Plein-air Painting: Mark Making for the Feeling

I was ever so comfortably huddled under the duvet this morning after a busy week teaching at Higham Hall, but the forecast for big waves on the coast persuaded me to head to the beach in time for high tide. The sun came out too, changing the colours.

After a stroll along the pebbles enjoying the roar of the waves, I sat at one of the picnic benches to try to paint the feeling of the exuberant waves hitting the shore.

Also running through my head were thoughts about mark making, about how to better teach the concept, the idea of shifting away from drawing likeness to drawing the sense of something, the feeling of it, your emotional response to it through the calligraphy of your drawn and painted marks. What did I not convey to the one workshop participant who, after my explanation, drew little literal images on the sheet of word prompts, or were they merely disinterested in the concept?

I orientated the sheet this way because there was a slight slope to the table, which I noticed only when the ink and watercolour started to head to the edge of the sheet. I got frustrated that it wouldn’t dry so I could work onto it with oil pastel, and might still add this in the studio. As it is now I regard it as a painting of turbulence and rumbling (rocks), a painting to reinforce the time spent on this location with these sea conditions.

This Week: A Nasturtium & Monoprinting

A mixture of moments from my week.

A running joke my Ma and I have involves the time my Ouma, who had extremely green thumbs, complained about how nasturtiums insist on spreading everywhere whereas we have been only too happy to have them grow at all. Seeing one tiny flower from the seeds I planted made me laugh about this anew. The grass gives a sense of scale.

I was determined not to let the wind get hold of my paper this week. I took only a brown pencil, an indigo Inktense pencil, a sharpener, and a waterbrush because I knew it was going to be windy. I will either take this concertina sketchbook again another time or add colour onto the headland drawing section in my studio.

My two favourite pebbles on this day:

I also found a U for my pebble alphabet:

In the studio I had a go at monoprinting for the first time, using the A2 press I bought from a Banff-based printmaker earlier this year when they upgraded. Monoprinting involves inking up a smooth surface (I used a large piece of perspex leftover from when I made my roadside tiny gallery on Skye), wiping into this to create the image (working dark to light), putting a damp sheet of paper over this, and running it through the press. Lots of variables and a lot to learn, but I had great fun.

The inked plate

The idea to try this was prompted by this week’s homework from the online Expressive Drawing workshop by Edinburgh-based artist Alan McGowan I’m doing.

The atmospheric results make me think this could well be the technique to use for imagery relating to the in-house art critic’s brain that I keep thinking about. My favourites I hung up on my print rail (there are magnets glued to the clips, which then stick to the was-for-curtains metal rail).

The A4 one was done with graphite ink.

I’m using oil-based printing inks that clean up with water, thus avoiding solvents, but made the mistake of thinning it with water on the perspex not extender, so it lost the tackiness that makes it transfer to wet paper and smeared with the pressure of the press. The effect is interesting, but doing it wasn’t deliberate. All part of the learning curve.

“No, I wasn’t sitting on them a moment ago,” said Little Em.

Printmaking is delayed gratification mixed with the unpredictable; lifting the sheet of paper to see the result is a bit of a birthday-present moment every time. Studio cat Freyja who sat on a chair watching me isn’t entirely convinced.

Concertina Sketchbook Drawing in a Friend’s Garden

I happened to be at a friend’s house on the morning she and friends were having a drawing session in the garden. I discovered they pick a subject and technique for each get-together from jars of folded-up bits of paper. This one was to be baskets done with pen and wash, which explained the array of baskets on the table I had been wondering about.

I had a pocket concertina sketchbook with me along with my zip-case of assorted pencils (graphite, coloured, water-soluble), pens, and a waterbrush. The baskets didn’t appeal to me initially; the purple irises and yellow poppies were far more enticing.

So I started drawing some of what I could see to the left of the table with the baskets.

Then as a challenge to myself, and having gotten some of the itch to draw the flowers out of my fingers, I decided I would draw the baskets, changing scale so they weren’t too tiny. And because they were an integral part to the scene or story, I included a couple of the people drawing the baskets.

As can happen with an unlikely seeming subject, once I started drawing the baskets I was pleasantly surprised by how much I was enjoying it. Trying to get the perspective not-too-wonky but also not obsessing. How to convey the different weaves and textures. The scale was right for me too: small enough not to have to spend too long but big enough allow for mark making with my fude pen (bent nib) and adding water to the water-soluble ink.

I added a little to the right still before stopping for lunch and a nap.

Then continued with irises and yellow poppies to the end page. I also worked a little yellow and blue into previous pages using the water brush and Inktense pencils.

A relaxing and rewarding way to spend a day.

(If you don’t see the video above, click here to view it on my Vimeo channel.)

I got asked to pull the technique and subject for their next session from the jar. Turned out to be very me things: quick 30 minute drawings for technique with pebbles and bark for subject.

Plein-Air Ink Painting of the Viaduct at Cullen

Artist sketching the viaduct at Cullen, Scotland

Searching through my blogposts I see it was June 2019 when I last tried to paint the viaduct at Cullen, and looking at my results they’re not as dubious as I remember (see this blog). I’ve been through Cullen a few times since we moved east a little over a year ago, but not to paint until yesterday when there was a meetup of the Moray Firth Sketchers (you’ll find the group on Facebook).

I tore an A1 sheet of watercolour paper in half before I left home with the thought that this extra-wide format would work for the long sandy beach or the viaduct, depending on which I felt like when I got there.

Looking along the beach toward Cullen, Scoland
Looking along the long sandy beach away from Cullen, Scoland
Cullen viaduct

Maybe it was because I’d painted the sea the day before, but when I got my materials out my fingers itched to have a go at the viaduct. So after a quick detour to the nearby foodtruck for a hot chocolate to warm me up, I sat at a convenient picnic bench with my back to the sea view and got out my Payne’s grey acrylic ink.

Artist sketching the viaduct at Cullen, Scotland

The pillar in my view wasn’t quite as intrusive as the photo suggests as a little movement of my head was all it took to see past it to the left or right. I spent a bit of time holding up a finger to judge the angles of various parts of the viaduct (such as the top edge, the tops of the arches, the alignment of where the arches join the pillar), comparing the widths of the arches, and also running my finger across the sheet of paper to plan the composition and where I would position things.

Having mapped it in my mind, I then used the pippette of the ink bottle to draw the top edge of the viaduct, then the parallel line to this, then the curve of the arches and the vertical supports. If you were watching only from when I put ink onto paper it might seem as if I did this out of thin air but, while I didn’t do a preliminary sketch in pencil, I’d effectively drawn it invisibly first.

I used an inch-wide silicone ‘brush’ to stamp the lines around the tops of the arches. The marks are a bit long but they give the sense of the brickwork rather than getting bogged down in detail. Next time I’ll take some card and scissors so I can get a similar mark in different lengths. I also used this tool to spread the ink on the house roofs, the bank behind them; it gives a more uniform mark, without lines like a brush can produce. I particularly like using it for pleinair as you can simply wipe it clean.

After I’d put in the houses, I used a brush to dampen the areas under the arches and added a little ink in there. Then with even-more-diluted ink I put in a sense of the cloud sky above and below the viaduct. I had thought I’d draw in the trees in view through the arches, but once I added the sky I decided trees would distract from the viaduct, make it too busy, and so decided to stop. I’m glad I did.

Ink painting of the viaduct at Cullen, Scotland
Acrylic ink on watercolour paper, 84x30cm

Plein-Air Painting Near Crovie: The Bad, the Good, and the Ugly

A combination of low tide and mild weather (for February) saw me sitting next to the coastal path between Gardenstown and Crovie with some paper, acrylic ink, watercolour, and coloured pencils.

Go along the path and around the corner and Crovie pops into view

I think I’ve found a new favourite perch, a large flat rock with enough space for me and having my supplies within reach. Bonus is that there aren’t deep cracks for pencils and brushes to fall down never to be found again.

Ready, steady, paint!

The headland isn’t as far away in real life as it seems in the photo, and the ruggedness of the rocks caught my attention.

But I felt an obligation to first have a go at the houses in the village, because it would be rude to ignore the postcard view wouldn’t it?

So I got that out of my system with a quick sketch of the wide view, and was reminded how for me to do anything satisfying with an architectural subject I need to be in a mood where I can slow down and be a bit lot more meticulous with it. This day wasn’t such an occasion. Time for some craggy rocks instead.

I was pleased with this, which I think has feeling of the ruggedness of the rock and the gorse beginning to flower. Also because I managed to focus on a relatively small area, resisting the urge to include “everything”, and didn’t get caught up in detail.

I then shifted my attention to my left, where the tide was coming in against dark rocks, creating interesting contrasts of pattern and texture. Starting with Payne’s grey acrylic ink, my thought was to use line on the rocks and wet-into-wet for the sea. That plan got ruined by my dropping some water from my brush onto the rocks area, causing the ink there to spread. Note to self: put the water container on the right-hand side next time! It became a dark puddle, so I used a piece of paper towel to soak most of it off, followed by a wet paper towel to see if I could persuade any more to lift.

It left a grey tone to the whole area but also some interesting darker dried-ink lines. I was too irritated to continue with it, though what’s there has possibilities and I might take it back to this spot on another day. Being acrylic ink, I can overpaint it with watercolour without anything lifting and, being on paper, coloured pencil will sit on top too. Maybe I could crop in a bit too.

I sat for a bit waiting for the sheet to dry, watching the waves and oystercatches flitting about. Then there was a bit of pebble pondering, before wandering back along the patch to Gardenstown.

Sketching the Sea: Looking at Waves

Page from sketchbook with sketches of waves

Often when I’m sketching the sea, I’m not aiming for a beautifully finished sketch, but rather at looking at one element and improving my observation of this. It’s easy with shore rocks, as they don’t move. (Though they might get hidden by the tide — I remember trying to find a square rock at the beach at Staffin I’d seen previously, only to realise on a subsequent visit that it requires a very low tide to be visible.)

Waves are constantly moving, so sketching one is a combination of memory of a specific wave (looking and then quickly drawing a section of it) and observation of the relentless march of waves that have similarities whilst being individual. Looking at how a swell curves as it heads to shore, how long across it is, where it first starts to break, how far up the beach it comes, how the water receding from the shore interacts with the next incoming wave, the ripples between waves, how much white foam there is, how close to the shore the final section breaks, the shape of the ridgeline of the wave before it breaks.

If I’ve included some rocks on a page, the lines I’ve drawn for waves are easier to interpret. But if they’re merely sections of waves, it all becomes rather cryptic if you look at them without any context — compare the right- and left-hand pages of these two spreads from my sketchbook.

Page from sketchbook with sketches of waves
Page from sketchbook with sketches of waves

Such sketches entirely for myself, and I rarely share photos of them because they’re not much to look at really. If you were paging through the sketchbook you would probably not stop at these pages. But when I’m looking through a sketchbook, it’s these types of pages that often reignite my inspiration the most.

Below is a photo of the sea on the day I did these sketches. I take lots of photos but it’s far more fun to sit by the seaside to than sketch from photos, and I’m lucky enough that I can.

Concertina Sketchbook at the Yellow Breakwater

It was perfect picnic, I mean sketching, weather today. I popped into the post office with a letter, and came out with picnic supplies, then headed up to the slipway at Camus Mor and that joyous yellow lichen slice.

I had brought a small concertina sketchbook, my watercolours, ink pen and coloured pencils. I found myself thinking about how both the breakwater wall and slipway are hard-edged slashes through the pattern of the shore, and pondering how abstracted this might be if I excluded the sea which connects them and gives them context. Whether I could make the parts feel connected across the pages of the concertina sketchbook or whether it feels like a jump.

I started with watercolour, then did a layer of black water soluble ink using a fude pen (the nib of which gives a variable width of line depending on the angle at which you hold the pen). First the yellow section, then the bit to the slipway wall.

Overall my sketching was a bit wild and woolly, fragmented and distracted, a bit like how I feel, but I think there’s potential in this composition, something to explore further, to refine and grasp hold of. It’s certainly not resolved with this attempt, but I am intrigued by the challenge of making it read across the length whilst pushing the focus on shape and pattern rather than on seashore. What will be added to the blank pages is currently an unknown. The “here be dragons” part of the map.

Three Blustery Day Skye Sketches

With wind that’d blow much more than merely cobwebs away, I decided to do something I don’t usually and sat in my car to sketch. I somehow managed not to spill any Payne’s grey ink whilst drawing with the pipette, but did discover I’d left the bottle of white behind, so no splashy white foam bits would be happening.

Mixed media, A3 watercolour paper
Detail

This was the first painting I did, and the one I like most. I managed not to get too dark with the ink, and like the gentle colour from the coloured pencils showing through the watercolour. I was disappointed to discover I didn’t have the bottle of white acrylic ink with me, but did have a white pen, which I think works and it’s certainly easier to not overwork it than when using fluid ink.

Mixed media, A3 watercolour paper

This was the second, and I struggled for a bit as it was too dark in places with Payne’s grey ink that had dried too fast, and I didn’t have anything that would show on top of this except the white pen, but that I wanted for the sea edge. Breakthrough moment was when I realised there was no reason I could not use it for the lighter rock and the sea. It’s something I might do again deliberately.

Watercolour, A3 paper

This third one is watercolour only, no ink, and I regard it as an incomplete thought. I stopped because I got annoyed with the green and was scrubbing at it with a bit of paper towel, to the point of damaging the surface. I’ll work on it further on another day when the weather and my headspace are less blustery.

My Harbour Sketches

Following on from my blogs with photos of the little harbour in the Scottish Borders I was at last week (She Sees Seaside and Harbour Details), here are some photos of what happened when I got my paints out. Having multiple days of sunshine in November was a real treat.

The first day I walked about taking lots of photos, then ended up sitting at a picnic table watching birds you can’t see in the photo, including some swans. I got out my sketchbook telling myself that making just one quick sketch would be fine, to not worry about how ‘good’ it was as it’s impossible to do everything on single trip to a location.

Pencil first, then watercolour

The second day I got out my oil paints and had a go at a composition that’d been bouncing around my head all night. Yes, I could have done thumbnails and studies first, all that preparatory work that does help produce pleasing results, but my fingers were itching to paint this. So I jumped in at the point that was appealing to me, knowing that I might not do it justice but that it’s worth a try anyway.

The low winter sun of November means the hill behind me casts its shadow over the harbour from quite early in the morning. I was sitting on this convenient little wall running alongside a bit of road.

Below is the point at which I got cold and stopped painting. It has a few things I like about it, such as the sense of chain on the wall, the curved corner, and the green on the nearer harbour wall, and things I don’t. Mostly I am pleased I had a go at it, and I regard it as a “good learning painting” or study. The next morning I walked around a bit here having a closer look at elements of this composition, such as the width of the nearest wall (which is narrower at the top than the other walls, having a stepped top to it).

Oil paint on wood panel. 9×12 inches.

The next day I got out my favourite Payne’s grey acrylic ink and did some ink and watercolour paintings. The fishing shed with its row of colourful doors, the view through the harbour entrance to the old cottages, the stacks of creel nets. And, no, I never did get around to the boats themselves.

I stopped at this point because the shadow from the hillside caught up with me, and I moved to a new spot in the sunshine.
First attempt
Second attempt. The narrower format works better, I think.

The last day I spent using pencil only, making sketches with notes about things that had caught my eye. Information gathering for a studio painting.

When might I start creating some studio paintings based on these sketches? I don’t know. It may convert into something soon, it might sit and simmer, it might be never. I don’t have a plan for it, I was simply enjoying being in a very paintable location, with a friend who was also painting.