David Bellamy – Thrashing around for a sketch

The recent Patchings Art Festival in Nottinghamshire was something of a whirlwind for us, with almost non-stop activity on our stand, and interest in my new book, Seas & Shorelines was astonishing. The book sold out and that was not including the other books. Having meetings with a number of people, I really didn’t manage to see even half the show this year, and had to miss out meeting many artists, but as usual it was a fabulous show, easily the best in the UK. It was a delight to meet so many students even though I was torn away so often by sheer numbers. I did three demonstrations in the St Cuthberts Mill marquee on their superb Waterford and Bockingford papers, and had the privilege of being accompanied on stage by some local wildlife: at the rear of the marquee a nest of bees became interested in the demonstrations. Having these massive bees circling round your head as you paint away does tend to inject a real buzz to your work!

 Getting back home was no picnic. The next day my two-year-old grand-daughter arrived and more or less took over the place, causing delightful mayhem and scattering my toys all over the place. About a week after returning from Patchings things returned almost to normal and I decided to go for a hike in a local gorge. Unfortunately it was massively overgrown with vegetation and I’d forgotten my boots and stick. It took some time to break through to the lip of the gorge, but once there I managed a couple of pencil sketches, one of which appears above. I had to leave out most of the background tree detail.

I continued upstream, high above the rocky course of the stream along a slippery, eroded pathway, but by now armed with a sturdy pole I’d found lying on the ground. Under some cliffs and round the corner I descended into the undergrowth from hell. Nobody had been this way for years probably. I was confronted by a dense area of briars, nettles, branches and other vegetation, all covering many fallen tree-trunks. I didn’t want to return the way I’d come so I literally thrashed my way through the undergrowth, mounting each tree-trunk and attacking the undergrowth beyond before leaping down the far side. This took ages and in the heat the perspiration was running off me. At the far end – some 70 yards or so – I looked back and realised it would have been better to have jumped into the river and waded up, thus avoiding the undergrowth.

There was much more to the day, but I shall pause there. I returned home happy with a brace of sketches and having had plenty of exercise. Just being in such a marvellous spot and enjoying the natural environment is something really special. Even for a few scratches!

 Signed copies of Seas & Shorelines are available from my website

David Bellamy – In Praise of the Tea-Pot

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.

Making the most of stunning light effects

Jenny and I have just returned from a tour of demonstrating in Yorkshire, to a number of really enthusiastic art societies who gave us a marvellous welcome, as indeed they usually do in Yorkshire. In between we managed some walking, sketching and visiting people. Lovely weather, of course, that is, until we went out sketching and walking!

This scene of stunning evening light we came across in Wharfedale as we were driving along, the stormy sky emphasising the brightness of the incredibly strong light. Rather like a snow scene with a dark sky, watercolourists would normally paint the sky after rendering the light hillside, but how would you cope with such a sharp edge all the way across the composition?

The answer is actually in the photograph if you examine it closely. On the extreme left-hand side the light does not actually reach the topmost part of the hill – a thin slither of the upper section lies in shadow, and you can accentuate this by making the shadow area larger and having a shadow tone about halfway between the dark sky and the light part of the hill. Then again, on the right-hand side the hill-top is in darker shadow, creating counter-change with the lighter sky above it. The larger right-hand tree also breaks up the background line very effectively. It’s an extremey useful exercise to consider these things when you are presented with interesting features, and take photographs and sketches even if they don’t give you a completely satisfactory composition. You can always use the effects in another scene.

Critical observation

When I talk about sketching outdoors I am well aware that so many artists lose interest – they prefer to stay indoors, warm and comfortable and work from photographs, books, calendars and so on. ‘Sketching’ is a dirty word to many, although for me it is one of the most rewarding things I do. Still, for those of you who don’t wish to venture beyond your front door, you can still learn a lot by critical observation.

This exciting picture was taken in my hotel bedroom last week in London, and if you look carefully you will observe a number of subtle effects concerned with direct and reflected light. The main light is entering through a window to the right, illuminating the right-hand wall and the right-hand edge of the door architrave in the centre, but where this is blocked by an object in the top right-hand corner the most powerful light there comes from the light bulb above the top left-hand corner.

If you look carefully you should be able to see a slight lightening of the vertical thin strip of wall in the centre where reflected light is bouncing back from the illuminated architrave.  Again, at the bottom of the scene you can see further counterchange on wall and architrave caused by a table in the bottom right-hand corner.

Simple scenes like this can provide an excellent idea of how light affects various surfaces and angles. You can observe these effects without having to go out into hostile terrain, or the need to do any sketching. Make it a habit whether you are indoors, outdoors, or sitting in a rickshaw waiting for the traffic lights to change.

In the December issue of Leisure Painter magazine you will find a complete article I wrote on the subject of observation, and I have a further piece on-line at http://www.painters-online.co.uk/  Critical observation like this can also while away the time as you wait for a train or whatever, and it can be great fun!