How Long Does It Take To Do A Sketch?

One thing that many of us who sketch on location talk about is how much easier it is to fit sketching into a busy schedule.  We contrast it to creating fine art and the need for large blocks of time.  We emphasize the point by quoting the many laments from fine artists about not having time to do their art.
There is truth to our claim but, on some level we exaggerate, as when many of us sketch a complex scene, or simply a sketch with lots of detail, we can burn away a couple hours without problem, and many a fine art piece is created in the same amount of time.

But, nevertheless, what we say is true.  I sketch almost every day, often more than once a day.  Unless you’re making your living as a fine artist, few could make that claim.  As I look at what I do and how I do it, I see that there is a ‘trick’ to fitting sketching into a busy schedule, whether it be by wandering the city as a street sketcher or sitting at home doing sketching at the kitchen table.  For lack of a term for this trick, I’ll call it time-result flexibility.

I learned this concept from Yvan Breton, the guy who has taught me more than anyone else about drawing.  What amazes me about Yvan is his ability to do 30-second sketches, 2-minute sketches, 20-minute sketches, 2-hour sketches, and pieces of fine art requiring multiple sessions and many hours.  I guess, to be more precise, it isn’t being able to draw something over differing periods of time as any drawing book will talk about doing gesture sketches, contour sketches, and various forms of more detailed art.

What is impressive about Yvan is that he does this seamlessly, magically fitting a true, realistic sketch into each of these time frames.  He has developed the ability to assess his available time and approach and develop his sketch such that, as the wizard Gandalf said in Lord of the Rings, “arrives exactly when he means to” and his sketches are complete.  Short time periods, of course, have less detail.  Maybe one could argue that they are less precise, but it’s really hard to tell and, to me, that is downright magical.

And while some sketchers fit sketching into their busy schedules by always sketching quickly, I encourage those interested in fine art to consider this alternative approach – adjusting the result of your sketch to the time available for it.  This does require adjusting your expectations to time frame but it goes deeper than that.  It means being able to identify and prioritize the various aspects of what you’re drawing and organizing your approach to capture the high priority things, in a quick sketch, adding a few more if you have a longer time and only capturing everything when you have an unlimited amount of time.

I know..I know…this is simply restating “just simplify” but that’s not what I’m talking about.  We can talk about ‘keep it loose’ til the cows come home but loose is a different debate entirely.  Yvan can do this time-result trick with portraits and each of them will look LIKE the person he’s drawing.

I wish I could better describe his thoughts and actions as if I could understand and do it well myself, I might better use words to explain it.  I cannot, but it is something that we can all think about and with practice implement in your own work.  The first step is to think about the time-result equation as you sketch.

The next step, I’m convinced, is to start drawing in radically different time frames.  I was resistant to this idea, mostly because I couldn’t do it.  The thought of drawing anything in 30 seconds was beyond my abilities.  Heck, the thought of drawing anything in 20 minutes was beyond my abilities until I’d drawn a few hundred things that took 1-2 hours.  But you’re all more experienced than I am, right?  So give it a try.

Pilot Prera and Lex Gray in a waterbrush

Pilot Prera and Lex Gray in a waterbrush

Here are my attempts at this sort of thing, all done within the last week or so.  The first is a very quick sketch of a friend.  I spent about 30-seconds capturing his shape, and little more, as he was talking to someone.

Is it great art?  Nope, but I can look at it and remember that day.  I also got some practice capturing a shape quickly.  I got to do art while I waited for him.  I had fun.  I’m just guessing but if I do another 120 of these I bet my ability to do it will improve.  What do you think?  And how long will that take to do 120 sketches like this?  In real sketching time, ONE HOUR, and it will be one hour spent drawing instead of just standing around.  Everyone has ‘dead time’ in their life.

Platinum Carbon pen, 3x5 notebook

Platinum Carbon pen, 3×5 notebook

I was out to lunch with a friend and afterwards he had to stop at a store, run in, and pick something up.  I sat in the car for 3-4 minutes.  As I sat I realized there was a building before me so I got out my small sketchbook and started drawing.  I spent 2-3 minutes on this sketch before my buddy returned and I quickly slapped on some color before scanning it.  I could have just sat and watched cars drive by but what fun would that be?  Doing 100 of these sketches would require seven hours of waiting for people, sitting in a doctor’s office, waiting for lunch to be served.  Sadly, we all spend lots of time doing nothing.  And again, the result is fun and I get more experience “seeing” things and recording them.  If you did one of them a day, you’d have 365 sketches like this at the end of the year.


Pilot Prera, 3×5 notebook

I was in a mall, again… waiting.  I looked up and noticed the large light fixtures that light the mall corridors.  I’d been in the mall a gazillion times but never noticed them before.  Again, I got out my sketchbook and spent 10-12 minutes drawing one of those lights.  I found it something of a challenge as I always have trouble with angles when I have to look up a lot.  In the end, though, the waiting became fun and productive.

When I have more time, but not enough for a complex scene, I’ll do something like this:

Pilot Prera, Platinum Carbon Ink, Stillman & Birn Zeta (6x9)

Pilot Prera, Platinum Carbon Ink, Stillman & Birn Zeta (6×9)

Which one do you like best?  Yeah…me too, but those quicker, more spartan sketches allow me to build the ability to do the sketch above in about half an hour.

And when I have a lot of time, I’ll do something like this:

2013-08-27HouseI can’t tell you how long this sketch took me except to say that I need a significant block of time to do a sketch like this.  If I only did sketches like this I would have a lot less fun, a lot less often, and I’d have a lot less experience in laying line to paper than I currently have.  The time-result ‘trick’ is working for me.  My results are not up to what Yvan can produce in a few minutes but if I’m convinced that working in different time frames, fitting in as much drawing as I possibly can into my life, I will improve.  Maybe it can help you as well.

6 thoughts on “How Long Does It Take To Do A Sketch?

  1. Ditto. As a beginning sketcher I struggle mightily with time; I want my lines perfect and always with more detail. I have noticed that shorter sessions – 5-10 minutes – improves my drawing skills for the longer drawings. In an online sketching course they recommended that practice sessions, say still life indoors, be broken down to a series of drawings: 1, 5, 10 and 20 minutes. Practice for an hour using different times and you will learn both how to simplify and how to manage time. And possibly develop new mark making skills. You’ll also learn what you are capable of capturing in 10 minutes. Somehow this also helps my longer drawings though I still don’t understand why. I continue to resist short and quick for some reason. It feels wrong to me. You correctly point out what should be obvious: this approach means more finished drawings.

    I think this is idea of completeness is important. It is hard for beginners look at a scene and render a “complete” drawing with a minimum of lines. This, I believe, comes only from experience as each person sees differently. I have noticed that just one detail or a few well placed lines with make a drawing “feel right” and lead me to put down my pencil. I can go further, but don’t have to. Anyway, this might be a topic for another time.

    You are lucky to have a such great teacher in Yvan.

    I really, really appreciate your posts. Good work.


    • The more I sketch the less I worry about ‘details’, though I’m like you and enjoy a more precise drawing than some do. The 1, 5, 10, 20 minute session sequence sounds like you’ve been reading Nicolaide’s book 🙂 And, I suppose, if you want to turn sketching into a job, this is a viable approach. Personally I’ve been more interested in integrating sketching into my life so that I do it often, not in ‘sessions’ that are an obligation. I think this has helped me more than the traditional “do this during your _sessions_” approaches.

      Completeness: I think this is more important than the words people attribute to it. The hardest thing for me is deciding what to leave out and while I’m not expert enough to comment, I feel that the main reason for this is that you have to leave things out in a ‘unified’ way. You can’t draw every brick and not draw detailed windows. Flip that around, and if you’re not going to include every brick, you shouldn’t be putting the keyhole in the door, unless it is the center of attention. As you say, it’s hard for those who haven’t done a gazillion sketches to leave out just the right amount 🙂

      Cheers — Larry

  2. All we, sketchers, need to do is: take our sketchbook (or any other piece of paper) and our pencil / pen / ballpoint / marker with us, so we are always prepared for sketching … whatever … wherever … whenever … !

    • Best advice ever, Inge. I carry a small book and a couple pens EVERYWHERE and sketch EVERYWHERE. Most of those sketches aren’t great works of art but they’ve done more to improve my sketching ability than anything else I do.

      Cheers — Larry

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