Sunday, October 21, 2012

Sketch / Painting / Study

JeanTraveling asked a question about my commentary on yesterday's painting video:
"You called this a painting at one point and a sketch at another. What is the difference between a sketch and a painting? This is a discussion my husband and I have fairly often:-)"

Jean, it's a matter of semantics, of course, and I'm OK with either term for the one I did yesterday. For me, the distinction between the two terms may be a matter of attitude as much as of finish.

To me, a "sketch" tends to suggests a momentary glance or quick impression, executed freely and intuitively, without much thought to how it lays on the page. Sometimes a sketch is a means to an end, a planning stage or a first effort.

I also use "sketch" as a noun or a verb referring to any picture done purely from observation, regardless of media or level of detail. I like the sound of "I'm going sketching" better than "I'm going plein-air painting." Sometimes I sketch indoors, and "indoor plein-air painting" is a contradiction in terms.

A "painting" might have more consideration behind it, perhaps more thought of composition or overall effect. A painting might demand the use of better materials— a true sketch might be something you could draw on a shopping bag in the heat of the moment.

I like the term "study" too, because it gets me into the frame of mind of patiently observing the world as it is. My goal when I'm working on location is often to try to portray something unfiltered by preconceptions. Not easy! Being patient and open enough to find a fresh motif, and then to try to see beyond artistic conventions, is the most difficult challenge for me in observational work, but it's also the most productive mindset to cultivate.

By the way, I have a hard time distinguishing between the terms "drawing" and "painting," especially when using water-soluble colored pencils, which can be used wet or dry in the same picture. Art historians often group watercolors with drawings, even if they're made entirely with a brush. I suppose that has a lot to do with the way watercolors are stored and displayed in museums.
Previously on GJ: Why do we have no word in English for a person who draws?


Emanuele Sangregorio said...

Too lazy to control, but i'm almost sure Harold speed uses the two terms differently depending on the result obtained by the technique. He speaks about drawing shapes apart, and painting masses. I like this definition, because the problems i usually encounter when painting are all about volumes and light, and when drawing are mostly about deciding lines that divide parts.

Anonymous said...

Beautiful Dinotopia illustration. Such imaginative fun! Who wouldn't want to go on that ride!

I think... painting is more about thinking in terms of planes to describe form while drawing is more about using line to describe form. Sometimes a painting can be more like a drawing in the way brushstrokes are used and sometimes a drawing can be more of a painting when shaded planes describe forms rather than line. - mp

Keith Parker said...

Perhaps one way to look at it is that painting is a little more formal/serious, or meant to be as finished and refined as possible, while sketching is more for personal use than professional purposes.

JeanTraveling said...

Thanks for your thoughtful response, which of course brought up more thoughts and questions:-)

I often like my and other's 'sketches' more than I like the finished product. Partly, I think it's related to that thing you talked about - responding to what you see or feel rather than to a preconceived notion. At the Tate Britain I quite fell in love with Constables 'Sketch of Hadleigh Castle.' The final Hadleigh Castle didn't have the turbulence and power of the sketch. Here's a link to a post I did about it with a photo of the sketch and a link to the final painting:

For myself, I am less likely to overwork a sketch compared to a finished painting. It's something that I struggle to overcome.

Painting vs drawing is another interesting discussion. I'm a pastelist. My pastels are paintings as far as I'm concerned, except when they are sketches. Not everyone agrees, of course, and on occassion I've had to enter one of my paintings in the drawing section of a show.

Tom Hart said...

Like JeanTraveling, I tend to enjoy and find more levels of interest in "sketches", and other works in which the artist's process is visible. As for the "sketch" vs "painting" question, I think of "study" and "sketch" as being synonomous. I prefer "study" as a word that (in most minds) bestows more worth on the piece and the process. Related to that, it's unfortunate and also annoying (at least to me) that the word "sketch" is often used by non-artists to suggest little or no monetary value, (e.g., "Could you do a quick sketch of my [fill in the blank]".)

Craig Banholzer said...

Not to get all pedantic about it, but it has interested me to learn that the French painters of a bygone era tended to be very specific about the difference between sketch, study and painting. To them, a sketch (esquisse) was the first, quick drawing for a painting, showing the entire composition without any finish or details. A study (etude) was a detailed and highly finished drawing or painting from life of a specific detail for a large composition. Finally, they tended to reserve the term peinture (painting or picture) for completed works of art ready to be exhibited. Naturally, this all went out the window when Impressionism came along. Thanks for another thought-provoking post!

James Gurney said...

Craig, You're right in how you parse those words for a studio painting. The 19th century French were amazingly articulate about painting.

For me the distinctions become fuzzier when they're applied to art done on location from observation. In that context, works can have a range of intentions and levels of finish. One person may have a tightly rendered image that's just a means to an end, while another might have a loose, casual effort that's made to be framed, titled, and sold to a collector. As you suggest, Impressionism introduced more options.

All this is important, not just for how we talk about our work, but even more so for how we think about it.I always say, "Painting is easy, but thinking is hard."