Sketching from Nature

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DON'T take any makeshifts out when you go sketching from nature. The less you know how to use your tools the better those tools should be. It is only good workmen who can use bad tools to any purpose, and they choose not to do so. ' It is the truest economy to use the best materials.* It is also a mistake' to think that simply because you are going to sketch, you need not take much with you. The real enjoyment as well as the success of your sketches will to a large extent depend on your forethought in this respect. It may be you have walked several miles to sketch a particular subject you had probably seen under a certain effect the day before, when you had no sketching material with you. Full of pleasurable anticipation you start away, thinking how you will treat the subject ; whether as an upright or an oblong, whether the shadow would be better if longer, or shorter, or if the distance should be in sunlight or otherwise, and many other considerations which go to make up your anticipated enjoyment. The air is fresh, the clouds sail past in great columns, and at the turn of the road you see your subject. You arrive, your camp-stool is fixed, your easel arranged and your palette prepared. You carefully draw the outline of your subject, and you feel that the scene is even more beautiful than it appeared the day before when you discovered it. Your pencil outline is done, and you open your box. Alas 1 your brushes ? You have left them at home ! Then one has no proper words adequately to express the situation : there is no rustic available to fetch them, even if you quite knew where you had left them, so there is no alternative but to tramp back. With what different feelings you trudge your way along the road which now seems so tedious and uninteresting Now, if you are a wise man, you will at once get a bag and see that all the things required are in it before you start. You may find it necessary to have big brushes when you have only brought small ones, and vice versa, thus your pleasure as well as your work is spoiled. Be prepared for every emergency. Things which seemed improbable sometimes happen.

* You can, of course, have your sketch-books and canvas of inferior quality, but for work which you hope will last it is absolutely necessary to have the best.

Another reason is that in making a sketch from Nature, your full powers must be put forth. You must be strung up to a high pitch. Every sense must be on the alert, for if you are not keen and quick you may miss everything. You may miss the particular effect upon which the whole charm of your subject depends, for each sketch should be done at a single sitting.

landscape painting, sketching from nature
Midland Meadows

It may be you have for your subject the sweet meadow-land of the Midlands of England, across which the shadows of the sailing clouds steal over the cut grass, lighting and re-lighting the distance, the middle distance and the wood, at the edge of which nestles little village. There is nothing amiss with the subject. It expresses the peculiar characteristics of our country. Beautiful as it is in itself, how much lovelier does it seem when seen under the special conditions for which you have patiently waited! Never mind if you have to get out of bed at dawn, it may be worth the effort or if you have lingered until the white mists have stolen along the flats, and your dinner has got cold, it is worth the sacrifice. For, remember this important fact, you cannot get a dawn or a sunset repeated in a long experience of careful observation. I have never seen two dawns or two sunsets alike. Unlike history, they never repeat themselves. When you have satisfied yourself under what conditions your subject looks best ; when you have risen early, morning after morning, or stayed out till dusk, evening after evening ; when you are certain that the very best conditions are before you, then make a start with that courage and confidence without which nothing great is ever achieved. Courage, confidence and alertness are supreme qualities in sketching from Nature. There are many things to be borne in mind which you must keep constantly before you. The progress of the shadows on the hills, which give such a wide foil to your sunlit trees, will not wait for you, and if you glance but for an instant you will see that the sky is clearing to windward, and you may have no more cloud shadows that day.

When you start, you must allow for the Whiteness of your canvas, which by strong contrast may make your work appear too dark. Allow a little, too, for the drying in of your colours. The exact tone of the hillside is more easily obtained, since its effect is more continuous. Then place below it the trees in the exact colour and tone in relation to the sunlight and shadow of the hills. Afterwards note the grass which is of a more local green, and paint its exact pitch in relation to the preceding tones. The road has its shadows across it. Note the subtle quality within the shadow that suggests the material of the road, for the road material should be recognised as the same under all conditions of light and shade. For instance, a shadow across it must not be like a piece of dark cloth laid down, but a luminous tone full of the reflection of the sky. Observe that the edges are darker and colder than the general colour of the shadow. You may ask, " Why not paint the sky first ?" I know you have been told to do so, and as every painter has a reason for what he does, let me explain why I should not. It is much easier to paint a sky to suit a landscape than a landscape to suit a sky. The frequent cause of so many pictures showing a divided purpose in this respect arises from the unsuitability of the landscape to the sky or vice versa. You want the sky to belong to the landscape as much as its trees or its fields, and as the cloud forms greatly depend upon the existing contours of your composition, they can only be put in after these contours have been arranged.

Your business in sketching from Nature is to give one a fervid impression of the place, its biggest facts painted in just relation to each other, and its characteristics set down frankly, fearlessly and in the most direct manner possible. In so far as your sketch endorses the above qualities, it will be good. The moment you begin to hesitate, the moment you begin to neglect the larger facts, you will get wrong with your values, you will lose the sense of spontaneity which is the charm of your sketch. There is, I know, always the temptation to realise the beautiful details of Nature, but you can make a careful study of them at your leisure, for you must never sacrifice the big things of your landscape to the details of your sketch.

The exact harmony of sky and land, of trees and pasture, of light and shade, of colour and tone, these are the essentials which you must strive to realise, and these are sufficient, in all conscience, for you to keep in hand without the consideration of the particular forms which make up your foreground and masses. And you will find that your masses will be more correct, if treated in this way, than if they were niggled to the loss of their general breadth. A sketch may be described as a study, but a study never as a sketch. The sketch deals with the big things, the passing effect of sun and shadow, of storm or rain, of dawn or sunset, and must realise the sense of each particular and peculiar set of conditions pertaining to the various effects. But a study is a faithful drawing or painting of a particular portion of the details which may be useful to you in painting a-serious picture, and I shall later describe how both may be brought into one's service for that particular purpose.

Now if you have succeeded in obtaining a sketch which fairly and truthfully the facts of a passing and changing effect, you You have had to attend to many things, you have done well. You have had to attend to many things, you have worked under great pressure of thought, you have had many if you have succeeded in keeping them all irons in the fire, and if you have succeeded in keeping them all hot, every part of your sketch should be equally fervid and spontaneous. Having realised the object of your sketch, you might then, as a relaxation, turn to some of the details, and on a separate piece of canvas, make a very careful study of them, otherwise you would not know them sufficiently to use them in your picture. I have endeavoured to point out to you the characteristics of a sketch and a study, and I would like to show you how you should proceed in a practical manner when sketching from Nature, or in making a study.

In addition to their intrinsic interest, sketches reveal the character of the artist even more clearly than his finished pictures. They are, or should be, the vivid expression of his appreciation of Nature under a special emotional impulse, and on that account are worthy of preservation. I think more is to be learned from the sketches of a great artist like Turner than from his more elaborated works, where much of his psychological attitude is disguised. I should strongly advise you to study those in the National Gallery.

It is better to sketch rapidly, since it is difficult to give the time necessary to the delineation of form under the conditions of changing light. Bear in mind that if we start in the morning, we have the shadows from left to right, and in the evening from right to left, and through the intervening hours the shadows are continually modifying the contours of the landscape. We cannot command the sun to stand still, or arrest the rain cloud, so we must make the best of our limitations. Since it is so difficult to observe the subtler aspects of Nature in the fervent heat of sketching, it is necessary to analyse them, and study them separately.

landscape painting, gibraltar from algerciras
Gibraltar, From Algeciras.

It is not only a profitable, but a very pleasant pursuit to make pencil drawings of the component parts of the subject one is engaged upon, and thus accumulate a mass of material for the picture of a larger scale. In sketching from Nature, do not seek to make incomplete pictures. An unfinished picture is not a sketch, nor has it any value except as practice.

In landscape painting there are three stages--the sketch, which aims chiefly at command of colour ; the study, which devotes itself to the truth of form ; and finally, the picture, which unites the fresh impressions of the sketch, with the more systematic comprehension of form which is the object of the study. The picture is the end, the others are the means ; and the end cannot be attained, in the best sense, unless you cultivate the discipline of the means. Of course I do not for one moment suggest that a colour sketch should be devoid of accurate form, but it is necessary, in order to fulfil its purpose as reference in subsequent work, that it should be, above all, true in its chromatic values, even if false in its form. The form is always with you, whereas colour is transitory. If it be possible to secure both at once--good ; but I think you are hardly likely to achieve the complexities of colour while your attention is engaged, at the critical moment of the effect, on the exactness of form. The general outline may be recorded, but when one is absorbed in the contemplation of colour in Nature, the element of form is perforce very much subordinated.

Landscape painting is the realisation of inspired conceptions. Some artists are moved by minute details of Nature ; others by the wider and bigger attributes. To those who love her, Nature is always responsive. She offers everything you ask. You want the dust and cinders that make up mountains-- they are there ; or you want the clouds which mingle with the everlasting fires--they also are there. You may choose the rubble and dirt, or you may choose the peaks which keep proud company with the heavens. If the painter wishes, he may paint every blade of grass. He enjoys perfect freedom ; no law forbids. But he should not particularise his blades of grass in a broad meadow, nor specify the grains of corn in the wide sweep of the harvest field. We know the meadow is covered with tiny blades, but we do not see them individually ; we see only the aggregate of their form and colour, and a broad general suggestion is as faithful to Nature as would be a multitude of petty details which we do not see in an ordinary outlook. The suggestion of the fact that the tree is thick with leaves, and that it is living and moving, is infinitely more satisfying to one's sense of truth than would be an immense and painful mass of innumerable and carefully realised leaf-units. The goal to strive towards is the living impression of a tree as a whole--as a being, so to speak--and not of a colossal repository of detail. The advice I give you is to draw as well as to sketch from Nature every day ; and slowly, but surely, you will feel yourself competent enough to start a large canvas, and you will be able (so to speak) to see your picture painted, before you touch a brush.

Draw the landscape as simply as possible with charcoal, afterwards going over the lines with pencil ; then dust off the charcoal, and you have the drawing left by your pencil. (With the confidence which comes after considerable practice, you will be able to dispense with the charcoal and pencil, and start at once with colour.) Your paints must be so arranged on your palette that the colour most frequently used is the handiest, viz. white, and then follow the yellows, reds, blues and greens. It is necessary to have a system in placing your pigments on your palette, as it saves time, and time is of the utmost value when you arc rapidly sketching a passing effect. The crucial effect so soon fades, and one's memory loses its acumen so quickly that you must not trust to it; therefore you cannot afford to lose time by wandering round your palette for a certain colour. The place of each colour should be known to you as intimately as any note on the keyboard of the piano is to the musician. Use plenty of paint, but not too thin. Do not miss solidity through thinness of colour. A little medium, composed of equal proportions of copal or amber varnish, turpentine and linseed oil, is helpful. With a brush which holds an ample supply of colour, lay it on your canvas frankly and fearlessly, always remembering that, within reasonable limits, you can, later on, correct mistakes.

morning moon, landscape painting, sketching from nature
Morning Moon.

The sky can be painted first with a coat of white, tempered with yellow ochre, and the blue patches of the sky painted into it.* Exact tone and colour are as important in sunlit areas as in the space shadowed by the cloud. It is essential to ascertain the difference between the sunshine and the shadow. Having settled what you feel to be the exact difference, place the colours down upon your canvas. But if you are not quite sure of the result, wait for another shadow to correct your values. Utilise your cloud shadows for form as well as for colour ; the shadow displays the varied contours of the ground over which it falls, and thus affords a valuable aid to perspective. Perhaps the shadow may cross the wood on the hillside, and leave the church and cottages in sunshine. You will quickly detect the difference between the trees in shadow and those in light. Fields which were vivid in their rich green in sunshine, become more subdued in shadow, though not less luminous. The foreground grass, for which you might have used bright cadmium and transparent oxide of chromium, must now be represented in a combination of yellow ochre and cobalt, or deep cadmium and French blue.

Bear in mind that, although the colour of the middle distance and extreme distance may be lowered, it must convey (as in Nature) the impression that it is composed of exactly the same materials ; that is to say, the distant grass must look like grass as distinctly as that in the foreground. There must be no halting to inquire, no hesitation in this assurance. The diminished sizes trees, houses, and other familiar objects explain their own distance ; but large spaces, as for instance of grass fields on a hillside, depend more upon aerial perspective, the criterion of judgment being in this case a just tone of colour rather than the diminution of individual objects.

* See chapter on Painting the Sky

I have no doubt that you will find the middle-distance objects extremely difficult to paint, and I fear many artists use the same colours as in the foreground, merely diluting them by the addition of white, thinking they will thus secure the desired alteration of tone. This is not the case. All the various distances, which we describe as middle or remote, not only demand a change of actual pigments, but a fresh combination of colour. Thus, while the foreground may consist of the strongest greens, the middle distance may require white, yellow ochre and blue, and in the far distance, rose madder, white, a little yellow ochre or raw umber. Now I would ask you in oil painting not to dilute your colour with oil or medium more than is absolutely necessary for facility in working. This is a fatal error made by so many amateurs when painting from Nature. You must learn to master the somewhat stubborn material, and when you have overcome the technical difficulties of the craft, you will find the great advantage of being able to manipulate a fuller body of paint.

When you have painted the foreground, the mid-distance, the wood, the light on the church, the village, you have practically completed the sketch with the exception of the sky, and that should harmonise with the structure of the landscape as a whole. The forms of the clouds must preserve a suitable relation and sympathy with your landscape. Their contours must assist the lines of your composition, and their character be in keeping with the effect you have elected to paint.* Their scale also must he studied, for it must not lessen the sense of the width of the meadow or the near distance, or the distance of the hills. Now you have the opportunity of perfecting your composition. You may put in that little hit of extreme distance which so beautifully melts into your sky, and you will consider whether the pool in the foreground should reflect the white or the grey-Hue of the heavens. Do not hurry your sketch now, for the effect you sought after has passed; you cannot improve on the first vivid impression, and though the forms still confront you, you cannot invent the exact relations of colour which Nature only has the privilege of creating. Leave well alone ; or, if you arc not pleased with the day's work, repeat the subject to-morrow if the weather is the same, and the experience you have gained will guide and nerve you for your next attempt.

* See chapter on Painting Nature

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