Don’t Like How Your Sketches Look? Try This.

February 8, 2022  /  by Megan Biffert

Open sketchbook showing a watercolor sketch of mountains

Have you ever been frustrated with how your sketches look?

Do you set aside a precious hour to draw or paint, only to not like what you created?

I want you to know that this is SO normal. I also want you to know that it doesn’t mean that your sketch is bad or that you aren’t artistic!

It just means that you are learning. We often downplay how long it can take to develop a new skill. We downplay how much practice goes into learning an instrument, becoming a good cook, or, yes, learning to sketch. Learning means there’s going to be times when what we are creating doesn’t measure up to our hopes or ideas.

When you are very excited to learn a new skill and put lots of effort into it, it is disappointing and frustrating to not like the outcome. It can be especially hard if you don’t know what to do to improve or change the outcome!

Today I want to share some specific actions that I have found extremely helpful when I don’t like how my sketches look. They are concrete actions to put into practice so that you can navigate that frustration and see real progress in your sketches. The next time you are feeling frustrated with your sketches, try applying one or several of these ideas!

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It can be really helpful to take a moment, sip some tea or coffee, and evaluate your mindset before assessing your sketches.

1. First Things First: Get the Right Mindset

The very first thing to do is assess your mindset.

The way we think about things deeply effects our emotions and motivation. Take a moment before you look at your artwork and ask yourself some questions: Are you placing really high, unrealistic expectations on yourself? Are you comparing your work to someone else’s (never a fair thing to do, by the way!)? Are you starting to see creating art as something to accomplish rather than something to enjoy? If you notice that you are doing any of things, take a moment to redirect your thoughts before moving ahead.

It’s also important to accept that our learning comes in peaks and plateaus. It’s not a constant straight line up. I think it’s very much like a fitness journey: you make a leap in your endurance one workout, and then you expect to be able to add that much more every day. When the fact is that it will probably take another couple of weeks or even a month to notice your next big gain in endurance.

Learning to draw or paint is very similar. There are plateaus where you are just maintaining and slowly strengthening skills but not seeing a lot of progress. Then all of a sudden something clicks and your art work takes a big step forward! So give yourself grace, practice a little patience, don’t compare yourself to anyone else, and then try applying one of the following action steps!

2. Be Specific About What You Don’t Like

If you look at a sketch and don’t quite like it,  try to be specific about what exactly is bothering you.

I guarantee you that not EVERYTHING is wrong, even if it may feel that way. Usually there’s a couple of elements that aren’t quite working and they are making your whole sketch feel off, even if many of the other elements are done well. It’s similar to baking a cake: you could get 9 out of the 10 ingredients for a cake correctly, but if you get that last ingredient wrong, the whole cake is affected.

This is encouraging! Because if you can zero in on what exactly is bothering you, then it gives you something to work on.

Take a calm moment to truly assess your sketch. What specifically do you want to be better? Your color choices? Your line work? How you arrange your subjects on the page?

While you are doing this, also look for things that you DO like! Sometimes it helps to step away from a sketch for a couple of weeks and then come back to look at it. It gives you clearer eyes.

If you can narrow down specific areas you want to improve, then you will feel much less overwhelmed and discouraged. And you will know what to work on so that your next sketch looks better.

3. Pick One Skill to Work On

An entire wall is built by placing individual stones together. Art is very similar: one work of art is created by applying a collection of skills. For example, if you created a watercolor sketch of a house, you would be using skills in drawing, color mixing, perspective, proportion, and contrast, just to name a few!

If you are frustrated with how your sketches are looking and want to improve, don’t try to get better at all the art skills at once. It’s overwhelming and hard to focus! Instead, pick one specific skill and practice that. This way you have a tangible skill to work towards and you will see progress! Do you want to improve your line work? Practice line drawings. Does your understanding of perspective need improvement? Look up some resources that teach about perspective (urban sketcher Stephanie Bower has a wonderful book about perspective, by the way). Don’t like how your colors look? Take a look at some color mixing tutorials taught by other artists! A good resource is Etchr Studio. They have tons of free demos from other artists with a wealth of information.

As you work on a specific skill or “building block”, you will see that part of your sketch improve. Then when you are ready, you can move on to another skill. And so on and so forth!

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Muscle memory takes practice but builds confidence! I drew a lot of pen and pencil shapes for this art piece, but since then I've been really comfortable drawing similar objects.

4. Develop Muscle Memory

I have often found drawing and painting to be like muscle memory. After you sketch a specific subject long enough, your hand and eye learn the underlying structure and “feel” of the subject. It’s much like learning to drive a car or ride a bike; after a certain amount of practice, you don’t have to think as hard about what you are doing.

This is one of the hardest hurdles in art because the only way to gain muscle memory is through practice. Lots of practice. It takes patience but the pay-off is so worth it!

If you want to improve your sketches, instead of trying to draw everything that interests you, pick one subject and draw a LOT of that subject for a period of time to build muscle memory. It could be whatever interests you: birds, houses, shoes, hands – the ideas are limitless. Practicing a specific subject over and over is confidence building. You will see your “muscle memory” develop and discover that you can draw or paint that subject quite well!

5. Up That Contrast!

Increasing the contrast in your sketch can be a simple change with a major impact!

Contrast is when opposite elements are arranged or paired together. It is a cornerstone of art. It’s what draws your eye and creates interest or a focal point. Some common forms of contrast are:

  • Light and dark
  • Contrasting colors (colors opposite each other on the color wheel)
  • Differences in scale or size, like large and small objects
  • Hard and soft edges
  • Areas of high detail and low detail
  • Horizontal and vertical arrangements

I’ve often found that when someone comes to me with a sketch and asks “What could I do to make this better?”, 9 times out of 10 I suggest adding more contrast.

There are lots of different ways to do this, as shown by the brief list above! If you want to start improving contrast in your sketches, some easy things to play around with (and some of my favorites) are:

  • Lighten your lights and darken your darks. Don’t be afraid to go bold!
  • Have one area of high detail among much less detail, like drawing one flower out of a bouquet in high detail while leaving the rest loosely sketched
  • Include both soft and hard edges, like the leafy outline of a bush next to the straight edge of a building
  • Increase the contrast of the scale of your subjects. Draw some objects larger than life, or arrange subjects of varying sizes together on the page
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Play around with different compositions to bring interest to your sketches. Adding a thin border like in the sketch above can be a fun way to lay out a page!

6. Don’t Underestimate the Power of Good Composition

True story: you could take an amazing art piece, alter the way it’s placed on a page, and you may like it more or like it less even though the art itself did not change.

Composition, the way we arrange art subjects on the paper, plays a major role in how the finished piece looks!

If your sketches are looking uninteresting or just not quite right, try playing around with your composition. Look at the work of other artists and notice how they place their artwork on the page. You can get lots of new ideas and inspiration that way!

This is a whole big subject on its own, but here are some ideas to try out. Play around with different layouts and see what you like! Composition is a lot of fun to experiment with.

Some ideas to try out:

  • Leaving white space like a margin around your subject
  • Taking part of your subject all the way off the edge of the paper
  • Placing subjects symmetrically on the page, even if they are different subjects. Our eyes like symmetry.
  • Sketching or painting an odd number of subjects and arranging them on the page. Our eyes like seeing odd, rather then even, amounts of things.
  • Leaving a little more white space at the bottom of your sketch than the top. Oddly enough it will feel more balanced than if it had equal margins on top and bottom!
  • Using the rule of thirds to create focal points and place subjects
  • Playing with the scale of your sketch on the page. For example, sketching a mug very small on a large piece of paper, or sketching a very zoomed in view onto a small piece of paper.
  • Placing your sketch far to one side of the paper rather right in the center

7. Limit Your Color Palette

When I was learning watercolor, this was a game changer for me.

Color can be overwhelming to learn and understand. Honestly, color theory ties my brain in knots. Always has! I tend to pick colors by instinct while following a few basic rules. Everyone is different in this respect, but one thing that is super helpful for improving colors in your sketch: limit your paint choices.

It’s tempting to reach for 12 different pigments to capture all the color variations you see in your subject. But if you can make yourself mix colors from just a few pigments, and not worry about exactly matching what you see, it will feel unified and coordinated with a lot less work and confusion.

The majority of the tutorials that I teach only use 4-5 watercolor pigments. If you limit yourself to some reds, yellows, blues, and maybe a black or brown, you can mix up your greens, purples, oranges, and greys, and they will all look unified because they are all using the same few paints. Don’t worry so much about exactly matching every color you see in your reference. Instead, pick a few main colors of your subject and paint those using a few pigments, then mix up the other values you are going to use using the same pigments. If you struggle to get color right, limiting your choices could actually help rather than hinder.

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Leaving bits of white paper showing through your sketch adds life and the illusion of light, like on the thatched roof of this building.

8. Let Your Paper Shine Through

Want to improve the look of your sketches? Sketch less.

Yes indeed. Put less paint and ink on your paper and leave more white showing through!

Leaving areas of your sketch intentionally unpainted or uninked creates breathing space, a sense of movement, interest, and excitement. The paper acts like a natural highlight and create excellent contrast. I once heard an artist describe leaving bits of unpainted paper in a sketch as “the paper sparkling through the paint.”

As you sketch, resist the urge to fully color or sketch in every element. Bits of white paper showing through the painted leaves of a tree gives the sense of sunlight piercing the branches. Leaving a strip of white unpainted paper along the edge of a roof gives the sense of light glancing off the edge of the building.

As you sketch, focus on intentionally lifting your brush or pen here and there to leave more white space. Instead of painting an area right up to the line, leave a bit of white showing through. Or use dabbing motions with your brush so that the paper isn’t evenly covered up. Less is definitely sometimes more!

The next time you feel frustrated with your sketches, try one or several of these ideas and see if it helps. And let me know if you find one particularly helpful. 🙂 Happy sketching!

About Megan

Megan Biffert is the owner and creator behind Hey There Chickadee. Ink and watercolor art her go-to art mediums. She not only sketches and paints on a regular basis, but also offers classes and inspiration to those who want to create their own art. Her greatest delight in operating Hey There Chickadee is seeing others discover joy, creativity, and community through drawing and painting!

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