Sketch artist James Richards gets a look-see from a beach walker outside his Peppertree Bay condo. He’s currently finding Siesta Key an inspiration.
Drawing upon the scenes of a lifetime
By John Morton
Q: You are a local sketch artist whose accomplishments are far-reaching. Can you share your history with drawing and where it has taken you?
A: “I remember lying on the living room floor as a preschooler and drawing along with Jon Gnagy’s Learn to Draw television show in the 1950s, and I knew even then it was something I loved. I stumbled into landscape architecture and urban design at LSU in the 1970s — pre-computer days — when drawing well was a critical design skill for communicating your ideas. Drawing became a cornerstone of my design career, and I was fortunate to imagine and sketch visions for projects ranging from college campuses to Austin’s Town Lake to Exxon’s corporate headquarters.
At the same time, I was traveling at every opportunity, sketching the world’s great places to continue my education. Later in my career, universities started inviting me to teach workshops rethinking the role of freehand sketching for a digital age, and to teach rapid drawing skills to students and faculties. I’m proud that my wife Patti and I have been invited to do these workshops for 24 universities across the U.S. and abroad. Soon arts groups started requesting workshops, and then travel companies. So, pre-COVID, we were spending 50% of our year on the road teaching sketching workshops, from the UK to Tuscany, Vietnam to Kenya. All these trips are opportunities to sketch new places and then share those travels online.
Q: Describe your techniques and the materials involved in your creations.
A: “Sketching on location calls for tools and materials that are light and portable, and that allow you to work quickly to capture the energy of a scene ‑- its ‘spirit of place.’
I usually jump right in with a rapid ink drawing. I like to draw lively public places, so I include a lot of people in the drawing, as well as architecture, trees, and details that make a place unique. I let the lines and tones tell a lot of the story, and sometimes the black and white drawing is enough. But I’ll usually add watercolor wash, either on the spot if there’s time, or later in the studio. I’ll occasionally add notes.
At the end of day, it’s about finding what’s authentic in a place and sharing it. It’s a great feeling when a local looks and my sketch and says, ‘You’ve made me see my own place differently.’”
Q: You reside on Siesta Key. What brought you here?
A: “We were living in Fort Worth, and our daughters were looking for a place for a seaside wedding that didn’t feel like a resort — that was more of a real community. They found Siesta Key, and when we checked it out we really felt something special here.
A few months later I was working on a book project back in Texas and making no progress. Patti said, ‘Let’s change the backdrop,’ and booked a month in a small house near Siesta Key Village. I found it an incredibly inspirational setting. The third week into our stay, we woke up one morning, looked at each other, and said, ‘We’re not going back.’”
Q: What do you consider the most ambitious drawing you have completed? And why?
A: “Probably a series of four sketches I did during Hurricane Irma in 2017. We had evacuated to Lakeland and, of course, Irma changed course and the eye came right over us. I stood under the hotel’s open-air porte cochere and created a sort of time-lapse series of the same scene at four different points as the storm passed through. I was protected from the worst of the rain but not the wind.
As I was finishing the third drawing at the height of the storm, a TV news van pulled up. Melissa Marino of WFLA got out in her rain slicker and ball cap and said, ‘What are you doing?’ Long story short, those drawings made the 11 p.m. news. A few months later, they were seen as part of a story on the international Urban Sketchers organization on NBC Nightly News.”
Q: Do you take requests? If so, what is the most unique you have received?
A: “I almost never take commissions simply because my schedule won’t allow for it. The most unique exception was in the fall of 2019. Singer-songwriter Rosanne Cash had seen some of my work done in Cuba. She contacted me and asked if I’d be willing to create a painting of her father Johnny Cash’s boyhood home in Dyess, Arkansas, which had been restored, placed on the National Register of Historic Places, and opened to the public. She wanted the painting as a surprise retirement gift for Dr. Ruth Hawkins, who had conceived and spearheaded that project. I told her I’d love to do it and that I looked forward to hearing her thoughts on the project. She said, ‘I’d never presume to tell another artist how to do their work.’
A few months later I’d completed a painting I was proud of, and Patti and I were invited to the Johnny Cash Heritage Festival in Dyess as special guests of Rosanne and her siblings.
At the outdoor concert closing the festival, Rosanne called me to the concert stage to present the painting to a surprised and delighted Dr. Hawkins. I’ll never be a rock star, but I felt like one for a few minutes on that crisp Saturday.”
Q: With international travel limited due to the coronavirus, you’ve spent many months hunkered down on Siesta Key. Has it been meaningful to focus on the settings right here at your doorstep? If so, why?
A: “It’s been a revelation. Our local friend Veronica Murphy has long encouraged me to focus on the Key, but it seemed we were always traveling or recovering from travel. Having travel interrupted has allowed the time and space to get to know our own community much better and walking and sketching puts you on intimate terms with a place like nothing else does. When you fuse pen, place, and your own personality into a sketch, you give that place a piece of yourself, and vice versa. As a result, Patti and I are scaling back our pre-COVID travel schedule, opting instead to spend more time and enjoy a slower pace here.”
Q: What is your favorite Siesta Key drawing?
A: “Of course, that’s like asking which of your kids you love best. But so far, I’d have to say it’s a recent one of the Point of Rocks, because of how integral that unique site is to the environmental processes that created the Key and the beaches.
A close second is the Siesta Key Oyster Bar, mainly because of the enthusiastic response it received on social media from locals and visitors. They tell me that these places are a very important part of their lives, and it’s cool how a drawing can trigger those emotions.”
Q: How can people learn more about you and obtain your work?
A: “My website has links to workshops, prints, originals, and my book: JamesRichardsSketchbook.com.
Paper and canvas prints are available here: society6.com/jamesrichardssketchbook.
The most complete and up-to-date collection of my art: instagram.com/jrsketchbook.”
(Community Spotlight each month features a resident who has an interesting occupation, activity, or story to tell. Please submit subjects you feel are worthy of some recognition to managing editor John Morton at email@example.com or by calling or texting (941) 313-6992.)