Sunday, January 17, 2016

Plein Air Painting Essential Tools: Pencil, Sketchbook

How many of us skip the "thumbnail" stage?  For many years, I rarely made a thumbnail sketch.  If the scene in front of me had an obvious design, why would I?  The only time I made a thumbnail sketch was if I was unsure of the design.  Confronted with complexity or chaos—a harbor filled with boats or a foreground chock-a-block with little bushes—I might pull out my sketchbook and play with patterns.

One day, I discovered a second, perhaps more valuable use for the thumbnail sketch.  Besides helping to puzzle out design, it also gets the brain thinking about values.  How light is this shape compared to this one?  Shouldn't it be a little darker?

But what's more, the thumbnail sketch is a way of jump-starting the hand, eye and brain to work together in an artful way.  Before even setting brush to canvas, you can experiment with pushing and pulling the values for a more effective statement.

And so we come to my little sketching kit, which I keep in the front pocket of my backpack. Basically, it's a Ziploc bag (after much use, it has lost both zip and lock) containing:  a #6B graphite pencil, a white plastic eraser, a kneaded eraser, a pencil sharpener and a ViewCatcher.  I keep a little sketchbook in the same pocket.

In the 3.5x5 inch sketchbook, I use my ViewCatcher's opening as a template to outline a rectangle that is the same proportion as I intend my finished painting to be.  In this rectangle I make my thumbnail sketch.  It is rather small, but if the design is strong, it will stay strong when scaled up.

I like a #6B pencil because I can "sneak up" on the values with it.  I tend to start with mid-values and then darken the values as necessary by applying more pressure.  You can't do this with a harder #2, which is what most of us have in our stationary drawer at home.  The erasers are good for creating lighter values.  For my lightest value, I just use the white of the paper.

(That's an elastic hairband I use on the sketchbook
to keep pages from rubbing together too much and smearing
the sketches.)

You can find more helpful tips and tools in my book, Backpacker Painting:  Outdoors with Oil & Pastel, available at Amazon from this link.

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