Confessions of an Artist 5 – Why Sketch?

It’s been a long time since my last confession, where we talked about the nightmares of storing art incorrectly. Lately, I’ve come to realize a bad habit about myself that I’m desperately trying to break.

I don’t sketch.

By ‘don’t sketch’ I mean, instead of doing thumbnails or studies, I like to hop right onto the canvas and sketch, let the drawing go where it wants to, and then paint away! While this may work for some folks, more often than not, it’s led to the too-late realization of compositional problems, anatomy errors, or dysfunctional color schemes that made me not as satisfied with my work as I wanted to be or should be.

You may ask yourself, why take the time to sketch when you already know what you want to do? Why bother with sketching at all when it’s not guaranteed that you’ll use a sketch for anything? Just go straight to the finish line!

Only recently have I started to do more thumbnail drawings to figure out the best composition for an idea (a practice my college professors always pushed on me and one which I always rebelled against). But I’m not on my own time anymore, I’m on the clock. When my work is for a company, I just can’t let the pencil loose and trust it’s going to be the best it can be. I have more than just myself to satisfy and even then I shouldn’t just let my standards slip when I AM working for myself, either because I’m in a rush or just don’t feel like doing preliminary sketches thanks to the impatient niggling of my muse.

This realization was especially reinforced when I saw Stephanie Pui-Mun Law’s Major Arcana Tarot book, a lovely compilation including her thought processes and the many sketch revisions she did for each card in the Majors suit. I was amazed by the fact she went through so many sketches before arriving at any single figure.

For instance, in the Justice card, she went through multiple figural sketches. In each sketch, she evolved her symbols and improved her composition, from a sword to a feather (for truth), from a classical blindfolded Justice to a figure with blind eyes. Sketching and toying with the concept helped her to arrive at something more profound and dynamic, in the end, than it would have been if she merely sped through the concept. Even then, many of her ‘discarded’ sketches ended up being used for later work, making it even more worth it to play around with sketch ideas because it helped to prompt even more ideas for future artwork.

So while I may get fussy at the idea of not being able to explode into drawing the final composition that’s bursting to get out of my head, sometimes the muse needs to sloow down. Enjoy a nice cup of tea and coax that coy idea out with thumbnails and sweet nothings.

How about yourselves? Do you find it hard to sketch? How do you go about developing your ideas for a concept? My confessional is always open!

“Justice” by Stephanie Pui-Mun Law


  1. Ethelie says:

    My problem is I tend to start inking before Ive finished the entire sketch, because I love inking and am a bit too eager to get started ^^
    I use standard printing paper for sketching and then trace the lines onto a better quality paper using a lightboard (is that what its called?).
    I try to have the sketch done before I go onto tracing but sometimes I dont have enough patience and I end up sketching the last details directly onto what is to be the finished peice.
    It causes problems sometimes, as with composition and new ideas I get while sketching.

  2. Coty says:

    I sketch a lot. When I am drawing for myself I might just erase until I find an image that I do like, but when I am doing it for hire I do (and keep) at least 3 sketches exploring different concepts/elements that I offer for the client to choose from. They not always select the one I think it’s better, but I try to not send something that I feel it won’t work at all.
    Many times I just doodle and then there is one image that I love and I want to bring it to the next level and finish it.

  3. Annie says:

    Ah! Yes, I have a hard time with planning. I get tense and my drawing for the ‘final’ piece always look bad compared to my studies. I imagine the only way to get over that is to do it more lol. You’ve inspired me to work harder on the planning stages 🙂

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