(Number one in a series of ten ideas I have about sketching.)

4 August, 2018. I’ve been gathering my thoughts around a list of topics I consider to be important for a positive, fun, and personally successful sketching experience. I started out with a couple of “non-rules,” simple guidelines and suggestions I found myself sharing with my drawing students and fellow sketchers. My list eventually grew to ten non-rules I more or less follow in my own work. And like most such things, I do tend to ignore one or all of them from time to time. But invariably, when I find a sketch is somehow personally dissatisfying, a quick analysis generally reveals I’ve ignored one of these ten principle ideas. So there you have it: I ignore my own advice at my peril.

So, principle number one: Scale. What do we mean by “scale?”

Fundamentally, it refers the size of things. In a drawing, scale refers to the size of one object in comparison to others. If you make a sketch of a very tall tree with a person standing in front of it, the drawn scale of those objects is important viewer information. For the sake of argument, let’s assume you’ve drawn the very tall tree so that it is about the same height as the person. Because we know the tree is in reality very tall, a viewer may assume the tree is in the background, far off in the distance. Otherwise how would it appear to be the same height as the person? If instead, we want the person to appear to be near the tree, it may be that we draw it so large that only part of the trunk and lower branches are visible; the scale of the tree is much larger than the person.

The concept is probably pretty obvious, and I’m certain a long and tediously academic discussion could be formed around this topic. Let’s keep things simple and more to the point by considering how scale in your sketch influences the viewing experience:

Be aware of the size of your drawn objects relative to each other and relative to the page. Ask yourself: Is everything of similar size in your drawing? (Booooo-ring!) Try to make somethings more important than others by varying the size of objects.

In the sketch above, I’ve used scale to create the illusion of a crowd that extends into space. The size of the people vary and a viewer understands that some are closer, while others are further away. Compare the size of people to the car in the near ground. We understand that the car is closer than most of the crowd, not only because of the overlapping shapes, but also because it’s quite a bit larger than the comparatively small people in the background. Extending that thinking further, even the people in the middle ground are large in comparison to the buildings, again cluing the viewer in on how much distance exists between them, and between the buildings and us, the viewers.

I enjoy finding ways to communicate the illusion of space as simply and efficiently as possible. Pay attention to how you manipulate scale in your sketches. I think you’ll find this is an effective tool for designing a more visually interesting composition.



  1. lepastelbleu · August 5

    your theory is interesting. I personally have the defect of being so academic, often making my sketches rigid. I’m using Ben Shahn as a reference but it’s really hard to get away from academic schemes. What do you suggest me? thank you

    • azorch · August 5

      I have probably mentioned it before, but Ben Shaun is one of my favorite artists. I have always regarded his ability to communicate an emotion or an idea through the simplest lines and shapes as something I aspire to.
      That said, there is nothing wrong about an academic approach to making art. In fact, the use of scale is definitely an academic approach. When I make reference to “academic“ in my post, I’m really referring to those individuals who spend much more time talking or writing about making art than actually making art. 😁 nevertheless, those of us who make art for any length of time will ponder the things that are working and the things that aren’t. So I guess we are all thinking our way through academic ideas and concepts.
      When you refer to your work as being “rigid, “what is it that you are describing? For instance, I might think of an artist like Durer or Andrew Wyeth as being technically very rigid. It’s certainly not the way I would paint or draw… Still, I very much admire their work.
      Or do you feel that rather than technically rigid, you are being rigid in your choice of subject matter? Or your choice of media? Or something else entirely?
      When I feel that I am getting too stiff with a drawing or painting, I put it away and try something brand new… Perhaps a new media or an unusual surface. A friend of mine was struggling with his work several years ago. He was really kind of depressed, to be honest. I hadn’t seen him in several months and was pleased to run into him and see that he was very happy with his new work. I asked him what had changed and he told me he had gone out of town and stayed at his parents house for a couple of days. While he was there he picked up a children’s box of Crayola crayons and worked with them all weekend long. He walked away with a fresh attitude and a fresh perspective on applying color to a surface.

  2. lepastelbleu · August 5

    Thank you for your answer. that you love Ben Shahn I understand it by looking at your work and maybe this will please you, I think. My problem with the academic style is not to resemble Durer … it was possible! the problem is a rigidity and always repeating myself is changing technique, perhaps the fear of letting go, maybe not knowing exactly where you want to arrive, in short: I am in front of a huge rock and I do not know how to go on, very difficult and tiring.

    • azorch · August 5

      Is “knowing exactly where you want to arrive” very important to you? I ask because it’s something I struggled with for a long time. I felt paralyzed at times because I “knew” exactly what my drawings and paintings were “supposed” to look like. I felt disappointed in myself because they never did.

      Giving myself permission to play and to accept that the results are what they are was very liberating for me. A strange thing happened when I gave away a part of myself to chance: Every now and then a sketch I made would have unexpected results that appealed to me. Usually, this happened whenever I was experimenting or playing with something that interested me. Instead of worrying about what my art was “supposed” to look like, some good things just happened… kind of like a gift out of nowhere. Honestly, there are many times when the only person who likes these little moments of clarity is me. Others may say, “Oh, do more color” or “I like your landscapes better.” But I try not to let those comments propel what I’m working on too much. What I found was that the “huge rock” was me. I got in my own way and had to give myself permission to sidestep my own preconceptions about who I am supposed to be and what I am supposed to be doing. It was one of the most difficult changes I ever had to make, but it gets easier every day that I rehearse.

      I’ll leave you with this thought: one of my favorite quotations is also one of Lichtenstein’s favorites. “Originality is simply a fresh pair of eyes.” I’ll often substitute “creativity” for “originality,” but the thinking is pretty much the same. My interpretation is that the act of sharing your vision with others often helps to crystalize your thoughts. Often enough, the “fresh pair of eyes,” if I am open to growth, are my own.

  3. lepastelbleu · August 5

    many thanks, very nice to talk to you, unfortunately we do not speak the same language (I speak Italian and French and I use English for very simple speeches, I’m using google translator to talk with you and for such deep arguments it would be useful to speak in the same language) I try to understand what you tell me, but it’s difficult to answer: I’m at a point where I do not know exactly what I’m looking for in my work, I’m always interested in the thin line that defines the ‘to be from no longer being, old houses, old doors, rusty, dry, decomposed materials. This is the leitmotif of my work but I can not get to the essence, I go around repeating myself without getting to the core of the thing … can you understand me? many many thanks for your words.

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