The Illustrator’s Sketch Defined


Edward Hopper’s “finished sketch” for Nighthawks

The word “sketch” is used differently by all kinds of artists. I myself use it differently in different circumstances. Fine artists use “sketch” to describe a preliminary work of exploration and possibilities: a visual question. On-site artists use it to describe works created from observation: a recording of an experience. But illustrators use it to describe a finalized concept drawing which is presented to a client as part of a job.

So, sometimes a sketch is “just a sketch” and sometimes it’s not. For professional illustrators, a sketch is never “just a sketch,” and it shouldn’t be “sketchy” or vague. It’s an important document and should be treated as such. Allow me to explain.


Edward Hopper sketch for Nighthawks, but not a “finished sketch.”

Illustration jobs have two deadlines: the deadline for the delivery of sketches and the deadline for the delivery of finished art. Before any artwork is created for a client, sketches  of visual concepts are proposed and approved. Like blueprints are for architects, sketches are for illustrators: the final plans. Before a client will publish an image, they want to know what’s coming – almost exactly what’s coming. So, as an illustrator, and more importantly a professor of illustration, I’m an advocate of clear, resolved, “finished sketches” (which I admit, sounds like a contradiction in terms, like “jumbo shrimp”).

Finished sketches, are preliminary drawings which are resolved conceptually and compositionally. Before using final art materials, or often color, viewers can see what the artist has planned to show and say.

An ideal finished sketch provides:

An Answer  A sketch for an illustrator is an answer to the assignment’s needs. The sketch says, “Here’s my way of saying this, and showing that”. By being finished, it asks for no creative suggestions from elsewhere.

Reassurance  A sketch reminds a client that you are worth every penny of the fee that has been negotiated. So, it should look like it’s been done by a serious professional, and not by drunk, in the back of a bus, on a used napkin.

A Sales Tool  A sketch that looks great is usually more convincing than one that does not look good. Illustrators work with limited time, and want to avoid going back to the drawing board. They want sketches approved, so as to go to the next step: the finished art.

A Plan The award-winning illustrator, Gary Kelley once said that the sketch is 75% of the job. It certainly helps to make a successful work of art in the limited time at hand, if most of the decisions have already been made. Plus, the art director, or designer who is collaborating on the project, certainly benefits from a completed composition to design around if need be.


“final art” Nighthawks by Edward Hopper, oil on canvas, 1942

Further Observation

Edward Hopper worked as an illustrator for many years before he turned to more personal subject matter for his art, such as Nighthawks. So, it’s no surprise that his process continued to follow the illustrator’s steps, even though he was no longer working for publishing clients. First, “thumbnails” (preliminary idea drawings) followed by “studies” (detail sketches of people places or things) and a “finished sketch” before painting the “final art.”


figure or character “studies” for Nighthawks by Edward Hopper


figure or character “studies” for Nighthawks by Edward Hopper


figure or character “studies” for Nighthawks by Edward Hopper


“thumbnail sketches” or “concept sketches” for Nighthawks by Edward Hopper


“thumbnail sketches” or “concept sketches” for Nighthawks by Edward Hopper