Do you have to be able to draw to do watercolor?

I drew a lot of magic anime girls when I was a teenager so the idea of drawing doesn’t bother me in theory, but I went into watercover very nervous about my ability to draw landscapes – things like mountains and trees – which I had never practiced before. Tutorials that started with drawing made me nervous. How can I paint something if I can’t draw it?

After working at watercolor drawing and painting for the last year, I believe that they are different, but related skills. It’s definitely possible to learn to paint something without knowing the techniques for effectively drawing the same thing. So if you can’t draw, or don’t really want to learn because paint interests you more, don’t worry. But you may learn more than you think about drawing through the process of watercolor.

Quick sketches showing different ways of composing the same scene: mountain peak in the middle, or mountain peak on the side?

What’s the purpose of drawing in the watercolor process?

There are 3 major reasons to draw in watercolor:

  1. Mixed media/sketchbook/pen and ink style. Some art styles use watercolor for color and shading, and ink or pencil drawing to outline the major shapes. If this is a style you prefer, drawing will be a part of it.
  2. Underdrawing. Even if you don’t want the pencil lines to show in your final painting, you may want to draw the major contours in order to guide yourself as you paint. A handy “no show” way to do this is to draw everything lightly, then completely erase it. There will be just enough pencil residue left to jog your memory, but it won’t show in the final product.
  3. Composition and value sketches. Little low-effort thumbnails to try out different composition options (will the mountain be here? or here?) as well as to generally identify where your lights, mediums, and darks will be. It can be easier to work out these decisions in a little sketch than to make them on the fly.

For mixed media, if you want a visible drawing to be part of the final product, then, yeah, I guess you’ll have to learn draw to the level you want for that style. If that’s your goal, though, you will probably be excited and motivated to do that!

For folks who want a watercolor-only style and who are just uninterested in learning the whole separate art of drawing, whose drawing skills begin and end at stick figures, there’s good news.

“Only stick figures” is all you need!

The purpose of a value sketch or underdrawing is to put the bones of your painting down in pencil so you can make quick decisions and guide yourself as you paint. It’s not to do great art with the sketch itself, so don’t worry if it looks, well, sketchy. You can throw out your value sketches when you don’t need them anymore. The underdrawing will get erased and/or covered in paint. Nobody will see it.

The only job the sketch needs to do is to remind you what you intended to paint, so if you can interpret it, it’s good enough.

Drawing is optional.

Sketches are tools to help you, so you only need to do them if you want to and it helps you.

Depending on your style and your goals, value sketches and underdrawings may not be necessary or helpful. If I don’t feel like planning, I don’t do them. I can put an arbitrary jagged ridgeline down in pencil, or I can do it in paint, so the pencil is a pretty skippable step.

Alternatives to Sketching

  • Use a tutorial: the teacher has already decided on the composition for you. Some tutorials start with sketches, but it’s usually pretty optional if you find it easier to just copy what the teacher is doing.
  • Copy a photograph: The photographer has already decided on the composition for you. It may still be helpful to underdraw to get the placement right, but you can eyeball it if that’s easier for you.
  • Use technology: If you’re a person who’s more comfortable with a computer or tablet than a pencil, you can do your sketches digitally (like the sketches I made in Procreate on the iPad to illustrate this post), or you can use Photoshop filters to find major contours and otherwise simplify your reference photo.
  • Doodle & noodle: Just say “eff it” and paint whatever you feel like without a plan. Who’s going to stop you?

You’ll learn by doing.

Nobody is born learning to draw. People learn to draw because they draw.

If you don’t have drawing experience, you’ll catch on – you’ll at least figure out how to make sketches for watercolor because that’s what you’ll be doing. Like any other part of the art, you’ll be bad at it at first, and then you’ll get good. (Then when you’re good, you’ll still think you’re bad, but that’s a whole other thing.)

I typically skip the sketching step in tutorials. Recently, for some more complex scenes, and in my own original compositions, I do it because I can see the value in it and it saves me headaches in other steps. I think really understanding the value for it and why I’m doing it helped me to overcome my feelings of inadequacy or self-consciousness about it: I genuinely see it as a tool for me, and not as something I’m doing just because “that’s how it’s done.”

In the sense that I’m doing it for me, my sketches are exactly as good as they need to be because I understand them. I’m not sure anyone else would, but who cares?

You’re the artist: it’s your call. Watercolor your way – sketch or no.

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