It’s a pretty miserable, wet, misty day here in Mid-Wales, the sort that puts many people right off going out to sketch the landscape, but even in winter we can get some fine days when being out with a sketchbook is a real treat. Recently we had a fall of snow and the Black Mountains looked glorious in the late November sunshine as you can see below.
Now that winter has arrived it’s worth gearing up ready for that day when you wake up and the scenery outside is stunning, and begging to be painted. Preparation in advance is the key: if you have to search for everything the snow may well have melted, the early morning atmosphere dissipated and the best part of the day gone before you are ready for action. For sketching if you want to work quickly with minimum fuss a few pencils, watercolour pencils or sticks and a small cartridge sketchbook are all you need, plus your camera. Thin gloves of the Thinsulate sort help you draw in cold conditions, but a flask with a hot drink or soup can be a great morale-booster. Even better while you are sketching is a thermal travel mug which keeps your drink hot for hours – very welcome as you wait for a wash to dry or contemplate how much more of the composition to include. Note how the flask is prominent on the sledge during this sketching break amidst Arctic icebergs! The trouble with ice and snow is that watercolour is the best medium to capture their subtleties, but in temperatures below zero this is not the easiest option……….
You can get further tips and techniques in my book Winter Landscapes in Watercolour which is available from all good bookshops, or if you would like a signed copy, from my website. At the moment there is a special free offer of a pack of Christmas cards with each copy of the book. Whatever you do don’t miss out on the marvellous opportunities for capturing winter landscapes when the colours, the light and the trees are all so evocative. Just make sure you choose the right day to venture out!
This is a great time for getting wet in the cause of art – taking your sketchbook and a watersoluble graphite pencil into the shallow surf on a safe beach and getting really close to those waves. You can create some lovely effects with a watersoluble pencil, and either brush over the sketch with a plastic aquash or water brush, or simply dip your finger in the sea and use that! The latter method, of course gives little scope for intricate detail, but that can be an advantage in stopping you fiddling.
This A5 sketch of boisterous surf on Marloes beach only took a few minutes and it shows the subtle tonal effects you can achieve with a watersoluble pencil. I worked round the small blobs of white foam, and I was especially keen to capture the interaction of hard and soft edges, many of which kept changing with the movement of the water. Even if you don’t do a full painting from it, the sketch will teach you a lot about rendering wave action. One of the main advantages such a sketch has over a photograph is the dynamism and sense of movement you can portray with rapid and energetic hand movements.
So don’t forget to take your sketchbook with you when you visit the seaside. There will always be something to catch your eye. I did quite a number of sketches that glorious June day at Marloes beach, some of which only took 3 or 4 minutes.
I have to confess that I’ve neglected this blog lately as I’ve been away enjoying the highlands of Scotland in one of the most beautiful periods of sunshine. As well as climbing some of the peaks I also found myself drawn towards the stunning coastline, and with a combination of light mist and strong sunshine, day after day brought heavenly opportunities for the landscape artist.
One of the sketches I did was of the rugged west coast as shown on the right. Here I used a 5B pencil on a cartridge pad. Most of the horizon was lost in mist, so I only hinted at it on the right. With the sun providing such strong backlighting the rocks stood out dark, with their tops catching the light, as were the areas of beach. For the sparkling water I have simply dotted the area in question, and this can be moved to suit my needs when I carry out the final painting.
A scene like this can look a little desolate without some form of life, so I would introduce bird life or maybe a small boat into a painting. A cormorant stood on a rocky promontory well to the right, and in a nearby beach a number of waders were at work on the wet sand so it would be easy enough to introduce any of these to this scene, perhaps with a strip of sand in the case of the waders. The sand would also break up the monotony of wall-to-wall stones and pebbles in the foreground.
I enjoyed every moment I lingered in this delightful spot. Nature washes away all the stresses of life, and for me always injects a tremendous energy into my work. If you go out into the landscape it will always have a lesson for you, without fail. As someone with a deep love for the natural environment I have always treasured my visits to the Highlands, but for how much longer I don’t know. With the encroach of massed wind turbines across some of Scotland’s most iconic landscapes they will before long be submerged in a ghastly industrial mess. Even if the turbines were effective and didn’t involve highly toxic manufacture, didn’t decimate the bat and raptor population, didn’t pose a considerable threat to human health, they should still be kept out of these overwhelmingly beautiful landscapes for which Scotland is (at the moment) world-renowned. As they are primarily a means of making vast profits for corporations, political parties and even many so-called ‘green’ organisations, it is little short of criminal what is happening in Scotland and Wales. Please go and see these marvellous landscapes before they are decimated, and see for yourself what is happening to one of the most beautiful countries in the world.
Maintaining morale when out sketching on location is vital, and while some might find a whisky flask useful, I generally rely on tea. Sadly last week in Pembrokeshire the cottage where I stayed lacked that vital ingredient, the teapot. Naturally, this was pretty disastrous, so when out and about I made the most of any such facilities. In the sketch below the right-hand building is a superb tea-shop selling the most delicious cakes, and this is why you might detect a certain hastiness in the rendering of the pencil-work.
However hasty we may be in sketching, it pays to consider the composition carefully when creating a painting from the sketch or photograph. Unless the subject is quite a simple affair I normally carry out an intermediate studio sketch to work out where I wish to place the important elements and the main emphasis, together with the sort of atmosphere I wish to convey. In this instance I would move the composition to the right a little so that the left-hand house did not appear in the centre of the composition, as this would be my centre of interest. I would need more detail to be included above the left-hand wall and figures (detail missed because of the urgency of the tea situation), so I would have to resort to memory, a photograph, or the good old imagination. The main figures would be placed further to the right, a little closer to the centre of interest, and I would make full use of the dark runnels of water descending from the centre right – I have already bent them slightly to come towards the viewer as a lead-in. These are the kind of thought processes that go through my mind before I begin the painting.
Don’t underestimate the value of tea for the artist. I’ve even used it on a painting outdoors on occasion. Last autumn while I was running a landscape painting course a lovely German lady was painting a cottage, which filled her paper. When I asked her what was her focal point she replied, “The tea-pot.” Sure enough, there was a teapot in the window. Such observations may not only bring a smile to your viewers, but might also result in a sale.
Jenny and I have just returned from Austria where we took a group to paint Alpine scenery. It was a great trip, with many memorable scenes, despite rather a lot of cloud and mist. So we had rather a lot of practice in rendering misty mountains in watercolour!
Here I’m doing a watercolour demonstration way above the clouds, with marvellous views all round as the mountains rise out of the inversion. Alas, there were even more clouds above us, so we did get a little rain near the end of the demo, but not enough to spoil things. A cappuccino and an apple-strudel quickly restored morale.
Mist on mountains can, for the artist, sometimes be both magical and a misery. I love the way it can blot out unwanted features, but as we all know, it often blots out the very features we want to see!
There are a number of ways of creating mist in watercolour. In this scene above the Inn Valley in Austria I ran colour into wet areas to create soft edges to the clouds. I had to work quickly as I was painting on a cartridge book. With such a lot of cloud edges, inevitably some dry hard-edged before they can be corrected.
This is not usually a problem as they can later be softened with a damp brush when the paper is completely dry, though the odd hard edge here and there might well enhance the clouds.
Alternatively a soft sponge is an excellent tool for softening off, but take care if you use cartridge paper as it won’t stand too much surface friction. Enjoy your clouds!