MassArt Teacher Draws Digital Portraits of MBTA Passengers

Rather than using a traditional sketchbook and pencil, he turns to an iPhone.

Photo via Abe Tena

Photo via Abe Tena

While some people are secretly judging riders on the MBTA, others are drawing them.

For artist Abe Tena, that’s the best way to pass the time while riding the transit lines.

But since the trains are always crowded during his commute, and it’s often hard to find a place to sit, Tena doesn’t use the traditional means of sketchbooks and pencils when he is drawing his subjects. Instead, he turns to modern technology to get the job done. “Drawing careful sketches on my notebook while standing is out of the question,” he says, “so I’ve been using a simple painting application on my phone instead. This is good in a way, because it is forcing me to be very straightforward.”

Tena, a Massachusetts College of Art and Design teacher, says the shuffling of passengers coming in and out, shifting from seats to standing up, limits the amount of time he can capture what someone is doing, so he has “just a few seconds” to get an impression and move on, “sometimes not getting anything more than a silhouette.”

He has compiled more than 50 sketches recently, using only his smartphone, to paint a portrait of the strangers he shares train space with each day on his commute.

Tena told Boston about his desire to start drawing passengers, and why he decided to stick with smartphone artwork rather than a pencil.

When did you decide you wanted to start drawing people on the train?

It started in school, at MassArt. I really enjoyed figure-drawing classes, but I got a bit tired of drawing the same four or five nude models over and over again. On the way back home, I would see people falling asleep or playing with their phones, and they just seemed like such irresistible characters! It is more engaging to draw everyday people in everyday situations, than the staged poses of the models at school. The train is perfect for drawing because people stay still, at least enough time for a rough sketch. It sounds cheesy, but people going about their lives are beautiful!

Does anyone ever peek over your shoulder, and comment on the fact that you’re drawing strangers in public?

People standing next to me notice, but very rarely make comments. When I use a sketchbook and pencil, in the rare occasion I get to sit down, some are more obvious about looking over my shoulder. I think the iPhone makes people unsure of what exactly I am doing. I once had a guy who told me that I could make big bucks making comics like Spawn (like it’s 1990!). Another time, some teens started asking me questions, and when I told them I work on video-games, one the them started saying ‘this shit here is going to be on the next Halo you guys!,’ which is funny because the game I work for is for little kids.

Did you pick this up as a side hobby for when you’re not working on video games?

Well, I work as a game artist and an art teacher; so drawing from observation is like going to the gym. In the last year, I’ve been trying to get better at cartooning and economy, so this quick iPhone sketches are very useful for my job. It definitely happens that I am too tired from drawing at work all day, and so I kill some time on the train playing BulletHell games on the phone. But I am one of those lucky guys whose work and hobby are the same: I just like to draw and paint!

We have one of those jobs, too. So how do you pick your subjects to draw?

I like to draw people who seem deep in thought, because they are the least likely to notice me drawing them, and because there is an implied narrative in their face. What are they thinking about? The possibilities make the drawings interesting to me