For the subject of this demonstration article I hunted through a pile of sketchbooks which date back to 1951. In some ways this was a disturbing experience, because I write in these books as much as I draw and paste in receipts for memorable meals and hotels. So as I turned the pages, memories came flooding back of my artistic deficiencies, and this was disconcerting. This, of course, is the value of the sketchbook habit, of maintaining a pictorial journal which exposes the soul. There is always an element of self-discovery, although this is often not apparent at the time.
I chose as the starting point for my demonstration an ink line-drawing of a hill village in the Ardèche region of France. As far as I can recall, this village lies in the rough terrain above St Martin d’Ardèche and we trundled into it early on a summer’s day as a foggy dawn gave way to mist which wreathed everything in translucent light as the sun burnt through. By midday, heat hammered the landscape and no living being stirred in the open. We lunched in the cool dimness of an ancient crypt, which had once been the wine cellar of a monastic order of vintner monks. My notes tell me that we ate a meal of regional fare, pistou soup followed by roast wild boar and finally mouth-watering blackcurrant sorbet.
I then went forth with sketching bag and stool into shimmering heat to try to capture something of the cubic simplicity of the place. I pictured myself as Van Gogh, as I tramped about in blinding light waiting for the muse to strike. Beyond the village, the landscape rose up in rounded waves and distance was lost in atmospheric haze. Details shimmered like a mirage. Nothing stirred and the only sound was the soft drone of a high-altitude aircraft. Instinct drove me beyond the confines of narrow streets to an area set aside for vegetable gardens and fruit trees. From here I could look back towards the main huddle of houses grouped around the massive church with a backcloth of riding landscape. In the foreground, I had vegetable gardens in grid patterns and pollarded trees. At this point my muse said ‘work’.
As you will see, my initial drawing was made with pen and ink plus graphite pencil, in a Daler spiral-bound sketchbook (7” x 10”) on 60lb cartridge paper, which permits my traditional dip-pen (with steel nib) to slide easily in whatever direction I make the stroke. The ink was my favourite Pelikan sepia, which is almost waterproof when thoroughly dry. Colour notes and written descriptions of place and climate were made on the facing page. Graphite is a good medium for adding shadows and distant tonal effects because it can be spread like a wash by rubbing with finger and tailored exactly by using an eraser to remove blunders.
Before starting to make any drawing, it is vital to be clear what one wishes to say about the subject. My reasons for drawing this hill-high huddle of habitations, were formulated long before I selected this particular view. I was interested in the cubic simplicity of these hill villages, the plainness of secular dwellings in contrast to the lofty, ornate churches, also the organic harmony which embraces each community. Every building is fashioned from local materials and geological features of the region have influenced village sites and the lives of all who inhabit them. With these thoughts, I wanted to make a drawing which was not so much a portrait of the place but rather a statement of my perceptions of this region of France, which had been germinating for some days.
Whenever one travels, each place as its own spirit, a special mix of qualities. I believe that an artist must learn to distil this essence of subject and inject it into his work – an evaluation of fundamentals. Simply to record the quaint and picturesque is like eating a meal without the cheese and wine of the region. This initial drawing was made in less than thirty minutes, but thinking about it had taken days. It was months later that I returned to the sketch and used it as a basis for an explanatory sheet on ‘the technique of line and wash drawing’. The same sheet is entirely helpful for this article because line and wash is my preferred medium.
The author’s initial sketchbook ink drawing
This drawing was made directly from the sketchbook study, using the same pen and Pelikan ink. I have used a heavier weight of line to describe the near objects so that in some sense of aerial perspective exists, even in the line drawing.
In all aspects of the drawing I am trying to state the subject with complete simplicity, treating all objects as shapes and minor features as pattern, which becomes texture. The mounting landscape behind the village is recorded only with a silhouette-line that indicates in the briefest way trees, steep slopes and distant farm. Line drawings like this one often have an exciting freshness because of the stark contrast between ink and white paper. If the pen has been employed with some decision and dash, a further sense of calligraphic excitement exists. This is what I so much enjoy about pen drawings and why I recently went to the Kröller-Müllar Gallery at Otterlo, in Holland, to see the centenary exhibition of Van Gogh drawings. Sadly time has softened the stark excitement of his drawings because the paper on which he worked has turned biscuit brown, but the energy of his pen marks still remains as a direct statement of his personality and vision.
The image changes dramatically with the first application of watercolour wash in three strengths of tone. I chose a warm sepia pigment because this colour enhanced the concept of a ‘hot and earthy’ drawing. I mix three weights of colour-tone so that I can work from the far distance, through the middle distance and into the foreground by using the soft, medium and dark washes to emphasise atmosphere and shadow in these three areas. Now the contrast between light and dark is intensified and the brilliant light of the day is established in the drawing. A positive sense of depth, through aerial perspective, has also been achieved.
This drawing contains the addition of very limited colour which is used to add further description. The positive orange of the burnt terracotta roofing was a prominent aspect of each building and a contrast with the severe blue slate on the church. Bringing green into the landscape beyond the village throws the buildings forward and isolates them as a cluster. The foreground trees emerge as individual rounded forms in contrast to the angularity of the architecture. The patchwork of gardens is emphasised by individual treatments, which adds needed interest in the foreground and further serves to present the buildings as a group, rather like an arrangement of cardboard boxes set up on a large table which is covered by a check tablecloth. In this drawing I am beginning to develop the church into a more ornate building. By the finish of this drawing, my working hand had become entirely fluent and because I had solved most of the pictorial problems launching into drawing four was a pleasure.
This final sketch provided an opportunity to add more detail to the distant landscape and also into the foreground. I could further decorate the church. It was a relief to escape from restrictive rectangles and allow the drawing to sprawl forward and become more spacious. The drawing is enriched by extra details and gains authority from this additional information. I was able to modify the bright roofing pantiles and remember the coloured shutters and window boxes of geraniums. As this rendering expanded so easily I realised that I could use it as the basis for a more finished picture at quarter imperial size.
The final picture
Having decided that the final painting will be rendered as a line and wash picture I first laid down the drawing with pen and sepia ink. It is always difficult to retain the same sense of freedom and spontaneity in a final rendering as exists in preliminary sketches. Somehow, the gallery picture always becomes slightly more formal. The artist is slightly inhibited by the notion that this piece of work is to be presented for public scrutiny. I am always conscious that my initial sketches have a direct freshness which does not transfer easily to the gallery rendering. Increasingly I am trying to render, in the studio, with the same dash and excitement as I managed for the location drawing. The art which conceals art. ‘It comes with maturity,’ my colleagues keep telling me!
After the pen drawing was dry and the ink lines had had time to set, I laid a soft wash of yellow ochre all over the board. This was to establish, from the outset, a totally ‘warm’ colour bias, an evocation of that intense afternoon heat. This all over wash influences all further colour and creates the same possibilities as working on a commercially toned paper. The ‘whites and lights’ have to be positively added. When the ochre wash was thoroughly dried (hair-dryer) I mixed three strengths of shadow tone (Winsor violet and Payne’s grey) and laid this throughout the drawing to stress far distance, middle distance and foreground shadows. This turns the line drawing into a three-dimensional image and aerial perspective is now present. The distant landscape was next laid in, with simple washes of terra vert/burnt sienna, following the outline of fields and the silhouettes of hills. The sky wash (cerulean blue and French ultramarine) was applied in modest strength and painted down over the far distant hills to indicate that a heat haze was partially obscuring them. Once this was dry, I could apply further layers of wash to the sky only, until this area became dense and leaden, as hot summer skies are over high, hilly country. Small details in this distant landscape were treated individually with very pale washes of appropriate colour. Remember that all colour is going on top of the preliminary ochre wash and this first layer confers its influence on all subsequent washes. Because of the transparent nature of watercolour, one colour shines through another. This creates a positive harmony.
At this stage, I can return to the shadow areas and judge whether they are strong enough to hold their place in the three-tone space formula. Some shadows were strengthened, blue slates added to the church and orange pantiles to the dwellings. Raw sienna and yellow ochre are mixed and laid onto the patches of tilled earth in foreground gardens and on stone walls. This earth has to be hot and gingery. Against this earth-colour, the foliage of trees is rendered in various mixes of Winsor yellow and olive green: brilliant sunlight reflecting from cultivated trees, dark green-fingered leaves on the fig-trees (a touch of Winsor blue) and blue-green for spindly olives. A touch of white gouache with Winsor yellow, on a fine brush, to slash in the tall blond grasses of high summer, which soften chequered walls and blur the bases of trees. Yellow and green flicks and dashes for areas of rough grass and a further splodging of open earth, with the raw sienna and yellow ochre mix.
Gradually local colours overlay the shadow rendering and the foreground makes sense in terms of a clearly-defined patchwork which is descriptive of soil and growing things. At this stage, I have been too long with the work to make clear judgements. I find it helpful to leave the picture for some hours and then to creep back into the studio and surprise it. In that instant of renewed acquaintance, I can tell surely what has to be changed. Sometimes I get up in the night and potter through to my latest picture, which is suffering an agonised birth. The fresh view always tells.
The last action is to paint in shutters and window boxes and one or two lettuces which have been forgotten. Now I have to live with the picture for a few days, while I get on with other studio jobs, so that I gradually perceive refinements that are vital. My signature is always added early on, at the drawing stage, so that it becomes overpainted and welded into the whole picture. For some reason I have never liked signatures which are added as the final mark, in an obvious colour. If a picture is not good enough to leave the studio and stand by its own merits I destroy it and the signature goes too.
Hill Village, Ardèche, France, line and wash on Daler Watercolour Board, (10½ x 14¾in)