20 sketching tips to help you make your first marks

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Getting started with sketching can be more daunting than you might expect. In this article, seasoned artists for their top sketching tips. On this page you'll find advice for getting started, or jump to page 2 for some tips on how to elevate your sketching skills. Here you'll find tips on the technical skills you need to master, as well as techniques for getting inspired.

If this has inspired you to explore your artistic side, check out our article on how to draw just about anything.

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01. Know your pencils

There's a big difference between 4B and 4H

Before you start, you need to pick the best pencils for the job. The hardness of the graphite is indicated on the side of the pencil: 'B' pencils are softer, 'H' are harder, and 'HB' sits in the middle.  – there's a big difference between a 4H and a 4B. "I recommend starting somewhere on the H scale as a foundation and then finishing with the darker B scale," says travelling convention artist Tim Von Rueden.

It's also worth considering using mechanical pencils alongside traditional ones. "Mechanical pencils are usually better suited for precision, while traditional pencils are great for laying down large areas of texture," says Von Rueden. "Keep in mind that most mechanical pencils come with HB pre-inserted, which gives you only the middle range to work with."

02. Take control of your pencil

Tripod (top) and extended tripod (bottom) grips

"If you position your hand closer to the end of the pencil, you have more control and precision, but heavier strokes (darker markings)," says illustrator Sylwia Bomba. "Gripping further up the pencil will give you less control and precision, but lighter strokes (lighter markings)." For more advice, read our article on how to hold a pencil correctly

03. Try different mark-making methods

There are many ways to create form within your sketches

There are plenty of sketching techniques to help you achieve different styles and effects. Above are some examples demonstrating different ways to create form and depth. "It’s important to experiment and find what works best for you, to not only complement but enhance your style," explains Von Rueden. "While I prefer smoother value transitions with the pencil strokes blending in against a thin outline, you may be more partial to cross-hatching against a bold outline."

04. Vary your lines

Shifts in the width and darkness of your lines will create interest

Use varied lines, says illustrator Rovina Cai. "Not all lines are equal. Subtle shifts in the width and darkness of your lines will create a dynamic, visually interesting drawing. Controlling the kind of mark you put down can be tricky in the beginning, but with practice you will be able to create a variety of marks that work together to make a cohesive image. Experiment with different pencil grades (from 3H to 6B) and with holding the pencil at different angles."

05. Avoid smudging

Use an extra piece of paper under your hand to avoid smudging your work

"When shading, use an extra piece of paper underneath your hand," advises artist Brun Croes. "This will minimise the amount your hand smudges your pencil lines. If you're right-handed, start shading from left to right; if you're left-handed, start at the right and move to the left.

"There's nothing more frustrating than trying to make a clean-looking drawing that loses its brilliance and value thanks to smudging. Instead, use smudging to your advantage every now and then to smooth out shading. You can do this with several tools. I use a simple piece of tissue paper to get the job done."

06. Control your edges

Create interest by combining different types of edges

Von Rueden uses four different sketching techniques to define object edges: thin, hard, lost and undefined. A thin and hard edges give objects solid borders. Lost edges occur when the object and background values start to blend together, so the edge is implied rather than defined. Undefined edges need to be deciphered by the viewer themselves. He suggests exploring all four types, and combining them to create interest within your work.

07. Use a blending stick for smooth shading

Create subtle shading by smudging large areas of soft charcoal

It is possible to create smooth, blended effects using pencils – for example, to capture a sky. "Sometimes it's preferable for your shading to be less sketchy and more smooth and subtle," says artist Marisa Lewis. "Pencil lines don't blend perfectly unless you're very careful." 

To avoid your initial scribbles showing through, Lewis uses a particular art technique. "Use spare paper to doodle a big swatch of soft graphite or charcoal pencil, then use a large blending stick to pick up the soft dust to use for your image," she explains. "Keep using the blending stick and adding more scribbles as you need more graphite." You can then build up darker areas to create definition.

08. Apply the 70/30 rule

Keep your main focal point within around 30 per cent of the image

Less can be more! The 70/30 rule helps you create effective compositions. The idea is that 30 per cent of your sketch is filled with the main focus and detail, and the remaining 70 per cent is filler. This less interesting area helps direct attention towards the main subject of your artwork. You can see the rule in action in Von Rueden's sketch above.

09. Make it symmetrical (but not quite)

Keep a nice contrast going between a finished look and a more of a sketchy feel

"I like symmetrical drawings, but they often look boring all too quickly," says Croes. "A good way to prevent this is to add some subtle changes and only keep the general lines symmetrical instead of mirroring every small part. Keeping some elements asymmetrical helps to avoid boring repetition."

10. Differentiate different textures

Consider if the material is rough or smooth, and if it absorbs or reflects light

To show different textures within your sketch, you need to adjust your technique. "You wouldn’t want to shade skin the same way you shade metallics or fur. They each have unique properties and capturing that will elevate your drawings because of the accuracy depicted," says Von Rueden. 

A good starting point is to consider if the texture is rough or smooth, and then if it absorb or reflects light. "A reflecting and smooth texture, such as chrome, usually has higher contrasts and prominent highlights, while an absorbing and rough texture like cotton has low contrasts and little to no highlight present," he continues.

Next page: Advanced sketching tips to take your drawings to a new level