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What Size Should I Sketch?

What size should I sketch?” It’s a simple question, and one that is asked often by beginners to product design sketching. As with many simple questions however, the more you ask it, the more complicated or confusing the answer can become. Ask ten different designers and it is more than likely that you will receive ten different answers! So, how do designers decide what size to sketch?

First of all let’s get one thing out of the way. There is no right or wrong size to draw! Some designers can go entire careers rarely creating a drawing bigger than a pack of playing cards, whilst others will seldom work on anything less than an A3 (or even A2) image. The vast majority however will find themselves using a variety of sizes. The key element, as with much of sketching, is to feel comfortable and confident. Of course, this does not mean that the size of drawing you do is completely irrelevant. Just as different materials lend themselves to different techniques and effects, the same can be said of sketch sizes. The question you should therefor ask is not what size should I sketch, but what do I want to achieve with the sketch?

For example, are you looking to show the design in all its glory, down to the smallest detail, or are you simply trying to capture the essence, stance or proportions of your design? Of course, it is relatively simple to understand that the smaller your drawing is, the fewer details you will be able to display. Draw very large however and you will have to put a lot more pen to paper, and probably won’t find it as easy to quickly and simply capture the “feeling” of your design. As mentioned at the beginning however, each designer is different, and there is no right or wrong way (or size) to draw.

With my own daily work, whilst a lot of my tasks are based around creating whole vehicle concepts, my sketches are generally rather small. Typically very few of my sketches will be larger than 15x20cm, and in fact a fair amount are a lot smaller. Some are truly thumbnail sketches both in name and dimensions. These are pretty small, especially considering I design trucks for a living! Sketching at this size allows me to work through different ideas pretty quickly, and far more importantly allows me to ensure that the key graphics and proportions I am designing are fundamentally good. This approach I feel is pretty important, especially in truck design! With the surfaces being so large on these types of vehicles, it can be very easy to “fill” them with “clever” details that don’t really hang together or create a harmonious theme. For me, the best designs have always been those that incorporate intricate detailing within a strong, clear and simple base form and proportion. Only once I have these key elements set do I slowly start to increase the sizes of my sketches (although rarely do they become larger then 20x30cm).

A large part of the reason that I personally feel more comfortable with these smaller sketches is due to the way I sketch. There are two natural pivot points that a designer can use when drawing which can help achieve flowing curves. One of these is created by resting your elbow on the table and using it as a pivot point for curves, the other is created by resting your wrist on the table and pivoting your curves around there instead. The pivot point in my wrist is the one I naturally feel comfortable using, and since this only enables me to draw smaller curves, my sketches are naturally smaller. It can be a good idea to pay attention to this when you are sketching yourself, and find out which way feels most natural to you. Of course, if both techniques feel good, then feel free to use both!

As well as this, the convenience of being able to draw creatively at a small size is a bonus. I can easily carry a small sketch pad that can be used whenever I need to.

The advance of digital technology has also had an effect on the size I draw. When sketching on paper, the size you sketch is pretty obvious. When sketching digitally however, for example in Photoshop, the size of the drawing is a little more ambiguous. Even with a small canvas, it is a simple operation to zoom-in to whatever detail level you like (at least if the resolution is big enough). Because of this it can be a little tempting to go too far when sketching digitally, spending too long on one drawing and generally overworking your images. Knowing when to stop and move on to the next sketch is important! One method that I have developed to try to overcome this tendency is to always sketch on the same size canvas, using the same sized brushes. The size of canvas I have chosen for this (A4 at approximately 72DPI) requires that I draw with a brush of approximately 5 pixels. This does not leave a lot of room to zoom-in and add too many details as I simply don’t have many brush sizes to move down to. Of course, if I really need to add more details, perhaps to create a presentation drawing from one of my sketches I can always increase the resolution of the image and add details. In effect this has meant that even when having to create high definition images with plenty of details, I am still in effect able to draw small. Simply put, this simple technique has allowed me to recreate digitally the natural comfort level and confidence I have when sketching A4 or smaller by hand.

In conclusion, although I have explained that generally I draw small, I hope that I have shown that really the choice is fully up to you. There are plus and minus points for every drawing technique, and your goal should be to learn about them all, try them all out, and simply run with what makes you comfortable, and achieves the results you want!

This article is a reprint of an article originally written by Allan Macdonald for the website

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page last updated; 2014-06-15
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