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Drawing Lesson 15 – How to Sketch

How to Sketch the Old Masters Copies

Video Lesson Description

In this “How to Sketch” video lesson I will present you my sketchbooks with copies of the Old Masters done from original paintings in the National Gallery, London.

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How to do Sketches

If you want to become a proficient fine artist and think How to Sketch, then practising on a daily basis is a good strategy. Drawing sketchbooks are your best friends in this pursuit.


How to Sketch
Considering How to Sketch, buy a couple of sketchbooks today if you don’t have one. Any art supply store has multiple choices on offer.

Sketchbooks vary in size, quality and thickness of paper. It may also have portrait or landscape layout. Check the quality and sizes and go for the one that you like the best.

I would not recommend the spiral bound sketchbook, though. Such books might be easy to open flat, but unless you intend to work in pen and ink only, they will smudge your drawings in graphite pencil, chalks or coloured pencil. Choose a sketchbook that has a rigid hard cover. “How to Sketch” is an easy task when you can make sketches by holding the book in one hand and drawing with the other. No drawing board or table is required. Thin, soft cover sketchbooks are good for children.

The quality of paper plays a crucial role in how to sketch exercise. Do not be tempted to save a couple of bucks going for paper you would not use for a big professional drawing. Go for a good quality one.

In this “How to Sketch” video, I will show you just a couple of my sketchbooks containing copies of the Old Masters. I made those sketches in the National Gallery, London. This is a Moleskine book in A4 size, with plain hot pressed paper that has light yellowing tint.

I am fortunate to have my office in Central London next to Trafalgar Square, where the National Gallery is located. A “How to Sketch” wasn’t a question for me; for several months I visited the gallery every day, spending at least one hour per visit making copies of the Old Masters in my sketchbooks. The National Gallery displays a vast collection of Western European paintings dated from the 13th to the 19th centuries. It is a perfect place to study traditional fine art and practice drawing skills.

The gallery is very friendly to art students and professional artists who take the issue of How to Sketch seriously. On a weekly basis they run the “Talk and Draw” sessions open free of charge to the public. During these sessions, contracted art historians give a lecture about a particular painting and then one of art teachers guide the practical part of the session. I very much like these events, it is an opportunity to meet like-minded people and learn something new about paintings and the art masters I admire.

I started copying from the Old Masters in these sketchbooks because I had a specific goal. The majority of museum visitors spend less than a minute per painting, observing an original piece of art. In most cases, it takes them under 20 seconds per painting.

If you want to learn from the Old Masters and are thinking How to Sketch, it is not enough just to “have a look”, even if you stare at the masterpiece longer than 2 minutes. As a fine artist, you will only understand how the painting was created when you attempt to recreate it, even if this attempt is only a relatively quick sketch.

I am often using coloured pencils of various red and brown colours for my “How to Sketch” exercises. It is a good way to experiment with your drawing materials. Buy several pencils and test them one per sketch. Eventually you will find your favourites among the brands and colours.

It takes me anywhere from 45 minutes to 4 hours per sketch. Usually, one copy is done in three or four sketching sessions.

Most of the copies presented in this video lesson are portraits. I wanted to learn How to Sketch portraits and discover how painting was developing in Western Europe through the centuries. The variety of styles and different schools becomes very apparent when studying paintings by copying them.

Sometimes, it is a quite an intimate experience to stand right in front of the priceless original masterpiece and draw from it. From time to time, I had the feeling that I understood what the fine artist had been thinking in the past. I know it sounds bizarre, but I think that only by repeating the same artwork can we ever come close to understanding the techniques of the Old Master of the previous centuries.

Making such sketches, and thinking How to Sketch is also very useful in training both your hand and eyes. Of course, it is much easier to copy ready-made artworks than draw from life. For that purpose, you can buy another sketchbook and dedicate it to life drawing only, for example.

I also did several sketchbooks on topics of the human anatomy, as well as, on animal drawings. It is totally up to you if you want to mix different subjects and topics in one sketchbook. I find it handier when diverse topics and media are separated into several sketchbooks.

When you consider How to Sketch, it is important for you to like your sketchbooks. Do not save a few dollars or pounds on a book, you will spend a lot of time drawing in it. Every time you take the sketchbook in your hands you want it to feel right.

When drawing in the museum, progressing through “How to Sketch” sessions, I felt very privileged. No photo on a computer screen or illustration in a book can compare to experiencing an original artwork. Sketching a copy from the original painting is the best option when you want to come close to the Old Masters art. By the nature of the drawing process, you will be forced to look at details you would not notice or even think about otherwise. With time you will accumulate knowledge of and experience on various styles and techniques.

Sometimes, I do the same painting copy several times in various media such as: graphite pencil, coloured pencil or metal point; and every time, … I discover new aspects and features of the same artwork that I hadn’t noticed or thought about previously.

Treat your sketchbooks well. Handle them with care and know their value. It is not just a question of “How to Sketch“, one day your sketchbooks might become a history of art.

There are many cases when a fine artist’s sketchbooks have become very valuable as an artwork collection in its own right. Of course, the most famous example is, Leonardo da Vinci’s sketchbooks. Today they are valued at hundreds of millions of dollars.

When thinking How to Sketch, keep in mind that making copies of the Old Masters will give you a good taste for great art. This is very important for your creative self-development.

Have one sketchbook with you all the time when you’re travelling or enjoying leisure time. Make sure you draw on a daily basis. It is a very handy way to keep your fast drawings in one place. With time you can flip though pages and see your progress. Or, if you do numerous sketches from life, you may find an interesting pose or other ideas for your future artwork composition.

Making copies is not the only way to practice drawing skills or choosing “How to Sketch” methods. For example, you can dedicate a separate sketchbook to drawing from memory. After you have done multiple copies and life sketches, I am sure you will have a lot of ideas for your own compositions. Make rapid gesture sketches, as well as, drawings of small details. All these materials will become useful one day. Apart from improving your drawing skills, you will also collect those mental images that might inspire you for a masterpiece or become objects of your future artworks.

Drawing from life and drawing from memory will complement each other. There are some professional fine artists, which can draw beautifully from life but have difficulties with drawing from memory. When you think How to Sketch, remember that to be a versatile artist, you need to practice both methods – drawing from life as well as from memory.

When it comes to a question of How to Sketch with with coloured pencils, one of my favourite pencils is the red oil based pencil. It gives a warm tone and looks natural for old artworks. Drawing in the museum gives some challenges, however. I cannot choose any medium I want. For example, making painting copies in oil requires special permission and is only allowed one day per week. However, I can draw daily in dry media as long as the museum is open.

The choice of paintings for copying is very personal. I do not make a random collection of copies. Instead, I practice drawing portraits done by my favourite artists. Sometimes, I just do elements of various drawings, like hands or eyes, other times I draw figures or portraits.

Of course it is up to you what object of drawing you want to practice. As long as you make a lot of sketches, your drawing skills will progress from day to day. Start with one sketchbook if you haven’t done it so far. Make the decision of completing the book with sketches on a chosen topic or in a particular technique or media. Stick to your decision and sketch daily. You will be surprised how much more confident your drawing will become after your fourth sketchbook. You will develop your own style.

Good quality paper in your sketchbook will give you more freedom for various media. I like making metal-point sketches. For example, some pages I have coated with special grounds for silver- and gold-point. Sometimes I do experiments with grounds and not every ground gives the best results. A sketchbook is a good place for such testing. Drawing in metal-point requires a well-trained hand and eyes. The metal-point marks are not erasable, so fixing a small mistake can ruin the whole artwork. This is a great way to train a drawing discipline, when every line needs to be placed with thought and consideration.

The drawings you see are done in silver, gold, bronze and nickel-silver metal points. Various grounds are used for that purpose, such as: toned gouache, titanium white pigment, white chalk, marble dust, etc. Sometimes I do highlights with white chalk or white pencil.

I hope this demonstration will be motivation enough for you to start making multiple sketches in a sketchbook of your own, in case you are not doing it yet. Buy a good quality sketchbook that you will respect and love; it will influence your style of drawing. Do your sketches on a daily basis.

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