View Full Version : How much preliminary sketching?

01-13-2010, 04:37 PM
I seldom get a satisfying painting from a well developed sketch. If I try to resolve issues in a value sketch, I get too tight in the final work. I copy my sketch, which is like copying any other work and requires less personal involvement. I think it detracts from the discovery process as I am working through a painting.

Eden Compton had a great idea about a 30 minute warm up painting every day. She wanted to eliminate noodling (?) at the end of the painting. I would like to eliminate preliminary sketching except the rough one that I have in my head. It is fun to begin with masses of color from the start.

If it succeeds for small, practice works, I may try it for a full painting.

How much preliminary sketching do the rest of you use?

Regards, Gary

Deborah Secor
01-13-2010, 05:03 PM
There are as many ways as there are artists painting, I suspect! Find what energizes and adds to the process for you.

I use very little drawing now, but at the beginning of my explorations in pastel I always did a well developed underdrawing. I work on sandpaper, so I used extra soft charcoal to make a quite detailed drawing that resolved all the values, placement of key elements and those 'mystery spots'. That's how I've taught my beginning students for years, as well, and I find it really helps those who take the time to do it. After a while it isn't necessary. Experience teaches a lot about how the medium works, after all, and if you have a strong vision in your head it comes out.

However, making laborious sketches, redrawing everything time and time again, scaling it up to the size of the paper and transferring a detailed drawing just robs me of the enthusiasm to paint. The charcoal underdrawing is so naturally a part of the painting, however, that it doesn't steal time or energy in the same way.

I wrote a WC article several years ago on this process, called "How To See Underlying Shapes In A Painting", (http://www.wetcanvas.com/Articles2/23609/460/) if you're interested.

Interesting topic... I'll be watching to see what folks say.


01-13-2010, 05:28 PM
I find it depends on the subject, if doing a landscape...very little preliminary drawing....if a portrait, just placement of eyes nose mouth, and overall head size, and perhaps the area of highlights,, with a still life...basic line drawing, placement of shadows....but I do most of my drawing lightly with a mid tone coloured pencil - as against graphite or charcoal which can show through or dull colour. If you press too hard maybe the pastel wont stick. If I'm just messing about...none! I just play with colours!

01-13-2010, 05:39 PM
hello. Depends.
If the back of my head says, 'do this, now!', then i go/run, with some confidence of my skill/memory/instincts.
I'm assuming that ms. Compton has in mind the 'blank paper' issue where the work is, in part, a product, (not a bad thing) and requires regular output to answer commitments/personal objectives.
Sketching - there's a thread in Pastel Talk which is exploring that this month.
:) E

01-13-2010, 05:45 PM
I find that I have troubles doing something twice. If I do a nice sketch, I can't recreate it into a nice painting. There seems to be a fundamental difference in my brain between creating and re-creating. So for many years now, I don't do any preliminary sketches, thumbnails, etc.

That being said, I usually work from my own photos, where I have already done quite a bit of composing, cropping, etc. And my working methods - and those of you who have browsed my portrait and figure classroom have seen this - I usually start my paintings with a monochromatic underpainting, which in many ways is my preliminary sketch, as it can be done quickly and changed easily. My figure paintings start with a stick figure - again, quick and easy to change.

Despite my own inability to work from my own sketches, I would definitely recommend that artists do thumbnails or sketches to work out the composition beforehand.


Paula Ford
01-13-2010, 06:04 PM
I normally do preliminary thumbnail sketches to work out composition. When starting my painting, I refer back to the thumbnails often to make sure my elements are where they should be. Just a little sketch on the painting is all I do before jumping in.

01-13-2010, 06:18 PM
I do Notan thumbs, and sometimes a colour sketch, not to mention cropping, pasting, editing etc in PSE before starting. The colour sketch is sketchy indeed, as I simply test colours and get to know the subject. I tend to bring the scribbly looseness to the actual painting. I fuss more if I've not sketched first. When I finish the one I'm currently working on, I just might show my whole process. After all, I love to see how other artists think, so why not share my thinking?

I really don't like doing things twice, at least not immediately after, so the key is to keep the sketch really 'sloppy'. I may do a larger version of a detailed sketch/small painting, but only way later, at least a couple of months.


Edit: What a peculiar feeling, I swore I started typing in Studio, and when hitting 'post' I ended up it Talk. Must have been moved as I was typing.

Adriana Meiss
01-13-2010, 06:56 PM
Hi Gary,
If you keep trying, you'll find a method that will finally work for you.

Years ago, in my eagerness to get going, I used to start paintings right away without any preliminary sketches. The result was lots of paintings that flopped or had composition or value issues.
So, when working from photos, I always do a 1-2 minute, 3"x5" pen sketch . This is a very loose drawing, mostly done to figure out format, focal area, values and what adjustments need to be done. When in doubt, I do 3 different sketches from the same photo. Most times this works well for me. If I do not have a clear idea of values or what colors to use (specially when working from a washed out photo), I use my pastel pencils.
When I'm ready to start on the pastel support, I barely define the lines and main areas but by then, I already have an idea of what I want the painting to look like.

When working on location, I have gotten to the point where all I need is my camera to make decisions on composition, or use and empty 35 mm slide holder. No sketches at all.

01-13-2010, 08:18 PM
I apologize for putting this thread in the wrong category, a knack of mine.

The replies have been interesting and I did enjoy Deborah's link to a presentation on the use of sketches and under painting. I may try thumb nails as several suggested. It should give me a quick look without exhausting the subject in my mind.

Regards, Gary

Phil Bates
01-13-2010, 09:46 PM
Interesting that many of us don't want to sketch or draw something twice. In a video I am producing for Dawn Emerson, she runs into this all the time with her students. However, she believes that breaking through that resistance and drawing subjects over and over is key for significant improvement. Knowing that you can paint something again helps you to resist feeling precious about it, thus helping you be bold, take chances and loosen up.

If you have the mindset that you've only got one shot to get it right, the pressure's on and that can adversely affect the painting.

I think she's right.


01-13-2010, 10:34 PM
...I wrote a WC article several years ago on this process, called "How To See Underlying Shapes In A Painting", (http://www.wetcanvas.com/Articles2/23609/460/) if you're interested.

Interesting topic... I'll be watching to see what folks say.


Deborah, I meant to email you, I found that thread and printed out all of the prelim sketches as well as your lesson. Invaluable stuff! I don't think I've seen an article (class) on shapes that explained it the way you did. Many many thanks for that. I'm using that technique (not as well as you do, but I'm working on it)!

And so yes, I do a fair amount of underdrawing, but that's because I'm (as of yet) very unsure in my drawing skills. I hope to become more confident to where I don't need to do as much.

01-13-2010, 10:53 PM
I do loose sketches under my paintings. I try to remember to do value sketches and preliminary studies but don't often have the patience to do it. When I do though, it tends to improve the painting.

Weirdly though, my painting never comes out anything like the preliminaries. I just get more used to the subject and get ideas about the painting that I then apply to the painting.

I've also sometimes painted the same subject more than once. That can be a lot of fun, it's something cool to explore the variations possible with the same subject in different mediums or on different surfaces in different colors and light.

The better I get at drawing, the less involved my undersketches are and the more of the shading and details I can do in the painting process. It came with experience. I used to have to use a very detailed underdrawing to have a painting come out well, but the classes with Deborah and Charlie that I took last year taught me to think in terms of masses of value and color.

I do notans though, which is different. I have actually used a notan and then painted it according to the notan, but I do those very small with markers and so undetailed that it's not really a drawing in its own right.

It also finally sank in to me what "Studies" are -- doing a smaller painting with a simpler subject to focus just on getting that tree or that apple or something right without having to repeat that over a dozen apples and a metal tea set on a lace tablecloth. So a lot of the paintings I've done lately have been studies.

I'm starting to see how doing them could make it easier for me to compose a large complex still life, the sort of thing I see among the winners in major competitions. They're easier and simpler to finish. They come out as nice paintings in their own right too, just not as complex as the big competition paintings.

01-14-2010, 07:56 AM
Phil, this is a very interesting aspect. Degas expressed the thought many times, and did many repetitions with variations. Monet, who is said to be the first artist ever to paint and show series, obviously painted the same subjects over and over.

What appeals to me in that approach is that it is the same subjects for every painting, but each painting is the solving of a new problem: New colours and combinations of figures (Degas), or different times of day/season/weather/angle of view/crops (Monet). In that way, any subject/object gets a myriad of mysteries it is a challenge to solve. But repeating a painting, basically copy the problem solved in another format, that is boring to me, until I find a *new* problem to solve. That usually takes some months of getting better, and then I hit my forhead, wondering "how could I do that back then, it looks awful". Then it becomes a new problem to solve in a better way.

And to round it out: I think Emerson is right, that it is a very good way. For some of us, if a new problem is added to the same scene, our brains will want to solve it.


(See full quote above)
... Dawn Emerson, ... she believes that breaking through that resistance and drawing subjects over and over is key for significant improvement.


01-14-2010, 12:23 PM
Very interesting subject, since I'm the variety that gets bored with a subject if drawing/painting it more than once. In fact, I'm usually bored with a subject by the time I've finished the painting (if not before. A little ADD anyone?).

I guess ideally, drawing a subject multiple times will allow you to shake free any hesitation you have about it's "exactness" and allows you to be creative about it, as Robert says. Btw, what is a "notan?" Total newbie here...

I admit, Phil has a good point, since when I've been forced (like in a class) to do this, and do many sketches to "trash" before executing a painting, the subsequent painting turns out much freer (read:better).

Alas, I'm more of the just do it, "throw-it-in-a-corner and months later forehead smack" person like Charlie. :lol:

I am trying though, like I mentioned in the previous post, that I'm trying to do Deborah S.'s shapes technique, prior to painting. My problem is, I'm trying to get the thumbnail sketches too perfect (double whammy OCD and ADD). :crying: Now all I need is a little of Charlie's SAD and I'll have hit the trifecta.

01-14-2010, 02:34 PM
hello. i'm thinking further about your concern and my own effort(s).
Well, first thing; let's have a look. People here are open minded and mindful of how they got here.
Myself, i've comes across scenes that say, 'do this!', and put together still life's to try when the spark is not so hot.
Point is: i want to paint. Everthing i do/learn/discover fits in that. There are pieces next to the trash bin, and others with ribbons. i'm not a 'pro', and that's okay. The fact that i AM painting , beyond all the rationale, is a pleasure and a future. And as has been said, 'once you are an artist, you are a student'.
Lot's of discussion/advice here. Bon appetit! :) E

01-14-2010, 04:16 PM
I do small thumbnails,not to copy them but to work out problems.I find if there is a problem somewhere in the thumbnail I'll have a problem somewhere in the painting.I think the more I know about the scene- subject the more loose I can be.I dont labor over them or detail them but if that worked for me I would.Thumbnails are also good to find a pleasing format sometimes leading to a different idea for a piece.Joe.

01-14-2010, 06:44 PM
I don't think sketching means one then has to copy the sketch. Far from it. The process of sketching helps me get in touch with the subject and helps me think about composition how to resolve problem spots (this second item is especially important when plein air painting).

Once I do a 2" thumbnail that I find pleasing (which generally takes 1 to 4 attempts) I put it aside often don't even refer back to it. The sketching is like a warm up, and it is amazing the tidbits I learn about the subject in a 5min sketching session.

I find sketching first allows for painting faster and looser, not the reverse.