My first sketch at an art museum

Sketching artwork in person at a museum is more of an experience than I imagined it to be. The enhanced observation, the nervousness.

What to sketch?

The decision on what to draw. With 5,267 items on display, what would be the first?! Lately, I’ve had an interest in gallery 241. Home to the van Gogh bedroom painting, and a beautiful example of cloisonnism by Louis Anquetin.

I almost sketched the Anquetin painting. But it felt like I’ve done plenty of investigation into this painting already. I love it when artworks in the museum each have a personal story. That painting now has a story for me. Time for another artwork to get its own story.

I stayed in that gallery and picked the painting to the left of the van Gogh bedroom, “Fishing in Spring, the Pont de Clichy (Asnières)“.

I’ll take a better photo of this soon.

This painting features a couple boats, a bridge, and a few trees. That seemed fun to sketch.

Is drawing allowed in the Art Institute of Chicago?

I thought someone online I read that you had to get special permission first from the museum to be able to sketch. As I walked into gallery 241, I was nervous. A security guard was totally eyeballing me, following me into the room. I got scared and walked into a few other galleries, looking for something else to draw.

Yes, I was running away from an art museum security guard.

Realizing this was silly to be afraid, I turned around and headed back to gallery 241, determined to sketch something in that room. Certainly enough, the guard was still there, still watching me.

Instead of drawing, I’d write in my sketchpad first. Writing is allowed, right? Maybe I could draw the pictures using letters instead of lines. Write long sentences that twist and bend like a line, mimicking the composition of the painting. Those long sentences would then look like the painting.

If the guard asked me to not draw, I could point to the words and say, I’m not drawing, I’m WRITING, SUCKA!

Continuing to write normal sentences, I tilted my sketchpad in the direction of the guard, so he could see I was writing words, not sketching pictures. He walked in and out of the room ten times over the course of two minutes. I even managed to snap a photograph of him. I was pretending to photograph my sketchpad, and got him in the background.

Security guard watching me closely

After a while, I got tired of the games, so then I just went and sketched.

Sketch of van Gogh's "Fishing in Spring, the Pont de Clichy (Asn
My first sketch in an art museum!

Bad sketches at first

As I was sketching, I realized that my sketches were starting out bad. Under other conditions I would be tempted to start over. Erase, draw, erase. Take more time getting the proportions right.

People were looking over my shoulder at my bad sketches. Oooooh man. I kinda wanted to stop. But I pressed forward. I reminded myself that the end result of the sketch is not the point. It’s the process that matters. Observing, looking, thinking, connecting.

Strokes matter more than the composition

Drawing the paint strokes with a pencil is fun. By the drawing the painting, you REALLY notice the strokes.

The composition, sure, that’s what I thought would matter the most in sketching a painting. All the forms and proportions. But the strokes really capture the essence of the art. “Oh vertical lines on the bay. Ok. Oh, repeated angled lines for the meadow, got it.”

The end resulting sketch wasn’t too bad, either. It was a bit of fun, so I sketched another artwork.

Since I sketched the painting on the left of the bedroom, and I’ll now do the one on the right of the bedroom. Seemed to make some sort of sense.

Vincent van Gogh's "The Drinkers" at the Art Institute of Chicago
Vincent van Gogh’s “The Drinkers”

This painting is OOOZING with paint strokes. Squiggly strokes worming around the painting. Three goofy characters and a baby. As I sketched this painting, I realized that in all these years I never noticed the baby drinking at the bottom part of the painting.

The looks on each of these people’s faces is priceless. I want to go back and do details of each face. They would make fun caricatures.

My second sketch in an art museum!

The most fun part making this sketch was drawing the clouds in the background. Since they were white, I really didn’t need to draw them too much, but they were so swirly with their strokes. Remember, the strokes is what makes these paintings. Loosely squigglying the strokes was immense fun–not pressure to make them look like anything in particular. Just fun loose loopy lines.


While I was sketching, people entered the gallery, each person looking at a painting for about two seconds. And sometimes they’d snap a photo, and then walk away. I do this all the time. And now I was feeling bad for these people. They weren’t observing and experiencing the painting.

The number of people that stood right next to me as I sketched, was rather surprising. If someone is sketching in a museum, I certainly am not going to stand right next to that person. Granted, I was standing by van Gogh’s famous bedroom painting. People certainly came up to the bedroom painting and looked. It felt like an extraordinary amount of people came up to the paintings I was sketching.

Sketched the painting to the left, people would stand and look at the painting on the left. Sketched at the painting on the right, people would stand and look at the painting on the right.

Well, at least people are curious, and fulfill their curious desires by looking at what is getting all the attention at the moment.

Still watching me

Oh, and that security guard from the start of all this? 23 minutes later he was still watching me.

This photo was captured by my Narrative Clip. I clip it onto my sweater; and it takes a photo every ten seconds automatically.

At least I’m glad that the museum is being kept really safe under watchful eye.


I got so hot at the museum. Focusing, drawing, nervous about people watching me. Sweat started to drip down my back. When I was done drawing and I left the gallery, I took off my jacket to cool off. Reaching the cool 29° outside, the cold temperatures felt so refreshing. I thought I’d keep my jacket off just until the street corner. But it felt so nice, that I just walked all four blocks back without my jacket.

Vincent van Gogh trees

Vincent van Gogh trees in Chicago

Along the way, trees lined Michigan Avenue by Millennium Park. Because of this time spent with van Gogh at lunch, the trees look different now. They are like the trees in van Gogh’s painting!

Non-drawing hand is sore

I’m right handed, but my left hand is more sore than my right. Huh? Shouldn’t my right had be tired from all the drawing? Nope. My left hand grips the sketchbook.

I look forward to coming back to the museum many more times to do sketches. This fulfills two resolutions for the year: 1) Go to the Art Institute once a week. 2) Use pencils more.

Enjoyed this blog post?

Join the creatives who receive thoughtful Spudart blog posts via the email newsletter

Notify of

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x