Drawing Lessons from Edward Hopper

4 Aug 2015

Pencil sketch by Edward Hopper, Street Scene with Barbershop
Street Scene with Barbershop by Edward Hopper, n.d., charcoal on paper,
7-1/4 x 9-1/4 in. Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Bruce C. Loch.
All works courtesy of Thurston Royce Gallery of Fine Art, LTD.

I don’t think I’d be exaggerating by calling Edward Hopper one of America’s national treasures. His work captured a time and place like no one else, and his distinctive style makes his work instantly recognizable.

But his drawings are an undiscovered secret, as I found out when I began looking at many of Hopper’s works on paper. Here’s what Hopper’s drawings taught me:

-Hopper’s stark painting style started with an equally unadorned drawing style. In Street Scene with Barber Shop, he captures his subject matter in its essentials: a few horizontal lines mark the path of the street and the façade of the buildings; a few curved lines denote the figures that dot the scene; and the pattern of the barber pole appears with a handful of slash marks.

-Even in a quick pencil sketch, Hopper is mindful of light and shadow. In the barbershop scene, where there isn’t a line to spare, he devotes several strokes to the cast shadows of the storefronts in the fore- and middle-ground of the drawing.

Edward Hopper's charcoal drawing, Three Studies of a Woman
Three Studies of a Woman by Edward Hopper, ca. 1900-06,
charcoal and white chalk on gray paper, 5-5/8 x 9 in.
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Bruce C. Loch.
-Looking at Three Studies of a Woman, it is obvious that Hopper is a close watcher. He’s capturing graceful gestures, and the poised bearing of the female figure seems to carry a lot of significance. Meanwhile, he’s also thinking, yet again, of light and shadow. The toned paper acts as the middle value and the artist makes note of the highlights on the figure’s hair, arm, and shoulder with white chalk.

-He is always aware of the edges of his surface. In Street Scene with Barber Shop, he even pencils in where he wants the composition cropped. Also take note of the vantage point—Hopper puts the viewer off to the left so that the scene juts forcefully across our field of vision in a strong diagonal, with the buildings looming over us as well.

Edward Hopper pen and ink sketch, The Bengal Writer
The Bengal Writer by Edward Hopper, n.d.,
pen and ink on paper, 8 x 5 in. Collection of
Mr. and Mrs. Bruce C. Loch.

-Hopper was also a master of line, taking a simple subject like the standing figure in The Bengal Writer and using hatching and crosshatching to turn the form and give it volume. Look at how many different layers of line he uses. With line alone, he breaks down the planes, establishes the direction of the light, and gives a strong sense of visual variety to the work.

Edward Hopper's pencil sketch, Study of Men's Hats and a Window
Study of Men’s Hats and a Window by Edward
Hopper, ca. 1910-20, pencil on paper, 4 x 6-1/4 in.
Collection of Mr. and Mrs. Bruce C. Loch.
-For Hopper to capture the “American scenes” that he is known for he must have drawn all the time, making dozens of sketches like Study of Men’s Hats and a Window, where the drawing can almost read as a day in the life of the artist—where he went, what he saw along the way, and what was preoccupying him visually at the time.

Hopper’s drawings are a working artist’s drawings, and indicate that even going about his day to day, the artist kept pencil and paper close at hand to make studies whenever the notion took him.Following in the footsteps of drawing masters like Hopper but putting our own spin on our day-to-day sketching is what Archisketcher: A Guide to Spotting & Sketching Urban Landscapes is all about. Full of inspiration and instruction, this resource can help sketching become a seamless part of your life too, just as it was to Hopper. Enjoy!

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Blackbird_61 wrote
on 11 May 2011 8:43 AM

TY for this one, I'm a huge fan of Hopper and indeed the whole Ashcan school; but Hopper has always been very special to me.

Blessings, Bb.

TheLionsDen wrote
on 18 Jan 2014 10:20 AM

Thanks Courtney! This is an especially great article.  I love drawing and it is my first passion before painting and all else.  I love this article and I really like the style and working pieces that you have showed here.  I do similar studies and groupings all the time and it's nice to know that renowned artists have done the same.

Bless you ! and Thank you!


R.Cook wrote
on 18 Jan 2014 10:30 AM

I couldn't disagree more about Hoppers approach to his drawings. The one of the barbershop is a pure perspective layout used to since the overall composition for a painting, not the detail. His quick sketch lays out the basic "planes" not shadows. He would probably be upset by showing this throw-away sketch. The proof is the next series of tonal drawings that are very detailed, with Light, SHADE , and shadow reflected. Painters' drawings are meant to be a means to an end.

RW Cook nws