Having just come back from a lovely week in the Lakes walking and sketching, I thought I would share some photos and thoughts about using sketches and photographs as reference materials in my paintings.
The places which inspire me are remote, empty landscapes and usually involve a walk away from roads and civilisation. Despite my preference for setting off in lovely weather, it can often be cold, wet and/or windy. So there can be a strong temptation to rely on photographs, especially nowadays when cameras are so small, cheap and capable of producing excellent results.
There are times when it is not possible to stop and sketch a view especially in the hills when the wind and rain can appear from nowhere and the temperature is several degrees less than in the valleys.
But I don't see photographs as the objectively truthful records we tend to take them for. They only tell part of the story, and not terribly reliably.
For a start, there are some obvious difficulties. Photographs flatten and distort perspective and not necessarily in the way you want! How many times have you taken a photo of an impressive mountain view only to wonder where the grandeur has gone when you get home and print it out? It's not you - that's what cameras do, especially with a wide angle lens. So a sketch is essential to remind you of where you were and why you needed to record it.
Photos lose stuff in shadow areas. This might not matter if it is a picture of trees or the shadows of a street... but when it is a mountain landscape you can find yourself looking at it and wondering where one hill finished and another began. It can make an enormous difference if you want to paint a range of hills.
The sketch below of Skiddaw in the Lake District shows three lines of hills which were not at all clear in any of my photographs. When I come to paint this view, the sketch will give me valuable information about the lie of the land: and important features such as the gullies and the composition I found interesting with the foreground trees. It misses out other information, such as intervening fields and paths which I would prefer to leave out.
A sketch is a record of a slow, absorbing experience. Years later I can look at a sketch and remember the warmth of the sun on my back, the wind on my face, the calls of the birds all around as I perched on a rock immersed in the landscape. It's able to tell me that story because of the exaggerations and omissions, which will hopefully go into my paintings and give them life.
So I make it a rule never to paint directly from photographs. If I have no sketches done at the time, I work from drawings done from the photographs and from memory... When I have tried it in the past, from laziness or impatience, I have invariably got lost in trying to paint the details and colours of the photograph, which is emphatically not what I am aiming for! It never works!
When people ask me where my colours come from, I can honestly say they come from my emotions and my love of the hills. They do not come from photographs... It's a big subject I will come back to in future posts!
These days my sketching materials are very basic. I don't like carrying a lot of weight when I am out walking so in the hills I rely on a few pencils, a rubber and a hard backed A5 sketchbook. I roll the pencils in a little bubble wrap to protect them and fasten them with an elastic band. The elastic band then holds down the pages of the book to stop them blowing around. If I want to add colour, I also take some 1"pieces of inktense blocks in a matchbox. More often I write a note to remind myself of the predominant colours which I experienced that day. I don't need or want anything else...
Except of course I need a brimmed hat and my glasses!