Bill Sawczuk here. I want to talk to you about a subject that is not as dear to many artist’s hearts as it should be… sketching. Sketching is one of the most important tools that an artist has in the pursuit of good work, and yet it seems to be the most under appreciated and unused skill that any artist should have. Why? Speaking with artists tells me that there are, of course, reasons for this.

“I don’t need a sketch to paint.” “Sketching is too time consuming.” “I don’t like pencil work.”

And the real reason, “I don’t wish to spend the time practicing to sketch.”

I’d like to try and answer some of these concerns about sketching. I think that the definition of sketching is unclear to many.

The dictionary describes sketching as a “hasty or un-detailed drawing or painting made as a preliminary study.” This is true, but a sketch can be much more than that definition. A sketch can be a stand alone piece of work that will illustrate the artist’s feelings about what he is trying to say. A sketch may be so descriptive that nothing more need be done. A sketch can also be a beautiful piece of art that often takes many hours to complete. A sketch may be done in any artistic medium: pencil, charcoal, crayon, pen and ink, ink wash, watercolor, oil, clay, etc. If an artist is comfortable in any or all of these mediums, they can be used for sketching.

I have included here some very quick sketches in pencil, Conte crayon, and ink wash of an old, falling down log building here in Jackson, Wyoming. I have also included a finished oil painting of that same building. All of these renderings of the subject tell the same story.

I think that the resistance to pencil work stems from the fact that many artists tend to take a pencil sketch too far. They labor at technique and finish. The feeling of spontaneity and freshness is gone, and an overworked sketch is the result. Look at the sketches that Sorolla did of people sitting in restaurants in New York and Chicago. These were very quickly done, but capture the attitude and character of the people. Many artists that you are familiar with did very descriptive yet simple renderings of buildings world wide in pencil.

A pencil is a handy tool, easily obtained, easily carried, and quick to use (if you practice!). Carry a nice soft pencil and sketch pad with you… no eraser! Using an eraser might cause you to correct too much, thus negating the time saving benefits of the quick sketch. Your subject can be anything, but the purpose should be learning. If you are fortunate to have the opportunity to draw from a model, take advantage of your chance to quick sketch. You will be surprised at how quickly your sketching will improve.

I enjoy using soft vine charcoal and Conte crayon for sketching because I can use the side of either of these to get broad value strokes. Conte and charcoal also lend themselves to very nice finished sketches that stand alone in their artistic quality. Since I am predominantly a pleine air oil painter, I often use oil as my sketching medium to do a quick study on 8-weight museum quality paper board. The major pleine air advantage of this material is its ability to soak in the oil paint which allows you to keep painting on a relatively dry surface. This oil sketch was completed in one hour and it could have been quicker if I hadn’t dipped my brush in my coffee. (I like to keep a cup of coffee around me when I’m working but I have been cured of keeping it on the palette!).

There is very much more to be said about sketching, and all of you will have something to add to this discussion. I have given you some of my thoughts based on my experiences in the field and in the studio. We should all agree on the idea that sketching WILL make a better artist of you, and it will enable you to better express the joy you feel in representing in your work our beautiful, blessed world.

Artist Bill Sawczuk, of Jackson, Wyoming, is known for his paintings of horses, cowboys, wildlife, buildings and landscapes. He describes his work as Impressionistic Realism and is represented by Trio Fine Art.