The thing about urban sketching is that for the most part people are friendly, and if you are courteous and respectful most people are respectful to you as well. Every so often however you get someone that confronts you, rightly or wrongly, and this can sometimes leave the urban sketcher feeling like they don’t want to be out there drawing any more, or it makes them determined to draw even more. Either way, it is good to remember that the urban sketcher does have rights while doing what they do in a public place. I had an argument about those rights yesterday, when I sat down on the sidewalk nearby a boutique in downtown Davis (which I won’t name; just imagine Bianca Butcher’s famous catchphrase) to continue sketching my series on clothing dsiplayed in downtown store windows (see my previous post).
No sooner had I sat down and opened my pencil case, the owner of the store came charging out demanding to know what I was doing. I told her, I was planning to do some sketching, that I’m an urban sketcher. She told me quite pointedly that I cannot do that and it is not appropriate to draw products in store windows, and started shooing me away. I must point out that I hadn’t actually drawn anything at this point, and I was sat by the kerb on a public sidewalk; it wasn’t like I was in the doorway or had my nose pressed against the window. I introduced myself as a local artist and told her who I am and what I do, and flicked through the pages of my sketchbook to show her what sort of things I draw, inviting her to check out my online work. She however was not in the slightest bit interested, and told me I had no right to draw there. She said that I could be copying the designs of her dresses so that Chinese manufacturers could reproduce them (her words). That took me back a little; fair enough, perhaps, you’re worried about your work being ripped off, but your products are on public display. I told her that actually I have every right to draw sketches of that which is in public view from a public place; it’s not like I was in the store. She argued against that, telling me that she was a manufacturer and reiterating that I don’t have any such rights. “What if someone stood here and took a photo?” I asked; that would be much easier for any passing industrial spy, Chinese or otherwise. She told me that was still not allowed, and that she’d actually had that happen to her before and had dealt with it (though she didn’t say exactly how).
The thing is, in the United States photographers (and urban sketchers by extension) absolutely do have rights to make images of whatever they like in a public place (such as a sidewalk or park), be it a person, a building or a shop window display. Many people don’t actually realise this, which is why sometimes artists are unlawfully harassed by security guards outside public buildings or by people not wishing to be photographed, or by shopkeepers who have some notion that by drawing those products which they have put on public display in their window (and which remain on public display after the store has closed) is somehow off-limits for anyone passing by with a sketchbook or a camera, even if they are very pretty dresses which they made themselves. For a nice downloadable flyer explaining your rights in these cases visit this site here (written by attorney Bert Krages); it’s not a bad idea to print it out and carry it in your sketchbook or camera case.
By this point, I didn’t particularly want to draw her window display any more. Her abrasive attitude had put me off (plus the clothes were not even that interesting to draw). Though I thought I’d made it clear I wasn’t a Chinese spy, she still persisted in shooing me away like a dog. I pointed out that I am more aware of my rights than she is and that I can draw whatever I like; I could even draw her. I turned slightly and chose to draw a San Franciso Giants shirt in the shop next door (that sketch will be in my next post), and she seemed to feel like it scored her a victory because she smirked and said I can go off and draw what I wanted. I told her she was very rude.
As an urban sketcher I am always very conscientious of who or what I am drawing. I rarely draw random people (and when I do they’re usually just part of a larger scene), because I’m nervous about personal space, unless I let them know. I tend to prefer drawing other sketchers, or performers. I also don’t draw inside shops without asking. Even out on the streets I don’t like to be in the way, prefering to be invisible, and didn’t much like interaction, things I started to overcome only last year at the Portland Symposium. Now I am happy to talk about my sketchbooks and am very open about what I do, and I encourage others to get out with their sketchbooks and draw their world. I understand my rights, but try to be respectful whenever I sketch. I didn’t deserve to be confronted and told explicitly that I don’t have rights which in fact I do have.
So here’s a suggestion for that store owner – put a little sign in your window, politely asking that people do not photograph or draw your window display. You cannot legally forbid it, but you most people might respect your wishes. If you don’t want people to see your products, display them away from public view. And for urban sketchers across America, whatever people may tell you – know that you have rights!