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.
It’s a tremendous bonus when everything seems to work so well – my Christmas holiday was extended this year by a trip to Devon, and my luck was in: Dartmoor was at its best in frosty conditions with not a cloud in the sky. I was also greeted on the coast with lovely sunshine and some strong atmosphere at times, which suited me down to the ground.
I carried out a couple of sketches of Teignmouth Harbour in late afternoon lighting, and as it is an extremely detailed scene I really needed to subdue the urge to put everything into the sketch. What really attracted me was how the sunlight and cloud shadow highlighted various aspects of the scene, so this called for patience to wait for the right moment to capture those parts that attracted me. The far hillside was crammed with buildings, so my aim was to use cloud shadow to reduce this overwhelming mass, and also to throw the emphasis onto the white boat. I worked on blue-grey tinted watercolour paper, using white gouache for the highlights, much of the washes being done later. Although some of my houses are a little too large, this matters little in a sketch as the finished work can be corrected. Being selective about what you include in a composition is vital, otherwise the work becomes far too cluttered.
This paper is kept in loose sheet form in a sketching folder, with several other types of paper, some of which are tinted, some NOT (or cold pressed), rough or hot pressed, and this gives me great flexibility in choosing the right paper for a particular subject. Carrying a pad for each type of paper would probably need a packhorse with me on sketching trips, so think about making up a pack of sheets of your favourite papers when you work away from home, or on holiday. For further guidance on light and atmosphere see my Skies, Light & Atmosphere in Watercolour
I hope you all had a great Christmas and wish you much happy painting in the new year.
I’ve just returned from a week of glorious sunshine in Tenerife – a stunning place for the artist who likes dramatic rock scenery in all sorts of amazing colours. At one stage my feet seemed to be on fire from energetic hiking across sharp volcanic surfaces. Mostly I was alone, hiking and sketching in the mountains, but on one day I wanted to do some work in the amazing Masca Gorge. Unfortunately this would involve no less than 3 buses just to reach the top of the gorge, so to have any hope of actually doing it I needed to join a trekking company group trip. For the artist, however fast she or he works, sketching with a group is quite a challenge.
I chose the Scandinavian Canary Trekas they are a small company well tuned to the natural environment, and don’t take massive groups as some do. It was only when we were halfway to Masca that I mentioned to Victor, the Chilean guide, that I wished to do some sketching. Happily this did not phase him, and he only had three of us to look after. The other two were Finnish friends, Kaj and Krister and we moved quickly down the incredible gorge, seeming to cross the stream about 40 times. I mainly did pencil sketches, working in a linear manner when happily most of Victor’s stops to explain features coincided with a good sketching point. When this didn’t happen I simply filled in details and tones from memory. Over the years my visual memory has become well developed, though occasionally more than just a little imagination does tend to creep in! In the above photo of the Elephant Victor is on the left and Kaj crossing the stream.
The one watercolour sketch of that day was finished later, and shows the sunlight striking the top of the massive crag at the end of the ridge on which part of Masca village is clustered. This is the start of the walk, and truly spectacular. For this I used a cartridge pad. In a painting I would move the central palm tree a little to the left, as it bothers me being so central. This is another reason why sketches are so important: they can highlight problems before you make them on the main painting. If you go out with non-artists and wish to do quick sketches then preparation is the key. Sharpen all your pencils beforehand, carry a small box of 5 or 6 colours of Inktense blocks or watercolour sticks, a sketchpad, water and 2 or 3 brushes. Watercolour pencils are also useful, but do keep your kit simple and easily and quickly accessible. Don’t forget a camera, of course.
Tenerife is a great place for the landscape artist – yes, it has mood as well as strong sunshine, and the colours are amazing. My only regret was to forget to include Perylene Red in my paintbox, as it was very prominent in the volcanic areas. If you’d like a little adventure I recommend Canary Trek
Very few scenes in the countryside happen to be exactly as we would wish them to be when we are about to paint them – a little jigging around with the composition is usually necessary. In the photograph of the Meon Valley in winter shown below, there are a number of basic changes that can be made before beginning to paint. Study the scene for a few minutes and consider what you might do to improve the way the main elements hang together.
The placid stream reflected warmer colours as the afternoon wore on, while the constant coming and going of the birdlife enlivened the scene. It cried out to be sketched and with such lovely, delicate colours I plumped for a watercolour sketch. The first thing that struck me was the direction of the stream: it would be much improved if it led into the picture and not to one side as it does here. That, in fact is what the stream actually did, but within the confines of a photograph I couldn’t show this.
While I sometimes include telephone poles, here they simply add clutter, so I left them out for a cleaner tree-line. Quite a bit of simplifying was necessary, firstly in the sky – although the sky is quite washed out, in reality there were a great many small clouds, so I reduced these to one simple line of dark cloud; secondly the foreground demanded a broad-brush approach, eliminating most of the clumps of grass. I also warmed up the sky and associated reflection in the water.
You can see my response in the watercolour sketch in the June issue of Leisure Painter magazine, on page 26, in an article on painting placid water. The July issue will include my article on painting turbulent water, followed in August by one on painting summer landscapes, and how to cope with all those greens. Why not visit the magazine’s painting community at http://www.painters-online.co.uk/