Sketchbook materials

 

In March I took part in a Meet the Maker thread on Instagram.

I’m usually really particular about what sort of social media activities I participate in – many of them are dressed up as networking, but in fact just generate spam in your notifications.  I especially loathe anything that ends up becoming a sort of modern day chain letter affair – who the heck has time for all that?

Anyhow…..Meet the Maker is this neat idea where you are given a topic every day for a month, and you base your Instagram posts around it, with an accompanying photo.  The idea is that your followers gain more insight into you and your work.  I also like that you can pick and choose.  I did three or four I think, and one of them was “Sketchbook”.

And what better topic for a blog post too!

So.  I have a feeling I should probably use my sketchbooks more than I should, but I do what works for me.  Here’s my current kit:

Sketchbook Materials of Vicki Hutchins Artist

It probably would help if I did an inventory:

Top:

  • my Staedler Mars Technico mechanical pencil.  At the moment I have a HB lead in it, but I probably should change it for a 2B.  I tend to only use this for longer sketches at home.
  • A black Pilot  G-Tec-C4.  This is a very fine liner, and I like how the ink flows
  • A black Muji pen, 0.5 nib.  This flows very nicely too, gives a thicker line than the Pilot.
  • my Platinum Carbon fountain pen – lovely fine nib, and once dry is waterproof.  Though I’m dismayed to find it now leaks.  Bummer.
  • my Lamy safari pen with a fine nib which can be too thick for small sketches, particularly if I add a wash.  Ink and wash are my favourites.

These next three are in my pencil case but I not really into them – apart from they give a nice thick black for blocking in notan sketches. I bought them for practising modern calligraphy, but due to my lack of skill in this area, I’m not feeling it with them!  They have various line thickness. The buff coloured one is by Kuretake, the other two are Tombow calligraphy pens.

Next up I have:

  • warm grey III
  • cold grey III
  • warm grey IV
  • cold grey IV
  • warm grey V
  • cold grey VI

All Faber-Castell Pitt artist pen.  These are fantastic for quick blocking in of values, and mess free.

Bottom:

  • this little Cotman watercolour travel palette is probably around 20 or so years old.  Though it’s probably had more use in the last year than the preceding 20!
  • Two Pentel water brushes, one is medium, the other fine.  I cannot recommend these enough. You’d be surprised the amount of water in them goes a long way.
  • this is almost brand new, a tin travel palette that cost far too much and is quite heavy, but I was swayed by the thumb ring on the underneath, which is brilliant for holding it. I filled it with gouache…though this hasn’t had as much use I as thought it would…

 

And now for the sketchbooks:

The sketchbooks of artist Vicki Hutchins

These are the three main ones of the several I own.  At the top, this is my hard backed Moleskine watercolour – great shape, not too heavy.  Bottom left is my large Moleskine, which freaks out if you so much as show it a paint brush, then last is a ring bound A4 size hard backed sketchbook, which I don’t actually do any sketching in.  It’s my colour swatch book.


 

It’s taken some practice and trial and error to have a sketchbook system that works for me.

If I’m out and about in town, for example, I use a very small Moleskine notebook (not pictured) and a Muji pen.  That’s generally always in my bag, and it’s what I pull out to sketch a doctors waiting room, or a coffee cup whilst waiting for a friend.

If I know I’m going somewhere I might want to sketch, with someone that might not mind me dithering about whilst I do it, I take the entire contents of my pencil case, and my hard backed water colour Moleskine.  Plus either the water colours or the gouache, paper towel and a spray bottle of water.

Along with the water brushes, this is the most efficient way for me to use water based paints – I just spritz the crusty old paint nuggets before I start, then use the water brush, occasionally dabbing it on the paper towel.  I’ve never run out of water this way, and it saves lugging a plastic bottle of water and jar around with you.   I’m not too precious about the quality of my work on these sketches – I like them loose and splashy and for me it’s just an chance to journal my otherwise ordinary (but happy!) life.  It’s also an opportunity to practice observation skills.

My studio sketchbook, the large Moleskine stays home.  I tend to use it for thumbnail sketches, painting ideas and longer drawings.

My colour swatch sketchbook is just that – it’s like a library of all the colour palettes I’ve used.  When I’m weary, and a little frayed round the edges, nothing soothes me more than taking three of four colours and seeing what I can mix up with them.    Though my work is very colourful, I like there to be a degree of harmony.  Using a limited palette achieves that.

So, being a curious sort, I’d love to know – what’s your sketching system?  Do you even have one?  What’s your favourite tools? I’m always ready for more supplies…..

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Sketchy times

Now I’ve got my new best friend gouache on the case, plus some fabulous pastels that are so cheap I didn’t buy them for about a year as I thought they’d be rubbish and they are completely brilliant, my sketchbook is adorned with the likes of this:

Astract landscape sketch in gouache & pastel by Vicki Hutchins
gouache and pastel studies

I’ve been wanting to use the brooding grey and yellow colour combination for ages – you know those skies you get over a yellow field?  That.  But I accidentally picked up a pink pastel…..and I love it.

Sunset on the Somerset Levels

Somerset Levels sketch in gouache & pastel by Vicki Hutchins

I had one of those perfect days recently, where you’ve only been out for the day but feel like you’ve had a holiday.

On the journey home across the Somerset Levels, there was the most amazing sunset.  I did my best to capture it in my sketchbook from the back of the car, scenery whizzing by.

What I couldn’t capture were the flocks of egrets majestically and slowly flapping their huge wings across the sky.  There were geese, swans, buzzards, sparrow hawks.  Even deer.  They must have had soggy feet.

The Levels are a haven for wildlife, and are an integral part of the Somerset countryside.  They do flood, as they have done for hundreds of years.  This flat huge expanse is hemmed in by the Mendip Hills to the north, and the Blackdowns and Quantocks to the south. The mist of early morning and dusk lingers longer here.   It’s a place of myth, legend, and times past.  It is beautiful.

The next morning, the memory of that place still imbibed me, so in pyjamas (when all the best painting happens), I quickly got down a sketch in gouache and pastel (see above).

Somerset Levels sketch - detail
Close up – love the texture of pastel and layers of gouache, yummy!

I do love this sketch, however it’s rather high key, whereas in reality, it was actual much darker, particularly the land.  It’s not often I paint the same painting more than once, but on this occasion I did a quick oil sketch on a piece of board I had that I though would be a good format.  It’s different, but I like it.

Somerset Levels oil sketchl by Vicki Hutchins

It’s cooler than I intended, but captures the light more accurately I think.

I don’t think I’m going to work this up into a final piece though.  Sometimes I like to make art just to journal my daily life.  I never was any good at keeping a diary, but I love keeping a visual reminder so that,although for the most part, and like most people, my life is ordinary – there are these little vistas of the extraordinary.

The extreme sport of plein air painting

image

Yesterday I was battered by Storm Susie, whom I had no idea was arriving. I certain didn’t invite her.

I always manage to pick the day when the weather is atrocious: wind, rain and very cold fingers do not make for getting in the creative flow!

However, these sorts of days do make for a loose and lively sketch – no hanging around, just the muji pen to lay in some quick lines, then straight to the aqua brush and my cute little travel tin I keep gouache in.

Then back on go the woolly gloves!

The difficulty of simplicity, feat. the pebble

It is irritating to me that in some situations (usually of course, ones that don’t directly involve or affect me), I can immediately get to the nub of the thing, to distill whatever it is quite clearly in my own mind and to anyone else who’ll listen.

It’s an uncanny trait most of us possess, actually; to be able to know exactly  what we’d do if we were in your/their situation.  Getting out of our own way to have clarity for ourselves however, is something else entirely.

Abstraction and simplification with my art work is a constant rumination lately – I long to take what inspires and motivates me, and reduce it to it’s barest form…and then reconstruct in a way that is more personal to me, hinting at reality but full of feeling.

My current creative process

When I first started painting, I focused very much on painting from life.  This worked well with simple forms (like an apple), but when I took myself off plein air painting, I found I was often overwhelmed with what was in front of me, enslaved by the detail, even if I started out loose.

Out of this I developed a process of painting in the afternoons after my lunchtime walks, and I’d paint from my memory of that walk.  I’d take photos with my phone, so not large or great quality, and I use these back at home to establish composition and value, but that’s the extent of their use.  I found my paintings to be more colourful, looser expressions of my local landscape.

Though I’m mostly happy with this process – a process I now realise lots of other artists use, to avoid become overwhelmed and tight with detail – sometimes it’s still not loose enough for me.

Exploring approaches

So, I began to think what other ways are there that I could abstract my landscape work.  What other materials or objects could I use to construct a composition?  I came up with three (mainly because I had them round the house):

  • beach pebbles
  • collage from magazine cuttings
  • my photographs

I know this last one seems pointless  (given what I wrote earlier in the post), but I have a ton, and if I could learn better how to use them in an abstracted way, it might bring surprises.

In this post I’m exploring my idea with the humble but beautiful pebble

I gathered a pile of pebbles (usually they gather dust in my bathroom), some rough garden twine, and a view finder,  oh and a white envelope I had to hand as my “canvas” and started arranging them.  This is the best (yes really) of what I came up with:

Photo3

The idea was, well, a few things.  One, I was trying to use the definite shapes of the pebbles to suggest something that might pass for a landscape, and that those shapes add interest, particularly to the foreground, two, squinting helps, as always, three, see how I used the twine to make a path! and four , it amused me that I was using something from the landscape to create a landscape.

I did in fact construct several compositions, but they’re really not noteworthy.  And…this is also the stage at which I began to feel a little bit foolish.  I wondered if this was a little too contrived.  After all, this wasn’t purely about enjoying a process as such – it was exploring a new way of getting to a slightly familiar place.  Or, perhaps I wasn’t really open to this concept as I thought.

I did see the exploration through though.  You can see in my sketchbook I have thumbnails of the different compositions I tried.  I thought actually the size of the pebbles too small, so I grouped them into larger shapes, outlined in blue pen, then re-drew them below.

Photo7

 

You can see from those large shapes there is something vaguely landscape emerging from the thumbnails.  I couldn’t resist doing a couple of colour thumbnails at the bottom.    From my notes I seem quite pleased with how things are turning out!  Though I do question whether the approach felt authentic for me.

The thing about this process is that it isn’t, and I suppose can’t ever be, random and therefore abstract.  I arranged the pebbles and twine.  I had landscape in my head.  Perhaps it was always going to turn out like that.  So I’m undecided about the value of this approach, to me anyway.  I also think I need to be clearer in my mind the difference between abstract and simplicity, as I’ve realised I use both words interchangeably and they’re not the same thing at all!

The next part of the process was to do a few small size colour studies of the same composition.  Why I brought colour into it I don’t know – this was about simplifying landscape compositions.  At this point though, I was having a ton of fun…

Photo8Photo9Photo10Photo11

 

I used acrylics for this (not my usual medium).  I used the same colours on each painting, aaaanndddd – I used not only a smaller brush to make lively marks, but it was a filbert!  And I usually use a one size flat throughout, so that was a little experimentation I really loved.

And at the end of it?

The main headline from this little experiment is – where’s the inspiration?  Arranging beach pebbles on the back of an envelope doesn’t inspire me as much as taking a walk then painting what I feel when I get home.  Only I can’t quite manage to paint what I feel.  Which is where this whole thing began.

I’m tempted to by pass the collage exploration and go straight to photographs, as I’ve learned from this that I prefer to feel an emotional connection with a place to paint….and yet, having said that….I really loved doing these little colour studies, and to me they are full of feeling and emotion.  Do I need to stand back?  Get out of my own way?  After all, feelings come from within don’t they?

I still don’t know what I’m doing

 

Just after Christmas, I read a great book by Ian Roberts called Creative Authenticity.  I highly recommend it if you’re an arty farty type.

Reading it gave me such a sense of affirmation and renewed belief that my approach to creating work and my processes were authentic, to me at least.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that, being self taught, I actually congratulated myself on how far I’d come.  Well, you know how smugness pride comes before a fall and all that…

Fast forward to now.  Creating anything I’m satisfied with is a memory long gone it seems.  Actually, that’s not true – I love painting my abstracts, choosing the colours, the emotion, the mark making, tuning in to myself so that I can produce some un-named feeling that I didn’t realise existed till I saw it on the canvas.

The reason for this abrupt desertion of creativity, I’m sure  (it better bloody well be) is I simply haven’t been able to get out and about in the wet weather to get my landscape fix.  Also, I think I’ve got sloppy and I’m getting in a muddle with my colour schemes.  Which is funny as I’m quite pleased with the last two landscape paintings I’ve done, but feel I got there by luck rather than skill.

So, the only thing I know to do in this situation is spend some time with my books, and go over what it is I think I’ve forgotten.  Also, it’s been a long time since I used my pastels to paint, and I found in the past that pastel painting really helped with my oils. Plus – we’ve had sun for two days on the trot….which means this soggy boggy damp island can dry out a bit and we pale types can top up our vitamin D!

LongrunFeb16
Untitled, 6 x 6, oil on paper