Sketching Ideas: Draw, Doodle and Dream

Draw, Doodle and Dream

Use your sketchbook to expand your understanding of the structures in the world around you. (A sketching lesson excerpted from Your Artist’s Brain)

By Carl Purcell

The kinds of drawings you do in your sketchbook will vary depending on your reasons for rendering them. I’d like to explore the sketchbook as a tool and inspire you to use it more and more as a vital part in the way you create art.

Use your sketchbook in whatever manner serves your needs. The drawings in it need never be seen, so you can finish them to whatever degree suits you. You can write in your sketchbook, try new materials or subject matter, even doodle or dream. The sketchbook is your private world.

You may find, as I do, that a particular form is too hard to understand and cannot be drawn in the way you want. Instead, use drawing to gain understanding. Probe beyond what the eye can see to the inner structure of a form. The insights you gain will become a permanent part of your understanding—something that will be evident in the next drawing of a similar subject. The following are a few of the ways I use my sketchbook to help me understand the forms of my subjects more fully.


Sketching tips | Carl Purcell,
1. Discover the structure
I did this little sketch (below) to help myself understand the structure of a boat in order to draw one with authority. If I follow the top edge of the hull all the way around, it forms a figure eight. The stem and stern are located at the highest points near the ends. Lines that follow the curve of the hull, although not actually evident on the surface, are part of the ribbing inside and help me feel the bulge of the hull. Drawing thus becomes an extension of my eyes. I try to draw what I would feel if I ran my hand over a surface.


Sketching tips | Carl Purcell,
2. Let your lines grow
Try drawing a tree without using outlines or contours, as I did in the sketch (at bottom). Respond to the upward-reaching gesture with lines that follow the growth pattern. Move outward to the tangle of little branches using a tangle of little lines.


Sketching tips | Carl Purcell,
3. Draw the movement
Do a drawing from the inside out—from the skeletal structure outward to the edges. You will find that you capture the gesture and the movement better. I did this drawing (below) to feel the action of riding a bicycle. A detail-centered, edge-
conscious drawing would not give me that feeling. This drawing is not for show-and-tell. It’s for my eyes only.


Sketching tips | Carl Purcell,
4. Let your lines tumble
Nature responds to the forces of gravity and erosion. I wanted to do the same with this sketch (at
bottom). Each line was drawn as if it were a small rock falling off the top ledge, leaving a line to trace its descent. The lines are a record of my attempts to feel the rock bouncing off successive ledges until it reached the talus slope where it rolled to an eventual horizontal plane. This is not a copy of a particular mountain. It’s a response to the rhythm of the forms—to the forces that shape these kinds of mountains.


Sketching tips | Carl Purcell,
5. Draw what you discover
Even if I never include this old window and cable drum (at right) in a painting, I now know how these drums are constructed, and have a feeling for light passing through a window and creating shapes of light on interior forms. You can’t learn such things by taking a photo. How many times have you seen some small thing—a pile of rocks, a twig, a figure carrying a package, the sun hitting the edge of some form—and thought, I wish I had my camera or sketchbook with me! Save these precious little moments of discovery in your own personal, brief visual notes.

Use your camera to record fleeting images or intricate details, but if you want to understand what you see, draw it. You will put that understanding into your stew of visual knowledge, and everything drawn makes the stew richer. Using only your camera is like having the seasonings but never putting them in the pot.

Sketching tips
  • Create the sketchbook habit. Your camera cannot record how you feel about a subject.
  • Use your sketchbook to expand your knowledge and understanding of things around you.
  • Your visual mind is like a savory stew. Drawing is the only way to add ingredients.
  • The camera records too much. Your sketch records only what is important to you.
  • Know your intent. What do you want to gain from this drawing? What do you want to say with the drawing?
  • Picture the subject as a drawing—then draw!

Carl Purcell has taught painting and drawing at Snow College in central Utah for 30 years and serves as department chairman there. A popular workshop instructor and signature member of the National Watercolor Society, he’s received numerous awards for his watercolors. Learn more at

This article is excerpted from Your Artist’s Brain © 2007 by Carl Purcell.


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