Initial Pencil Sketch for a Painting

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How Much Detail Should a Pencil Sketch for a Painting Include?

Photo of Initial Pencil Sketch for a Painting
My initial pencil sketch (left) and my finished painting (right). Photo ©2011 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

As with so many things in painting, there is no right or wrong when it comes to how much detail you put into the initial pencil sketch you do on a canvas. You don't even have to use a pencil; many artists use a thin brush and fluid paint. Put as much or little detail into your initial sketch as you wish. Personally, I think it's ultimately better to do less, to remember that a painting isn't simply a colored-in drawing.

Once you start adding paint to your canvas, you're going to see less and less of your drawing or sketch. Trying to retain your sketch as you paint is a recipe for frustration and stiffness. The initial sketch is a starting point only; a few guidelines for the overall composition which soon disappear under the paint. You don't need it for long as the colors and tones of paint you put does become the guidelines for the next bit of painting.

I typically do a very minimal sketch on the canvas, as the photo shows. I'll have thought about it, visualized it, and probably run my fingers over the canvas as I decide on the final composition. Then I take a pencil and very lightly sketch in the main lines of the composition. I've darkened the pencil in the photo so it shows up more; in real life you can't see the pencil unless you're at arm's length from the canvas.

The sketch done, I then block in the main shapes and colors with paint. This replaces my pencil sketch as the guide for where things are in my composition. For a more detailed an example of this, take a look at this step-by-step demo where I first block in the blue, and then block in the other colors.

In other paintings, if I have a very strong image in my mind of what I want it to be, I may combine blocking in with mixing colors directly on the canvas. There's an example of this on the next page...

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From Pencil Sketch to Paint

From pencil sketch to seascape painting
Left: The blues used in this painting, along with white and a little cadmium red. Center: The initial sketch, and paint applied directly onto the canvas. Right: The finished painting. Photo ©2012 Marion Boddy-Evans. Licensed to About.com, Inc.

The idea for this panting comes from something I've seen almost every day since I moved to the Isle of Skye -- the ferry sailing to the Outer Hebrides, which eventually becomes a distant dot on the sea. As it leaves the harbor on Skye it has to turn to get out of the bay, drawing curves in the water. It was these patterns and movement in the sea I was aiming to capture in this painting.

It also seemed the perfect subject for trying out three blues new to me, modern hues of historical colors: smalt, manganese blue, and azurite (acrylics produced by Golden, Buy Direct). I also had my favorite, Prussian blue, and another one I regularly use for seascapes, cobalt blue.

I started by drawing in the horizon line with a pencil. It's placed higher than the Rule of Thirds line, because I wanted the ferry itself to be closer to this. Note I said "closer", I didn't measure it exactly but judged it by eye, going with what felt right for this painting rather than letting a composition rule override my artistic instinct.

Then I put in some lines for where the dominant pattern in the sea would be and sketched in the shape of the ferry. That done, it was time for the fun part, the painting! As I had a range of different blues I intended to use and wanted them all both mixed and pure in the painting, I squeezed the initial paint straight onto the canvas (see working without a palette for more on this approach). I then dipped a coarse-hair brush into some clean water, and started spreading the paint around.

I focused on covering the canvas with paint, mixing and spreading, relying on where the lighter and darker tones were rather than the individual blues to give the overall feeling of movement. I then put some paint out on my palette, thinning it with some water so it would be suitable for spattering. Controlled chaos, in a way.

If some paint spattered somewhere I didn't want it, or too much, I'd wipe or dab it off with a cloth or spread it out with a brush. I was going to take photos during the development of the painting, for a step-by-step demo, but got so enthralled I forgot! Suffice to say, it's an approach where you have to be prepared to rework, go round after round with the painting, layer on layer, and then suddenly (hopefully) it's where I visualized it being and time to down brushes.