whatever i choose, and i’ll sing the blues if i want

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!

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25 thoughts on “whatever i choose, and i’ll sing the blues if i want

  1. Oona Leganovic says:

    Ugh. I’m sorry you had to endure that. I’ve never had an angry response so far, and I’m one of those people who sketch random people. When somebody gives me a suspicious glance I usually just smile and that seems to be enough to convince them I don’t mean them any harm (and am not ashamed of what I do, whatever that may be).

    • pete scully says:

      This sort of thing happens so rarely, but of course it always leaves a bad taste when it does, as if it makes what you do somehow unsavoury or not acceptable. That’s why the fact we have all these sketchers online now has been a great thing, not just for the mutual support and exchange of ideas but also as validation that we aren’t the only ones who sketch their cities – thousands of others do it too, and it’s ok!

  2. Nikira says:

    Thank you very much for this post and for the flyer. I will carry it with me. I think the store owner’s behavior was really disturbing and stupid, because anyone can come and buy her designs and pass it to Chinese manufacturers if they feel like. And in reality it is done sometimes , I have a friend in fashion design and they shop in european store for their company to use it for their own designs. I draw random people and even I feel invisible I catch sometimes worried glances and then trying to switch and draw something else to avoid any contacts. My teacher after sketching once was beaten up by a drunk followed him from the train and lost few teeth. Sometimes I make stupid faces to look harmless, but my favorite way is to draw from the car, so no one can really talk to me and interrupt.

    • pete scully says:

      I always used to hide when sketching, but have learnt to be more open now. I still won’t sketch random portraits, partly for fear of things such as what happened to your teacher (I’m sorry to hear that), though I would love the practise. I will practise in Lisbon!

  3. Nita says:

    What an awful woman! The poison she spews, probably as a habit, will surely kill off her business in one way or another.

    However, I was just in London with a first-time-there enthusiastic photo-taking friend. She encountered a lot of pushback from Brits in stores who stopped her from taking photos of products she found unusual and fascinating. But she did take photos of their street display windows, just wanting to record her first London visit sights.

    I can totally understand why shopkeepers fear the Chinese copies of their designs, but your woman’s hostility is out of bounds.

    • pete scully says:

      I can absolutely understand not wanting your designs to be passed onto counterfeiters, and that seemed to be at the heart of why she was worried. Perhaps this is the only way she can feel she stops it. However when I introduced myself openly and gave my name and showed her my sketchbook, I thought that would be enough to convince her that i’m just an urban sketcher but apparently it wasn’t. It became a debate about my rights.
      Sorry to hear about your friend’s experience with stores in London; as a Brit I can definitely see that sort of thing happening, and it’s for those reasons I’ve always been cautious and never sketch inside stores unless I know I can.
      Cheers for your comment!

  4. Pica says:

    Pete — thanks for this post. Sorry you had to go through this. I’d love it if you could let me know the name of this shop so I’ll make a point of avoiding spending any money there.

    If I’m feeling really bolshy I might take my sketchbook and go and set up outside and start sketching. But that would be juvenile and more aggro than I think I want to deal with….

    • pete scully says:

      Well, I did joke with Salvador that it might be a good place to start the next sketchcrawl!!
      I don’t really want to discourage anyone from shopping there though, I want downtown businesses to do well (which is partly why I like drawing them). Even ones I don’t like!

  5. Alex Zonis says:

    What a great post! Thank you for explaining the rules and legalities of this. I am sorry you had to deal with this irate woman, very unfortunate.

    I had in a way a similar experience. I photographed a street scene with an old musician playing accordion to paint later, and he saw me taking the shot and cursed me with great gusto. I was so upset with this that I never painted that scene. I thought I was in the wrong and should have asked permission. But now I am thinking I couldn’t have asked every person in the crowd that filled that plaza, no way. It was a public place. The old man had every right to dislike being photographed, but now I think I had the right to do so.

    • pete scully says:

      You’re right. He can object for sure, but you in fact have the rights. If someone took a photo of you, it’d be the same thing. I’ve had people take photos of me sketching, over my shoulder looking into my book, and I’m ok with that. It’s just up to us to make sure we’re always respectful. Cheers for the comment!

  6. Marie-Therese Brown says:

    Nice clue. I thought it was this particular store. You are giving all the other stores some great publicity. Too bad this one misses out.
    I always draw random people in airports and restaurants and on buses. No one seems to mind but maybe it’s because I’m a female.

  7. karen says:

    Ick. Like everyone else, I’m very sorry you had that experience. i was a reporter for a long time, so I would’ve probably gotten in her face with concepts about what people can do (and photograph and draw) from a public place. You were undoubtedly more polite than that. My teenager daughter was accosted last year at the Ann Arbor Art Fair because she was shooting photographs and some jerk in one of the tents made the mistake of flying out of his booth and screaming at her. He got a little taste from Mama Lion at that point.

  8. Il Corvid says:

    I was once hassled by security for drawing the US Senate podium in a sketchbook that I had; I was told this even before 911. Never mind that you could see this very same podium, every day, on C-SPAN. It’s all silly. I could take a photo of damn near anything I wanted without a shopkeeper knowing it. I appreciate the esteem that said shopkeeper has of my drawing skill, given that they clearly think it’s more accurate than the photo. Good luck to you Pete, keep drawing

  9. Elisa Choi says:

    Hi Pete, I sympathized with you. I for one am a shy sketcher who is more comfortable sketching away hidden from the crowd. But sometimes though it can’t be avoided and I just have to sketch that person sitting… and I also get nervous and conscious thereby ruining the sketch altogether. Thanks a lot for your very informative post and for sharing your experiences. I have always loved your sketches. Cheers!

  10. Marlene Lee says:

    I did not realized as sketchers that we have a dangerous hobby.

    In one of our sketch crawls we had discussed about our rights to sketch in public. At lunch, I had related an incident of an older woman, sketching a young girl, was threatened by the mother that she would call the police. And now your incident with the store owner. It doesn’t make sense for either the mother or the store owner to be rude and threatening to people like you or my older friend. A little courteous “no” can go a long way without us having to stand for our rights. But I’ll print out a copy, just in case I have to stand for my rights.

  11. alice says:

    Ugh. I’m having flashbacks of this little troll of a shopkeeper in Long Beach, who, in some paranoid fit, thought i was stealing some sort of ‘secrets’ of his shoe store when i jotted something down in a little notebook. I have no idea what was so steal-able. It’s not like he designed the shoes or had some kind of awesome interior design going on there. Who knows. Anyway, my friend had just said something funny and, half joking, I’d said I had to write it down. After he had his conniption and ran us out of the store, I went back in and tore the page out of my notebook, slapped it on the counter and told the embarrassed ladies who worked there that he could keep it.
    Another time, while sketching at Olvera Street in L.A., I got ice thrown at me by some rude people who were shouting across a crowded plaza at me, “Hey! You do portraits?! Hey! Hey!” I don’t recall if I just said no but I probably gave them a look and certainly didn’t shout back. I guess they felt stupid.
    Later that day, I was doing a little watercolor painting of this fake donkey and cart that were souvenir photo props. A small crowd had gathered behind me and this middle-aged man stumbled over and drunkenly declared in Spanish, “That donkey looks like a cat,” to which I replied, “And who asked you?” A young man burst out laughing. After everyone else left I got to chatting with him and found out he was the man’s son. They operated the souvenir photo operation. I apologized and we had a laugh about it. He was very nice and brought me his boombox for me to listen to.

  12. Isabel says:

    Your shop owner was probably having a bad day and she shouldn’t worry much about chinese copying her designs , they win’t be selling them next door. Its an awful situation however and in the past has put me off for a while ( I was taken to a police station). But it happens so rarely and all other times feed back is so positive that we should just keep on sketching. See you soon.

  13. Ayetho says:

    I’m sorry you had a bad experience. Why on earth wouldn’t she let other people see her clothes? Maybe she should not sell them at all but lock them away in her attic. That way it’s safe no one copies her design even after paying for it (and showing it off, publicly, on the streets).

  14. Ea says:

    Sorry you had to go through that. Her stand on this was obviously both wrong and ill thought through, since she was supposedly offering the precious designs for sale to anyone wanting to purchase them.
    In Denmark (and I suspect the rest of the EU is the same) you also generally have the right to photograph or draw anything in the public space, including people and, of course, window displays ;). If you show images of people to the public (via TV, the Internet, magazines, etc.) you are not allowed to identify them by name, address, etc. without their consent, but you are still allowed to show the images.

  15. Nina Johansson says:

    Really interesting read, Pete. Sorry you had to go through that, but I’m glad to hear you discussed your rights with her. So far I have been lucky enough to only get positive feedback from people around me when sketching, but reading this I’ll be prepared to take a discussion if I meet this kind of behavior. Thanks for sharing.

  16. ina says:

    Thank you for this post, Pete. I’m sorry this woman took her anger at the world out on you.

    I led an urban sketchers class for 3rd-5th graders this past spring, and I kept telling them we have the right to do what we’re doing, but we still need to be polite and respectful. Some people might not like that we’re drawing and we don’t want to give them any valid reasons to run us off. One boy in particular was particularly mischievous. Now I see from your story that even being polite may not be enough. Luckily, everyone we encountered while sketching was very kind.

  17. steven says:

    Pete, our rights go beyond those of a photographer’s. As artists, we can create original copies of ANYTHING… copyrighted and otherwise protected! How? Well it’s how Worhol got away with soup cans and mobil oil logos… his screen prints and paintings were one of a kind originals. I’ve discussed this some with some attorneys and there are plenty of legal cases to protect artists… even beyond the protections afforded photogs.

    Additionally, you can make original copies of other works of art, though that gets in grey areas some.

    So, you were right. She had no more right to shoo you away than a curator has a right of keeping me from sitting down and sketching a copy of Van Gogh.

    Being at UC Davis, for example, you can paint buildings, mascots, anything… as long as you aren’t selling prints, duplicates or reproductions of that art, you’ll never have problems with licensing, copyright, or ownership. The problems arise with duplication, prints, and reproductions.

    So to just add one last bit… the Giants could vary well decide to ask for licensing $$$$ if you sell prints of their jersey. And some major landmarks (buildings) have similar protections.

  18. Rowlandwithaw says:

    Interesting– some years ago I was photographing a building in Surrey when a security guard appeared and told me that it was illegal to photograph this building as it belonged to the Ministry if Defence. I said there was nothing to say that this was illegal nor to say that this is part of the Ministry of Defence. He demanded that I gave him the film- I said that was a problem as it was a digital camera and seeing as we’re talking about ten years ago he wasn’t quite sure what I meant- so I deleted a picture to keep him happy but I might have had another 400 on the card….. maybe the Chinese would have been interested in the exterior of an anonymous building.

    The same week I was stopped whilst photographing a huge dog on the roof of a pub . . now there’s a threat to Western commerce and a potential breach of national security . . I must be more careful . . .

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