How To Sketch Out A Painting

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what to do before starting a painting

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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.

The first thing to do before starting a painting sketch, is 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, it is good to paint a basic architecture of your painting.

In this post I will show you step by step exactly how to create a sketch before painting.

Step one: The imprimatura

The first step for how to sketch out a painting on canvas, is to prep the canvas with the 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

I find it best to use a paintbrush when creating a painting sketch, 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 equal amounts of burnt umber and ultramarine blue together and use the mixture to create your line drawing painting sketch. You don’t need a lot of paint for creating your underdrawing. So don’t mix up too much paint for yourself to start out with. Also, use a paint brush that is on the smaller side.

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.

Whether you are working from observation or imagination – follow the movement of the line and try to capture a general sense of its ridges.

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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 looked for the hills that are in front of the horizon line. I am looking for and trying to capture the large areas that make up the landscape 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 example here of my painting sketch before painting. You can see that I drew in with my paintbrush, the foreground line as well as the additional hills in the middle section of the landscape.

Remember, the painting sketch before painting is not meant to look exactly like what is about to be painted. Rather it is meant to be a very general architecture to be able to work from.

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.

Please let me know your thoughts and if you have any questions in the comments 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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      10 thoughts on “How To Sketch Out A Painting”

      1. 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.

      2. 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.

      3. 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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