Preliminary sketches illustrating abstract patterns of light, dark, and mid-tones

When it comes to painting, the act of drawing is often a departure from the classical linear concept that is understood by most people. Drawing, in the painting arena, has more to do with large compositional ideas and design elements, such as placement of objects or masses, linear movement, relative sizes of objects, weight distribution, and shapes.

As an initial drawing, many artists don’t even use line as a starting point, but place large abstract masses instead. Of course, as the painting develops, there are plenty of opportunities for drawing in the classical sense, such as branches, fence posts, telephone poles, and the directional movements of things like the edge of a river or road. But even with details such as these, in a painterly approach, what sometimes seems like a line is often the meeting place of two masses of different values or colors, which create the sensation of line by their very coming together.

Having said that, the spirit of drawing is always present in a good painting, and the artist who possesses competent drawing skills is better off than someone who has spent little time pushing a pencil, or feeling their way around a drawing board using vine charcoal or Conte crayon in a life drawing class. I have always felt that my time in these college classes and in private drawing groups, pursuing these fundamental skills, was time well spent. As a matter of fact, to stay up on these skills, it is highly advised that we painters keep up a regimen of drawing on a regular basis.

Revisiting the fundamentals from time to time is a good thing and shouldn’t be neglected due to time constraints. There is always a free minute or two in most artists’ lives to squeeze some good old-fashioned drawing time in, with a sketchbook that is kept nearby.

Preliminary sketches illustrating abstract patterns of light, dark, and mid-tones

That brings me to planning, or the conceptual phase of the painting process. I believe, as many do, that a good painting begins with a solid concept and that conceptualizing a painting is most often done as a series of starts and re-starts, hiccups and stops, in the form of drawings, doodles, or thumbnail sketches; this is where the artist builds on the raw first impression. A songwriter jots down notes and words that are subject to revision with further bursts of inspiration, and the painter is no different. From elemental form to finished product, the artist follows this same process of creativity.

Creativity, by the way, is often clouded at first, in a sort of cosmic communication that must go through the human filter of each artist, then be tweaked in many ways before gelling into a finished work of art. Along the path, ideas are discarded, or, more often, tucked away in the mind of the artist. These ideas often resurface at a future date, in the form of another finished piece more suited to the original idea that was put aside, but not forgotten. In this way, inspiration or creativity takes on a life of its own, and, like a raging fire, keeps building on what once started out as a small creative spark.

Preliminary sketches illustrating abstract patterns of light, dark, and mid-tones

In my studio, I have a drawing table that serves as the concept station for larger studio pieces. I know one artist who constantly makes sketches during commercials when he is watching TV! Out in the field, where there is little time for a meticulous rendering, a drawing book serves the same purpose, but that most often ends with a thumbnail sketch or two as artists cycle through ideas quickly in this ever-changing environment.

John Hughes on location

With that in mind, the thumbnail is a good starting point, whether on location or in the studio. There is not much time investment in these little gems, and the time spent is well worth it to avoid the heartache that comes from a painting that goes south because of a poorly thought out concept. Back in the studio, the thumbnail can then become a full-blown sketch or charcoal rendering that will go a long way to inform the artist while working on a larger piece.

On a personal note, I used to paint with a good friend in California who once mentioned to me that there was this other artist that he knew of who only produced one painting a year! After pondering this statement for a moment, I replied, “How does he feel when he blows one?” We both laughed; I mean I’d have to go into mourning for a while if that happened! My main point is this: Regardless of how prolific you are, preparation is still key! The more you know about your subject, the better off you are.

As a corollary to this, I think some beginning artists are enamored with the idea of effortlessly dashing something off, and sometimes that becomes the goal. Although speed of execution is fun and makes for a great exercise in simplification, it is, after all, a byproduct of years of practice and shouldn’t be an end in itself. This type of thinking can also become an excuse for poor execution if one is not careful. Thinking, “I painted this quickly,” or, “I had to overcome a lot of weather-related obstacles to get this painting done” can be a problem.

John Hughes, “Rocks on the Rim,” oil

I remember a painting show on PBS years ago, “Welcome to my Studio,” with artist Helen Van Wyk. Helen was a very accomplished artist, who really taught some solid concepts. She used to say, and I’m paraphrasing, “No one cares how much you suffer over a painting, they only care about how good it looks in the end.”

And this could be said about any work of art, whether done in the studio or on location. They don’t really care how quickly it was painted, or how many mosquitoes you had to swat! Sure, that makes for good storytelling, but what people really want, or should want, if they are collecting seriously, is some sort of quality, and that is most often built on conceptual preparation. This is where regular drawing serves the artist well and should not be neglected.

With that idea in mind, what are some tips beginners could use in their quest to be better at drawing? Well, in addition to the ideas already presented, such as life drawing classes, getting an accurate drawing with the right proportions is always a good starting place. I suggest the following ideas on this subject: the use of plumb lines, level lines, triangulation, relative angles, positive and negative shapes, and measurements, using your brush handle at arm’s length. These are all good tools for getting great proportion. I would love to go into each of them separately, but that could be the subject for another day. In the meantime, do a little research on each of these suggestions and start using them in your work.

John Hughes, “Jewel of the Tetons,” oil

While this article is not exhaustive on the subject, I hope it inspires some of my readers regarding the importance of drawing and how it is used in painting. If you like what you are reading, leave me a comment and perhaps I will be able to continue with tips for landscape painters. Next time I will be discussing color, how to mix it, and how to get better harmony.

Until then, cheers and happy painting!

This article was originally published in 2017

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John Hughes teaches landscape painting classes for Salt Lake Community College and the Scottsdale Artist School, along with private art workshops and classes. His work is represented by Montgomery Lee Fine Art (Utah) and Mountain Trails Gallery (Wyoming). Hughes is a member of the Plein Air Painters of Utah, Rocky Mountain Plein Air Painters, and the American Impressionist Society. John’s work and art advice has been featured in Plein Air magazine, Fibonacci Fine Arts Digest, 15 Bytes magazine, Outdoor Painter, and Artists on Art. His work was recently featured in the book "Painters of the Grand Tetons" by Donna and James Poulton. He now maintains a studio in Taylorsville Utah, where he resides with his wife Teresa, four children, and two grandchildren.


  1. John, your article is a wonderful reminder of all that time we artists spend working on our craft and the process that one follows to achieve their end product, hopefully. I would add that for so many of us the process is the beauty and the art and hopefully there is a grand satisfying result in the end to show for their efforts. But not always. I teach older students. As I explain to folks I teach older successfully retired students how to make mistakes!

    I enjoy your work and your advice and look forward to more. Thanks

  2. I blushed internally when I read ‘beginning artists are enamored with the idea of effortlessly dashing something off’; I admit to times of making that my sole goal! Thanks for an extremely well-written article, full of vision.

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