I would like to deal first with the equipment needed for outdoor sketching, which need not be very elaborate. I have discovered that certain books containing a light toned grey paper are obtainable at many stores and stationers. Intended actually as scrap books, etc., these are ideal for making studies. One of these clipped on to a piece of ⅛ in. plywood about 11in by 15in and a flat tin or plastic box about 8in by 5in by 1in containing bits and pieces of pastel in my usual range, enclosed in a polythene bag, is all that I normally carry with me. The small pieces of pastel may be cleaned by adding a large spoonful or two of ordinary flour, and shaking the box vigorously. When the pastels become dirty again, I empty them into a large colander shaking well to allow the flour to escape. The pastels are then returned to the box, and a fresh spoonful or two of flour added. I need hardly add that this operation should be carried out in a suitable place outdoors!
I find that pastels are ideal for making quick studies from nature. Those effects that one sees perhaps for only a few fleeting minutes, or maybe even seconds, may be captured. Pastels can be used during damp misty conditions (which are often more inviting as subjects) when watercolour washes would not dry out, and to use oils, more equipment would be needed. I like to contemplate these sketches afterwards in the quiet of the studio, and eventually build up my larger paintings from them. I do not feel the need to carry around an easel or stool, as I like to go into action as quickly as possible, and can usually find a convenient rock or tree stump to sit on, or I may stand up, or even kneel down. Physical discomfort is forgotten in the heat of the moment, or perhaps I should not say “heat”, as I quite often work in very cold winter conditions, during frost and snow. These are of course the occupational hazards of the landscape painter.
I feel that it is only by obtaining the actual experience direct from nature by walking the fields, woods and mountains in all conditions (and often becoming deeply moved) that one can understand her moods enough to be able to pass on one’s experiences to others in terms of paint, in the same way that composers of music, and poets, are inspired to express themselves in their own media. The mood expressed by Beethoven in his Sixth Symphony, “The Pastoral”, is surely very similar to that of Constable in many of his great paintings. The poems of A. E. Housman, and the music of Elgar too, I feel reflect the atmosphere of the Welsh border country.
A picture that has no mood or emotion leaves one cold, and has failed in its purpose, for surely that is the chief function of a painter, to convey a message to one’s fellows, a message which knows no language barriers. Picture language is surely the oldest form of communicating one’s thoughts, used since Palaeolithic man first drew with a stick in the earth. I would exhort the student therefore to study the works of the great masters of the past, for in painting as in most walks of life, we learn from the experience of others who have gone before. One has only to think of J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) as a fine example. So great was his imagination and creative ability that he would take a few scribbled pencil studies that he had made, perhaps twenty, or even forty years previously, and use them as a basis for a fine painting.
There are times, especially in one’s early days as a landscape painter when it is vitally necessary to make detailed studies from nature; for instance, drawings of trees, especially in winter, in order to understand their structure and habit of growth. But as the painter progresses and these things are understood, it is stimulating to allow the creative imagination to take over, using as a basis, brief nature notes. For we do not copy nature as we see her, there is a quicker and far more efficient way of doing this – photography. We go far deeper and attempt to penetrate her mysteries, each in our own personal way. In Turner’s paintings, detail and form is dissolved in the all-pervading light and atmosphere. A fine example is his Norham Castle, Sunrise, in the Tate Gallery. These works show a deep love and understanding of nature in all her moods, just about the closest any painter has approached to these mysteries. This outlook on painting was carried further by the Impressionists, working in Paris during the latter part of the 19th century. In the works of Claude Monet, one of the leaders of the movement, we have this preoccupation with light. He painted a whole series of studies of Rouen Cathedral (among other subjects) at different times of the day, where he was hardly concerned with the architecture, only the expression of light and mood. One obvious conclusion the student will draw from a study of these painters is that detail in itself is certainly not a necessary attribute to a successful picture. The beginner, and I speak from experience, thinking back to my own early work, works away at a painting, piling detail upon detail, thinking that as a result, a resemblance of nature will be achieved. One gradually learns, however, after painful experience, to approach the problem from the opposite direction, pondering on how much detail may be left out. It is with all these things in mind (subconsciously I suppose) and as a result of a certain amount of experience, much of it bitter experience, that I sit and contemplate my studies which I bring back from nature. How am I going to get all this down on paper? The plain hard discipline of technique must be faced, but above all I must retain in my final work the freshness and spontaneity of my first sketch, or number of sketches of a certain subject, which I feel I can carry through and amplify into a final work, I consider them, bearing in mind the problems of composition, tone and colour, etc., which I am likely to meet. I spend far more time considering my plan of campaign, and working up to the right state of mind, than actually carrying out the painting. I have often found it a great help, especially during my earlier days, to make a number of small composition and tone sketches at this stage, perhaps using a soft pencil or a grey pastel. These studies need only measure about 4in by 3in or so, according to the proportion of the intended picture. It is far better to get all these problems fought out early, rather than to get well advanced with the final painting only to find that the composition is weak, or the tone values wrong.
Colour also may be considered in this way using another small sketch. Then having a clear definition in mind of what one’s aims are, a much more confident approach may be made to the final picture. I think that if any definite time was allocated for producing a picture, three quarters of it should be spent in preparation, and the remaining quarter carrying out a quick confident “attack”. It can also be disastrous to “tidy” a picture up when one has supposedly finished working on it. Happy is the painter who knows how to start a picture and when to stop.
Burford, Oxfordshire. Pastel. 9in x 14in
I would like now to comment on the illustrations. First, Burford, Oxfordshire, in colour. This was sketched direct from nature, on a beautifully still autumn afternoon in early October, while I was conducting a painting course in this lovely Cotswold village. As the students were packing up for tea, the light was soft and the whole atmosphere was one of tranquillity, with the spire of the church reflected in the still waters of the River Windrush. I made the sketch in about ten minutes or quarter of an hour, starting by drawing in broadly the church and buildings, and working forward to the river, with its reflections, and the warm soil and reeds of the banks. The sky, except for the suggestions of clouds is the original paper. I felt that too much work on the sky would have taken away from the dignity of the spire, and the interesting silhouettes of the distant trees. I used the pieces of pastel lengthways as described previously, trying to visualise the composition as a whole, putting down only the essentials and concentrating on the atmosphere of tranquillity.
Ludlow Castle. Pastel. 13in x 21½in
In Ludlow Castle, I attempted to depict the massive old building with its interesting silhouette against the sky and distant hills, dominating the historic town and the River Teme below, as it has done down the centuries. This lovely old castle has provided the material for many of my pictures, and I hope that it may for several more.
Mountain Road, Wales. Pastel. 14in x 21in
Mountain Road, Wales, and Radmorshire Mountains, were produced from sketches made on the spot in an attempt to capture the atmosphere of that attractive region.
Radnorshire Mountains. Pastel. 14in x 21in
In Cotswold Winter, also painted from sketches, I have tried to convey the beauty of a snow-covered landscape.
Cotswold Winter. Pastel. 14in x 21in