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  • Writer's pictureBethann Garramon Merkle

Sketching Tip: 4 time-saving tips that can transform your field sketch from a scribble into a useful

Updated: May 30

Pen and ink drawings of a beetle and a sprig from a flowering shrub
Two of my early field sketches

Do you enjoy sketching or illustrating your work, field site, or travels?

You probably agree that illustrations are like research – they are often more meaningful when shared.

On the other hand, do you dread what it takes to get your sketches into a functional digital format?

So did I.

The challenges of digitizing

My favorite part of drawing is knowing the image I create helps convey a story and information, or may even decode a complicated process such as cataloging an ecosystem.  So, it is essential that drawings make it from my sketchbooks to the computer, and then out to the world.

And yet, the challenge of transferring drawings from my sketchbooks to the computer has been a snaggle-toothed gremlin on my shoulder for years.  Scanning seldom produced an image that looked like what I drew.  The paper was usually beige or gray, and the colors were either too pale or way too bright.  Photographing without an art photography set-up resulted in similar issues, along with the ever-present problem of a dark shadow where two pages meet in the spine of a sketch book.  Without advanced photo manipulation skills, I was a traditional tools hostage  for years.

More recently, though, I have enjoyed a few breakthroughs, many thanks to tips from fellow eco+art illustrators.  These simple bits of knowledge now actually make me look forward digitizing a sketch.  I want to share them with you.

Pencil sketches of penguins
Penguins I sketched at the BioDome in Montreal, QC

4 tips that made digitizing fun, rather than drudgery.

1. Consider your tools.

Use a soft pencil, black pen, or marker when sketching.  These show up better when scanned and photographed than tools that make lighter marks.  Use paper that is white – it makes color correction easier later.  Use paper that is thick enough that a drawing or text on the back side won’t show through, or only use one side of each page.  Otherwise, when you scan your image, you may find you have “ghost” sentences and sketches showing through.

2. Select the color option when you scan.

Even if scanning a black and white drawing, scanning in color captures more information.  This enables you to more easily adjust the image in a photo editor after scanning.

3. Don’t adjust contrast and saturation first.  

Whether you use Adobe Photoshop or a free editor such as GIMP, resist the urge to use contrast and saturation to adjust your image.  Contrast and saturation can skew the colors in strange ways, or make an image look too severe or bright.  In most photo editing programs like Photoshop and GIMP, a function called “Curves” adjusts the brightness and contrast in a much more “realistic” way.  Often, I find I don’t need to make any further edits to the color and contrast after adjusting the curves.

4. Skip the sketchbook, sometimes.

I’m an old-school type when it comes to adopting technology as an arts solution, so this is a recent leap for me.  However, the longer I work with digital drawing tools and software (there are so many options, it can be overwhelming), the more I appreciate being able to skip steps 1-3.  If you draw directly into your computer, you have already controlled for color, contrast, whiteness of the background, etc.  Mind you, I still tote my sketchbook around, because I love drawing in a sketchbook or field journal.  The way I see it, digital drawing is a new medium, an extra tool, and sometimes a wonderful shortcut.

We’re NOT talking about textbook-perfect.

Sketches of samurai helmets
Samurai helmets I sketched at the Musée de la civilization in Quebec, QC

Most of the sketches I do are just that – sketches. They capture a moment in a few lines, perhaps brightened by a splash of color.  They convey meaning and energy, and they absolutely can help people better understand a complicated or abstract concept.

And yet, most of them would never make it into a textbook, because that is not the end goal.  The end goal is to capture a moment and convey information.

The same is likely true for most of your sketches.

That does not mean your sketches cannot enhance the text you write about your work, or the presentations you give which interpret your results.  Sketches help people connect to things in a physical way, because we can all relate to drawing or writing by hand.

A simple sketch can:

So, next time you need an illustration for your project, start by looking through the sketches you may already have.

Try it!

If you don’t already sketch as part of your workflow, whether in the field or in the office, click here to see all my Sketching Tips.

Or, invite me to show you how.

If you’d prefer to have someone show you how sketching can fit into your work, click here to contact me directly, and we can set up a lesson, workshop, or even a session at your next conference.


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