Fast and Light – Drawing Outdoors

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.

Pastels and brushes.

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).

Sketchbook with small tin of pastels.

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.

Pastel sketch of mute swans amidst a reedbed

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.

Several drawings created while working on location.

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.

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28 Responses

  1. Great blog – some good tips – I totally relate to the experience of the energy of working outside! I find it hard to limit my colour palette so I often take out a whole tray of pastels with me in a rucksack!

    1. So glad you enjoyed it and yes it can be really hard not to end up with a rucksack bursting at the seams – I still haven’t completely got around that!

  2. Please, Please, Please can you make this commentry easier to read comfortably by stopping it jumping and make it a smoother, more fluid reading access keeping the curser at the bottom.

  3. I would like to say that the commentary was wonderful and I thank you for sharing the joy of pastelling outside. Thank you for taking the time to do this. It helps many of us. Spread the joy in these current times 🙂

    1. Thanks Daniel, I’m so pleased you enjoyed it, it’s lovely to be able to share some of these little things that bring a bit of joy into life.

  4. (Translated)From the word plein air immediately gushing memories of those rare and inexperienced attempts at drawing in the streets. It’s so exciting, the adrenaline is off the scale, but the experience has to come gradually. What a coincidence, today I painted two swans with oil in the Summer Garden in St. Petersburg from my 2019 photo. On the plein air always went with oil paints and with a mountain of necessary. She did not even remember the pastels, and she had such an opportunity to transmit light, shadow, colors. We should try to paint pastels on the street!

    (Original)От слова пленэр сразу нахлынывают воспоминания о тех редких и неопытных попытках рисования на улицах. Это столь волнительно, адреналин зашкаливает, но опыт должен прийти постепенно. Какое совпадение, я сегодня рисовала маслом двух лебедей в Летнем саду в Санкт-Петербурге по моей фотографии 2019 года. На пленэр всегда ходила с масляными красками и с горой необходимого. О пастели не вспоминала даже, а у ней такая возможность передачи света, тени, красок. Надо попробовать на улице порисовать пастелью!

    1. yes its a completely different experience to working in the studio, always unpredictable, a bit of an adventure!

  5. I really enjoyed reading Liz’s blog. I am very new to working with pastels but absolutely loving them. It has inspired to put together a small set of pastels to take out with me. I would have considered it to be too difficult or too messy but will definitely give it a go!

    1. I’m so please it has inspired you to put together a sketching kit of pastels Carol! Pastels are so nice and immediate to work with outside and a wet wipe or two should take care of any mess. Hope you have fun!

  6. Thank you Liz for your recent blog .It was inspiring to hear how you paint outside. I agree it is exhilarating to be outdoors experiencing the atmosphere,movement ,and even sounds of all around you whilst you put brush pen or pastel to paper .It is easy to loose oneself totally in the process..At the same time there is an urgency to capture an image before the light or inclement weather changes the mood .The image and whole experience is engraved in your memory for years .This
    is far better than taking a photograph .

    1. You’ve hit the nail on the head Valerie, there is nothing quite like really experiencing a place by spending time observing and absorbing how it feels. It can be incredible to open a sketchbook after many years and be instantly transported back to a moment in time that may otherwise have been forgotten. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment, it’s lovely to connect!

  7. What a lovely blog and lovely pictures too ,sadly i cannot do this because everytime I go out I have three dogs with me and as much as I love painting I love having my dogs with me and would be so upside down inside out trying to pick a composition with them all over the place. A good read thankyou

  8. Loved reading your blog Liz on outdoor sketching with pastels. I have always been a little shy of drawing outside and usually hide my results from onlookers. You have inspired me to have a go with pastels, particular drawing the shapes you see and hopefully feel a little more confident with others.

    1. Hi Mo, do give it a go! I know what you mean about being shy, I still generally prefer places where I can tuck myself away undisturbed but people are always lovely when they stop and it almost always ends up being an interesting chat about the place or subject rather than looking at what I’ve been doing. As long as you’re enjoying yourself and finding inspiration that’s the main thing so hope you enjoy getting out and about!!

  9. First thank you so much for all this informations. I would like to skecth outside but didn’t know what to bring and also seeing your sketchbook, I understand that the goal is not finished a artwork but plus a feeling, if I can say, you draw on the sheet.

    My big problem is to want to be to perfectionist meaning to finish a drawing. Drawing in plein air, outside will allowed me to enjoy what I see along my walk.

    Very glad of this blog.

    1. Hi Michele, I’m so pleased you enjoyed reading the blog. It can be really hard not to worry about ‘finishing’ a piece of work, even in a sketchbook, but it really is lovely to work outside and know that you might need to work fast to capture something before it changes. Doing some drawing on your walks sounds like the perfect way to get into it and remember there is no right or wrong to this, you might want to write things down, just make some colour notes or try making different kinds of mark on the page – it’s your time to play and enjoy!

  10. Thank you for sharing your experience and tips, i have yet to paint en plein air’ but you have inspired me to have the confidence to have a try and take some pastels with me, loved your blog 😀

    1. Do get out there and try it Sue! Especially now that spring is on it’s way. It’s lovely being outside and really able to feel connected with your subject, I often feel that is is my “me time”, there is no pressure that the drawings have to be something or become anything else… they’re just for the pleasure of drawing and pushing myself in new directions. Have fun!!

    1. So pleased to hear you enjoyed it Jean and yes there is so much to be found in the garden, hope you enjoy getting outside with your pastels now the days are getting a little warmer!

    1. Yes, spring-time!!! I’m so pleased you enjoyed the blog Jane and could feel transported by it, hope the increasingly brighter, longer days are bringing you lots of fresh energy and creativity!

  11. Oh this is an inspiring blog, makes me want to get outdoors and see colors. By the way what color is SC 4 in your small tin there, a Unison color?

    1. So pleased you found it inspiring Mark, yes all of the colours in the tin are Unison, I’d have to take a look at one of the colour charts online and cross-reference with my own handmade version to check…it looks as though some of the reference codes may have changed as I don’t see SC4 listed!

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