Train People

June 28, 2013

I went to NYC a couple weeks ago and brought along two sketchbooks. A 10×10 – for museums, the airplane, and other places where it’s not totally inconvenient – and one small purse-sized notepad for when I want to be inconspicuous.

The small notepad was perfect for the subway, which is often crowded, and which you have to get in and out of quickly.

The sketches I did on the train started out pretty disappointing. The same old quick gesture sketches I always do in those kind of situations. A quick couple of circles, lines, and squares to lay out the basic shapes, and then whatever details I had time to add before the person (or myself) had to exit the train. Bor-ring.

Boring gesture

Boring gesture

Then I suddenly had a flashback from 2005, the last time I visited NYC. I remembered being on the train, being disappointed by the way I was drawing, and feeling almost as if I was trying to draw one way, but my hand and pen were going for a totally different style. I remember thinking, “just go with it.” And so I did, and suddenly these sort of cool little drawings started to occur.

So I found myself having that same battle with my hand/pen and I remembered that moment from eight years ago, and decided to just go with it once again. Instead of laying out the basic shapes and gestures, I switched to a point-to-point method.

TP Gospel

Bible, now on Kindle

I’d start with one detail, generally the person’s nose, and then let the drawing grow from there using that initial point to guide me to the next, and then from that point gage the next point, and so on.

TP cosby

Back to school

For example, on the guy below, the line of his nose extends up into the left eyebrow. From there his forehead line is just a tiny bit longer than the nose and eyebrow combined. Then jump over to the other eye, which is about yey distance from the first, and then onto the ear which is always going to be farther away from the nose than you initially think, and should be no higher than the eyebrow…

TP Ho Hum

Consternation = constipation

Drawing this way can often lead to distorted-looking faces, which is why art teachers generally teach you to begin all drawings with the laying out of basic shapes. But I was just going with it. After I finished the head I would draw add a tiny little body, so that I could work in the details of their clothes and accessories. I did this all in pencil, then inked them later at restaurants or the hotel.

Here are my three favorites…

TP Scruffy


TP Plat Blonde

Legend of Billie Jean continues

TP Mellow


The sketches that came out of this experiment didn’t usually look that much like their real-life counterpart, but they had way more character than my typical gestures drawings, and they made the whole trip a lot more fun. I named them “Train People” and started giving them their own back-stories.

Like this lady, who is French and just wants to be left alone.

TP Frenchy


And this guy who means well, but always screws everything up.

TP Screw Up


You don’t even want to know what this man just got back from doing.

TP Business

Cancer Man

Because I was using this small notebook, they kind of looked like trading cards. Each day as I drew new characters it felt like I was adding to my collection. When we’d get off a train, Richard would say, “How’d you do?” And I’d be like great, “I got two more train people.”

TP studious girl

Bad news text

TP angry asian


Richard is incredibly difficult to impress, but even he liked the Train People. In fact, when were in the airport waiting to fly home, he had me make one of him. So technically, this one is an airport guy.

TP Richard

“Not For Tourists”

Yeah yeah I know it looks nothing like him.


  1. So fun to read about “Train People”… can’t wait to hear about the NYC trip. Due to your inspiration, I’ve been regularly working in a small sketch book this summer.

  2. Inspiring another person is the greatest compliment I could get. Thank you Kay!

  3. […] loooong time ago I posted about a trip I took to NYC where I did a bunch of little caricatures of people on the subway and it was really fun and definitely a lightbulb experience. It was sort of […]

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