Terry Miura • Studio Notes

Friday, April 5, 2013

Relax, It's *Just* A Sketch!

Blue Chair, 9 x 12 oil on linen

How often have you gone out painting on location, only to be discouraged by the perceived difficulty of task at hand?

If you are like most painters, you can relate to this; You get in your car to go painting, may be on a whim one beautiful morning, or may be you have a scheduled paint out with a group, or may be even at a plein air painting competition... you drive around looking for a view, you see some interesting things, but nothing strikes you as quite right.

There's no parking, there's no shade, the angle's all wrong, too noisy, too warm, too cold, too windy... So you drive on. And on. Until you've lost the light and your enthusiasm. (Not to mention 200 miles worth of gas!) It seems like the views are worse than the unacceptable ones a few hours earlier. So you just decide to go home, unhappy and with a list of excuses.

Or, you force yourself to set up at the next less-than-ideal spot, determined to get a painting done. But you are not "feelin' it" anymore. You half-heartedly block in the shapes, but you know it's gonna be a crappy painting because your heart is not in it. And of course you have a scraper, as you knew you would.

Or, you're painting in a plein air competition, and you're feeling the pressure to perform. You've somehow set the bar really high because you just can't do crappy paintings and be showing them next to those amazing works by those fabulous artists – "I'll be humiliated," you say to yourself. "And everyone will remember me as the worst painter in the show. My career will be ruined before it's even off the ground!" .  Oh the stress~!

So you tell yourself you can't paint something totally boring and stupid, and yet, if it's not that, the view looks way too difficult. Paralyzingly difficult.

Sound familiar? Relax, it's just a sketch!

Painting is difficult whether you're outdoors or not, but the added pressure to perform can be really stressful. I know. I've been there.

Nowadays, while I still find plein air painting difficult, and I still often paint a scraper for various reasons, I don't stress out about it as I used to. I've kind of gotten used to the fact that I just can't hit the ball every single time. Sometimes I strike out, and that's just a fact I've come to accept. And coming to that realization really took some weight off my shoulders.

Because, you know, the pressure to perform is all in my head. All the insecurities and excuses and bad attitudes just feed on one another and get amplified, taking all the joy out of painting.  It just becomes a chore, or worse, it can really do a number on your confidence.

Roadside Painter, 6 x 8, oil on linen

So how do you break out of this ball of negativity and get a painting done, and enjoy it while you're at it?  

One of the best ways, I've found, is to consider your task to be "just a sketch". Don't feel like you have to bang out a fully resolved, show-worthy painting, let alone a masterpiece. Just do a simple little sketch. You don't even have to finish it. It's just a name change from "a painting" to "a sketch", and how you actually go about it hasn't changed, but you'd be surprised how liberated it can make you feel. 

Sure you can screw it up, but screwing up a little sketch doesn't hurt nearly as much as something on which you stake your reputation (or so you perceive).  And guess what, it's not as easy to screw up a sketch. Did you know that? Chances are, you'll paint better than if you swung for the fences.

Second tip: This goes hand in hand with the first tip. Paint your sketch "center out". That is to say, pick a focal point. This should be an object, or just a small part of an object even. Paint that, resolve it as best you can, and then paint its immediate surroundings with a bigger brush. Just mix the colors carefully and paint them as color notes. Don't even worry that they don't look like "things". Abstraction is good. And then, go further out and use an even bigger brush and paint even more abstractly and expressively than what you just did.  And again, you don't have to finish the painting. It's just a little sketch, remember? 

The two paintings I'm posting today are examples of "just a sketch" mind set and "center out" process. Both subjects are unremarkable and ordinary, and as you can see, they are unfinished, but intentionally so. 

Not only does "permission to not finish" takes a lot of pressure off, but pictorially, the finished area (the focal point which is more or less resolved) looks even more finished by contrast. 

It turns out, this "center out" method works really well when you're faced with a complex view where you may feel intimidated by the amount of visual information you have to process, or where perspective and drawing just looks much more difficult than your skill level. I mean think about it; painting a street scene with cars and buildings all in perspective sounds kind of intimidating, but looking at the same view, but focusing on one tire or one fire hydrant doesn't sound so bad. The rest of the view will still be included, but just not so defined. The big brushes won't allow you to paint tedious detail, you see.

It forces you to be unambiguous about your focal point, and it forces you to paint all the supporting cast with less detail and more expression. That's an effective combination even if you don't consider your task "just a sketch".

Tip number three: Once you've done one sketch, look around. You may find that you see paintable views everywhere where just a few hours ago you saw nothing. This is because you are now seeing with a painter's eye, and your brain is organizing the visual information in a more purposeful way. Get another painting going right away. If you wait, you may lose the painter's eye and you're back where you started. But that's OK, you've got the "it's just a sketch" strategy to fall back on, right?

Tip number four: Remember, great subject matter doesn't necessarily make a great painting. Or a good painting, even. Sure, it doesn't hurt to have the perfect view but chances of encountering such views are slim in many areas. On the other hand, the simplest, most ordinary and unimpressive subject matter can be turned into a charming little sketch that you'd be proud to hang even next to that award-winning painter. Just give it a chance.

So the next time you're getting all frustrated because you can't find the right view, or when you find yourself feeling the pressure to perform for fear of humiliation,  just relax. it's just a sketch!

By the way, I have just one more spot left for my upcoming workshop - You can read about it here. If you're interested, don't wait to sign up!


  1. Interesting, informative, instructive post, thank you.

  2. This is a most excellent post! One of my biggest problems with starting on location is mindset! There are some many things to juggle, and I think the "just a sketch" mindset could be a real help.

  3. Thanks Terry good stuff. I especially like the idea of the "center out" method. I've never tried it but it makes so much sense. That way I'm more inclined to keep the focal point focal and it seems it would make it easier to really de-focus the surrounding areas...Ummmm.

  4. excellent advice...BUT...I recently went on a painting holiday with others. I resolved to produce just sketches, and when the others came to comment on my sketches, I found myself saying "it's just a sketch". I was taken on one side by a chum who told me to STOP saying this....others on the trip would have been delighted to have produced such images, she said (they were far less experienced) and saying that my picture was "Just" a sketch, was making them feel bad about their own efforts. Clearly, one has to be careful of the use of certain phrases in certain situations!

  5. Thanks everyone! I love hearing from you. It makes me feel like this stuff matters~!

  6. Good point Jackie, though in my case, the sole purpose of saying "just a sketch" is to lower the bar and take pressure off myself only. I don't think I actually say it to others.
    But you're right, in the situation which you describe, the appropriate thing to say might be, "Damn that was hard!" LOL~

  7. Another wonderful and perceptive post. Thanks Terry! I've experienced all of the frustrations and trepidations you mention. The center out idea in particular strikes me as a great idea. In fact, I have a painting in the studio right now that could definitely benefit from that approach. I'm going to try it today!
    I have one more suggestion that might help too. Along with all the other pressures you mention, I also am conscious of ruining another expensive canvas panel. Lately, in both the studio and on location, I've been experimenting with temporarily taping down or clamping a piece of oil primed canvas on a panel. Suddenly, it seems less 'important' to succeed every time. After all, it's only a piece of canvas and it's "just a sketch."
    Great stuff Terry.

  8. Thanks Bruce~!

    Yes, I do that (tape pieces of canvas on boards) a lot too. And you're right, it does make it seem less important to do a finished piece.

    The odds of doing a keeper doesn't change, but if it doesn't come out, I haven't put in the time mount it so I come out a head.

    I'll mount it afterwards only if it's a keeper worthy of a frame.

    Another great thing about working on loose canvas is that you can figure out the crop AFTER you do the painting. This is a huge plus - I might go so far as to say that it's an integral part (or should be) of painting "center out" on a loose canvas.

    Great advice Bruce~ I'm glad you brought it up :-D

  9. HI Terry, this is such a well written post. Thanks for sharing it. Not only are we suppose to simplify our subjects, you've outlined a way to simplify our process! I think it's just what I needed to hear at the moment...

  10. Great words of wisdom, Terry. Love the post.

  11. I'm bookmarking this post - so helpful. Thankyou

  12. Really great post, Terry! We here in Ohio are just starting our plein air season, and I have forwarded a link to your post to my painting group. I think this will be very helpful to everyone. We paint weekly and need to get in this mindset right away!

  13. Very informative and interesting post it is !! A big thanks for sharing with us !!

  14. Great post my friend.

    I stumbled across the relief that the "sketching" mindset has on reducing pressure while painting. It truly does liberate the mind from unnecessary pressure to produce a great painting.

    I find that I just let go a lot more and experiment more. It's a good thing.

    I've never tried the center-out approach. will have to give that one a go.

    Thanks for the very helpful article. Nice one!

  15. This is a great post. I heard one artist, Hedi Moran, say that rather than going into her studio to "do a painting" she goes in simply "to paint", with no expectation that she is going to produce "a painting".

    As far as taping the canvas to a board, this works! As does using Arches oil paper...somehow working on paper frees me up from expectations.

    Thanks for the great post.

  16. You know it's funny your not my teacher .... But I feel you could be ....

  17. Thanks everyone for your thoughtful comments~ we're all on the same boat!

  18. Great post, thanks!

  19. Love the chair! Love the car! Love your work!
    It certainly does matter!
    I think making art and appreciating art is wondrous!
    Your work is unique and beautiful! I can't ask for much more than that.
    Bravo Terry!
    Your fellow painter and artist and art buddy!

  20. Excellent post and tips! Thank you

  21. Thanks Anon, Michael, and Patti~!

  22. Thank you Terry for articulating what I feel each time I go out to paint! I love the "center out" approach, as I often have trouble choosing my focal point. Your blog posts are invaluable to me, and I so appreciate the time and effort you put into them!
    Hope to attend one of your workshops again,
    Deborah Cushman