Steven Powers (SMP): How To Sketch: Sketching The 4 Step Method

How To Sketch: Sketching The 4 Step Method

Sketching is a vital skill that enables one to quickly capture a vision or idea. Sketching is normally the first place that artists start out and is also the basis for most projects. Even movies start out with storyboards that are a sequence of sketches. Most often, but not always very rudimentary ones at best. Sketching is very important for digital artists for that reason. It is utilized in all media. Sketching is art in it's simplest form but can be taken to a very high degree of detail. Their is a difference between sketching and drawing where drawing is more detailed. These terms are quite often used interchangeably.

I decided to do what I call “Fun Sketches” which is a sequence of similar sketches done quickly in succession. For this tutorial I used reproductions of popular characters. The main reason to use them instead of my own is to eliminate the time involved in designing and it is beneficial for the viewer to be able to work with recognizable material allowing to easily critique one's progress. Fun sketches are good practice for the eye (drawing what you see) and are also relaxing. One only gets better at their craft if they are doing it. I prefer to do things daily just to stay sharp. Doing these sketches I was able to focus on the mechanics of proportions, scale, values and the workflow ...not character design. In most cases I choose a simple lighting scenario and limited environments. The only designing I had to do was to make the 2 dimensional characters have a 3 dimensional feel. Normally cartoons are flat with very simple shading. This is done due to the fact that the characters will be animated and the time to shade them would be unrealistic. For example, look at the animated series “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and you will notice that the backgrounds are far more detailed than the characters. The backgrounds are not animated, only the camera movements are.

These are thumbnails of the fun sketches I did for this tutorial using the “4 Step Method”. The time for each sketch from start to finish was nor more than 1 ½ hours with the exception of the last one. They were done on copy paper using an HB mechanical, 2B and 6B Prismacolor Turquoise graphite pencil . I also used a tortillion to blend in the darker tones. I chose to add minor environments to ground the characters. It is very helpful to add a bit of action or purpose to the character and the scene. People like a story and even a fun sketch should incite curiosity.


The purpose of the tutorial is to show you the “4 Step Process” that I use. This workflow doesn't just apply to sketching but any still image or painting. This process will focus on the basic shapes and values before moving to the details in the final steps. This will minimize the issue with becoming overwhelmed or adding detail to soon. My advise is to approach your sketch (or project) with a sense of experimentation ...see what you can come up with. From there you can refine the project like and editor and apply what you learned on the next project. In the end, if you don't like the results, you don't have to share them. But what we don't like, others might love ...and buy. There is a lot to art and no one is expected to learn it all overnight. In fact any skill takes time, patience and continuous practice. Over time ones skills and abilities will improve. Try not to become overwhelmed with any project, but do finish them. There are far too many potential masterpieces that are left unfinished because the artist lost focus. So finish what you start even if you do not like it. Complete the project and move on to the next, but understand there is a balance of time and results and you will have to decide when you have spent enough time on a project.

Materials and Supplies
  • Prismacolor
    • Premier – This is a waxy pencil that does not smudge and if used on a smooth paper can be erased with a mars plastic eraser.
    • Verithin – Another waxy but harder pencil that is great for sharp dark lines. Used more for final dark lines. Doesn't erase that well.
    • Turquoise – Lead pencils. I use 2B, 4B, 6B and 8B. I normally jump from HB to 6B adjusting the pressure to control the value.
  • General
    • Charcoal – 2B-6B. I don't use stick charcoal much unless it is for large areas and then I stay with the same brand for consistency.
  • Staedtler
    • Mechanical Pencil - “Ben” B/3 model with HB lead. I use this for almost every thing. It is very convenient, compact, and the lead is very smooth.
  • Printer Paper – Yes the cheapest and easiest to find paper. Normally I try to stay with the 24lb but any of it works fine. I don't use it for final hanging drawings but is great for ideas or images that will be scanned. It has almost no texture, erases fine and takes a good amount a value.
  • Strathmore
    • 400 series Drawing Pads. Light texture. Good for wall art.
    • 300-400 series Bristol, smooth. Another good sturdy paper for wall art.
  • Bienfang
    • Graphics 360 100% Rag Translucent Marker Paper. It is a marker paper but is very tough with a light texture and less transparent than tracing paper. I like to use it in conjunction with the Prismacolor Premier pencils.
  • NOTE: I mostly will use 9 x 12 inch paper due to my scanner restrictions. But I do like to sketch on larger formats for comfort when working on an easel.
  • Workable and Permanent – That is all you need to know. Don't mix them up.
    • Workable is used if you will go back to work on the project at a later date. And also allows to build the values up more than the teeth of the paper will normally allows. It essentially resurfaces the paper allowing to add more value.
    • Permanent - Used to seal your work for archiving.
Stumps and Tortillion:
  • There are various stumps and tortillions. The are used for blending and refining secondary values and are merely rolled or processed paper. One can even create their own by taking a scrap of paper and rolling it. Any soft cloth material can also work.
  • I use a cheap X-Acto electric sharpener for my hard leads and a razor knife for the soft leads. I like a long tip or exposed length of lead so I can use the side of it better. If you only have one choice, use the razor, but always cut with slow controlled, long strokes away from you or anyone else.
  • Sandpaper – used to quickly change the tip shape or smooth out the lead. They sell this on a stick at most art stores or you can buy a pack at the hardware store.
  • I use erasers as a sculpting tool. The pencil add values and the eraser removes it. It is great for refining silhouettes, lines and values. I also use it to add in the highlights ...the brightest areas of the project.
    • Gum – The one I use the most. It is like clay and can be molded into any shape and reused over and over again. It takes a while to use one up, but it can be done.
    • Mars Plastic – A more aggressive eraser and one to keep on hand. Staedtler makes both a regular eraser and an electric one. The electric one can be used to erase in lines. I use and recommend both.
  • I use one and it is a small cheap paint brush that I sawed half the handle off of. It is the same bristles as the ones you'll find at the art store but costs less than a dollar.
Techniques and Advice
  • There are subtleties to shading that can make the biggest differences. Minor value and shape changes can be perceived by the eye as detail. Remember, “Values Change = Form Change.”
  • Value Sketching – Sketching isn't limited to lines. Sketching with values to indicate depth in a scenic sketch or to establish a silhouette. This is an approach I use in creative design whether the subject is mechanical or biological. The technique is done with the side of the pencil with either strokes or circular motions. It is the same as “Blocking In.”
  • Shading Techniques – Hatching and Circular shading the methods I use interchangeably. In general, I use hatching to start with since it is the slowest to set values. More values can be done quickly with a circular motion using tighter circles will give faster results. I usually will use circular shading toward the end of the sketch once I have decided on the values. It is also very good for tight areas since I don't have to lift the pencil up as one does for hatching, which is done in one direction at a time ...not back and forth.
  • Image size - effects the time and effort when sketching especially when adding value. Use of stumps or charcoal is a popular and effective approach to add value to large areas. The benefit of large images is their will be more detail in the final result.
  • Pencil Tip and Edge – I seldom sketch with the tip of the pencil. I usually hold the pencil underhand like a paint brush and will roll the pencil in my figures so not to wear down the tip when I do need it, unless I want to wear it down on purpose. Flattening or rounding the tip can give good results but normally I will work with the side of the tip and only hold it overhand when cutting in a line for more precise work such as detailing. Not using the tip to early on is also beneficial in working into the darker values and limiting the possibility of ruining the paper by working it too much or creating grooves in it. I would also recommend layering your paper so that the sheets underneath act like a cushion for your pencil,
  • Use an Easel if Possible. A table top one works just fine. I will you a portable drawing board for most projects which I can lean it against the edge of a table while on my lap or on a shelf leaning it against the wall so I can stand. Having good posture will help in the long run and will be more comfortable as well. Bad posture will shorten the time you can work and will cause pain and injury in a short time.
  • Draw in One Direction – More or less. When drawing a straight line, one of the better methods is to rotate the canvas and visualize the start and the end of the line, ghost over the line, then draw the line. By moving the canvas to the line, one needs only to learn to draw in one direction (usually away from your body) instead of drawing straight lines in all directions. A similar method to drawing circles or ellipses is to ghost them prior to drawing them and keeping your wrist stiff and rotating at the elbow.
  • Line Weight – Usually when one sketches with values and detailed shading silhouettes are not represented by lines, but in quick sketching, cartooning or illustrations line weight will be evident. The subtle difference of heavier lines on the darker sides away from the light source or at the bottom of the characters help in grounding an object. In these examples I did sketch with both values and lines.
A Job Brief: 
Before starting any project even one like this for fun, one should decide on a few things first. A Job Brief will be your blueprint of the job and is designed to help you focus on the end result.
  • State the Purpose – A simple description of what the final objective is and the process that you want to follow if any. Keep it concise as possible but with as many details as required. This is good practice for all projects.
  • Light Source and Direction – There are two choices when it comes to light ...local and global. Global being the sun and local being artificial lighting. Keep it as simple as possible. One method is to imagine your self as the light source similar to taking a picture with a flash.
  • Value Scale – Your values scale will be determined by the paper as the lightest possible value and the pencil being the limit of the darkest values.
  • Allotted Time – How much time can you spend on the project and for each sketch. This is a big issue with artists and will matter the longer one does art. In the beginning it is not all that relevant, but you need to be aware of how much time you are spending. Work towards do things faster as your skills increase without sacrificing quality. The nature of the business is very much time conscious and time is a good tool in gauging ones progress and abilities.
  • Resolution – A tricky concept. Some refer to resolution as dpi (dots per inch) or in pixels and then there is canvas size as well. The resolution is dependent on what will the final project will be used for. Print resolution requires 300dpi and the web only 72dpi and the higher the pixel count the more details will be. Too high of a resolution or canvas size on a computer can slow it down or even crash it. When sketching on paper the resolution only is of concern primarily when you scan it in. Depending on the scanner 300-600dpi is fine, but no less than 300dpi. Canvas size is important when sketching. The larger the image the more detail is possible. But that detail comes at a price because shading in large areas take time. To simplify things in either the real world on paper or the digital world on a PC, I create the sketch (or painting) twice the size as I need. Thus when it is reduced to the presentation size the stroke marks will be cleaned up.
The 4 Step Method 
The 4 steps in the simplest form applies to the sketch below:

First I lightly sketch the silhouette . Trying to capture the gesture and motion of the character. Determined the perspective of the character and the composition. Most of these sketches are very basic and the environments were added in the 3rd or 4th steps with the exception of the 9th sketch.

Step-2: Next sketch in some of the major features, refine the silhouette, proportions and the line detail. Make sure that the perspective is correct. Large issues are easy to fix at this stage. At this stage, the sketch is practically completed. It is merely missing value and lighting. If this was a straight forward cartoon, these line drawing would be ready for clean up and coloring.

Step-3: It is very important to determine the light source and direction at this point. Decide what will be the lightest and darkest values (approximate) and block in the base values. Darken the values down toward the darkest ones leaving enough value in the value scale for cast shadows. Try not to go to dark at once. Allow yourself room to make minor adjustments as needed. The lightest values of the sketch will be determined by the paper and the darkest ones will be determined by the pencil. Also note that even if the color of the character is white, tone it down a bit to an off-white or light gray, This way we have room in the value scale for any highlights. Continue to refine the silhouette and details as needed. Continue to shape the character with values so that the character appears dimensional has form. “Value Change = Form Change.”

Step-4: The final step is to add cast shadows and highlights.
  • Highlights – Highlights can be mapped out as early as step 1 but quite often I add them by using the eraser. The eraser is a very versatile tool. It can be used to sculpt, blend values, and to sketch in highlights. Keep in mind that around the brightest points (opposite the light source) there will be some of the darkest values in the sketch. An example would be the highlight in a eye. Look for the area around it opposite the light source and you will find a very dark value.
  • Cast Shadows - These can be the characters own body parts or elements of the environment that cast shadows onto the character or surrounding area. Note that shadows follow the contour of whatever they fall onto. This will ground the character into the scene and add more realism.
  • Bounced Lighting – To add even more realism (and time) the light source does bounce off of the environment back onto the characters and objects which helps in defining areas that would otherwise be in complete shadow. In a fun sketch like this it may be over kill, but it doesn't have to be 100% accurate either. A little extra effort can go along way.

Lighting Schemes
There are two types of lighting. Global and Local. Global lighting is the light from the Sun and the light rays appear to be moving in a parallel line to each other. This is because the light source is so far away. Local is every other type of lighting and the light rays emit from a that source and are not parallel to each other they. The light path will determine the value scale and cast shadows.

Lighting Examples:

The last two sketches had more detailed lighting scenarios.  These are far from being accurate, but close enough to sell the idea.

The sketch above I used local light sources (more than one) as if from a candle or lamp. I imagined a 
lit room at night. If you link to the larger size you can notice the shadowing on the snout, the waning 
shadow behind him, the cast shadows of the paws and the darkness of the left side of the character. 
If it where a single light source, the cast shadow on the floor would have widened further it got from 
the character. If I had included an environment other than the floor plain, I would have made it a dark 
room with very blurred background to sell the lighting scenario even more.

The last sketch below involved more time and thought.  I wanted to add more of a scene, so I worked
out a basic composition and posed the character the way I wanted him.  Then I decided on the lighting
to be global lighting coming in from the right side, behind the character in late afternoon.  I create a
quick diagram to give a visual presentation that I had in my head. It is a good idea to do if the lighting
is less than simple.  In the end I am just making educated guesses of what highlights and shadows I
should have.

Above is a simple sketch to help visualize the composition and the lighting scheme I had in my head.
It is good practice to sketch out the direction of the light both from top and side to visualize the
direction and the height of the light source.             

Many topics have been covered in this tutorial.  All of which could be covered in more detail by themselves.  The 4 Step Method breaks things down into manageable pieces so that one may be able to create something that they may have been overwhelmed with before.  With this method one doesn't need to figure out where to start once they decide what to draw ...just follow the steps.
Questions and Comments are always welcome.  I hope you have learned something from this,


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