Spring sketches

In this national situation of unprecedented concern, now is the time when I think of making the most simple of art with whatever I have at home, the humble sketch. I always find that if you can access images of a great artist’s sketches, however created, with whatever materials, you’ll find something of the root of the creative process. The feature image above is a sketch I made partly on site in Sussex, and then worked on further at home after a soft rub down and then drawn again. It was well worth the exploration.

For myself I find I’m drawn to the artists who made paintings out of sketches and also gave them the near equal status as works of art in oil or watercolour. They are revealing, private, released and above all, off guard.

Various great names come to mind: Thomas Gainsborough made wonderful sensitive sketches on fine laid tinted paper, with brown conte chalk, and white touches of highlight; Antoine Watteau made the most beautiful sensitive sketches in sanguine conte crayon, also on buff paper. Degas linked the sketch in pastel and charcoal, with the full on major works in pastel alone, the French artists had a secret life on paper, in spite of their fame for oil on canvas, which fitted in to the French demand for oils only.

Constable’s sketches, done in various weathers, small, dashing, tentative perhaps but again, say much about the person and his vision. And of course, J.M.W Turner, who filled hundreds of sketchbooks with wiry pencil drawings, acting as a technical memory for his monumental works. His watercolours also helped secure the tones in his memory, done at speed in his lodgings whilst travelling. However towards the end of his life, the pastel and chalk marks make their appearance to give his private works the kick he was after. Exploration was a constant chase.

Quick landscape sketch in the local open air on grey move laid paper
in conte crayon and pastel.

One area I have had to give increasing thought is the paper. So much of art is concerned about the materials in the hand. Brushes, chalks, pencils, but only recently have I really begun to be much more careful about the paper I use. It has to be tinted, not cold white, unless I can wash it, or rub it with something that adheres.

This adds a third dimension to the work. Tinted paper is usually cheap, which helps one feel uninhibited and gives an opportunity of letting loose. Many painters in the past used buff paper, in various shades, Turner developed his own blue grey paper for his works at Petworth. Gainsborough set up his models to create his ‘perfect’ landscapes that often don’t really exist, but look beautiful. He had an array of beautiful buff beige papers onto which he tried many techniques mixing watercolour, chalk and oil.

Sussex view, near Charleston, on jute paper. conte crayon and pastel.

Watercolour paper is better for some processes as it’s tough enough to be washed and rubbed, other paper for chalks can be a bit thin, so at least 90gsm is needed. I think of Turner’s advice, ‘put it in a bucket of water!’ I never buy paper unless I’ve physically touched it before and made a note of the exact reference details. John Singer Sargent launched a new era of work with his charcoals, bold, on a chilly white paper, but how can you go wrong with such grand subjects!

If you visit the London galleries, and virtually/online, you will find these wonderful drawings and you can study them close up. The Tate gallery has a super room of Turner’s sketches, some minute. He explored blue paper, with fibres within the surface, sourced from stationer suppliers near Bath, some specially made. The V&A has Constable works and Gainsborough. The great thing about a sketch is you are in more control than paint, and with a wash you can experiment with lots of different techniques, rubbing in, put it in a bath of water, if it goes wrong, you’ve lost very little. Sprinkle it with dust, or ink….if you can’t paint, you can always sketch in the open air and usually in public buildings…..in times of hardship, when you cannot paint, it’s the drawing that keeps you up to scratch….Keep going.

Sketch: conte on blue paper, near Charleston, Sussex.