Visual Feeling

Drawing on the subway in NYC

Liza Donnelly

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I boarded the subway yesterday with the intention of live drawing someone. Almost immediately, I realized it was too crowded. It’s possible to draw on a crowded subway car, and I’ve done it before (see below), but I wasn’t in the mood. It’s hard to see a complete individual when sitting there surrounded by bodies, and hard to avoid being watched.

But at about West 181st, people started leaving. I saw a woman leaning over watching something with her son (it looked like her son) on her phone. Her body posture intrigued me. The sharing between them moved me. So I quickly started drawing. The guy to my right, sitting at my elbow, appeared not to notice what I was doing. If he did, he said nothing, which is my preference (New York can be like that, people mind their own business).

I had four stops to get it done. I rushed, finished with my signature when I got off the train. But you know, it’s often just about the gesture. I don’t do these necessarily for any kind of “likeness,” but rather I am looking to represent my impression of what I was seeing. A feeling. A visual response snapshot, sometimes of color and shape and line.

An follower of mine kindly said of the drawing above, “you capture life without stealing it.” I love that. When I was in college, while I was always drawing cartoons, I also used to draw realistically — landscapes, animals from photos, trying to capture the “life” of what I saw. Then early in my young adulthood, I painted abstracts.

These subway sketches for me are a combination of those approaches. Maybe I should do a series of paintings based on these live drawings.

Drawing on a crowded subway

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Liza Donnelly

Visual journalist/writer for New Yorker, New York Times, WaPo, CNN. TED, SXSW speaker. Looking to change world w humor. newsletter:https://lizadonnelly.substack