Should I add colour to my sketch?

February 13, 2019 | 17 Comments

Last Thursday I only had 5 minutes to do a quick sketch before rushing to an appointment. This is what I sketched and I was happy with it as it was.

But it did make me think of a question I get asked a lot when I’m teaching: If I don’t have time to add colour on location, should I add it later?

So I decided to ask my Instagram audience what I should do in this instance. The response was 60% add colour 40% leave it alone.

My normal response is to leave it as an ink sketch, as it’s a true record of what was got done at the time. Also it’s hard to add colour accurately from a photo – both in terms of the colour itself, but also the energy of your mark making will be different. This is why there is a high risk of ‘ruining’ a sketch when you add colour later, and why I’m a big advocate for painting on site.

But as this drawing had developed from a quick 5 minute sketch, into a story about engaging with my Instagram friends, I decided to add colour. And to film it at the same time!

Here are a few screen shots of my loose quick painting.

I completed it in 5 minutes and tried to match the energy of the original drawing.

Do you struggle with this question?

Do you think I ruined my sketch by adding paint?



  • Lise says:

    Hello Liz … I’m a french speaker, excuse my english writting … I think it is better doesn’t put color later … stay natural what you do of this moment of your life … it is more in the idea of urbansketcher doing … I try it one time, and I had the feeling to colore in a color book …. emotion is not the same and I find the emotional result less interesting … when I finish an urbansketcher exit, I don’t touch what I was doing … When I get a look later, my work represents many things, like time I had, emotion on place, what I have chosed important to express … it is not perfect but it is the essential, the beautiful of my soul … the important is not the result but the moment I have lived at this specific moment .. An active contemplation at his specific moment … All depends what we want to do with later and our capaity to recognize everything is OK …. I like your energy! … Have a nice day! Lise ?

  • Judy KR says:

    The sketch is not ruined, it has become a different sketch with the added color. If the goal with your sketchbook is to record your day, as Liz often says is her goal, then leave the ink sketch as is because it is the record of the moment. If the goal is to have a sketchbook full of “completed” sketches, which I’ve not heard Liz say is her goal, then add color. It all depends on what the Sketcher wants the sketchbook to be!

  • Maggie Marszewski says:

    I like both. I often add color later, or even sketches from photos too but I am never sure if it is how I remember it. My goal is to find time to sketch and color in real time. This is tough if you are with non-sketchers or with a tour group that keeps moving. I guess I should rely less on “getting it right” and more on my feeling for what I observed. This is tough for me.

  • Martine GOUTHIER says:

    Je suis d’accord pour le laisser tel quel, sans couleur. Et ne pas perdre de vue ses objectifs de carnet. Et ne pas trop demander aux autres !… Je trouve que, dans ce cas, l’énergie est un peu raplatie. Mais, il faut être honnête, si vous n’aviez pas posé la question, Liz, et montré les différentes phases, je n’y aurait sans doute rien vu !
    Bonne journée Liz !

  • Yvonne Carpenter says:

    Liz, I like both formats. The ink only looks intriguing and makes the eye explore and study the shapes to capture the scene. The colored sketch, which looks terrific too, gives away the scene faster as the different elements are blocked out by color already. I am not seasoned enough to be able to tell if something was colored on location or not. Do you think others/you can really tell which is the case, if the artist does not divulge how a sketch was colored ? ( or even sketched?) Specially because others will not likely see the scene at the same time you did, so they will only at best be able to compare to a photo of the scene, if that is provided/available. Perhaps the trained eye can tell the difference, but from my perspective, at the stage I am in my art process, I cannot tell if you colored/sketched on location or not, unfortunately! Perhaps one day I will develop your hawk eye/instinct! Btw, i am loving the Foundations Class rerun – lots of sketching going on, especially this week!

    • Yvonne Carpenter says:

      After reading the replies from others, I realized your question is not which sketch LOOKS better (with or without color), but a question on whether you should color after the fact. I am not too concerned about breaking the “urban sketching” mantra of doing everything on location. Sometimes the scene makes such an impact on you tht you could still relay that experience/moment later, while coloring it in a cafe or hotel or at home away from perhaps the rain that started or the tour bus that would have left you behind. But if the artist wants to be a purist, and is later bothered by the fact that the sketch was not entirely finished on location, or wants the sketch to represent that exact moment of their life, th hen leave it with ink only. Personally, I try to rid myself of “rules” as much as possible as there are too many rules already in the world!!!

  • Susie M says:

    I like the color. It allows features to stand out that somewhat disappear in the black-and-white image, and I think it feels like there’s a bit more depth. Perhaps because you used a limited color palate, and maybe because of the quickness with which you added color, it feels loose and energetic and has the feel of a colored sketch done onsite.

  • Paula Williams DeZellar says:

    Hi Liz-I think there are many different ways to approach your question but I guess it all comes down to why one may want to add color. I don’t think color is required to complete the sketch; in fact, I quite like it as ink only. Maybe you just wanted to see how the sketch would change by adding color later? Maybe adding color later is part of the plan? It’s a sketch and as such is an exploration.

  • Pam Cunningham says:

    I think the ink sketch with no colour seemed to make a bolder statement. The colour was appealing, but my reaction to it is more muted.

  • Liz Steel says:

    Thanks for all the comments everyone! I love hearing different opinions. Just for the record my use of the word ‘ruin’ was a little loaded. 🙂

    In this case… a few thoughts
    – I love my ink sketch and would normally have left it as it was.
    – I think that I managed to apply the paint in a way which suited the energy of the linework however it is quite a bit different from what I would have done if I coloured on site. more muted and a bit more hestiant because I was afraid of ruining it.
    – I’m happy that I added colour so I could share with you… but next time I’m in a similar situation I will leave the ink alone!

    there is no definitive right or wrong, however I do strongly believe that it is better to add paint on location!

  • Alan Barbour says:

    Absolutely local option, both are fine. One might think of it as maturing with the passage of time–like people!

  • It is rare for me to leave a sketch without color, even if I just add a dab of it on site. I can understand hesitating to add to it when you got home. I’m not sure what I would do.

  • Tina Koyama says:

    I can think of maybe only 2 times in my life that I added color after I left the location, and they were both special circumstances. Once I leave the location, I almost always lose whatever impulse or engagement I had with the scene, and I can’t do it from a photo or memory, even if I wanted to. So if a line drawing is all I’ve done, then that’s the end of the sketch. Sometimes color is important to conveying something (a symbolic color, for example). But most of the time, I think a strong drawing is complete without color, and color added later from a photo is just icing on the cake (and sometimes cake is better without the icing). I am not surprised that the majority of your followers voted for adding color! Our eyes are always attracted to color, even if it’s not necessarily an improvement to a sketch.

  • John Winters says:

    I like them both.. Were it me, I would have colored it. Why? Simply because I love to use watercolor and I would have had an excuse to use it. It’s just that simple. I often end up coloring sketches I’ve done outside at a later time, but usually that same day. Sometimes that’s just the way it goes with time. As soon as I see my watercolors I just have to use them!! I think both the ink only sketch and the colored sketch are lovely, though!

  • pbass wil says:

    It’s the word ‘should’, in “Should I?…”, that feels off to me.
    1) It’s personal visual expression. No one will be hurt, either way you decide.
    2) Even if there were a clear majority opinion, it would still be… the sum of a bunch of opinions.
    3a) You could colour it in a way that many people think improves it.
    3b) You could colour it in a way that many people think detracts from the line sketch.
    In the end, with any personal expression, we have to see what our intuitions says, and go with it. If our hunches aren’t the supreme ruler in the land of our own expression, where are we?
    And if we act but end up not liking the result, that’ll inform our next similar choice! :^)

    • Liz Steel says:

      🙂 I actually don’t believe in using the term ‘should’ though sometimes I use it in my articles somewhat sarcastically and/or to get a response. 🙂

  • pictaram says:

    Both are beautiful. Maybe I always see colored sketch so I like color version a little more.

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