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A Crossroad: Painting a Drawing and Drawing a Painting

When do we go from 'painting a drawing' to 'drawing a painting'? It will undoubtedly be different for everyone. It is a simple play on words, but in actuality, has a deeper meaning.~ Al Kline

Lately, I’ve been focused on improving my drawing. I’ve even ventured into Ink and watercolor drawings. Interestingly, my paintings have also relied heavily on drawing .

I don’t want to say that if you cannot draw, you cannot paint. However, in my experience, with a good foundation in drawing and improving drawing skills, it has added to the experience of painting.

The time spent sketching and drawing cannot be overemphasized. It allows you to study an object or scene and take in all the nuances of a subject. It allows you to capture and see things you will never see in a picture or camera.

A fundamental skill in drawing is crucial to drawing with a brush. In other words, some of the best watercolor work is done by mastering brushwork. Skilled drawing will inevitably lead to skilled painting. Can we become great painters without the mastery of drawing? I don’t think you can separate great brushwork without skilled drawing.

Drawing is crucial. It is the foundation and the initial approach to any given work. When Plein Air painting, drawing or sketching is usually the very first thing I do. I sketch my work to gain insight into composition, tones and overall mood for the work.

Even a preliminary sketch should feel right. Shapes and objects should be in their proper proportions. Perspective should be real. When transposing a sketch to a drawing on watercolor paper, it should already be presentable as a drawing in itself. It should have the fundamental structural backbone of the subject to paint. No amount of paint can be used to cover-up a bad drawing. Good paintings start with good composition and drawing. And good drawings only happen when the proportions, relationships and perspective is accurate.

I find ink drawing is especially fun. It seems to really bring out the contrast of a subject and is an easy way to juxtapose the light and dark areas.

Ink drawing is also somewhat different than pencil drawing or sketching. It forces you to stay loose because there is no erasing the marks! It also forces you to plan and direct your marks carefully.

An ink drawing will highlight contrast more dramatically than pencil drawings.

Usually, when I finish the ink drawing, the watercolor is almost an after -thought. It literally takes just a few minutes to paint a drawing, because most of the drawing is already done.

Urban Sketchers particularly enjoy sketching in both pen and ink and pencil drawings. You can travel light with just a sketchbook, pen/pencils and a small traveling watercolor pallet. It is quick and easy to way to capture images and sketch on location.

I urge every serious watercolor artist to try ink and watercolor. It will improve the overall sense of composition of a work and eliminate the dreaded habit that some artists have of erasing pencil lines on watercolor paper.

Marc Taro Holmes has a great book titled, “The Urban Sketcher: Techniques for Seeing and Drawing on Location.” (Amazon) It is a good introductory book on the joys of Urban Sketching.

Painting an ink drawing can give you a dramatic effect and is lots of fun! This is from my sketchbook. It is my choice of drawing when I’m on location. It takes very little equipment: A sketchbook, pen and traveling watercolor pallet. It is the choice of most Urban Sketchers.

There is a small trap that we can fall into approaching watercolor paintings in this manner. In essence, we begin “painting our drawings” rather than drawing our painting. It’s a play on words, but it has a more important meaning.

Many modern day watercolor artists have an architectural or industrial design background. These include many of the great modern watercolor artists today including Joseph Zbukvic, Iain Stewart, Vladislav Yeliseyev and many others. The foundation of drawing has shaped and influenced these artists in particular

Joseph Zbukvic

The great watercolor master, Joseph Zbukvic mentioned in his recent award acceptance at the Plein Air Convention in San Francisco this year, that many of his first attempts at watercolor was simply painting over his most detailed drawings.

As his paintings have become more atmospheric and loose over the past 40 years, it’s obvious that he relies now more on his signature brush strokes than to adhere rigidly to his pencil work. However, his foundation of drawing has led to this point in his painting career. In other words, without his mastery of sketching and drawing, Mr. Zbukvic would never have attained his level of work. You cannot separate the two.

In many of Zbukvic’s early paintings, he relied on his detailed drawings and painted many of them into stunning watercolor works. Joseph studied at DAKIN UNIVERSITY in Melbourne and graduated in 1974. By the urging of his father, he received a diploma of art and majored in Industrial Design. It was during a chance lesson at the university that he was introduced to watercolor.

In his book Mastering Atmosphere & Mood in Watercolor, Zbukvic mentions that when painting on location, he will often take great care in detailing his drawing. He often will leave some of his darker values such as windows in architectural paintings from his original underlying pencil drawing. Many times, they are not even painted. In essence, the marks become a part of the work, as it should be.

The watercolor works of Joesph Zbukvic have their foundation in his background of Industrial Design. He relies on his understanding of perspective and drawing and the correct proportions. He practices sketching and drawing daily as a concert pianist would practice scales on the piano.

“Complex paintings are usually a two-step watercolor. The sky and the lighter values . . are part of the first wash. The rest of the painting is created by a second wash. Many of the dark values . . are the original pencil lines. I quite often do this when I am painting on location in order to speed things up. Smaller details may be accents of color.” (excerpt from Ch. 9, Making the Final Decisions, p. 116, Mastering Atmosphere & Mood in Watercolor).

It was after years of practice and painting on location did his approach to detailed drawing change. His paintings have gotten significantly looser and do not rely on the intrinsic details of his drawings. However, he continues to sketch daily to maintain and practice these skills. He likens this to a concert pianist practicing scales.

Iain Stewart

The highly detailed watercolor work by Iain Stewart. His paintings rely heavily on drawing skills and his background as an architect. ” To let go of exacting detail is something I have to consider daily in my painting. Here, we must consider exacting details versus expression of painting. I feel that both painting and drawing coexist. The fundamentals of drawing must be sound, but cannot dictate a painting’s outcome. I should suggest a direction and not state it. “

I do not remember a time when I did not draw . . . as I progressed through school and moved into architectural perspective, drawing became more precise and took on a much higher level of understanding. As I began into more experimental painting with watercolor, I found that the old axiom of the illustrator, ‘if it looks right it is right’ to be more fundamentally true.

I always say there are two drawings in each painting. One done with pencil that few people see and the other done with the brush that is visible to all. Understanding that ultimately a brush is a more versatile tool was a huge breakthrough for me. I strive to complete a drawing that pushes me to the right direction and will not distract me from the final painting. The linework is not the end all.

I can adjust my vision during the painting process with the knowledge that a pencil line will not completely dictate my brush strokes. It’s that freedom that has made the most significant shift in my work. Practice is the key to letting go of detail and I believe if you rigidly adhere to the idea that you are painting a drawing, then you have lost sight of the bigger picture. ~ Iain Stewart

Vladislav Yeliseyev

Vladislav Yeliseyev also has a background as an architect and relies on his skills of drawing as a basis for his painting.

At the Moscow Institute of Architecture in Russia, Vladislav Yeliseyev spent hours drawing still life subjects and learning how to draw.

When I graduated from art school, I asked my friends in the art community the best place to continue my education in art. I decided to go study at the Moscow Institute of Architecture. Knowing the importance of drawing, the decision to attend was simple: They will teach you how to draw!

I’m still thankful for this advise and I studied to become an architect along the way. After three years of drawing courses, I now realize how important this background was to my present day painting. I drew so much, that my drawing abilities are now automatic.

A drawing is basically only three things: Composition, proportion and perspective. The most important and most difficult of them is composition.


Many times a watercolor painting was a success thanks to its composition. I always take my time to compose the piece thoroughly using a sketch. At this stage of my painting career, a small sketch helps me both compositionally and to create a value study.

Proportions and Perspective:

Being comfortable with proportion and perspective will afford an effortless look to your final watercolor. You know exactly how much detail to draw on watercolor paper and how much to leave to interpretation.

Putting too much information into a sketch or painting may restrict you from being natural and effortless in watercolor. This in turn gives the appearance of professionalism in the final painting.

Vladislav uses his sketch to determine composition, proportions and value. It is an important part of his process to compose and see a ‘value study’ before painting.

Proper depiction of proportion of objects come in play when we simply want to make things appear similar to reality in our work. Simply drawing a lot will make you a better drawer. That’s because by doing this you train your eyes abilitiy to see proportions correctly.

Knowledge and practice of perspective cannot be overlooked. Perspective mistakes are immediately evident by the public and is especially important in creating realistic works. Most mistakes are felt subconsciously even if the public does not understand the rules of perspective. They just know that something is wrong.

The final painting which is kept loose and mostly true to the sketch in composition and tone.

All these things now are done unconsciously while I work and that process does not interfere with my concentration on the aesthetics of a painting. In short, it means I can concentrate on the task at hand including painting more and seeing the bigger picture.” ~ Vladislav Yeliseyev

Again, without his background in drawing, Vladislav’s paintings would likely not be what they are today. Most artist’s , when they do become accomplished and master drawing, use these skills to paint.

So, when do we go from ‘painting a drawing’ to ‘drawing a painting’? It will undoubtedly be different for everyone. It is a simple play on words, but in actuality, has a deeper meaning.

These examples do show that without proper understanding and mastery of sketching and drawing, the journey would be difficult. How can you tackle a painting and create the vision and aesthetic you are after, if you are struggling with the simple task of drawing?

I know when I first began watercolor painting, I struggled with drawing and I was not satisfied with the results. There is still a learned transition in knowing how to paint in watercolor. You may excel in drawing, but the art of watercolor painting must still be practiced and learned. There is a crossroads, so to speak, when sketching and drawing begin to compliment and add to your final painting.

In conclusion, painting holds its own challenges. However, a good foundation in drawing and understanding proportions, perspective and composition will undoubtedly help.

This is when you know that you are on the correct path. When the mastery of drawing and painting start to compliment one another, the art of drawing will only add to your understanding and vision as an artist.


  1. Al this is a fantastic post. As a watercolorist and an Urban Sketcher, I sometimes struggle blending the two. I definitely spend more time sketching when I feel the watercolors are misbehaving. May I have your permission to direct our readers on Urban Sketchers Kansas City Blog to this blog? Our address is

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Great story and well researched Al, thanks. I gave up pencils, using only brushes in most of my watercolors a few years ago. ( It is a huge challenge, but then there is no switching tools – only watercolors.

    Liked by 2 people

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