I’ve spent the weekend sketching (with paint) and it’s really brought home to me the importance of keeping up with regular painting and drawing from life. I think it might have been my last year’s resolution to sketch more, though I didn’t do anywhere near as much as I should to make it a habit. I didn’t really think of it when I was thinking up resolutions this year, but I’m adding it to the list now, as I’ve really felt how much it will benefit me!
I also believe that drawing and painting is like sport, in that you need to practice and train to keep your skills up.

Sketching helps you see better

When you draw and paint, only part of what you’re doing is handling the paintbrush or the pencil. The rest is looking. And you should be looking more than you’re painting or drawing.

Many books say that when you’re learning to draw you’re learning to see, and it sounds a bit pretentious, but it’s so, so true. What you see can differ hugely to what you think you see. I struggled for a long time drawing faces that were tilted. My brain kept making me draw the eyes on a horizontal when the rest of the face was at an angle. I don’t really know why but it took someone else pointing it out to me to show me my mistake.

I was assuming, I wasn’t actually seeing, thinking and processing that I needed to draw a slanted line on which to  position the eyes.
And it’s only by drawing often that you sharpen up the observational skills that will improve the accuracy in your work.

Checking your accuracy

Because your brain can often fool you, there are several ways you can check the accuracy of your drawing that will make it easier to see what you are actually seeing rather than what you think you are seeing(!)

  • Use a mirror to look at your painting and your subject. When the image is reversed it’s much easier to see the differences
  • Take a photo of your reference and your drawing on your smartphone and use a grid app to lay them side by side. It’s much easier to see the differences when you see a side-by-side comparison
  • If you’re working from a photo, turn your sketch and reference upside-down, your assumptions about what you see will disappear and you’ll be able to see discrepancies much more easily

Sketching from life versus sketching from a photo

There’s a place for both, but sketching from life will help your powers of observation far more than working from a photo.

When working from life, your brain has to take the three-dimensional object or scene and process the relative sizes, colours, foreshortening, background colour and translate all of that information into an image on a two-dimensional piece of paper or canvas. It’s a marathon of problem solving, measuring relative sizes, judging tone, judging colour, positioning the subject within the picture in a pleasing composition, the list goes on. It’s exhausting, but extremely satisfying when you get a result you’re happy with, and can be a brilliant way of keeping a visual diary of the world around you that’s very special to look back on.

When working from a photo the image is already translated into two-dimensional form and may have composition already worked out. Moreover, photos lose crucial information about the subject, the colour may not be true, the perspective may be warped, the tonal information is flattened. A picture drawn from life quite often captures far more of the spirit and atmosphere of the subject for this reason.

However, there are times when you can only sketch from a photo as it’s not possible to draw the subject you want to from real life, or because you just really like the image and want to draw it. It will still help your powers of observation, and it will help you gain confidence in your abilities quicker as it’s a less steep learning curve.

Benefits of sketching

Sketching either from life or from a photo will help:

  • Improve your problem solving skills
  • Improve your decision making skills
  • Improve your drawing accuracy
  • Improve your self esteem – the more you draw, the better you will get
  • Give you time and space for you to think, explore and relax without a screen or social media

How to make sketching a habit

The easiest way to make sketching a habit sounds really obvious, but it’s to have your sketchbook and materials to hand in a comfortable spot for working. You need to be able to just pick up your pencil when inspiration strikes rather than finding space, hunting for your materials and getting comfortable.

It’s also worth having a list of subjects or ideas ready to go, as inspiration doesn’t always strike when you’re free.

It only takes 15-20 minutes a day to make a difference..go on, you know you want to!

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