Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Great Outdoors: A Sketch is Just a Sketch

This post is decorated with pages from my sketch books. As I explain below, I make no claims for these simple efforts: they are just  . . . sketches.

Most of my paintings, even my landscapes, are produced in the studio and based on photographs that I have taken earlier and edited on the computer. Some artists, of course, paint outdoors, making a virtue of the constantly changing effects of light and weather. The Impressionists are famous for this approach, with Monet's multiple paintings of the same cathedral or group of haystacks being prime examples. (Please see www.learn.columbia.edu/monet/swf  and www.artsology.com/monetlight.php .)

Other artists make quick, small paintings on site with a view to elaborating them later into more ambitious compositions. These fresh air enthusiasts may disapprove of painting from photos, and can produce some persuasive arguments to support their opinion. They may say that the struggle to express the reality that confronts their eyes, the challenge of limiting, framing, and editing all that messy detail out there and reducing three dimensions to two, not to mention dealing with changing light and atmospheric effects, makes for an enriched and more lively painting. The freshness and spontaneity of a modest work produced on site can be very appealing, sometimes more so than the large, studio-painted canvas based upon it. See, for example,  www.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Jack_Pine , where different versions of Tom Thomson's iconic painting are compared. 
Tugs on the Fraser

For myself, however, working only on location would produce very few paintings. For one thing, there's the weather, especially here in the rain forest. You have to be very dedicated to shiver in the drizzle while your paper blows away or your painting goes blotchy. But also there's the lack of privacy. If you work outdoors, unless you take yourself off to the seclusion of the mountains, where you'll  be bothered only by bears, you're subjected to a constant stream of passers-by who are desperate to breathe down your neck and ask what you're doing. Many artists don't mind this at all, and regard the interruptions as opportunities for educating the public and even drumming up sales; but for me the intrusions are annoying, and being "on stage" can revive the panic I felt as a teenager when I had to play the piano for school assembly. I would never have made a performance artist!
Moored in West Van

Despite all this, I can thoroughly enjoy drawing and painting outdoors if I'm part of a class or informal group. There are few more pleasant ways to spend a warm summer day. Safety in numbers means that if I turn my back pointedly enough on the curious strollers they can fasten on a more promising victim. Now that summer has finally come to Vancouver (well, sort of . . .  with all this climate change we can't any longer count on the four to six weeks of solid warm sunny weather that used to define our July and August) I'm once again sketching each Wednesday with members and friends of the Vancouver Sketch Club.


Our arrangements couldn't be simpler: two of us arrange to meet at a chosen spot, usually a park with a variety of subject material, shade, easy parking and public toilets. We send an email to our list of contacts announcing the place and time, and people either show up or don't. We've had as few as two and as many as thirteen. Some draw, some use watercolours. Some have had lots of experience, some are beginners. We work for a few hours, chat a bit, eat a picnic lunch, and settle on the venue for the following week. If you would like to give it a try, please contact us at www.myartclub.com/the.vancouver.sketch.club.
Trees in Trout Lake - 2012

As well as a pleasure, sketching is always a challenge and a learning experience, a return to the most basic form of art activity and the eye-brain-hand coordination that it requires. At the same time it isn't--or shouldn't be--a stressful activity, because there is no requirement or expectation that it should produce a masterpiece. A sketch is just a sketch, no more and no less, and it makes no more sense to say a sketch is "good" or "bad" than to apply those adjectives to an entry in a personal journal. A sketch is a visual note or record, a quick experiment, and sometimes the first step in a project. For me, if a sketch catches some of the essence of what I'm looking at, it's successful.

Garden Steps

Unless I'm enrolled in a class, I prefer to be unambitious when sketching outdoors. I work small, often using a 6" x 6" sketch book and either pencil or black pen. I'm fascinated by the expressive possibilities of this simple equipment, but still have a lot to learn when it comes to conveying light and dark contrast by shading. The biggest challenge, and one I've been struggling with for years now, is how to capture the variety of leaf and branch shapes that my eyes distinguish. Often there is very little tonal difference between clumps of trees or shrubs, so the contrast has to come from the juxtaposition of patterns. I don't want to get too fussy and outline every leaf, though, so the question is how to create an impression with a minimum of pen strokes. In Trees in Trout Lake (above) I felt that I had come closer than usual to achieving this goal. Maybe this week I'll get there . . . but maybe not. After all, sketching is just sketching.


Next blog post? Well, theoretically in about a month, but my track record this year is not very good.