Thursday, March 23, 2017

What is the Purpose of a Sketch?

3/22/17 colored pencil (photo reference)
For our last session in the colored pencil class I’ve been taking at Gage, the focus was on sketching (Yay! Finally!). Well, it wasn’t exactly sketching as I know it because, as usual, we worked from photos. (You should have seen me twitch at the travesty: The temperature was mild, and the sun came out this morning as we sat in the classroom, sketching from photos! What is wrong with this picture!) I half-heartedly produced a few sketches like the one shown here (a scene I’d love to sketch very soon from life – a cherry tree in full bloom at the Seattle Arboretum).

More than the sketching experience itself, I found Suzanne’s lecture today interesting because she talked about the purpose of sketching – from a fine artist’s perspective. Gage Academy is in the business of training people to become fine artists. Most atelier students go on to become professional studio artists, and even many casual students are there because they have an interest in eventually offering their work for sale. So when Suzanne discussed sketching, it was clear that the sole purpose of producing a sketch is as a preliminary step toward eventually creating a finished work. Unlike the type of sketches I make, the fine artist’s “field sketch” (Suzanne’s term) has no purpose if it doesn’t lead to something bigger and (presumably) better. At the end of the sketch, an artist may decide that a scene doesn’t interest her enough to merit a finished painting, or she doesn’t have enough information about the scene to make a painting, so the sketch goes no further. But in any case, the job of the sketch is to help the artist make that decision. It has no life of its own.

To me, that’s very different from the content of the dozens of sketchbooks I’ve filled during the past five years. My sketches did their job just by being made by me. They do have lives of their own in my sketchbooks – by evoking for me, every time I look at them, whatever captured my attention long enough to make me want to sketch.

Despite this major difference in purpose, the steps she takes to make a field sketch are very similar to the basic steps I take for most of my sketches:

 Look for a point of interest: What attracts or excites me about what I see? What do I want the viewer to see?
 Zoom in and out like a camera to find the composition.
 Once I’ve identified the picture I want to make, think about the best ways to express it – with line, shape, color, form, texture?
 Where is the sun? Think about light and shadow and how I can use them to help describe the scene.
 Deliberately emphasize the light and shadow in the sketch to help define the forms.

After Suzanne (and other fine artists) makes a field sketch, she still has to take it, along with photos, back to her studio and hope that it contains enough information to help her make a painting.

Fortunately for me, after I’ve taken those steps, my work is done. 


  1. Tina! I must remember to come to your blog more often. You think .. your share your joy. I also find my field sketching has a very legitimate purpose all by itself. I look through my (field) sketchbooks and the memories come flooding back. A few sketches inspire a more complete work of art, but that is a secondary byproduct. Meanwhile my field sketches capture many of the best moments in my life, I learn, I share, I enjoy, ......

    1. Yup, that's it exactly -- the sketchbook contains all the thoughts, feelings and sensory stimulation that occurred when the sketches were made. Thanks for dropping by, Elva! :-)


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