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Just Try It: Pushing a Drawing Beyond Finished

April 13, 2018
Brush pen and watercolor sketch made from a Sktchy muse—a young woman wearing a fake beard. (I like to draw beards, what can I say.) The finished page has a Montana Acrylic Marker background applied after the sketch was finished.

How do we make decisions, fast decisions, when sketching out in the field? By making decisions during practice, and comparing results.

Some people can hold two versions of a piece in their mind and weigh what the future work will look like. 

For artists just starting out there might seem to be too many possibilities. 

I suggest that you keep photos of your pieces in stages, so that when you are finished you can look over all the stages of a piece and see where you made it, lost the plot, or needed to go in a totally different direction.

In this way you’ll be able to train your editing eye to make fast decisions on the spot.

There is no substitute for iterations—for practice, practice, practice. But sometimes you can aid your progress. You don’t need to rely on your memory which may be faulty. You will have a record you can consult.

Remember, you’re going to break a lot of sketches before you get a sense of where you want to stop. If you don’t push, you’ll never reach the exact point where you wanted to be. And you won’t recognize it the next time you are out sketching and either don’t push to it or past it.

Stop thinking about breaking sketches as a bad thing. It’s the best thing you can do.

I’ve used a simple example today, but this works if you are wondering if your contrast isn’t strong enough in an image, or if a portion of the whole doesn’t integrate with the colors of the rest of the image. For anything.

Suggestions on How to Proceed

Taking Photos of Your Stages

You can of course set up a camera to take a video of your entire process, but then, especially if you’re a slow painter (nothing wrong with that, we’re just dealing with time here) that means you have to watch the whole process to see the major points.

Here is the sketch before the background was added. I really like it with the white background. But part of me thought that was too bare. I took a photo and then added the background. Then I could compare them side to side—making future decisions faster.

I recommend instead that you have a camera standing by when you paint. Then when you get to a point where you are making a “major” decision about color or line or pattern or whatever, you can snap a quick photo. 

Either shoot directly down at your flat piece or straight on your vertical hung piece, to avoid distortion.

You will begin to discover when your decision points fall in your painting process. At first you might take a photo of the finished line work, then each layer of paint as it gives value, or a color choice is made.

Over time you might find that you take a photo only after the line work and just before you need to decide about contrast issues. You may find that taking photos of stages is something you only do once a month while working in the studio on a particular project. You may find that you do it in the field just before painting because you know you’re going to be rushed with the painting and you want to slow down and make a decision about the painting (e.g., going with monochromatic instead of full color so you can get rich values without the time needed for color decisions, color harmony, and color values).

I started taking stage photos every so often when I paint because I wanted to show students my work in stages.

Even when they watch me do a demo, they often comment that it looks too fast or simple to them. And is therefore confusing to them.

If I have shots of stages I can explain to them what was going through my head at each stage. I can point out alternatives paths I might have taken at different points in the process—paths which just might be the way they want or need to go for their vision. Because the later parts of the finished painting are not in the image yet, students don’t have to mentally subtract those pieces from the final piece to understand what I’m talking about. They can actually see the alternate path that is available.

Just the other day I took photos for that purpose. I was surprised when I was writing up the tutorial that I misremembered the order of my steps! It’s rare that I do that, but it was funny to experience that surprise when I looked at the photos (which of course are in the order in which they were taken, and time stamped).

Taking Scans of Your Stages

If you are working in your studio or home of course you can take a moment to scan the stages instead of photograph them. I think sometimes scanning is faster because the scanner is set up and I’ve got ways to immediately even out the lighting to match the original. When I shoot photographs I don’t typically take time to set up lights. The resultant images need more massaging before they can be compared as apples to apples to a final scan.

Another advantage of scanning is evident in an image like that in today’s post. If you are considering a large area of color you can take it into a photo-editing software like Photoshop, select the large space with the click of a tool, and then fill it with color with only a couple more button clicks. 

You can even cycle through color choices. (I recommend people make some parameters for their choices before they start doing this or they could lose a whole day cycling through options!)

Other Benefits of This Approach

Whichever way you go, having “hard copy” of the early stages to compare with the final piece will help you to train your Fresh Eye and your Editing Eye.

The Fresh Eye is that eye you first look at your work with after having taken a break from looking at that work. Sometimes looking away for only a minute and then looking back at your sketch will show you immediately what’s off. Other times you might set a painting aside for a week and come back to it. In those first 30 seconds of looking anew at your work all sorts of things will jump out at you.

At first if you’re just beginning your sketching life you won’t have names for what is jumping out, you’ll just notice that there is something wrong with the eye, or things are not defined enough at the nose. Later as you learn more you’ll immediately see that the negative space is off at the nose and the contrast at the eye is too weak—you need darker values to contrast with the lighter values—and 1000 other things.

Those things that first jump out at you are the things you need to fix as they will irritate other viewers.

Over time you’ll notice more and more things and be able to fix them, and actually fix them before you use your Fresh Eye—which means you can go on and fix the next 1000 items.

It will become a fun process. Really. It’s exciting.

The Editing Eye is that part of your artist mind that tells you what you specifically need to do to fix something. It is a critical look at your work when it’s “finished.” 

It is “critical” not in a general way like your internal critic might be—because he can simply say to you, “it sucks.”

Your Editing Eye is interested in helping you make something better. He isn’t invested in shutting you down.

Your Editing Eye will always give you SPECIFICS that you can implement to fix what you’ve found is off.

As you grow as an artist and understand the various aspects of drawing and painting better, your Editing Eye will have more and more suggestions for you. For example, as you learn more and more about color theory your Editing Eye will be able to tell you where your color choices aren’t harmonious and how to change them with specific colors, neutralization, beefing up analogous colors, or countless other approaches. It makes your painting life so much easier to be friends with your Editing Eye.

But remember, the Editing Eye will only ever give you specifics! If there is general negativity about the piece coming your way—that’s your internal critic and you need to shut that shit down. It serves no purpose.

Avoid this Pitfall

For some people who have particularly strong internal critics, keeping records of the stages of your work can be particularly gruesome. They might experience an even greater push back from their internal critic whenever they try to paint. Remind yourself that creation is messy and early stages of a sketch or painting might not look like much.

Alternately keeping records might become the be all and end all of an artist’s practice when he has a strong internal critic. And as such record keeping elongates and disrupts the creative process, thus reducing output and minimizing the overall development of skills. 

If you feel either of those tendencies rising in yourself talk yourself back to what drawing practice is about—finding decision points where you can make better choices.

You are not keeping these sorts of records to keep a record of how awful the process looks and how you suck at it. (Remember I just wrote—creation is messy. A piece often looks very mess until suddenly it doesn’t).

You are not keeping records to add the burden of organization, file naming, and any of a dozen other organizational efforts to your creative process, either. It’s important that you paint, not that you organize and keep records.

You may have to remind yourself of your intention and your goals in order to shut that internal critic up.







    • Patricia Klein
    • April 13, 2018

    Signed up for both drawing from real life and your mentoring program but haven’t received a confirmation from you yet.
    Did you get my payments?

    1. Reply

      Patricia, Yes, you are in both classes (you only needed to sign up for ONE, the mentor edition includes the other class, so you’ll get a private note from me about refunds). You should have received a note when you signed up on 4/9. I’ll send them manually. Look forward to working with you.

    2. Reply

      Patricia, I have tried to send you an email privately to let you know how we can proceed with your refund but there seems to be some problem with your email account.

      I have cut and pasted the exact email you used to register in class and I received “Address not found, your message wasn’t delivered because the address couldn’t be found, or is unable to receive mail.”

      I’m sure this is why you didn’t get automatic mail from class.

      I’m hoping that you see this as I don’t have another way to contact you.

      If you see this, go to the top of the page and at the bottom of the navigation menu there is a “CONTACT ROZ” heading. Click on that and send me an email to let me know which email address I can use to contact you with.


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