Drawing vs 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 either end of the spectrum, they differ noticeably. Let me define the differences in a brief summary.

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.

(I get commissions for purchases made through links in this post. However, I only promote products I like and recommend)

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 simple 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 the hardest thing to learn.

Personally, 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 a more finished work of art, 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 realize it’s too late only after you’ve gone too far.

Read this for tips: How to Make Your Drawings Interesting: 14 Ways to Improve a Drawing

Although the two art forms merge somewhere in the middle, drawing can be described as a more studious approach. The act of drawing takes more time and the pencil lines are more intentional and precise. The observation is more focused on detail.

Sketches, by contrast, are more expressive and emotional. The pencil lines have energy. What they lack in intricate details, they gain in movement. Sketches are less concerned with accurate content, they are more concerned with the overall shapes and blocking in.

A sketch can be the foundation for a detailed drawing or painting, or it can be the finished artwork itself.

Let’s move on to the different types of sketching and drawing that 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 modern term describing 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 man-made environment.

This class on Domestika will show you how to sketch with a pen and simple watercolor washes.

Urban sketching has been around for centuries, but the term has been popularized by social media.

What is a Thumbnail Sketch?

A thumbnail sketch is a very small drawing of a design, place, thing, or idea. Thumbnail sketches are used to quickly capture fleeting ideas and inspirations before they disappear.

Thumbnail sketches are particularly useful for constructing dynamic compositions without investing a lot of time. They are visual forms of disposable note-taking, typically using lower quality papers.

What is a Preliminary sketch?

A preliminary sketch is a rough drawing that helps you to visualize a finished work of art. It is often used to figure out different techniques and compositions before committing any time to the project or to help determine the best art medium to use.

What is an Outline Sketch?

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

As a result, this type of sketch can be easily modified later if necessary. An outline sketch can 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 quick sketch will usually have few details. They might start off with just lines and shapes, and color notes. They can be preliminary artworks or product designs. Fashion designers will use concept sketches.

What is Sketching From Life?

The idea behind sketching from life is to use a pencil, pen or brush, to quickly sketch what you see around you, in situ. It excludes photographic references. Unlike urban sketching, it is not confined to public places. It includes portraiture, figure drawing, and still-life drawing in a studio.

The aim is to improve and practice your drawing skills.

You can take a sketchbook anywhere. Many people dream of sketching while they travel. This Domestika course by Alicia Aradilla is a good place to start if you want to give it ago.

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.

One of the best freehand artists is Stephen Bauman. This is advanced stuff but check him out on Proko anyway

What is Life Drawing?

Life drawing is the term used to draw the human body strictly from observation. It usually involves a nude model in various poses, although artists also draw classical statues.

It is associated with classical art education and trains the artist in the observation of shadows, form, and human anatomy.

What is Figure Drawing?

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

If you want to be amazed take a look at this Domestika class (affiliate) by Shane Wolf. He’s so talented it hurts.

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.

Learn the basics of digital illustration with Procreate on Domestika. Brad Woodward will show you the ropes. I bought this course myself.

Procreate for beginners. Digital illustration 101. A domestika course
Digital Drawing with Procreate

What is Still Life Drawing?

Still, life drawing is the study of inanimate objects drawn realistically under studio conditions. The subjects can be man-made or natural. The artist usually contrives the composition and directs the light source artificially.

What is a Line Drawing?

Similar to an outline sketch but more refined. The simple lines are more accurate and the proportions are correct. They typically use the thickness of line and cross hatching to indicate form. They can be the precursor to more detailed works of art or used as illustrations in their own right.

Line drawings are usually (but not exclusively) rendered in pen and ink, often with a light watercolor wash.

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 skill level, dedication, and patience.

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

Is Drawing the Same as Illustration?

The two art forms overlap but can be distinguished in different ways.

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 differences can be subtle but let me offer a good example.

An artist could draw a songbird and wish to convey its fragile beauty and the emotion it inspires in the viewer. An illustrator, in contrast, is more likely to draw the songbird accurately with 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.

You should read this: Is Drawing From Reference Photos Bad? Are You Cheating?

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 super-realistically desires to do so. They have the talent and confidence 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 Heavyweight Fine Grain Cartridge Paper. The fine grain gives my shading a speckled effect which I love.

This post might be a game-changer: Can You Draw With Mechanical Pencils? Yes, and Here’s How

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

That’s hard to explain rationally, they feel more natural, they are lighter, longer, 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.

This post explains everything: What Do Pencil Numbers Mean? Pencil Grades Explained + Charts

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.

Refer to this post: 9 Ways to Stop Pencil Shine in a Drawing and Save Your Work!

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 ranges.

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

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 marks, with mechanical pencils.

A skill you can learn: How to Draw Realistic Shadows in Pencil (All The Best Secrets)

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

We all have to start somewhere and that’s why Udemy courses are popular. This class is by Brent Eviston, and he has many more. You can see how many people have taken his classes

The art and science of drawing by Brent Eviston on Udemy

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.

This is how I did it: How To Sell Landscape Paintings: 13 Ways to Make More Money

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 cross-hatching and 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 with quick marks and loose strokes. 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.

You should read this: How to Protect and Preserve Your Drawings and Avoid Disaster

Charcoal takes a lot of getting used to, check out Sarah on Domestika and learn the skill. Her course has over 15,000 students with very positive reviews.

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, that 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 pastels 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.

Read my guide here: Best Pastel Pencils For Beginners: 7 Top Brands Plus a Chart

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.

Colored Pencils 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 colored pencils exclusively. I suspect that social media has allowed this medium to find its rightful niche.

I suspect that very few artists use colored pencils 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 the same way as graphite 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 dry media, 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 cheap sketch pad will do. Whatever comes to hand will be fine. I carry a cheap notebook for ideas

Only use cheap sketch paper when you don’t value the drawing.

Choosing Your Drawing Paper

When you buy a sketch pad, you are looking for a number of things. You are looking at the tint, surface, size, weight, and if your pad is backed.

I like to draw on off-white warmer paper. I use Daler-Rowney Heavyweight Cartridge Paper. There are no rules, it’s only my preference.

Many artists like to draw on brilliant white, especially those who like Bristol Paper. Others like to draw on tinted paper, many choose a tan or grey as a mid-tone and add the white highlights. Try Strathmore 400 series.

This post goes into detail: What’s The Right Paper for Pencil Drawing? (How to Choose Wisely)

The surface will have the greatest impact on your final drawing. Strathmore’s ultra-smooth Bristol board is the paper of choice for many illustrators. It is perfect for shading pencil with a blending stump, produces crisp clean lines for ink sketches, and it’s acid-free.

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 softens the grain. If however, you remove a sheet and attach it to an acrylic drawing board the grain is highlighted.

White tiger swimming with a reflection. A pencil drawing
‘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 tooth. It’s 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 of art.

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.

Last but not least is the backing board. If you buy a pad without good support you are making life difficult for yourself. The best sketchbooks have a backing. Most quality brands know that a backing board is important. I avoid cheap backless pads.

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.

If the worst happens read this: How to Repair Drawing Paper: 9 Ways to Rescue Your Artwork

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.

I don’t like to travel with a ringed drawing pad. Invariably the rings get bent along the way and it’s a real pain.

Before I round this up, I have one final comment.

As with so many areas of life, the manufacturers now subdivide their products into every conceivable combination of mostly unnecessary choices.

Their marketers have gone mad. It confuses the hell out of me and I’ve been drawing for a lifetime.

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

Drawing vs Sketching: Final Thoughts

If you’ve reached this far, well done, but honestly, 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 can sum up the main difference between drawing and sketching in the simplest terms possible, I’d say in general, drawing is a more serious form of drawing, 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.


If you like the way I draw and want to try things for yourself, this is my basic kit as a list:

If you want an alternative to Amazon, check out ARTEZA art supplies or BLICK


Why not turn your drawings into cash? Have you thought about selling them? I’ve written a guide to show you how. All you have to do is copy the idea! Take a look.

Selling art made simple digital guide for starting a small art business

If You Want to Sell Your Art

Check this out!l

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Drawing and sketching is their a difference?