Drawn Outdoors: Exploring Sketching/Journaling On-Site
Drawing On-Site: The Background
I have written many articles on this site from the perspective of an "expert," in that I usually have lots of experience in the areas about which I write. This article is different because it comes more from the attitude of an "enthusiast" rather than someone with great qualifications and experience. I want to share with you some of the fun, interest, and excitement I rediscovered while participating recently in an outdoor art workshop. The workshop, sponsored by the Fort Worth Public Library, was led by Fort Worth artist Earnest Ward. The workshops were free, but were limited to 10 to 12 participants. The group met at the location chosen for the session, had a brief "lesson" from Earnest who also provided the materials needed for the day's sketching, and then the participants were turned loose to explore the location and draw the sites that interested us.
This activity was such fun, and rekindled my love for drawing "out and about." One of my favorite activities as a high school art student was going on a field trip to the Denver Zoo and sketching there (I wish I still had the drawing of an elephant I did that day). I had all but forgotten what a marvelous experience it was until I participated in this workshop many years later.
Sketching On-site: The Basics
The materials required to undertake an adventure drawing on location are quite minimal. At the minimum, a paper and a pencil is really all that is required to create wonderful drawings of the subjects that capture your attention while visiting any site. From there, a myriad of other additional supplies can be added to make your drawing session and the drawings you create more interesting. In our workshops, we focused on black and white drawing methods, but color can be added to the drawings through the use of colored pencils, watercolor, or pastels. It is important to remember that portability and ease of use is a requirement when considering what supplies to take. A good suggestion our instructor gave us is to make color notes on the margins of the drawing you make and then use those to add color to your drawings when you return home to your studio.
Another aspect of the notes written in conjunction with the drawings and paintings occupying each page is that of recording with words your impressions of the site. These can be simply jotted notes about the sounds, smells, and other sensory information, or they can be more formalized writing - poetry, historical information, meaningful quotes, etc. Earnest suggests to at some point during the on-site session to close one's eyes and make note of the other, non-visual information the location has in store. We artists are very visual people, so it's good to sometimes remember that there is more to experience in a given place than just what we see.
There are many bound sketchbooks on the market that are perfectly suited to this type of outdoor and/or onsite drawing. These are perfect for creating a travel memories book - using one sketchbook to contain all of the on-site drawings done while on a trip. One thing the artist must overcome (at least I did) was the feeling that the bound sketchbook was too "precious" or nice to "mess up" with my drawings. I can assure you, though, that once you get started it is no longer an issue.
When going outdoors to draw or do any type of art, one must be prepared for the elements. Keeping in mind the changeability of the weather, it is wise to dress in layers. It's best to situate yourself in a way that allows your working surface to be in shade while you do your drawings. You should also wear a hat or visor that protects your eyes from the sun. Wear sunglasses to make sure you protect your eyes from reflected light from your white paper. If you don't, you could suffer from the effects of "snow blindness."
Drawing on Location: the Social Aspect
When an artist sits in a public place and creates a drawing or painting, he or she is bound to attract attention. People are naturally curious about what artists do and how they create. Use this opportunity to interact with people as they stop by to look at what you're doing. I like to have some of my cards available to hand out to people who are interested and positive about my work. Most of the people you will encounter are friendly and positive people who will make kind comments about your activities. Be prepared, however, for the occasional person who is not. Remember their lack of kindness is a reflection on them and not on you.
There may be concern about a person out doing art alone in a given location. As someone who is occupied in observing and rendering a scene, you may leave yourself vulnerable to the unsavory element possible almost anywhere. This is why I would advise you to organize a group of artists to go out to a location together. Having others with you will provide you with more security, and is a great way to enjoy the camaraderie of a shared experience.
Location Based Art: The Product
As artists, we are usually quite product oriented - concerned about the quality of the art we produce. Some of us are competitive, comparing our work with that of our peers, seeking recognition for our skills. While this is all fine, I think it's important to take a step back from this mind set at least in the arena of on-site drawing and journaling. This process of choosing a subject at a given location, drawing and/or painting it, and writing about our impressions of the scene is a personal one and shouldn't be "rated" in comparison to someone else's efforts.
By their nature, these sketches are spontaneous and usually done in a relatively quick fashion. The products will rightly reflect this impromptu nature, and may have a "rustic" or unfinished, possibly even primitive appearance. I think these characteristics actually enhance the quality of these works. Make sure you do not judge these pieces too harshly! They are a glimpse into your inner world - at its unpolished best.
Some of the work you do on-site may inspire you to do a more finished, formal piece. This is a wonderful outcome, but shouldn't be your sole reason for doing this kind of location work. Try to remember to value your outing for the experience, and not only for the "real" work that may stem from it.
Before the Leaf Blows Away
On-Site Art: the Experience
If you haven't gone out to a location and created art that celebrates that place, you may not appreciate the profound experience it can be. I find creating art outdoors, or at a special site engages much more of your whole self and your senses than what usually happens in my studio. I am a watercolorist who works largely using photo references in my day-to-day work. While I love my work and what I do, I find being out in nature or in a special place causes me to be more keenly aware, not only visually, but also with my other senses - including my spiritual self. Drawing a beautiful building or a detailed botanical study in real time in that real place gives your work an immediacy and vibrancy that can verge on the sacred. It is a wonderful experience to surrender yourself to that moment and record through art and words the place where you are.