Monday, November 11, 2013

Mont Saint-Michel (A Step-by-Step "Pocket Painting" Demonstration)

An part of this winter's "training" regime I'll be adding small scale (usually no larger than 5"x7" or 6"x8") plein air painting to my usual routine of sketching and journaling.

From time to time I'll post the results of my pochade box adventures here in a new series of articles called "Pocket Paintings" -- beginning this week with a brief step-by-step visual description of my current working process. And, if there's any interest, I'll try to post a video of a painting from beginning to end, at some point in the series too.

So, someone cue up the Black Eyed Peas, and "Let's Get It Started!"


It's late afternoon and the autumn sun is low in a clear blue sky -- casting bright warm highlights and long, cool shadows. But the light won't last long and, oh yes, my wife just reminded me that the lower level parking lot will be flooding soon. (No pressure there, right?) So, I'd better get started.

my N0. 12 Bloc Rhodia is perfect for thumbnail comps

A quick value and sketch in my small Clairefontaine pocket notebook establishes my composition.

I pre-tone my 5x7 panel with burnt Sienna applied with an old sockand establish the dark 
areas with a mixture of Dioxazine Purple, Cad. Red Med., and Cad. Yellow Dark  

I begin to rough in the shapes and establishing the dark areas.

blocking in sky and haze is done with Cobalt Blue and Flake White Replacement 
(a warm white produced by Gamblin Artist's Oil Colors)   

As I block in the sky I continue to refine the iconic silhouette of the island village and fortress-like monastery.

The cools of the shadows, warm middle tones of the walls, and grays of the exposed sands and causeway blacktop are established -- again, as I continue to refine shapes and positions.

beginning to rough in the parked vehicles (residence above the high 
tide level, daytrippers below) and pedestrians

Areas of foliage -- little islands of greenery amidst stone forms (manmade and natural) are introduced.

The eastern end of the village is blocked in, shadows are strengthened, and the causeway's low east wall is added.

I complete the parking areas, add a few wispy, high altitude clouds, tweak the shadows and buildings, finish the two pedestrians and sign my initials -- we're done! (And with a little light to spare.) 


A few thoughts over a well-earned cuppa tea --

There are many ways of approaching plein air painting and quick sketching in oils and I I've shared just one of them with you this week. I hope you find it useful and maybe even decide to try it yourself. But please keep in mind; if it doesn't work for you, no worries! There are plenty of other options for you to try and sooner or later you're bound to find the medium, technique and subject(s) that are of interest to you.



  1. Replies
    1. Thanks Claire. And I would agree... a very "special place." Next time we plan to visit a bit earlier in the year and my wife insists that we stay on the island (so she can enjoy the serenity after the daytrippers have gone... and I can do a street scene or two, and a nocturnal).

      Earlier in the year might also mean that we could visit Skellig Michael as part of the Ireland-England-France monastic trinity.

  2. This is so interesting because I use a photo I took of Mont Saint Michel to demonstrate how my workshop folks can sketch a place like that in 20 minutes. You, of course, end up with something far more complex than my sketchers, but they learn how to break a seemingly complicated image into something they can manage.

  3. That is very clever, thank you for sharing this demonstration! I am not so confident with paint but did enjoy matching a vintage postcard of Mont Saint Michel during our visit, but with photography!
    Perhaps next time I will attempt a drawing...

    1. Thanks for the comment. I hope you do give drawing a try the next time you visit MSM. If you need inspiration, the bookshop in the old monastery sells two tiny books of pencil sketches by Denis Clavreul (one book drawn from his winter visit, the other from summer).

      And speaking of inspiration, I quite enjoyed your photo of the island from the bayside. The tide wasn't out during our last visit. But I'd certainly enjoy setting up my pochade box on that side next time.