Bike Sketching

As I consider how to write today’s post, I am given pause to think that my original intentions for this journal have evolved considerably. In the beginning The Early Morning Cyclist was mostly about the “creative restoration” and riding of vintage road bikes. Over time I began to focus more on the different ride qualities inherent in the various road bikes I encountered. This has been an enjoyable pursuit, by the way, and I especially appreciate having had the opportunity to consider which bikes best met my own cycling needs and wants. I am a taller rider, for instance, and so that particular characteristic had to be considered. Too, bicycles that rode very well or had a great reputation for doing so for smaller riders might not necessarily be appropriate for my longer legs. And because I prefer a stretched out position on the bike, my opinions would be different than those who opt to ride in a more upright position.

The past few years, the emphasis of The Early Morning Cyclist has been more about the ride itself. JRA outings. Staying in the saddle and heading for destinations unknown. Exploring the world on two wheels – that sort of thing.

I’ve used this opportunity to combine two things that are dear to me: non-competitive cycling and drawing.

My interests are often fleeting – or at any rate, evolving – and what interests me at the moment is what I refer to as “bike sketching.” Bike sketching is just something I made up, and very far from anything even remotely formalized. Because, quite frankly, I’ve grown very weary of labels. Are you a road biker or a mountain biker? Neither? Really? (Oh. You must be one of those randonneurs I’ve heard talk of.) Are you a painter? Do you do portraits or landscapes? Are you a Modernist? Are you a member of the Urban Sketcher movement? What watercolor society do you belong to?

Holy crap! Enough already…let me just do my own thing the way I want to do it.


Bike sketching.

Bike sketching has only a couple of requirements: a comfortable, classic bike that fits me; a minimal sketching kit, and the means to carry it. I don’t have to dress up in Lycra to go bike sketching, and I don’t have to measure up to anyone else’s cycling standards or artist expectations. I just go out and do it when time, opportunity, and the inclination strike me to do so. At times, I feel a bit like a documentarian, stopping to scrawl a quick interpretation of the place or people I encounter along the way. At other times I’m interested in something as simple and aesthetically pleasing as the way shadows are falling across buildings or early evening light is cast across a hayfield. I’m not interested in capturing anything remotely or photographically accurate, but the honesty of the moment, of the marks I make on paper, and of the reactions paint makes upon that surface – yes, those things interest me very much.

I’m often asked what I do with those drawings – many people presume I must have some greater purpose, that I’m preparing for a big show, or continuing the research for a new book. The answer might surprise many people: Nothing. I do nothing with these drawings, other than scan them and add them to The Early Morning Cyclist when the fit hits me. Archive them on my Flickr account. Allow them to remain bound within my sketchbooks, safe on a shelf, perhaps to be rediscovered years from now. Who knows?

This summer, the most enjoyable bike sketching has come about from visiting the farmer’s market. There are so many interesting people wandering about, picking and choosing vegetables, selling bread, and so forth. They seem to come from so many walks of life, too. The two fellows I’ve included in today’s journal were both farmers selling their produce. I don’t know a lot more about them than that, and maybe I should have spoken with them, gotten their stories. But I was quite content to quickly scribble their likeness onto a page using just a stub of a pencil, light construction lines forming a mishmash of scrawled artistic shorthand that is probably only interpretable by me, and me alone. Sometimes I’ll forgo the pencil and work directly in ink using a fountain pen, but the examples I share today were inked at the drawing table, days later.

Like the act of riding itself, I’m not so much interested in “the product” as I am intrigued by the process: how a combination of pencil lines on paper can suggest a likeness, the loosely controlled lines of ink emerging out of the chaos of a construction drawing, and the dynamics of water and pigment, dancing across the page like a surfer who understands that one does not control the water so much as learn to ride the wave.


5 thoughts on “Bike Sketching

  1. I have been a cyclist for 40+ years, a designer for almost as long and my contract tells me that I have just entered my 29th year as a teacher at the Ontario College of Art & Design in Toronto (Canada’s national school of all things creative). Your post is very timely as I attempt to convince another second year studio of 20 year old kids that drawings is still valid in the world of digital everything. What is particularly poignant about your post is that I find my pitch to these young kids works best when I talk about drawing as communication — the eye to mind to hand dispatch of observation and insight. Bike sketching. Well I like that expression and of course what you are sharing of your experiences and insights with all of us here. Thanks.

    • My own post grad research was about that developing realm of visual learning/expression that takes place as we merge traditional processes of art-making with digital medias. Computers and iPads and their ilk are terribly seductive things, and make the most precise boxes and circles, as well as the most perfect gradations, etc. But missing from the equation is the artist’s hand, those elements of the “imperfect” that – to my mind – are the heart and soul of any design. I am troubled by the lack of persistence many art students seem to demonstrate: it often seems that if one cannot create a “finished” artwork in a few short minutes then it must not be worth the effort at all. To use a now obsolete metaphor, many of my students seem to subscribe to a Polaroid philosophy. What I try to instill is simply the joy of doing it, just for the act of doing it. I know that drawing leads to deeper observation and consideration of a thing, but students often aren’t terribly interested in gaining that sort of insight…but if they learn to draw because they enjoy it…well, who am I to complain about the added benefits they acquire along the way? 🙂

  2. Obviously your work is 100% your own, with your own flair, but I do see some Ralph Steadman similarities. I hope you don’t take that as a bad thing!

    Really fantastic work, Mark. Keep up this new side/development to your site. I appreciate the spin off. Originality like this allows the site to grow and develop in a way that keeps it fresh from rather the “another vintage build” syndrome (which I’m slightly guilty of!).

  3. As an entirely non-competitive, middle-aged cyclist, I, too, enjoy JRA rides on the road, on the trail, in the country, in the mountains, in my neighborhood and across the world (we’re in Istanbul at the moment). Sometimes the destination matters, most often not. For me, it is the exploration of the unknown and the re-exploration of the previously known, coupled with the physicality of cycling, that keeps the cranks turning.

    As one with little to no artistic talent, I very much enjoy your sketch work, particularly the B&W line drawings, and hope you continue to share your talents via your blog, occasionally or regularly.


  4. Thanks for the encouraging words, Jay. I think Josh really nails it for me: there really are a lot of blogs that focus on “another vintage build” (and I subscribe to many of them!) They do a great job – far better than I can – and I enjoy reading them immensely. To my friends and colleagues, bicycling is a fairly esoteric adventure. Meanwhile, my art has always seemed to lean strongly toward “the everyday.” I find the combination of sketches with narrative tends to make the adventure, large or small, more accessible. (And for me, more enjoyable – because let’s face it: I write The Early Morning Cyclist for me. If I were serious about being a publisher, I’d be soliciting advertisers, and conducting market research to find out what readers want to see. I’ve no desire to put this little journal on a steadfast schedule or to stop sharing whatever happens to move me at the time.)

    I like the sentiment you’ve got on your Gravatar profile, “…it’s about the journey, mostly, sometimes…”

    THAT’S a sentiment I can certainly relate to.

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