Considering Vignettes

This summer at the Urban Sketchers Symposium in Manchester, England, I’ll be teaching a workshop entitled, Hunting and Gathering: Sketching Vignettes and Lists, and I’m so anxious to get started, that thought I’d share one of the lessons to a wider audience.

In a nutshell, my workshop will address alternatives to the most common drawing approach of drawing to the edge of a page. 

When we work on site we select what we draw; we don’t draw everything before us. What choose to draw is a decision – a selection. By selection I mean the “cutting out entire” from the great panorama spread out before you just that portion which appeals to you and which you want to have appeal to your fellow men.” That’s how F. Hopkinson Smith described it in his “Outdoor Sketching” talks given in 1914 at the Art Institute of Chicago (which I recommend and can be found free online). The result of our carving out from whats before us often results in what’s called a “vignette.” We see vignettes all the time, and create them often. But I think we take them for granted. Talking about the shapes of images can seem very subjective. But success comes from intent – conscious design decisions.

drawing by Fred Lynch

vignette is an irregularly shaped image on a page – one that doesn’t extend to the edge of the paper. Vignettes isolate and focus attention on a particular subject that’s before us. The word dates back to the time of illuminated manuscripts, when it descibed the drawings in the margins. The word comes from the french word for vines. We still see vignettes in books and magazines all the time, but how do we learn to design them well? I say, think of them as letterforms. 

Although these English alphabet landscape prints from the 1800’s were not drawn from life, they are ideal for teaching what vignettes are. The same rules of design apply to on-site drawings, as seen in these works from my students. They are not literally letters, but the shapes of the drawings act like them.

drawing by Karen JY Sung
drawing by Jia Sung

So, when creating vignettes, follow these principles for their successful design.

Vignettes do not extend to the borders of the page.

Vignettes are irregularly shaped.

Vignettes use the white of the page (the negative space) as an important design factor.

Vignettes are designed to sit with stability and balance on the page.

Vignettes end on all sides in a definitive way, and don’t just fade away in every direction.

In other words, vignettes are like letterforms.

Carving out scenes into pleasing vignettes is one of the things we’ll do in my workshop in Manchester. Perhaps I’ll see you there.