Sketching is the art of quick, spontaneous drawing.
A practice going back hundreds - or even thousands - of years, sketching is used by artists, designers, inventors, architects and engineers to capture something quickly on paper.
Some people sketch what they see in front of them, trying to take down an image of a beautiful scene or object. Others sketch ideas that come into their heads, committing them to paper before they forget them.
Some sketches are used as the basis for artworks or inventions, while others never leave the sketchbook.
Whatever your reason for sketching, there’s always room to improve. Luckily, ‘sketchbookers’ throughout history have built up a treasure-trove of experience in techniques and tricks.
We’ve gone to look for the best advice on sketching from history’s best sketchers themselves.
1. Make the sketchbook your friend
Drawing in a sketchbook...teaches first to look, and then to observe and finally perhaps to discover… and it is then that inspiration might come. - Le Corbusier
All drawing takes practice. But since sketching is so much about capturing things on the spur of the moment, sketching only when you’ve already planned to is not enough to truly practice. To practise sketching, one must practise sketching spontaneously, and for this one must always have a sketchbook close to hand.
Countless great artists have carried a sketchbook with them wherever they went. Pablo Picasso used his sketchbook to continually practice his technique. His notebooks are full of draft drawings for some of his great works, as well as copies of paintings he liked or simply sketches of the view from his studio.
Filmmaker Guillermo del Toro uses his notebook to detail ideas for his films, his writing interspersed with illustrations of weird and wonderful fantasy characters, captured whenever the idea for them came into his mind. Other artists also use their sketchbooks for noting down fleeting ideas for their later use; British ceramic artist Grayson Perry describes his notebook as “an archive of daft notions that later become art”.
The sketchbooks of the most famous sketcher of all, Leonardo da Vinci, are full of everything from anatomical drawings to cartoons to diagrams for inventions of machinery.
One thing is common to all these sketchbooks. Compared with the artist’s finished work, which might appear highly detailed and polished in a gallery or on a cinema screen, drawings in sketchbooks are rough, ready and spontaneous. And thanks to their creators’ habits of carrying their sketchbook constantly in their pocket, these drawings were able to be created at a moment’s notice.
Sketchbook of William Trost Richards, in public domain
Pick up a sketchbook in your local art shop, and let it become your new best friend. Whenever you see something of interest, take the time to scribble down a quick sketch. It doesn’t need to be perfect, and you don't need to be at a drafting table whenever you sketch.
Get into the habit and soon enough you’ll start to see the world through the eyes of a sketchbooker. Artist John Ruskin wrote that people who routinely sketch the world around them start to see it differently:
‘’Let two persons go out for a walk; the one a good sketcher, the other having no taste of the kind. Let them go down a green lane...The one will see a lane and trees...But what will the sketcher see? His eye is accustomed to search into the cause of beauty, and penetrate the minutest parts of loveliness.” - John Ruskin
The bottom line:
Get a pocket sketchbook and carry it with you wherever you go. Sketching spontaneously, when you get a great idea or see an interesting scene.
2. Learn proper holding technique
The first secret to good sketching might seem an obvious one - it’s all to do with how you hold your pencil.
Incorrect holding technique is a common error with beginners. The way most people learn to work with a pen or pencil is through writing. This means that we learn positions and muscle movements from writing and use them when we sketch, even though this may not be the best method for drawing.
The most important thing to learn is that different ways of holding the pencil can be used for different purposes.
Australian artist Helen South identifies four different ways to hold a pencil for sketching;
1) The ‘basic tripod; grip, which is similar to writing, with the hand resting on the paper and is used for intricate details
2) The ‘extended’ tripod grip, in which the hand is raised off the paper, and allows big, free lines to be created with very small movements
3) The ‘overhand grip’, which allows the pencil to be used at an angle for shading,
4) the ‘underhand grip’ which gives a loose, free movement of the hand.
Designer and illustrator Paul Tysall recommends using the ‘overhand’ grip to create dynamic lines of varying widths by twisting the wrist slightly as you draw, exposing different parts of the pen to the paper.
For more technical, precise drawing like architectural sketching, the key is getting your lines as straight and as accurate as possible. Architect Bob Borson recommends a curious trick for beginner skechers - try not to move your wrist, or even your elbow, but sketch with your entire arm, moving it from the shoulder.
This removes the ‘’wobble’’ created by small movements of the wrist and elbow.
The bottom line:
Learn different techniques of holding your tool and learn what types of sketching they are good for. Practice your precision by drawing from the shoulder, not the wrist.
3. Don’t be afraid of the eraser
Many novice sketchers envy those who can create an image effortlessly without making a correction, and see their own drawings full of eraser marks as a sign of failure.
But as English painter Stephen Farthing RA explains, even the experts need to erase. In his Oxford video lecture series he points out a drawing of a leaf by John Ruskin, perhaps the most talented sketcher of nature in history. If you look closely at the drawing, you can see that Ruskin has continually erased and redrawn the lines, making dozens of tiny corrections.
“This is the essence of modern drawing,” Farthing explains “Making marks, correcting them, and remaking marks.”
Keeping an eraser continually to hand and learning how and when to use it will give you practice in this process. It will also make you a more confident sketcher. Rather than carefully trying to get the ‘perfect’ line, you can take risks and draw without over-thinking, knowing you can erase it if necessary.
This will lead to sketches with a more lively, less rigid quality, and a more direct, natural connection with the thing being sketched.
The eraser can even be used for artistic effect in itself. Some sketches can be made beautifully by first covering a page in graphite or charcoal, then using the eraser like a pen and taking away highlights, as demonstrated by Disney animator Aaron Blaise in his drawings of creatures.
The bottom line:
All great artists use erasers. Incorporate one into your drawing material and don’t be afraid to use it!
4. Learn to use your tone
‘Tone’ is a general term for the creation of varying lightness, darkness and texture in a drawing. Tone’s main function is to make an image three-dimensional, converting a simple line drawing into something with depth and solidity.
The use of tone that is learned first by most artists is to show how light hits an object. The side of an object nearest a light source (say, the sun) will be lighter than the side that is in darkness, with a gradient in between depending on the sharpness of the shadow.
However, there are many other ways in which tone can be used.
Tone can be used to create a feeling of distance. In his art lectures, Stephen Farthing describes how John Ruskin, in his sketch of a mountain scene, uses darker tones in the closer parts of an image, and lighter in those further away, as in his sketch of the Alps below.
The Aiguille Blaitere John Ruskin (public domain)
The way that tone affects a drawing does not just depend on the darkness of the marks being applied, but how they are applied and in what direction. Different strokes can be used to suggest the ‘feeling’ of different objects in an image.
In his 1900 book The Practice and Science of Drawing, English painter Harold Speed explains how different directions lines can be used in creating tone.
“lines of shading drawn across the forms suggest softness, lines drawn in curves fullness of form, lines drawn down the forms hardness, and lines crossing in all directions so that only a mystery of tone results, atmosphere.” - Harold Speed
Speed also warns against what he calls ‘the scribble’, shading by moving the pencil back and forth rather than in only one direction. This not only looks messy, but leaves a slightly darker patch at the turning point of the scribble.
Your pencil marks can be given an even, smooth tone - good for smooth skin, clouds, or shiny, hard objects - by techniques known as brushing or burnishing (described by pencil artist Diane Wright in her lessons).
Brushing involves rubbing the drawing with a soft cloth or compressed paper, and leads to a soft, ‘smudged’ finish, while burnishing requires rubbing over your sketch with a very hard (3H) pencil and retains more detail.
The bottom line:
There are many techniques of creating tone to give objects in your pictures solidity. Learn careful shading techniques, and how to use tone to show light, depth and texture.
5. Create a ‘Dictionary of Marks’
As you learn the ‘tools of the trade’ in sketching, you may build up a catalogue of different materials (pencil, 3d pen, chalk, graphite, charcoal…) and techniques (stippling, crosshatching, shading, burnishing...).
But how do you remember all these techniques when actually sketching? When whipping out your sketchbook to capture a beautiful scene before it disappears, you might not have the time to stop and debate whether it would look better with a 2B or 3B pencil, or curved or crosshatched shading.
As a solution to this problem, the Ashmolean Museum recommends creating a ‘dictionary of marks’ and keeping it in your sketchbook. Each time you learn a new technique for creating tone, or buy a new type of pencil, mark it down in your ‘dictionary’ and give it a short label.
This way you can quickly refer to your ‘dictionary’ whenever you start to sketch, quickly evaluating which marks would best capture the scene in front of you. This is especially useful for sketching outdoors, where your time may be limited and your judgement might be thrown off outside the comfort of a studio.
The bottom line:
As you build up techniques for line and tone, collect your marks in a ‘dictionary’ that you can use for later reference.
6. Learn to use measurement techniques
Though often sketching is spontaneous and, well, ‘sketchy’, sometimes we sketch because we want to capture an object very precisely. In this case, even professional artists don’t always rely on their minds and hands alone, and have developed methods of measuring on the spot.
The earliest sketchers (or ‘draughtsmen’) achieved very precise sketches by using “grid squares”. These are pieces of wood or cardboard in which a drawing-paper-sized hole has been cut, and covered in a grid of string. The artist looks through the hole and sees a grid over their subject, which they copy onto their paper. They can then transfer the image to their paper by lining up the two grids as they draw.
Draughtsman drawing a recumbent woman, Albrecht Durer, public domain
The image above, by Albrecht Dürer, shows an artist using such a grid. In this picture, the artist is also shown with a pointed pole in front of his face. This keeps his eyeline level and makes sure he is looking through the grid from exactly the same angle each time.
This might seem like a rather complicated process. However, there are other ways to capture proportion which don’t require quite so much equipment.
The ‘sight-size’ method (explained here by artist Ben Rathbone) uses a string with a weight hung vertically in front of the object being drawn, creating a line that can be used as a reference in the picture. A ruler or compass is then used to map out the relative sizes of different parts of the image by holding it between the artist and the object, on the same plane as the sheet of drawing paper.
An even simpler method is to measure simply by using the pen or pencil you are drawing with by holding it in front of you face between yourself and your subject, and using it to estimate the relative distances. Vladimir London, a tutor at the The Drawing Academy, recommends using a pencil for measuring distances and angles, and checking whether different focal points on a drawing ‘line up’ correctly.
The bottom line:
To make precise sketching, use one of various tried-and-tested methods (grid, sight-size or pencil) to make sure your proportions are correct.
7. Shake up your medium with toned paper
Most beginner sketchers will start with dark pencil on a white paper, using the pencil to create dark tones and leaving blank space or erasing to create highlights.
A different technique is to sketch by using toned paper. This technique uses paper that has a ‘’mid-tone’’ colour, such as blue or tan, and uses white chalk or pencil to create highlights and charcoal or dark pencil to create shadows.
With this method, the light that hits an object can be drawn in much greater sophistication and detail.
Additional mid-tones can also be used to give the image fullness and depth, as in this sketch by French painter Antoine Watteau.
Antoine Watteau, study of a girl, public domain
You can see how he uses white to highlight the light reflecting on the forehead and cheek of the girl on the left. Black crayon is used to emphasis points of high shadow, such as the inside of fabric folds. A mix of black and white crayon is used on the girl’s hair, and the resulting high-contrast texture creates the effect of shiny, dark hair.
The specific technique he uses, with a dark red as the third pencil, is known as ‘trois crayons’ (‘three pencils’) and was used extensively by famous Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens.
The bottom line:
Use mid-toned paper to make lively sketches with precise shadows.
8. Learn to sketch in ink
Pencil and crayon drawing lend themselves well to sketches which require precise, fine detail. They allow an image to be built up from a bare ‘skeleton’ or ‘scaffolding’ and be slowly fleshed out as more details are added.
But sometimes you might want your sketches to be more lively and dynamic, and create an impression of ‘flow’.
Wooden Dolls by AlexandruPetre, licensed under Creative Commons CC0
Lion by Rembrandt, public domain
Sketching using a brush and ink is perfect for this sort of drawing. According to artist Stephen Farthing, “The point of using a wet surface and a flexible-ended brush is to transfer the energy from your body onto an image on the paper”.
Because it’s difficult to erase, ink-sketching requires bold, somewhat messy strokes - you may need to be brave!
As with pencil-sketching, there are different effects in ink-brush painting which can obtained by varying how the tool is used.
The two main techniques (as explained here by Art Institute of Charlotte lecturer Wil Bosbyshell) are wet- and dry-brushing. Wet brushing is - predictably enough - when the brush is wet with ink, water or a mix of the two. It leaves a strong, smooth stroke which can be lightened by adding water to the liquid mix and darkened by adding ink.
Dry-brushing is when very little ink is used on the brush, and creates a ‘scrappy’, textured stroke that is good for backgrounds and adding depth. In the image of the lion by Rembrandt (above), dry brushing is used to create the lion’s mane, and wet brushing is used to create the lines of his back and legs.
The bottom line:
Learning to sketch with a brush and ink creates dynamic, exciting drawings. Learn how to dilute ink and switch between wet- and dry-brushing.
9. Learn the art of field notes
Remember that sketching isn’t about creating a masterpiece, but about capturing something fleeting, whether in your mind or in the world around you.
Many great artists and inventors have perfected the art of ‘’field notes’’; capturing the essence of the things around them using sketching, colour, notes and diagrams. This allows the maximum amount of information and observation to be obtained from the scene..
The image below was created by John Ruskin as a ‘field sketch’ for his book The Stones of Venice, about the architecture of that Italian city.
On the left he captures the overall form of the building, in the centre some of the architectural details, and right he draws some of the intricate carvings and emblems.
He writes detailed notes to himself about how all these different pieces fit together, and uses a few ink brush strokes to capture the colour of the building without needing to paint a complete picture. He is thus able to capture all the important information about the building and its art in a very short space of time.
These field notes can then be taken home and used as a reference for a more detailed piece of writing or painting.
The Stones of Venice by John Ruskin, in the public domain
The bottom line:
If you’re pressed for time, learn how to make field notes as a way to gather all the information you can from a scene while sketching.
10. Learn how to build up human forms
To the novice sketcher, capturing a complex image on paper may seem daunting. A way to simplify this process is to recognise that complicated objects are made up of simple forms.
Artist Harold Speed recommends first sketching a series of straight lines or ‘’planes’’, showing all the different surfaces which make up an object.
In his sketch of a man, below, you can see how he’s constructed the figure from a set of straight lines, then smoothed them out and brought them to life with tone and shading.
Plate Image by Harold Speed, public domain
Other artists (such as Leonardo Pereznieto) advocate creating human forms by ‘sticking together’ simple shapes, such as ovals and rectangles, and following basic laws of human proportion.
Once this basic skeleton is drawn it can be ‘fleshed out’ into a fully-formed figure and detail, texture and tone can be added.
This method of creating a figure is especially useful when drawing figures which cannot be studied carefully. This includes figures from your imagination, and people in a real-life scene who are moving too fast to be drawn in detail.
Another method for creating a human ‘framework’ when sketching requires a bit more dedication, and a little bit of a stomach for gore. Since the famous anatomical sketches of Leonardo da Vinci, artists have advocated the the study of human anatomy as a way of drawing accurate human figures.
If the positions of bones and muscles in the human body are known, the artist can look for them on their subject when drawing and quickly sketch them in with a light pencil, before ‘building’ flesh onto them from observation.
The diagram below shows how knowledge of the human skull around the eye socket can be used to build up a realistic sketch of an eye.
Diagram VI, Harold Speed, in the public domain
The Bottom Line:
Learn how to build a ‘scaffolding’ for your human figures by identifying planes, building people up from shapes, or studying human anatomy.
11. Make ‘studies’ of difficult subjects
Although every new sketch is to some extent starting afresh, many things you want to sketch may contain common elements. Annoyingly, manly of these common elements are also commonly tricky to draw.
Hair, folds of fabric, foliage, bark, glass, fur, feathers and hands are subjects that pop up time and again in sketching subjects and can be for some sketchers frustratingly difficult each time.
The internet is full of ‘how to draw better’ guides showing techniques for many of these tricky subjects. These might give you a good starting point and get you sketches that look immediately improved. They do not, however, let you develop your own unique sketching styles that meshes well with your taste and the way you see objects.
Luckily, we find again that artists throughout history have found a solution: the study sketch.
Albrecht Durer - Studies of a Pillow, public domain (part of series of six)
A study sketch focuses on a particular object, person, body part - or whatever you’d like to get some practice drawing - and really gets to know it. When doing a study sketch, sketch the object from different angles, in different lights, or - as in this study by Albrecht Durer of a pillow - squashing it into different forms.
Study sketches are a place for experimentation. Try out different line types and toning techniques until you get a drawing method that you are comfortable with and you think looks good.
After this you can draw on the knowledge you’ve built up the next time that tricky object or texture appears in a sketch. You can even keep your study sketches and keep them as reference material for future drawings.
Study sketches are also often performed by artists as ‘trial’ pieces for their final artworks, where they can practice and experiment with compositions and particular features.
The bottom line: If there’s a type of object you find tricky to draw, make study sketches where you draw it from many different angles and lights to find a good technique.
12. Sketch in colour
So far we’ve dealt only with tonal sketches, which denote only lightness, darkness and form. Adding colour to a sketch opens up a whole new world of possibilities. But it is also potentially far more complex.
So complex, indeed, that artist John Ruskin advocated keeping coloured paints away from children until they had already begun to draw and said that “if it merely daubs the paper with shapeless stains, the colour-box may be taken away until it knows better”. Oh dear.
We don’t advocate quite such an extreme view as Mr Ruskin, but it’s worth knowing what you’re getting into before starting to sketch with colour.
The first step is to ask why you want to sketch in colour in the first place. One reason could be that you want to quickly capture the colours in a scene, in the same way that pencil- or ink-sketching quickly captures form, as in the field sketch below by painter J.M.W. Turner.
J.W.M. Turner - Inverary Pier, Loch Fyne: Morning, public domain
Turner’s strokes are messy, but his colours are precise - he has mixed very particular blues, yellows, reds and greys to show how the delicate colour varies across the landscape. The light outline of the buildings and mountain which make up the landscape has been sketched in with light grey paint, but the main purpose of the picture is the colours and their interaction.
The easiest way to paint in the field is to buy a field watercolour kit - watercolours are compact, versatile and can be used at any time with a little water. Practice colour-washing techniques and try to concentrate on the different gradients of colour in an image, rather than its precise form.
Artist Paul Newlands frequently makes field sketches from watercolours that he brings back to serve as inspiration for paintings he makes in the studio. Look over his work for some inspiration on how to do a great watercolour sketch and what to capture in the field.
Another way to work with colour is to build on your line drawings, building them into fully coloured, detailed pictures.
As Stephen Farthing describes “If a line drawing is the skeleton, a colour drawing is the clothed, fleshed out-image.”
He advocates starting from a light pencil sketch, and then slowly working in the colour in layers. First a very light layer should be used to fill in the general base colour of the image, then darker and stronger colours slowly layered on top. At the end, highlights can be added in white paint, and spots of striking, high-contrast colour added without washing or blending.
The technique of adding colour to sketches can be seen in this painting by Scottish artist Arthur Melville, who did most of his work in watercolour.
‘Cockfight’ by Arthur Melville, image in public domain
You can see where the top-left of the archway has been lightly drawn in pencil. The painting has then been covered with diluted washes of brown paint, which build up slowly and get steadily darker. This creates the depth and shadows in the image.
A square of light has been deliberately excluded from the wash (possibly using masking fluid) to create a sharp contrast suggesting a square window at the back of the tunnel.
Over this, coloured paint is layered on, with more watery, indistinct strokes in the background and more precise ones in the foreground, particularly in the figure in orange standing at the front of the composition. Finally, highlights, like the bright green of the hat in the far right of the picture, are added to create striking contrasts.
Note that the picture is still ‘incomplete’ - all the colour is concentrated on the important parts of the composition, while outside it objects (like the green railings at the top of the picture) are only lightly hinted at. This can create a beautiful effect in colour sketching.
The bottom line:
Learn how to make a colour-sketch in the field, and how to layer and mask watercolours to build up colour onto a pencil sketch.
13. Sketch like a designer
Industrial designers sketch in order to invent and explore ideas about real products that do not exist yet, but that might one day soon be designed and manufactured.
A designer’s sketches must be very precise about the size and shape of the forms they create. This style of sketching starts with learning how to draw geometric shapes, like cubes, spheres, cones and cylinders, and fitting them together to create more interesting, complex products.
This precision is required because if the correct shape of a product was forgotten in order to make a drawing ‘look pretty’, it could result in an impossible object that no engineer could actually create.
This means that even if you’re not planning on designing your own appliances, the techniques of industrial design sketching are worth learning because of their precision and attention to geometric form.
Writer’s own work
The clocks in the picture above have been constructed from basic geometric shapes, and layered over with colour to make them pop realistically fromthe page.
Professor of Industrial Design Sketching at TU Delft, Koos Eissen, advocates either drawing objects from life by breaking them down into shapes, or practicing drawing shapes first and ‘productizing’ them with detail and rendering to create imaginary but realistic products.
Industrial design drawing also has its own set of techniques which are quite different from artistic sketching, including sketching with different weights of felt pen, shading with coloured markers, and digitally sketching using a tablet.
Fortunately industrial designers are sharing types, and there are a plethora of instructional videos which can give you a flavour of the wonderful world of design sketching.
The bottom line:
Industrial design sketching is a very different field from artistic sketching, but one which you can learn a lot from about precision and shape.
14. Build a Character
Another specialized field of sketching is that of character design. This is used by illustrators, cartoonists and animators to create unique characters with expression and personality.
Character sketching is less about being accurate or true to life and more about the story and emotions that can be portrayed through the character.
Disney animators Dan Povenmire and Jeff “Swampy” Marsh advise starting character drawing by constantly doodling different types and styles of characters until a design arrives that inspires some kind of emotional connection. After that, this character can be fleshed out further by repeated drawing.
“Build some character that you really know - you know what he would do, what he would say in any given circumstance,” says Povenmire.
An essential part of creating a character is making sure they have been captured completely. This means that even when a character is seen at a different angle, in different clothes or making different gestures, they must still recognisable as the same character.
Artist and illustrator Joumana Medlej recommends making a ‘catalogue’ of features for each of your characters which defines them (one character might have for example, a rounded forehead, upturned nose and high hairline whereas another’s distinguishing features are a long, thin nose and high cheekbones) and practice drawing them from all angles.
Illustrator and animator Gal Shkedi advises using photographic reference material to help create characters. He uses photographs of people he finds interesting, but also finds inspiration from pictures of animals, and even germs and bacteria!
As with all sketching, character design works best if practiced every day. Jeff Marsh describes himself as ‘constantly doodling’ and admits that some of his most successful characters emerged when he was just sketching for the fun of it.
The bottom line:
When sketching characters, try to build sketches with emotional connections, and then explore them until you can draw them consistently and in varied situations.
15. Capture the energy
Measuring out the distance and constructing the exact size of objects in a sketch, or building them up from geometric forms can look realistic, but can also make the sketch look dull and lifeless.
In fact, sometimes the thing a sketcher wants to capture is not a flat image, but movement. The movement of a dynamic scene can be beautiful in itself. How do you sketch the rippling of waves on the surface of water, trees being blown about in the wind, or the bustle of a crowd?
A good way to start is by sketching the ‘flow lines’ of a scene; the lines that show the directions of movement. To help understand ‘flow lines’, Harold Speed shows here how a famous painting (The Birth of Venus by Boticelli) can be broken down into lines of movement.
Illustration by Harold Speed, available in the public domain
The Birth of Venus by Sandro Botticelli, available in the public domain
Here the flow lines do not just act to show things which are literally moving, but they connect moving and non-moving parts of the picture smoothly to give them ‘rhythm’ as a whole. Look at the sheet being held by the woman on the right, which is being blown backwards in the wind. Looking at the flowlines shows how the line of this movement is directly connected to the sweep of the angel’s arm on the left of the picture. This creates an overall harmony of movement in the picture.
Try incorporating flow lines into your own sketches by deliberately sketching moving scenes. Go to a dance show, a sports match, a crowded street or even just look at leaves being blown in the wind outside your window.
Sketch out the flow lines which you think characterise the main movements in the scene and build up a picture of flows. Later you can built the forms and colours into your dynamic sketch.
Practicing flowlines and getting a feel for the rhythm of a picture can also help you with static compositions, identifying how a picture is put together and how flowlines connect all of its parts.
The bottom line:
Learn how to identify ‘flow lines’ to introduce some dynamism into your sketches.