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July 29, 2014

Sketch artist Mike Sheehan brings new perspectives to Southern California Public Radio

Editor's note: Sketch artist Mike Sheehan is a regular contributor in Off Ramp, a radio show that broadcasts on 89.3 KPCC Southern California Public Radio. In this guest post, he shares some of his work and talks about his sketching process. The sketches are excerpted from his recent story: Immigration news: Sketches of Murrieta and the undocumented migrants debate.

By Mike Sheehan

When I go to cover one of these events I bring a big toolbag with wheels, like luggage, a small bag of acrylics and my everyday sketch bag that has a small watercolor set. I never know what the conditions will be and what I'll need. The immigration protests were a good example. The first sketch of the people on the corner is basically right when I got out of the car. It was a good opportunity to sit and warm up my hands and eyes. Sitting there I realized this would call for one of my smallest set-ups: a Moleskine folio sized sketchbook with an elastic caddy that fits over it. I would not get a chance to sit down the rest of the day.

I sketched the dancer when I got to the crowd. I had to balance my pen, sketchbook and waterbrush in the middle of a loud angry crowd while standing up. No shade anywhere so the pages really blind you. But I like this kind of dynamic situation. You get people unvarnished and I love sketching so it's a blast for me. The drawing on the opposite page is one of the corner protesters. He kept hitting these great poses with his flag, waiting to engage someone in debate.

The two with police tape in them are a good example of when you get a lucky gift, something that helps tell your story. In this case literally a dividing line between two schools of thought. I sketched it from one side, crossed over and sketched it from the other. Also got to overhear a lot of conversations that way.

The rest are of various people I saw throughout the day. The little notes next to them are what I heard or just observations.

A sneak peek inside Mike's sketching bag.

I use a lot of different techniques to speed up the process depending on where I am. In this case I used a water soluble pen and a waterbrush. I can get tone quickly and not have to waste a lot of time with as much line. Speed is so important doing this type of work. No one is posing. That man yelling and holding up the sign behind police tape only did that for maybe a minute. I want that moment, in the moment.

The last part of my process is scanning and putting the sketches together in a clean format. I have a blank image of all the sketchbooks I use so the final presentation is clear and uniform. Most of the time I just transfer the page as is onto a scan of the blank pages to show it as it looks in my sketchbook. It's much easier than color correcting and fixing every scan. It would be hard to keep the presentation consistent that way. When I'm in the middle of sketching a story I'm constantly moving between images. I'm never precious about a drawing. If it doesn't feel right I abandon it and start a new one. Also I never know what the story is going to be until I get there. I like the story to "present" itself. But as soon as it does I'm also starting to think about design.

Sheehan sketching the Los Angeles Opera rehearsing "Tosca" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.
The actors were rehearsing on the scaffold.

When you sketch a lot you develop a sixth sense about what people are going to do. I know when someone is probably going to return to certain poses. I'll capture a flash of it, then move on to another person or part of the scene. I'll keep the first person in my peripheral vision and jump back and forth to capture things as they are moving. Sometimes I juggle three or four at a time.

At the end I'm editing the images out that didn't work, don't serve the story etc. That's what I keep my sketchbook templates for, editing. The sketches that take a whole page are designed on the spot and don't need anything but color correction. I don't edit the drawings themselves.

At the immigration protests it was hot so there are a lot of ink smudges. I like those, they are an artifact of the process. Something that digital images don't have. I miss the artifacts in film photography. I like that mark of the hand.

I don't use photo reference. If I don't get it there I don't get it. It always feels like a tightrope walk. I think I'm not going to get anything and I'm going to blow it. Then something catches my eye and leads me in and I'm off and running. It feels like a dance. If you can catch the rhythm of the place, you've got it.

I usually stop to eat on my way home and hit lines or add a splash of color here and there while it's still in my memory. I can never sleep after all this. I get too revved up.

Then I start the writing.

Listen to a radio interview with Mike Sheehan: Off-Ramp, the only radio show with a sketch artist: Mike Sheehan

Visit Sheehan's website at


Shiho Nakaza said...

Thank you for posting this! I live in Southern California so the story about this project piqued my interest, but this is the first time I could read more in depth about the artist and look at the sketches.

Lydia Velarde said...

yes, thank you, it was a great story.

Korie Beth Brown said...

Wow. In awe. Do you ever do USk workshops in LA? I would definitely attend.

Mike said...

Thanks Korie. I haven't done one of those. But they look like a blast. I will probably be doing a work shop in San Pedro. If you want more info just email me.