How To Sketch Out A Painting

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what to do before starting a painting

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Do you wonder how to go about actually starting your painting? What steps to take to bring it beyond a blank canvas? Well, you are in the right place because here we will go over what surface to start your painting on and how to sketch out your painting on your canvas. So you will get started on the right foot with your painting.

We are going to go over two different examples of how to sketch out a painting. First I will go over how to sketch out a landscape painting and towards the bottom of this article I will go over how to sketch out a figure. The principles are the same for any subject you paint – however there are different things to pay attention to with different subject matter.

How to create a painting sketch before painting

A painting sketch or underdrawing, is a preliminary drawing you make on your canvas that will help guide where your painting will go.

However, before starting your sketch you first need to put a light color wash over the canvas. This is also called imprimatura, which is Italian for first paint layer and looks like a color stain on the painting ground. After the color wash is in place, you are ready to sketch out your painting. Doing a color stain on your canvas is hugely beneficial as it helps you to see value much more easily than on a stark white canvas.

Step one: The imprimatura

As mentioned above, the first step for how to sketch out a painting on canvas, is to prep the canvas with an imprimatura.

For this, you want to put down a light color wash for the painting as seen in the example photo. The imprimatura layer is part of creating an underpainting.

Imprimatura before painting sketch
Imprimatura; is Italian for, first paint layer and looks like a color stain on the painting ground

Second step: Start with the horizon line

Once you have your imprimatura on your canvas you are ready start sketching out your painting! I find it best to use a paintbrush and paint to sketch out a painting, instead of using a pencil. It is important to be able to change the drawing around as you get into your painting and by using paint you will be to do this quite easily.

mix burnt umber and ultramarine blue

Mix equal amounts of burnt umber and ultramarine blue together and use the mixture to create your line drawing painting sketch. Also, keep some turpenoid on hand as this will help to thin your paint. You do not want to use a lot of paint for your sketch. I try to use as little paint as possible and thin it out using turpenoid. We only need it to be visible enough to see it while we work on our painting – we do not want the sketch to be part of the completed painting!

So, do not mix up too much paint for yourself as you will not be needing a lot. I often use left over paint from creating my imprimatura. Also, I recommend using a small stubby paint brush. The stubbier the paint brush the more it will feel like a pencil!

second step of how to sketch out a painting

The painting in my example here, is a painting sketch of what will be a landscape painting. Therefore it is necessary to first start with the horizon line.

Capture the general architecture of your painting

Whether you are working from observation or imagination – follow the movement of the line and try to capture a general sense of its ridges. They key word here is general. This is not meant to be a completely exact drawing – you will be saving the perfecting and exacting for when you start your painting with color.

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Step three: How to move downward in your painting sketch

Continue on with your painting sketch before painting and try to find the big points in your piece and draw those in.

This initial underdrawing is to help you create your painting sketch and is NOT meant to be a precise drawing. Rather, the point is to capture the general architecture of your painting and its composition. You should not spend more than 5 – 10 minutes on the part of your painting sketch before painting.

third step of how to sketch out a painting

In the example, I look for the hills that are in front of the horizon line. Generally, I am looking for and trying to capture the large areas that make up the landscape painting. Focus yourself on getting the big picture and capturing the general shapes of your subject in your painting.

Step four: Find the general lines in the rest of your painting sketch

fourth step of how to sketch out a painting

Now, that the initial part of the landscape underdrawing is there, it is time to put in the rest! In the image above you can see that I sketched in with my paintbrush, the foreground line as well as the additional hills in the middle section of the landscape.

Remember, the painting sketch is not meant to be perfect and look exactly like your subject. Rather it is meant to be a very general architecture for you to be able to work from. In other words, think of what it would be like if you were to start with no sketch at all – you would have no idea of ‘where’ to start right? When putting in a sketch of your painting it serves as a guideline for you to know approximately where to start.

As you progress in the painting you will adjust measurements to make them more accurate to the subject you are painting. So, there is no need right from the beginning to try and make a completely accurate sketch – because it will need adjusting anyway!

So, as you paint, to help create a more realistic painting, you will be able to remeasure elements and put them in their correct placement. A basic underdrawing such as the one outlined in this post, gives you the chance to see your composition in full. As well as helps to give you a general idea of the placement of things in your painting.

Step five: Look for the values within your painting sketch

Last but not least, it is helpful to give yourself a brief idea of the tonality of your painting.

fifth step of how to sketch out a painting

In this example, you will see I very lightly drew in where the shadow areas will be in the painting and I left the “light” areas as they were.

Utilizing tonal value drawing aspects in your underdrawing, will help to give yourself a little clarity when it comes to where the light and dark areas are in your painting.

Finishing your painting sketch

Now you know how to create an underdrawing and are ready to dive in!

Just make sure that your painting sketch is dry before continuing the rest of your painting. So that the colors you mix for your painting, do not get diluted by the color of your underdrawing.

Again, do not be afraid to move things around a little bit if necessary as you paint. The painting process should always involve self correction at every step. The preliminary drawing you make on your canvas should always just be a basic and general guideline.

Once you have your underdrawing in place you’re ready to start adding some color and light to your painting.

How to sketch out a figure

Now that you know how to sketch out a landscape painting I will now show you how to sketch out a figure. The principles remain the same in that you are not going after creating a perfect drawing – rather just trying to capture the basic architecture of what you are painting.

Painting the figure’s hat

When sketching out a figure I first start at the top portion of the subject which usually is the head. In this case, I start the painting by first painting the hat that is on top of the figure’s head. Like in the landscape painting sketch, I use a small amount of my mix of burnt umber and ultramarine blue to sketch out my painting.

Work on getting accurate angles

I mentioned numerous times that this painting sketch is not meant to be an exact drawing of the subject – rather it serves as a general architecture of what you will paint. However, when it comes to angles it is important to work on capturing accurate directions of angles.

For example, in the image above notice how I capture the precise angles of the hat. Having accurate angles helps you in the long run as you will at least know what direction your angles need to be at. You might need to slightly adjust or fine tune some angles – but you will have the bulk of the job done!

Sketching out face and body

Here I paint the face, hair and upper body of the figure. As you can see, I only go after the big general shapes. I do not at this point paint the details of the eyes or mouth. Rather, I look for the shape that the profile of the face creates and pay attention to the large ridge created by the eye brows. I also look at the shape of the upper body and paint the profile of the arm. Never get caught up in details when creating your painting sketch – just focus on the big picture!

Painting the clothing on the figure

When sketching out a figure it is also important to paint the clothing. Don’t paint any detail but look at the big shapes of the clothing. For example, in the image above I paint the shape of the shawl that is draped over the figure.

Finishing up the painting sketch

Now it is time to finish up the painting sketch. I put in a bowl that the figure is holding and mark out any other basic shapes such as the drapery beneath the bowl.

Another important thing worth noting is that you can pay attention to value when creating these painting sketches. Notice how some of the lines are darker while others are lighter. The darker lines signify areas that are darker in value. So, you can make value notations even when sketching out your painting!

Now it is your turn

The beginning of a painting is crucial as it affects how a painting turns out in the end. Put these lessons to practice and start your painting by sketching it out on canvas first. Take a photo of your progress and post it in the comment section below!

Recommended Resources Mentioned In This Post

Learn what to do before you start a painting! How to make a sketch on your canvas before starting your painting. Learn what to do before starting your painting. What to do before Oil Painting. Learn how to start a painting. Oil painting tutorial. Oil painting for beginners. Learn how to paint. Oil painting demonstration. #oilpainting #whattodobeforepainting #howtosketchyourpainting #howtostartapainting #startapainting #oilpaintingforbeginners

Elisabeth Larson Koehler creator of art studio life

Hi! I am Elisabeth

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      14 thoughts on “How To Sketch Out A Painting”

      1. רותי כהן

        אליזבת שלום
        תודה על ההדגמה,ההדרכה שלך מועילה מאוד

        יש באפשרותך להראות איך לצבוע עיגול בצבע אקרליק
        וסוג המכחול לשימוש


      2. Thank you! You just solved a problem for me. I am planning a painting involving mountain landscape with portraiture. No more thumbnail sketches for me. It is so much more meaningful to work right on the canvas.

      3. Christine Mouton

        I want to paint some miners with their yellow overalls in a very dark mine (copying a painting by Sam Nhlengetwa, a South African artist.) So, I’ve had to cover the whole canvas in several layers of dark brown and ultramarine to get that depth.

        Now I need to paint the miners on top of this (dryish) background.
        How do I sketch them first – white chalk or maybe paint in buff titanium?


        1. Personally, I always create a very light color ground on my canvas and then sketch in my painting with a slightly darker color so that I can see what I am sketching. In your case it sounds like you created a darker ground – which is a good idea for creating a dark painting! I would sketch them in with a color that is just slightly lighter than your ground so that you can see what you are sketching (mix a little white with brown/ultramarine blue). I would try not to make it too light light so that you will not have to work too hard at painting over the outline as you paint in the miners in the painting. Good Luck!

        1. I appreciate the time you have taken to give clear instruction and valuable information. Thank you so much.

      4. Thank you! I am a beginner and I have no idea where or how to start. Thank you for being there!! Granny’s Angels would love to having paintings done by me. I am also a great granny at 78. I want to learn!

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