Live Music Exchange Blog

Drawing Live Music – A Different Kind of ‘Listening’ – Jenny Soep


This week’s guest blog post is by visual artist Jenny Soep.  In it, she talks about her own experiences in drawing live music, discusses the pros and cons of using ‘traditional’ and digital materials, her personal guidelines for drawing live music, and links to other artists who draw or visualise live music in one form or another.

I’m Jenny Soep, a visual artist who specializes in drawing the local and international live original/alternative/experimental music and art(s) scene.

Jenny Soep Painting at Connect Music Festival 2007 by James H CaddenJenny Soep Drawing Uncle John and Whitelocks Last Show at King Tuts by James H Cadden 231206

Photos: James H Cadden – Jenny Soep at Connect 2007 and Uncle John & Whitelock’s Last Ever Concert, King Tuts, December 2006

My aim is to utilize my drawing skills at capturing the essence, energy, colours and characters of a live music/art(s) performance with the added emotional challenge of drawing while being moved by the music.

It’s about being totally immersed in a moment and responding creatively.

I have drawn everything from an open mic night in a Highland pub, to traditional Chinese instruments being played in a neon-lit shed in Taiwan, to being on my knees in the mosh-pit of Glasgow’s infamous Nice’N’Sleazy to being seated in the plush red velvet chairs of Stockholm’s Konserthuset during the world’s most exciting and biggest music award ceremony, The Polar Music Prize.

I’ve drawn a selection of the best, creative and most inspiring musicians in Scotland where I’m from – Arab Strap, Mogwai, Sons & Daughters, David Byrne, Average White Band, The Proclaimers, James Yorkston, Camera Obscura, Found, Idlewild to other international artists as Björk, PJ Harvey, Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Yo-Yo Ma, Youssou N’Dour, Lydia Lunch and Paul Simon.

I’m also a performer, from painting with UV sensitive paint to ‘capture’ an improv band playing in a largescale theatre performance (Allotment, 2010), to providing digital projected drawings as part of a cross-arts improvisation trio called Three Lines, where a dancer, musician and visual artist (me) use our ‘instruments’ to jam with each other.

Jenny Soep Painting with UV at Allotment 300510 by Judy Chee

Photos: Jenny Soep painting live music at Allotment by Judy Chee

Jenny Soep Draws by Jannica Honey 2011

‘Drawing on the iPad’ by Jannica Honey

When ‘documenting’ live music I mainly draw on iPad or on paper with watercolours and/or pencil. Both present their own pros and cons (Especially when I frequently forget my iPad in the toilet at the venue).

Pros and Cons for each approach to Drawing Music Live

Festival Art Materials by Jenny Soep Aug2013m

Necessary Materials for Drawing at a Fantastic Music Festival (iPad included)

Watercolour and Paper

You can be minimal in your materials, but you must be able to use them intuitively if you don’t have ideal lighting. If you’re positioned at the front of a gig (make sure you have ear plugs if you’re next to the speakers!!!) you can take advantage of the on stage lighting, but if you’re dealing with a lot of laser blues, pinks, greens, yellows etc, it’s handy to have a book light to show you the actual colours you’re using.

Alternatively, you can just use black ink and travel light.

A great advantage to having watercolour materials is when mobile phones/iPads are banned. That happened with Prince recently, but I’m pretty sure if I’d have managed to crowdsurf my way back from the stage a bit more I probably could have used my iPad without any bother. As it was, I was pleased with the pencil drawings I DID manage (while dancing). That’s purple confetti you see there in my photo of ‘Necessary Materials For Drawing At A Festival’. There was so much confetti I had to continually blow it off my paper to be able to draw. I even found some in my underwear.

PRINCE 5 By Jenny Soep 050813 m

Pencil Drawing of Prince created live by Jenny Soep August 2013

iPad Pros

Using an iPad is useful on so many levels. It has its own source of lighting, you have an incredible array of colours and textures to use, and you can upload your image online immediately after you’ve created it. There are also possibilities of making a timelapse of your drawing, which instantly adds a wow factor 🙂

iPad Cons

Weather – tricky to draw in the rain, but then watercolours also get washed away 🙂 Also, audience members can get vocally offensive if you’re using an iPad as they think ‘Why would anyone want to Facebook during such an incredible concert’. Takes time for certain technologies to be accepted as the norm. Glare can be offensive, but easily remedied by turning the brightness down.

Karine Polwart Sep 2012 sm

iPad Live Drawing of Karine Polwart Sept 2012 by Jenny Soep

Because I sometimes draw seated with the audience, sometimes they feel I’m not supposed to be doing what I’m doing. One woman during a Karine Polwart concert indignantly asked me if the musicians knew I was drawing – she felt I was illegally recording the concert through my drawing. Yes, she could see I was drawing but felt I was still infringing on the musicians’ rights according to her. I would actually really be interested to know what weight this opinion carried, but since 99% of the time I’ve either got the musicians’ or promoters’ approval, it’s not something that genuinely bothers me. She calmed down when I told her the organizers knew what I was doing.

Whatever way I choose to draw, I want it to be challenging and exciting, and create a work of art that connects with fans and audience but also inspires those interested in the art to educate themselves about the musicians drawn, and create a new audience.

 Everyone has their own way to enjoy live music, whether it’s standing watching, sitting, dancing, drinking, chatting at the back with your pals, closing your eyes…responding creatively absolutely has a place. I believe visual art and music are intrinsically linked, and that everyone listens differently.

My (Personal) Guidelines for Drawing Live Music

Define whether you’re drawing for yourself or for your career/vocation

Be good at Drawing – Draw many other things, every day, to make sure you’re skilled and warmed up for the limited timescale of the concert.

If you want the musicians/promoters to know you’re drawing, contact them at least a month beforehand. (This will make it easier for them to promote your drawing afterwards if that is what you wish, plus they may buy your picture.)

Be early for the concert so that you get a good spot.

Be mindful of the audience – if you’re not a feature of the concert, be considerate to those behind you.

Be in the moment and enjoy the music


There are different ways you can draw live music: here are some examples of other artists that have impressed me:-

  1. You can be a musician yourself and paint live on stage while you make your music, e.g. Joseph Arthur (he starts painting at 2’25’’)… However, his artwork is generally better when not created while he’s performing his music, but I love the idea of him being so multi-creative/tapped into one zone – “I don’t know if that’s worth anything… I can do better when I’m not singing”. (I have drawn him painting on stage at King Tuts way back in 2005 while blissfully enjoying his music.)
  2. You can draw the sounds/rhythms of the music itself, as a more abstract visual response.I love Gina Southgate’s work – it’s bold and beautiful with a great sense of space. She also seems to have the sensibilities of a percussionist, with a multi-instrumentalist approach to her materials and mark-making. I mostly know her through her more figurative work where you can see she’s painted the musicians and their instruments but here’s a great and colourful example of her work (particularly watch from 8’00’’) created simultaneously for live projections during a band’s performance.  The video recording has been sped up to fit the recording of the live music soundtrack, an example that some form of music drawing/painting forsakes its snappy entertainment value for the sake of creating a higher quality artwork as a result.  See also her website to see a fantastic selection of artworks she’s created during other live concerts. For a good description of some processes involved in drawing music directly see this little video short of Dale Berning, albeit from recorded music: ‘Translate what you hear into marks that you can see’.
  3. You can be a more direct feature of the live music performance, painting on stage like another member of the band playing their guitar – Here’s the ‘Music Painter’ Killy Kilford in action who’s more of a rock, pop and indie artist than Gina who specializes in improv, experimental and jazz music.
  4. You can draw/paint figuratively, drawing the musicians and their instruments in a recognizable pose or ‘action shot’. The best I’ve encountered also happens to be an illustrator here in Stockholm, Martin Ehrling – he specializes in using ink to ‘capture’ live jazz, folk and world music.
  5. You could draw the music’s effects – directly from a moshpit where being knocked about or dancing produces marks that become the work of visual art itself. I haven’t yet found anyone else that’s created artworks solely that way, but I am aware of an artist that has danced and drawn at the same time – Janelle Abbott – and also an artist who makes kinetic sculptures that create drawings in response to natural elements/phenomenon – David Bowen.
  6. I personally try and combine elements of all of the above while also writing down lyrics and/or snippets of ‘banter’/interactions with the audience. My belief is that those who have attended that same live concert and heard those words, will read them in my drawing in the voice of whoever said or sang them. Much like the ability for a song to get stuck in our head, if we’ve heard a quote from someone we replay a memory of how it sounded. Hopefully this creates a level of engagement and interaction with my drawings that don’t happen with a photo.

Jenny Soep

Weblinks to Jenny Soep

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2 thoughts on “Drawing Live Music – A Different Kind of ‘Listening’ – Jenny Soep

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  1. I love watching you work – your creativity is inspiring and to capture the atmosphere the way you do is unique. You have taken this emerging art form to new levels and you are so sharing of the experience that you inspire those around you to ‘listen visually’ – a real innovation. All bands should have a Soep original. Promoters and publicists are really missing a trick – your work should be in videos and on a loop at gigs… just saying ….

  2. Hi Jenny, I found yours a very interesting and thought provoking article. As a performer, I am always looking for ways in which to better engage an audience, so that they feel involved in the emotion and spectacle of a performance — to “feel caught up in the moment”, as it were…

    I think that the challenge of any extra-visual activity is how to ensure it helps the audience focus even more intently upon a performance, rather than being a distraction — unless that is the intention.

    How would you suggest using your ‘listening through drawing’ approach, assisted by technology, to forge an even greater intimacy between the performer, expressed through their performance, and audience members?

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