Three Reasons Why Sketches Are More Useful Artistic References Than Photos When Painting From Life


The night before I originally wrote this article, I made a painting from life. Or, rather, I saw my reflection in part of a beer bottle and thought that it would make an interesting painting. Since I didn’t have a digital camera or my full art materials with me there and then, I made a quick sketch of it with the nearest pen, pencil and scrap of paper I could find, before turning it into a proper painting a while later.

Here’s a chart showing the sketch and the painting it turned into:

[CLICK IMAGE TO SEE A LARGER VERSION] The full-size painting will be posted here on the 8th December.

[CLICK IMAGE TO SEE A LARGER VERSION] The full-size painting will be posted here on the 8th December.

But, you might ask, why should any artist make sketches these days? After all, most people have digital cameras these days. Well, yes, photo references can be fairly useful for painting from life (not to mention that photos are very quick to take too). Likewise, even learning how to memorise images can be a good quick way to “save” something you see in order to paint it a while later.

But, why are good old-fashioned sketches even more useful than photos? Here are three reasons:

1) It forces you to think like an artist: When you take a photo of something, you point a camera (or phone) at it and press a button. When you take a sketch of something, you literally have to work out how to turn it into a drawing there and then.

What this means is that you have to focus on only sketching all of the really important details (this allows you to see the focal points of your painting, and to leave room for artistic licence in your final painting). It also means that you have to work out how to fit everything into your sketch (which helps you to plan things like perspective and composition for your final painting).

Likewise, it also makes you think about the palette that you will be using in your final painting. If you look again at the rough sketch at the beginning of this article, you’ll see that I’ve written down what colour various parts of the painting will be. Having to write down the colours you will use is good practice at recognising realistic colours and it also allows you to simplify your palette if you want to do this too (for example, I only used something like 5-7 watercolour pencils for the final painting).

But, most of all, it gives you some practice for your final painting. It gives you a quick “trial run” that helps you to see if the painting that you’ll make later is as easy to make as you think or whether it’s even worth making at all.

2) It allows you to record things that cameras can’t: The painting that I showed you at the beginning of the article is a perfect example of an image that couldn’t be taken easily with a camera. This is for two reasons – the reflection in the bottle was really small (in real life) and because I didn’t want a photo of myself holding a camera. In addition to this, a camera flash would have messed up the lighting slightly too.

Here’s a totally unscientific mock-up of what the painting would probably look like if I’d used a digital camera to record the image, compared to the painting that is based on a traditional sketch:



For things like very fine detail, lighting, poses in reflections etc… sketching from sight will often give you far better results than taking a quick photo often will. Likewise, using a pen and paper to record an image means that you aren’t pointing a camera around – which may not be appropriate in some situations (eg: if you’re in a cinema, a museum, a theatre etc..).

3) It’s a memory aid: A sketch isn’t supposed to be a 100% accurate recording of something that you’ve seen. Instead, it’s meant to be a tool that helps you to memorise something. Although I can’t remember where I read this, I remember reading somewhere that physically writing information down (with a pen or pencil) helps you to remember it a lot better than merely tapping it into a phone or memorising it does.

By physically making a sketch, you create a much clearer and more vivid memory of what you want to paint than you will if you just point a camera at it for two seconds. Whilst you’re making the sketch, you’ll also be focusing on recording the most important parts of what you see, which will also help you to memorise the image too.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Every Artist Constructs Their Artwork In A Slightly Different Way

2016 Artwork The process of making art sketch

One of the things that I really enjoy watching are speeded-up videos of artists making paintings and drawings. As an artist who likes to make art relatively quickly (eg: I usually only spend 30-90 minutes on each of my paintings), it’s really cool to see other artists producing awesome art ridiculously quickly – even if it’s just via clever video editing. Not only that, these videos also contain lots of fascinating insights into the process of making art.

Back in October, I happened to see a really cool example of one of these videos on one of my favourite art-related Youtube channels (called “Mary Doodles“). This video is part of a long-running series where Mary Doodles scribbles randomly on a piece of paper and then uses that scribble as the basis for a proper painting and/or drawing. I haven’t even attempted anything like this myself, but it seems like a brilliant demonstration of artistic skill.

Anyway, this video made me think about how artists construct their paintings and drawings. And, for me, it’s usually more of a construction process than anything else.

Although I occasionally have an idea of what I’m going to paint or draw before I begin, most of my paintings and drawings usually just start with me sitting in front of a blank piece of paper and randomly sketching (and often erasing) things in pencil until I have the beginnings of an interesting painting or drawing.

Usually, I’ll sketch the close foreground and/or any people in the picture first and then I’ll add the background later. Most of the time, I only start thinking of ideas for the background after I’ve already sketched the people in the picture. Sometimes I’ll even sketch out one-point perspective lines as a guide.

But, one of the fascinating things about seeing speeded-up videos of other artists making art is seeing the different ways that they start, construct and/or plan their paintings and drawings.

For example, in the Mary Doodles video I linked to earlier, she starts drawing the picture in the area of the paper that she scribbled on. This is a fairly logical place to start this kind of drawing, but it’s interesting to see the composition that she uses afterwards – first, she adds a zombie in the close foreground on the right-hand side of the painting and then she adds another zombie in the mid-distance on the left-hand side of the picture.

I don’t know how much pre-planning went into this drawing, but – from the video at least- it appears that she’s drawing the entire thing completely spontaneously and without using a visible pencil sketch either. If this is the case, then this is seriously impressive.

Seriously, even though I’ve been making art on a regular basis for almost four years (and on an irregular basis for much longer than that) I can usually only produce vaguely good drawings and paintings if I make a pencil sketch beforehand.

The only real exception to this is the little sketches that I include at the top of these articles and that’s only because I’ve drawn these cartoon pictures of myself so often that I know how to do it without sketching through sheer repetition and muscle memory. But, for anything that involves real creativity, I still usually have to sketch it out in pencil first.

Still, some artists thrive when they make art completely spontaneously and without any prior sketching. So, I guess that it’s safe to say that every artist constructs their paintings and/or drawings in their own slightly unique way. For me, this is one of the cool things about making art – since it’s kind of like computer game designers using different “engines” for making games.

Likewise, when I draw people, I’ll usually sketch a simplified stick figure- like “skeleton” before adding any other details. This is a relatively recent thing and, before this, I used another technique that I learnt from this Shoo Rayner video, which involves drawing a mannequin-like figure in pencil. Before this, I didn’t really do any of this kind of planning before drawing people – which explains the weird proportions and poses in a lot of my older artwork.

Many artists use versions of these techniques, but these are often subtly different. For example, in the instructional video about drawing realistically-proportioned people on Mary Doodles’ channel, she uses the stick figure technique – but her version of it involves drawing triangles and/or diamonds to represent the chest, hips and feet.

So, yes, every artist constructs their artwork in a slightly different and vaguely unique way.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Why Sketching Is A Useful Skill – A Ramble

2016 Artwork Why Sketching is useful article sketch

Although this is a rambling article about how useful it is to learn how to sketch quickly, I’m going to have to start by talking about my dreams (of all things). As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes obvious later.

The night before I wrote this article, I had some rather visually-interesting dreams. One dream involved accidentally inventing some kind of bizarre cocktail (that probably defies the laws of physics) and a later dream involved looking out of a window and seeing an abandoned, fog-covered “Silent Hill“-style version of the school that I went to when I was a teenager.

Anyway, when I woke up, I did what I sometimes do when I have interesting dreams and I wrote down a brief description of them in my sketchbook but, more importantly, I also sketched parts from both dreams. Here are what my sketches looked like:

The perspective is slightly wrong in the lower image [and the window frame gets in the way], but this doesn't really matter too much because it's only a quick sketch.

The perspective is slightly wrong in the lower image [and the window frame gets in the way], but this doesn’t really matter too much because it’s only a quick sketch.

By making a sketch of these images from my dreams fairly soon after I woke up, I was able to remember them more clearly.

This also meant that when I made a digitally-edited painting of the second dream later, it was easier for me to make this painting because I’d already set out all of the visual information that I needed to use. If you’re interested, here is the painting:

"Through A Window In A Dream" By C. A. Brown

“Through A Window In A Dream” By C. A. Brown

As the old saying goes, a picture is worth a thousand words.

The thing is that I used to sketch things from my dreams long before I ever really thought of myself as an artist. Yes, my sketches back then were even cruder and far more technically terrible than my current sketches are. Since sketches are meant to quickly present visual information in a visual way or to help you remember something, you don’t actually need a huge amount of artistic skill to make sketches.

If you don’t believe me, here’s a quick sketch of Aberystwyth pier that I made in 2009, when the only artistic experience I had was doodling on my lecture notes at university, making sketches of my dreams, making sketches when I wanted to plan out a short story and drawing silly little cartoons when I was bored:

 I was planning to use the pier as a setting for a short story, so I made a few sketches of it and wrote some descriptions of it.

I was planning to use the pier as a setting for a short story, so I made a few sketches of it and wrote some descriptions of it.

Of course, when you practice making art and learn some of the “rules” of making art, your quick sketches will improve as a result. But, even if you just make your sketches using stick figures and simple shapes, then they can still be a useful way to help you remember information (or to quickly communicate that information).

Seriously, pretty much everyone can make sketches. Since they’re not meant to be works of art, no artistic skill is really required (although it can certainly help).

So, why is sketching so important and useful?

can’t remember where I read this, but I remember reading somewhere that quite a few of the world’s greatest inventions started life as a small sketch. Historically, when people thought of something that they wanted to invent, one of the easiest ways to record this information was to literally draw a quick picture of it in their notes. Again, a picture is worth a thousand words.

Not only that, drawings – however simple- are pretty much a universal language. There’s a reason why instruction manuals for things often include small line drawings of what you’re supposed to do (and what you’re not supposed to do). It doesn’t matter if something is being sold in another part of the world, or even whether the person looking at the manual is literate or not, if you can see the drawings then you can almost certainly understand them.

In addition to this, if you happen to be the kind of person who thinks visually (personally, I seem to think visually, verbally and – for want of a better description – in a tactile/ physical way), then adding sketches to your notes can be a great way to record information.

For example, back when I thought of myself as a writer, I’d often draw (badly-drawn) pictures of my characters beside my notes since, although I sort of knew what the characters would look like, I didn’t always know that much else about them. As an example, here’s an early sketch of a character I came up with in 2010:

This was one of the earlier sketches of the main character of a series of narrative poems I wrote in spring 2010.

This was one of the earlier sketches of the main character of a series of narrative poems I wrote in spring 2010.

Another cool side effect of adding sketches to your notes is that your notes look a lot more visually interesting. Back in 2009 or 2010 I remember randomly showing my writing notes to someone and being surprised that they were surprised that the notes were filled with drawings. I don’t know, I guess that I just assumed that most writers did this kind of thing.

So, yes, even if you aren’t an artist – you can still make sketches and sketches can still be a useful way to record and present information.


Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Drawing Or Painting Portraits From Life – Four Very Basic Tips

2014 Artwork Portraits From Life Sketch

Well, for what was probably the first time in my life, I tried painting portraits from life (of two of my relatives) a couple of weeks ago. Ok, I actually just sketched them from life and then added ink and paint later, but the final result of this was two small portrait paintings. But, more on that later…

Whilst I won’t include either portrait here, they didn’t turn out as badly as I had feared that they would and both portraits actually vageuly resembled the people in question (even if my portrait of my uncle ended up looking slightly like Prince William).

Although I’m still very much a beginner when it comes to this exact type of painting, I wasn’t completely unprepared for it. So, I thought that I’d offer four extremely basic tips which might come in handy. This article will probably be more about how to prepare for drawing or painting a portrait than it will be about the actual process of making one.

1) Practice first: Don’t even attempt to paint or draw anyone’s portrait until you’ve had a fair amount of drawing/sketching practice. Learn the basics of drawing (there are plenty of guides online) and practice copying quite a few photographs of random people first.

The latter of these two things is probably the most important one to practice since, if you copy enough photos – then you’ll pick up quite a few basic techniques and rules anyway (eg: heads are usually oval-shaped, the ears are always level with the eyes etc…). Not only that, copying photos allows you to practice observing/studying people very closely too.

Learn how to draw what you actually see rather than what you think that you see too. There’s an excellent book called “Drawing On The Right Side Of The Brain” By Betty Edwards which explains this whole subject in a lot more detail.

But, basically, it’s important learn how to see the exact outlines and shapes of things – however strange they may look. If you’ve been copying photos for a while, then you’ll pick up this skill instinctively anyway.

If you’re totally new to drawing or painting, then don’t start with portraits. In order to paint or draw someone’s portrait, you already need to have a fairly good “toolbox” of basic artistic techniques and some confidence in your own abilities too (which comes with a lot of practice). If you don’t have both of these two things, then you’re probably not ready to paint portraits yet.

2) Then try a self-portrait: Self-portraits are probably the best way to start painting or drawing portraits from life (after you’ve learnt the basics of drawing people), for the simple reason that you know what your own face looks like more than you know what anyone else’s face looks like. Just get a mirror and practice drawing self-portraits until you end up with something that looks like you.

Another good reason why it’s best to start with self-portraits (after you’ve practised drawing from photos etc…) is that no-one’s going to react badly if you make mistakes. You can fail as often as you need to and learn as much from your failures as you need to without worrying what anyone else will think.

3) Sketch first and do the rest later: Whilst this probably isn’t how professional portrait artists do things, if you’re new to painting portraits (like me) and your subject hasn’t had their portrait painted before – then this can save a lot of time and energy.

Basically, when you’re painting someone, just draw the pencil sketch when they are sitting in front of you and then add the rest later. This means that your subject only has to sit in front of you for maybe 10-15 minutes rather than for several hours.

It’s also a good idea to ask the person you’re sketching to look directly forwards when you’re sketching them. For starters, this allows you to easily see the exact shape/outline of their head (and this can be the most difficult thing to get right – but it should be the first thing that you sketch).

This also allows you to make your portrait look a lot more “two-dimensional” (unlike if their head is angled in a slightly different direction), which saves you time and energy. Remember, if you’re new to portrait painting, then it’s best to start with something basic like this – since you have a better chance of getting a good likeness of the person you’re sketching

4) Have a sense of humour: And make sure that your subject has a sense of humour too. If you’re painting other people’s portraits for the first time, then the results are probably aren’t going to look perfect. Your sketch or portrait might look slightly cartoonish or it might look more like a caricature of the other person, rather than a serious portrait. So, a sense of humour is essential.


Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂