Sketching intuitively

April 3, 2023 | 4 Comments

Last week I did some fun mixed media sketches and so today here on the blog I want to share a few thoughts about sketching by intuition.

I typically refer to my approach to sketching as spontaneous – however I usually have an idea before I start a sketch! I think through some big-picture issues, choose a story or a focus and have some thoughts on what I want to achieve. So I generally have a loose plan when I start, but as I work I let the sketch evolve spontaneously. I normally pause mid-way through the sketch and analyse the overall composition, often adjusting the extent of my sketch (and sometimes the story too!) before completing it.

My preference for this approach is due to my architectural background and the fact that my goal, when I first started sketching in ink and watercolour, was to re-create the freedom and flow I had when doing design drawing.

Architectural design sketching is all about the rapid exploration of ideas, the more you can draw and the more ideas you can test out the better the final design will be. (The above image is from a blog article from 2011 written when I was still working full-time as an architect!)

When I was designing as an architect I was focused on being in this wonderful zone of exploration and coming up with a design solution. I wasn’t thinking about the quality of my drawing – it just happened!

This feeling is what I’m after when I sketch – and to achieve this I don’t need to be working fast, but I do need to be in an exploratory mind frame.

This is very different from a traditional approach to Plein Air painting which normally involves framing the scene and doing thumbnails to decide on composition and/or values before starting. There can still be a lot of intuition in this approach as well – but there are more pauses during the planning stage to review whether you are on track.

When I teach I stress the need (as a general rule) of planning before starting a sketch (such as this demo from my Watercolour course). But how much you plan vs how much you let evolve spontaneously can vary. (Watercolour On Location Lesson 4 is devoted to this theme).

If you are a beginner and just start sketching complex scenes on location I believe it’s really important to slow down and plan. But for a more seasoned sketcher working totally without a plan on some occasions can be totally liberating.

The same concepts are used in both approaches – but when working spontaneously you are relying on your inbuilt sense of balance developed over years and hoping that you can somehow pull it off! 🙂

I could discuss this topic a lot more but to get back to my recent sketches…

Last Wednesday I did two sketches where I didn’t do much thinking before I started! And in fact, for the second sketch (the opening photo) I intentionally had no plan at all – I wanted to test my intuition in terms of colours and composition.  I was also mixing media in a fun way! And I bought a few more Neocolor crayons…

I didn’t have time to test the new colours (I think  I bought 3 x Neocolor II (watersoluble)  and 4 x Neocolor I) so I decided to choose a simple scene to make it easier to play.

Over the last 12 months, I’ve been enjoying working with colours that are either more pastel and opaque or more vibrant than I normally use in my watercolour paintings. I’ve been starting my sketches with a layer of dry media (coloured pencils, watercolour pencils and/or markers) and then modifying them with a layer of watercolour.

This particular sketch looked very bright at the dry stage… but that’s okay as my watercolour would tone it down. Or so I thought! 🙂

Hmm… this is more intense than I was hoping for and as a result, I added more layers than I normally like to use. But it was a lot of fun to do and a great way to really test the new neocolors.

But as I packed up after this sketch I had a strong desire to tackle a more complex scene next. And so I found myself heading to Playfair St.

Ah! this was exactly what I was looking for!

I just began without any idea of what parts of the scene I was going to sketch, what my story would be or even how I would use my materials. I simply started!

A little coloured pencils, then neocolor, then ink, then back to coloured pencils…. until I decided it was time for some paint. This is when I took this photo.

I intentionally didn’t pause to look at the whole composition at any time during this sketch because, as mentioned above, I wanted to test my inbuilt sense of colour and composition.

And this was the result! The only thing I did to this sketch after I stopped was to add a second leg to one of the three people in the scene.

It’s hard to find the words for how much I enjoyed doing this sketch. Something special happens when I’m constantly switching materials – it helps me see the scene more in terms of lines and shapes and it gets my creative juices flowing!

I’m in a very experimental mood at the moment and I don’t know what I’m going to be doing next. But I hope that you are enjoying coming along on this journey with me! 🙂



  • Kimbi says:

    I’m definitely enjoying the journey. It’s really helping me as I work through doing the sketches I do while walking each day. I suppose I”m trying to find a connection between what I’m doing and my artwork, but to be honest, everything doesn’t have to be this big production.

    It’s a good to find another aspect of my practice that I can enjoy rather than stressing it out to produce something for me in return besides the enjoyment it brings.

  • maria bergman says:

    A fun journey with you into your process! Your enthusiasm is really infectious…keeps me sparked. Thank you Liz.

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