Posts Tagged ‘travel sketching’

En Plein Air — Washington D.C.

Tuesday, May 15th, 2018

Last time I wrote about my first plein air travel experience in Key West.  Another recent trip, this time to Washington D.C., provided additional impetus to try breaking away from working only in my studio.

I knew that the Japanese Cherry trees encircling the Tidal Basin had long since bloomed and lost their blush by the time we arrived in late April, but many other trees and shrubs were in glorious bloom.  Magnolia, dogwood, redbud, other fruit trees, wisteria, azaleas, and of course many spring bulbs provided an entire spectrum of springtime hues.  As I considered the various delicate colors scattered in hazy clusters across the landscape, I continually asked myself how I would mix this hue or that, how I could suggest a similar texture on paper, and how this subject or that should be effectively addressed.  But the paints remained only in my mind.

Springtime in DC

Springtime in DC

Segway and bus tours provided an interesting and informative overview of some of the prime sites in the city but offered limited time to take reference photos, and none for painting enroute.  Metros were efficient in getting us to where we wanted to go, but didn’t inspire me much with their views of their underground network—the station tunnels calling to mind a sterile shuttle bay on the fabled Starship Enterprise.

I did take the opportunity to enjoy the museums on my wish list—the  National Portrait Gallery, National Gallery of Art (with a special exhibit of portraits by Cezanne), the Freer Gallery, and some of the other Smithsonian collections along the Mall—while my husband breezed through other museums of particular interest to him.  But beyond making a few quick pencil sketches, I’m sorry to admit that I didn’t accomplish much of my own work at all, either indoors or out.

View of 6th Street from the National Gallery of Art West

View of 6th Street from the National Gallery of Art West

Although I prefer to really absorb smaller, focused areas of interest, my husband likes to cover a lot of ground quickly, to see as much as possible in our limited time.  Guided tours, which he favors, don’t slow down to wait for much emotional or artistic contemplation—or sometimes even reference photos.  And they didn’t leave a lot of time for plein air painting until I was too exhausted to tackle it.   The experience taught me that if I truly want to paint, sometimes I will have to aggressively claim that time by foregoing other options or overriding others’ desire for my participation in their preferred activities.

The hectic pace did force me to sketch quickly, concentrating on a focal area with minimal detail, and building around that as time permitted.  I’ve found that simplification is the key to quick sketching, capturing line, gesture, balance, and a suggestion of key impressions.

Smithsonian Castle Skyline

Smithsonian Castle Skyline

So I’m making an effort to quickly visualize my compositions in terms of a limited focal area while eliminating or minimizing all but the critical balancing elements to create something of a vignette or silhouette as I sketch.  It’s a difficult transition to make from my more extended studio paintings, but I find that my early exposure to sumi-e has provided a valuable foundation for this approach.

Depicting the Experience

Wednesday, June 1st, 2016

Travel often takes me away from the studio for days or even weeks at a time.  These excursions are fun, informative, and usually provide me with sufficient photographic reference material to work from for quite some time to come.  But it also interferes with the continuity of both my production and my ongoing studies.  The question about how to make the most productive use of my time is always in the back of my mind.  If I focus on art, it usually takes time and attention away from the people my husband and I may be visiting or limits the range of what we spend time seeing in a new environment.

So I usually find it necessary to compromise, taking quick shots with my camera, trying to quickly commit to memory the color relationships, characteristic lines or rhythms, and details that attract me to the scenes I shoot, and then moving on to actually experience and enjoy the situation or event.

Recording a photographic or painted image as an isolated scene is usually not sufficient to endow the image with much meaning.  It is enriched by the experience surrounding the image so that when I begin to draw or paint the scene a viewer can sense more than the scene alone can express.  What is the physical and emotional atmosphere?  How does it affect my feelings toward it or experience of it?  What do I want to share with others about my response to what is happening? To make the most of my time, I need to be able to imbue my work with a sense of the overall experience, even as a journalist expresses through an anecdote a microcosmic expression of a larger story.

This spring, I took a long cruise that limited my access to all but very simple equipment – mostly pens, pencils, and a little watercolor travel kit.  One of the great pleasures I found during our days at sea was the opportunity to meet an informal group of creative women who were working on various types of textile work.  It was a relaxed group who all managed to accomplish quite a lot in our limited time together.  We met almost daily to chat, pursue our various arts or crafts, and share designs and ideas; and we quickly developed a lovely rapport.

Meanwhile, I took advantage of the rare vacation opportunity to indulge my own art. So I focused on sketching and quick watercolor studies of members of the group.  In the following sketch I tried to capture the sense of comfortable camaraderie we shared while pursuing our work.

160443w Knitting & Nattering

160443w Knitting & Nattering

The ladies graciously served as unselfconscious models for me, and I hope I was able to leave them with unique, personalized mementos of our time together.

Moving right along…

Monday, June 15th, 2015

I love to travel. And I love to paint. But it’s difficult to take time out to paint while I’m traveling, especially when my husband wants to see and do as much as possible without twiddling his thumbs while I spend a lot of time enjoying a single site.

150208m Shelling

So, although my watercolor kit is compact and quick to set up and use, I tend to rush my travel paintings and often don’t get as good a result as I’d prefer to. My usual watercolor style involves use of a wet-on-dry technique to produce the sharp edges in my focal area. This allows me to focus my work on the area of greatest interest immediately. Peripheral areas are often applied wet on wet.

Unfortunately, wet areas applied late in the process take the longest time to dry, so I must wait for them to dry before I can add any final details … and even longer before packing up my materials and getting ready to move on.

A friend suggested that I try using pen and wash. At the time I wasn’t confident enough in my drawing abilities to use a pen in lieu of my erasable pencil for any initial sketches. But as I’ve gained confidence, I find that with minimal pen marks I can delineate the necessary fine details in my subject and apply quick washes to provide suggestions of color. It also leads me to leave more of the paper unpainted, which lends sparkle and a sense of immediacy to the work.

So my travel sketches seem to be evolving, as you can see in “Shelling” (#150208m, above). And you may be seeing more of the pen-and-wash variety in the future.