Monday, 27 October 2008

Welcome to the sketching club

This article was first published in "Frequency Magazine" – October 2008.

You should be sketching everyday. I don’t, but I would like to. Sketching has many advantages and will take you a long way in improving your artistic skills.

Sketching is quick: a sketch can take you from a few minutes to half an hour. There is no set-up required and you just close your sketchbook when you are done. Sketching is cheap, portable and flexible. You can experiment; try new subjects or new formats. You also build a visual reference library for future works.

You can sketch almost everywhere: cafés, trains, airports, parks, at the zoo… This is the ideal artistic activity when you are stuck in a queue, waiting, or only have small pockets of time at your disposal.

At the restaurant

The material

At a minimum, you need two things: A piece of paper and a pencil. Pencils are made of a mixture of graphite and china clay. The more graphite, the softer the pencil and the darker the mark will be. Pencils are graded from light (H) to dark (B), with digits to indicate the intensity on this scale (6H is really light, 8B gives the darkest black). HB pencils, being the middle ground, are good for everyday use. For sketching, 3B pencils are ideal with their medium soft texture. I also use a 6B pencil for deep shadows.

With pencils, you will need a sharpener and an eraser. Putty erasers work best. They look like modelling clay and can be shaped with your fingers for precision erasing. Furthermore, they do not create dust like conventional erasers.

Pencils are only one option. You can sketch with graphite sticks; colour pencils (ordinary or water soluble); ballpoint pens; fountain pens (some are manufactured specially for sketching); felt-tip pens; sepia, sanguine pencils and white pastel pencils; a metallic nib and a bottle of Indian ink.

Pencils, charcoal and pastels need to be protected using a light spray from a can of fixative, otherwise they will smudge. If you use felt pens, make sure you buy ones that are lightfast and waterproof when dry.

Finally, you can draw in black and white or add colours using colour pencils or a wash of watercolour.

What paper can you use? It depends on your technique. Buy a sketch pad of medium weight cartridge paper (90lb/150gsm), acid free for good conservation. Chose a sketchbook you love, feel the quality of the paper and make sure it is suitable for your technique. Go for a paper which is strong enough to withstand water and can therefore be used for watercolour washes. Don’t skimp on quality. Your work is important (even your day-to-day sketches) and the last thing you want is a thin yellowing paper that will not stand the test of time and will be hard to work on. If you think it is too expensive, divide the price by the number of pages and you will see that it is not that expensive after all.

6 tips for better sketching

1. Define the overall shapes first, before going down into details.

2. Learn to draw from your shoulder rather than by using your wrist. This way, you can draw lines in one continuous movement. To work this way, you need a larger paper format (at least an A3 paper pad).

3. Don’t rub out ideas or line you traced. It does not matter if you have several lines to define the contour of a person or an object. Imagine that you are carving out the space like a sculptor in order to draw your subject. Working this way will force you to think and only put on paper the marks you want.

4. Learn to quickly capture movement. Animals are difficult to draw because they move most of the time. Unless you catch them resting in a field or in their barn, they will likely move before you finish your drawing. Don’t worry, just stop there and start a new drawing of the same animal on the same page.

5. Try all sorts of formats: from a small notebook to A2 sheets of papers.

6. Experiment with different marks: pure line drawing; hatching; cross hatching; stippling or sweeping marks with the side of a graphite stick.

It takes thirty days to establish a new habit. Buy a nice sketchbook, a selection of pencils and start today on this new drawing venture. I would love to hear about your experience with sketching and what it’s brought to you. So please, visit my blog and leave a comment on your sketching experience.

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