Are you wanting to paint outdoors this summer, to catch the landscape in natural light, but feel that your skills are not up to it just yet? Fearing having strangers walk up to you and start to critique, just when your painting has reached the really “ugly stage” where nothing makes sense except to you the painter?
While the only way to expand one’s comfort zone is to get out of it and do it anyway, you don’t have to start large – it is just as good starting small. Instead of painting finished paintings in the 60-90 minutes long window of time when the light normally stays about the same, you can do small colour sketches that takes less time. Together with a reference photo, these small colour sketches will give you additional information for painting a studio work that may look almost like it is painted on location. And if someone walks up and starts to talk to you, it is obvious you’re just doodling, and nobody critiques doodles!
And there are two bonuses: Few people will even notice that you’re painting, as you only need a minimum of materials, and can use your lap or a café table as your “easel”. The other bonus is that you train your eye and hand in real life conditions.
I took small bits of pastels, put them in a box that is smaller than an A4 (12x8"), a pastel pad and an A4 piece of sanded paper, and made colour notations on location.
As I packed in a hurry, I brought way more pastels than I actually needed. This box has about a hundred different sticks, organized according to their values. There is absolutely no need to take so many sticks, but I could do it because they are just little bits. Some 12 to 30 sticks should be enough, and they can be put in a small box that fit into your pocket.
It is important to keep track of the values of the number of sticks you actually bring. You will find that you will sketch in very different lights. If you’re sitting in deep shade, you’ll tend to use too light values, and if the sun hits your paper, you’ll use too dark values. So know your values and adjust your choices to what you know will happen when you bring the sketch indoors.
I had two more things with me. A few bulldog clips, to secure the painting to the pad while I painted. When finished, I simply put the sketches inside the pad, folded over the cover and put the clips back, and the clips ensured that the sketches wouldn’t move sideways and smear. The other thing I brought was a towel I used to protect my clothe, as my lap was my “easel”, and the towel also worked for cleaning sticks and wiping dust off my fingers. A good thing to bring is a wet tissue if you’re in a location where you can’t wash your hands.
Sitting in deep shadow by a pond with a deceptively calm surface hiding a strong stream, I painted two colour notations.
Together with the photo, the colour notes may become a studio painting. The sketches are important, as they tell me things I wouldn’t remember well, and which are not visible in the photo, with its overexposed lights, and its too cool colours. For example, there was an orange glow to the rhododendron bush in light. Purple flowers and green leaves really don’t give off orange, do they? But I saw orange, so orange I painted. Walking back to the car, I passed the house on the other side, and saw that the topmost flowers of the bush had started to wizen and dry and were showing the rusty brown of the beginnings of seeds. Aha! That’s why I saw orange! The sketch also tells me that the grass in light was a warm yellow green, not the lemon the photo shows.
Had I not painted the abstract looking notes of water lily pads and weeds sticking up from the water, the photo wouldn’t have told me of the deep rusty colour of the water in light. The bright green reflections in the water were more subdued in real life. The pads in shadow in the photo are about the same colour and value as I saw them.
Another day I was out in the archipelago, where the light was very different. A slightly hazy day, and lots of reflected light, with less bright colours.
Here, the colour notes tell me many important things. I’ll just mention a few. In the photo it looks like there is one tall bush to the right. It was in fact two, with the more distant taller one clearly more grayed by the moisture in the air. The greener streak of water near the shore looked undoubtedly greener, and the distant water looked cooler. In the time-frame I had, I didn’t get the slight muting of the colours of the water, but I could take a written note of my impression. I will read my notes and remember the colours of the water were not as bright as in the photo and sketch. An interesting thing is that my eye saw the distant island as slightly larger and closer than the photo shows, a common experience. The light hitting the top leaves of the bush was also brighter than in the photo.
The sketches show stage one and two in the method of painting I personally use, so “reading” them right is easy for me, while they may not be entirely self-evident to an artist who uses another method, but I hope they’ll show my point: the importance of recording information only the eye can see.
So, take the few bits of sticks you really need, take a scrap of paper, and use a few moments to capture the essentials of a scene you’d like to paint. And don’t forget to take a photo too.
Have fun as you paint the summer of 2009!