A simple urban pencil sketch – snippets of life in Toronto

A simple urban pencil sketch – snippets of life in Toronto

For years, I’ve wanted to try my hand at an urban pencil sketch. Drawing random snippets of life in a single frame has an emotional appeal to me. I’m attracted to any pencil sketches that show life in a city setting. But I’ve never been able to pull off a decent urban sketch. My sense of perspective is a bit off. It’s difficult for me to draw a street scene without everything looking slightly Daliesque. Domes slide off the tops of buildings, windows unaligned and a comical sense of proportions that throw the drawing into complete disarray.

What I see when I want to create an urban pencil sketch

I’ve bought so many “How to” books and read many websites that run through getting perspective correct, but after decades of trying I had stopped. My most heartfelt dream was to wander the city with a journal and sketch urban scenes on the go. I think, that’s why I eventually gravitated to a camera. Many of my shots are setup the way I see an urban pencil sketch unfolding. It’s difficult to explain, but this photo will help:

Photo taken from the outside a greenhouse, Showing 5 window panes that tell a micro story.

Each windowpane tells a different story – see Looking through the windows at Allen Gardens for more photos

The photo above was taken about 2 or 3 years ago. I was standing outside Allen Gardens watching people wander through the building. I kept seeing each frame telling a story. Blink and the scene changed. This is the type of image I always wanted to sketch out. But the skills weren’t there. In hindsight, it was less skills than the fear of failing that held me back. I was so busy reading How To books, I forgot to say, “screw it” and just draw.

Butterfly pencil sketch completed

I spent yesterday working on a new pencil drawing titled Waiting for the Subway. I’ve been less than thrilled by photos I’ve taken lately so it was time to shift gears and focus on sketching for a while. Earlier I worked my way through a slightly lopsided butterfly. The sketch came out better than I hoped, but it also gave me clues as to where I go wrong. I realised, although I use little guides to get the proportions correct, I tend to ignore them, once I start drawing in detail. I focus too much on one side of an image (usually the left side, go figure) and don’t see the entire picture.  This in turn leads me to get one portion spot on, and the rest looking like it’s tagged on at the end.

Here’s the completed butterfly to show you what I mean

Pencil sketch of a butterfly

It’s completed, but a bit lopsided

I realised I need to work on both sides of the image to keep the proportions correct.  Critiquing the butterfly encouraged me to try urban sketching again. I started with a basic multistory building to practice. I carefully laid out the grid, laid out the edges of the building, and started layering in the bricks and windows. The drawing was lopsided, but not as bad as previous attempts. It was good practice.

Urban pencil sketch – the outline

Next attempt in my sketching forays was a photo I took while waiting for the subway. I used it as the basis of some digital art, but never tried to free hand the scene.  I measured the lines on the original and laid them out on the paper, carefully measuring the distance between the vanishing lines. Then, instead of starting on one section and working out, I created a complete outline, not just guides.

Scan showing the outline for the Urban pencil sketch attempt

The basic outline of the subway at Union station

So far so good. I debated what pencil to use and settled on a mechanical pencil and gradually built up the framework. That’s my second fatal flaw, I start out too heavy handed when I draw and end up with a dark, heavy picture.

Layering some shading

Scan of the second step, filling in details

A bit of shading to flesh out details

I moved slowly, working back and forth, adding shadows, and building up the human figures. I also experimented with different shading techniques. Cross hatching works well for this sketch.

Third scan of the urban pencil sketch of the subway at Union station

Slowly the platform took shape

Working on the entire picture, rather than focusing on one small part, allowed me to make numerous micro adjustments as I went. It prevented the sketch from taking on that familiar unbalanced look.

Fleshing out the people on the platform

Forth scan shows even more shading layered into the sketch

Slowly building up the shadows

I stopped at this point and evaluated the shading. Where did I want to go with this? I knew my history of over doing things, so I had to think carefully.

Time for my faithful 2B pencil

Fifth scan shows the effect of a softer pencil lead on the sign above the platform

The sign starts to pop out

A darker lead was needed, so time for my beloved 2B pencil. I focused on the sign to give it emphasis.  I also used the 2B pencil on various parts of the clothing to bring out the creases and highlights.

My first urban pencil sketch completed – Waiting for the Subway

Final scan - Urban pencil sketching the TTC

Completed urban pencil sketch – my very first

To complete the sketch, I used a 9B lead on the sign above the platform to make it really pop. It guides the eye along the platform and seems to pull everything together.

I didn’t finish the people on the left of the platform. I liked the way they started to come out of the wall. I also wimped out on the lady with all the bags. No feet. I struggled with them and decided no feet was the only choice. Overall, I’m thrilled to have pulled it off. My first genuine urban pencil sketch.

What will be my next urban pencil sketch? No idea, but I feel cocky now.

Presto Card has an app, but don’t get too excited

Presto Card has an app, but don’t get too excited

Image of a Presto card

Presto (Metrolinx) has an app now!


But don’t get excited about it.

It lacks the one main feature we all wanted. 

I have a long standing love/hate relationship with the Presto card system (used by a number of transit systems in Ontario).  When it works, it’s excellent. When it doesn’t, oh boy. One thing that mildly irked me was the lack of an official app, so imagine my delight this morning when I discovered Metrolinx’s shiny new app.

Here’s what you can do with the app:

  • load funds and transit passes (instant load available on Android devices with NFC)
  • receive low balance/pass expiry reminders and email receipts for fare purchases
  • pay with Apple Pay and saved payment method
  • set up and manage Autoload and Auto renew
  • manage multiple PRESTO cards
  • check your PRESTO card balances
  • view your transaction history
  • buy a PRESTO card and create a PRESTO account
    r/f Presto App 

Spotted what’s missing? There is no tap and pay function. It’s handy for tracking your card balance, loading funds and seeing where your card has been used, but aside from that, there’s no overwhelming reason to install it.  Without the a pay and go function, it’s just a portable version of the Presto website.  I’ll leave it installed because it is nice to quickly see my balance without waiting in line to access the machines but otherwise, meh.  

On the plus side, the Presto interface is very clean and easy to use. The developers did a great job in creating a functional, uncluttered interface. If you are responsible for multiple Presto cards, you’ll be pleased to hear you can consolidate managing all the cards within the app, without the hassle of logging in and out with different ids.  With one app, you can manage all the family/business cards, checking balances and reloading with a few taps. 

Need a monthly transit pass loaded? No problem, scroll through the list of available passes, tap and pay with either debit or credit card. I applaud the inclusion of a debit card option, all too often this is left off. So well done Metrolinx. 

Hopefully Presto will include a pay and go feature in the near future, but in the meantime, some will find it useful, the rest of use will wait for the next upgrade.

FYI: If you decide to get it, make sure you download the official Presto app. Look for the Metrolinx name. Available for Apple and Android devices.

Wow I needed this – awesome Urban Geographer art

A friend sent a link to a couple amazing Toronto subway exit maps and after looking at them, I have the urge to stand on my balcony throwing the maps to everyone in the neighbourhood.  What are exit maps and why am I excited? Graphic artist Daniel Rotsztein, the Urban Geographer, has created 2 info maps (see link below) showing which TTC car is closest to exits for each stop.  Why does it matter? Anyone who’s spent time waiting on an insanely cold or hot Toronto subway platform will understand immediately.   As well, anyone desperate to beat the mad crush of people heading to the stairs at the same time will appreciate a bit of an edge in hitting the exit quickly. 

Lines 1 & 2 are available, showing each stop and which car to hop on. Head on over to his website and snag them. I’m saving the pdf on my smart phone for future references. 

You can find the maps on his website  here https://theurbangeographer.ca/subway-exit-map

and don’t forget to check out the rest of his art and his Instagram account https://www.instagram.com/theurbangeog/     You won’t be disappointed.

FYI: TTC stands for Toronto Transit Commission


WOO HOOO – guess what I have? Here’s a hint – it’s initials are DSLR

WOO HOOO – guess what I have? Here’s a hint – it’s initials are DSLR

Well, I took the plunge this week. After much muttering and internal debates, I now own a nifty Canon Rebel T6 DSLR. I opted to go with a T6 bundle – the body, kit lens and then purchased a decent tripod to go with it. I’ve spent months working on my bad case of point and shootitis, breaking all sorts of bad habits.  I’ve been working on framing, looking at what I’m shooting and understanding how various settings affect a photo. But .. there really is only so much you can do with a standard point and shoot camera. Don’t get me wrong, the Powershot is a fun camera but  I outgrew it pretty rapidly. Initially I was really pleased with the shots, as time rolled along, I became pickier and harder to please. The colours weren’t right, the shots were too soft and fuzzy, the tone mushy. I spent more and more time pissing around with Photoshop in an attempt to either hide the flaws or push the photo around so it looked a little more like what I wanted. That’s no way to do photography!

I was going to purchase the new camera in the spring, but I had a chance to scoop it this week. Since then, I’ve been playing with the aperture settings, fussing over shutterspeed and comparing various ISO shots. The tripod has given me a chance to test slow shots and up the ISO to a level I could never contemplate because of shakes. I downloaded the Canon smartphone app that allows me to control the camera remotely. I’ll work on that later next month, right now I need to figure out which end is up with the camera.

The ability to control the focus points a bit more sends my little heart beating a bit faster. The overall sharpness is exciting when I toss everything into Lightroom and Photoshop.  And don’t get me started on RAW. I am already using a far lighter hand in photoshop and the photos are crisp looking. One thing that irritated me with the old camera was the need to oversharpen or mess around too much because I love strong tones and sharp lines. I threw out a ton of photos because they were, to reuse the term – mushy looking.

I picked it up on Tues, spent a few hours that night playing around with it and yesterday, I kicked off the training wheels and took it out for a spin around the block. I revisited a few locations I visited in previous expeditions and retried the shots. I’ll be spreading them out here over the next couple of days but here’s the pick of the mix:

TTC Musician and his Audience

Musician at the Yonge St. TTC

He was perfectly posed and I couldn’t resist the shots. Nice contrast and tone, although it’s underexposed. The second shot was better:


Ok TTC we need to talk – this is not a shelter

Ok TTC we need to talk – this is not a shelter

TTC, we need to chat. A long serious one about your complete lack of common sense. I’m not sure if the decision makers at head office have never traveled by bus or streetcar or they are utterly clueless about the purpose of bus shelters. Then again, you just may be punking us.

See, here’s the thing, this is not a bus shelter: Photo of TTC shelter showing complete lack of protection

Tell me, in what reality that would be considered shelter of any kind. The ads have better protection than customers. Or … is that the point – protect the ads at all costs.  Let’s go through the 2 major elements of bad design.

1 – slope + height of the roof. Who are you trying to kid here? This isn’t going to prevent customers from a good soaking when it rains.  The roof is too high and too sharply slanted. Pretty design; useless functionality.

2 – walls. Oh, yea, what walls? There’s 2 – count them. The big ad covered billboard along the back and an anemic wall on one end. Guess there’s never wind and rain coming from the other angles. Have you tried standing at one of these shelters? Please have the person who thought this was a good design contact me. I’d like to know how a wall-less shelter works.

I’m not a designer, but I know crap when I see it. I’ve waited at these stops during a cold, wet day. Trust me when I tell you they offer no protection. Toronto used to have some decent bus shelters in this city, but I’ve noticed they are slowly being replaced with this silliness. I realise the old shelters were a bit ugly and weren’t good spots to plaster paid ads, but they offered the chance to get out of the bitter wind, rain, snow and even intense sun. The streetcar stops are comically worse if you can imagine that.

Hire a good industrial designer.  They will ask you one vital question – What is its purpose? I’m quite sure they’ll tell you designing a shelter that sacrifices protection so ads have maximum visibility to car drivers is not a good idea. You need to make up your mind – are the structures for car drivers and advertisers or are they for TTC customers. I’m quite sure a good designer could design a decent shelter that allows ads and comfort to the cold, wet and weary.

Oh and one last comment, what did you do with the bench? On hot days, the bench seat allowed seniors a bit of respite. Nice move ripping them out. Guess everyone in Toronto is fit and healthy. No seats for you! Stay home if you can’t stand waiting for yet another delayed bus.  See, this is another area a good industrial designer could help you. They would who your customer base is and possibly suggest keeping the bench.

Here’s the deal. Stop calling them shelters. Admit you don’t care about customers and call them what they are – advertising posts geared towards drivers. If you don’t want to do that,  for the sake of TTC customers go hire a competent industrial design firm.