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The Case for Not Finishing a Sketch

July 28, 2021
Faber Castell Pitt Calligraphy pen and watercolor on discontinued printmaking paper (the Old Folio) in a handbound book. (Nope there’s no color pencil here, just paint used in an opaque and dry-brush fashion.)

I’m the first person to encourage people to finish what they start. In fact I encourage people to push past the point where they think they have finished, because until you “break” a few sketches you don’t really know where that point of finish resides.

But I also wanted to put a word in today for getting over the need to finish sketches.

I’ve seen too many beginning urban sketchers get all stressed and worried that they didn’t finish some sketch of a building. Or students in my live animal sketching classes frustrated that the animal left before they could finish their sketch.

Quick sketches, on-site sketches, sketches from life, studies, these are all modes of sketching which serve a purpose. Typically for them all a sketch is executed in a limited amount of time. It isn’t going to be realistic to think you can bring up a whole piece to a finished point in the limited time you have—unless you work really, really fast. (And the reality is that your speed will improve the more you practice, so work steady and the speed with follow.)

Sometimes, as for studies, only a portion of the subject is what you’re interested in getting down on paper. Perhaps you’re trying to work out a vocabulary for the mixed colors of hair you see on a dog (as in today’s image). Or you want to work out how the light falls on a certain element of the scene before you and how you can capture that on the page.

There are a gazillion reasons to stop a sketch and not feel badly about stopping. Useful, sane reasons, like your tour bus is leaving!

Knowing when you’ve captured what you want to capture on a page is a skill that you also get better at over time.

Why do you think I have pages and pages of journal sketches of chicken eyes from childhood on? Because eyes were the only thing that interested me on that day. The chickens or other birds might come in and out of view and on that day all I wanted was information about the eye.

You get to decide what’s important to get down on that page. You get to decide when to stop.

If you find that there is noisy, internal chatter telling you are not up to snuff because you didn’t finish a sketch—well that’s your internal critic trying to run the show and make you feel so bad you stop sketching.

Be realistic about your time limitations and skill (accuracy and speed) and when you get something down on paper that works, even if it isn’t part of a finished sketch SAVOR that bit. It means you’ll get more down next time. It means that you learned something. 

If on the other hand you find yourself stopping before your time or situation dictates because you “don’t think it’s working,” or “what I’ve got down on the page sucks,” that’s an internal critic issue as well. The antidote for that chatter is to push longer, to push one area to complete finish (perhaps the eyes, the nose, whatever). Stop and make notes to yourself about what you see is off and correctible. That’s using your Editing Eye. The great thing about the editing eye is he won’t tell you things suck. He’ll always give you specifics you can work on to improve, like, “The angle of the head is off,” “the distance between the eyes is too narrow,” “the values aren’t distinct enough to separate the features,” “you need more contrast at the focal point.”

Use the time you have for sketching to its fullest. And when it turns out that you’ve worked as hard as you can in the time allowed, under whatever circumstances you find yourself in, congratulate yourself that you got done as much as you did—and make a plan for doing more next time, or doing other aspects next time, or arranging for more time at the next session. In other words—keep going forward.

Still believe that the need to finish is the only thing that matters?

Go poke about on line and find JMW Turner’s sketchbooks.

Some of his pages have just a whisper of graphite. We can’t know if the light faded, or he needed to walk on for some other reason on one of his solo walking tours. And probably none of us will ever has his visual memory. But what you can see in those sketchbooks is how he is working out what matters to him in composition and focus. He has an intention and sticks to it. He uses the available time.

That’s what we all need to do.

  1. Reply

    Thanks, Roz… excellent reminder. Sometimes I walk away from an exciting thing because I know I won’t have enough time to do a “presentation” drawing, but next time I’ll capture at least a hint!! XO

    1. Reply

      Hope you are filling up your book with lots of hints. Moments of your life!

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