What Makes It a Sketch or a Painting?

9:45 AM

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I recently found myself in a wonderful discussion when I was asked what makes a piece of art a sketch vs. a painting. The artist I was discussing this was rather amazed and a bit dismayed at what some folks put into a sketchbook.

Her frustration showed in her comment, "But, they're paintings! Just because they're on a page in a sketchbook makes them no less of a painting."

We started out by talking about time and speed first. Did the amount of time you spent on a piece of art make it a sketch or painting? No. What about speed? We've all seen paintings that have "come together" and nearly painted themselves in no time while a sketch got out of hand and took three times as long as it should have. But in the end, remained a sketch.

The we talked about paper and materials....did doing the work on a loose piece of paper rather than putting it into a sketchbook make it a painting? No. I have plenty of loose sketches floating about the studio and what started this discussion was paintings in a sketchbook. Did watercolor make it a sketch and oils make it a painting? What about pen and ink combined with watercolor? No, we had both seen evidence to the contrary. It seems you can make a sketch with any materials. Same goes for a painting.

We started to talk about size, and then quickly realized that size wasn't going to work as a determining factor as there are sketchbooks out there that are 11 x 14 inches (and possibly larger) all the way to the smallest of smalls.

Next up, we discussed planning....was a sketch an unplanned, spontaneous piece of artwork? Hmmmm, since I teach the idea of planning your artwork, regardless of whether it is a sketch or a painting, before your brush or pencil ever hits the paper, that argument sunk quickly.

From there, the discussion turned to intent....and this is where the discussion became murky. How could one ascertain an artist's intention when looking at a piece of art? No matter if the art was in a sketchbook, on a loose piece of paper, regardless of the materials used or the size, nor how much planning the piece did or did not show, it wasn't always possible to tell if it was a sketch or a painting.

So, dear readers, it's your turn to weigh in with your thoughts and opinions.

Mind you, this discussion is not about "labeling" or "categorizing." It is merely to see if there is any consensus about what makes a sketch a sketch and a painting a painting.

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21 Creative Thought(s)

  1. Haha! I love this discussion! I simply choose to paint what I paint with whatever other media I choose where and when I want to ... and I have no care for what it should be called.

    Maybe we can talk about the difference between art and craft next? :-)

    Keep your great posts coming, Laure! You're a wonderful writer and artist ... and sketcher ... and a bunch of other great things.

  2. I use the words 'sketch' and 'painting' interchangeably because it makes no difference to me as long as I am recording life and having fun.

    On the other hand, when I did the '100 paintings challenge' I knew that the pieces that turned out great were 'paintings' vs sketches.

    All in the eye of the beholder.

  3. I think the traditional definitions of those words (most likely found in a dictionary) would still be imprecise. I think in general the difference lies in intent and appreciation. A sketch can clearly be a painting, but not all paintings are sketches. A sketch, though it may become quite intricate and detailed, is not as formal a thing as a painting.... again, in general. And obviously many sketches are not painted.. I confess when I first discovered that people were calling watercolors 'sketches' that confused me. I operated under the idea that sketches are made with pencil, pen or charcoal (drawing instruments) and paintings, whether formal or informal were made with liquid media and brush. Is watercolor sketching a newer genre of our times or have there always been artists who referred to 'sketching' with paints? (I don't think I've answered anything, just thrown out my muddled thoughts) ;)

  4. To me a sketch is more of a drawing done with pencil, pen, charcoal, whatever. A painting involves a paint brush.

  5. To me a sketch is more spontaneous, usually in a sketchbook that will accept whatever medium is chosen. A painting to me requires more preparation, on a more substantial paper, board or canvas. I don't think it's the medium so much because a painting is usually displayed, (framed or not) on a wall.

  6. To me a sketch is a drawing or painting done without the intention of being a finished, complete piece of art. It might turn out to be a piece of art but the intention was to just record a scene for memory's sake, to try a new technique (or to practice one) or to prepare for a more detailed work. To me it's mostly intention at the beginning and that can disappear in a second. I have a hard time saying sketch but like in EDM, the purpose of the challenges is sketching so I call them that even though at times they look like little pieces of finished art. I guess that is perhaps the key to me - is it a finished, complete piece of art? If so it's a painting or a drawing. If it's a study of some sort it's more likely (not necessarily) a sketch and so the murkiness goes on....

    I was part of a discussion once about whether a colored pencil, fully shaded and developed picture was a drawing or a painting and that is difficult to decide too! The worry was that if it's "only" a drawing, it might not be construed as real art. Oh yes, murkiness abounds!

  7. Hi Laure, This is something I have pondered before and in the end I came up with the simple answer for me:

    A Frame

    (Do you see where I'm coming from).......regards ann.

  8. I used to 'paint' watercolors, but after discovering sketchers online, I now use a sketchbook and call them sketches. For me, it means freedom to play, and not worry if it comes out 'finished' or not.
    But - I do paint my sketches, so...
    Anyway, thanks for discussing this Laure, it does make for a lively discussion!

  9. After starting Danny Gregory's book: An Illustrated Life, and going to his blog/website I think sketchbooks are for more carefree drawings sometimes private drawings although they certainly can be shared/shown; but give the freedom to be yourself, not worry too much, practice, collect...but bear in mind I am brand new to all of this so don't feel I have the definitive answer on the subject. I like that Gregory sketches in wet ink and therefore cannot erase! I like drawing in ink too but so far use ink pens not wet ink. He has a wonderful video on his blog of himself drawing and painting one of his sketchbook pieces and believe me it IS a painting when done!

  10. Great discussion. I seem to recall Danny Gregory saying he doesn't like the word sketch because it implies a lack of seriousness or self-confidence. I hope my memory serves right. I think he prefers the word drawing over sketching.

    For me, I'm not that hung up on words. I'd like to say simply I make marks but it gets awkward to say "here's a new piece of mark-making". It's more widely understood to say sketch or drawing or painting. To be more precise between a sketch and a painting I guess I'd say with a sketch I'm not worried about correcting mistakes or bits I'm not happy with but with a painting I am more inclined to leave only the marks which I'm happy with.

  11. Great discussion! Sittin in Venice (as I do just now :-)) I am sketching, and to be honest, hiding behind the word, as it allows me to just draw/paint/sketch = express myself, as good or bad as the result happens to be. With not claiming my work to be "a painting" I free myself from my inner critic. Are they "just" sketches? Yes and no (or 'di tutto un po' as I learned today in class). I work in a (or two or three...) sketchbook(s) - who can resist buying a Fabriano Venezia book when in Venice? - which also takes the pressure off, as 'it was never meant to be framed and hung on a wall'. As long as I draw/paint I am happy and what else is important? Niente!

  12. What a great discussion! I tend to think of a sketch as something quick and spontaneous and a drawing or painting as more planned. I think whatever word you use it doesn't add or detract from the integrity or beauty of the piece.

  13. I think of sketches as more casual (freedom to play, indeed) and drawings as more formally planned and executed. But either can transform into the other by the end of the work.

    This reminds me of the debate over running vs jogging in past years. Serious runners disdained mere jogging--it was related to dedication, somehow. But famous artists are also dedicated sketchers. Historically there have been both watercolor and oil sketches done to record distant lands and war action, before photography ever existed.

  14. To me a painting has to have paint of some sort on it. A drawing sounds a little more definite than a sketch but I usually use the word sketch rather than drawing. I think of a work as a painting when it is what I call "framable" no matter what size it is. Is framable a word?? Probably not but what I mean by that is that I deem it a nice enough work to frame. It is interesting that there is no definite definition of sketch or drawing.

  15. Thanks to everyone for sharing their thoughts and opinions on this subject here and over on Facebook!

    I agree with many of you that it doesn't matter what it's called so long as we're creating. It is semantics, but still, it's fun to step back and take a look at what the meanings, if any, actually are.

    I was originally thinking we had done ourselves a disservice by changing the meaning of "sketch" away from dry media, but that still leaves other informal pieces of artwork without a name. (Those created with wet media.)

    Many of you mention "framable" (and yes, Lisa, it's a word) as the "measuring stick" you use to determine if a piece of art is a painting....I've seen "sketches/informal pieces of art" I'd gladly frame in a heartbeat! So whereas I get where you're coming from, I still think it's not a clear answer, at least for me.

    Once again, thanks for taking the time to contribute to this post!

  16. Great discussion, Laure and everyone else. I tend to feel everything I do is a sketch, probably because a painting to me implies more of a formal or professional work of art. I see myself as still learning and not quite "worthy" of the painting moniker at this point. But, that said, who cares--if it's a work I like, I just like it no matter what it is! I was just saying to someone that one artist I love does the most delicious thumbnails--sometimes I actuallyprefer his thumbna ils to the labored, finished paintings.

  17. I believe artists used to do & still do, a preliminary sketch before doing a final painting. They will use color in the sketch and the sketches can & have been sold as Art also. I call things with paint done with brushes...Painting sketches. And pencil or ink drawings as just Sketches.

  18. What an interesting discussion! I'm a bit late but for what it's worth - sketching to me is creating something, often in pen or pencil but frequently other media, as a preliminary to a further piece of work or just as a record of something I see and may want to use in the future. I have lots of sketchbooks!

  19. Wow - lots of food for thought here! I have sketched with my paint brush, and "painted" with my watercolor pencils. I have trouble referring to some journal entries as sketches because they obviously took time over them, and I still think of sketches as something done quickly...I fall back on using the word image - but that doesn't fully convey the act of creation. "Artwork" can sound pretentious. Maybe we need to invent some new words to describe them!

  20. HI - I just found your blog and I'm really enjoying it. To me, the difference in a sketch and a painting is the intended audience. A sketch is just for me, but a painting it directed at others. Pastel and color pencil artists also call their works "paintings" and often take hours and hours to produce them. Materials also make a difference for me. If it's in one of my journals, it's a sketch, no matter how long I worked on it. If it's on a larger canvas, it's a painting because others are meant to see it.

  21. Hi, Morgaine, I like the idea of differentiating based on the audience. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


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