Sketching for Painting: Is there a Right or a Wrong Way?

Sketching Step 1: Assess the Subject of the Sketch

Sketching Step by Step
Sketching Step by Step.

When you're sketching a scene, is there a right way to be going about it and a wrong way? The answer, simply, is no. A sketch is something you create for yourself, for your own reference and benefit. What you use to create a sketch and what you put into it is up to you entirely. Only you will know, through experience, what you find essential to include in a sketch you intend to use for a painting and what kind of notes you need to make on it (if any).

Take a look at the beach scene below, which lends itself to a very wide, panoramic painting, from the skyscrapers on the left all the way to where the mountain disappears into the sea on the right. The clouds on the horizon are a cold front coming in, a characteristic weather system of the area.

Sketching Step 2: Simplify the Subject of the Sketch

Sketching Step by Step

In this sketch of the left-hand part of the scene with the skyscrapers, you can that the artist isn't intending to have highly detailed skyscrapers in their painting, but has rather recorded the shapes they make. The same for the people walking on the beach, who are reduced to mere hints.

Sketching Step 3: Include Only the Essential Elements of the Scene

Sketching Step by Step

This sketch, of the right-hand part of the scene, has notes to remind the artist about particular things in the scene, such as the thin dark band in the sea on the horizon, the foam on the edge of the waves. Instead of spending time sketching in these finer details, the artist has elected to rather put them into words.

Now take a look at the sketch on the next page (step 4), also of the right-hand part of the same scene, but by a different artist. You'll see that the artist's attention was focused closer in, on the end of the mountains, and at where the mountains meet the sea, with little attention being paid to where the sea meets the sand in the foreground (there's a basic indication of colour and a note "small waves").

Sketching Step 4: Back in the Studio

Sketching Step by Step

In both cases the artists have created a record which could be used on its own or to complement a photograph. Salient features which capture the mood of the scene have been recorded (the particular way the shadows fell across the mountains, the banding in the clouds out to sea). Being in colour, the sketches also serve as a useful aid for comparing your memory or perception of the scene with a photo. Although there has been no attempt to record the scene in detail here, you can use sketches to record something particular which may form a focus in a painting. And lastly, it allows an atmospheric record of the light and weather, which are sometimes lost in a photo.

Sketching is ultimately just part of the process of creating art works. Whether you set out to record particular aspects of a scene, or allow your brush to develop the record as you go (connecting with a more subconscious level of your creativity), you should be able to re-discover what inspired you about the scene in the first place when you're working back in your studio.