The Beauty of Sketching
Updated: Mar 16, 2020
That feeling of accomplishment - and perhaps a little self-congratulation - on finishing a large, considered studio painting is a useful tonic for the artist. It spurs them on to the next piece, and helps to soften the quiet subversive voice that whispers "You seriously think someone will buy that?" Producing art to put a meal on the table lands you in this rather awkward place; one foot rooted firmly on the bank of self aggrandisement, while the other is still stuck in the boat of inner-doubt that is drifting uncontrollably into the middle of the stream.
There are no such tensions with sketching. As a simple way of recording what I see in the landscape, collecting information for future paintings, or resolving compositional issues, sketching takes on a level of carefree enjoyment that a larger commercial work may not. But this only starts to scratch at the surface of why most artists find sketching to be such an essential, enjoyable part of their working process. My sketching falls into three categories: information sketch, atmosphere sketch, technical sketch. Allow me to share these with you......
Let's start with the information sketch. It may come as a surprise, but the weather in the UK is not always conducive to spending hours in an open field with a large expensive sheet of paper, whiling away the time producing a detailed landscape painting. However, with a sketch pad and minimal equipment it is an entirely different matter, and by working quickly it is possible to get a few marks down to capture what it is about that landscape that has initially inspired me. Often this may take no longer than 15 minutes. This need for speed, and direct interface with the landscape adds an immediacy and freshness to the work. The point of the exercise is to make a response to the landscape in front of me, only recording its most important elements, to take back something that will not only be useful for future paintings, but hopefully evoke future memories. These can be sweeping views, or a detailed study of an old barn - it's all information I can use.
The scene above - overlooking Kimmeridge Bay from Rope Lake Head - is a case in point. I hadn't set out necessarily to sketch this view, but just to enjoy one of the best walks on the South West Coast Path. Walking from the village of Kingston I arrived at the top of the ridge where the view below opened out. The light was soft and mellow, and small shafts of sunlight were breaking through chinks in the cloud, rather like old, inverted air raid searchlights. It was a perfect opportunity to sit and sketch the scene. An old stile, protruding from a crumbling, ivy clad dry-stone wall, acted as a convenient, if not uncomfortable chair. There was a cool breeze and the paint took a little longer to dry, but after working quickly for half an hour I had enough on the paper to be satisfied. Now, this gets right to the heart of why sketching outdoors is the most amazing activity, and why I encourage everyone to have a go. The most important skill in making a quick sketch is not a well-honed drawing technique, or proficiency with paint, but primarily the ability to observe. As I sat on the rather unaccommodating stile, shifting position regularly to ward off the pins-and-needles in my right leg, I noticed a flock of sheep dotted like flicked Tippex across the distant hillside in the patchwork of fields behind Kimmeridge Bay. A farmer appeared from the right, and the gruff hum of his quad bike was just audible above the combined sound of breeze and waves below. Two border collies sat dutifully in an improvised wooden ledge on the back. As I sketched I watched as the farmer and his dogs faded into the distance and then, from behind the furthest sheep, coaxed and teased them back across the landscape below with remarkable skill and patience. Focussing on this, and the shapes in the landscape I wanted to record in my sketch, enabled me to observe and concentrate on my surroundings far more than would have been the case if I had simply climbed over the stile, taken in the view and carried on walking down towards Kimmeridge. Whenever I pull this old sketch out of the drawer everything comes back to me with a vivd sense of recollection. The sheep, the farmer and his dogs, and the noise they all made. I can feel the unforgiving stile again, and the soft gusts of sea breeze, carrying a faint bouquet of sweet and salty notes. It is a beautiful, emotional experience, and it's my favourite sketch. It is by no means the most competent painting I've ever made, but it can't be bettered as a record of a moment of place and time, an expression of my response to the landscape (with muddy thumbprint still intact!) And that's all an information sketch needs to deliver.
The atmosphere sketch is a very useful way of recording a fleeting moment in time; a break in the clouds, a deer running across a wheat field, or your teammate at cricket responding to his third consecutive Golden Duck! When I'm in the landscape, irrespective of whether I have my sketchpad with me, I'm observing and taking in transient moments. Painting without paint, sketching without a sketchpad. Many of them are filed somewhere in my memory for use later, but I also like to record some of them very quickly when I get back indoors. Here, I picked the twins up from an after school club one wintery afternoon, just as a pleasing sunset was playing out next to the school. I made a mental note and then knocked up a couple of quick atmosphere sketches when we got back home. They're in my 'sky' collection now for future reference in some painting or other when I might want a similar effect. These are great fun to do, and only take a few minutes of quickly sloshed colour or tone to recreate your experience outdoors. The landscape is a wonderful place to be, and try your best not to simply breeze through it from one hectic moment to another. Don't just look, observe.
I like to use a 'technical sketch' as much as possible before starting a larger painting. This elevated scene of Swanage Bay was a real challenge as the only reference image that I had (from a drone) was taken on an overcast, dull afternoon. I wanted to inject some directional light and shadow but was torn between two different ideas: a golden, sunlit headland against a bright horizon, or the white cliffs on the headland against a darker sky. I also needed to map out where my highlights and foreground shadows were going to fall, and the only way to resolve this was to make these sketches. Good quality watercolour paper is expensive, sketch pad cartridge paper not so much. Take time out before jumping into a larger painting to sketch your ideas out - as many times as you need to. I often find that the best place to start the process is with a series of small thumbnail sketches that allow me to play around with various ideas and compositional issues; where is the horizon going to go, or is my arrangement of boats optimal? I can then make a decision on the best way to proceed and work up a more involved sketch that will be used to inform the final painting. The sketches below of Poole Harbour are a good illustration of this process.
There are many ways of engaging with the landscape, and I hope you have your own ways of doing that. If you've never tried sketching it, then have a go! If you don't ever sell your sketches - and I never do - then there's no pressure, no tension to contend with. Simply observe and absorb your surroundings, and record them in whatever way you want - a chewed biro is no lesser tool than an expensive sable paintbrush. Make some marks on your paper - a sketch pad, or a till receipt in your back pocket - and then hide it away for a few years. When you look at it again you'll be surprised at the pleasure you get from it.