Nothing beats a real live view spread out in front of you. Although we have the most amazing technology in the shape of the phone, sketching a scene in front of you marks it indelibly in your mind’s eye. Wordsworth talked about the impact the Lake District landscape made on his “mind’s eye” in his Prelude. In a sketchbook artist’s case, the mind’s eye becomes a type of internal camera – working slower and translating the scene onto paper with a basic pencil. I love the simplification of a) sitting in the middle of nowhere (largely solitary and preferably as warm as possible!) b) swapping out and switching off technology in favour of primitive paper and pencil.
In my case, a day before the UK headed into its second wave Corona lockdown, I headed into the Peak District, a picturesque 40 minute drive away. Dovedale. You hike along the river Dore alongside the scree slopes that look like they are part of an eeny beeny Icelandic fiord with a scattering of skeletal winter trees, over the infamous Stepping Stones (a sketch of which I am going to share with you later), swing right onto Lin Dale and then head on up and up till you hit Thorpe Cloud. It was windy and cold. On any other occasion my sketchbook and materials would be strewn around me like items at a picnic. I found myself thinking about how I would tackle a landscape such as this one in my sketchbook. In reality I might only manage to do a simple sketch with pencil and perhaps one or two watercolour washes. This particular day, however, buffetted by wind that made my eyes sting I mentally logged the early morning scene in front of me.
If this is something you want to tackle I’ve put together 5 key areas to help you develop your landscape technique. Even better if you have the luxury to be able to sit and sketch in situ;
- Sketch out the basic lines and shapes of your drawing. Landscapes are often a series of lines. (A skyline, a horizon. a line of trees, fields framed by walls, a windy road…you get the gist.) Start with the “line” you would consider to be your anchor of the picture. The line that your eye is drawn to. In this case it is the uneven line of clumpy trees which unifies the scene and I would class as the horizon. There is not much sky in this picture so always be aware of how to create depth to your picture. The line of trees is almost like a fold in the picture from which the back fields flow upwards as well as the scene stretches out in front of them.
- Using colour. Start to block out the picture with your first watercolour wash. Then slowly build the layers. Think about how you can use colour to create a sense of perspective and avoid the picture looking 2D. How do you create depth and convey the sense of a scene unfolding in front of you? I’ve used different tones across this piece. I also bolden up the colours the nearer and closer things appear to be to me on the page as well as define trees in detail as opposed to generic clumps of colour in the distance. Try and stick to no more than 3 watercolour washes – getting bolder as you go. You should also avoid the use of the colour black wherever possible substituting it out for a navy or other darker colour.
- Another great tip linked to colour is to identify shadows and different tones that can add depth and perspective to your picture. Trees in shadow are particularly good for this.
- Accentuate some parts of your scene with the help of a micron pen. Granted, this may not always be necessary if you are happy to achieve detailed effects with paint or have a preferred less-is-more style. Plus if I was working on a landscape portrait for example and had more time I probably wouldn’t use a pen. A sketch is different though and a quick touch from a micron pen can give your picture the perspective it needs (a field wall, a skeletal tree) quickly and efficiently. The other point to note about the micron pen is that if you are pushed for time or are sketching and painting quickly, it can support you define your rough sketch picture without the need to finish it fully.
- Using colouring pencils. In this particular case the landscape “moves” and a variety of different colouring pencils are able to accentuate your watercolour baseline further as well as the shape of the landscape. Fields are ploughed, may dip and swirl as well as drop away, or come to a halt as a road cuts through them. A pencil can give an artist control that paint may not. Again, it depends how free flowing you want to be, how much detail you want to convey and…lets not forget…how much time you allow yourself whilst sitting in situ.
I’d love to get your thoughts on what you would add to this list from your own experiences. But in the meantime I hope you enjoy the run through from the top of Thorpe Cloud.