5 Reasons to Sketch on Paper

Don’t get me wrong. Sketching digitally is great.

There’s an undo button. If you draw someone’s head too big, you can just resize it. It’s way easier to make adjustments, even dramatic ones, and to make multiple versions of something, like color variants or palette swaps. Digital tools are amazing.

But even if you’re primarily a digital artist and all your finished work is digital, I think there’s a lot of value in sketching traditionally on occasion and in keeping that as a skill in your toolbox.

As a longtime sketchbook enthusiast, I’m certainly very biased, but I think everyone can benefit from keeping a physical sketchbook, even those who don’t consider themselves artists.

Weird eel-heron sketches
Weird eel-heron sketches.

1. You can draw while disconnected

Working digitally leaves you open to digital distractions. Alerts and messages and pop-ups can be disabled to some extent, but it can still be tempting to check in on social media or email or whatever since it’s right there. It takes a lot more will power to ignore temptation when giving in is just a matter of alt+tabbing over to a browser window.

Uninterrupted drawing time is undervalued. (Uninterrupted time in general is undervalued…) It’s a lot easier to “get in the zone” if you actually let yourself draw long enough to get in the zone.

Two cats curled up in a papasan by the window.
Kick your cats out of the sunny spot by the window so you can curl up with your sketchbook.

Leaving behind all your electronics for alone time with your sketchbook can seem daunting. If you’re used to quick access to endless reference, not having that can feel like a major crutch.

If you’re a traditional artist who wants to work on a “real” piece while offline, you can print off references or use book and magazine references like the olden days.

But I think it’s important to make time for freeform sketching and doodling, too. Working from reference and doing studies is critical for building and maintaining a solid understanding of forms, shapes, structures, anatomy, and other artistic foundations — but just doodling, without thinking too hard or constantly checking a reference, can lead to more ideas.

You might get some technical details wrong working without reference, but you can always check later and make adjustments accordingly.

Offline doodles. Could reference have been helpful for all these maws? Of course. Were they necessary though? Nah.

Drawing while disconnected can be weirdly intimidating at first. What if you don’t have any ideas? You want to go look for something to inspire you, or to distract you — but it’s probably actually impossible to sit for ten minutes with a blank sketchbook page and have that page still be blank at the end of the ten minutes. There’s a lot of research suggesting that “mind wandering” leads to more creativity.

So just stare at that page for a while if you need to. You’ll think of something.

Photo of an open sketchbook with dog sketches
Dogs sketched from life at a cafe in 2019. If nothing comes to mind, drawing what you see is always a good skill-building exercise.

2. There’s less friction to start

Sketching traditionally requires very little: just paper and pencil. Your cafe table doesn’t need an outlet. You don’t need the wifi password. The power doesn’t need to be on if the sun is out. It doesn’t matter if your charging cable isn’t working.

You don’t need much time to get “settled” if you’re struck by sudden, unexpected inspiration. If you’re walking down the street and suddenly have a great idea that you just need to get down somewhere before you lose it? Find the nearest bench, or hell, lean against the nearest wall, pull out that sketchbook, and sketch it out really quick! Or even just jot down the idea.

That’s much simpler than waiting for your device to boot or wake up, for your program to get over the initial start lag, and for you to find the specific pen that works with your tablet. If you pick up your phone to write down an idea, what are the chances that you’ll forget it immediately upon seeing your home screen and never actually make it to your notes app? Pretty high, probably.

With a sketchbook, there are no other options to distract you. There’s no latency or lag. You get immediate results. You don’t need to remember to save.

Photo of a cafe sign and exterior
Are there outlets in there? Dunno, but it doesn’t matter! You can draw on paper regardless.

3. You learn faster when you can’t undo mistakes

It’s great being able to resize parts of drawings that are out of proportion when working digitally, but then you never build the muscle memory needed to draw things in proportion the first time. Repetition creates habit, and you’re cheating yourself if you train yourself to draw things slightly off and make the digital correction part of the routine.

Even with erasers, it’s more of a pain to fix these sorts of mistakes when working traditionally. Sometimes, it’s just easier to start over, and over, and over, and eventually, you nail those proportions the first time. Rather than let the permanency of paper paralyze you, let each poorly drawn line be a learning experience.

Sketching in pen adds to this exercise: you can redraw the line, but you’ll still see the old one. Your mistakes and previous attempts stay in the sketch, but being able to compare the eventual “correct” line with all of the others can give helpful perspective, especially when working from reference

Pen sketches of geckos
Pen sketches of geckos. There are a LOT of mistakes in here, anatomy-wise, but it’s helpful for me to see them.

Sometimes, there might be more than one “correct” line — that is, there are multiple options for a certain line that might look good. Seeing all your options, all of the lines you made in search for the one you actually want to use, can give you more confidence in whatever your final choice is.

Working digitally, you undo all your past lines as a default. The one you end up on might look right in the moment, but you can’t compare and confirm against your past choices. Being able to see the path you took to get to the line you want is valuable.

And sure, you can resist ctrl+z and do “permanent” sketch exercises digitally too, but not having that choice on paper simplifies things.

Pen sketches of OCs
Pen sketches of OCs.

4. Drawing in the margins is good for ideas

Something more difficult to replicate digitally is the gaps that form when you draw on a page.

For some reason, filled pages are aesthetically pleasing. Your main drawing only takes up so much room, and it leaves a gap off in the corner or to the side — just enough space that you don’t want to leave it blank. Maybe it’s just that the idea that paper is precious is hard to kick. It’d be a waste to not fill that space, right? But it’s not big enough to draw anything “serious” in, so a stupid doodle will suffice.

And when you’re happy to accept that whatever you draw in that space might be silly and stupid and pointless — sometimes really great ideas happen instead, whether the idea is what you end up drawing or how you end up drawing it.

Not always, of course, but sometimes, and that’s nice.

Bunch of weird doodles in a sketchbook
A bunch of weird doodles and space-filler. They’re kind of neat though, right??

5. You get a physical log of progress

It’s easy to lose track of sketches when you have a folders full of files like 000.psd, 2378232.psd, doodle.psd, anotherdoodle.psd, coolidea.psd, etc. Most people don’t take the time to meticulously categorise and sort folders and subfolders and give their random sketches meaningful filenames, so things from a few months or a few years ago can be really difficult to track down. You can’t search for “cool idea” if you actually named that file “finishthislater23.psd” and forgot.

You can’t search for “cool idea” in a sketchbook either, but flipping through a book is a lot more straightforward than trying to excavate your one folder with 5000 files in it. You might misplace a sketchbook, but in most cases, chances are good it’s still somewhere findable, and depending on your digital and physical spaces, even cleaning your room or office to find it is probably still easier than trying to make sense of your files.

But even if you have excellent digital cataloguing skills though, there’s something uniquely satisfying about seeing your work in the physical world. It’s more of a hurdle to delete unsatisfactory sketches, so more of your progress can be preserved, and it can be useful to reflect back on that progress from time to time.

I may be more inclined towards record-keeping than most, and admittedly, sometimes it’s not useful to constantly be looking backwards instead of forwards. But even if you don’t look back often, having the option to do so, especially in an organised manner, is very nice.

Sketchbooks 2012-2016
Sketchbooks from January 2012 – January 2017. It may be no surprise that my digital files are actually also obnoxiously and meticulously organised, and I have scans of most sketchbook volumes, but it’s still a lot more fun to look over the physical sketchbooks.

I’m not suggesting that all sketching be done traditionally, only that you consider spending some time doing it.

Even if you’re not an artist, doodling can be a good way to unwind and to let your brain wander and rest. The importance of time spent disconnected from devices is another post entirely, but I don’t think anyone is contesting the value there.

And if you are an artist — both the disconnected aspect and the tactile feedback of drawing on paper are worthwhile. Not being able to fall back on undo forces you to draw better lines the first time, and drawing without a targeted aim or reference can be a creative boon. So much of what we draw is for work, for improvement, for studying, for a product, for a customer, for a client, for the likes — doodling without thinking about any of that for once is a good practice.

If you’re already not in the habit of sketching regularly on paper, just give it ten minutes once a week or something. You might be surprised at how nice it can be.

About the author

Kiri is an illustrator, writer, and (brush) pen enthusiast in Seattle with over 12 years of convention vending experience and an inclination towards verbosity.