Jun 11, 2013

Posted by | 7 Comments

Is Outlining in Sharpie Overdone?

Outlining in Sharpie to define shapes before adding color has become a cornerstone of most elementary, middle school, and sometimes high school art projects. I’ll admit, many of my own art lessons include this step in the artistic process. I choose to have students outline in sharpie for many reasons – the most important being the definition, neatness, and bold clarity it can add to art projects without becoming blurred by the painting process. Although it can be time consuming (adding an extra step always is) the results are usually worth it.


Lately I’ve been asking myself: Where did this practice start? Why did it start? Is it necessary?

Screen Shot 2013-06-09 at 2.05.18 PM copy

One project that turns out great and doesn’t involve Sharpie is my 1st Grade Royal Portraits (full lesson plan will be coming soon!) – I couldn’t bear to add black outlining to the delicate drawing skills of my 1st graders. I do, however, suggest they do some defining or outlining in colored pencil if the work needs to ‘pop’ a bit more. This seems to work great.

Royal Portrait

Perhaps this debate is simply a matter of personal preference. Some teachers are 100% on board, others against it, and for most of us striking a balance with media is our goal. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

Do you think outlining in Sharpie is overdone, or an important part of a successful art lesson?

What other methods do you use to help artwork stay neat and defined? 

PS – Patty Palmer of DSS will reveal one of her favorite materials for defining shapes in artwork during her AOE Online Conference Presentation – Spoiler alert – it’s NOT a Sharpie!



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  • Gena Bauer Smith

    I find that I use this method more in my elementary art classes that middle and high school. I also use black oil pastel sometimes when outlining before painting with acrylic or adding chalk pastel. Sometimes projects need that pop. However, I do teach contrast in some lessons by encouraging students to add darker colors next to lighter colors for success with this. Students designed their own superhero and painted it successfully with no need for outlining, but I think this was due to the fact that the subject matter was so dynamic.

  • Kristen

    I don’t usually use this method except sometimes with watercolor. It depends on what the watercolor project is. Recently I had my high school students do 2 point perspective houses and then use watercolors to finish it. The reason I had them use sharpie is because it was a perspective lesson and I didn’t want them to lose the sharp lines and details once they used the watercolor. I definitely think it has its place, but I would not have students use it for portraits or anything like that.

  • Heidi

    I just started using the black marker tracing method this year, and I like the results so much more. The older my students get, I will work on refinement and breaking away from the marker tracing, but in the primary grades, the projects are so much cleaner.

  • HipWaldorf

    Outlining in black is a cartooning technique. I have never heard it discussed on fine arts classes. Try adding black to the paint to make the darkest shade and outline with that. I am going to ask my friend who just graduated from SCAD in illustration about outlining….as now I am curious.

    I have asked my students to use black outline a few times, but I do not want it to become a crutch.

  • Kathy

    Over the years I have done more or less outlining depending on if I have a budget for a ton of sharpies or not. But for the last several years I have used them on a very limited bases in my elementary classes.

    When we paint I encourage them to outline with crayon, in the color they plan to paint it. So if they are painting a red cowboy hat then outline with a red crayon. Some kids will use all black or another neutral color. But the all black crayon or sharpie gives the art a cartoon look.

  • Erica Carlson

    I like this discussion because I feel my kids are over asking for sharpies. One day I just stopped the class after being asked for one for the 100th time. I said “I think I mis-lead you. Sharpies we use many times for our PAINTING projects. But, if we are outlining a non-paint project we can just use something else like a black crayon, crayola marker, etc”. Even after saying that, I get “I need a sharpie”. I love the results of a “sharp’ied” project, but I don’t like that my kids don’t understand why we are doing it and when to use a perm. vs. not perm. marker. sigh…

  • Mrs. Ryan

    Outline helps my small students see and define the lines as boundaries and learn to stop coloring when they get there. They outgrow this step, but my students need this step to slow down and create clarity.