The Picture Show

Tiny Sketches: An Illustrator's-Eye View Of The Tiny Desk Concerts


Top: Cécile McLorin Salvant. Bottom row, left to right: Anthony Roth Costanzo, Chromeo.
Angela Hsieh/NPR

Top: Cécile McLorin Salvant. Bottom row, left to right: Anthony Roth Costanzo, Chromeo.

As an illustrator at NPR, my work includes creating editorial illustrations for news stories, photo illustrations for the NPR Music team, looping animations for smart displays, and the occasional journalistic drawing foray out in Washington, D.C. Few things make me say, "I can't believe this is part of my real job" quite like sketching Tiny Desk concerts as they happen.

I usually try to get to the desk during sound check to give myself a little extra time. Even so, it's a mad rush to get a piece done before the end of the concert. Each performance lasts about 20 minutes, so I have 20 to 40 minutes to finish a piece. I do minor edits afterwards if the likeness or proportions look too off the mark, but because I'm trying to capture a specific moment in time, I try to keep post-performance edits to a minimum.

I use an iPad for the mobility and convenience of not having to carry a bag of supplies around; this way, I can draw while standing. I choose the colors based on the music because for me, it's more about the mood the sound creates than it is about a true-to-life color palette. Sometimes, when the musicians wear striking colors or patterns, I bring elements of their clothing into the color scheme.

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Much of this process was developed over the course of several weeks. Under the pressure of a time limit, an artist learns quickly to play to her strengths just to be able to get to a finished piece by the end. In my case, it meant worrying less about clean lines and focusing more on tone and color. The stylistic shift from the first few drawings to the later ones was significant enough that I didn't include the early ones when I compiled these sketches; the contrast would have been too jarring.

If a performer changes outfits between sound check and performance, I panic, and then I get it together and paint over my existing piece. Sometimes, it's just a matter of removing sunglasses or headbands; at other times, it's a more dramatic change. Mumu Fresh, for example, starts in a varsity jacket and ends up in an alarmingly yellow floral-printed blouse.

Anyone who sketches in public should know to be prepared to hear a good many comments across a spectrum of welcomeness. Real things that people have said to (or around) me include, in descending order of desirability:

  • "Wow!"
  • "That's amazing!"
  • [Various questions about programs and tools]
  • "You drew that? Really?"
  • "She's just drawing over a photo, right?"

After the performances, I weave through the tangle of cameras and crowd members to show my drawings to the musicians. They're always incredibly gracious and often excited to see them. The most memorable reactions include Raekwon immediately making it his mission to show the rest of the Wu-Tang Clan, as well as Yo-Yo Ma yelling wordlessly. In the latter case, I'm not actually sure if he liked it or not.

When Dave Matthews performed, I wound up stuck way in the back of the crowd, sweating like a snowman in July, wedged between what seemed like the four tallest people in the room. After realizing that standing on my toes was futile, I opted to stop trying to catch a glimpse of him and instead made the best of what I had.

To this day, I'm still not entirely sure what the man looks like.

More Tiny Desk sketches and other work by Angela Hsieh can be found on her website and on Instagram.

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