know, drawing is an international love language.

[00:53:21] Jim: That’s right.

[00:53:22] Nikki: It really is.

[00:53:23] Laura: It really is.

[00:53:24] Jim: So that’s, that’s one of the things that I, I love most about it. The thing that I mentioned earlier about a tool for discovery, you know, Patty and I were on the road so much before COVID that we had 13 traveling workshop gigs in one year and, but half those were overseas and we didn’t realize how much we were missing by having all that fun.

You know, we had moved here to Siesta Key and I really didn’t know anything about it and I didn’t know anybody. And then when COVID hit, it forced me to really explore this place and create a whole series. Watercolor sketches of it, that were a revelation to me. And again, a revelation to the people that lived here, you made me see my own place differently.

[00:54:14] Laura: Yeah. Especially cause you’re used to traveling constantly with your career and then being in a situation where you couldn’t. So you have to pivot and do something differently. So you were able to focus on your new hometown

[00:54:24] Jim: And what a silver lining that was for the whole COVID thing.

[00:54:28] Nikki: Oh, I bet. I bet. And I bet you sell a lot of images of your local area in your local area.

[00:54:37] Jim: I do. And it’s funny. It’s almost like it’s a service or therapy for people because they’re going back to Canada or Chicago or wherever and they take these things with them.

[00:54:50] Nikki: A little bit of the beach with them.

[00:54:53] Jim: Yeah, yeah! Or more often their favorite oyster bar is what they want to do.

[00:54:56] Nikki: Oh, even better!

[00:54:58] Jim: I have a guy from Northern Ireland that bought five and framed them all the same so that it was a set in his house, took pictures and showed me all that.

[00:55:09] Laura: That’s very cool.

[00:55:10] Nikki: So do you do commissions?

[00:55:12] Jim: I don’t as a rule and the reason is, that’s a job.

[00:55:18] Nikki: Oh yeah.

[00:55:19] Jim: And I’ve had jobs.

[00:55:21] Nikki: I totally get that.

[00:55:22] Jim: Yeah.

[00:55:23] Nikki: I totally get that.

[00:55:25] Jim: And every now and then I’ll take one.

[00:55:28] Nikki: Like if it comes from Roseanne Cash?

[00:55:32] Jim: Yeah, if Roseanne calls, you know, what are you going to do?

[00:55:36] Laura: We heard about that one.

[00:55:37] Nikki: You’re gonna say yes to Rosanne Cash.

[00:55:40] Jim: Well, I did, but it also just completely freaked me out. You know, I…

[00:55:46] Nikki: Well, the pressure…

[00:55:48] Jim: Yeah, I accepted that thing and I told her, I’m looking forward to kind of hearing about your vision for this piece. And she says, I would never presume to tell another artist how to work.

[00:55:59] Nikki: Oh, I love her. Most people who commission work don’t have that idea.

[00:56:04] Jim: No, they don’t.

[00:56:05] Nikki: They say, I came to you because you do this beautiful work. Now, can you do something completely different?

[00:56:10] Jim: Right, but, long story short, I ended up doing about 10 of the paintings that she wanted because, you know, you’re overcome by this, oh gosh, I can’t draw a line. I’m a fool. You know, she’s gonna hate this, all this stuff.

[00:56:29] Nikki: I’m a complete fraud, who told me I could draw…

[00:56:31] Jim: Yeah, exactly. Why did I agree to do this? But I finally ended up with two that I was comfortable enough to send her and I said, please choose one of these as the gift that you commissioned me for, and please keep the other for yourself. It’s my gratitude for you involving me.

[00:56:50] Nikki: That’s a brilliant idea, actually.

[00:56:52] Jim: And this process and you know, we got to meet her and her family and all that stuff. It was just great.

[00:56:57] Nikki: Very cool.

So we’re sad because we’re coming up on a little over an hour and we’ve just so enjoyed this conversation, but we do have a couple more questions for you.

[00:57:08] Jim: Okay.

[00:57:08] Laura: So one of those is what is one piece of advice that you can give to artists and illustrators who are just getting started?

[00:57:16] Jim: I would say, just go and do it. And if you can’t do it in front of people, do it in your backyard or find a quiet park or something where you can, but it really helps to be able to draw in a group. I wrote one time that is kind of the difference between plunking away at three chords on a guitar in your bedroom or joining a garage band, and everybody supports each other and you learn from each other and lift each other up. So I would certainly suggest that.

I like to make the distinction that don’t aspire to be great, aspire to be to be prolific. And if you’re prolific, being great takes care of itself over time.

[00:58:04] Laura: Oh, that’s a great quote.

[00:58:06] Nikki: Nice, nice.

[00:58:11] Jim: Thank you. But people focus on trying to do perfect drawings when you should be trying to focus on just doing it. Every opportunity you get, not worrying about other people seeing it.

[00:58:21] Laura: Yeah. The end result.

[00:58:23] Nikki: That’s fantastic. Let me ask you if you were the interviewer, what is a question we should have asked you, but didn’t?

[00:58:32] Jim: You know, you guys pretty much nailed it. The question that people don’t ask is usually, is what’s your secret, behind being able to do all this, and then I get to tell the Patty story and how she’s the fairy godmother, you know, that uses the wand and turns me into something other than a pumpkin for awhile.

[00:58:53] Nikki: Can we clone her?

[00:58:55] Jim: I get asked that a lot. And what’s really interesting though, is that there are a couple of urban Sketchers in the international organization and kind of in the teaching cadre whose wives had a career or one kind or another, or their husbands or whatever it was and watched how we were working and said, I think we could do that. I think that, that we could be a team and just knock this thing out of the park. An example is Rob Sketcherman from Hong Kong who’s the international guru of iPad sketching. He’s amazing at urban sketching with an iPad. He and his wife are just a marvelous team, but when he first came up to her and said, I’d like for you to watch what Patty’s doing, this is really interesting. That’s not the way to start the conversation.

[00:59:46] Laura: I don’t think that whenever so well, yeah.

[00:59:48] Nikki: You know, I, I live with my my dog, Rocket, do you think I can train him to do that?

[00:59:53] Jim: You could train him to do some things for sure. Go to the convenience store,

[00:59:58] Nikki: Fetch that paintbrush for me, Rocket.

[01:00:03] Laura: Well, Jim, where can our listeners find you online?

[01:00:07] Jim: I am at jamesrichardsketchbook.com. And that website, if you are familiar with it, you’re not now. It was completely redone. About three months ago, my daughter is a professional photographer and does a lot of that kind of stuff. And she brought a whole kind of different vibe to it that I just absolutely love. I was still kind of stuck in architecture world, and she blasted it right out of that. So yeah, check that out. And I’m on Instagram, on @jrsketchbook. And that’s where you can see the latest and greatest on a consistent basis.

[01:00:43] Laura: Awesome.

[01:00:44] Nikki: Thank you so much for being here today.

[01:00:46] Jim: My pleasure.

[01:00:47] Nikki: This has been fantastic and I wish we could talk for a whole ‘nother hour.

[01:00:53] Jim: I do too, you guys are great, and I really appreciate the thought and the background you put into your questions. So

[01:00:59] Nikki: Thanks. To learn more about James and read today’s Startist Society show notes, go to startistsociety.com/jamesrichards.

[01:01:09] Laura: If you’ve enjoyed today’s episode, we’d love for you to leave us a five star rating and review. Reviews help us reach more startists like you and keep us inspired to create new episodes. Thanks for listening, and we’ll see you next week.

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