Make a Sketch Before You Paint

Sketching in the Rough

Use a broad-tipped pen to make free, gestural strokes that simplify and deconstruct a scene before you paint it.

By Art Mortimer

Azusa Drive-In (acrylic, 15×30)

Azusa Drive-In sketch

Sketching is a tool I use to get me where I want to go. For my paintings I look for dramatic or interesting subjects and compositions. I use sketches to work out the basic structure of the composition and the arrangement of lights and darks. When I’m sketching, I think about the scene I’m looking at and the painting I’m going to create. I consider how I can express my feelings and appreciation of the scene in front of me through my composition and communicate that to the viewer.

Experiment With Thumbnails

I usually sketch when I’m on location, standing in front of my easel and trying to decide just how I’m going to set down what I see in front of me. We spend our lives experiencing the world in three dimensions, but in order to be able to communicate effectively in a representational painting, we have to express ourselves in two dimensions. So doing small, thumbnail sketches is a way I can quickly try out various compositions to help me decide how to proceed.

Use Simple Tools

I prefer to sketch with a black Pentel sign pen on plain bond sketchbook paper—nothing fancy. The most important factor in a good composition is the basic arrangement of lights and darks, and working with a relatively wide, black marker limits me to either solid black or solid white, with a little cross-hatching for gray areas. The sign pen is water-based, so it’s easier to draw with (it doesn’t soak into the paper very much).

Palisades Coast (acylic, 15×30)

Simplify the Scene

Sketching a scene before painting it helps me distill it to its essence and then figure out how to communicate that essence in my painting. Working with a black marker, I’m forced to simplify my composition in my mind in order to express it in a small sketch. I must look for the fundamental building blocks of the composition—the light and dark areas—and see how they can work in my painting. I can then put the scene back together in a way that creates an interesting and meaningful experience for the viewer. I’ve learned so much about how we experience the world by having to simplify and deconstruct it for my work.

Don’t Make It Beautiful

I deliberately do not try to do a beautiful sketch. The sketch is a tool to help me work out my composition, and I find that if I get caught up in trying to do a “good” sketch, I lose sight of my goal. I also lose the spontaneity and fluid strokes that are so important to help me express what I’m experiencing.

PCH Curve (oil, 12×16)

PCH Curve sketch

Use Free, Gestural Strokes

Working with fairly crude tools on small sketches makes it essential to express as much as possible with as little as possible. Then I can see what works and what doesn’t work on the most basic compositional level. This opens the door for free, gestural strokes; a willingness to let simple lines and shapes express a lot; and practice at letting accidents happen and using them to one’s advantage. There’s no going back when sketching with a black marker.

I feel blessed to be able to do this work—to paint, to draw, to experience the world through an artist’s life and eyes. I feel the glory and beauty of the world we live in, no matter where I am and what I’m going to paint. Doing a sketch of a scene I’m going to paint helps me feel connected to it—and become a part of it. And sketching the scene makes me feel more confident in the adventure I’m about to embark on—my painting.

California Incline (acrylic, 18×36)

The artist’s first, rejected sketch of the scene

His final sketch with a better composition


Considered an originator of the contemporary mural movement in Los Angeles, Art Mortimer gave up his commercial art business in 1988 to focus on murals, paintings and drawings. His hometown of Long Beach, California, where he completed a 300-foot-long historical mural of the city, honored him as Artist of the Year in 2004.

This article is adapted from the book Sketchbook Confidential, edited by Pamela Wissman and Stefanie Laufersweiler, © 2010 by North Light Books, an imprint of F+W Media Inc. Visit your local bookseller, call 800/258-0929 or visit www.northlightshop.com to obtain a copy.


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