Painting from a fast sketch


The holiday bazaar last Saturday was lovely, with beautiful artwork and Irish music provided by my own fiddler and our friends from the Irish music community (if there’s any reason—other than sheer joy—to learn to play Irish music, old time, or any folk music, it would be the wonderful groups of friends you’ll make doing so).

The day started a bit slowly, so I took the opportunity from my seat inside the circle of musicians (in between firing off the tunes I knew on the whistle) to sketch the dulcimer player with the intention of later making a painting solely from my sketch after the dulcimer player left to go to another gig.

Sometimes I can’t take photos for reference. Sometimes I just don’t want a camera intruding on the moment. And I like the practice of trying to find a painting from my initial sketch.


pencil sketch
Quick pencil sketch

I payed particular attention to these elements as I gathered information for a painting:

  1. The shapes of the features that made a likeness. She has strong features, making it easier to draw them.
  2. The shapes of the shadow forms. There wasn’t a clear single-light source, so I had to choose the shadows as best I could to show form.
  3. Lost and found edges. Frankly, I was pressed for time, so I didn’t give as much thought to edges as I should have.
  4. Color notes. Okay, in all honesty, I didn’t make any color notes on anything other than her hair and her jacket. But I should have. They would have noted things like skin color in the highlights, midtones, and shadows, room color, light quality. Next time!

I had about half an hour (give or take a tune or two) to make this sketch, so some areas, like the far eye and hairline, were left a bit hazy.  These omissions would later bite me in the butt as I tried to recreate this sketch in color.

Then, while the hall bustled around me with holiday shoppers, I painted.

Watercolor painting
Watercolor painting using pencil sketch as resource

After a day of painting between customers, I ended up with a sort of half sketched painting that was almost a likeness, but not quite.

The prevailing wisdom about watercolor is that you can’t erase it. Nonsense! While you can never get down to the beautiful pristine paper again, you can certainly lift much of the color. I didn’t like the purply-red I’d put in her hair, so when I got home, I scrubbed it off with a toothbrush and a spray of water. Then I let it dry completely and repainted.

The mouth also didn’t match the sketch, and so lost much of her character, so I lifted the paint using an old sable brush (I don’t know why this is, but nothing lifts watercolor as well as sable), let it dry, redrew it, and repainted it. The nose got a little surgery and lost its bottom edge. I adjusted the angle of the far cheek and the perspective of the eyes.

Watercolor from fast sketch

This almost captures the likeness of the dulcimer player, and I’m pretty pleased to have done it without a photo-aid. To be fair, I’ve known her for years, so that when my brush drove past the likeness, I knew I’d arrived.

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