Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Sketching Versus Drawing

Life has been all too hectic lately. But I do have this post on sketching versus drawing ready -- another essay I wrote for The Sketching Forum ( http://sketching.cc/ ). More wanderings in the field soon to come.

A drawing of the cabin where Dale and I honeymooned in northern Wisconsin. Drawn in 1964.

When I joined The Sketching forum I knew I was joining a ‘sketching’ forum. I didn’t bother to differentiate between sketching and drawing. I looked at various postings and figured I belonged. Then the back and forth of ideas got me thinking. What is the difference?

At first it wasn’t clear to me. Where does one draw the line between one and the other? It is rather like fine art and illustration. Often you know which one you are looking at, but there is also a grey area in between.

About two weeks ago, I was going through some of my old journals. Suddenly it dawned on me. I could draw long before I could sketch. In fact I could draw quite well long before I could sketch, partly because I wasn’t even trying to sketch well. Sketching as an art form wasn’t even on my radar. My earliest journals are mostly words, some quick thumbnails that were only intended to remember an event, and some careful drawings.

Oh how I wish I had appreciated the value of sketching all along. I have to admit I was exposed to some sketching in college. Unfortunately the instructor thought we’d learn by working from the same subject arranged differently .... the subject was pieces of a junked car. You can imagine how much that inspired me! He didn’t succeed in telling my why I was drawing pieces of a junked car. I only knew that when I got mad and scribbled crap, he liked it. I had no clue I should have gone looking for a different class. I finished college but never took another art class in college. After college I took a three year correspondence art course and learned a great deal ... about drawing, but not about sketching.

I bumped along for twenty more years. I painted a lot and did some pen and ink illustrating. Had my work accepted in some very nice places, but my ability to sketch hardly grew.

As I mentioned in an earlier post in 1984 I attended a week long workshop taught by Jack Hines, Jessica Zemsky, Veryl Goodnight and Robert Bateman. And I went to the same workshop in 1987. Suddenly I saw sketching as a means to become a better artist -- learning to really see the world and to capture it. I wanted a sketch to say something, to capture the character, and not just be a reminder. I dared to be much bolder. There is a quote in The Art of Robert Bateman, “ A great master once said, ‘In order to learn to draw you have to make two thousand mistakes. Get busy and start making them.’” I think this applies to sketching even more than drawing.

My ability to sketch jumped forward. I’ve long sensed that real growth in my artistic ability tends to be in jumps, not an even path. I jumped. Thumbing through my journals for the next few years show some sketches that sing, some fall flat on their face .... but I was reaching out and trying. My sketches had very little attention to fur, feathers, bark ... Form and light had suddenly become more important. Thinking about a light source is often the key to good form. Successful sketches captured the gesture. Each sketch tended to be of a specific individual, not something generic. Sketches were done quickly. Drawings were done carefully.
A wonderful byproduct of taking sketching seriously is that I incorporated some of my new found knowledge into my drawings. Instead of relying on texture and detail, I began incorporating gesture, form and light along with the texture and detail. This Swainson’t thrush was carefully drawn in pencil, yet has some of the freshness of a sketch.
When I’m sketching I’m usually working quickly. Either my subject is going to move or I don’t want to keep Dale waiting. In the long run I think having to push myself has been good. At first I judged my sketches in terms of how well they were done versus a careful drawing. I now realize they are different art forms. A lovely loose watercolor can be just as great a work of art as the carefully controlled oil painting.

I have a strong sense that sketching comes from somewhere within, sort of zen. When I’m drawing I’m thinking about what I’m doing; but sketching doesn’t give me time for much thought. I’m accessing a skill I’ve slowly developed.

I’m currently enjoying a very different art journey than the one I followed for so many years.


  1. Excellent post - thank you for sharing your thoughts.

  2. I once asked the same question to staff at the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford (England). They chatted amongst themselves and all decided a sketch was a prelude to further work whereas a painting was the finished article.

    I only asked as there were several pieces on display labelled as sketched or drawings /paintings; often with very little to discern the difference.

    1. Hi Bella: Thanks so much for sending your comment. I find it fascinating that opinions on the subject vary so much.

      Over at The Sketching Forum I'm sure the consensus of opinion would be that a sketch has its own purpose in life, not just prelude.

  3. Excellent post and your illustrations bring all you say to light. This is great encouragement to those of us that need it.

  4. Hi Elva: I really have been enjoying your discussion on this subject as it has been in the back of my mind the last couple of months. I have been exhibiting and trying to show my sketches in addition to my more finished paintings, and find that often people like and are more interested in the sketches. I was really surprised when people asked to buy them. So I am starting to see sketching more as an art form created for its own sake. But now I am starting to think that the line between sketching and drawing is more complicated.

    1. HI Kristin: I think there is a middle zone too .... part sketch and part drawing. Now that I've thought about the differences I don't plan to get too hung up on exactly which one I'm doing .... and if I cross from one to another on the same piece, that is O.K. with me. I do think pure sketching tweaks a different part of the brain and is good for us artists.

      I find viewers of my sketches either get excited by them ... or would much rather see detail or a photograph. I'm always fascinated by who really wants to look through my journal and who just takes a quick peek. ... and what really catches the eye of those who look.

    2. Me! Me! I want to look through your journal!! And follow you around like a puppy on some of your trips....and I'd probably be just like a puppy and be constantly in the way and underfoot!

      I love that you've made the distinction between the two and don't mind the crossover, if and when it happens. I think the making of art—be it a sketch, a drawing, a painting, a plein air painting, a studio painting—is what matters. Labels can come later.

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this! Yes, there's definitely food for thought here as I hadn't really made a distinction between a sketch and a drawing, but rather a sketch and a painting.

  5. Hi Elva. I'm greatly enjoying your posts on sketching vs. drawing. I started out my art career thinking sketches were a waste of time and going right to final whenever I could. In the past several years I've been unlearning everything I thought I'd learned about making art and focusing on the sketching. I'm humbled over and over again by how much I have to learn!

    anyone interested in this topic might be inspired by the books of Clare Walker Leslie (http://www.clarewalkerleslie.com/), whose career has been to teach people to sketch in the field. "Nature Drawing" and "Field Sketching" cover drawing then sketching respectively. These books started me on my own journey and I still frequently refer to my dog-eared copies.

    Thanks, again, for writing about this.

    1. Hi Debbie ... Interesting that we both spent our early years concentrating on 'finished work.' Now we both are delighting in sketching, particularly using sketching as a means of appreciating nature.

      I remember when I first found Clare's books and Hannah Hinchman's. It came as a surprise to me that other people were also filling journals with nature sketches. I had never run into anyone else.

  6. There is a lot of food for thought here. I learn a lot coming here.

  7. I chickened out saying what I wanted to say..I would LOVE to see your sketch books in person.. I learn a lot coming here, but I think I do it all just for the pure joy of doing something Artsy..