If you train your dog… your sketches will improve!    

And so will your Watercolors!

Train your dog

Many years ago I began to think of my drawing skills kind of like how my dad was with his wonderful hunting dog… Dot! Dot was a champion pure bred Pointer.  Dot the PointerAnd she was the very best hunting dog I have ever seen. The way she worked in perfect unison with my dad as we hunted pheasants in the fall, in the harvested cornfields around Toledo, Ohio, was pure magic.

My dad controlled Dot’s subtle and elegant movements, in dense brush and corn shocks, from 50 yards away… with short blasts on his whistle, and simple hand gestures that Dot understood perfectly. And years ago, as I began trying to train artists in my fast sketching techniques, I realized that the classic drawing styles where you create an image with numerous tentative attempts combining many light lines… one on top of another… until you finally arrive at a correct line or shape… actually allowed too much lack of artistic commitment to the line. It’s like owning a dog that you never really train. And then when the dog grows up untrained… it jumps on visitors and scares them, growls at them, begs at the dinner table, pees on the carpet, and runs away all the time. You love the dog… but it’s a troublesome pet.


I hate to tell you this… but in fact… it is this particular Drawing Style… that I had to finally abandon all together in order to actually develop real Sketching Skills.


The problem is that this style simply allows you to develop a non-committal approach to drawing… where you have unlimited numbers of attempts to get it right! It’s a lovely style in the studio… when you have all the time in the world to noodle a subject. But it simply doesn’t work in the field drawing from unposed life!

Today… in training artists how to drastically improve their sketching skills… I refer to it as “Training your Dog!” The idea is to actually retrain your Eye-Hand Coordination so that your pencil, pen, or stylus is connected more accurately with your visual perception. And you draw what you see… in the very first lines… not 20. And the fastest way to strengthen and clarify this eye-hand-pencil connection is to practice creating sketches by using singular lines to define precisely what you are looking at. I had 4 years of training in this classic style back in art school. It is a lovely style where you create numerous tentative light lines around various shapes… gradually build a drawing…



The problem with this style is that it is a classic Studio Style that is far to slow for work in the field with live unposed subjects. In order to develop real Sketching Skills… you work in a radically different way. Instead of drawing many light tentative lines to define a subject… gradually building an image into a darker combination of cumulative lines… you try to commit your attempts from the very first lines… drawing more precise singular lines that define what you are looking at.

Sketch-Black Woman Head Dress FB

And you assemble a sketch in pieces… like a puzzle… one piece at a time. In these next several pages study these “sketches”… all of which were done in less than 5 minutes. And observe how I try to identify the shapes of faces… and the elements within and around the main facial shape… with additional shapes… all of which are drawn with definitive singular lines.

This is how you actually retrain your hand to draw precisely what you are looking at.

Sketch Barkley Face FB

As a basic exercise… I sketch faces all the time. And I do it as a warm-up procedure that awakens and tunes up my visual imaging skills. And in training artists… I use this skill as a basic training procedure that quickly sharpens your imaging process. All other musicians, singers & athletes warm up. And actors rehearse their lines and delivery to keep their skills sharp and in tune. But for some unknown reason… painters don’t seem to think they need to do this. Instead they mistakenly think they can just have at it? And an amazing number of painters… especially Watercolor Painters… have simply given up even trying to improve their drawing skills… let alone develop new sketching skills.

In fact… for hundreds of years… watercolor painters… especially… have been known to draw extremely well… as part of their basic skill set. You only need look as far as John Singer Sargent to see how valuable his drawing skills were to his whole painting process… both in oils and watercolors.

Sargent sketches

But this simple process of developing a very specific style of sketching … where you actually retrain how your eye-hand & pencil work together… will not only add a whole new skill to your repertoire… it will revolutionize your whole creative painting process.

Baby Face Sketch FB

The central feature of this imaging skill is to actually train your hand & pencil to link closely with what you are focusing on in your subject. No more tentative and repeated light lines that kind of come close… but rather a fully committed strong line.. that follows a jaw line… defines an upper lip… and captures the precise angles in an eyelid. Once you get the idea… you practice it for a time… on all kinds of faces. By drawing faces better, faster, and with a more confident and singular line… you will rapidly improve this unique artistic connection between what you are looking at… and what comes out of your arm and hand onto the paper.

Sketch-Womans face FB

You can see in this quick sketch of a young woman that her hair is actually a combination of shapes… that when merged together… visually read as hair. And notice how her distinct jawline… from left ear to right… was done with just 2 lines. It’s not that I draw very very fast. It’s that I leave out all extraneous detail and only focus on the most basic visual elements to tell the story of a face. This is not a drawing with all the details and shading. It’s a sketch… that is only meant to capture something… a mere essence or hint… of the subject. And… it took less than 5 minutes to create! And believe me… when you can in fact create an image of something like this… and do it in only a few minutes… it is amazingly liberating and empowering from the artistic point of view.  This unique imaging skill frees up your creative process so that you are able to think faster and give a visual shape to your creative ideas… faster. And that opens up whole worlds of creative possibilities.

It’s not that you don’t create slower drawings any more… it’s that you now have two distinct imaging skills. One skill for working quickly with creative ideas or with live unposed subjects of all kinds. And another for when you have lots of time to noodle the details and mull over all the nuances. One is a drawing… the other a sketch.

Sketch like a puzzle FB

And oddly enough… I discovered that it was this unique ability to draw faces of anyone, anywhere, any age… and any race… that then also allowed me to use the very same sketching skill to draw birds & animals far better than I ever imagined. Can you see here how these sketches of the Flicker and the Bulbul… are actually created with very distinct shapes drawn with confident singular lines? And both took only a few minutes to create. With the exception of the Art School Drawings at the top… done with graphite pencils on sketchbook paper… all of these additional sketches were done on my Apple iPad using a stylus and an app called “Paper by 53”.

Drawing on a smooth piece of glass with a stylus took me a week or so to get comfortable with. But the tremendous new range of imaging possibilities that an artist can achieve with these new digital imaging technologies on an iPad are truly amazing. And they have helped me streamline and improve my whole watercolor painting process by giving me a new way to try out my ideas… before painting.

Bird Sketches FB


Sometimes it as simple as allowing me to create a whole page of more comprehensive full color studies of a potential ideas… that I can do in 20 minutes.

Snow Leopard Leap iPad

And then again… I can also try out more complicated painting ideas quickly… to work out my compositions… values… or lighting.

Launch Pad Snow Leopard FB

And that helps me tremendously when I finally get to the finished watercolor.

Silent Snow Leopard Master

And sometimes… this new digital medium allows artists like us to create a whole new style of image. And that’s really exciting.

In my Watercolor Training of artists… in the TexArt Workshop next May in Texas… I will train artists in this unique combination of cool imaging skills… that are all part of my Watercolor Procedures. And if you don’t have an iPad… that’s OK too! I’m going to show you how to develop watercolor painting ideas with pencils or pens as well.


I am looking forward to working with you in my comprehensive Watercolor Training Program. And I will help you to rapidly refine a whole set of imaging skills in your Watercolor procedures.


05 Rankin 03-28-2015 lg

David assisting an artist with brushwork in a recent workshop.