6×6″ – oil on gessobord – $40
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As with a lot of artists, I struggle with the idea of whether I should sketch my ideas before setting brush to canvas. There are plenty of times when I just want to pick up a brush and start slopping paint on the canvas and see where my brush leads me. There are times when this approach can work and there are times when the finished canvas will make great kindling in the fireplace. But, no matter the outcome, the process is going to be fun.
When doing a figurative work, it is obviously desirable to start with a quick sketch. Getting proportions correct and all the parts placed properly is what is going to make a good portrait or figure painting a great piece of art. If these elements are not what they should be, the whole piece is going to suffer in the end. Unless, of course, you’re trying to become the next Picasso. Then you can put body parts wherever you want and in whatever size you want because it really won’t make a difference.
Even when doing a landscape I will do a bit of sketching, usually with either a watered down wash of color or a piece of vine charcoal. I guess I have Jerry Yarnell to thank for that. He and Brenda Harris are quite big on beginning with a sketch directly on your canvas. It is a difference that I noticed between these two and Bob Ross (one of my heroes, by the way). Bob would just start plastering paint wherever he damn well pleased and he made it work. But, he also worked from an image in his mind and that image would change as the painting progressed. But, if you’re going to be painting from a reference photo or on location, this methodology rarely works and there is nothing worse that getting a good ways into your masterpiece and finding out that the elements of this work aren’t going to fit on the canvas.
Now, when I say it’s a good idea to sketch in your ideas before attacking the canvas with a brush I mean sketch, not draw. There is a difference. Sketching a 16×20 canvas shouldn’t take more than a minute, with an extra minute to step back and take a long look at the canvas and making whatever adjustments are necessary. And that is a critical step. Step back and get a good look at the canvas from a distance. It took me awhile to learn this little item. It would be nothing for me to sit down at the easel and not get up for the next two or three hours, never once getting a view of the painting from a distance. And these are some of the most boring paintings I’ve ever done.
If you’re worried that your sketch may show through your transparent glazes, then use charcoal as your sketch medium and after getting the sketch on the canvas, take a fine, soft two inch brush and dry brush the canvas. It will take most of the charcoal off the canvas, but leave just enough for you to see what you are doing.
Sketching will help with your composition also. How many paintings have you seen where it looked like the artist just started painting and put everything they could think of in the painting and didn’t appear to care where they put those items? How many paintings have you seen where the artist appears to have not understood the idea of a focus point and proper placement of that focus point? Sketching is one way to work these bits of the composition puzzle out beforehand.
One contemporary artist that uses sketching quite well is the acrylic painter, Roger Bansemer. Check out some of his videos and you will see how he can take a small piece of wood and sketch out his plein air scene beforehand.
So, if you are finding that your paintings aren’t coming together the way you like, try sketching your ideas on the canvas first and see what happens. You might be surprised with the results.
Keep on sketching and take care.