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Some thoughts on sketching

I’ve been an artist for over 30 years. Here’s my sketching thoughts, hints and tips for getting out there with your sketchbook. Sketching is a great way to really improve your drawing & painting. It’s also, a very relaxing way to spend a few minutes or so, wherever you happen to be.

Sketching helps you to really look and observe a scene. To sit and study something, really etches the image into your mind. You might not be so happy with the sketch, but the memory, the sights and smells will stay with you. It will also greatly improve your drawing, also you can experiment with different ideas and styles quickly.

I have sketched since the age of 13 when my art teacher (Hello, Mr Bibby) set us Sketching homework. To go out and draw something around our home, in a series of 15 x 15 cm squares. At the time, I was living out in the countryside in West Cornwall. So in my squares, there are the hedgerows and gateways around my old house. I just used a biro and remember how much I enjoyed being out, sitting quietly and drawing. Later in the art lesson, we used those sketches as the basis for a series of three paintings.

Pen sketch of Nick Watton staring at himself in a car mirror.

The great thing about sketching is that ‘it’s only a sketch’. If you don’t like it – rip it up and throw it in the bin. Don’t expect too much from it!!
However, it might also be a little work of art that you are really pleased with. You can frame it or give it to someone.

Watercolour and Black ink sketch with a sinking evening sun.

When to Sketch

It doesn’t matter what you sketch when you sketch or how you sketch. Just pick up your materials and get going. Take a little A5 sketchbook & biro in your pocket or set out with an A2 pad tucked under your arm and materials in your rucksack.

Twenty minutes? One minute? One hour? There are no hard and fast rules. I think it’s how you see what you are doing and how much time you have. If you think of it as a sketch then it is.
Having said that my college lecturer stated that a sketch should be no more than twenty minutes. Like all rules in art, they are something to bear in mind and choose to ignore if you want to. My sketches can be quick or they take me about an hour to finish. 

Sketching hints and tips

Just practice as much as you can.
Change how you sketch, give yourself a time limit to loosen up.
Try something new to see how it goes.
Have a go at some drawing exercises such as just drawing the negative space of an object or not taking your pen off the paper.
Simplify scenes by squinting at them and don’t get too bogged down with detail.
Don’t let the format of the paper dictate your sketch – if you are running out of room, stick another piece of paper onto it.

Watercolour sketch of little boy in a bobble hat on the beach, with reflections in the water.
Pen sketch of a bike leaning against some sand dunes.
“Dad you’re just scribbling!” As my young son told me. It doesn’t matter. Just let your pen or pencil run.

How I Sketch

It could just be a biro and a scrap of paper. I usually have an A4 bag of Sketching Stuff ready to go by the door. If I’m backpacking I take an A5 Cartridge Pad, pencil, pen and travelling watercolour set. Or if setting out with the intention of doing some larger sketching then it’s an A3 – A2 pad and a full set of paints, brushes and a pallet.
My son now uses a Tablet with a drawing app. (He uses ’ArtFlow’, which has free and paid-for versions.) I’ve tried these, but being an old git (you’re so last Century Dad!), I prefer to use traditional materials. However, it all works very well and is probably the way things will be going. The advantage is that everything, paints, pens, brushes etc. are all contained in one slim tablet with its stylus slipped into the case! But, each to his own

My usual sketching kit all fits into a bag ready to be picked up and taken out. I find an A4 zipped laptop bag is good, though obviously without the laptop in it.

Watercolour sketch of my Sketching kit!

Sketcher’s Outfit

A sketch of my sketching stuff! Some of which I have had since I was 18 and bought with my student grant. So they are old friends!

A sketching set, including sketchbooks, small paintset, pens and pencils.

To conclude, here’s my Materials List

I often take a range of mediums with me and make my mind up of what to use when looking at the subject. So here’s what is usually in my bag (pictured above).

An A4 Cartridge Pad & Langton 9 x 12” Hot Pressed Watercolour PadColoured Pastel Paper too sometimes.
I find A4 size pads to be a convenient, general size.
However, if I’m out walking I often only take an A5 Pad in a plastic bag with watercolours, pencils etc.

Pencils – at least 2B in softness, I usually use a 6B Pencil for sketching and sometimes a Graphite Stick.

Something to sharpen them with, I usually take a scalpel​ with the blade taped the handle​. So that it doesn’t cut anything unintentionally.

Watercolour Set
For A5 – A4 size pads, I have my trusty Winsor & Newton Watercolour Field Paint Box.
However, for larger paper sizes I take a full set of watercolours and an A4 pallet.

A selection of brushes, again dependant on paper sizes. I often take a smaller Sable Brush No.1 or 2 (size), medium brush No.6 and a larger brush for laying down washes – I have a size 20 round that I like for this. (They are rather expensive, but mine has last a very long time). I generally use round brushes, but that’s up to the individual’s​ own preference.

Tissue/Kitchen Roll – a sheet or two.

Sticks of Willow Charcoal.

Pastels – Oil or chalk, depending on what you like.

Bottle of Black Ink – to use with either a brush or dip pen.

Water Jar with lid or Jar & Waterbottle.

Selection of pens – whatever you like, Waterproof Fineliner Pen, fountain pen or just a biro.

Rubber, if you want one, putty or normal.

Clothes peg or two – good for holding the paper of your pad when it’s windy.

Image of a watercolour pallet, brushes and tubes of paint.
Above is my larger watercolour set for A3 – A2 size sketching.


I like to sit on the ground and have an insulated mat to sit on, but lots of people like to take a stool with them (or find a view with a seat of course.)

As with all things arty, there is no right or wrong way, just what you like to do.

So grab your sketchbook and I’ll see you out there sometime…

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