Friday, October 24, 2014

10 Tips for Daily Sketching

Pen and watercolor page of art supplies and ivy leaves
from my current Stillman & Birn Zeta art journal

I've done daily sketching or art for years, been interrupted by events like moving or health crises and then picked it up again many times. So I have some tips on creating and keeping the habit. These are ten things I learned that worked for me:

1. Post your progress online somewhere that others can see it.
2. Paint the subjects you love.
3. Keep going back to favorite subjects over and over.
4. Set out your favorite supplies visibly to inspire you.
5. Use supplies that give fast results if you only have a few minutes.
6. Work small and simple as a default if tired or something interferes.
7. Try gesture sketching, timed gesture sketching or thumbnails.
8. Don't stop if you miss a day or even several. Life Happens.
9. Date and save all your sketches.
10. Display the newest and best to self and others.

1. Posting the goal to a goals thread somewhere online is a public commitment. I use the Goal Post monthly thread on Pastel Talk forum at, an online art community that I'm active in. Everyone posts a monthly goal and then posts progress whenever they do. I put Daily Art or Artish on my monthly goals. Cutting mats or organizing supplies counts. Then when I do the day's art, I post that day's success. I do post more often than most of the participants because of that, but it reminds me to do it. We comment on each others' goals and sum up at the end of the month. I count off how many goals I achieved and some months attain all of them.

This could work anywhere online, especially with a small low resolution image of the day's art. I'm starting to post again to Rob's Daily Painting even if it's a sketch, which I neglected for a year due to sickness. Reviving it, I'm starting to get readers again. If you put the images online, people will comment and say something nice to encourage you. If you use an online community, make sure it's a friendly one where comments are positive. If your Facebook or posting site gets trolled, use a blog or community that's positive and well moderated. It works best if most comments are supportive critique or compliments.

2. Draw what you love. What you sketch most often will become easy. Even if it's a difficult subject, drawing it over and over will give you some fast improvement. Daily sketching of something you really like will result in a level where you like your drawings and from then on it stops being as much of a challenge. I love cats so my default for a number of years has been "draw my cat." It doesn't have to be just one subject. I also do small still life objects, pebbles, dead leaf once in a while, clear glass marbles, anything that looks cool to me. I collect little things that look cool to have something handy and interesting to draw.

Doesn't matter what it is, why you want to draw it or if you can draw it well. Keep doing it and eventually it'll get into your comfort zone when it always look good. If you hate it in the first place, forcing yourself to do it will discourage you from drawing again. I hate doing shoes, toothbrushes, soap bottles, appliances, the sorts of subjects that if I rendered it perfectly it'd look like I drew it for an ad agency to sell the product. Things that make me daydream about being out in the woods are much more likely to make me feel like drawing again. They're almost as serenity inducing as being in the woods. So don't draw what aggravates you. Draw what you wish you could draw so well you'd love to frame the drawing.

My cat Ari and his catnip carrot in pastels, rough sketch

3. Keep doing those favorites over and over. I started doing my cat asleep because he was holding still and I hoped it'd be easy. I was so wrong.. until after a dozen of them it did start to get easy and after five years of this, I'm now something of a cat expert when any animal reference comes up. I do big cats well because I studied my personal hairball producer so much, that surprised me in a good way.

These two are very closely tied. It's hard to make myself draw something I hate over and over enough times to do it well. I never wanted to be able to render a soap bottle invitingly with markers in order to sell an idea to an ad executive, I wanted an art journal full of feathers, stones, water droplets on leaves and twigs and glass bobs that was breathtaking good like the ones I admired. The more I do this, the more this actually happens. The more improvement on my favorite subjects, the faster they get into my comfort zone. 

Sometimes things that are really tough, like clear glass marbles, can turn into a quick and easy "OMG that looks so real" Showstopper that gets a lot of comments when I post it too. So pick things you really want to draw well and then keep trying. Pay more attention to progress than perfection until perfection just jumps off the page and throws it into the "Easy" category.

4. Set out your supplies right in reach and easily visible. I used to keep my Pitt Artist Pens set open and handy next to my computer, now I've got Tombow brush pens nearby. Also pocket watercolor sets, water brush, tin of watercolor pencils, pastels sets. One pastel set has a transparent lid so I can see all the colors in their tempting array. Anything organized by spectrum color tends to be very appealing and make me want to paint and draw in color whether that's colored pencils, either sort of pastels or the pan watercolors set. Keep them clean, organized and tempting so they're both easy to use and draw your attention.

5. Use supplies that give fast good results if you only have a few minutes. I'm disabled and might only have a brief window of feeling good enough to do anything in a day. I miss days because I might not be able to get out of bed. What I do to get around being sick works the same way for people who are just busy. Here are what evolved as my favorite sketch supplies.

I use a lot of different sketch mediums but they fall in two categories. Small, clean and no setup for journals: pen or watercolor pencil, pocket watercolor pan sets, Niji waterbrush, very soft B pencils, brush tip pens like Tombow or Pitt Artist Pens. Pigma Micron pens are great and waterproof, but the watersoluble Stabilo ones let me shade by pulling color out with the waterbrush. 

My other sketch supplies are bold - oil pastels, charcoal, soft pastels and Pan Pastels all give me bold results very fast on 9 x 12" sketch paper. Drawings big enough and colorful or dark enough to see across the room. If I want to work big I use something loose. Small, I use bound journals.

6. Work small and/or simple if tired or anything interferes. As described, I use very detailed rendering mediums like brush pens, pen/watercolor, watercolor pencils etc. in bound journals. If I feel like doing detail I literally do something very small - a life size clear marble or two and get it perfect. If I want to do something bold and don't have much time, it's one pear in charcoal and white on brown paper that looked good across the room. It doesn't matter which way I go - I keep the subject simple enough to do it well in the particular way I feel like. 

I like to change up the medium I use so as not to get bored doing the fruit from my lunch over and over. That keeps the exercise from being dull, but I am still drawing pears regularly in season and those marbles look cool in pastels as much as in watercolor realism. You might prefer to choose one sketch medium and stick with it, but when things are tight, draw something so simple and easy it won't take much effort. Go ahead and draw around a coin or use a ruler to start it if you want a perfect circle or straight line, because those tools are there for a reason. With enough practice you'll eventually do freehand lines and circles well even if you usually use them.

Of course sometimes I've got more time and feel good so I'll do a serious pastel painting in more than one session or fill an entire page or two with good pen/watercolor realism instead of just doing one marble. This is what to do on the days you've only got five minutes and grab the pocket sketchbook and the ballpoint you were using at work to sketch a pebble or your coffee cup. It still counts! Let yourself do as much or as many as you like, just set the minimum so small and simple that it's hard to fail.

Charcoal and white pastel pear on brown paper.

7. Try gesture sketching, timed gesture sketching or thumbnails. This relates to the above. I might sometimes do a full realist glass marble but it's also okay to grab a black and a gray brush pen, look at a photo reference and try to do a 2" square thumbnail sketch creating a composition of it. Or do a fast gesture sketch of my sleeping cat curled up, almost a spiral with a foot and two ears sticking out. I started doing this because various classes advised thumbnailing serious paintings to plan them. It helps composition to do that whether you do the painting or not. Practicing thumbnails will improve your more serious sketches. 

Timed gesture sketches are good to train yourself to believe you really can draw something well when you've only got a five minute break on a really long day. I learned that on the fly at a life drawing group. One model said "I'm going to start with a few short two minute gestures" and got up to do a dozen poses with a two minute timer. i went crazy trying to draw her. If I didn't finish, I just went on to the next one. To my surprise, by the end of those gestures I was drawing her a lot more accurately and I finished her fifteen minute pose before the time was up - because I'd blocked her in that fast after the warmup. Everyone got better sketches of her than the rest of the models.

So I tried it again with my cat and discovered I didn't need the timer. He rolls over or moves at least every two minutes even sound asleep. I started drawing him as one of my favorites a few years ago and that made all other animal drawings easy by comparison. Most of all, it didn't take many two minute cats before I could always recognize him and his pose with them. They don't have to be big or detailed, just try to get the pose. 

This gives your hands proof that you really can squeeze in at least one drawing during a break and it means those quick drawings will come out decent enough to motivate you to keep doing them after relatively few tries on the same subject. The reason is that you pay more attention on each try. What you see in the subject is cumulative. Practice at it means being able to do it on the fly and get the essentials of even new things on the first go. 

8. Don't stop if you miss a day or even several. Life Happens. I have multiple disabilities and can't even keep up activities of daily living let alone earn a living. If I could only work one or two days a month and can't predict which days those are, I'd have to get a month's income per painting and be able to complete it within an hour or two to live on my art again. Not likely. 

But people juggling long work hours and stress in emotional relationships, other commitments, other good habits like exercise can also have their schedules randomly interrupted by other people. If you get used to drawing on your break at work, the day the boss wants to socialize all through your break it didn't happen and then you forgot. Life happens. 

So let it go. Don't do perfection. Do progress, the next day do it as if you hadn't missed a day. Or several, because that was friends in from out of town or some romantic something - love can soak all available time and energy in life whether that's a happy long weekend off at the same time or a three day argument about the budget. 

Missing a day or several is going to happen, but it's easiest to build up to where those are rare by not worrying about them. Count instead how long you go between them and find out what interferes. Each day is its own. Each success matters. Losing a day is just luck, it's not breaking a promise to self. But each day you get it is a reward, something cool, a treat for yourself.

Because the more you do it the better your sketching is and the more often you go "Wow I didn't think I could get that so well, it was just this goofy little sketch but it came out awesome." Those happen, more and more the better you keep it up.

Robin in pastel pencils from June

9. Date and save all sketches. This is proof to yourself that you're keeping it up, which is a real achievement. As soon as you accumulate some of those, you will start seeing real improvement. Count those successes. Every now and then look back to old ones and see how amazingly far you've come since last month or last year or a few years ago. I have been doing well for a long time but I've seen more improvement than I thought I could have - because the better I get, the more I can see that I can improve. I draw better than I used to but not as well as I will - and dating sketches is constant tangible proof of that. I sketch things now that I used to think of as impossible and occasionally get it on the first try.

10. Display the newest and best to self and others. I post my sketches on Wetcanvas and am back to blogging and posting them on Facebook too. That's "yes I'm succeeding at my self set goal" and also gets compliments. At home I look through my art journals when I pick them up, get happy about the good pages, think about improving on the ones I'm not as happy with. Most of all see the improvement. When I finish one there are a lot more good pages than I expected.

In a lot of movies, a character who can draw will have a wall of sketches to show the viewer what he's good at. A primate researcher has a whole giant cork board full of realistic gorilla expressions and full body poses, you know he's the gorilla scientist. Hannibal Lecter filled his cell with beautiful views of Florence and you knew he was a genius with an eidetic memory before he opened his mouth. The movies do that to give a lot of information fast. 

I always wanted a wall that looked like that, full of good sketches that told anyone who came in that I can draw well. It's there. Because I'm me and love color, most are in pastels so it's not quite Hannibal Lecter's somber view, it's this blazing garden and fruit stand and nature preserve with my cat here and there making my room a lot more colorful. It's a constant reminder of my skill and who I am - everything in it meant something to me and the style is naturally the kind of art I like most. 

If I have to take down all of it like I did once for the exterminator who insisted bugs hid behind paintings (there wasn't even one), I just start over on the blank wall and recreate it with new sketches. It always looks better than the last time I did the Sketch Wall because practice does that. Instant feedback and identity reminder. I sketch all the time. I do daily art. I'm good at this thing, especially at the subjects I love. It also makes me want to do more. When it's full, I take down the worst of what's up to put up the newest. That means my very best stay on the wall for months and maybe years, but anything flawed rotates into the portfolios and storage boxes for me to go through on spring cleaning and go "Wow, didn't realize I still that. Dang, I really improved. Oh I can't believe I used to draw like that. It's so easy now."

It's constant proof of success. Small incremental success is addictive. These are the things that worked for me.

Drawing at the same time every day is something I could not do because weather is random and my disabilities flare sometimes for reasons I can't even detect. A pressure change can leave me comfortable and energetic one minute, answer the phone, talk two minutes and blam, nap attack and I don't wake up till it's the next day. Or my wrists and hands hurt too much to hold a pen. So that's pot luck. i have to seize the moment and draw whenever I can to keep it up, count it done when it's done.

That is one strategy and doing it the same time and way every day is another. Both are habits, I just happen to have the particular disabilities that break any habits I have at the slightest disruption. Use whichever works. Use whatever of these get you going and ignore any that don't. We are all different and you're the one person in the world that knows most what motivates you or not. 

A failed trial is just that, a success is something you achieved. Small daily successes are good for both your drawing skills and general outlook in life. It's a human thing that's all too absent at most jobs, but art is the one thing that you can never really run out of ways to do something cooler and more interesting. It's also the one thing in life that the more you do it your way, the better you get. Style is something that just happens like handwriting, skill is what makes it visible to everyone else. But very few kinds of activity leave positive, tangible results and improvement every time you do them. It's incredibly satisfying to get to the point something that looked crazy difficult is part of the "easy stuff."

Red clear and blue catseye marbles in pen and watercolor from Zeta journal


  1. Thank you for taking the time to post this. :)

    I'm trying to get into the habit of drawing daily again. I've seen you very often on Wetcanvas and even though I've never messaged you personally, I've been following your blog for quite some time now and you've always been very encouraging to other artists and I just would like to say thank you for that- for being so kind and helpful and willing to share in your knowledge. :)

    I'm sure you're an inspiration to many other artists out there.

    1. Thank you! Comments like this inspire me to write and paint and keep it up even more. Purring at you and so is Ari Cat.