Should You Sketch Before Watercolor?

Should you sketch before watercolor? If you asked 100 watercolor artists that question, you'd probably get about half in favor of sketching and have that say you shouldn't sketch. In other words, deciding whether or not to sketch before you paint in watercolor is a personal choice you'll have to make. 

Sketching before watercolor painting can be very helpful in many ways. Not only does it give you the opportunity to plan out your work and design, but sketching helps with the flow as well! It’s also great for helping create focal points or changes within an image that direct attention through each layer of paint onto the next one below- all this without even touching any brushstrokes yet.

There are certainly benefits to doing it, but there's also something to be said about the spontaneity of direct painting without a sketch. Watercolor has many wonderful attributes, chief amongst them is the spontaneous effects that you can produce when working quickly and loosely with lots of washes. If you want to enhance this effect, working without an underlying pencil sketch is something you should consider.

While many artists love the spontaneous effects that they can create using watercolors, there are just as many who prefer a more controlled approach. While watercolor is often unpredictable, in the hands of a trained and skilled artist, it can be controlled to a high degree, allowing precision when painting. For artists that prefer to work in this manner, having a pencil sketch to serve as a guide for their painting is often very beneficial.

 It's kind of like the difference between an architect and an abstract sculptor. An architect needs a blueprint to work from, they know what the end result of their work should look like, so having a blueprint isn't just beneficial, it's necessary. On the other hand, an abstract sculptors may not know what they want their final piece to look like. They probably have a general idea, but they're happy to embrace any accidents that happen on the way because it adds more life and movement to their work.

Should You Sketch Before Watercolor?
Should You Sketch Before Watercolor?

Can You Sketch On Watercolor Paper?

One of the most important things to remember about working with watercolor is that you need the right surface. Watercolor involves using a lot of water to create washes of color, water, and most types of paper don't mix very well. But, high-quality watercolor paper is designed to work with watercolor, making it an ideal paper to work on. But, can you sketch on watercolor paper? 

Can You Sketch On Watercolor Paper?
Can You Sketch On Watercolor Paper?

Yes, you can. Many artists work with graphite or charcoal, or any other type of dry medium, on watercolor paper because they enjoy the surface. Watercolor paper comes in two varieties, cold press and hot press. Cold press has a rougher surface, so if you have a looser style, then sketching and painting on cold press paper is probably preferable for you. If you prefer to work in a tighter, more controlled style, then the smoother surface of hot press watercolor paper is probably your best option.

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What Pencil Is Best For Watercolor Sketching?

The type of pencil that you use for sketching before watercolor painting depends on what the final look for your painting is going to be. Do you want to create a watercolor painting that is a painting and has no apparent signs of graphite, or do you plan to do a mixed media piece that combines the lines of a graphite pencil with watercolor washes? 

If you plan to do a painting with a combination of graphite and watercolor, then using a regular HB pencil to sketch out your drawing should work. You'd want to start with a light sketch, then slowly add more details while you apply more pressure, which will put more graphite down on the paper. 

You don't want to use anything softer than an HB pencil in most cases because the pencil could smudge when watercolor is applied, which results in a muddy, awful picture. But wait, can't you just use workable fixative over softer graphite? You can, but most artists don't like how paper responds to watercolor washes after workable fixative has been applied. 

The workable fixative is there to prevent smudging, and it does so quite well, but it can also repel water. When this happens, there may be parts of your picture that are more resistant to watercolor washes, which can be very frustrating to deal with.

Many artists that work in watercolor that use graphite to create an initial sketch prefer their work to look like a painting instead of a mixed media piece. If that's the case for you, you'll definitely want to use a harder pencil for your sketching. Harder lead leaves a lighter mark, which is easier to erase, and it's also less likely to show up through watercolor paint washes.

Another option that you might want to consider for sketching is using watercolor pencils. If you want to have a lot of control when painting in watercolor, you'll usually need an underdrawing to work on top of. 

When you sketch with watercolor pencils and add water to them, you transform the lines that you drew into the paint. You can use light sketching then a touch of water, or you can use a lot of water to create a wash-like effect with your watercolor pencils. 

If you decide to use this technique, make sure that you use watercolor pencils that match the color of the watercolor paint that you plan to use. For example, if you're going to be painting a portrait, you'd want to use reds, browns, flesh tones, and even green watercolor pencils to sketch out your initial drawing. 

This is so important since watercolor pencils turn into paint when wet, so if you use them and put another color on top of them, there will be some bleeding and blending of color.

Another option for sketching before you paint that won't result in your colors bleeding together is to sketch in ink. Using an ink pen is one option, but that's going to create a mixed media piece that is a combination of a drawing and a painting. If that's the look that you're going for, then that's great. But, what if you want to create a painting and not a mixed media drawing? Can you still do your initial drawing in ink? You can by using Inktense Pencils. Inktense Pencils behave very similarly to watercolor pencils, but the difference is that once they have been wet and then dry, they become permanent. You can paint as many washes as you want to on top of the dried ink, and you never have to worry about it bleeding.

The Benefits Of Underdrawing Before Beginning To Paint

If you're thinking about creating underdrawings before you paint, you probably have a good idea of some of the benefits this approach will provide. The main benefit is that it provides you with a structure to work on top of. An artist with a lot of experience can usually control watercolor well enough to paint with precision. But, painting with precision is a lot easier when you have a light pencil guideline to help you. You don't have to be constrained by the sketch, but it does help you envision where you want the painting to go, and it helps you to stay on track while trying to reach that point.

Another benefit of sketching before you paint is the speed and ease that you can sketch out an image in graphite. Can you sketch with watercolor paint and then paint on top of it? You can, but it's more time consuming than doing it with graphite. It's also less forgiving than working with graphite. If you sketch lightly and make a mistake while working in graphite, you can easily erase your mistake and correct it. But, if you're working with watercolors erasing a mistake is much more difficult. You can apply water then try to lift the pigment off of the paper, but you'll never be able to get it completely removed from the paper.

Sketching before you paint can also be used to add value to a picture before adding your first drop of paint. This approach will produce a mixed media drawing instead of a pure watercolor painting, but if you enjoy mixed media work, this should pique your interest. You'll want to use an HB pencil if you want to create a range of values. An HB pencil is hard enough to prevent graphite from easily smudging, but it's also soft enough to create darker values. When using this approach, start out with a light sketch. Then start to use the pencil to add shading. You can blend it, or using hatching techniques, depending on what type of look you want your finished picture to have. After the pencil drawing is finished, you start laying down transparent washes of watercolor. As long as you keep the washes thin and transparent, the underlying graphite should show through. This method of adding value to watercolor painting is often easier for many artists since it's easier to control a pencil than watercolor paint.

Drawn Lines Can Enhance The Way A Painting Looks

Using a sketch as a foundation for a watercolor painting is one approach that you can take, but it's not the only approach you can take. Instead of just using a sketch as a guideline for your painting. Why not use it as a part of your painting? How do you accomplish this? Start by sketching out your drawing using a hard graphite pencil. You aren't looking for details, you simply want to create a basic, free-flowing shape of your composition. Watercolor is naturally a little unpredictable, so you don't want to take away from that wonderful quality by creating a rigid underdrawing to work from.

Once your sketch has been laid out, you're going to want to start adding some details using waterproof ink. Make sure that you use waterproof ink for this, or you'll end up having your lines bleed into the watercolor washes that you'll be applying. When creating your ink, drawing pay attention to form and value. Use hatching and cross-hatching to indicate areas of shadow. Above all else, keep your drawing loose and relaxed to complement the watercolor washes that you'll be doing on top of it.

Another option to consider is to draw on top of a watercolor painting. You do this by starting with a sketch, then applying washes of color until you're happy with your painting. After that, you can go back and draw on top of the painting. Pen and ink is one option, but a more interesting option is colored pencils. Watercolor paint and colored pencils were practically made for each other, making it an ideal pairing for you to work with.

Can You Erase Pencil After Watercolor Is Applied?

A common concern that many watercolor artists have is what to do about any pencil marks that are showing underneath of watercolor washes. The first thing you might think of is erasing the pencil marks. That would work, but only before you put down a wash of watercolor. Once the first layer of watercolor paint has been applied, erasing any pencil marks that are left behind will be next to impossible. Now, here's the good news. Any dark washes of watercolor paint that you use should cover up any light pencil marks on the paper. Lighter colors won't have the same covering ability, so make sure that you use a very light touch when sketching under areas with a light color wash.

How Does Sketching A Painting Help You Improve?

If you're an artist anytime you are practicing your observation skills and how to transform what you see into a two-dimensional image, you're going to improve your skills. Whether or not you plan to draw in pencil seriously, or if you only plan to paint, spending time sketching will help you to improve as an artist. Specifically, though, as a watercolor painter, sketching before you start to paint should help you improve by making it easier for you to plan a painting and keep things on track as you apply layers of washes. You don't have to stay within the lines of your sketch, but if you can see those lines, then you can use them as a guide as you paint.

Sketching, in general, can help you to improve as a watercolor artist. One of the greatest things about working with watercolors is their portability. You arent' stuck in a studio or at home painting, you can easily pack up your things then head out into the world to look for inspiration. While painting in public is a great way to broaden your horizons, it also takes time to get used to doing it. If you aren't completely comfortable painting in public, you can start your journey on this path by sketching first. Then, once you're more comfortable, you can start to paint in public as well.

Reasons Why You Should Not Draw Before Painting With Watercolor

So far we've gone over the many benefits there are to sketching before you paint and how you can combine painting with drawing to create a unique, mixed media piece. But, are there reasons why you might not want to sketch before you paint? There definitely are, which is why there are a lot of watercolor artists that never sketch before they start painting. What's one of the best attributes of watercolor paint? It's the spontaneous nature of the medium, right? Some watercolor artists prefer to exert as much control as possible when painting, and for these artists sketching out a composition before they start painting works out very well for them.

But what about artists that prefer to embrace the more spontaneous nature of watercolors? Artists who don't try to control the paint so much as embracing the wonderful randomness often enjoy painting without a sketch first. A sketch is a great foundation for many artists, but it can also limit you if you aren't careful. When you're focused on a sketch and trying to keep your paint where you want it to go, it can restrict the natural flow of pigment and water, making a watercolor painting look stiffer and less lifelike. Will this always happen? Of course, not, but it can happen and is more likely to happen if you work over a sketch.

You could enjoy the benefits of a sketch to work over, while also embracing the spontaneous nature of watercolors to do your initial sketch in watercolor pencils. After the pencil has been activated by adding water to it, it turns into paint. If you add a lot of water to it, then the lines will begin to blur, and it will take on the look of a watercolor painting that is painted using a lot of water. You can then work over this initial drawing and treat it like the first layer of watercolor paint.


Ian Walsh is the creator and author of and an Art teacher based in Merseyside in the United Kingdom. He holds a BA in Fine Art and a PGCE in teaching Art and Design. He has been teaching Art for over 24 Years in different parts of the UK. When not teaching Ian spending his time developing this website and creating content for the improvedrawing channel.

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Should You Sketch Before Watercolor?