The Freedom of Quick, Loose Sketches for Your Drawing Skills

September 26, 2022
Both page spreads in today’s post were done on the drawing paper in a Hahnemühle Travel Journal with a blue Tombow Fudenosuke Brush Pen.

Over the last 35 years and hundreds of students have confessed to me that they “don’t have time to sketch,” or that they “were physically too ill to sketch.”

I always respond that you can always find time, and even if ill you can get something down on paper that will be useful to you later.

To make this work you need to:

First: Reset your expectations—you might not have time do a finished, composed, detailed sketch. You might also not have the attention and stamina to pull that off because of your health and your current skill level. But you can still get something down on paper if you reset those expectations. Think in terms of simplified sketches, quick line work, notes to detail points you don’t have time to include, points of interest (like the crowns in my first page spread here) which were so fun to see). Gestures, contours, focusing on angles and proportions with notes. All these things can build your observational skills. And if you aren’t feeling 100 percent you can still connect with your journal or sketchbook, and at the end of the day you’ll be glad that you did. In a day that passes with excruciating slowness, the pages will be an accomplishment where you stopped to observe.

Second: Simplify—think broad strokes, single ink color, any tool at hand, main areas of shadow, few details. Allow yourself to work fast so that if it’s almost time to run out the door to pick up the dog at the vet before traffic gets awful, you at least took a moment to make a simple sketch of the light in the kitchen and the time, so you know when to look for that light again. Make a note about the weather too, because that always helps tie you to your time and place.

Simplification allows you not to worry about exactness and keeps you from getting too fussy. But at the same time it allows you to get the impression of something so that you stay in the habit of NOTICING.

Third: Remind yourself that you are observing. It’s the things that you notice and note down, even if you don’t have the time to detail it all to “perfect” finish, that keeps you practice and ready for those moments when you’re healthy and do have more time.

Fourth: If you’re working with portraits don’t worry about likeness—keep going. If you’re willing to let go of likeness when you are doing quick portraits you’ll focus instead on the large shapes of value and shadow that you see in the second page spread in this post. You might not recognize the actor but you’ll find that the next time you try and draw that person you have a better understanding of how their features are formed, where things bend, duck, bulge, etc. In the second page spread today that sketch might not look anything like actor Dev Patel in “The Green Knight” but when I look at it I know exactly how his beard and mustache grow, and that I need to be particularly alert to his nose, the shape, and the tremendous possibilities for lighting it in interesting ways to give volume (i.e., thin lines of light).

Additionally, if you let go of likeness as you work quickly, you’ll find you start noticing the big, often overlooked indicators of likeness such as proportion, gesture, angles…

Why Bother?

Learning to work faster is always great for those times when you’re out and about in public and your models don’t stick around. Practice like this can help you gather information quickly. You’ll learn to make decisions faster, and when drawing at a more considered pace you’ll find that you still make quick and confident decisions.

You’ll silence your internal critic. If your internal critic is always telling you there isn’t enough time or you don’t fell well enough to sketch right now then your i.c. is running the show. Take back your drawing practice. Decide that it is more important for you to keep sketching than to buy into the nonsense your i.c. is telling you. It is more important to note down that “thing” you just saw, whether it was a pair of shoes on someone in the Allergist’s office, or a shaft of light hitting the side of the red pepper you left on the cutting board for dinner. 

Noting these things down will help you break the drawing practice down and see things like angles and proportions; practice those things; and stay primed for when you do have a bit more time and aren’t under the weather.

None of us have perfect days in perpetual strings. All of us have to work in the conditions that we find ourselves. 

And if you need additional encouragement on this path—it’s simply more fun to sketch than to not sketch. I look at these pages and I smile every time. I see all the little things I want to research and look into more. I see all the fun I can have on another day building my visual vocabulary. I see taking action in my life instead of letting myself be acted upon.

It’s important to keep your hand, eye, and brain always talking to each other.

Do Something About this Today 

Walk through the day with your journal or sketchbook or notepad never far from your hand. Stop throughout the day to make visual and written notes about what you are observing.

At the end of the day look over the pages you filled—do you notice additional things by looking over these quickly made pages? What particular times of day when you are more alert? What interests you most—seeing light, seeing detail, seeing…? 

In this way you’ll also learn something about what is important to you visually, and important in your practice. And on those days when you do have more time to draw you can set your expectations to “a finished piece” and get right to work, instead of having to stubble and reconnect your mind, hand, and eyes.

Have fun.

    • Tina Koyama
    • September 26, 2022

    Excellent advice and tips! You probably know that I don’t have a problem maintaining a drawing habit. I sketch every day, and it’s rarely (ever?) a struggle. But here’s a suggestion that might help someone else: Tie your drawing habit to something else you do regularly. I try to take a walk at least 5 days a week. I almost always stop for a few minutes to make a sketch whenever I take a walk. When I’m feeling sluggish about taking a walk (or it’s raining or I’m busy or whatever), the sketch is the carrot on the end of the stick. So the two things motivate each other. Maybe busy people who have to go to appointments or errands all day can take a few minutes to sketch whatever they see from their car after they’ve parked. I think of all those years (decades) I commuted to work by bus… I wasn’t a sketcher back then, but I kick myself retroactively that I could have used that regularly enforced time to sketch!

    1. Reply

      Yep, Tina, I never worry about your drawing practice, I know you’re busy out there sketching away. I do think your suggestion is great for people who are having difficulty drawing daily.

      I encourage my students to carry their journal with them everywhere, even if with just one pen and nothing else. And that allows them to stop in any moment and do a quick sketch, as you mention sketching on your walk.

      I have hundreds of sketches from my Allergist’s office because of all the hours I’ve sat there an waited after having my weekly shots. Lynne Chapman has hundreds of sketches of people on the bus from when she commuted! (Gorgeous moments of time caught.)

      But as you say, it can be a carrot on the end of a stick if used in a walk sort of thing. Other things drawing could be tied to could be as simple as gathering materials together for dinner, and doing a quick sketch of one or two of the times (it doesn’t have to be everything). Once people get away from the sense that everything needs to be perfect or elaborately drawn all sorts of sketching possibilities open up for them. (For several months one year before a Portrait Party I was hosting, I sketched Dick every night before I went to bed. He was in the TV room and he would watch TV [something he really doesn’t do, but he made an exception for me], and I would sketch—it was great because I couldn’t work and work and keep him up [he needs his beauty sleep]. There had to be a limit on it.)

      If people start thinking in realistic terms about small limits and what they can do they’d fill up a lot more sketchbooks, and as time went by, get more and more stuff in each sketch. Here’s hoping!

    • Paul
    • September 29, 2022

    Thanks for this reminder Roz. There is no doubt the more I focus on time consuming detailed “finished” drawings the fewer sketches get done, and my drawing practice becomes more intermittent :o(… It’s time to get back to an Every Day Carry (EDC) pocket sketching kit and start filling more sketchbooks!

    1. Reply

      I think it’s good to have a balance of approaches, driven by specific goals and intentions. I know you’ve been doing a lot of finished work lately so doing some quick stuff might be just the thing…one thing that everyone could do easily is pick a day when they know they have an hour (or more depending on how fast they work) and schedule a long session to work on a finished piece on that day. It’s not like saving up your efforts to do a weekend blow out (which you know I’m very negative about for a host of reasons people have already heard), instead, it’s just an acknowledgement that on a given day you’re going to work with intentions of doing a finished piece and work accordingly, showing up regardless of how everything else is going. (That “keeping-the-appointment” approach.) And as long as you get a little bit of both the daily practice will be more fun and keep moving along. (But I’m not really worked about you on any of these points.)

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