Sketching to Deconstruct a Landscape

Azusa Drive-In (acrylic, 15×30) by Art Mortimer

Azusa Drive-In sketch by Art Mortimer

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.

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.)

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.

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.

Click here to find out about the book Sketchbook Confidential.

Click here to find out about the digital download of the November issue of The Artist’s Magazine.

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.




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