The difference between sketching and drawing essentially comes down to differences in detail and finish. Sketching is loose, quick observation, usually done with a single tool and sometimes is a first stage of further drawing. Drawing, on the other hand, includes more detail, techniques, often multiple tools and often with the intent of creating a finished piece of art.
I’ll get into explaining the two in further detail in just a second, but I want to start by saying: there aren’t really hard, defined boundaries between the two. The definitions of sketching and drawing are generalizations.
Personally, I would say that sketching is a subset or type of drawing, characterised by looseness and speed, and so all sketches are drawings, but not all drawings are sketches.
The Purpose of Sketching
I would divide sketching into roughly two camps; observational sketching, and conceptual sketching.
When sketching from observation, you’re trying to quickly capture a subject in front of you. You may be limited to sketching because the subject is moving, or about to move. Perhaps you have decided to create multiple quicker sketches of the subject to help you learn its larger forms and proportions through iteration.
In conceptual sketching, instead of learning something in front of you, you’re exploring ideas. Conceptual sketching is about quickly and loosely exploring the ideas in your head. Sometimes it might take a few attempts to put an idea down on paper successfully, so it is often more time-efficient to limit yourself to just sketching until you feel you have managed to translate the idea to paper successfully.
In both cases, sketching produces loose, imperfect, unfinished sketches, often at a small scale.
Sketches are not often intended by the artist to be viewed as complete pieces of art on their own; they are for the artist themself, to help them capture a subject or an idea, often before a more refined drawing; it’s a casual, preparatory stage.
Artists often have personal libraries full of their own unfinished sketches—I know I have hundreds of sketches, tucked away.
The Purpose of Drawing
While I would consider sketching to be a type of drawing, when most people refer to ‘drawing’ I think they mean drawing with the intent of creating a finished piece of art, whether observational or from imagination.
Often the artist will begin drawing by first sketching, and once they have made a sketch they are happy with, will either draw on top of the sketch, transfer the sketch to another canvas, or begin a fresh drawing using their sketch as reference. Often this will be at a much larger scale than their sketch.
Most artists will work on the drawing in layers; first the sketch, then more accurate construction lines, then refining, shading and detailing it further until they consider the drawing finished (or abandoned, as is sadly so common with all of us!).
Difficulty of Drawing vs. Sketching
Drawing and sketching both have their own challenges that accentuate their differences as disciplines.
Sketching is challenging due to its necessity for speed and efficiency. Producing a good looking sketch spontaneously requires a lot of experience, good knowledge of the art fundamentals, and for those really beautiful sketches, a fair bit of luck.
Drawing requires more knowledge of different techniques and tools, but also has fewer time-restraints, and efficiency is much less of a factor. Creating a good looking drawing requires much more patience than sketching, as much of the strength of a drawing comes through in the building up of layers of line and shading over time. Drawing is more forgiving than sketching, as you can take the time to correct mistakes, and to plan things out before committing to anything.
Tools, mediums and materials
Usually sketching is done with a single mark-making tool. Traditional artists will use a single pencil, piece of charcoal, marker or even a brush to lay out their sketch. Sketching is often done with less expensive materials and on smaller and cheaper sketchbooks, so the artist can experiment freely and make as many sketches as they want to.
A digital artist might choose a single brush in which to sketch with—I personally like to sketch with a simple round brush, and use it for nearly every sketch I do nowadays. I also sketch on a very small canvas size, to make sure I can’t get distracted by drawing details during the sketch, and it also keeps my brush/software responsive.
The focus of sketching is to concentrate on capturing a visual quickly, so minimal swapping of tools during sketching is the norm, often only swapping between sketches.
Drawing usually uses a much more broad and diverse range of tools compared to sketching, and also more expensive and higher quality. Especially the paper used is often smoother, heavier and larger.
For drawing, the artist will often begin by sketching, and then switch between pencils, charcoals, markers, etc. depending on shade or color required in order to push the drawing toward completion, as well as extra tools like erasers, blenders, guides etc.
If you’re sketching, you’re working loose, quickly observing or capturing your idea, with a single tool. Sometimes, you’re doing this before moving on to doing a further drawing.
When you’re drawing, you’re working slower, more deliberately, trying to capture details and work with accuracy. You might have multiple tools and be trying to create a finished piece of art.
Maybe that clears things up a little bit.
Hey, I’m Christopher
I started making digital art in 2009, became a full-time freelance artist in 2016, and now I’m able to work on my own schedule from anywhere in the world.
I created this blog to help other artists make the same journey.