Julie Elman drawing.
A drawing by Ohio University Professor Julie Elman, produced as part of Thursday’s hands-on portraiture session. (Photo by Marisa Morrissette)


Tonia Cowan, graphics director for the Boston Globe, led a hands-on session on Day One of SND Charlotte teaching the secret to portraiture: using a guerrilla technique.

Cowan gave some benefits to drawing, saying it “makes you more aware of your surroundings” and “makes your smarter.” She cited study by PLOS as support.

“Experienced artists spend time taking in the overall context of a scene instead of focusing on the main detail,” Cowen said. “You learn to record the world as we see it without altering and without edits.

Urs Graf sketch
A 16th Century sketch by Urs Graf


Cowan showed well-known artists’ work to highlight the importance of quick sketching. Her examples included The Washington Post’s Richard Johnson and Swiss Renaissance painter Urs Graf, whose work Cowan praised for “the direction of the lines — that’s the best way to show volume.

Pablo Picasso, she noted, is as an example of someone who produced large volumes of art. “You have a right to draw as much as you can without worrying about if it’s actually art. (Picasso) just put down lines. Put down the important lines first,” Cowan said.

To condense sketching into major steps, Cowan provided eight pointers:

  1. Always have your tools.
  2. Pick your spot carefully. “Go for 30 to 45 degrees. 90 degrees is significantly harder,” Cowan said, referring to how the artist should orient herself to the subject.
  3. Do the most interesting lines first. “If you are looking at someone with an awesome face and they have a weird nose, start with that.” Cowan said.
  4. For hair, just do indicator lines, finish later.
  5. Don’t draw the homeless.“They are unpredictable, and they will call you out,” Cowan said.
  6. Use your camera, and shoot from the hip.“I’m shy and want to get pictures of people who look cool, but I don’t have the kind of equipment that will get me there,” Cowan said.
  7. Women are more likely than men to know they are being sketched.
  8. Post what you like. Learn from what you don’t like.

After sharing her tips, Cowan sent the participants to sketch portraits of their own and encouraged all participants to post their work using #guerrillaportraiture.

Cowan said she set up the course to send participants out to sketch people because “the hard part is the scariness of it. There is a similarity between journalists and artists, both require a little bit of boldness,” Cowan said.

One sketcher, Julie Elman, an associate professor at Ohio University, sketched several SND Charlotte attendees talking to some and sketching other subjects from afar. “This is so hard,” she said. “Oh my god, to capture someone and then somebody moves.”

Julie Elman sketches a portrait
Julie Elman, an associate professor at Ohio University sketches during a hands-on guerrilla portraiture session. (Photo by Marisa Morrissette)


Reflecting on her work, Elman said that as a former journalist, she enjoyed going up to people and saying “Hi, I’m doing a portraiture class.”

After finishing their sketches, the participants talked about their experiences in a  roundtable discussion. One said he faced some challenges. “I think I had a couple of problems, people kept moving…and sitting too far away, so I couldn’t get the details,” he said.

Another discovered a new view on sketching. “I found out that I apparently really enjoy drawing people’s hair.”