The Complete Sketch

Many of my students say they don?t want to draw; they want to paint. But my feeling is that unless their basic sketch is reasonably correct, the finished painting won?t turn out?no matter how adept they are with a brush.


A Range of Strokes: To keep things interesting in your sketches, remember that a line doesn?t have to be straight and unbroken. It can wander a little, have breaks, and vary in value and width of line. A small zigzag in a line can still say ?line? and break the monotony. Value patches may have angled, straight, crosshatched or overlaid patterns. Experiment and see if you can find new or different techniques that can be adapted to the use of a pencil.

Perhaps the reason some artists are turned off by drawing is that there?s only black, shades of gray and the white of the paper. But approached in the right manner, these tones can produce excellent guidelines for color paintings, as well as exciting works of art in their own right. There?s a sense of accomplishment after making a drawing that has a good composition and really says something—it encourages me to pick up a brush and repeat it in color when I return to my studio.

Getting It Down on Paper
The key to sketching on location is making sure you get the information you need. These details will, in turn, help you create a good painting. In a nutshell, a sketch should include the following five elements:

Center of interest: A sketch usually begins somewhere around the focal point, but there?s no rule that says you have to have one center of interest. You can have a divided center of interest, multiple centers with one or two outstanding objects, or you can have what?s known as a wallpaper pattern with scattered focal points all over the page. Whatever you decide, the center of interest is where you?ll have the most detail, as well as the strongest value contrasts. It?s best not to have any center of interest or intricate details near the edge of the composition, because that can lead the viewer?s eye right out of the drawing.

Horizon line: Early on you?ll also want to establish a horizon line or eye level for your sketch. Besides helping with the general composition, this line can also help with perspective.

Depth: To create a sense of three-dimensionality, pay attention to perspective and overlap your shapes. Many books have been written on the subject of perspective because it encompasses so much—linear perspective, vanishing points and aerial perspective, for starters. At the very least, you should know that proper perspective ensures that objects get smaller in size as they recede into the distance.

Overlapping your subjects can also produce a sense of depth. Two or more objects of any size side by side leaves a question of which is closer to the viewer. In the drawing of multiple boxes below, you can tell which one is in front and which is in back because I overlapped them.

Value: Basically, value refers to the light and dark areas in a drawing or painting. Using several different values in your artwork can help your drawings in a variety of ways. First, values in a sketch show the direction of incoming light, and set up the shadow planes and shadow patterns. When adding shadows, be sure their angles agree. For instance, if you sketch the same subject at different times of day, you?ll find your shadow angles won?t be consistent.

Second, value can help emphasize the focal point by making the lightest light area and darkest dark area abut. There may be other light and dark areas, but they won?t touch each other. In the drawing of the house on page 30, for example, the white of the sidewalk abuts the dark shape of the front door, which emphasizes the center of interest.

Finally, changing value on a receding plane helps create a third dimension. Look at the sketch of the box above. The light is coming from above and to the left, so that means the sides of the box closest to the light will be lighter than the sides farther away from the light—although it?s not so simple as to leave each side with a nonvarying value. Notice that on a light plane (the left), the lightest light is closest to you and gets darker as it recedes. On the darker plane (the right), the darkest area is closest to you and it gets lighter in value as it recedes.

Texture: Varying the texture of your subjects will add interest to your art, as well as show dimension. You wouldn?t, after all, want a painting with all smooth surfaces or all rough surfaces. As for adding dimension, a nearby textured surface can be quite detailed. As it goes into the distance, it loses definition and value, and decreases in size.

Finishing It Up
These five elements may be a lot to remember as you?re sketching, but by drawing your subject first, you?ll solve a lot of problems before you start painting. A couple of other things you?ll want to keep in mind as you?re drawing are to slowly build up the composition, rather than finish one small section and then moving on to another section. On the same note, to keep your piece from becoming overdone, build up details slowly or save them until the end to make sure you really need them.

When you?re ready to copy your drawing onto your painting surface, keep the underdrawing simple, without any values and only hints at future details. Remember that you can alter your drawing as you put it on your painting surface, such as changing the direction the light is coming from, or adding and eliminating objects. As you paint, you can continually look back to your sketch.

There are few paintings I?ve done that I didn?t first draw out the composition and pay attention to the center of interest, horizon line, depth, value and texture. Try it and see what it can do for your work.

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