In the first article, we touched on some of the characteristics of pure watercolour and the different forms of body colour, and we discussed the exploitation of these characteristics to produce desired effects. One often hears arguments about the superiority of one medium over another, but surely they all offer their own particular delights.
Although I have a very deep affection for the pure spontaneous watercolour, there are occasions when one looks for effects that can only be obtained with body colour, and the realisation of these effects can be an exciting adventure. Body colour, in its different forms, allows the exploration and development of ideas if only for one’s own enjoyment, or in search for maturity as a painter.
Line and wash is another form of watercolour that we might consider. Usually, the subject is sketched in – in line – and colour washes applied over the drawing. The drawing might be done in Indian ink, using a brush or pen, or it might be done with pencil, charcoal or with any medium capable of making a line. The amount of line work can vary a great deal, and may be sketched in lightly just to indicate the structure of the subject, or it may be elaborated to explain form and texture. Although I love drawing, I am not especially enthusiastic about this procedure of applying washes over a fully-stated drawing. I am inclined to feel that a completed sketch should be allowed to exist in its own right, and if I do apply colour to such a drawing, I usually limit it to simple washes of restrained colour with perhaps a suggestion of more positive colour in some selected spot. I prefer the linework to be very freely sketched in and not taken to a highly finished degree.
Windmill – pencil sketch note
On the other hand, I don’t think it contradictory to say that I enjoy seeing evidence of drawing in a painting. I must stress the word ‘evidence’. By this I mean just sufficient line work to make its presence felt, the drawing and the painting being integrated into a balanced whole.
I see this evidence of line as a sort of indicator to the progress of the work – a step towards the final painting, sharing with the viewer a part of the process of making it. The use of a semi-dry brush for the initial sketching in of the subject preparatory to painting is an example of my meaning. A small brush drawn quickly across the paper will give a broken textured line which, if allowed to show through, will give added character and crispness to the subsequent painting.
Study of old houses and chimney-pots: acrylic 17 x 11in
I regard this as quite different from a fully viable drawing subsequently washed over with a colour.
I am a great believer in the value of drawing. A pencil or pen is the most readily transportable of art tools, so that drawings can be made when time is limited, or when it is not possible to paint for one reason or another. They will provide material for painting in the studio and will vividly recall the impressions and emotions of the moment when they were made. The sketch book represents a collection of personal experiences, anecdotes and notes not intended for public viewing: it may contain the briefest note sufficient to recall an experience, or it might contain fully rendered sketches made for no other reason than the joy of making them.
Farm Wagons: Chagford – a sketchbook page
The practice of sketching forms an important part of a painter’s development: the process requires questioning and analysis and it is a vehicle by which his understandings and beliefs emerge.
The first step, then, in making a drawing, is to search for the basic characteristics and structure of the subject. Before starting to draw, one should enter into an “understanding” with the subject; what it is, why is it, what makes it grow, what makes it “tick”?
For example, take an apple. Is it just a sphere, or is it elongated and conical? Has it a base to stand on or will it roll away like a ball? Imagine it cut in half. Is it circular, or the sides tend to flatten? What is its surface, its texture? Now put the apple away, and what do you remember? What do you “see” – which characteristics come immediately to mind and what kind of line will best explain its form? A sinuous curving line, an angular line – and where will it change from a thin to a thick line?
We might attempt to explain the form by means of an outline, using only curved lines to explain the spherical surfaces, and changing to angular lines where the surface depresses to flat planes. Variation in the thickness of the line would suggest volume and solidity: a thick concave line might suggest a shadowed base where the apple sits firmly on the table, and a thin line at the top could well express the light falling on the top of the apple.
Everywhere you go look for variety of line, “imagine” yourself drawing and ask yourself questions about the quality of the line. Look at the branch of a tree again. Ask if it is a curved line, or an angular line – and how would you express its texture – and so on.
Draw from imagination, and then draw from the subject – and compare the results. All this leads to an awareness and understanding of things that will add value to your painting, and opens up a tremendous line of enquiry and enjoyment.
Go out and look – without a sketchbook. Then draw when you return home, letting your imagination add to, or influence what you actually remember, so that instead of exercising the memory to produce an exact copy, you attempt to give some new interpretation. This will help you make your own discoveries and your work will have something new to say.
Draw imaginary compositions and push them around into different arrangements. Draw rectangles and “doodle” within them. Fill them with shapes – any shapes – but try for a pleasing balance of big and smaller shapes, and scribble tone on some of them. Think in abstract terms. The shapes don’t have to represent something – the idea is to develop an awareness of pattern, balance, and so on. All this will increase your vocabulary and will come to your aid when faced with the enormity of nature. It will help to extract the essential features of the landscape, and suggest how such features might compose into a picture.
Try fitting a simple motif into a rectangle, keeping the treatment simple and broad, and aim to state the basic fundamentals of the motif.
Trees provide endless material for such experiments. There is the mass of the whole tree, or just a branch, just the roots, or just the texture of the trunk.
The ash is one of my favourite trees, with its filigree of dainty leaves traced against the sky, its outline veined with twisting, turning branches. The upper branches radiate towards the sky, whilst the lower ones zig-zag downwards so that the whole tree composes into a shimmering, spattered pattern of leaf and branch. The movement of these lower branches offers a quality of line asking to be registered with the brush.
Sketch of Scots Pine showing branch formation
The Scots pine is a tree of completely different character, and provides exciting and strong motifs for drawing. The characteristic foliage crowning the tall trunks mass into a distinctive silhouette blotted against the sky, bearded here and there with the hoary tendrils of dead twigs and branches. I have in front of me, as I write, a twig from an oak tree. Deeply whorled, it almost seems to be constructed of beads, or discs, threaded together in a form so strongly defined that the direction of linework required in its drawing is easily resolved.
Line work may, of course, be done with many implements – pencil, pen, brush, charcoal, chalk, reed – even sharpened bits of wood dipped in ink. Rowneys market a small pocket sable which is delightful for drawing. The brush end is reversible and screws into the handle, protecting the sable when carried round in the pocket. It will produce a most satisfying line, varying from a thin to thick and dense to broken line according to the pressure applied. All line work is capable of a wide range of expression; it can be violent, gentle, decisive, curved, angular, thick or thin, and we should try to make each line as expressive as possible.
A broken line of varying thickness may suggest the character of one subject, whilst another subject may call for quite a different type of line. It might be better sometimes to omit the line and rely on suggestion effected by a carefully placed cast shadow. The overhang of a roof, for example, might be effectively explained by means of such a shadow.
Cylindrical forms may be described by circumferential linework, giving an opportunity to omit the outline in places and so avoid monotony. Most people would agree that a brick wall can be explained without having to draw in every single brick. A few bricks drawn in will suffice; the imagination fills in the rest, and so it is with many other cases. Just the odd window pane – and just a few tiles here and there and the viewer’s eye will complete the story.
I have not intended this as an attempt at a treatise on drawing techniques. My aim has been to suggest the value of drawing as a means of discovery. I am convinced that the analytical processes involved in making sketches will increase our understanding and will provide a starting point on which our imaginative powers will build.