Monday, August 24, 2015

Sketching in Oils as Place-based Journaling (Zion Update 3.0 Step-by-Step)

As any plein air artist can attest, sketching outdoors is a race against time. On anything but an overcast day shadows and highlights are fleeting and ever-changing. If I am lucky I may have an hour and thirty minutes, maybe 2 hours, to capture the lighting of a particular time and place. And sometimes -- having just caught sight of a serendipitous, and oh so fleeting, visual moment -- I may have only a tenth of that... or less. 

when Karen Doherty (at Exaclair USA) first introduced me to Bloc Rhodia notebooks I couldn't think of 
practical application for gridded paper; but now that I'm painting plein air again it's become my very 
favorite comp tool (tip: a wide rubber band will hold the folded pages open "gads-free" while painting)

To speed up the painting process I frequently begin with a sketch in pencil or pen -- focusing on rendering the key shapes, shadows and overlapping plains while making mental notes about hue/temperature/intensity options for the background, middle ground and foreground.  

by pre-toning the panel with Gamblin Yellow Ochre I am able to quickly 
establish an accurate sense of the major forms and spacial plains 

After completing the compositional study I start blocking in the shadow areas on a middle-toned panel. (And if, for any reason, the sketching process is disrupted at this point I already have a recognizable, albeit rough, visual -- and far more personal experience -- of this particular time and place.)

detailing and nuance are now added to the middle ground, water and sky

Next I begin to introduce lighter areas (while still reserving my lightest lights for the end -- when my observations are most accurate) and refine the primary shapes.

highlights are introduced into the foreground cliff tops and face

At this stage the painting is still rough -- but I have finalized the composition; finished blocking in the major color and value areas; and have more or less defined background, middle ground and foreground. 

initial detailing in the middle ground

Pacific Cove, 6"x8", Gamblin oils on Ampersand Gessobord

The final stage (the sprint to finish before the original shadow patterns fade into memory) is fine tuning, adding select detailing (some in the middle ground, but primarily in the foreground), and polishing off a few of the rough edges. (Some "roughness" can add a very desirable sense of spontaneity, vigor and vivaciousness to a sketch though. So I avoid overworking the piece by adhering to the 90-120 minute allocation.)

And, if I intend to use the sketch as a study for a larger work in the studio later (or if I just want a more complete record of place, time and experience) I will frequently make notes -- about the weather, time of day, season, and the sights, sounds and smells of the local, even what I was thinking and feeling at that particular moment -- in white Gelly Roll pen on the back of the panel.


  1. Hi Earnest, I'm loving your new colour palette, so vibrant!

    1. Thanks Valerie. I want a palette that plays to the reds, oranges, and warm greens of the Southwest (something a bit more direct, expressive, and even more emotive) for the Zion adventure, rather than the blues and cool greens that dominated my Cascades pieces. This palette is still something of a work-in-progress but I'm confident that, by the time I leave home in mid-October, we'll be "old friends."