Learn from a master of sketching

See through the eyes of an exceptional artist and discover their sketching process in this free chapter of Masters of Sketching!

If you prefer, download this sample as a PDF!

Whether sketching on a napkin or producing an academic drawing, you make thousands of choices throughout the process. The effect that these choices has on your work is normally reduced throughout the sketching process. As you become more invested in a piece of work - both emotionally and in terms of time - there is a tendency to become afraid of making significant changes and ultimately you stop focusing on the big picture. For this reason, it is essential to start by looking at the big picture and think about composition and shape over anything else.


I work digitally so I tend to use Adobe Photoshop when sketching.

Step 01: Thumbnailing

I start by opening a large file (4,000 × 3,000 pixels). I find the larger I work, the more responsive and natural the brushes feel - within the constraints of the hardware. Next, I create thumbnails for composition. This is the single most important part of the whole drawing process. The most beautiful rendering of a boring subject will evoke almost no emotional reaction. However, a genuinely interesting subject scribbled on a sticky note can make people laugh or cry.

Step 02: Thumbnailing continued

I continue the thumbnailing process. I really cannot stress the importance of doing these enough. Think in terms of efficiency: it can take thirty seconds to draw a composition; in five minutes you will have ten options, and in ten minutes you will have twenty. I guarantee you that your first idea will not be the best, or even second best, so keep trying.

Step 03: Blocking

Composition and shape design are very personal, and everyone has an innate appreciation of good composition. Good photography and imagery are pleasing to all audiences. It is never taught, but audiences know a well-composed image when they see it.

I choose my favorite thumbnail of the collection. I rarely do so few, but sometimes I find one I really like early in the process. I start to block in solid shapes to get the perspective and major forms. These major forms and their positions are important for adding details later. They are the foundations of the piece.

Step 04: Rough start

Once the foundations are laid, and the composition has been arranged, most of the work is done. Remember, drawing is not a physical skill; what makes a good sketch interesting is the choices of the artist. How big will this figure be? How should this image make you feel? Often I spend an hour on a drawing and end up with a much messier outcome than this, but it will have a strong composition and that is what sells the drawing. I start to rough out the human character on top of the building blocks.

Step 05: Roughing Out continued

I continue to rough out the "undersketch", adding the outline of the wolf and drawing some background lines to remind me that the figure is the focal point. While drawing I often leave notes for myself as this helps me stay focused; they will not remain in the finished piece. I want to understand wolf anatomy so I do a little research to learn the basic construction of a wolf's head. Beginners tend to research musculature when encountering a new animal, rather than the skeleton. If you can block out the skeletal features accurately then you are more than halfway to a good likeness.

Step 06: Line work begins

Once the rough sketch is complete, I start to think about adding some finished lines. I drop the opacity on the rough layer to around 12%. This is so I can still see it, but not so clearly that it interferes with the neat layer above it. Everything until this stage has been about composition, so I will try not to move things around or add more elements unless it is absolutely necessary. I start with the focal point of the piece, the head of the main character. If you tackle the harder parts first, while your mind is still fresh, then later on you will be able to draw the less demanding elements at leisure.

Step 07: Lighting consideration

It is important to consider lighting early on in the drawing process - will there be a lot of rendering or mostly line work? I have decided to include minimal lighting, with only dark occlusions to show the shadow sections, and almost no halftone. Over-rendering may confuse the clarity of the line work.

Identifying bad habits is equally important to learning as developing good habits. The balls in image 07 show the difference between careful and lazy line work. One has varying darkness and thickness, and suggests light from above. The other is dark all around, and appears unlit.

Step 08: Half-lock

I suggest a general light direction by including a couple of dark occlusion shadows. I also draw a half-lock fold around the knees - this is what happens when you compress one side of a tube (such as a leg or arm). The middle will sink into itself and obscure some of the material. Often people line up the folds alongside each other, when in the real world they actually overlap. Do not be afraid to have folds overlapping and obscuring other sections. It is worth spending time researching and practicing drapery because poorly drawn folds and creases can be the difference between an okay sketch and an excellent one.

Step 09: Arrows

Composition is the key to good image making. I continue the figure and also add a fallen tree branch. I want to add a background element so I ask myself "How can I make this help the focal point and not draw attention away from it?" First, our eyes are drawn to details and so details should therefore be reserved for areas of high interest (focal points). Second, the object can "lead" the eye towards the focal point - adding a simple diagonal draws the eye in towards the center. The character's left leg and the wolf's head also intentionally point in towards the character.

Step 10: Silhouette

After adding more drapery to the figure I start to focus on the wolf. I change the stance to look more defensive and decide it could be protecting something, which suggests aggression from the human figure. Try to think about how you can add narrative to your images. Viewers want stories, not just nicely rendered objects. As you can see, the leg silhouette has been drawn, and that is all you need to make something "read" in your brain as a 3D volume. Always, always, focus on your silhouettes. Five minutes spent refining the outer shape of the objects is worth more than hours of rendering.

Step 11: Detail

Details are just not that important to the strength of an image. I add quite a lot of detail to the wolf's face and fur. Ultimately though, it still reads as the same thing - it is a wolf snarling. It looks a little "prettier" but it is not necessarily more emotionally powerful. The best drawings have a very quick "read" - you understand what they are showing at a glance. If your eyes have to pause to understand what is happening then the details are detracting from the strength of the image. For images with instant read and minimal detail, look no further than cartoons and animations.

Step 12: How dark?

Bold shadows look confident. The only problem is that these near-black cast shadows do not occur in real life. It is rare that you will see a cast shadow that is black because of the presence of ambient light. Occlusion shadows will usually be darker, because this is where ambient light cannot enter.

The black swatch in image 12 demonstrates the value difference: my lines look lighter by comparison, even in the shadows. "Airy" shadows are not only more natural, they also add a more traditional feel, as often it is a struggle to achieve pure black line work with traditional mediums.

Step 13: Fill Layer

I add a white layer behind the figures and then a darker layer behind that. This allows me to check the silhouettes. I ask myself questions such as: "Do they read quickly?" "Is it clear which objects are behind and which are in front?" "Is there an obvious focal point?" I am reasonably happy with these silhouettes, but I notice that the man's right hand does not look natural, so it has to be erased. I always continue to check silhouettes throughout as it helps me to save time in the future.

Step 14: Drop shadow

I am near the end of the drawing now so I add soft drop shadows around my main focal points within the image. This helps to separate these elements and clarify their silhouettes. I add a little more tone below the wolf and the man to suggest a slight shadow on the ground. I do not need to be heavy with this shadow, as the viewer's eyes are extremely sensitive to changes in value between black and white.

Step 15: Material

I now go back to clarify and add variety to the types of material throughout the image. Showing a variety of materials helps to clarify the shapes where objects overlap, and is also more pleasing to the eye. The three tubes in image 15 show how simple it is to suggest different lengths of fur. Rendering hair does not need to be time consuming, and often less is more.

Step 16: The danger of overworking

I could continue drawing but the danger is that I will overwork the sketch and end up destroying any good line quality I have worked hard to achieve. Often the hardest part of a drawing is knowing when to stop. I regularly find myself thinking "I should have stopped twenty minutes ago," and I have now reached that point! When this happens I take a break for an hour or so and come back to the piece with fresh eyes and a new outlook. I can see that I need to erase some of the dirtier marks and redraw them with clearer lines.

Step 17: Final piece

For the final image, I remove the bolder outlines and simplify the line work. This stage can often feel like I am going backwards rather than making progress. However, the opposite is true because I am adding fresh line work back into the drawing and erasing the overworked areas where I sketched without carefully considering the lines. Think back to those balls from image 07 and remember that any form with a bold line the whole way around will cancel out any suggested lighting. With these final few adjustments the piece is finished.

Related links

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Be inspired by these 50 awesome sketch studies

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