Painting yesterday at Staffin beach at low tide, I found myself enjoying the large boulders dotted around. When I later showed the in-house art critic my photos, he said my paintings looked postcard size. That’s when I realised that not only had I supersized the average rock I was painting, but that the pebbles I was using to hold down wet paintings were also bigger than normal. Do wonder what I might have painted if I’d had a bigger brush with me!
“Imagine a fly walking on a surface. If the fly walked across a line and disappeared by going around a corner, then that line should be heavy. If the fly walked across a line which marked a change in material in the same plane then it should be light.”
Brian Ramsey, “Trade Secrets”
Or if flies give you the heebie-jeebies, perhaps imagine an ant.
Or a caterpillar, though not a very hungry one like Eric Carle’s.
Continous line is as it sounds, drawing a line without stopping. I think of it as a line tracking what my eyes are looking at, done at the speed I am looking.
You don’t close your eyes when you look from one part of a subject to another. So if you’re creating a drawing that’s foremost about looking rather than representation, then the line should be continous, not broken (though it could get lighter).
If you’re using pencil, where you don’t have to stop for a while before you “run out” (i.e. need to sharpen it), things can get really interesting as you loose where you are on the sheet of paper (and you didn’t stop to reorientate yourself). By interesting I mean abstracted and distorted. It’s worth doing a few times, giving yourself a taste of the freedom that comes when you’re concentrating on looking, not on the results nor perspective nor representation.
I had a search through my photos but can’t find an example from my own drawings, which doesn’t really surprise me as I don’t often do it with pencil except in a life-drawing session. Have a search online for “blind continuous line”, but be sceptical about all the ones that look like perfect contour drawings.
What I like doing most is continuous line with quick checks keep the drawing achored in reality, regardless of what medium I’m using. An ink bottle pipette lends itself to this as the ink runs out regularly. When I stop to dip the pipette back in the bottle, I look down at my drawing, then back at what I’m drawing, decide where I’m going to look/draw next, position the pipette at a suitable point, then draw again. As I’m drawing I occasionally glance down, to check what I’ve done and where I am and whether I’ve run out of ink, but mostly as looking at what I’m drawing.
This video shows what I mean. I’m look at the outlines and cracks in a slab of rock on the shore at Camus Mor, north Skye (see this blog post and this one for more photos, from the day before I took this video):
If you don’t see the video above, you’ll find it here: https://youtu.be/sgVzMus8ngI
I do it with both my left and my right hand, especially working in the A3 landscape sketchbook I’ve been using the past few weeks.
This is what it looked like when I’d finished the line drawing, with a section of rocks I was looking at behind it.
This time, after I’d done the ink line drawing, I then used a small, flat brush and water to turn some of the still-wet line into ink wash. Plus some paper towel to lift off excess ink and create pattern.
There’s a risk to doing this, a risk of messing up a drawing I was pleased with, not least because how much of the ink is still wet is an unknown factor. On a cold winter’s day I know it’ll be more rather than less, though the wind does still dry thinner lines quite fast. It would be more sensible to let the acrylic ink line dry completely and then add a layer of watercolour, which could be lifted and changed without moving the dry ink. But I spend too much time being sensible, logical, responsible, practical (cue: Supertramp’s Logical Song).
It happened to be low tide when I went out with my sketchbook yesterday, extra low as it’s spring tide. Even more of those enticing rocks to sketch, but which viewpoint would I choose, where would I sit? I wandered out a bit, further than ‘normal’, awkwardly as the rocks were rather slippery, getting distracted by pattern and colour.
This slab of black rock has become a favourite, and against the sun I was mesmerized once again. But beautiful as this was, I can’t sit with my back to the sea, even when I know it’s hours until high tide.
These are not fossilized dinosaur brains:
This is not where I spilt yellow paint:
Justification/evidence for adding lines of colour amongst my rock drawings:
There’s something about a pile of old rope:
Nature vs built environment. This is my favourite photo from the day but it also makes me wonder why I’ never noticed this juxtaposition before; perhaps because I usually sit on the wall rather than stand looking up at it:
Eventually I did pick a sketching spot, against a big stone that broke the breeze:
Then a rain shower snuck up behind me. Suffice to say, watercolour isn’t a wet-weather medium.
Look at this photo quickly and tell me which direction the sun was coming from when I took it. Left or right or behind?
1. The shadows cast by the trees fall to the right, so the sun must be on the left.
2. Rocks in the river have golden highlights on the right, so the sun must be on the right.
3. Reflected light on rocks wet from river spray, telling a contradictory story.
The sun was low to my left, catching the northern edge of the river gorge. This photo is looking further to the left.
A little later the sun had moved enough to shine onto some of the river rocks from the left (the red > in photo below), while the reflected light remained in the shadow.
Much as I love sunshine, diffused light (“soft northern light”) does simplify matters.
Yesterday afternoon I was at the Uig woodland, mostly sitting at the shore looking towards the ferry pier and Waternish Peninsula. This is a favourite spot, but this time the light was particularly beautiful, the juxtaposition of light and dark shapes, the clouds. Minimal colour when looking into the sun, but not entirely monochrome.
My sketching kit: watercolour box (my indulgent, big one which holds a flat and a rigger brush), pencil box (with coloured pencils, sharpener, and some acrylic inks, Payne’s grey, yellow, and red earth), watercolour paper (A3 350gsm NOT) in a plastic folder which also acts as a board, couple of clips to hold paper, water container , and a bag to carry it in.
The first, the one on the left, has bits that work but don’t work together.; this might be resolved by overworking it with pastel or opaque paint. The middle one I stopped because I liked what the hematite watercolour was doing but suddenly thought I wanted more rocks/seaweed in the composition but would mess it up if I tried to alter it, and so started the third. That lacks contrast, but the 350g paper needed to dry totally so that subsequent layers of paint didn’t just spread around and soak in. It’s a “stopped too early” painting.
Will I rework these? Maybe, rather than probably. What my fingers are itching to do is to paint the greys and light on a large canvas, lots of texture and interesting greys.
I’m sure that somewhere someone has defined to the nth what constitutes plein-air painting and what’s sketching, but unless you’re in a plein-air competition, does it matter? I’m reminded of that Monet quote:
“Whether my cathedral views, my views of London and other canvases are painted from life or not is nobody?s business and of no importance whatsoever.”*
“On-location information gathering” is rather more of a mouthful than “plein-air painting”, but it’s a more accurate description of what I’m thinking and doing. The enjoyment of sitting outside, the potential of some paint and paper, the slowing down to look and to translate to paper, that’s what is most important for me. It’s simultaneously stimulating and relaxing.
I’m not focused on end results (though getting a piece I like is indeed satisfying) nor on getting everything into one perfect painting. It’s about slowing down to focus on the moment and a slice of whatever place I’m in, spending time looking and enjoying and selecting and mark making and playing with colour (or sometimes monochrome). Sometimes I call it painting, sometimes sketching, sometimes drawing. Sometimes I call it taking my sketchbook for a walk. Mostly I just call it having fun.
What do I use? At the moment it’s A3 watercolour paper (350gsm) carried in a plastic folder that’s vaguely showerproof, a couple of big clips to stop a sheet from flapping in the wind (there are usually rocks to hold it down if I put it to one side while it’s still wet), my biggest watercolour set (because I’m enjoying all the colours and learning their properties), a pencil box with acrylic inks (Payne’s grey and white are a constant, the other colours vary but often a green or yellow) and a few coloured pencils. Plus a bottle with water, a container with a lid for brush water, a flat brush and a rigger that fit into the watercolour set, paper towel, and ginger biscuits.
Knowing when to stop isn’t only an in-studio problem. I really liked this painting once I added the sea and nearly stopped at this point. But because it’s a point at which I often stop, I decided to push past it and add colour.
This is where I ended up. And, no, I don’t like it as much, but I am still pleased I pursued it (because if you always stop at the same point, things never develop) and it’s generated ideas for next time.
*Quoted in: Monet’s Years at Giverny, Metropolitan Museum of Art, p28
The last three days have seen us (the American artists on an art retreat on Skye and me) sketching on the Quiraing, Staffin beach, and Eilean Donan Castle. Shades of green from deep blue-green to improbably intense yellow-sap green (which I mentally think of as radioactive green). It’s not only been sunny enough to dig out the sunblock, but I even ended up looking for a shady spot yesterday at the castle.
My thanks to Michael Chesley Johnson for the pastel demo of rocks at Duntulm. It’s so intriguing, mesmerising, inspiring to see familiar landscape through the eyes of artists seeing it for the first time.
You can read Michael’s blogs on Skye here: Scotland Plein Air Painting Retreat
Painted on location at Sligachan with a group of painters on an art retreat today. When we arrived, the peaks were hiding behind cloud, but they revealed themselves in the afternoon. The river was really low after all this dry weather, so I started at a spot under the modern bridge out of the breeze. The view of the underneath of the bridge and its reflection was tempting, but I decided to save that geometric abstract for another day and stick with my intended focus, the old bridge. Later I moved upstream to amongst beautiful water-polished rocks. (Materials: Payne’s grey and a yellow acrylic ink, watercolour, on 350g paper.)