114- Differences Between Sketching and Drawing

What’s the difference between a drawing and a sketch? This can be a little confusing. There is certainly some gray area between the two a lot of confusing art terms surrounding this subject! I think the basic difference between drawing and sketching is one of intention. Are you drawing for the purpose of studying, recording details or simply the sheer enjoyment of putting down line? Is your intent to create a finished piece of art?
Sketching is usually in the observation category; a rough idea quickly captured on paper. It’s mostly used for studying a subject, like a leaf or flower. A sketch is used to capture essential information about size, placement, relationship, and gesture. A sketch is all about getting the essence of what you are seeing. A sketch might be the seeds of an idea for a more finished work. A sketch is for your own personal use, not intended to be a finished work of art. However, many sketches are beautiful in their own right and are indeed works of art!

Page of bird sketches for study
A detailed drawing that includes a bird.

It’s really easy to overthink this one, so I’ve offered a few ways to contrast drawing vs. sketching. It’s not necessarily an exhaustive list but it may give you some clarity and direction when you are approaching your own work.

1. Loose vs. Accurate

Most people consider sketching to be a looser, less refined form of drawing. Sketches are typically created as preliminary drawings in order to prepare for a more finished work of art. Sketches are typically created with quick marks and are usually lacking some of the details that a finished drawing may have. Often, the “nuts and bolts” of a finished drawing is worked out in the sketching stage of the artistic process. Composition, balance between values, and proportion can all be worked out in a quick sketch, rather than jumping right into a finished drawing, risking mistakes.
Here are some quick sketches I did to prepare for a more finished still life
Final Still Life Drawing
These are sketches done in preparation for an illustration:
Pencil Study
Color Study
Final Art

2. Less Expensive Materials

Sketches are frequently done with less expensive materials. Another consideration is the medium. Graphite, charcoal, ink and conte can all be considered as media that may be used to create a sketch, whereas pastels and colored pencils may be considered more finished media for a “drawing”. Most sketches are created on lower quality papers such as newsprint, while finished drawings are created on higher quality surfaces, like Bristol paper, rag paper, or drawing papers. There are no rules here.
Simple Pencils
Pastels

3. Small vs. Large

Sketches are also usually considered to be smaller than drawings, although many small “drawings” exist. Surface is another area where we can distinguish sketches from drawings. Some sketches can even be tiny thumbnail sketches.
Thumbnail Sketch

4. Not a Finished Piece of Art

The confusion can get intensified though when you consider that many sketches are quite significant and can be considered as “works of art” on their own. We see plenty of “sketches” by master artists in our art history books. These loose works are now considered “priceless” works of art, instead of lowly sketches. To blur the lines further, artists will often approach finished drawings with the intent of making them loose, much like sketches.
Michelangelo
Rembrandt

5. Sketching is Previous to Drawing

One way to distinguish between drawing and sketching is that you first sketch before seriously drawing. Artists don’t usually skip sketching because they want their art to be as accurate as possible.

When you sketch, you press your pencil lightly on the paper, so you can correct mistakes easily whenever you want. Whereas  with drawing you’re making a stronger statement and commitment. Every stroke is usually darker, and you apply more strength to it.

Although you will also see many artists skipping sketching, they can only do it because they have drawn the subject so many times they have it stored in their visual library. More experienced artists would start sketching a drawing without circles or lines but instead drawing its contour immediately.

Sketching is especially important when you’re drawing something you have never drawn because you don’t yet understand it deeply. Sketching gives you the chance to experiment and help you see what lines help you create a convincing picture of your subject. The way you sketch or draw very much depends on your overall drawing experience and the subject you’re capturing. Also, different methods lend themselves to different subjects.

Various Construction Methods

6. Sketches Take Less Time Than Drawings

The time it takes you to create a sketch is usually far shorter than the time it takes you to make a full, complete drawing. You don’t generally put a lot of thought into sketching strokes the same way would in for a finished drawing. For example, if you were to draw a circle, the most common thing is to sketch it using many curved lines until you find the right curvature and then make the defined stroke.
Head Doodles 2 Scan

7. Sketches don’t have to be perfect

When you’re sketching, you can restate a line many times. These lines are usually not erased and become part of the character of the sketch. These lines reveal the construction of the subject. You can eyeball lengths and ellipses. You are usually feeling out the proportions and scale of things in a scale. A sketch doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s ok for things to be a bit “wonky” and misshapen in a sketch. You’re mainly experimenting and capturing the essence of your subject. On the contrary, a drawing is more precise, and you may want to remove the initial strokes and construction lines.
Chucks Contour Scan2 copy

8. Sketches Use Fewer Tools than Drawings

Since a sketch usually intends to be preliminary for a final drawing, you would generally use only pencil or pen. A finished drawing might include a range of pencils from 3h to 9B, stumps, tortillons, erasers, guides, straight edges etc. However, some sketches might include more involved materials such as watercolor or markers. Again, it really boils down to intent. However, you may use more involved materials in a sketch if you are working out color and value for a painting..

9. Sketching Is Studying. Drawing Is Representing

This difference is a big one between these two methods. One of the main ways artists get better at drawing is by studying many different subjects and understanding how to represent them. Generally, artists would find many references of the subject they want to study and start sketching it several times until drawing it comes naturally to them.
Leonardo da Vinci
Once you have a deep understanding a subject, you can draw it convincingly with practice under your belt. If you sketched a subject enough times, a final drawing or painting will come easily!

10. Sketches Are Incomplete – Drawings Are Complete

For practice, I draw a subject from different points of view over and over. Sometimes I make them drawings from those sketches if I find them interesting. It is common for artists to have tons of unfinished sketches.
Leonardo da Vinci
Albrecht Dürer

11. Sketching is casual. Drawing is serious.

Finally, I think that both drawing and sketching are foundational for any form of artmaking. It doesn’t matter if you consider yourself to be a painter, printmaker, or sculptor-  drawing is part of the process. Therefore, we can all benefit from improving our drawing skills. How your approach drawing and what you hope to accomplish with it, is up to you. Once you’ve spent some time acquiring good skills, the sky is the limit!

Finally, I think that both drawing and sketching are foundational for any form of artmaking. It doesn’t matter if you consider yourself to be a painter, printmaker, or sculptor, drawing is part of the process. Therefore, we can all benefit from improving our drawing skills. How your approach drawing and what you hope to accomplish with it, is up to you. Once you’ve spent some time acquiring good skills, the sky is the limit!

Happy  Drawing and Painting,

Marla

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These “mini-lessons” grew out of my blog. I love sharing my experience behind the easel, so these are free. I write a new one every two or three weeks, so please feel free to share with artist friends.

​These lessons are mostly written text with graphics…short but useful tidbits from the foundations of painting that touch on subjects such as aerial perspective, simultaneous contrast or using negative spaces. I guide you through different aspects of painting and art that will get you comfortable with using pastels. You’ll gain confidence to attempt work that you might have otherwise been timid about.

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