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Outdoor sketching and watercolour with John H. Nicholson

Posted on Wed 05 Jun 2019

Outdoor sketching and watercolour

John H Nicholson encourages us to do a great deal more work in pencil, specifically as preparation for future watercolours

Sketching with pen and ink is one of the best ways of mastering accurate drawing, but sketching with pencil is possibly the best way of making sketches for future watercolours, especially if one works with line and tone.

Douglas Harbour, 29 September 1880; pencil 3” x 3”; by John Miller Nicholson

I am including one of my grandfather’s pencil sketches, and you will see what a perfect drawing it is. It only measures 3” x 3”.  I think that many of you do not realise that a complete picture can be produced with the pencil and what pleasure there can be in producing these pictures. Most of you will only have used a pencil for a mere outline for a painting, but a finished tonal pencil sketch almost suggests colour and, as draughtsmanship and tone are the two most important things in painting along with composition, colour is not really so important. Make a study of the old masters’ pencil drawings and monochrome paintings and you will see for yourselves.

I think that a good preliminary drawing for a watercolour saves a lot of time and makes painting simpler. I always remember an artist friend of mine remarking, when we were painting a harbour scene with ships and boats, that he wished he had spent as much time on the drawing as I had, then he would not have lost his highlights. What he was doing, without having a careful drawing and painting within its limits, was to allow his washes of colour to cover the areas of his highlights and he was finishing up with a rather dull painting.

The more you draw the sooner you will find out how to make good compositions. You will find, if you work in monochrome, that you will solve this problem, for it is usually a question of line and tone – not colour. This is why the pencil is so useful.  It is easy to carry as is a sketchbook, and this simple tool can provide any information you may put down except colour. This is all you really require, and maybe because it is so simple a tool so few of us really appreciate its value.

Studying the old masters’ drawings should provide you with an incentive to master pencil drawing and even when you have mastered it, continue to use it to put down your ideas of the various subjects that interest you.

If the old masters went to the trouble to make detailed pencil sketches, how can a novice expect to sit down and paint a seascape or landscape in an hour or two without any preliminary preparation? The answer surely is that you are too anxious to use colour and will not devote the time to drawing.

The Alster, Hamburg. Pencil 5” x 8”

Whilst staying in Hamburg last October, I made a series of pencil drawings – two of which are reproduced here, and from these sketches I made watercolours. I had occasion to be in Blackpool in February and, as I generally carry sketchbook and pencils, made a sketch of the windmill at Thornton, and in March, whilst visiting the preview of the Royal Institute of Painters in Watercolour, I visited Wickham Market in Suffolk and made a sketch of a barge at Woodbridge and All Saints Church at Sudborne. You will notice I have made several colour notes – quite sufficient for making a watercolour.

Another view of the Alster in Hamburg. Pencil 4” x 8”

Incidentally, watercolours and line and wash paintings have been made from all these sketches. The Hamburg sketches were drawn on a very smooth surface paper while the others were on a cartridge paper.  In each case, I used a B and 3B pencil. I do not carry an eraser with me as I always start work with the faintest of outlines, and when I feel this is correct, I then can start working in detail on line and tone.

Most amateurs excuse themselves by saying they have no time and therefore must work in colour. Whatever little time you may be able to devote to your art, it is better spent in painting one good picture than ten poor ones, and if you are really keen you will follow my advice and draw. The number of pictures you paint matters little; it is the quality that counts. You will never be satisfied with your work and you ought always to be trying to create better drawings and paintings. Try and reach perfection and get as near to it as you can. No artist has ever produced the perfect picture and neither will you. But you can have satisfaction from knowing that everything you produce is your best. If you work on that line, you will produce much better paintings in the future than you have done in the past.

It would pay any amateur artist to devote at least half the time he has for art in trying to master drawing. It will be difficult when you are so keen on colour but I know it will pay in the long run.

Stages of Study

It is astonishing how many art students fail to realise that the work must be mastered in easy stages and a certain standard reached in each before passing on to the next stage. From what I have seen, it is evident that there is often a restless desire in students to paint in colour long before they can draw and to emulate the work of artists who have succeeded only after years of study and practice. You should, in the beginning, try your hand at sketching simple objects such as anything found in the home.Try and make your sketches of these as perfect as possible and learn all you can from them before tackling more difficult objects. There is a charm in a subject drawn in line only.  Shading (or as it is termed half-tone) calls for further study and will sometimes accentuate rather than disguise any errors you have made in the drawing.

Windmill at Thornton. Pencil 4” x 7”

There are several good books published on perspective and its study is essential, especially for architectural drawing. The principles of the whole subject are the same for all branches of drawing and are not difficult to understand. Very soon the application of these principles will become a subconscious habit. Whenever I have had classes for outdoor sketching and painting with students, the main fault in their work has been perspective and it is so easy to overcome this.

Study of boats at Castletown Harbour.  Pencil 4½” x 7”

As an exercise try drawing a boat, which to my mind is one of the most beautiful things man has ever made. Its shape is such that any rule of perspective will only help in a general way when drawing it. There are few straight lines to deal with, but many curves, some advancing and some receding and at the same time altering their elevation and direction. Study the construction of a boat while sketching it. Think of it in sections, that is, imagine it cut in half at right angles to the keel, then you will have some idea of the shape of a hull which should help you in drawing your boat.

Old Barge at Woodbridge, Suffolk. Pencil 5” x 7½”

One really needs a knowledge of the anatomy of the subject one is drawing. Boats and ships are one of my favourite subjects and I have built three scale models of liners about five feet in length with every detail and this certainly helps when drawing them. I have seen drawings of boats by many amateurs which in reality would never float but are more likely to capsize.

If you give your mind to your drawing, success will be yours, forget the idea that some special gift is necessary to be able to draw well. Take your work steadily and quietly and observe.

After sketching in outline, the next stage to consider is shading. Do not think of sketching in outline merely as a preparatory training which will have served its purpose to the study of shading. A collection of outline drawing will be useful to you.

Turner’s pencil sketches which are some of the finest ever produced were mainly in outline, but line with such feeling that it suggested tone; and these outline sketches by such masters are treasured as much as their finished watercolour or oil paintings.

Never to be too eager to hurry on to colour work. Practicing the suggestion of light and shade is an essential study to successful work in colour.

All Saints Church, Sudborne, Suffolk. Pencil 5” x 7½”

The study of boats in outline and shade shown here was made after painting a watercolour which included these. Such sketches are useful to introduce into future paintings. The sketches of The Barge at Woodbridge, All Saints Church Sudborne and the Windmill at Thornton were all drawn and shaded with a 3B pencil. The two Hamburg sketches were drawn with a B pencil and shaded with a 3B pencil. The smoother the paper, the softer the pencil, and a rougher paper requires a harder pencil.

It is a useful tip to suggest distance with an HB or even H pencil and use soft degrees such as B, 2B, 3B and 5B, for middle distances and immediate foregrounds.

I live in Port Erin and my studio overlooks Port Erin Bay which is one of the best views on the island. Every now and again, ships and boats come into the bay to shelter. I have great enjoyment sitting at my window with sketchbook and pencils making sketches of these craft which I introduce into paintings later on. These have included coasters, fisheries’ gun-boats, luggers taking aboard fish from fishing boats, cable ships, tugs and other smaller craft. One has to sketch rapidly, however, because of the ships’ movement with the tide.


This article was originally published in the August 1979 issue of Leisure Painter


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Outdoor sketching and watercolour with John H. Nicholson

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