It’s been mental health awareness this past week and, as a conscientious and proactive Mental Health First Aider, I could not let this go by without marking it somehow. It’s clearly time to finalise an article on sketching for good mental health which I have been planning and thinking about for some time.

I’ve written before about taking up analogue hobbies for positive mental health, which did include mention drawing, sketching, painting and all other art-based hobbies but in passing: not in depth. Art-based hobbies can be marvellous for relieving stress and anxiety and for being truly engrossed in the moment. In that original article I explained I carried a little sketchbook with me at all times and suggested that as a tool for anyone. This is so I can sketch when the mood takes or something catches my eye, I can doodle when my concentration is tested, when I need a mindful moment or two, or I can jot down visual and written ideas and thoughts.

In this article I want to focus on daily sketching and drawing, as they’re a little easier to start to pick up. Don’t hesitate to substitute your daily sketchbook time for watercolour, mixed media, inks or anything that you prefer, but simple is likely to be easier to help you get into a habit of contributing to your sketchbook and not putting you off. So simple is what we’re chatting about here.

“Creating art relieves stress. When you get immersed in the process you can find yourself in a state of flow and it acts on you in the same way that meditation would. This means it helps your concentration and relieves stress.”

Phillipa Perry, qualified psychotherapist, agony aunt, wife of Grayson Perry and artist in her own right. If you’ve not yet seen Grayson’s Art Club on Channel Four do go catch up on it, it’s perfect inspiration.

How can an activity like sketching actually help?

  • It’s mindful/engaging (see https://scholar.utc.edu/honors-theses/106/)
  • Helps with memory, especially in older age groups (See https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2018/12/181206114724.htm)
  • Your drawing (irrespective of what level you start at) will absolutely improve if you practice regularly
  • Sense of pride and achievement
  • Drawing regularly gives focus and meaning, and quiet time to yourself to look forward to
  • You start to look at and engage with the world in a slightly different way, honestly! You’ll begin to notice things you want to draw, what street views have good composition, how the colour of the sky changes from day to day, start taking photos of things you want to draw later, pick up leaves/stones/flowers that would be nice to draw. it all gets you away from any small phone screen and engaging more with nature and urban landscapes

Materials

Sketchbooks can be expensive – pick up a plain paged (unlined) notebook, about A5 size or an unlined school exercise book to get you started. Equally using printer paper is more than good enough: take a few sheets and fold in half to mimic a booklet. If you want to, you can always stitch these together down the spine to make it into and actual book format and leave those lovely but expensive sketchbooks for your longer drawing and painting studies.

Smaller is better in terms of a sketchbook to start you off, particularly if you are going to sketch outdoors. You want something or a portable size and, if you are particularly nervous about being seen drawing, it’s less conspicuous than a larger one.

You also don’t need a ton of materials and equipment. A couple of pencils/pens/graphite sticks (or whatever your chosen medium is) will do, particularly to start off with.

If you catch the bug for regularly engaging with art you may then want to start adding to your materials. Although expensive, art materials are actually a joy to buy and own. Also, good quality will actually last you longer than you think, as better pigments do cost more but they go further. However, if money is tight there’s plenty of cheap alternatives.

Your ‘commitment’ to sketching for positive mental health

Try to sketch at least five days out of every week if you can. It doesn’t have to be much if you’re busy any given day, sometimes not even five minutes. However, it should not be a burden: that’s totally not what this is about.

If you miss some days, just pick up with the drawing again when you can. This should be about enjoying the process and getting used to it, making that mindfulness and creativity a part of your life. If it’s a chore to do on some days, please leave it.

By the way, there are no ‘wrong marks’. Yes, you could rub things out but I’d suggest not. If you’ve committed something to paper I say leave it there: it’s meant to be there now. It doesn’t matter and actually it’s a great learning curve to see all your marks, good and not-so-good, on the page. It can look really stylised to have multiple strokes before the ‘correct’ line emerges. Look at some of my life drawings below: I’ve not erased anything and some lines had to be redrawn, gone-over again or even moved.

Inspiration

Look for inspiration and start getting into an artistic mindset. It’s cheap and easy to do this and not all about visiting expensive galleries and trying to find a fondness for early 20th century Orphism (although if you like bright, poster-y work go check it out). Looking out for art in all its forms will help you grow your inspiration, widen your preferences and get introduced to new ideas. Some ideas to help with this are:

  • Look for art on Pinterest and begin to save images as pins. Grouping similar images into different boards will help you expand your horizons
  • Look up daily sketch booking on Pinterest or Instagram – you’ll see the enormous breadth of styles and get some ideas
  • Like an artist already? Google ‘similar to Banksy/Miro/Gauguin/Hokusai/Da Vince/Kahlo etc” to identify artists who are close in style to your favourite
  • Research local galleries or art exhibitions. Many will be free and they’re not all highbrow, in huge institutions or will be intimidating. Your local county or borough council website or local university is a good place to start and at the end of the academic year any college or uni near you that has art courses will have final year students’ shows
  • Don’t think you’re inspired by traditional western art? There’s no reason you should as there are plenty of alternatives. Just some of the immensely diverse types of art you could investigate: naïve and folk art, graffiti, street art, digital art, fantasy/sci-fi, anime, African tribal art, Bollywood poster art, aboriginal paintings, Victorian advertising art, pub signs, Brazilian anthropophagia, Chinese woodblock printing, vinyl album covers etc.
  • Join, or at least occasionally attend (it shouldn’t have to be a huge commitment) a local art session. Your local adult education or art centre will likely have craft and art sessions on. Attending a session with others is very inspiring. You will get the opportunity to chat to other like-minded people, you’ll see how they draw and their different styles and just being in a more-artistic environment is truly motivational

What do I draw? How do I draw? What do I draw with?

Are you stumped where to start? That’s common. As you practice, you’ll begin to find this part of the process much more natural. You’ll start to find out what subject matter you like to draw, you may begin a theme that you like to continue or you’ll find that you are noticing ‘drawable’ objects and situations more readily (see above note!).

Firstly, please keep in mind always that it does not matter at all how well/badly/funnily/shaky/superbly you draw. Don’t let any preconceived ideas about you can’t sketch if you have no ‘natural’ drawing ability. That never stopped a three year old, did it? They have no preconceived ideas they just want to draw.

Also, you do not have to show anyone what you’ve drawn: they’ll never know. Of course, if you’re proud of it go right ahead and show it off.

Right from the start, I want you to remember that sketching and drawing is actually much less about the drawing and more about the observation. You should be looking at the subject about 80% of the time and actually putting marks on paper for about 20% of your time.

What to draw with

For your first few weeks I’d suggest it’s easier to stick to a traditional medium and use monochrome (monochrome doesn’t have to be black) or only a few colours. This is just while you get into more of a habit and also if you’re taking your sketchbook out it’s more portable to carry the sketchbook + only one or two pencils/pens etc.

You can sketch with anything that makes a mark on paper, but some media are more appropriate to start with, if you want to draw to improve and have fun doing so (ie not get put off early on).

One of my old art tutors, a French-Austrian fine artist, Michael Werner (sadly he died about a year after he taught me), said that you can draw with anything apart from wax crayons. I’m sure there are people who’d disagree but I certain agree with him, after trying to prove this wrong and realising they are pretty rubbish for actual ‘art’. [As an aside story, during my first ever life drawing class, after about 10 minutes into the first pose, and after I’d only begun mapping in the sitter’s outline with landmarks with no “detail” as yet, he came over to me and said in the loudest possible voice: “If the model has a prick, dear, draw it in.” I as mortified at the time but he was so brilliant and kind and I was very fond of him. I’ve retained almost all of his tutoring comments and advice, which I can’t say about any of my other art teachers. He also once showed a selection of my life drawings alongside his own at one of his exhibitions in Austria.]

I’d suggest you pick something that’s going to give a mark which varies. I often draw with dip pens and fineliners which you can use, but I wouldn’t recommend them for a little while until you get into your stride a bit. So, grab a pencil, a graphite stick, a conte crayon, felt tips (brush tips pens are especially nice to use), charcoal (though prepare to get messy and use some hairspray to fix your image once complete), oil sticks, a chalk/chalk pencil or a coloured pencil (including watercolour pencils). None of these need to be expensive if you buy individually. In terms of graphite weight, do choose something soft, a 3B or softer.

Left to right various media: three conte crayons (sanguine medicis, bistre and black – all 2B), five drawing pencils (8B, 4B, 5B,B, 9B), two graphite sticks (fat 6B, thin 8B), two chalk pencils (white, sanguine), two Derwent watercolour pencils, a brush pen, two fine liners (0.4 and a sepia 0.1) and five oil crayons.

A note on softness vs hardness rating on pencils and other media… you’ll notice numbers and letters on your pencils and crayons, which refer to the graphite scale.

The scale is 9H, 8H, 7H, 6H, 5H, 4H, 3H, 2H, H, HB, B, 2B, 3B, 4B, 5B, 6B, 7B, 8B, 9B

9H is the most feint, hardest lead pencil. HB (hard black) is a real middle ground: the ‘school writing pencil’ and the most common you’ll see. 9B is the softest and most dense in pigment. [You may also occasionally see an F (firm). This is a generic hard pencil, something along the lines of a 6H.]

H (hard) pencils tend to be for technical drawing. They give a thin, fine but consistent grey line and can damage the paper if pressed down hard when using.

B (black) pencils are for sketching and drawing. They give a black line which can smudge (purposefully or not). These also are less consistent in that the line gets ‘crumbly’ the higher B number you have but it also transfers more pigment. These can make light to very dense marks depending on hand pressure. High B numbers can be difficult to erase.

My suggestions: a 2B can be useful for marking sight lines on a still life, but otherwise I’d recommend a set of 3B-9B pencils (or other) for art.

Starting drawing from still life

Pick a thing to draw… I know that’s easier than said, isn’t it? Choose something with an interesting outline or shape. Something that’s complex shouldn’t put you off as you can simplify what you draw from it: for instance, a Swiss cheese plant could be a good choice as you can just draw the overall heart-shape outline of the leaves and forget about the tricky holes and ins and outs. A simple item may seem like the right choice but stay away from real simplicity! A simple object often screams out to be drawn perfectly and also there’s little to focus on and grab your attention.

Ideas of objects that you may have about:

  • your ‘other’ hand or your feet
  • shoes
  • houseplants
  • one or two cut flower stems
  • a packet of biscuits, opened and spread out on the table
  • toy/s
  • your pet
  • street furniture (post box, seating, seaside railings etc)
  • your reflection
  • a favourite book, or an oblique view of a stack of books
  • jewellery or make-up
  • tins of paint and brushes
  • garden tools
  • a packet of sweets
  • a set of keys
  • fruit
  • shop fronts
  • watch or clock

Three starter/warm up exercises

Exercise one: ‘getting to know your medium’

No, we’re not conjuring with Madame Jurati! This is about finding out what marks you can make with your chosen weapon of choice to draw with. Hopefully you’ve chosen to use a medium something like a pencil, a graphite pencil, conte crayon, charcoal, oil crayon etc… these all will give you a variety of marks. 

I want you to scribble! Use a piece of scrap paper (or a sheet of copier paper) for this.

Start by touching the paper only lightly and as you move back and forth start to press harder. You’ll see the depth of pigment that you can achieve. 

Now do the same again but loosen your wrist and don’t use your fingers to draw. Hold the pencil/whatever very loosely and with your hand holding it almost parallel to the paper, so you get the side of the lead not the point transferring pigment. Move from your elbow and shoulder and repeat the process. 

Note the differences between this and the previous ‘scribble’: the lines on the second scribble are likely to be wider (using the side of the nib) and a little lighter (less pressure due to the hand position). 

Finally, do yet one more scribble, randomly varying the pressure and keep swapping your hand position by rotating your wrist as you make marks to vary the width of the line in and out as you go.

This exercise introduces the wealth of possibilities a single pencil or crayon etc can offer you without changing. You’ll learn to vary the thickness of line, see how just randomly rotating your wrist and the medium can give you more interesting and less considered lines and how to vary the depth of pigment through pressure.

Doing the exercise…

Exercise two: ‘stuck to the paper’

This is a very quick study, just spend a max of two-three minutes on it, and don’t worry about it being accurate: it’s more about the physical practice than the result. (In my example image, I spent about 60 seconds and was not bothered about accuracy. I’ve put in what I was drawing to show you that it’s not an accurate drawing and I don’t want you to care particularly about accuracy either).

I want you to draw your object with one continuous line – no taking the pencil off the paper!

This is to get you moving your wrist, relaxing your hand and to get you out of the mindset of every mark has to be perfect. Do vary the pressure (and therefore the strength of pigment put down) with this exercise, as this will help you learn to apply differentiation to your marks, bringing out important areas or outlines. Deep pigment depth also helps bring items to the foreground and ensure areas that are fainter recede into the background. You can repeat this exercise over and over, plus it’s a great one to do just before a study, ensuring your drawing hand, concentration level and ‘eye’ are limbered up.

As an ‘extra’ task, do a continuous line drawing while ONLY looking at the subject and not at the paper.


Exercise three: ‘bringing in a second colour’

I want you to draw your subject just to one side of the paper, not right in the middle. Now, I want you to draw it again on the same piece of paper, slightly overlapping the first image, in a different colour, as if it were a double-exposure photograph. 

This will show the possibilities of using additional colour, outside of a colouring-in method. Gets you used to using the whole paper and thinking about how a contrast (not true to life) colour can be incorporated.


In conclusion

I hope this helps get you started in daily, mindful sketch booking. If you have any questions or want to leave helpful suggestions for others embarking on and art and mindfulness journey, please leave a comment below. If you do find you’re proud of your sketchbook inspired by this post, please stick @inksugarspice in your comments and I’ll share in my Instagram stories with a positive message.

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