Is this the picture in your head when you think about painting on location? I’ve never had anything like this happen, but just imagining it kept me from going out to paint or sketch in public for a loooong time.
Even if no one laughs at your work, there are other annoying encounters with onlookers that do happen. People who would never dream of reading over your shoulder or interrupting to ask about what you’re writing will think it’s perfectly acceptable to interrupt if there are art supplies involved.
The good news is that you can learn to manage these interactions so that at least they’re not any more disruptive than bugs, wind or other plein air distractions.
- use body language and nonverbal cues
- use pre-rehearsed phrases to gracefully say no to chatting or sharing work
- if you do feel open to some conversation, you can use rehearsed phrases to redirect the conversation to something besides a critique of your talent or your work
- people approach you while you’re working because they are interested in art; remembering this helps you manage the interaction more easily
- practice sketching skills in one session and strategies for dealing with onlookers in a separate sketching session; be strategic about time, place and materials
- consider embracing interactions with onlookers (at least some of the time)—it can be a great way to connect with locals, meet other art-lovers and supporters, or do a bit of low-key marketing
Body Language, Nonverbal Cues and Rehearsed Phrases
If you don’t want to engage in conversation with onlookers, you may be able to head it off entirely with nonverbal cues and body language.
A very brief glance with a small flash of a smile, followed by an immediate continuation of whatever you were doing, conveys, “I see you, but I can’t stop and chat right now”. Not everyone will get it, but many do. When they do, that interruption is over almost before it begins.
Sometimes people will follow up a nonverbal cue like that by asking if it’s okay to watch. If I don’t want to get caught up in conversation, I use a rehearsed line like “Sure, but this part I’m working on takes all my concentration, so I’m afraid I can’t chat while I paint.”
If you aren’t comfortable with people watching you work, then you might have to do more that show you’ve noticed them and pointedly go back to work. That says you’re too busy to talk, but you may need to do more to convey that you don’t an audience.
It may work better to stop work and make eye contact with a small smile, while you casually close your sketchbook or step in front of your easel. If they ask, “Can I see?” have a rehearsed line that tells them in a gentle way that you aren’t open to sharing that work.
For a sketchbook, I usually say, “Sorry, this is my personal journal, so I don’t share it with anyone. I don’t want to get in the habit of censoring myself or worrying if it makes sense to anyone else.”
Or you could say something like, “Oh, thanks, I’m flattered, but I’d really rather not have an audience today. This is taking all of my attention, and I get a bit distracted if someone is watching me work.” Whatever feels natural to you is fine, but the key is to decide ahead of time what you’re going to say and rehearse it.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s really your personal journal, or something that takes all your attention, or whatever. You don’t owe a completely accurate justification to random passers-by. All you need is a friendly, but nonnegotiable, way to say “no, not this” or “no, not today”.
Converse, But Redirect to Comfortable Topics
If you’re open to conversation—just not conversation about your talents or the quality of your work—plan and rehearse some phrases to redirect the conversation.
Just because someone approaches you with a question or comment, that doesn’t mean you’re obliged to answer that question or make a sensible response.
Mentally translate whatever they said to a version of “hello” (often, that’s basically what it is, anyway). Respond with a smile and whatever you want to talk about.
If they say, “Wow, that’s amazing, you’re so talented, etc.” you don’t have to come up with some modest, self-deprecating reply. Non sequiturs are your friend here!
You can simply smile and say something in a similar upbeat tone, but on a different topic, like “This sure is a great location for sketching! Do you live around here?” or “I’m enjoying the excuse to be out in this lovely weather. Are you hiking to the end of the point?” or “Oh, thanks. I’m starting to think about lunch; do you know any good spots around here?”
If I sense genuine interest, I enjoy talking about how sketching helps me slow down and observe more closely, or how it helps me build more vivid memories of my travels. Or I might comment on what I find interesting about the particular subject or scene. These are all ways of talking about the joys of making art, but steering the conversation away from art as some sort of performance to be judged. But you can also play it safe and stay entirely away from the subject of your own art.
The trick is to decide ahead of time what topics you would enjoy discussing with onlookers when you’re out sketching. Then you just relentlessly have that conversation, even if it means you’re not always responding directly to their questions or comments.
If someone tries to bring the conversation back around to judgments about your sketch or your talents or whatever else makes you feel awkward, just keep replying with a smile and a comment that goes back to something you’re comfortable talking about. (I find it helps to adopt a “friendly, but ditzy” persona.)
I also try to make sure I have a rehearsed way to end the conversation gracefully, like, “Oh, gosh! I better stop talking your ear off and get back to this before the light changes any more/this wash dries too much/etc. Nice talking with you!” followed by picking up my brush and mixing some color, or digging in my supply tote to pull out some random item. (This helps you avoid getting drawn into the saga of Great-Aunt Matilda’s paintings that they really ought to bring down from the attic and have appraised, and do you think they’d be worth a lot, considering they’re pretty old, etc. etc. . . . )
Lookie-Loos Are Allies (and Respond Best When Treated That Way)
When you’re crafting your rehearsed phrases, keep in mind that people approach artists at work because they like art. It looks like so much fun! They wish they had the courage to do what you’re doing. They’re excited to vicariously share the experience. They imagine you’ll be flattered and pleased to be acknowledged by someone who values artists and art-making. (And some artists DO welcome onlookers, so they aren’t necessarily wrong!) It hasn’t occurred to them that they might be interrupting you in the midst of something that requires intense concentration or a delicate balancing act.
People are motivated to approach you by curiosity, of course, but maybe even more by an impulse to celebrate someone doing something they value. From their perspective, they’re offering you a gift of attention and encouragement. You’re a celebrity in that moment! If you can craft a response that conveys gratitude for their interest and support, together with your plausible, practical reason why you’re unable to stop and chat, or work with an audience today, most people will happily and promptly leave you to your work.
One Difficulty at a Time, Be Strategic
Learning to sketch and learning to manage interactions with (and your reactions to) onlookers are two separate skill sets. It’s easier to get comfortable with these skills if you set yourself up so you can put most of your attention on one or the other, but not both on the same day, until you feel more confident.
If you feel shy about onlookers, sit in a spot that makes it hard for someone to look over your shoulder or approach you from behind. Work in a smaller sketchbook. Keep your supplies in your tote or on a chair next to you instead of spread out enticingly on the table.
If you’re going to be practicing a new painting skill or tackling a challenging subject, go someplace out-of-the-way or pick a time when onlookers will be unlikely.
Schedule a different time to practice managing onlookers and your own self-consciousness. Go to a familiar location, bring minimal supplies and give yourself a very simple sketching task like collecting color schemes from the scenes around you.
You can also reduce your self-consciousness at the beginning by pre-drawing before going out to practice working with onlookers about. Take a few photos of small details in a familiar location, and trace a few small drawings at home ahead of time. Then go back another day when you know there will be other people around, and let your only art task be to just play around with adding a bit of color here and there. This way you can give yourself a chance to experience working in public with something super-simple, so you can just focus on learning to manage interactions with onlookers and your own self-consciousness.
Another great strategy is to go with a friend or a group. Google “urban sketchers” and check local arts organizations to see if there is a sketching or paint-out group near you, or invite a few friends. The chatty ones or the experienced ones can run interference for the shy ones, or you can take turns being the spokesperson.
Consider Embracing the Benefits of Interacting with Onlookers
Onlookers are not just a source of distraction. They’re also a great resource. If you’re traveling, a sketchbook is a great icebreaker for connecting with both the locals and fellow travelers. I like to ask for suggestions of less-visited places to paint or sketch. (Park rangers are great for suggesting under-appreciated scenic spots.)
Conversations with onlookers are also a wonderful, low-key marketing opportunity, if you sell your work. Tuck some business cards in your sketching kit, and assemble an album of a dozen or so paintings in the photo app on your phone, just in case the conversation goes that way.
Do What Makes Sense Today
There’s no need to figure out a single rule for how to interact with onlookers. Some days, you might be on a mission to gather sketch information for a painting or work on a particular skill. Those days, you’ll use all your tested strategies to avoid interruptions. Other days, you might mostly be looking for an excuse to get out and enjoy some lovely weather, or get out of the house (or your own head) for a while. You’ll be able to confidently work in a busy location, knowing that you can direct the conversation to topics you’re comfortable with
Engineer some baby steps to help yourself adapt a little at a time. Enlist some friends and just get out there. You’ll quickly get over being self-conscious about people watching you work. For every one who’s a bit of a nuisance, you’ll have fifty wonderful conversations with fascinating people you’d otherwise never have met. You won’t need a pep talk from me anymore. The lookie-loos will win you over.