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'Drawn on the Way': U-M alumna doodles deeper connection with surroundings

By Lilian Varner

The Penny W. Stamps School of Art and Design has created a new $25,000 prize to advance the project of one graduating senior.
A New York artist has managed to bring joy to the subway system with her portraits of passengers for a decade—and now she shows others how to do the same.

Sarah Nisbett (B.A. 04) developed a passionate philosophy behind sketch portraiture.

What started as a secret hobby to pass the time on the F train from Brooklyn to Manhattan led former professional opera singer Sarah Nisbett (B.A. ’04) to a career as a full-time artist, over 70 sketch-filled notebooks, and nearly 28,000 followers through her Instagram account, @drawnontheway. “I found myself riding the subway home from work one evening feeling bored. But I was more than bored, I was longing to do something creative, something that didn’t involve a screen,” Nisbett said. “That’s when I noticed a dapper but slightly rumpled old man sitting across from me wearing a rust-colored three-piece-suit with a matching fedora and a wide, outdated tie that poked through the bottom of his jacket. I wondered who he was when that suit was new. I wondered who he was now.

The first subway sketch that started it all.

“And as I wondered, I put that contemplation into material form and I drew him. When I finished drawing him, I was surprised by two things: the drawing wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be, and I was already home. The time had flown by.” Since then, Nisbett has been captivated by highlighting small details. She finds that everyone carries a story with them that you can unravel through the various ways they express themselves. “My experience at U-M was centered around art and language and how to use words and pictures to tell a story or represent a moment in time. I see my drawings as stories and I see myself as a visual storyteller. I embrace these drawings as notes on a fleeting moment in time, that I can share with others or just keep for myself,” she said. Her vivid “five-minute” pen drawings quickly gained popularity on social media, where people can see her subjects and watch them come to life on paper. When possible, Nisbett will give her sketch to the subject on the train with a card reading “You are a work of art.”
A scene from one of Nisbett's TikToks, where she captures a moment between two people admiring Louise Jones (née Chen), aka Ouizi's mural, "Drifts," at 200 S Ashley, a large flower mural of pink and yellow flowers. Nisbett's hand can be seen in the foreground, holding her sketchpad with a finished sketch of the two on a bench with two stickers that read, "YOU ARE A WORK OF ART."

A scene from one of Nisbett’s TikToks, where she captures a moment between two people admiring Louise Jones (née Chen), aka Ouizi’s mural, “Drifts,” at 200 S Ashley. 

In celebration of the project’s 10-year anniversary, Nisbett released her first book, which encourages busy people to find creativity in the moments in between the tasks of life. In “Drawn on the Way: A Guide to Capturing the Moment Through Live Sketching,” Nisbett shares her techniques for creating captivating line drawings that capture moments and moods, and invites readers to see the people they draw with “compassionate curiosity—as more than a stranger, as someone with a story worth knowing or imagining.” The book is an accessible guide to making quick sketches of our world, designed for busy people on the go who only have a few minutes in their day for creativity. Nisbett explains that we spend so much of our lives rushing around that often when we get a moment of pause, we look to our phones instead of what’s around us. “I often say that the subway taught me how to draw, but more accurately it taught me how to see,” she said. “How to see the stories that surround us, and how to bring the background into the foreground and find interest in the interstitial moments ‘on the way’ that we are programmed to overlook in the interest of getting where we’re going. “And, by noticing the little moments that happen along the way, you also begin living in them. And that makes the literal and metaphorical journey much more interesting. It also makes them more meaningful.”
She emphasizes that art isn't about perfectly capturing the world around us, but recreating the world as you see it. "The techniques, projects and ideas in 'Drawn on the Way' are designed to help you be more mindful about drawing, to capture the people, places and things you encounter each day," she said. "By doing that, you'll connect with humanity in a deeper, more meaningful way—and discover a lot about yourself."