Sketching For Painting

Ever since beginning college level art courses, I’ve been advised by my instructors to always carry a sketch book. I was a graphic design major, but was always taking drawing, sculpture, photography and countless other fine art courses. I’ve tried many times to get in the habit, but it never stuck. When I started painting 15 years ago, I felt the need for a sketch book to try and work out compositions of a scene before I started in on the painting. This time it stuck! I’ve since filled eight sketch books and this has become an essential and enjoyable part of my process in creating a painting.

The sketch book I use is a Moleskine 5 x 8 1/4” with heavy weight paper. (Look for the periwinkle label, 104 pages) I like this one better than all the others I’ve tried. It opens flat without a spiral binding getting in the way, the size is perfect and the paper is a nice, durable weight. Very well made with a sturdy binding. I use a Cretacolor Monolith 4B graphite stick, the soft lead allowing for rich darks and loose, soft marks. And a Leuchtturm 1917 “pen loop” keeps my pencil close at hand.

My sketching routine includes the use of viewfinders which I make out of black illustration board. I have a different viewfinder for every proportion canvas I paint on. I walk around a location looking through my viewfinder until I see a combination of value shapes that looks promising. I then put my viewfinder against a page in my sketchbook, and use the window to draw a box on the page with my pencil. If I’m going to paint on an 8×10” panel, I’ll use a viewfinder with an 8×10” proportion window, thus matching that same proportion in my pencil sketch. It’s important for me to control my composition and I find this strategy very helpful.

When I’m preparing to do a plein air painting, I’m always eager to get started and therefore do a loose, quick sketch for not more than 5 minutes. In the studio, working from photo references, I make a more careful drawing, spending 10 – 12 minutes. A nice pencil drawing is not my goal, so I’m careful to not get too caught up in the drawing, saving my creative, observational, right brain energy for the painting itself.

In the drawing, I’m working out compositional issues as well as trying to see a value pattern. I’m not trying to limit the number of values I work with, because graphite will give you a huge range. My effort is more geared toward establishing the light in a scene, by separating light areas from shadow areas. It also really helps to get me warmed up and engaged with the scene in front of me. No matter how long I stare at something, I don’t really see it ALL until I begin the process of recording my observations.

Every now and then I get a drawing that really captures the light and I’m always amazed that this can be achieved in just a quick pencil sketch. I sometimes do more than one sketch for a scene – experimenting with different compositions – but most of the time it’s just one sketch and then on to the painting. If the sketch turns out nicely, then I’m encouraged and excited to move ahead with painting, and might refer to it briefly trying to keep what it was about the sketch that appealed to me.

Over 15 years, I’ve filled eight sketchbooks and can say with absolute confidence that my drawing and observational skills have improved. I never draw just to draw, it is always a step in the process toward a painting. I don’t consciously work on improving my drawing, it’s just a natural byproduct of constantly being in the mode of translating what’s in front of me into marks on a two dimensional plane. Also, the great thing about doing a drawing first is that it’s ALL you’re doing. That’s it. Once you move on to the painting, numerous other issues and challenges come up such as color, value, brushwork, etc. so it’s very helpful to do this first step and simply DRAW without the other distractions.

The sketchbooks now serve as a chronicle of my life since I started painting. They place paintings in a time specific context and include street names, painting locations, names of people I met while painting, times of day and other random bits of information. They are a great reference to have and a diary of all my painting adventures over the years. I’ve thought about doing larger, more finished drawings. But for now, the sketches in the book are enough.

Upcoming OPA Events

OPA 2018 National Exhibition OPA 2018 National Exhibition
Oil Painters of America’s Twenty-seventh Annual National Exhibition will be held at the Steamboat Art Museum (SAM), Steamboat Springs, Colorado, from June 1 through September 3, 2018. Learn More!
OPA 2016 Summer Online Showcase OPA 2018 Spring Online Showcase
The Spring 2018 Online Showcase is from March 1 - May 15, 2018 and will be open to Associate members only. Learn More!
OPA 2018 Salon Show OPA 2018 Salon Show
OPA's 2018 Salon Show Juried Exhibition is being hosted by Crooked Tree Arts Center, located in Traverse City, Michigan, from June 22 through September 1, 2018. Learn More!