This is the second post about sketching. In the previous post, we talked about the importance of sketching. In this post, we will talk about how to sketch and strengthen your sketching skills. One of the blog readers asked how to sketch a subject in action. The short answer is relying on your memory and leaving out details. The long answer is below. I have also included a few sketches done in Hong Kong recording daily life such as my mother cooking, people in a fast food restaurant and people on a subway training ride. These are all examples of sketching subjects in action.


How to sketch well?

Sketch often

Painting is art and culture as well as a type of skill. All skills follow the convention that “practice makes perfection”. Without practice, how can you become good at something? Diligence and training may be old-school but that doesn’t mean they do not work.

In the traditional opera community, they often say: “Martial arts must be practiced constantly and songs must be sung frequently”. Diligent practice is therefore the key. What about diligent practice without giving it proper thought? That does not work either. As Confucius once said: “Knowledge without thought leads to confusion, thought without knowledge leads to danger”. If we are curious and respectful of the lives that we try to capture, if we can then practice diligently and think constantly about improvements, we will naturally get better.







Sketch Slowly

Is faster the better in sketching? Not always! I’ve seen many private studios in the West, Hong Kong and Taiwan where the time allowed for nude sketches is so short that the paintings come out looking like wild scrawls. Many people spend years sketching in studios and make little progress. As they made no improvement, they decide that they simply don’t have the talent. Talent may of course be a factor but I think that in most cases they were going too fast. As they say, “nine of ten accidents are due to speeding” so my advice is: If you want to sketch well, “sketch slowly”. First, try to get the proportions right, capture the key features and make everything as simple as possible. Slowing down will avoid misshapen proportions and too much detail. Sketching should be relatively fast but is not all about speed. Start slow, then gradually speed up.





Start with a draft, using pale, light lines to define the areas, proportions, dynamics and trends before putting pencil to paper. Do not draw any details at this point. Once the draft is ready, work outwards from the key parts such as the head and hands.




Angular rather than curved lines

Sketches can be a little angular like Vrubel or be a little more curvaceous like Menzel. If you are new to sketching however, using more straight lines will make capturing relative proportions and dynamics easier. This technique is often used at the Soviet Academy of Arts during sketching classes. Straight lines may seem a little less sophisticated but the main features and proportions will remain true. Curved lines may seem more lively but can run wild like a mustang in unskilled hands.





Sketch on Subway 1


Use lines more

When you start practicing sketching, avoid adding value. Dispense with backgrounds altogether as well. With lines, what matters is the edges of shapes. Get this right then the rest can be ignored or reduced.




Sketch on Subway 2



In sketching, value have a rhythm of their own:

  1. Value should be used where it can convey volume and height differences.
  2. Use for key features such as the head and hands.
  3. Use value for clothing texture.
  4. Use value for large blocks of black, gray and white.
  5. Use value to convey the texture of the subject.
  6. Use value where it can create strokes like Chinese paintings.




  1. 深淺放在能表現體積和起伏之處。
  2. 放在頭部、手部等主要刻劃部位。
  3. 深淺放在衣紋等處。
  4. 深淺放在分別黑、灰、白的大區塊。
  5. 深淺放在表現對象物的質感處。
  6. 深淺放在能造成如中國畫中的筆墨趣味之處等等。


Sketch on Subway 3


Rely on memory

When sketching, observe the subject as a whole. Don’t approach the subject too closely to avoid distorting the perspective. Slightly narrow your eyes when observing and do not fix on a point. Don’t glance up at the subject with every line. You should instead, draw a small area for each glance. This is a process of rapid observation and memorization. In other words, half of the work in sketching depends on memory. This is a part of the sketching technique and also what makes it click. Many people don’t understand this so they look up with every stroke and still haven’t mastered sketching after a lifetime of trying.





Sketch in Fast Food Restaurant


Drawing training is fundamental

High quality sketches require a certain level of drawing ability and knowledge of the anatomy. A solid foundation in drawing is required to produce sophisticated figure sketches because every line and stroke in sketching is based upon the shape and textures of the form. It must also be supported by artistic sophistication.





Study anatomy

It is very important to understand the growth patterns of the human skeleton and muscles as well as the lengths and relative proportions of key body parts. For the skeleton and muscle, draw from books on anatomy while copying and memorizing the names of each part. This is the only way to understand the details and create lifelike drawings.





Study for Chinese Painting Nie Xiaoqian


Sketches are art works in their own right

In the past, sketches were used to record everyday images and also as drafts. Advances in technology and the availability of photographic equipment meant that this recording function has almost been replaced completely. Sketching however does not reproduce an object completely. It is a highly sophisticated and inclusive form of drawing that has its own artistic merits. When we look at the most representative sketches of the great masters, we find that they were just as memorable as the masterpieces! In classical literature, the Yuan Dynasty xiaolingand Tang Dynasty quatrains all had a timeless and minimalist sense of beauty. Like them, sketches are “exquisite poetry” that can be appreciated in their own right. The emergence and proliferation of cameras have in fact reinforced the irreplaceable nature of sketching due to its ability to condense and reflect the creator’s personal ability, aesthetic experience and personality.





Mother Cooking


Sketching is a chronology of life

For a diligent practitioner, sketching is like a chronology. Repin is reputed to have more than twenty boxes filled with sketches! Unfortunately, one of his daughters sold most of it in Eastern Europe during World War I so nothing has been heard of them for the last seventy or eighty years. I don’t have many sketches and I still sketch on and off to this very day. The early sketches were lost during the Cultural Revolution and while I treasure my later sketches, few are satisfying. To me however, each drawing represents my friends and relatives in those years and the people I met in those times… Whenever I open my old folios, my thoughts fly back to those bygone years. The people and events recorded in these sketches are therefore a record of my own life. To me, these “images” feel far more direct than written records and are taken far more to heart.





This post is adapted from the forward from the Sketching Handbook. For more information about the book, please click here. 

For more information about online drawing course, please click here.