I love being outside, especially on some rugged coastline or remote glen in the hills and more often than not I’m driven to put something of the experience down on paper. Although I regularly set aside time to go out drawing to places that are of specific interest, I’ll also happily draw from my window, back garden or walking in the local neighbourhood. Wherever it may be there is a sense of spontaneity and urgency in drawing from life that makes it fresh and interesting every time… the light may change at any moment, wildlife might bring movement and life to a scene or human activity bring a thread of narrative.
With time, practice and much trial and error I’ve gradually built up a favoured few materials and methods to work fast and carry less so that I can make the most of my time out drawing. It can be really hard to choose what to take… almost inevitably there will be something that would have been ideal to have but which got left at home. Being content with less, improvising and realising there will be limitations can be surprisingly liberating rather than getting frustrated at not having the perfect piece of kit with you. And I always love to see what other artists carry in their favourite kit for any clever tips.
My pastels are at the top of the list and I keep two boxes made up ready for going out drawing. One is large enough to take a double layer of pastels protected within foam holders, the other small enough to fit in my pocket and often ends up with stubs and broken pieces so that I can squeeze in an extra few colours. One of the beauties of Unison pastels is that I can use them wet or dry so while I sometimes still take a watercolour box out I often just carry the pastels and a brush or two. A bottle of drawing ink or some white gouache and a few conte pencils completes the kit and it can be fun to fashion a dip pen or rustic brush from some twigs, grasses, feathers or other found materials.
When choosing the colours to take, especially in my small box which only holds around 10 pastels I think about the environment I’m going to be in and start off by selecting some suitable neutrals in light to dark tones. I’ll then grab one or two bright colours to give a pop of contrast. So for example a shoreline box might have a variety of greys, blues and browns with a lovely bright turquoise green and a sunny yellow or coral pink for variety. (Currently in small my box and pictured are: A19, NE9, BE11, BGE15, DARK22, SC4, Y15, GREEN22, RED5 and a variety of stubs in greys).
Sometimes it can be daunting working outside especially if it is something new to you but it can be really exhilarating if you embrace the fact that the unexpected may happen. I’ve had my fair share of strange experiences, from being engulfed by a crowd of eager onlookers in India trying to look through my sketchbook as I was mid-drawing to having a mole unexpectedly appear between my feet while sitting in a field.
I often find it a useful exercise to start off by keeping things simple and working quickly and loosely. I sometimes even set an alarm to impose a time limit, this forces me to work fast and only the aspects which I find most necessary to describe the subject find their way onto the paper. Working fast also brings a great energy to the drawing and a freshness of mark. This sketch of mute swans was made on a bitterly cold early March morning and uses only six colours plus a black conte stick for detail. I liked the vantage point of peering through the reed beds at the flooded fields beyond so a warm ochre and cool icy blue quickly presented themselves as my key colours. I then just had to add some highlights in white and select a couple of darker tones to add in shadows and mass. The line work was added last, just putting in enough to bring a little definition and detail to the image.
Sometimes I begin by just looking at basic form and tone to block in main shapes and colours. I might make a series of little studies concentrating on different aspects of what I can see. And every now and then I make drawings based on what I can hear rather than what I see – a great exercise for experimenting with mark-making and selecting colours intuitively. However you choose to approach your subject it is useful to remember what attracted you to it in the first place. It may seem obvious but it can be easy to get bogged down in detail and lose sight of the thing that made you want to draw, my little studies and sketches often help as a thinking process to edit out whatever is unnecessary.
I enjoy working in a sketchbook as well as on large sheets of paper and regularly take out up to A1 size with a drawing board. They afford me two very different ways of working. The sketchbook is very much about thinking my way around an idea or subject and will often be quite unresolved. The bigger sheets are for when I’m confident about what I want to do and its time to really get stuck into a longer, more demanding piece of work. I’ve found that trying out different papers to learn what suits you can be just as important as choosing other materials. I like something reasonably heavy which will allow me to use a bit of mixed media if I want to or apply some water to the pastels to get a different effect and quality of mark-making. Having a coloured paper or preparing some sheets with a painted ground to work on can also be ways to get another layer of movement, a head start on laying in colour or just to bypass the fear of a big sheet of blank paper.
Another few things I find useful to have with me are:
- A foam pad to sit on (from garden centres and outdoor shops) because even the comfiest looking bench or rock can feel cold, hard or damp after a while.
- Loose sheets of paper to interleave in my sketchbook meaning I can fix them later.
- A double set of folios, one for clean paper and one for finished work.
- Plenty of bulldog clips to keep my paper on the drawing board or sketchbook pages open.
- And possibly the most important, especially for drawing at home in Scotland are lots of warm clothes and a flask.
My days out drawing are without doubt the thing that really nurtures progress, pushes me to attempt new things and gives a huge amount of satisfaction and enjoyment. The sketchbooks and drawings hold so many precious memories. There may be highs and lows, frustration and breakthroughs, successes and failures but I always feel it is time well spent.