Outdoor sketching

Pen and ink. John H. Nicholson discusses his pen and ink work prepared direct from nature, highlighting the importance of good draughtsmanship.

I would like to give you my views on sketching when working from nature. May I quote what John Ruskin said of J. M. W. Turner, R.A. – “For it is sound truth that no one can be a great colourist who is not a great draughtsman too”. To me drawing and tone are the two most important parts of painting.

I will start by giving you my method for working in pen and ink for outdoor sketching. Most sketchbooks of a good quality cartridge paper are ideal, but my preference is commercial art board which has a good smooth surface. Many artists and students use a ball point pen or Rapidograph-type pen. My preference is a penholder with a Gillott 303 nib for fine work or a Waverley steel nib for more general work. I find a certain resilience with their nibs which can make a variety of line and certainly has more feeling than a uniform line. Your medium is black waterproof indian ink.

Working in ink, as in pencil, is most relaxing and once you have decided on a subject, it may be simple enough to work directly with the pen and ink. However, generally I make a very rough pencil outline, mainly to position the subject and to work towards the foreground. There are many ways of working and many techniques, but as long as your drawing is correct you can suggest line and tone in different ways. Another method is to use the broader nib for drawing and a small sable brush to suggest masses of shadow or darker areas. All the sketches reproduced here have been worked with the two nibs mentioned.

Castletown. Pen and ink. 5” x 6”

You must be a good draughtsman to be a good watercolourist, as Ruskin has said and therefore using pen and ink is the soundest way of becoming a good draughtsman. You are working with line and suggesting tone with hatching or cross-hatching and you will find, I am sure, that sketching in pen and ink and pencil is just as interesting and exciting as working in colour. You will certainly feel that the time you have spent in sketching has been well worthwhile.

Many great painters worked from sketches and not direct from nature in colour. You should study such sketches in pencil and ink – especially those of Turner and see what wonderful details he was able to suggest. It was from his sketches and accompanying colour notes that he turned out such masterpieces of colour work. My grandfather, John Miller Nicholson (1840–1913) was a famous painter and in a letter from John Ruskin he was given the sensible advice to “take a sketchbook and a few colours and tramp to Naples and back like Turner.” This he did and spent one month solely with sketchbook and pencils, also providing a series of the most beautiful pencil sketches complete with notes. Ruskin was so pleased with them that he asked if he could purchase twelve of the set. My grandfather then made a series of paintings in oils and in watercolour from the minute sketches. I am mentioning this to show the possibilities of painting from sketches and of course the importance of sketching to enable you to draw correctly.

Early in life I found I was getting nowhere in watercolour. I was apt to try and copy my grandfather’s advanced rather impressionist style which was rather a silly thing to do and so I too take the advice of Ruskin to my grandfather in which he said, “Never be without a sketchbook and pencil”. I spent the next four or five years on pencil and pen and ink sketching; and only then did I move on to monochrome in watercolour, using sepia and gradually developing into colour by using a very limited palette.

Ramsey Harbour. Pen and ink. 7” x 11”

Try doing a pen and ink sketch such as Ramsey Harbour or Cregneash Village by first of all drawing in pencil to make sure your positioning of buildings is correct. When you have completed the ink work and allowed it to dry thoroughly, rub out the pencil work with an eraser. You will be surprised to see what a clean sketch you have.

Cregneash Village. Pen and ink. 7” x 11”

Buildings, boats, trees, bridges, etc., are much easier to sketch in ink than, for instance, rolling moorland where it is better to leave distance to outline and make the most of middle distance and foreground.

One important thing to remember about good draughtsmanship with pen or pencil is that eventually when painting in watercolours you find yourself drawing correctly with your brush. I think watercolour is the most difficult of media to master so you have to think carefully as you cannot afford to make mistakes. I was in Hamburg painting and sketching in 1978 and made a series of pencil sketches and I was able to make quite successful watercolours from these when I was working in my studio at home.

It was a similar situation in Norway in 1977. Using this way of sketching and painting one can travel with the minimum of equipment – several sketchbooks and pencils or pen and ink – and there is a lot to be said for this.

I generally spend an hour or so on these sketches and it is most relaxing and exciting to see them develop. To form your composition you could use an aperture cut out of card to the proportion of your sketch, but if I am in any doubt I form a rectangle with my fingers and hand, placing the middle finger and thumb of my right hand to the vertical palm of my left hand which forms a rough rectangle to give some idea of what the subject will look like. But enough has been written on composition and perspective without my going into it.

You may find that when working with indian ink it will tend to clog your nib, but this only needs a wipe with a rag or cloth to bring it back to its original state. There is a difference between ink drawing on cartridge paper and on a smooth surface such as commercial art board. On the former, with the rougher surface, the lines appear to be broken, whereas on the latter they are continuous unbroken lines. Probably cartridge, therefore, has more character.

Douglas Bay. Pen and ink. 7” x 11”

When shading or hatching to denote tone in pen and ink work it is a good thing to follow the structure or construction of what you are sketching, e.g. layers of rock on the coast or tiles on the roof of a building. Tree trunks may show vertical broken lines or rings of texture, so use more weight on the nib for the shadowed side. Everyone will develop his own style in pen and ink sketching; and many artists who use this medium are easily recognised by their technique. It does not really matter if one first draws the subject in outline as long as it is correct.

Stage 1 of Castletown 2. Pencil, pen and ink. 5” x 8”

It may be better to use pencil to portray the tone values that will assist you in a future watercolour. This may be so for working correct tones in watercolour but for disciplined line drawing ink is perhaps the better. In fact one technique in watercolour work is termed “line and wash”. The drawing can be executed in ink first, using either sepia or black washable ink, and then followed by simple washes of colour, or the watercolour can be completed first and the ink brought in afterwards to emphasize certain parts such as foregrounds. You could also try drawing in your subject with a pointed piece of wood such as a matchstick in a bamboo holder using indian ink and a NOT surface or rough watercolour paper. This is a technique I often use myself and it suits certain subjects such as stonework, trees and foregrounds.

Castletown 2 finished in pen and ink

The pen and ink sketches reproduced here are all from Manx scenes. On this island we have subject matter equal to that found anywhere else and that includes Venice, Switzerland, Norway, Hamburg, Scotland, East Anglia, Wales, Ireland and The Thames.

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An article originally published in the July 1979 issue of Leisure Painter