Prep Work

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Sometimes, I can just sit down and write, draw, or paint. However, sometimes art takes preparation. I suppose practice itself is a form of prep work. What other preparation do I need?

With writing, I keep a notebook of writing ideas. Once I’ve chosen an idea, I sit and think about it. I like to at least have a beginning and an ending and some scenes in the middle planned before I start writing. If it’s a complex or longer story, I like to have an outline to follow. It’s usually not especially detailed, but it gives me some direction.


A page of one of my story ideas notebooks.

I still get surprises as I write, and sometimes I have to change my plans or do some rewriting when the story veers off course. Having a plan keeps me from having that awful moment where I realize that I have no idea where I’m going with this. It also makes it easier to just keep writing. It works for me.

In Toastmasters, we practice planned and impromptu speeches, because life has both types. In my drawing, I practice drawing the picture in pencil, making sure to get all the proportions right, and then drawing over it in ink with more detail or looser lines. I also practice sketching in ink without any prep work. I think both help train my hand and eye in different things.

Each step of my reproduction of Quentin Blake’s “ABC” Ss. Reproduced by me on 2-4-19

Painting requires the prep work of a mise en place just like when cooking. In addition to gathering and placing tools and fresh water and paint, the painting surface also must be prepared. For example, watercolor paper needs to be taped or stapled to a board.

Then you can draw an outline of the image you want to paint in pencil, or project it from underneath using a light desk, or project it onto the surface with a projector. Many believe a device similar to the projector, the camera obscura, was used historically by painters such as Vermeer. It’s really helpful to have a guide to follow so that you get all the proportions and distances correct. It’s horribly discouraging to spend hours on something and then realize that because you were working as you go, a small error led to everything looking wrong in the end.

I love recreating the illustrations John Tenniel drew for “Alice in Wonderland” and “Alice through the Looking Glass.” 

In a watercolor class I took last spring, the teacher talked about this kind of prep work, and said that she often has students who get really upset when they hear about it. They say that it destroys their view of art and artists to learn that they might use projected images or other kinds of painting aids. I wonder how they feel about outlines for writing or recipes or sheet music?

For my graphic novel pages, I draw a thumbnail sketch. It’s small so that I don’t feel pressured to spend a lot of time on it or work out all the little details. It’s for planning out the flow of the panels and their content. The pages themselves are drawn in pencil, then inked, then erased, then scanned and colored digitally.

Step by step through one of my graphic novel pages, from thumbnail to publication. Click here to read my graphic novel, “Isaac’s Illustrated Adventure.”

In some ways, the pages I’m posting to my website are prep work. If I prepare them for publication at some point, I will redo them using the pages I have now as prep work for more polished, better done pages.

Planning ahead usually produces a better end result. It’s true when packing for a trip, or buying groceries for the week, or teaching a lesson at church. It’s also true in art. Knowing that I’m prepared also helps me feel calmer and more confident as I work. I like the times I just sit down and draw or paint, too. Sometimes the results can be surprisingly good. Unfortunately, they can also be surprisingly terrible. Preparation gives me more consistent results.

What kind of preparation do you do for your art? Do you always prepare in the same way? Do you sometimes skip the prep work? How do the results compare?

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Acknowledgements: Quentin Blake, John Tenniel
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