I happened upon “Drawn On The Way” by Sarah Nisbett a few years ago and immediately connected with the idea. Our mission has always been about drawing in the random moments of your life so I was thrilled to find out that Sarah has a book coming out. If you’re not familiar with Sarah’s work, she started drawing people while commuting on the subway back in 2012 and has been drawing random portraits ever since. Keep reading to get to know Sarah better and don’t forget to check out her new book (link at the bottom).
Is it correct to say that you didn’t really pursue drawing until about a decade ago? How often did you draw before that?
Yes - that’s very correct! I was always a doodler and I liked to draw imaginary things ( in part because they couldn’t be measured in comparison to reality.) Prior to that first portrait I made coming home on the subway one night, I knew two things about my artistic capabilities; I CANNOT draw people, and I CANNOT draw anything from real life. I was very sure of those two things!
What role did art play in your childhood?
I grew up in Ann Arbor, Michigan with my parents, my brother and our dog. I’ve always been a mixture of a really shy person and a total extrovert. Growing up, we would spend a lot of time in our family cabin in Northern Michigan. We didn’t have a TV and there were no kids to play with nearby -- it was just books, art and nature to keep us entertained. I think that had a really big impact on what I do now: I’m interested in the power of quiet observation to bring interest to an otherwise “boring” day or place. My brother was an amazingly talented artist, and from a really young age he would draw these super detailed, realistic illustrations. He inspired me to be creative and see what I could do. My mom was a journalist and my dad is a social psychologist, so having a strong interest and curiosity about the people and things around me is kind of in my blood.
Before we jump into questions about your sketching project…Opera? How in the world did you become a professional opera singer? Why did you stop pursuing that?
Yes, opera! Since my brother was already the artist of the family, I think I decided that I would be the musician. I was always musical, I played piano, cello and sang. I was really content to be fully mediocre at cello and piano, but as a naturally loud person (I still don’t really have an inside voice…) with a flair for silliness and being over the top, singing really intrigued me. I had a naturally operatic voice, so it made sense to become classically trained.
I wasn’t brave enough to audition for musicals until college when I started singing and performing a lot. Once I got onstage, you really couldn't drag me off of it and I decided to pursue a career as a professional opera singer (that is what originally brought me to New York).
I was having a very successful career when I decided to stop singing. But I wasn’t super happy. When I was singing, I heard this advice over and over, “To have this career, you have to love singing more than anything else.” At first, I thought they meant that this was how you got good. Then, I realized they were actually saying that you have to love singing more than anything else because if you don’t, you will always feel that you are sacrificing something to have this career. The more successful I became, the more I felt like I was sacrificing. There is a lot of travel and instability inherent in the career, and I saw what that did to people.
Also, I think the process of becoming classically trained can slowly overwrite the natural instincts for creativity. And this is where I think my singing had the biggest impact on my drawing: In the classical training method, there’s a lot of critique and a lot of rules for how things “must” be done. When I started drawing from life, I was reclaiming my creativity -- drawing for myself only. I was the only one who could measure the joy of the process and the “success” of the final product. And it was -- and is -- very empowering.
On that day back in 2012 when you decided to draw the man across from you on the subway, was it something you had been thinking about doing and finally decided to do it or was it something you hadn’t thought about before that ride?
I completely surprised myself by making that drawing. I had never even thought to do such a thing before, and had no idea what I was doing or what I was about to start.
I was in the middle of transitioning from my opera career and working in a traditional office. I was feeling uninspired and desperate not to stare at a screen. Instead of reaching for my phone, I took out the blank notepad I had stashed in my purse along with a stolen pen from the office supply closet at work. I thought I’d doodle something, but my mind was uncharacteristically blank, so I looked around for inspiration.
An older gentleman in a rumpled three-piece suit and matching fedora caught my eye and I decided to sketch him.
What was it about that man that made you want to draw him?
He made me curious. Wearing a leisure suit that had last been new and stylish decades ago, and traveling into the city when everyone else was going home, he must have a story. Who was this man? Where was he going? Who had he been when that suit was new? Who was he now? As I contemplated him, those thoughts began to take shape in my drawing. Each detail that sparked a question, gave me a reason to record what I was seeing. What I was thinking. To tell his story in my own way. An opportunity to wonder, and to let my mind wander and connect with the world in the form of a portrait. It was a totally new experience and I was hooked right away.
I noticed on your Instagram that a blue ball-point pen is still your tool of choice. Why is it your favorite?
Yes! I still draw with the simple uni-ball Roller pen that I pulled out of my purse that first night. It turns out it’s a fabulous drawing tool -- not only because it’s waterproof, archival and has a lovely flow that allows for a nice variation in the line weight, but because of the distinct advantages of drawing in pen. I quickly realized that I had to keep drawing in pen. Somehow, I instinctively knew that this was the tool that would teach me how to draw because it would force me to accept my mistakes and work with them. I think that time, repetition and mistakes are your greatest teachers, and that pen and endless commuting time gave me my three greatest teachers.
I love the blue ink because I think it’s less serious than black and more lively!
Do you have other favorite drawing tools?
I love the Faber Castell 9000 Jumbo Graphite pencil - 6B. I love the bold line you can make with it - and its large size kind of makes me feel like a kid, which inspires me to keep lots of joy and play in my linework.
I also love the Caran D’ache water soluble pastels. You can draw with them like a traditional crayon, and if you add water, they become watercolors.
And finally, I’ve become obsessed with something called a “fan pan.” It’s a mini palette with a rainbow of preloaded watercolors and a small palette. It takes up as much room as a candy bar, and I use a brush with a water reservoir to add pops of colors or even paint full scenes on the go.
How often do you draw digitally? What are the pros and cons of digital and traditional drawing?
I do some digital work -- mostly for commissioned and commercial work. I love the flexibility of`digital drawing - you can make infinite edits to your work, explore new “media,” or try out an effect without worrying about “ruining” your original work.
That said, I really love the constraints of working in traditional drawing. It’s like walking a tightrope with no net - there’s a freedom, and an adrenaline rush, that can inspire great creativity. I also love the feedback;, the physical sounds and sensations of drawings with real materials. I think both formats are totally valid, and the more I've learned about digital art, the more I have respect for those who have mastered it.
Do you ever get nervous when others are watching you draw?
Yes. Hah. Though I really do enjoy sharing my process with folks who encounter me drawing in the wild.
Do you mind, or do you try to sit in a spot where you can draw unnoticed?
I used to really hide that I was drawing because I didn't want to worry about being judged by a stranger. But now I’m really glad to share because I hope it will inspire people to try it themselves. I get most nervous when I’m being filmed - or when I think whoever’s watching might not understand that no matter how practiced you are, sometimes you simply have to turn the page and start over.
How often do people discover you’re drawing them?
I’m pretty stealthy, so if I don't want someone to know I’m drawing them, it’s likely they won’t know I’m doing it. (I have a whole section in the book about how to be stealthy - and it was really fun to share about to use “spy skills” to make better drawings...) I really enjoy creating candid drawings, so I try to keep the process hidden until I can reveal what I’ve created. It’s so fun to surprise people with a portrait when they’re simply going about their daily lives.
What’s a typical reaction?
Confusion, followed by elation.
Since I make candid portraits on the go, people are not expecting to be presented with a drawing of themselves, and it usually takes them a second to realize what they are looking at, and that I don’t want anything in return.
That’s when the joy kicks in. It’s this really pure exchange that, for me, completes the creative process. The process of creating is so fun, and in this case, sharing also creates something new, too - and I love that.
Can you share one of the most awkward moments?
I honestly haven’t had too many of those. Occasionally people have mistaken me for an official inspector type person-- since it can look from the outside like I’m scanning the room and taking notes.
One awkward, but fun, moment happened when someone’s hat literally stopped me in my tracks. It was this amazing, sort of Bavarian style cap/fedora with long exotic feathers. I walked about five steps past them, and then realized I had to draw this hat, so I stood behind a bush and drew it. Then I decided I had to share the portrait which meant I had to walk up to a stranger and confess to having spent the last 5 minutes drawing them while maybe hiding behind a bush so they wouldn’t notice me doing it. Thankfully, she understood and we actually had a lovely chat about how she’d bought the hat after too many beers on a trip to Germany!
How about one of the sweetest?
Once, while riding the train on a rainy day, I sketched a lovely woman who seemed untouched by the soggy weather. I gave her my drawing and shared the title I gave it, “Weather the Storm.” I don’t often get to hear what happens to my portraits once I’ve given them away. But months later I heard from her. She wrote that she’d been having a terrible day, but when I gave her that sketch, the gesture restored her faith in herself. She may have been struggling that day, but the truth of who she really was -- someone with resilience and grace -- shone through anyway. Moments like that keep me coming back to the drawing board day after day.
Besides the subway, what are some of your favorite drawing spots?
Cafes are great because people come and sit for a while and they’re usually pretty ensconced in what they are doing which provides great opportunities to draw them unnoticed.
I like drawing at my local park, too because there are lots of dogs to draw! I like the challenge of drawing in “uninteresting places,” like a waiting room, or in line somewhere because it’s a good reminder to look for the extraordinary in the everyday and see what stories come to life.
Aside from your book, how else are you able to generate income with your art?
I do commissioned work and commercial work, but my favorite application of this “on the way” drawing skill is live wedding illustration and event illustration. I create an artistic recollection of the day in a series of live illustrations sketched on the spot throughout the event. For weddings, this means I create drawings while the couple is getting married, walking down the aisle, dancing their first dance. And of course, I capture the guests, and the decorations, too. It’s my favorite because I get to be a fly on the wall, looking for the stories and emotions in any given moment and working in real time to create a piece of art that holds all of those sensations. For non-wedding events I do the same thing, telling the story of that event through sketches. One of my favorite events that I’ve covered is the Westminster Kennel Club Dog Show where I spent two days drawing all kinds of dogs and capturing the chaos and joy of the big show!
How did the idea of a book come about?
I was approached by an editor about the idea of writing a book. At the time, I’d been working on a proposal to create a book from the over 5,000 portraits I’ve made of strangers on the subway and thought that’s what they would be looking for. When they said that they wanted to create an instructional book, I almost said no because I didn’t want to control anyone else’s creativity by telling them what to do. When I said yes, it was because I realized I had an opportunity to give this joy to other people simply by showing them they are capable of so much more than they think.
You mentioned the book isn’t only about drawing but also “seeing”. Can you explain that a little further?
Drawing from life changed my life. It taught me the joy of actually seeing the world around me. It showed me how to pull the background into the foreground and revel in these “on the way” moments because they are not disposable moments, they are what our life is made of.
My hope is that this book will give that same gift to other people. My goal is not to train an army of people to draw just like me, but to draw the world as they see it.
So, yes, this is book about how to draw, but it’s a book about how to see: how to see the world differently, as a place filled with stories; how to see the people around you differently, as works of art; and how to see yourself differently, as someone whose voice has a place, even if it’s just in the private pages of your own sketchbook.
Now that that book is done, do you have any projects on the horizon?
My mission with the Drawn On The Way project is to use drawing to inspire people to find the extraordinary in the everyday and see themselves and others as works of art. This book is one big way of bringing that mission to life, but I’m excited to be teaching more and to start working on an anthology of portraits from ten years of drawing on the subway.
If money and time weren’t an issue what project would you tackle?
I would love to bring this project to new places through live installations like the one I recently did with The Other Art Fair where I created a living portrait gallery made up of candid sketches. It’s amazing to share this message in a really interactive way and to inspire people to discover what creativity is hidden inside of them.
Thank you for taking the time to let us get to know you better, where can our readers see your work?
Here's how to get the book: https://www.drawnontheway.com/the-book