One small thing, or maybe three

Through my online courses on Craftsy, I often get questions about how to start a sketch. I think we all have the same problem when staring at a blank page in a sketchbook. Where do I start? What do I want to capture? What if there’s nothing interesting around me to draw?

I think one of the possibilities when you’re staring at that white page is to have one small goal that you would like to work towards. It doesn’t have to be anything overly ambitious, like a complex street scene on a sunny day or a panoramic landscape at sunset. Make it something small, especially if your time is limited or the light is changing quickly. Every sketch is a practice — in fact every painting is a practice — and if you can learn something each time you put pen or brush to paper, then you are making progress even if you haven’t created anything you’d like to hang on the wall.

Yesterday I had this unforgettable lake view in front of me but the light was fading fast. There was no central focus in the scene and I knew I wouldn’t have time for a full size watercolour. My goal for this quick 8″ x 8″ sketch was simple: separate the distant trees from the close ones using colour temperature (warmer for distant and cooler for the close trees in shadow); paint some interesting tree shapes, different distances apart and each with a slightly different profile (I used my Rosemary dagger brush for that); and finally, get some cool shadows on the snow-covered trees to show them in shadow against the frozen lake.

Ok, so that’s not one small goal, it’s actually three. But the point is, the goal wasn’t to make a great painting. It was just a series of exercises within the sketch. And considering the time I had before I lost the light, I’m happy to have had the chance to practice each of them.




25 Comments on “One small thing, or maybe three”

  1. Evelyn Cunningham says:

    Great advice. I will try it out on my next sketch. Thanks.


  2. christine says:

    This kind of post is really really helpful!! Thanks, Shari. And btw, beautiful sketch!!


  3. This is exactly what I love about your sketches. You can create something gorgeous out of nearly “nothing”. I hope I remember your words when finding myself once more looking for something to sketch… thank you!


  4. Monique says:

    It is not surprising that when I am on many people all over the world Pin your work..(me too)..
    I never know where to start either..this would be amazing if I could do trees like this!
    Liked going back to see your stash of loved tools..Cheap Joe’s next US stop..hope our dolla recovers soon.Bon Dimanche!


    • I don’t think our $ is going to recover any time soon. Shop in Canada!
      You’re right about Pinterest. So many of the clicks into the blog come from there, and I have even been asked to create illustrations by clients who saw my sketches there. Ah, the internet… how it has changed my life.


  5. Mary McLaughlin says:

    Just what I needed to hear – I’m printing your advice and hanging it in my art space and another copy in my plain air bag. Thank you, Shari – you’re the Momma Bear when it comes to plain air! So very helpful. Many thanks.


  6. E. Bancroft says:

    Thanks so much for sharing your tips as well as your work! I often wonder, on average, how much time you spend on each daily sketch. I know that recently you wrote about how long you spend scanning and posting to your blog, but all in all how much time do you spend — on average — sketching and then painting?


    • Hi. I guess I probably spend about an hour a day on a sketch, sometimes longer if it is a painting. Most paintings take about 1.5-2 hours. Of course quick sketches might only take 15 minutes, but I would say on average about an hour.


      • E. Bancroft says:

        Thanks for your response, Shari. I’ve only just started the Crafsty class and I see that you sketched in plein air and then were heading back inside to paint. I’m just trying to get my head around how much time you sketch, in your car for example, as opposed to how much time you spend painting — whether in the car or the studio.


  7. Love this sketch!


  8. Vicky Porter says:

    That’s terrific advice. Thank you!


  9. Suma CM says:

    Like the idea of using the dagger brush for varied tree shapes!


  10. Linda Murray says:

    This is why I am intimidated with watercolors. When painting with acrylics, you paint the trees first and then you would use the whites, etc. on top to pick up the snow or highlights. With watercolor, you leave the white on paper first and then fill in the darker colors. It is reverse painting to me. It’s like being one step ahead of yourself. I’m such an amateur.


    • So true Linda. It is a hard thing to wrap your head around. But I have only ever painted in watercolour so I only know how to leave the whites. I would get all flustered if I had to add them in afterwards. Watercolour is really a way of thinking. Before I paint anything I always plan the steps and layers in my head. You need a roadmap before you start because its hard to regain the whites once you have put the paint down. And that virgin white paper is so precious.


  11. sue says:

    Yes very helpful info. Do you use masking fluid?
    You said you used you Rosemary Dagger brush, did you also use pencil to do a preliminary sketch.


    • Hi Sue. I don’t use masking fluid. I try to paint around the whites and occasionally use white gouache to add highlights, like on the thinnest branches in yesterday’s post. I did do a light pencil drawing first on this sketch. I usually do.


  12. Evie Conroy says:

    Being a newbie, I can no longer resist reacting to your wonderful posts. This one hit home, literally. I am a sketcher living on a lake in northern New England. It’s too cold to sketch outside but I’m looking at a similar scene right out my window. I add watercolor to most of my sketches but my white gouache has not been effective. Leaving the white on the trees – now that’s something I’ll try!


    • Hi Evie,
      It’s nice to hear from you. You must be having the same cold weather we are having in Montreal right now. I draw from my window all the time when it’s too cold to sit in the car. I sometimes get tired of the same scenes but with fresh snow, everything is new again. Glad I gave you something to try out.


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