The Blueprint for Your Masterpiece

Would you start building a house without a blue print? Or start off on a long road trip without a map? You can do both, but if you do, you’d best be prepared for some unpleasant surprises!  And if you start to create an image on paper without first creating a sketch, you’re likely to encounter some of the same outcomes.

Drawing, or sketching, is the most valuable tool at any artist’s disposal. A sketch is your master plan. It tells you how to put your idea on paper; it measures your progress; and probably most importantly, it tells you when you’re finished! The more one understands the process of using shapes, form and line to establish a well-designed composition, the easier it will be to apply those principles to the creation of a strong, finished piece of art, regardless of the medium.

Not only am I a believer in never starting a watercolor painting without first creating a sketch, I teach it in all of my workshops. Sketching is a skill that each artist can develop with practice and a little patience. The better you draw, the better you will paint. Sketching in black and white will teach you many things. It will help you develop an appreciation for the use of shapes, how to place them in the near, middle and background of your work. It will help you develop a sense of how light affects the final image and it will save you time and money! It’s cheaper to make a mistake while sketching than it is when you’re putting paint on paper. So, let’s talk a bit about sketching.

Sketching requires the artist to purchase some materials. Paper is one of those items. When I sketch ‘on scene’ I like to use an American Journey Hardbound Journal. The journals are 8.5 x 11 inches which is a great size for sketching and they have a cover which stand up to the rigors of working in the field. 

When sketching indoors or in the workshop environment I will use a #60 vellum paper which can be acquired at most office supply stores.

For pens I like to use Sharpie Twin Tip markers. These afford me the option of making both fine and bold lines, depending on the subject I am sketching. Keep in mind the fact that these markers are indelible... you won’t need an eraser!!  Graphite pencils and erasers only lead to ‘indecision’… the mortal enemy of creativity. Mistakes are cheaper when sketching. If you make one (and you will!) keep it in mind and fix it when you start painting. If the mistake is really that egregious, start a new sketch! Chartpak AD Markers provide the various shades of gray to black that will fill in the values later on. These packs include ten shades, all of which you are not likely to use on any single drawing.

When heading out to sketch, bring your art supplies, some water and an efficient camera. When you find a scene that creates wonder, view it from several perspectives. When you find the angel you like, select an out-of-the-way location and start sketching. Start by drawing contours or large shapes of the scene you’ve elected to draw.  Capture the background, middle ground and foreground of the scene with basic lines and shapes.  Identify a focal point of the work. While the focus will be the point in your final work that captures the attention of the viewer, it doesn’t have to be located in the center of the scene.

When you have completed your basic drawing, take another look at the scene and then take a picture with your camera. The information you remember will help you develop the degree of detail you will eventually insert into the drawing and ultimately the painting.

When you return to your studio, finish the drawing by placing the values on the sketch. The beveled heads of the Chartpak pens will allow you to complete this task quickly. If you’re not sure which value to use, choose the lighter one. You can make that darker later but the reverse process does not work!

Shadows, areas of differing values and level of detail, can be inserted after the basic drawing is complete. Referencing the photo you took of the scene will help you complete the drawing, but when the drawing is complete, ditch the photo! The drawing you just created is the ‘Blue Print” for your next masterpiece.

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