The Foundations have been laid. Part 2: Beginning the sketch and balancing line and colour

March 11, 2015 | 5 Comments

This is the second part of a series of posts reviewing my SketchingNow Foundations Online Course: The other articles in the series are here
Part 1: Sharing the framework 
Part 3: Heading out on Location

Following on from my first part of review my recent SketchingNow online course, I want to tie in what I taught in the second part of Foundations to the ease in which I was able to sketch those quick street scene sketches of Five Ways Paddington on the weekend.

It is true that every time you teach, you learn as well – learn from your refined presentation of the material and learn from the questions and work of the ‘students’. Seeing how everyone responds to your content is incredibly inspiring and enriching – there are no words to describe how much I love this. I find that you learn even more the first time you put the content together and you have to think a LOT and try to put all the pieces into a logical structure.  Whilst I have taught most of the Foundations content in face to face classes, there is certainly a higher degree of explanation needed in producing video and handouts for a online class. I learnt so much as a result and am really feeling the difference as I am now starting to get back to sketching for myself.

So, getting back to Foundations, the second part was all about how to start your sketch (whether to do setup or not) and how to know what to do in ink and what to do in colour (how to balance line and colour).


We looked at how to begin our sketches and the highly contentious issue of setup. Of all the rules in art, not using a pencil for setup seems to be one of the strongest and the one that has the most amount of guilt attached if you break it!

At the time I shared the background behind my red line setup that used to be a feature of my work. You can read it here.

I wrote: I use setup because I WANT to, for me it is a tactile response to my subject – I love feeling the edges and respond to what I see with a pencil in my hand… and love having a record of this initial line on my page.

But in the class we looked at a number of different approaches. Measured Setup, Gestural Setup and then “No Setup” – working directly with ink.  We also looked at the different issues involved that can affect our decision as to which setup is the most appropriate. These include our desire for accuracy, the subject matter, the time we have, the materials we are using or even our mood at the time. For example, sketching Hardwick Hall as I did in 2010, would be extremely hard without any setup lines if the goal was to record accurately the proportions of all those window panes – it was hard enough with guidelines!

It was a little surprising how many people have never fully understood how to use a pen/pencil to do sighting and measuring.  I will admit that it is challenging to try to explain this in an online class. The best way is definitely face to face when we are sitting next to each other looking at the same object! I absolutely loved reading everyone’s response to the three approaches to setup and how what some people loved, others found unworkable.

I really do believe that you need to find what works best for you right at the moment – it might change over time – but do the minimum you need to get you going – ‘Minimal setup’ is my golden rule!

I often do a basic degree of measuring when sketching architecture to get the overall proportions before starting but I rarely use measuring for objects on a table – I just rely on my eye and my personal response at the time. Putting together the exercises for the course made me more highly attuned to foreshortened lengths and size differences between foreground and background object… and I will admit that it was very good for me to do a carefully measured drawing! Just doing one exercise of careful (ish!) setup was enough to realise that a few key distances are all that is needed. A little bit of measuring goes a long way – that is another one of my sayings!

As someone that normally uses gestural setup as my initial response and who works mainly in a very structured way from overall shape to structure- to details, I spend quite a bit of time, thinking about how to create a more measured approach to working with line only and no setup. I can work from one edge to the next, but that often leads to distortion, especially with my natural fast pace of working. So it was very helpful for me to explore ways that I could set out a drawing with a few key edges first.

There is no doubt that this heighten understanding of foreshortening and thinking about the key edges before drawing the first line helped me a lot on Saturday when doing those street scenes. I started with the single vertical of the corner building and related everything to that. I am seeing so much better, particularly how short distances are as they retreat in perspective and as a result am able to draw faster with a greater degree of accuracy.

I am not sharing this to ‘show off’ my drawings skills, as I honestly believe that my eye-hand coordination should be a lot better than it is. There are numerous urban sketchers whose coordination is totally awe-inspiring and they have set the benchmark for me to strive after – I have seen first hand how accurate it can be!

The big point that I want to make is: the more you work on seeing better, having more informed visual conversations in your head and training your eye and hand to move in sync, the easier and more enjoyable sketching becomes! 

Balancing Line and Colour:

Whilst this could form a 12-week course in itself, we spent one week looking at a few ideas of how to balance line and colour – how to make decisions of what to do in line and what to do in colour. This becomes very important when we head out on location as we have a tendency to draw ‘every brick’ when we have a pen in our hand.

This particular lesson went live one week after the Xmas week, where I had a few days off and wanted to read something different. Still art-related though… I ended up reading a few books on precise cross-hatching and looking at the craftsy course by Paul Heaston – I am a huge huge fan of his work. This is completely opposite from the general direction that I feel I am heading (working less with lines and more with shapes and paint – such as this sketch from 2 years ago in Singapore) but I got fascinated by how one makes decisions on colour, tone and texture when only using ink lines.

This brought me back to the way I used to work when I first started sketching with ink and wash… using a lot of line. And it also fitted nicely into the next lesson and well, you can see how all of a sudden I have started doing ink drawings, no colour, no setup.

And well now I am hooked on doing sketches just with my pen. There is no doubt that pulling the paint tin out does require a little effort (especially if you always use a sable brush and water rather than a water brush) and that just using a pen and standing up for a quick sketch is a lot easier!

Anyway… this is yet another long post so I will stop now… just with a final word, that it was great to be able to dedicate two lessons to setup and to present a number of different approaches to the class. And to see how the different approaches have different applications depending on how you like to work, the degree of accuracy you are after and my parting words…

Do whatever you need to do to get started and whatever will help your lines be bold and confident. And whatever you do have fun and don’t beat yourself up with ‘art guilt! 

This is the second part of a series of posts reviewing my SketchingNow Foundations Online Course: The other articles in the series are here
Part 1: Sharing the framework 
Part 3: Heading out on Location

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  • melisnorth says:

    Thank you for this long post Liz as I find the process artists use endlessly interesting, and even more the evolution of their process! I'm a big fan of Mark Taro Holmes and it's interesting how he's gone from lines to spots of watercolour to direct to watercolour over the years. I have learned that any "rules" that instructors use should always be taken with a pinch of salt. It works for them but not necessarily for you. As a beginner I am constantly exploring approaches to see what helps and what I enjoy, and it's exciting to know that I'll probably continue evolving as my skills improve.

  • The colors in the temple painting are just gorgeous and adds, somehow, culture to the piece.

  • This idea of no setup MUST be a recent fad to some group or popular teacher. While I sometimes "go for it" the basis of my sketches is setup, and I see many other good artists who use setup. From where did this nonsense come? Sometimes I use just a very little bit, but in complicated sketches I sometimes use quite a lot. Time available does play a part in my decision. Anywho, I do what works for me and setup is part of my way.

  • PS I've never been a fan of measuring, however — unless doing a technical drawing or a rendering, which if course is different. I've given it the old college try but it just is not part of my makeup.

  • Carol Beckx says:

    It amuses me that in this creative life, so many "rules" are created by artists. Why do we impose these strictures on our art practice – doing what works for you is still the best way.

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