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The risk of taking photos outside… and drawing?! thumb

The risk of taking photos outside… and drawing?!

This is a post from the weareoca.com archive. Information contained within it may now be out of date.

An OCA student  has documented her battles with attempting to draw and take reference photos outside.  It’s an interesting point, so I asked if I could reproduce what she wrote of her experience, and she agreed, though she wanted to remain anonymous.

 ‘I had every intention of working outside but have been driven to taking reference photos. Under favourable conditions, I enjoy drawing and painting out of doors.  Lately, however, the weather has been atrocious. We were blessed with good weather for our trip to London at the start of December and, thanks to Londoners generally ignoring other people, I was  able to accomplish something. Also, we have a large garden with a variety of trees, so I could do this part of the work I needed to do sitting by my French windows.

I am not self-conscious or embarrassed out in the landscape but have found it’s almost impossible to work so successfully in public in East Devon, thanks to intrusion from passers-by with too little to do or lonely elderly folk wanting a chat.  The final straw for me was in a quiet corner of the Donkey Sanctuary. I had my hardback sketchbook on the paddock rail, with my back to a wide path, minding my own business, as I concentrated. My husband, who sometimes acts as my minder on these occasions, had just left for a short walk. Even so, a passing dog walker, a middle-aged woman at that, found  it necessary to yell disparaging remarks at me. I was too taken aback to say anything but my focus was destroyed. Whatever motivates such behaviour?

Friends too have experienced nearly unbelievable rudeness from the public. One has given up landscape altogether as a result of a stand-up row  in a remote wood with a passer-by who demanded to see her work. I can only suppose that are fewer people gainfully employed in the countryside but far more with time on their hands – East Devon has a very large retired population and attracts many visitors.  Even resorting to photos, as I did for the townscapes, is hazardous. I hoped to recover my nerve after the Donkey incident but unwisely took two shots including the men putting up the Christmas lights. Security approached me in a very threatening manner –  I talked my way out of it but it was most unpleasant. I gather a press photographer in another local town had a similar experience.

In summer, I may go out with the Art Group landscapers – safety in numbers.  To sit on a stool in the Royal Academy and draw the Dancing Satyr, or perch on a bench in Paternoster Square to draw the Frink, was a delight, so maybe the trouble really is with Devon.

I gleaned more about the ‘rules’ of taking photos outside: here it is:
Roughly, it’s OK to take photos in public unless it’s a designated place – for national security, for instance, in which case there should be prohibitory notices  in place. Over- zealous policemen worried about terrorism have to some extent been reined in, especially in areas with many tourists. Nobody else has the right to insist on you erasing photos, they can only ask. In the event of trouble, call the police.  On private property, it’s different – the owners set the rules. It’s wise to assume that all indoor places are private, even though the public may have access. Some outdoor places are private too – eg some shopping centres. Paternoster Square is private but I had no problem here.  It’s best to be careful and use one’s discretion, even when in the right. I talked my way out of my encounter, explaining it was for an art project. `That’s all right then’, he said. I was shaken – I’m a `lady of a certain age’ and wasn’t looking for an encounter with a large male bully – and angry that he should think he had the right to tell me what me what I could or couldn’t do. At least I survived, unscathed, with my photos.’
It strikes me that this is a good reason to take up ‘sketchcrawling’.  That is, going out in an organised group to sketch, that way you get left alone and you have safety in numbers.  Check out the Sketchcrawl North Facebook Page.

Posted by author: Jane Parry
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27 thoughts on “The risk of taking photos outside… and drawing?!

  • It’s seems unbelievable that some members of the public can be so rude to anyone wanting to have such a peaceful pastime as drawing.
    I empathise with the ‘bully’ tactics of the security people, photographers get that a lot, but I can’t ever remember any of my colleagues saying that anyone was rude about their making images and demanding to see them, with menace.
    Perhaps it is just a ;Devon thing’, personally I certainly hope this practice isn’t widespread or become so.

  • Sadly it isn’t just a Devon thing, I’ve often had people asking what I think I’m doing taking photos, although I haven’t had much serious abuse because in wife’s opinion “I’d give back more than I got”. Some photographers play on their appearance to deter people (Bruce Davidson I’m thinking of in particular) but many people feel righteous sometimes, and attacking someone who doesn’t look like they’ll fight back seems a popular release for their own inadequacy,or a response to their own lack of power.
    In the City of London quite a few buildings that are on a street have little rivets in the pavement to indicate where their property begins, beyond which you are free to take photos. Security people don’t always know this though.
    Re “sketchcrawling”, the photographic equivalent is popular, but you lose any element of surprise, and even photographers such as Don Morley still have the police called in by officious mothers. http://www.amateurphotographer.co.uk/photo-news/538898/photographers-slam-police-over-indecent-photos

  • I’m really sad to hear of your experiences. I’ve had a few myself but nothing I couldn’t deal with. The most hair-raising was my very first attempt at drawing outdoors, sitting on the banks of the Seine trying to draw Notre Dame. I was concentrating so hard that I didn’t notice 3 down and outs join me on the bench. Trying to explain that I was a beginner in my broken French was a challenge, but they seemed light hearted and asked if I wanted to share their 2L coke bottle of red wine.
    I have had a lot of interested people ask me about the drawings and I do generally politely reply which has solicited some good responses.
    Somethings that help: if you can sit in a car, particularly good at the beach or country park; always respond politely to enquiries or ignore abusive comments (this has only happened to me once and it was about how bad an artist I was thinking I was Turner sitting in the open air); London is good, nobody seems to care; Durham where I live and Edinburgh where I’ve done this are both good, lots of polite enquiries; if photographing then either a good zoom lens so you can be far away or a good mobile phone camera (noone seems to bother about a phone) does the job. Always consider who may be around and whether they are going to get annoyed or charge you (usually in Africa and Asia). Oh and in Damascus 2 people whipped out a notepad and pen and joined me (but you’re unlikely to be going there anytime soon).

  • I’m amazed that people could be abusive or rude about an artist not showing their work.
    As has been mentioned, looking out from a coffee shop / car / cafe can help.
    I don’t often draw outside, but if I do I put headphones on (they don’t have to be plugged into anything), and people generally realise that you can hear them. Brightly coloured ones would help immensely.
    I have drawn in the National Gallery and have only heard quiet muttering behind me, but everyone does have a gawp.
    Photography is a strange one as so many people use their phones to take impromptu pictures these days, it’s hard to believe that many people get stopped in places that aren’t sensitive. However, it’s REALLY important to not photograph children or anyone you might think of as vulnerable.

  • I’m very sorry you have had such a bad experience of drawing and photographing outside. I’ve been lucky so far – except that a canal boat I was drawing pulled off!! I’ve tended to sit a bit of a way from paths where possible, so that people would have to purposely want to engage in a talk and most wouldn’t do that. I’ve found that I try my best to be relatively friendly as I used to get very irritated by comments and that just affected my mood and concentration – I have found some people are wanting to encourage you because they are pleased to see someone out drawing. Anyway – stick with it because you have every right and probably need, to draw outside and take reference photos for your work. Good Luck!!

  • Working on the street, either through sketching or photography seems to be a lot more problematic these days, with passers-by wanting to participate in the drawing in some way, or concerned members of the public, security guards or the police wanting to close it down. Despite the problems, actually being in a place, experiencing it first hand and documenting it while present, is still the best way to work.
    My old drawing tutor simply suggested we find somewhere comfortable and/or discrete to sit, then find something to draw. Today’s guidance needs to focus ensuring your right to actually draw or photograph in the first place and then how to deal with any intrusions.
    This cut out and keep card from the ‘I am a photographer not a terrorist blog’ might help. I’m sure the guidance is as relevant to those sketching as taking photographs:
    http://photographernotaterrorist.org/bust-card/

  • Really sorry to hear of such bad experiences, thankfully , I have not experienced this at all in Essex or London, where I do a lot of drawing and photography.
    Mostly people just stop for a chat and that can be very rewarding. One slightly eccentric chap recently gave me an awful lot of historical information on the place I was drawing and that was great.
    Try not to give up, but stay safe.

  • A others have observed – this sort of behaviour comes as no surprise to photographers.
    Not even policemen have the right to make you delete images. That requires a court order. There is a very handy website here – http://photorights.org/faq – which covers all this in some detail although it is, of course, not a substitute for proper legal advice.

  • What a shame you’ve had this experience, unfortunatley I don’t think this sort of behaviour is an isolated incident and certainly doesn’t just happen in Devon. I live in Belgium and have been put off painting landscapes due to peoples attitude and behaviour when I am out and about minding my own business. I can’t speak fluent French or Dutch but I can get by, however my language skills have certainly been put to the test this last summer…I too ask my Husband to be in the area when I am out painting…how sad! I have to say that when we lived in the UK I never had a problem and had many passers by who were apologetic that they’d disturbed me…I was looking forward to coming back to the UK to get my freedom back…oh well!

  • There has been many debates mentioned in The Amateur Photographer Magazine about the issues surrounding harassment of photographers, The RPS and others have had discusions at high level with politicians. Both have issued credit sized guidance notes if stopped, the above guidance is in lines with my information. Not all of us are terrorists, criminals or nasty people.

  • I particularly like the advice to reverse the process -find a place to sit first, then find something to draw. That’s a good approach and I’ll try it. The Sketchcrawl is also a marvellous idea – I’ll try & get it going where I live too

  • In many years of sketching/painting outdoors I have never experienced rudeness and am so sorry you have. Much interest,including one gentleman who told me he u8sed to paint when he had 15 years”inside”. Once two of us had a whole primary school go past on their way to a nature reserve.They thought we were “cool” and told us all about their own work and “my aunty does painting”. If I think it advisable I often ask permission.Only one person refused. Sometimes I give them the drawing.

  • I’ve had a similar experience whilst photographing for my personal project in a local park. I’ve mentioned it in my blog about my encounter with an aggressive, overprotective mother. We had an interesting discussion, including threats to call the police, which I welcomed as I pointed out to her that she was the one breaking the law, public order, harassment etc. Quite embarrassing accusations for a man.
    Theres plenty of advice on photography and the law, but I’ve found the best defense is to remain calm and rational.

    • Sorry Dave I disagree on this one. Anyone caring for a child or vulnerable adult taking exception to you taking photos of them has the right to ask you to delete the photos or not to start taking them in the first instance. And if she did insist on police being called they would have asked the same as she is not harassing you if she is the guardian, especially if the child’s photo has been taken without permission. As people have stated before, it’s really a question of common sense, If you wanted a landscape photo from a public park try to take it without close ups of people in the foreground, there’s really no need for hem to be in it anyway. As for the abuse, well that’s alien to me, I’ve only ever met curious folk and had the loveliest chats. I hope your experiences improve, happy drawing.

      • ” Anyone caring for a child or vulnerable adult taking exception to you taking photos of them has the right to ask you to delete the photos or not to start taking them in the first instance.”
        Yes, they have the right to ask, but not the right to expect you to comply, nor to tell you to delete anything. Nor do the police unless they get a court order, & that won’t be issued just for a shot of somebody walking down the street (providing the subject is clothed). See Nigel Monckton’s previous post in this thread. There’s no right to privacy in public spaces, that’s why they’re called public
        Artists must not give in to public paranoia and be dictated to by anyone who believes that they can invent a law and then enforce it.
        What sort of country would we be living in if we weren’t allowed to take a photo in public? …no more street photography, or of beaches, or architecture, or landmarks in cities or fairgrounds – only the people you are with?
        If parents are worried about child abuse they should look at the statistics – 90 odd percent of abuse is committed by somebody who knows the child and has access to them – family, friends, neighbours, carers, teachers, priests, doctors etc. Look in your immediate vicinity before you go abusing students in the streets.
        The UK has more CCTV cameras per head of population than any other country in the world, so why does anyone get annoyed about a single still image, when you’re already being videoed by several cameras at the same time?

  • I paint outdoors as well – people and industrial/urban scenes. I don’t have all the answers but I do have a few tricks you might benefit from. Speed drawing with copious notes – it is a useful skill to learn. Don’t try to do the finished thing, and sometimes many quick referenced sketches made for a better painting in the studio. Some artists use memory as much as sketches and this can lead to more personal paintings and a strong sense of place. If you intend to draw people talk to them first – I have been doing a series on homeless people on the streets of Merseyside and this helped (I also have many back copies of Big Issue now). I sometimes pick locations where I can take my car – tail gate up it gives some protection from the elements. If it is in town I sometimes use a cafe and sit in the window but there is a limit to how much coffee I can drink! Have a look at the drawing approach of Bonnard – his focus was on gesture and capturng the moment and would use any surface to hand. He also had the trick of putting together sketches from different sources to make a composite painting. It is hard to paint out doors but the immediacy of the subject combined with your observations make for fresh and exciting paintings. However even the Impressionists usually finished off their work in the studio and they did alright – eventually.

  • Gosh – I’m amazed at the negative experiences because I’ve never had them. I’ve had people come up and chat (both here and in China) but have not had to cope with people being too chatty. I can let people chatter away but I honestly think I only join in for a bit of politeness and then if the conversation actually interests me. I must be able to grunt in an appropriately off-putting way! And I have had some nice conversations with strangers. Being a woman of obviously pensioner-age probably helps – doesn’t get me suspected of beig either a terrorist or a paedophile. Just of being a bit mad, probablymaybe. It does make you aware of how few of us can be doing this, though.

  • I understand your problem. I get people wanting to chat at times, but never any abuse. There are disadvantages to being less approachable though, I think I probably look a bit suspicions when I am wondering around looking for a good place to stop, especially in the woods!. But I think the Pochade box and camera gives people enough assurances that it’s safe to walk by.
    Funnily enough, only yesterday I was accosted by two dogs who had decided I shouldn’t have been sat where I was, trying to paint. These sorts of encounters tend to make me rush my work and a bit self conscious but we must soldier on!
    Harold Speed put it best “Every obstacle must at first be put in the path of the aspiring artist. For it is only those whom you cannot discourage who are worth encouraging.” – Harold Speed

  • What a shame you have had this experience. I regularly sketch outdoors – usually in central london and often in stations – areas where you might expect people to be twitchy. Usually I find my subject is often so engrossed in their iphone I worry about their lack of awareness of their surroundings.
    I have always found setting up and easel in an apparently empty landscape is a great way of meeting people. This has included chatty 9 year olds with their own paints asking for directions of how to mix brown(where did his parents think he was?) and someone with half full beer glass who looked like he’d wandered out of a pub (where was it?)
    So dont be put off. Acknowledge the positive comments but dont stop to chat unless you want to. Keep painting, they’ll wander off soon enough. Ignore the Negatives – you have far more courage than they do!

  • This was the image
    Taken from a distance (canon 50D, 105mm focal length). I don’t see that as threatening, which is far from what the mother approach was. Aggressive from the start, accusing me of being a paedophile, despite my calm approach and attempt to talk to her about my project. I’d spent 3 months documenting the local park and it’s use.
    It’s a shame you don’t know the law, but with the media and schools often adopting this approach, I’m not surprised. I was taking images, at a distance, in a public place, which I am perfectly entitled to do. The point was to include people in the landscape of the park. I’d hope any police would also know the law. It’s fair enough to come and ask not to take any further images if they feel uncomfortable, or to come and chat. I’m very approachable, but to come with accusations and abuse? As a woman it’s probably something you haven’t experienced, but with your approach you are promoting the issue. Taking the image without permission?
    It’s not like I was pointing the camera in their faces, nor spending some time stalking them or sneaking about. I took three images over about two minutes.
    For the record, the following week I shot two young boys throwing leaves around. I helped the mother position the boys for the best light for her camera phone plus got the shot as well. As the youngest boy jumped his trousers popped open. Nothing there apart from a fun moment, but it did make me think about using the image after the previous encounter.
    The mother however loved the image.

  • I find this discussion of some comfort. I live in Dubai and it’s completely impossible for me to sit and draw in a mall, or a park, or anywhere without being instantly surrounded by a group of passers by, literally breathing down my neck, chatting, even touching and wanting me to talk to them. It’s completely intrusive and completely impossible to focus. I have considerable sympathy for those of you who have this problem in the UK, though I’m surprised that you encounter it there to such an extent. Very sad I think, that it’s become like that.
    I won’t beat myself up so much for what I consider my oversensitive reaction to the difficulties. I too, feel disadvantaged by having to make work very close to home in the few places where I will not be noticed, with my husband as my minder sometimes. I envy my artist friend, a big, tall guy, who is able to stand to sketch and work while moving around. Somehow no one ever bothers him.

  • I always thought it might be easier to be an artist outside than a photographer, assuming that people hold the artist’s skill in high esteem and so try to get a peek but don’t actually bother the artist in progress. I guess I am way off on that! As a photographer I am always being bothered. I usually work with a tripod so can’t make a quick get away. I think it stops people thinking I am being sneaky though! The biggest problem I have is security guards, I usually just lie to them about what I am photographing! If I am shooting a building, I tell them I am photographing the tree or flowers in front of it! There is no reason why I can’t photograph what I want but why waste my time trying to explain that. If they get nasty I just come back later. I will get the picture. I often get laddish boys wanting their pic taken- I do it, posing them far away(!) then they’ve got nothing else to say and move on! Dangerous people I move on immediately and people who want to chat, I spare a few seconds then get back to counting out my long exposure and looking like I am concentrating very hard, lol, works a treat! I also get a burst of checking the camera and fiddling with stuff, and physically turning my back on them, when I see approaching people slow down to put them off!
    I wonder if welcoming passers by for the artists might deflect some of the chatting and build a barrier against the next person… perhaps keep a clipboard, some spare paper and pencils in your bag- advise the person that you need to concentrate, you are on a deadline (!) but would be happy for them to join you, give them paper and pencil- either they’ll sit down and get on with it or they’ll leave!
    Whatever happens, don’t let people put you off, get back out there, feel confident that you should be there and remember that most people are happy to see you out there.

  • I’ve had my experiences—a woman accuse me loudly on the tube of taking a photo of her daughter—I had not—I’d not even been taking photos—was just looking at menu settings—but she insisted on being shown the contents of the card. No apology when proven wrong. I’ve had a naked man chase me in Great Windsor Park—and no, I was not taking photos of him either; and then more recently, I was attacked by a flock of terns! No wonder I now like to photograph close to home!

  • I am recently enrolled on Printmaking 1, so this is not directly relevant to my OCA course, not yet anyway, but I have been drawing, in the studio and landscape, for many years. I live in France, in between Cézanne and Bonnard country, and there is a degree of respect for artists at work in the landscape, although it can still be difficult to keep people at bay. The main problem at present is the cold, yes the cold. Provence is not blazing hot all year. Even on a sunny day, a steady cold wind, the mistral or one of its little cousins, can soon chill you if you are sitting still, and are not so tightly swaddled that you can’t draw. To the best of my knowledge, M Cézanne himself painted only one winter scene, and that from a photograph. The best time is coming, as it gets a bit warmer and the sun is still relatively low, the ambient light and the strong contrast between shadow and light can be wonderful, moving.
    I think the problem with privacy and security never goes away and is probably getting worse everywhere, not just Devon or even London. But for me, at least, drawing in a group would not work, as I would definitely not be able to concentrate, instead of taking a risk of being disrupted. I nearly came unstuck 30+ years ago, when I was working in Zambia, and made the mistake of setting up my watercolour easel near a main road. Zambia was surrounded on three sides by civil wars at the time. A police patrol drove past, noticed me, turned around, surrounded me and gave me a hard time until one of the senior officers realised the true state of affairs, and was let off with a ‘for your own safety’ warning.
    There is nothing to do about rude people. For artists in Britain, would it help to carry some kind of artists or students card? I don’t like ~I~D cards as a rule but would that potentially ease some situations? I have an A-N card but it would mean nothing to anyone here, and there is no French equivalent to be best of my knowledge.
    I understand the stress and don’t make light of it. But I agree with Tanya’s general comment that the basic principle should be not to be put off. Drawing from photos is alright but we have seen here that photography is also regarded as threatening to individuals and security personnel. In the end, drawing from the object, including landscape, is an important part of the Western tradition for very good reasons. Perhaps tutors with an interest could work towards establishing some guide lines for risk assessment, to supplement the assessments that we must do for ourselves and our own circumstances.
    Best wishes to all.

  • The tip about the headphones is a good one. I don’t mind people stopping to chat on principle, but it can break the concentration. How about a tee shirt with an appropriate slogan on the back?!

  • Just remember that the public space is theirs as much as it is yours and if you choose to draw, paint or whatever there you are as much in their space as they are in yours and you are not in private so if you want to be left alone…be alone!
    The (diliberate?) misinterpretation of the law by flat hatted jobsworths and over zealous policemen and parents is a different matter altogether.

  • Thanks, folks. It’s reassuring that it’s not me getting paranoid – just don’t get me started on school parties in our local museum…
    I saw an assistance dog in a hi-viz jacket the other day. The message read `Please don’t distract me – I’m working’. Are they made in my sise, I wonder?

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