Drawing and Sketching: Is There a Difference?

Drawings and sketches by Kevin Hayler. Three pencil drawings, an elephant, a jaguar, and a wolf

Drawing and sketching are similar but there are differences worth describing. Where they overlap the differences are subtle, but at the ends of the spectrum, they differ enormously.

Sketches are the rapid notes and looser lines that usually precede a drawing. Drawings are the details added to a sketch. A drawing can be described as a finished sketch. A sketch is an impression and a drawing is a study.

Of course, there is more nuance than my summary suggests. Let’s dig deeper.

The Differences Between Drawing and Sketching

The two art forms are not mutually exclusive, the boundaries are loose and open to interpretation, that said, sketches can be turned into drawings, but a drawing can’t be turned into a sketch. Where they bridge is the confusion.

A good sketch can be more powerful and interesting than a highly finished drawing. It is quite possible to spoil a good sketch by overdoing it. Putting in time and effort doesn’t always improve a drawing. Knowing where to stop is one of the hardest things to learn.

I find it almost impossible to distill an image down to the bare bones. I’m always adding detail and losing the quality that inspired me to draw the subject in the first place.

Drawing isn’t better than sketching, the former is controlled while the latter is fast and loose. it’s a different discipline. The problem arises when you expand a sketch and go too far, there’s no going back.

There is only one thing you can do about it, and that’s to stop drawing before it’s too late. The trouble is, you only realize it’s too late after you’ve gone too far.

Further Reading: How to Make Your Drawings Interesting

Although the two art forms merge somewhere in the middle, drawing is a more studious approach. It takes more time and the lines are more intensional and precise. The observation is more focused on detail.

Sketches are more expressive and emotional. The lines have energy. What they lack in detail they gain in movement. Sketches are not about content, they are more concerned with overall shapes and blocking in. They can be the foundation for a drawing, or a painting, and/or the finished artwork.

Let’s move on to the types of drawing and sketching you are likely to encounter and explain what they are.

Detailed pencil drawing of a bald eagle by Kevin Hayler
‘Eagle Eyes’ by Kevin Hayler

Types of Sketching and Terms

What is Urban Sketching?

Urban sketching is a form of art where artists draw in public places such as parks, streets, and other public spaces. The goal of urban sketching is to capture the beauty of everyday life in a city. Urban sketching has been around for centuries, but it was popularized by Instagram and Facebook.

What is a Thumbnail Sketch?

A thumbnail sketch is a very small drawing of a design, place, thing, or idea. Thumbnail sketches are used for quickly capturing fleeting inspirations before they disappear. Thumbnail sketches are particularly useful for constructing dynamic compositions with ease.

What is a Preliminary sketch?

A preliminary sketch is a rough drawing that helps you visualize what you want to create. It is often used to help you figure out how to draw something, or to help you decide which medium to use for your project.

What is an Outline Sketch?

An outline sketch is a fluid line that indicates the mass of an object without the detail.

As a result, this type of sketch can be easily modified later on if necessary. An outline sketch may also serve as a guide when creating more detailed drawings.

What is a Concept Sketch?

A concept sketch is a quick way to get ideas down on paper. This kind of sketch will usually have no details at all. You might start off with just lines and shapes, then add some color once you’ve got the basic composition figured out.

What is Sketching From Life?

The idea behind sketching from life is to use a pencil or pen to quickly draw what you see around you. It excludes photographic references. Unlike urban sketching, it is not confined to public places. It includes portraiture, figure, and still-life drawing. This technique helps you to focus on the details of your surroundings, which makes it easier for you to remember them later.

Types of Drawing and Terms

What is Freehand Drawing?

Freehand drawing is the ability to draw by hand and eye coordination alone, without the need for drawing aids such as guidelines, instruments, or tracing. It trains the artist to use their observational skills to draw what they see in perfect proportions.

What is Life Drawing?

Life drawing is the term used to draw the human form strictly from observation. It usually involves a nude model in various poses, although artists also draw statues. It is associated with classical art education and trains the artist in the observation of shadows and form.

What is Figure Drawing?

Figure drawing is the same as life drawing but the connotations differ. Life drawings are nude, figure drawings are usually clothed. Gesture drawing is the descriptive term for the dynamic poses the artist attempts to draw.

What is Technical Drawing?

A technical drawing is a representation of a product or system. The purpose of a technical drawing is to communicate information about a product or system in precise detail. A technical drawing may be used for documentation purposes and is most often associated with architecture and engineering.

What is Digital Drawing?

Digital drawing is a way to create art using digital tools such as Photoshop, Illustrator, and Sketchbook Pro. This method allows artists to draw directly onto a tablet or screen and retain it as a digital file. The result is a high-quality image that can be printed out and framed.

What is Still Life Drawing?

Still, life drawing is the study of inanimate objects, drawn realistically, and usually arranged under studio conditions. The subjects can be man-made or natural. The artist usually composes the objects and creates the lighting artificially.

What is a Line Drawing?

Similar to an outline sketch but more refined. The lines are more accurate and the proportions are correct. They can be the precursor to a more detailed stage or used as illustrations in their own right. Comic book drawings are a good example.

What is Hyperrealistic Drawing?

Hyperrealistic drawing, also called photorealism, is a technique used to create the illusion of reality. Hyperrealistic drawings can be mistaken for high-resolution photographs from which they are based. They require an advanced level of skill, dedication, and patience.

Pencil Sketch of 3 puppies by Kevin Hayler
‘Siblings’ by Kevin Hayler

Is Drawing the Same as Illustration?

The two overlap but can be distinguished in certain areas.

A drawing can be a freely expressive art form used to create a sense of place, evoke an atmosphere, or capture a likeness. It may contain meaning and use references and metaphors to convey a message. Likewise, a drawing can be a decorative piece intended solely to please the eye.

Illustrations are more descriptive. They are usually drawn with a purpose in mind. That could be for advertising or publications. They are used to visually supplement the written text. They can be decorative, but they are usually representative of a subject without trying to convey any particular message.

Drawing implies a more artistic approach and illustration implies a practical one. The difference can be subtle but let me try and give an example.

An artist could draw a songbird and wish to convey its fragile beauty and the emotion it inspires. An illustrator is more likely to draw the correct number of primary feathers. The former is about feeling, the latter is about information.

Of course, the lines are often blurred, but that is my answer to the question.

Further Reading: Is Drawing From Photos Bad?

It is open to debate whether illustrations are art or not, it all depends on your personal definition of art. We all have our own ideas about what art is, and what being an artist means. It’s all subjective.

I don’t tend to call myself an artist because it’s such a loaded word. I call myself an illustrator, it’s less pretentious.

Is Drawing Harder Than Sketching?

If you put a very detailed drawing next to a sketch of the same thing, you might easily conclude that drawing must be harder. That is not always the case.

I know this because of my own deficiencies. I can draw, but I find it hard to sketch. How come?

In some ways, it is easier to add detail when you lack confidence. It’s a clever device to mask your shortcomings. I know that I will impress people with my technical abilities. I seldom intend to go so far, it’s just that I’m not confident enough to stop myself.

I admire artists who know when enough is enough, ‘less is more’ as they say. Knowing which lines to choose and what emphasis to put on them takes real skill.

In my case drawing takes a great deal of time. It is a skill in its own right for sure. Not everyone can draw photographically, but not everyone who can draw well desires to do so. They have the talent to redirect their energies elsewhere.

Some people can sketch brilliantly but haven’t the temperament to add detail. They might look on in envy at a detailed drawing in the same way that I look on with envy at a brilliant sketch.

I recall meeting a chap, who showed me his field sketches of seabirds. He drew them from life and they were perfect in both line and proportions. I, on the other hand, had a portfolio of highly detailed finished drawings all based on my photographs.

I know he felt humbled by my drawings, yet I was in awe of his abilities to draw from life with such beautiful sparing lines. I remember them to this day, 25 years later.

As far as I was concerned he was the master, not me.

Male Orangutan drawing by Kevin hayler
‘Enigmatic Ape’ by Kevin Hayler

Drawing and Sketching Materials

Drawing and Sketching With Pencils

If a drawing requires more finesse than sketching it follows that your choice of art materials will differ slightly. We can say that some tools are more suited for precision drawing and detail and others are more suitable for rapid results.

I mostly draw with Pentel mechanical pencils. My style tends to be photographic so I use the thinnest leads in the range, 0.3mm leads to be exact. I use them on Daler Rowney Cartridge paper. The fine grain gives my shading a speckled effect which I love.

Further Reading: Can You Draw With Mechanical Pencils?

I seldom use thicker gauges, in theory, I could sketch my outlines with a 0.5mm HB Pentel pencil but I don’t, I use a Derwent graphic pencil instead. Why?

That’s hard to explain rationally, they feel more natural, they are lighter, longer (pencil extenders in case you’re wondering), and sharpen to a longer point. It feels easier to draw a fluid line. This could be my personal bias, but I have watched other artists, more accomplished than me, doing the same thing.

Sketching lends itself to using softer grades of pencils as a rule. Remember that sketching is all about immediacy and you will use one grade of pencil throughout.

Many artists like to sketch with a 3B, speaking personally I would never sketch with anything softer. Not because you can’t get results, it’s more because I don’t like the graphite shine.

If you like to draw with good rich blacks, without the shine, I highly recommend Staedtler Lumograph Black pencils.

My preliminary sketches, or the first stages of a detailed drawing, are laid out with a Derwent HB. I know from experience that I can safely draw over Derwent HB with soft mechanical leads. I can draw over all the H range.

Unfortunately, you cannot draw over softer B grades without a conflict. They don’t mix.

Standard drawing pencils are made of graphite and clay, mechanical pencil leads are graphite and a polymer. They are not quite the same thing.

Mechanical pencils have a waxy texture. I love it, I enjoy how the nib glides across the paper surface. I love the control and consistency of the line. They take some getting used to, but if you like perfection, they offer everything.

Normal graphite pencils are drier and the harder leads can be scratchy. In my experience, they can do everything mechanical pencils can do except lay down flat tones. It’s far easier to make a rich black background without overlapping patch marks with mechanicals.

Further Reading: How to Draw Realistic Shadows

On the other hand, Graphic pencils can be super hard. I use a Derwent 9H to indent the paper and blend tones.

Drawing and Sketching With Pens

Back in the day when I painted landscapes for a living, I would often draw street scenes with a pen and wash. It was urban sketching before the term was coined. I used Sakura Pigma Micron Fineliners.

I would sketch the outlines with an HB Pencil first and then follow the lines with various gauges of the pen. As a general rule thin lines recede and thicker lines stand out. It is the perfect medium for distilling key lines and adding body with simple color washes.

Being a glutton for punishment, I would often develop my simple sketches into more complex drawings. I discovered that I could use the pens that were running out of ink to make grey lines. My pen and ink drawings would look like etchings when I finished.

Being colorblind, laying a tint of color over a tonal drawing was far less intimidating.

More adventurous artists still use a fountain pen nib and Indian ink for sketching. It produces a wonderful wavy line. When you press harder the nib splays and the line broadens. In the hands of an expert, even the drips and splashes add to the character.

Another option is to use a ballpoint pen. I use a Biro to make thumbnail sketches. It doesn’t matter that they aren’t lightfast, they are ephemeral and not meant for public display.

If you want to preserve your sketches invest in a Uni Ball pigment gel rollerball pen.

Drawing and Sketching With Charcoal

Charcoal in particular lends itself to sketching. It is immediate, expressive, and bloody messy. Charcoal pencils offer more control but they are unforgiving. Mistakes are harder to correct and the paper stains badly.

In the hands of amateurs charcoal rarely succeeds, handling fragile and dirty charcoal sticks takes a lot of practice, and besides, they are a nightmare to store even when fixed.

Further Reading: How to Protect and Preserve Your Drawings

The best thing about using charcoal is how tactile the medium is, you simply must blend the tones to make the most of it.

I’ve seen the most amazing charcoal drawings in the far east, all drawn with brushes and charcoal powder.

They buy a set of cheap Chinese calligraphy brushes and superglue the heads to make various widths. They then dip into the powder and paint the tones. The touch is so gentle, they can erase mistakes back to clean paper.

Alternative Drawing and Sketching Options

Carbon pencils, I have never got on with them for my style of art, they are harsh matt black without the delicacy of charcoal, but if bold dynamic statements are your thing, they are worth trying.

Conte sticks are tried and tested and used for centuries. They are great for sketching but are perfectly good for a finished drawing. They are commonly used to sketch the underdrawing of a pastel painting.

Conte sticks can be bought in many colors but traditionally they are earth tones, sanguine, bistre, sepia, and black and white. They are harder than chalk pastel and produce a line that is similar to charcoal. They are waxier and blend well.

They suit portraiture and figure work particularly well.

Pastel pencils can be used for both sketching and highly finished paintings. They are pigment in a stick and there are few limitations. They are well suited to adding detail to chalk pastels, but many artists love the control of pastel pencils and use them as a stand-alone medium.

Further Reading: The Best Pastel Pencils For Beginners

Having used pastel pencils many times, the biggest drawback is sharpening the point. Some pigment colors are softer than others and crumble every time you try to sharpen them. You can whittle away a pencil in no time. Very frustrating.

Pencil Crayons have come into their own in recent years. The quality of the best brands is far superior to those of my youth. You will find plenty of artists on Instagram making superb art using pencil crayons exclusively. I suspect that social media has allowed this medium to find its rightful niche.

I suspect that very few artists use pencil crayons for simply sketching. It lends itself, as a medium, to highly finished realism. That said plenty of illustrators use pencil crayons, you only have to flick through a few children’s books to see that.

They are not used in the same way as either pencils or pastels. They have a learning curve. Burnishing, layering, indenting, and scraping away pigment are all commonly used techniques. There is more to crayons than you think.

If I have one concern, it is only the lightfastness of the pigments. That can apply to other mediums but it’s worth taking into consideration if you intend to sell the originals.

Daler drawing pads for sketching.
Drawing Paper – Too much choice?

Using Different Papers for Drawing and Sketching

Your drawing surface will determine the look and longevity of your artwork. If you want to sell your finished drawing or sketch, you should use archival paper. An archival paper is simply one that will stand the test of time.

Paper made of wood pulp contains lignin and that goes yellow with time. Not only that, it contains acids that will eventually degrade your paper. You need acid-free cotton rag paper.

If you are simply sketching for pleasure or to make notes and reminders as references for other projects, any paper will do. Whatever comes to hand will be fine. I carry a cheap notebook for ideas.

Only buy a cheap sketchpad when you don’t value the drawing.

Choosing Your Drawing Paper

When you buy a pad, you are looking for a number of things. You are looking at the tint, surface, t, size, When you buy a pad, you are looking for a number of things. You are looking at the tint, surface, size, weight, and if it’s rigidly backed.

I like to draw on an off-white warmer paper. There are no rules, it is my preference. Many artists like to draw on brilliant white, especially those who like Bristol board. Others like to draw on tinted paper, many choose a tan or grey as a mid-tone and add the white highlights.

Further Reading: What’s the Right Paper for Pencil Drawing?

The surface will have the greatest impact on your final drawing. Ultra-smooth Bristol board is the paper of choice for many illustrators. It is perfect for seamless blending and produces crisp clean lines for ink sketches, it is not so good for clever textures.

N.B. Check the quality, many Bristol boards are not archival.

Hot pressed (smooth) watercolor paper can also be used. Test the paper before you use ink, in case it bleeds.

I liked to draw on a Daler ‘not’ surface illustration board, and it gave me a lovely grain to work with. I’m not sure if it still exists, but it doesn’t matter because I discovered that drawing over a solid surface produced the same results.

If you draw straight from a cartridge pad, the paper beneath cushions the grain. If however, you remove a sheet and attach it to an acrylic drawing board the grain is highlighted.

‘River Crossing’ by Kevin Hayler

Cartridge paper has a fine grain that combines the best of both worlds. You can easily blend tones and create textural effects using the grain. It is my preferred choice. Any major brand will do, I use Daler-Rowney because it is easy to get locally.

Some papers have a rough grain. many pastel papers are textured to hold layers of chalk pigment. I like to use Canson Mi-Teintes paper for coarse grainy sketches.

Size is relevant when you work outside. I never use a pad over A3. Anything bigger becomes unwieldy. Again personal preferences will determine your priorities. I tend to naturally draw and sketch smaller pieces.

Many artists like to take out a very small sketchbook into the field. Not only is it more manageable in all weathers, but it is also less conspicuous if you want to be left alone.

The weight is more important when you wish to apply color washes or intend to damage the surface with some of the more intrusive techniques.

I like to draw on heavy paper because it feels so much more substantial. That is probably more psychological than practical. What I don’t like is very thin paper. Any paper that I have to worry about picking up without buckling it, is too thin in my book.

Sadly, Strathmore 400 series is like that for me. So too is Canson Ingres.

Last but not least is the backing board. If you buy a pad without a good support you are making life difficult for yourself. Most quality brands know that a backing board is important, but not all. Cheap pads invariably neglect a cardboard backing to save money, so avoid them.

There is nothing more annoying than balancing a floppy pile of paper on your lap and trying to draw or sketch properly, but it’s more than that, each time you pick up the pad you risk thumb-buckles in your paper.

Further Reading: How to Repair Drawing Paper

The only other consideration is whether to buy a gummed or ring-bound pad. I like the gummed pads, it’s easier to remove the paper without any mishaps. It’s not an either/or decision, I’ve used both and know the trepidation I feel when I remove the paper.

As with so many areas of life the manufacturers now subdivide their products into every conceivable combination of mostly unnecessary choices. The marketers have gone mad. It confuses me and I’ve been drawing for a lifetime.

All you can do is make an informed guess and start with a few art materials and experiment. I wish I could tell you what to buy, all I can do is tell you what works for me.

Conclusion

If you’ve reached this far, well done, but hey haven’t you got other things you should be doing!? OK, I probably covered more than you expected, but it’s all good.

If I was to sum up the difference between drawing and sketching in the simplest terms possible, I’d say in general, drawing is more serious and sketching is less so.

You can afford to start again with a sketch because you aren’t investing too much time and energy. Abandoning a drawing, on the other hand, can send you into fits of despair.

A big difference.


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