As a pastel artist who loves to paint landscapes, sketching in my local nature reserve in North London is at the heart of my practice. Plein air drawing enriches my paintings with an authenticity and vitality, motivating me to keep exploring new techniques that represent the beauty of nature. Normally I sketch with a pencil, but this year I decided to shake things up a bit. My tools? An A4 sketchbook, biro and a small portable stool to sit on.
Processing the sights and sounds of nature on paper leads to an unconscious description through line and mark making. A calligraphy of branches informed by birdsong and the wind in the trees. I return home with a feeling of calmness, refreshed and renewed. The Japanese call this forest bathing (Shinrin-Yo) and the wide range of reputed health benefits led to its use as a form of art therapy from the 1980’s onward.
As the weeks have progressed this year I have noticed that my biro sketches have changed and become more detailed. I have gained confidence with the pen and I now find myself sketching quite complex scenes in a short space of time. The landscape has gotten under my skin in a different way to before, and emerged in my pastel painting where I have noticed that I am now using bolder and more intuitive marks and colour. My plan over the summer is to utilise this further by applying colour to my sketches and using a larger sketch book.
When the British weather makes it difficult to sketch outdoors, I use my archive of plein air sketches, photos and videos, to paint using soft pastels in my studio. Currently I’m building a body of work for my next solo exhibition in September which will be called ‘Portrait of a Tree’.
My process from sketching plein air to final painting in the studio has various stages. This is particularly important when it is a complex landscape with vines creeping round the trees and lots of texture in the foreground.
Whether I am sketching outside or painting in my studio I always spend time just ‘looking’ at a scene and the shapes in front of me. I find the biggest shapes first and map them out on the page before adding smaller shapes. My pastels of choice are Unison Colour Pastels after my husband bought me their Landscape set as a Christmas present a couple of years ago. I find their buttery texture and wide range of colours amazing. Since then I have added to them constantly and like other pastel artists, I’m sure I have way too many.
In the studio I start a painting by lightly sketching the scene on Claire Fontaine Pastelmat paper. This is my favourite, but I also like to experiment with other papers as some take wet under paintings and some don’t. In this painting I have worked straight onto anthracite Pastelmat paper but I will sometimes use a lighter toned one and will do an under painting using nupastels and isopropyl alcohol.
Recently, I have used Golden Flow acrylics and Art Spectrum Colour Fix Primer as an underpainting for a commission I’m working on. And I’ve used neon coloured spray paint as an underpainting for my Graffiti bird series which I am currently exhibiting as part of a group show.
I then start adding colour using hard and soft pastels. I try not to blend using my fingers especially on sanded papers. At this stage it’s very experimental and I will often change things and even remove areas of colour using a hard bristle brush. I describe this as the ‘ugly phase’ as it often doesn’t look anything like what I am hoping to achieve, but I tell myself to keep going even when things don’t look to be going that well. I have learnt over the years to not be too precious about this stage and just enjoy the process of creating art.
I continue to add layers of colour and apply different marks in order to add texture to the composition until a painting that I am happy with starts to emerge.
I often stop and walk away from the painting to get a fresh set of eyes and sometimes leave it for a couple of days before working on it again. The last stage normally involves me adding some ‘spice’ or ‘shouty’ marks to make the painting pop. This is where the pastel is laid down thicker and often with bolder colours. For artists new to pastels you should always start applying pastel thinly and finish with the thicker marks at the end of the process (thick on thin), as while pastel paper can take many layers it is all too easy to fill the tooth of the paper when first starting out with this medium.
My paintings are colourful and energetic with bold mark making. I love colour and will turn the dullest scene into a colourful piece of art. Whenever I start a painting, I always start by studying the colours in the landscape. Some colours jump out straight away and others retreat into the background. When working from a photograph, a good tool is to edit the image to enhance the colours that are there or alter the contrast. I then pick out the pastels I think I am likely to use, rather than scrabbling around for a particular pastel later and getting annoyed when I can’t find it.
In all of my landscape paintings, I try to harmonise the colours I use or utilise contrasting underpainting colours to avoid too much green in a painting. I am now quite instinctive in my use of colour, having been very productive over the last couple of years. For new artists I recommend learning about colour theory as this really helped me when I was first starting out.
I also like to listen to different types of music depending on my mood. Listening to upbeat music allows me to play with my mark making more. If I produce a mark I don’t like, I just lift it off using a bristle brush or alternatively, if I produce a mark I particularly like, I will often use it again somewhere else in the painting. I also do this when applying colour, making sure to use that same colour somewhere else, so that there is harmony within the painting.
Over the years, I have found plein air sketching a very enjoyable experience which continues to enrich me as an artist. Sketching outside this winter has been a fun and challenging experience. I trudged through mud almost up to the top of my wellies in January (trying desperately not to fall over laughing) and even stuffed a mini hot water bottle in my coat as it was so cold! Roll on April and the ground was so dry it was cracking and I was wearing trainers and a thinner coat. Now we are in May and I haven’t been out sketching for two weeks as it has been so wet. Yes the British weather really is that challenging!
In conclusion, I would love to see more people getting outside sketching, either on their own or with friends. Just remember to be safe and let people know where you are going and take extra clothing during the winter months. Lastly, remember that it is just a sketch! It doesn’t have to be a masterpiece, I often dislike the sketches I do at the time of drawing them and will come back to them a few days later and think ‘oh I love that!