Sketching From Life -

Watercolor artist Shuang Li explains why sketching from life can have a big impact on your next painting.

By Shuang Li

I’ve been sketching from life for many years and I still do so, often. In today’s digital age, you may be wondering instead of snapping a photo, what’s the reason for me to spend time sketching. Yes, there are many good reasons why I still sketch from life. Today I just want to share a few with my Inner Circle friends about my passion for sketching.

Sketch of Tallinn Estonia: Old Town Entry
Sketch of Tallinn Estonia: Old Town Entry

Reason one: Sketching can help you observe better.
These days, with a smartphone or point-and-shoot camera, taking a photo is just a split-second task. However, as an artist, when I sketch something from real life, I immerse myself in the surroundings quickly, observe and capture the visual characteristics and beauty of the subject matter, and turn it into a visual memory of shapes, lines, colors, textures, and so on.

My finished sketches usually have visual details very similar to the photo of that place, plus lots of “invisibles” that only an artist could express. I not only see what’s out there visually but also feel the moisture in the air; smell the flowers nearby; sense the freshness of soil under my feet; hear the birds singing near and far. Back at my studio, when I look at what I sketched, all these vivid details come back and intensify my visual memories. These deepened experiences from my sketching activities inspire me to create studio paintings that are full of life and emotions.

Related Article > Capturing That Perfect Moment in Watercolor

Watercolor sketches and painting - Shuang Li

Reason two: Sketching can help you paint better watercolors

Watercolor demands an artist be a master of certain techniques to produce high-quality paintings. Among these skills, precision and decisiveness of brushstrokes go hand in hand, and together play a very critical role in the quality of a good painting. Over the years, I’ve sharpened my ability of being precise and decisive through routine exercises of sketching from life.

When back at my studio to paint larger and serious watercolor paintings, the ability of putting down a bold brushstroke precisely and decisively, which originated in my sketching, helps me paint bolder and looser watercolor paintings. The more I sketch, the higher the quality my watercolor brushstrokes become; thus I gain more freedom of expression in my studio paintings from my sketching.

There are probably many other reasons why I love sketching. But even just for these two important reasons, I’ll continue my passion and sketch from life often. What about you? Tell me in the comments below!

Additional Note: Painting water can feel like learning to speak a new language. It’s unnatural, confusing, and what seems simple just isn’t. You see, water has a language all its own, and if you don’t understand it, you’ll never be able to harness the beauty and the power of it in your paintings. Become fluent in the unique language of painting water when you study with Shuang Li in her new video workshop, Fearless Waterscapes (available here). With Shuang’s help, you’ll unlock the secrets of reflection: how different types of water react differently to the objects around them. You’ll explore the various ways to approach flat water and moving water. You’ll discover a way to capture the sparkle of moving water every single time. And you’ll uncover techniques for creating wet effects on rocks and the sense of water spilling over objects to create more energy and interest.

Visit to find out all the amazing opportunities for artists through Streamline Publishing, including:
– Online art conferences such as Plein Air Live
– New video workshops for artists
– Incredible art retreats
– Educational and fun art conventions, and much more.

Learn More

> Subscribe to Plein Air Today, a free newsletter for artists
> Subscribe to PleinAir Magazine so you never miss an issue


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here