The complications and practical problems of painting in oils ‘on the spot’ are very good reasons for not taking the necessary paraphernalia into the fields.  The Impressionists had to do it so that they could match the atmospheric subtleties of the landscape as directly as possible in their final pictures, but if you are not trying to match nature exactly you can risk relying on sketches made on the spot for the information you need to produce a picture in the studio.

In fact working from sketches is to a large extent working from your memory of a scene.  The sketch helps you to recapture the main points and some of the detail.

Pencil sketch for Houses in Landscape, 11½ x 16in (29 x 40cm)

Painting from memory

I once asked a painter if it was the proper thing to do to paint from memory.  He replied that in fact every painting is done from memory; it is just that the time between seeing the object and painting it can differ.  If the scene is before you it is just a matter of seconds before you actually paint what you remember seeing.  But if you paint the next day or weeks later you rely on your memory over a much longer period.  The more observant you are, the more efficient the memory, the easier it is to see something now and paint later.

I certainly don’t have a photographic memory but what I do is a good substitute.  When I am positively trying to remember the colour or shape of things, I go through the process of making a painting in my mind of the image I am seeing.  I actually mentally mix up the colours or match them to my bank of knowledge about the usual colour of things, relating them to distinctive objects such as mushrooms, slate, butter, pillarboxes, moss etc.

As I go through this process I speak it out to myself and put the words down on an imaginary filing card which I can pull out of my memory to refer to when I want to paint the scene later on.  I do not see the scene again in my mind’s eye, I just follow the painting directions committed to memory.

Getting it all in the sketch

All this mental effort is unnecessary if you can make a colour sketch on the spot.  I must say I like to do one that will stand on its own as a full picture in its own right.  The word ‘full’ is the key.  There has to be enough information in the drawing to make it a decent reference from which to paint an oil painting.  I’ve found it impossible to paint from a sketch that does not already have solutions to the problems of foregrounds or sky for example.

So, let me describe what I look for when I pack up my colour wax crayons (Caran D’Ache because the colours go on top of each other so well) and a spiral-bound sketchbook with a bulldog clip to hold down the free side of the page if it is windy.  I find that you have to leave behind some colours and substitute other colours in the box according to the season and the subject matter you expect to draw.  About 15 crayons is all I can handle and keep in some order.  I also take care to tear off the plastic or paper around the end of the crayons before I go so I do not get frustrated by a blunt crayon at crucial moments. I take a sharp blade of some sort along in the box to sharpen the ends as efficiently as possible when I have to.

If it’s a hot day the crayons melt in the sun and need careful handling to avoid breakages, but I like the resulting softness as the colours go on richer and bolder.  In this instance you have to make very definite decisions about the marks you make and the colours you choose; there is no room for tentative marks with a hot wax crayon.  My fingers get very messy, which is infuriating, but I clean them on a rag between pictures, otherwise crayon gets all over everything I touch.

Choosing the viewpoint

It takes me quite a time to choose exactly which bits of the landscape I want to draw – it’s like composing a still life for yourself.  You have to move this way and that to get the subject elements in a good position then, if by good luck you can sit down on a stool and still get a good composition, you can put the crayon box on the ground.  But, often, lowering your viewpoint by three feet ruins the foreground interest and balance.  Sometimes I compromise by drawing the foreground standing up and the background and sky sitting down.  It’s a question of what is more important – your stamina or the picture composition.  On the occasions I have had to stand up I balance the book on the open lid of the crayon box, leaving the crayons exposed in the box itself – preferably in some colour order.

Whatever happens I find that it is essential to be really enthusiastic and definite about what I want to draw.  It is this strength of excitement and conviction that gives life to the sketch.  Some people build up strength in a picture over a period, but for me it has to be instant, with no room for second thoughts.  If I do have second thoughts I have to start a new sketch.  Each one must work on its own, but if you are only planning to do one single oil painting you can use bits from each.

Coloured sketch for Houses in Landscape, 11½ x 16in (29 x 40cm)

Houses in Landscape, oil, 24 x 32in (60 x 80cm)

What to record

As with any picture the problem is to try and decide exactly what visual elements in the scene stopped you in the first place.  Was it a silhouetted shape, light against dark, a colour contrast, a texture contrast, perhaps a driving sweep of a field or hill?  And this decision very much depends on your ability to analyse what you can see since, fundamentally, you cannot draw or paint anything you cannot ‘see’.  If you understand that there is a long distance behind a barn to a clump of trees then automatically your drawing will give that impression.  You will not be satisfied with your marks and colour unless they give you that feeling of space.  If, on the other hand, you do not perceive it in the first place there is no chance that it will be present in the sketch.  So the richness of events in your drawing depends on your ability to see and understand the space and colours in front of you.  I am sure that if you can ‘see’ properly, the drawing that represents that perception will follow automatically; either you succeed in putting it on paper or you tear it up as unsatisfactory.

Analysing the landscape elements

Recognising and analysing what is in front of you is easy to do if you make it a conscious practice.  I taught all my children to look hard by stopping the car when I had them as a captive audience and asking questions like ‘Is the sky lighter or darker than the road?’ ‘Can you see the tree branches because they are darker or lighter than the hill behind them?’ ‘Which is a warmer green, the tree or the field?’ ‘If you put your finger into the sky would it be colder or warmer than if you put it into the roof colour?’

Add to that the composition and relative placing of the elements in the landscape and if you can grasp the answers to some of the key questions then the sketch becomes merely a matter of restating these decisions with the right colour chalk mark in the right place. 

Remember you must be accurate enough in the sketch to make it a satisfactory statement when it is enlarged into a bigger picture.  For little details, if you need them, you will have to rely on your own symbols for leaves, trees, stones, grass, etc., or you may need to have particular notes about them on a separate sheet.  But if you cannot put it across in the main colour sketch in context there is a danger that an element taken from a special note will look out of place unless you are very careful to select only the bare essentials that will fit in with the balance of the painting.

Coloured sketch for Undulating Landscape, 11½ x 16in (29 x 40cm)

Undulating Landscape, oil, 24 x 32in (60 x 80cm)

Pinning down the message

Once you have seen the landscape before you, which for me is a matter of say half a minute at the most – or I lose my confidence and conviction – you must pin down those prime elements of visual stimuli as best you can with the colours.  And you must make sure that the objects of visual excitement that inspired you to draw the scene in the first place are the exclusive theme of the sketch.  They are the key elements; anything else you put in the drawing should merely support these main features.

The problem of sketching is to find your own way to record these key elements with sufficient strength and accuracy.  I like to try and get the full job done in one go – say about 20 minutes.  But if this recording in colour starts to get confused anywhere and the picture’s linear pattern or silhouettes begin to be obscured, I supplement the colour sketch with drawings in black and white, concentrating on those elements only.  

I usually try to come home with at least five colour sketches that will enlarge into oil paintings, but that’s a very good day.  My visual perception quickly fades when I turn off my artist’s eye and see the landscape as merely a background to everyday life.