The first step is often the hardest, especially for the plein air landscape artist: finding an appropriate subject.
My initial artistic forays to the nearby Yorkshire Dales were often disheartened either by endless dry stone walls obscuring possible views being spotted from my car or by a bright sunny morning suddenly turning into a dismal grey and/or soggy day by the time my easel was set up. The buying public are usually unaware of the efforts we artists have to go to to get to our own starting line.
Fortunately, I now have local artist friends who are happy to share possible locations with me and to advise what season and time of day would best suit. This scene is one of those spotted by such an artist friend and has the bonus feature of being only a handful of miles from home.
The natural composition is hard to beat; a farm track leading the eye round a gentle curve with a line of trees conveniently spaced down one side and a thorn hedge on the other side, complete with helpful breaks to allow the sun to shine through. Add some pools of water in the tractor tracks and an off-shoot of the track to allow the eye to explore beyond the tree line and it would seem that nature and farmer had together conspired to create the perfect artistic view.
So on a day when the winter sun shone perfectly and helped avoid fingers freezing too quickly, I set up my easel. I had decided the scene would suit a mixed media approach, using acrylic inks and then soft pastel.
I used one of my favourite papers for mixed media: Canson Moulin du Roy 140lb (300gsm) NOT watercolour paper. Sufficiently strong to accept ink and water without the need to stretch and with sufficient ‘tooth’ to accept several layers, if needed, of pastel. I think it is important not to use too small a support when using mixed media in this way.
My intention is always to be ‘expressive’ with initial application of inks and pastel before applying further pastel refinement to complete.
I started by quickly sketching out the scene using a pure graphite 4B pencil (Fig 1, above). I then applied acrylic inks (I use a mixture of Daler Rowney and Liquitex) using a large round watercolour brush and trying to keep the marks free with no feeling of tightness. I do sometimes mix the inks to create my preferred colour but will usually apply them without modification, confident that I can use the pastels to make any necessary colour adjustments.
The inks provide a tonal base for the painting (Fig 2 above). I am careful to leave areas of white paper, and to make the most of the light against the dark conditions by using deep darks such as indigo and transparent raw umber as a counter to bright yellows and greens such as lemon yellow and light green. Once applied, the inks dry quickly, particularly in these conditions (Fig 3 below). Having a morning coffee will usually allow sufficient time, although I am quite happy to find interesting marks by working pastel into wet inks; try it and see what you think!
The pastels stage is always exciting for me. This is where I can really make the picture ‘sing’ with strokes of bright pastel. I use a mixture of predominantly Unison pastels (the kings and queens of pastel in my opinion), together with Sennelier, which are a bit more crumbly but have some of the best intense darks.
My intention is always to show the mark making process, avoiding anything that looks photorealist. For that reason, I very rarely blend the pastel. However, I have learned that it is also helpful to have some element of ‘quiet’ in the painting to avoid the eye being overwhelmed with marks. I decided to make the sky a quiet area in this painting, and so was careful not to introduce hard edged clouds (Fig 4 above).
One question which all pastel artists have to face is whether or not to use fixative. This tends to be a very personal choice, but I am a fixative advocate and will generally use fixative throughout the pastel painting process both as a further painting medium to further darken the darkest areas to create impact, and also to create a further element of tooth to ensure that further pastel pigment applied over existing retains its vibrancy. But care does need to be taken; a heavy finger on the fixative nozzle may end up causing an unintended deadening of an area or areas of the painting.
The plein air landscape artist has to work fast and that, of course, helps to maintain an energy in the painting. After around two hours of painting, the original light that will have attracted me to the scene will generally have changed to such an extent that I will at that point stop painting (Fig 5 above) with a view to completing the work back in the studio.
Pastels are my first love and I therefore have a tendency towards overworking this stage of the painting, losing the energy of the original ink washes. I have a feeling that this is what has happened to this painting.
The completed work (Fig 6 above) is pleasing enough, but on refection I think that the earlier stage (Fig 4) was a more expressive one. And I am not sure that all those tree branches and long grasses in the bottom left were necessary.
While these elements could be corrected to some extent, I decided to have another go. Figures 7 to 9 below show my second attempt, from slightly further down the track; this one makes more of the contrasting light against dark elements, emboldens the sky while still keeping it quiet, and avoids too much (I think) overworking. This view shows a greater expanse of the field to the right and this seemed in need of a point of interest to draw the eye around the track to that part of the picture. I therefore introduced a fictitious barn, which also helped to further accentuate the light against dark focus of the painting. Unless there is a requirement to be topographically and/or architecturally correct, never forget the power of artistic licence!
I find that creating more than one version of effectively the same scene is often helpful. There is usually an element of learning from previous mistakes, as well as an ability to employ a better understanding of the scene in your subsequent work, gained from earlier attempts. For me, I think that the second attempt is a more satisfying result, but of course the joy of art is that it is always subjective and so I will leave it to you to decide which one you prefer!