Sketchbook Confidential | The Art of Sketching

For many artists, sketching is an everyday habit—a way of playing around with new ideas, trying out different subject matter, or just having fun. For others, sketching is a deliberate tool for problem-solving, a way to work through a composition, capture the right light, or test-drive a color scheme. Newly released by North Light Books, Sketchbook Confidential takes a peek at the private sketches of more than 40 artists, along with their musings on how and why they benefit from this creative process. Five of these artists are featured in the following excerpt. To purchase the book, visit

Dan Beck
Sketching is a way to think visually. I sketch on a regular basis to work out compositional ideas, to stay in tune with the drawing aspect of painting and to just connect with my subject in a no-pressure situation. There is a freedom about sketching that keeps me grounded, and it’s just plain fun.

With the sketch I feel an immediate dialogue back to myself. It doesn’t matter much what media I use—pencil, ballpoint pen, charcoal, colored pencils, pastels. I like to sketch with a variety of tools. Often, just to see marks on paper is enough to get the juice going, to feel that urge to paint.

I think sketching works because it eliminates the complexities of painting. It allows one to see the essence of the subject or the idea or even to find that idea. It’s much harder to do that when dealing with color mixing, painting application, etc.

Sometimes I sketch to see that essence of what will become a finished painting. Sometimes I sketch just to doodle around. That fun aspect to sketching is very important to maintain. I think and hope that the spontaneity of sketching carries over into the painting and that the daring and innovative qualities that come so easily in sketching translate into painting.

Abend Gallery, Denver, CO; Greenhouse Gallery of Fine Art, San Antonio, TX; Concetta D Gallery, Albuquerque, NM; Watts Fine Art, Zionsville, IN; Waterhouse Gallery, Santa Barbara, CA;

Douglas Fryer
Much of my most valuable and satisfying drawing time is spent in sketching the figure. The immediacy of the process never fails to be an amazing, exhilarating experience. The human form is endlessly fascinating, challenging and beautiful.

Also, I usually do compositional studies as preparation for paintings. These drawings are rarely what anyone would call finished or resolved, but mainly serve the purpose of solving design and compositional problems. Through these sketches I am able to explore the ratios of the rectangle in which I will work, the placement and flow of elements, and the division and balance of space, planes and masses within the composition. Much of the initial conception and excitement about the finished piece is contained in the preparatory sketches I make. The essential subjects, patterns, relationships, gesture and flow are expressed and explored at an early stage.

It is rare that anyone sees my sketches or drawings. I don’t usually mean for anyone to see them; they are usually only meant to be done. Considering this, I should think that drawing is always freeing, uninhibited and unconstrained. But, unfortunately, I usually fret over even the littlest sketch, judging it as harshly as any finished painting—embarrassed if anyone should see its flaws.

Meyer Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Howard/Mandville Gallery, Kirkland, WA; Marshall-LeKae Gallery, Scottsdale, AZ.

Albert Handell
I like to go outdoors for my sketching. It gives me a break from the other attitudes that are necessary for creating full-blown paintings. It’s playful for me; it’s fun. When sketching, I don’t care about money or exhibitions or anything like that. I’m usually outdoors with pastels or watercolor, and I have my pencils and charcoal, in case after a while I’m tired of dealing with color. I don’t take my oils outdoors.

I don’t just make a sketch or study outdoors and then go inside and paint the big picture. What happens when I work later indoors with large oils is that the photographs taken and sketches and studies done just excite me. They don’t give me all the information I need. A lot of the information that comes into my paintings was already a part of me, and that has a lot to do with the sketching and studies outdoors.

I hold onto most of my sketches and studies. When I have a one-man show, I like to take eight to ten of them (depending on the show) and have a few of those around so people can see the thinking that goes into the finished work.

Ventana Fine Art, Santa Fe, NM; Southwest Gallery, Dallas, TX;

Linda Leslie
I am inspired by the human figure found in contemplation, by beauty and the abstract design of life in a form of dance. I think about proportion, movement and feeling when sketching.

I generally sketch with graphite mechanical pencils in a journal. I enjoy charcoal and Conte crayon too. I will also sketch with graphite directly on an oil painting in progress.

Sketching keeps my eye working. It helps to keep my work loose and more confident. I feel calm, peaceful and happy when sketching. I try to think of nothing. I feel less pressure and more freedom than when painting.

Although the feeling of my sketches relates to the finished work, many times the finished piece is different from the original idea. A sketch or a painting is always changing and will continue to change, as the model will, and as I will. Although it is not my intention that the sketch becomes a finished work of art, many times it does. I try to put the two together: freedom and finish.

Arroyo, Santa Fe, NM;

William Hook
I am a bit unromantic about the sketching process. The need to remember an idea is reason enough to sketch. For me, sketching is a thought process more than an inspiration. Sketching is my mind’s eye. I am mentally trying to visualize the end product.

A good drawing is the underpinning of any successfully painted artwork. I paint daily and I sketch out each painting before I put brush to canvas. When I am sketching out a painting, I use a water-soluble pencil on canvas. I use ink and paper or watercolor on location.

Sketching is, more times than not, a means to an end. It is not meant to be an art form in and of itself. For the most part, sketching is problem solving—e.g., perspective, composition, and how to transmit my thinking into art. Leonardo da Vinci, while being a scientist, was a fantastic sketcher. He best demonstrates my attitude toward drawing. I’m pretty relaxed when I sketch, as long as I’m not thinking about making a finished drawing. When I cannot verbalize a thought or an idea, I pick up pen and paper and best express my thoughts through drawing. A picture is indeed worth a thousand words.

Meyer Gallery, Santa Fe, NM; Jones & Terwilliger Galleries, Carmel, CA;

Featured in December 2010