Urban Sketching Tips from Scientific Illustrator, Oliver Hoeller

Oliver Hoeller

urban sketch by Oliver Hoeller

By Brenda Murray

Scientific Illustrator and urban sketcher Oliver Hoeller Oliver Hoeller’s earliest childhood memories are of running after frogs, catching fish, drawing and painting  at the kitchen table next to his mom in his home in Austria. When he was 9 years-old he wanted to be a painter, a scientist and a pirate. Three decades later he is a scientific illustrator and he has a PhD in molecular biology. Oliver is a keen on-location sketcher and a teacher who resides in San Francisco, California.

Oliver went to college in Vienna, studied molecular biology and did his Phd in Cambridge in the UK in cell biology. Ten years ago he moved to San Francisco. His rigorous career left no room for anything outside of work and he realized he needed to balance his life. So he got back into art and joined Urban Sketchers.

sketch by Oliver Hoeller

Oliver began taking on commissioned work from his colleagues in the scientific community. When scientists submit work to a scientific journal they can suggest the cover image that will accompany the article. As a scientist himself, Oliver has a unique set of skills. He is able to take technical content and distill it to its core to translate it into an approachable image. Multi-tasking (above) and Imparting Ideology (below) are examples of the illustrations he does for scientific journals and papers. He also creates illustrations for scientific web pages and presentations and he writes a column for a scientific journal.

But Oliver’s drawings are not typical scientific illustrations. His work is fantastical, imaginative and playful and so I want to hear his opinion about the role of the imagination in art.

“It’s not about the imagination,” Oliver says. “We are editing reality and combining different viewpoints. I love humour, irony and irreverence--I have to be entertained too! I like to think about things that aren’t obvious. For example, I pushed Multi-tasking to the extreme. I had to think of a way to illustrate that abstract concept. So I thought of an octopus and the next thing was to think about what to put in each arm.” 

As we draw more and more from life the images and parts of images we keep in our heads become a kind of vocabulary, he explains. We are playing with the vocabulary. Certain postures and gestures we see over and over. Drawing something that we're not so familiar with--like an octopus--requires the use of references and some imagination.

sketch by Oliver Hoeller

"Imparting Ideology is another abstract concept that I had to translate into something tangible and easy to understand. How can one thing turn something into something else?”

Oliver argues that even when we're drawing on location from life and seeking to capture a moment in time, we are still interpreting.

“The idea that we draw exactly what is there is too simplistic,” he explains. “We're rearranging reality as soon as we make a sketch. We edit. We don’t draw everything. We have a personal take on reality.”

Products Studio 56. design by Oliver Hoeller

There are two ways to sketch, he explains. First there is the simple exercise of skills. We draw something with the goal that it will represent accurately what it is.

The second way to make a sketch is to think of the final product. To capture a place and at the same time to form an opinion about what we are drawing and to tell a story with the drawing. Then the drawing is interesting to you and to others. His process is to sketch, form an opinion, edit, and fill the void with reference material. It’s a building process.

sketch by Oliver Hoeller

His Minimalism sketch (above) is a good example. He needed to illustrate the abstract concept of minimalism. This drawing started as an urban sketch drawn from life observations but he pushed it to convey something. He imagined his 3 year-old son asking, “Mom, what is minimalism?” and then he presented the irony of the question being asked by a child who is sitting in a stroller loaded with stuff.

Oliver has taught Urban Sketchers workshops and 10x10 workshops in his local chapter, USk San Francisco, and in London. In 2015 Oliver published a book called No Road in No Road Out: Slowboating the Amazon and was nominated for a reportage award in the UK.

No Road in No Road out by Oliver HoellerOliver's book was based on his travels by river boat along the Amazon River from Colombia to Peru. It was a boat built to transport cargo not tourists and it was slow. It took about a week to reach its destination. Oliver slept in a hammock and sketched the small villages they passed along on the way. There were only two foreigners on the boat, about 100 locals and a LOT of chickens, he said. 


Upcoming Workshops with Oliver Hoeller

Oliver has several upcoming workshops. Click HERE for more information.

Oliver Hoeller products available here

Oliver's beautiful sketches are now available here at Studio 56 Boutique as mugs, prints, tshirts and more! 

 Click HERE to see Oliver's Expressive Portraits collection of products.
















Click HERE to see Oliver’s Multi-tasking collection of products.












Click HERE to see Oliver’s Imparting Ideology collection of products.

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