Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Sketching plein air with coloured pencils

The Order Beds
10" x 14" on Arches Hot Press

copyright Katherine Tyrrell

This is a sketch which I started a couple of weeks ago at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew - or Kew Gardens as they popularly known and finished the next day. It's a view of the Order Beds (in the north eastern section of the garden or no 28 on the map) from the centre of that bit of the garden - looking towards the Temple of Aeolus which sits on top of the artifical mound known as Cumberland Mount.
The Order Beds were originally introduced by Sir Joseph Hooker as a living library of flowering plants for students of botany and horticulture - the plants being systematically arranged so that they could be easily located for study.This process, and the science of understanding the relationship between plants, is known as taxonomy and is the basis of all research carried out at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. A pergola covered with climbing roses covers the central path of the area, and the surrounding walls provide shelter for many plants
Kew website
My approach to sketching plein air with coloured pencils

As I'm trying to get a lot of sketches done during my Gardens in Art month on "Making A Mark", I thought that I'd say a bit about what I do when I sketch plein air using coloured pencils.

Get comfortable and used to the place
  • If you're new to sketching you can sometimes find it easier and more comfortable if you are with someone else. However you do need a willing partner for your expedition, rather than somebody who is going to find your sketching a tiresome and time-consuming activity! If your partner respects your dedication to sketching and you want to spend time with him or her, then you'll need to make it easy for them to accompany you on trips - so they don't get bored either!
  • First off, when we go out with the intention of me sketching, the deal is that we always have to find a bench where "he who must not be bored while I sketch" can sit in the sun. He's not keen on shade! Then we make sure he has enough reading material. On Saturday he was armed with the Financial Times, the Economist, a professional journal and a book - he's used to my sketching trips.
  • I generally start with a good walk around the place on my own. Being on your own makes it a lot easier to just stand and stare! It's also amazing how just 'being there' and letting your eyes do some work before you sit down to sketch helps to get your eyes attuned to colours particular to the place. In this case the order beds were past the early summer excesses in terms of flowers and were now either empty or had just the leaves.
Use my camera selectively as a tool and for reference purposes
  • I use my camera to:
    • take general photographs of the place.
    • try out different crops of the scene I'm thinking of sketching - using the viewfinder. It's great when the shape is the same as the camera's and not so useful if a different shape would suit better. If you think you'd like to crop down take a shot which is larger than the view you'd like to do.
    • take photos at the beginning and the end and as the light changed while I was sketching and then again at the end. If you're not used to sketching pleir air you'll be amazed at how fast the light and shadows change - particularly at either end of the day.
    • Very often when I do a worked up version of a sketch, I may change things. With this one the issue is whether to have a long thin version looking down the long strip of grass or whether to include all the nuances of the foliage in the landscape view. Having photos helps with the structure of compositions even if they are less than perfect at recording both colour and values.
Develop a "thumbnail sketch"
  • For this view I first developed a thumbnail sketch for the design and value pattern. Except my idea of thumbnail is 8" x11"!!! I'm just more comfortable doing them big. Plus once I've got the mono version done and I'm happy with it I quite often put in key colours to remind me of what and where they are in case they disappear. I am after all sketching outside - and the sun moves as do the clouds.
"Thumbnail" sketch for The Order Beds
(8" x 11" in daler Rowney Sketchbook)

copyright Katherine Tyrrell
  • I then usually lay my thumbnail sketch in my sketchbook on the ground at my feet so I can glance at it easily while sketching. This is the other good reason for doing them big because they look a lot more thumbnail sized when lying on the ground!
Consider and select colours
  • Coloured pencils are really great for being able to make colour studies and provide much more accurate information than the colour you get from photos. I find that photographs taken on sunny days (as this one was) often distort both values and colour quite badly.
  • When looking at and trying to work out coloursI find it helpful to:
    • mentally name the colours as I look at them - giving them a name helps to make that stick in my head.
    • select all the colours I expect to use and put the pencils in a separate box. Bear in mind that what I'm looking for is the colour in the colour. So it's less about looking for greens and more about looking for the red/blue/yellow in the green.
  • The critical issue with this particular scene was to notice all the different sorts of greens which existed - from the intense apple green of the nasturtiums (bottom left) top the intense acid yellow of the grass where the sunlight was hitting it in the centre to the yellow ochre green gold of some of the trees in the middle background to the sea greens of some of the plantings (the overgrown sweet peas right of centre) and the black cherry/pine green of some of the trees in the background.
  • I very often start with the 'other than green' colours I can see in the greens and build up from there. With coloured pencils you can lay down a colour and then glaze over the top. Optical mixing makes for much more interesting colours which I think adds depth to sketches. If you look through my sketchbooks you'll see a lot of examples.
Develop the sketch
  • Using a mechanical pencil I sketched in the main structure quickly. I then start to roughly dab colour around the piece - generally starting with the darks at the junction with the lights.
  • I use a hatching movement for most of it, changing the angles to suit the form. The hatching is loose so that when I hatch on top with a different colour you can see through it. My guess is most people would have a fit if they could see how imprecise I am and how much I simply scribble. It always feels a bit like sculpting where I get closer and closer to finding the real form and 'look' of a piece.
  • I'm planning to try and organise it so that "must not be bored" takes a video of me while working at some point in the future. Either that or I remember where the instructions are for the remote control for my camera!
  • It's rare to get everything done while I'm out. However sketching a lot outside means that I've developed a very good visual memory of a place which usually lasts as a good quality image for about 24 hours. I then use the next 24 hours to both recall what more needs developing and also to look at the piece far more critically from an aesthetic viewpoint.
  • Being away from the place means that I can now adjust for what 'feels right' as opposed to 'what actually is'. You can make a choice about sketching for accuracy or sketching for aesthetics - there is no requirement to sketch everything exactly as seen. You are an artist and artists are allowed to change things!
  • On return home I did a few more things:
    • I finished hatching the areas where I'd just put down enough to know the colour. Essentially this is very often a "more of the same" exercise. It almost always applies to the sky area once I've worked out any cloud edges. It often applies to big and somewhat similar masses - I've got the initial colour down and I have photos to check shapes - essentially it's very often "more of the same"
    • I then worked on the relative values. This is very often something which I don't get quite right on site - usually for no other reason than that white paper in sunlight causes problems with evaulation. I find getting the sketch back indoors means I get a better sense of the extent to which I've hit the right values. My method involves always mentally telling myself where all the darkest patches are as I'm drawing and then my memory prompts a checklist when I get home. In this instance the trees at the back were very dark in patches and I needed to develop that further - which I did using complementary colours so the areas would vibrate rather than look 'dead' holes.
    • Using my battery powered eraser, I then lifted out some birdie holes and lightened some areas where light coloured flowers exist and places where and grasses and tendrils had got backlighting. I then put back some of the clean light colours - the pale pinks and the lemon yellows.
While at Kew I had great fun inspecting all the vegetables in the beds developed by the horticulture students and taking photographs - only to discover when I got home that I'd inadvertently adjusted something on my camera and the photos were a lot smaller than intended. C'est la vie! But I've decided I'm definitely going to develop a series about vegetables.

Gardens in Art
In August I've been doing a project on Gardens in Art on my main blog Making A Mark in order to develop my art and artwork involving gardens. If you enjoy sketching gardens and also would like to look at different ways of looking at gardens, I've included links to the various posts below.

  1. Most of this post was first published as Gardens in Art - The Order Beds at Kew Gardens in Making A Mark. This version includes some additional text.
  2. All text copyright Katherine Tyrrell

1 comment:

  1. out of many representational coloured pencil artists i like your work the best because it's not photorealism. i noticed the part in this blog on relative values because that is something which to me requires a lot of thought and is crucial in making the piece work. Mass drawing is not my bent which is why I have to make myself study foliage and study how other artists do their rendering. Mass, tone, and colour, with a pencil, the ultimate challenge!


I always check identities and ALL links in comments for spam.

Due to excessive attempts to introduce spam via comments on this blog, I've introduced a regime where all comments with links in the ID or text to the websites of hotels/resorts/tourist destinations will NOT be approved and are deleted. The websites of repeat spammers are also reported to Google.

Nice, sensible people who are not new to blogging probably don't need to read my Comments Policy