The Power of Sketching in Watercolor

"Every sketch should start with a STORY. What are you trying to convey? " ~Al Kline

I wanted to take a break from painting and share with you some things that I think will help in painting. That is the art of sketching.

Lately, I have taken a break from painting some of my favorite subjects such as boats the water, and focused a little more on landscapes and architecture. I’m doing more plein air now, so I want to improve my skills in this area. Drawing and sketching from photos is good practice, but nothing really compares to sketching out a scene and capturing the tones in real life. Plein air will certainly take your painting skills to a better level!

In general, I now sketch a rather quick rendering of my subject that doesn’t take more than a few minutes. It’s a general sketch to capture shape, proportions, dimension and general composition. A sketch to identify the focal point and finish it off with tones and where the light and darks will be.

For me, a sort of ‘thumbnail sketch’ sets the stage for the drawing and overall composition.

This weekend, I plein air painted in Victoria Texas and found myself painting a significantly complex subject, St. Mary’s Catholic Church and it’s corresponding buildings.

It’s was daunting. I found myself getting into detail right from the get-go. An amateur mistake. I realized that I needed to practice sketching, and sketching a lot!

Plein Air Painting of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Victoria Texas.

Sketching buildings and architectural detail can be complicated and time intensive. The key is to break it down into simple shapes. This is particularly true in plein air painting, where the sketch should be as simple as possible to convey the shape and composition.

In Liz Steel’s book, 5-Minute Sketching Architecture (Super-quick Techniques for Amazing Drawings- Amazon), Liz breaks down the challenge of sketching into some simple techniques.

One of the easiest things to do it to simplify architecture into simple shapes such as square boxes, circles and cylinders . Once the shapes are drawn, the detail can always be added.

Detailing is then entirely up to what you want to convey in your painting’s preliminary drawing. At one point, I found myself wanting to go out and ink pen the architectural details after the first wash. I liked how the tonal values turned out and I actually envisioned this work as a pen and watercolor work. However, not having a pen handy, I stayed true to implying details in the last stages of my painting.

This is how I envisioned my sketch. However, I made a more detailed sketch after painting the original for practice.

This brings up your vision in watercolor and how you want to tell this story. It’s really important when composing and sketching to envision a finished work and what mood you want to convey. Will it be bright and sharp, or soft and hazy. I envisioned this work as bright with sunlight, that may have been perfect for more architectural detail in pen form. It’s just a thought.

Every sketch should start with a STORY. What are you trying to convey? What makes this scene or structure interesting? In architecture, it can simply be the shape of the buildings, both positive and negative or starting with a focal point. Find the story and say more with less by not drawing everything.

When I took a class in Sarasota with Vladislav Yeliseyev, he discussed the importance of sketching, using a tonal thumbnail before painting. His words still reverberates in my mind, “your painting should simply be a sketch.”. In other words, what you convey in your sketch and composition should be the essence of what you paint.

A tonal sketch in Sarasota Florida. If you look closely, you can see the tones Numbered 1-4 to identify values. This is important when planning your work. Not only will the tonal sketch provide a sort of practice before committing the work to watercolor paper, it allows you to compose and plan the painting. This is one of the jewel’s I took away from Vlad’s workshop!

And Vlad always starts his drawings with a focal point and works outwards.

This is important when planning your work. Not only will the tonal sketch provide a sort of practice before committing the work to watercolor paper, it allows you to compose and plan the painting. This is one of the jewel’s I took away from Vlad’s workshop!

Liz Steel also recommends that you start with a focal point that “draws the eye and is integrally connected with the story your are trying to tell”.

When I draw, I try to keep that initial sketch very loose and organic. I don’t worry about where things will start and end on my ‘canvas’ , but rather capture the essence of the drawing and then fit it to paper, ensuring that the composition has a lead-in and reads well.

Consider paper orientation: Vertical (Portrait) for tall structures and horizontal (landscape) for bigger expanses.

Sketching is the number one way to develop that powers of observation. It forces you to look at horizontal , vertical and curves lines and how they intersect.

The final watercolor from the Florida tonal sketch. “Keep the painting like a sketch”. In fact, when Vlad painted this scene, he used his tonal sketch as a reference.

Robert Wade, in his Watercolor Workshop Handbook (Amazon), recommends using a sketchbook. If you don’t want to use a sketchbook, you can simply use paper and a clip board to sketch work. This is what I do in preparation for my watercolor paintings.  I have only recently began to use a sketchbook.  Of course , I’m only 1 year into watercolor painting, but the valuable lessons I will learn from sketching will undoubtedly improve the quality of my work.

If you want to focus more on sketching and overlay watercolor as an afterthought, a sketchbook is also a good way to capture moments, travels and other special moments in book form.

REMEMBER:  What you convey in your sketch and composition should be the essence of what you paint.

Joseph Zbukvic uses his sketchbook to compose scenes and stories that he will sometimes take to the studio for larger, more intensive works. He writes in his book, Mastering Atmosphere & Mood in Watercolor, when planning for a painting: “Composition is how you relate the shapes in your painting in terms of their position, tonal values and color. I urge you to practice your drawing at every opportunity. Specifically, learn to get the all-important relationships between the sizes of the shapes correct.”

Sketches like this from J. Zbukvic convey a story and include some shading for tone.

He takes a very disciplined approach to painting, that starts with identify your subject and how to convey a message. “An accomplished artist can decipher the important bits of information from the subject and turn it into a simple message. Most students want to put down every detail, thinking this will improve the message. All this does is confuse the viewer.”

Zbukvic and other great artists understand the importance of drawing as the foundation to painting. Identifying shapes and their relation to proportion is the most important aspect of a drawing. You are allowed artistic licence in where to place objects and you can bend the rules a bit, but proportions, size and their relations must stay true. For instance, windows and architectural detail must be proportional to the size of a building.

Herman Pekel, in one of his APV videos, discusses using some drawing details and keeping them as the final product of your painting. This can be especially true when drawings windows and some finer detail.

In Zbukvic’s latest video, he stresses the importance of sketching and not trying to complete full works on location or in plein air. The sketch is performed to gather information, tone and composition for a future work or studio piece.

Another thing to take into consideration, is drawing ‘lightly’. When I first began to draw for my watercolor paintings, I drew with a very soft pencil with heavy lines. I erased which can destroy the underlying watercolor paper.

So now, I practice sketch and when transferring my drawing to watercolor paper, I start very lightly and only place darker lines that I plan to keep in my final painting. Some lines actually add to the painting when properly placed.

Again, drawing on location in a sketch book is one of the best ways to capture mood, tone and compose a work.  Do not try and paint the obvious.  The fine art of painting is done way before the brush touches paper.  Sketch, compose and gather information and use this to your advantage when creating art.

So it’s inescapable, a good drawing is really the backbone to a good painting. Any amount paint will not correct or improve a bad composition, poor drawing , poor composition and/or misshapen structures.

Sketching will provide valuable insight into your work and is the quickest way to improve your preliminary drawing in watercolor. Happy sketching!

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