2019 Foundations Friday 6: Minimal Setup

February 8, 2019 | 14 Comments

This week in the Foundations Re-run we are looking at Minimal Setup and I believe this is a super important concept for quick lively sketching. Doing a few quick guidelines on the page first (what I call setup) can really take the pressure off your ink lines allowing them to be more expressive.

A lot of people are very adamant that drawing directly in ink is the only way to go, but I don’t agree that this is always the best answer.

In the past, I found that a few quick gestural pencil lines allowed me to work faster and more confidently, with stronger lines. The key is that I wasn’t trying to achieve a super accurate outline with the pencil, instead it was a quick gestural mapping out of the big picture.

These days I don’t use pencil lines anymore and I am much more confident working directly in ink. My direct ink work is normally when I do ink-only sketches – such as these two.

However, if I’m sketching a complex scene in watercolour (with or without ink) I still like having ‘a soft option’ for the first marks on the page. And so my starting with watercolour is often a form of minimal setup – either starting with shape or drawing a few guidelines in paint first.

Here are a few examples:

I would love to hear form you – what type of setup (if at all) do you typically use?



  • Suzala says:

    Never a pencil when I am using a fountain pen with or without watercolors. With just watercolors, 90% of the time direct watercolor. I love the feel of it like painting on a tight rope; one false move and it’s all over. You have to really look and focus. I think years of blind contour drawing helps

  • Lin Powell says:

    Always a pencil first or I am so stressed that I would never start and would lose the joy I now feel when I draw. I tried and tried to go without a pencil first but realized for me, it just didn’t work so I will ignore the experts and do it my way for now. Perhaps one day I will feel more confident.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Lin! Go with what works for you. Not all the experts ban the pencil 🙂 and don’t waste time feeling guilty for using it! The time to shed the pencil will come naturally – it did for me!

  • Anaquarelle says:

    Hello Liz, thank you for all sharing. I usually start with the pencil, but I realize that I go into too much detail, that I just have to put the forms. I took the exercise directly in watercolor (seen with sketching now watercolour … I am Anaquarelle) and I’m very happy. I will continue to work according to photo (it is cold at the moment) and I will practice more outside with these techniques

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Anaquarelle – direct watercolour is so much fun especially if you have a tendency to get lost in the details. Hope the weather warms up soon.

  • Alan Barbour says:

    I am currently taking an Introductory Drawing course at the local junior college, and I will make use of this, starting with the extra credit exercise I have in hand for today.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Have fun Alan!

      • Alan Barbour says:

        I *am* having fun, and (surprisingly to me) am not bringing up the rear in terms of competence. It is interesting that I seem naturally to work much faster than the other students. There is one student who is closer behind me than the others, but she is taking the class for a second time. I am adding in some extra drawings to fill in the time. We are currently working on creating value with hatching and cross-hatching in monochrome still-lifes. I think I will experiment with a bit of color this afternoon.

  • Christine Broussard o says:

    I did start like you Liz with a pencil yet quickly abandoned it to draw with ink pen or direct watercolor application. Yet there is a beginning to all techniques then you choose what works best for you!
    In terms of buildings I would rather draw my perspective in fine pencil lines and progress with either watercolor or ink or both. I appreciate your reminding that one must walk before running

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi christine – thanks for sharing. Yes! a few pencil lines is very important for establishing perspective when drawing buildings.

  • Depending on the complexity of the scene I may often start with pencil, but try to do some of my work directly in ink or watercolor. Sometimes I do a few perspective guidelines first before I move in with ink.

  • Sara Morgan says:

    I am getting more adventurous and using pen first; then watercolor paint. If the lines are perfect, I just go with it.
    But for more complicated sketches (many angles) I like to use a light pencil to get the basic lines down first.

    • Liz Steel says:

      Hi Sara – sounds like you have a good plan there. Yes, some scenes are very complex and a little light pencil work helps a lot. Keep up the good work!

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