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Outdoor Sketching – My journey and tips for taking that first step.

Updated: May 28, 2021

“There are some moments in life that are like pivots around which your existence turns – small intuitive flashes, when you know you have done something correct for a change, when you think you are on the right track. I watched a pale dawn streak the cliffs with Day-glo and realised this was one of them. It was a moment of pure, uncomplicated confidence – and lasted about 10 seconds” – Robyn Davidson, Tracks

In February I wrote a post about my artwork, the beginnings of an idea as to where I wanted it to lead, essentially combining my love of being outside with my art.

One of the intentions that I set myself was to participate in Candace Rose Rardon’s monthly #momentsketchers . A monthly challenge, encouraging artists around the world to grab their sketchbooks and go draw, and paint outside. As I wrote in that post, this challenge would ‘put me out of my comfort zone’.

Tip 1. Put yourself out of your comfort zone. We grow and learn so much when we do this, if it’s seems scary or difficult, it will always be worth it in the end.

My very first outdoor sketch was done on our January walk up in the Yorkshire Dales of the Coldstone Cut sculpture. There were a couple of other people milling around, and it was very cold. I remember feeling very, very self conscious stood with my sketchbook and pencil, but I had a go. Just a pencil sketch, but I had made my first outdoor sketch.

You can see from the photos that it probably took me a couple of minutes. I took a photograph of the scene, then inked and painted it when I got home.

Tip 2. Take that first step. The first step is always the hardest. Start with just making quick pencil sketches. Choose somewhere quiet, where there aren’t many passers by. Scout out a suitable place to sit, and a subject before.

February came and it was time for my first #momentsketchers contribution. I felt a little apprehensive as I had a day of jobs in Leeds planned with my youngest daughter. I packed my sketchbook and off we went on the train. Whilst on the train, and in between our jobs, we both sketched. I chose to make little small snippets of our day. Not only because we were busy, but it felt more manageable to sketch a small drawing, then move on. By the end of the day I felt much more confident and sat in a busy cafe and sketched my daughter.

You can see again from the photos that they were very quick pencil sketches, and I finished them off at home. I’d done it though, I’d broken through that first fear, and taken a first step.

Throughout February, and March I carried my sketchbook around as much as I could on our family walks, and days away. Sketching full pages this time, and using my pen whilst still on site, then finishing the painting at home.

In order to push myself just that little bit more, and fit more outdoor sketching into my time I had the hare brained idea of combining my running with sketching. You can read in that post all the fears and crazy thoughts that came into my head, and how in the end, even with feeling uncomfortable, it was fine.

Tip 3. Carry your sketchbook and a pencil everywhere. Then you can whip it out for a quick sketch when you feel comfortable and brave.

March #momentcatchers was the first time that I braved getting my paints out on location. We’d taken a walk along a local canal, found a spot to sit and have a coffee and sketch the boats. It’s not a great sketch, bad composition, and the paintwork is pretty awful. But this sketch marks a turning point, I’d actually taken my paints out of my bag. It was a busy sunny day, with a lot of cyclists and dog walkers, but I felt safe on my little picnic bench away from the path. It didn’t really matter what the painting turned out like, it was the act of just being sat outside painting that was important.

Throughout the rest of March, April and May I carried my sketchbook (and paints!!) everywhere. Sometimes just sketching with pencil and pen, other times getting my paints out too, depending on how confident, or how much time I had (my children are usually with me, so time can be an issue). Sketching from the top of hills, by rivers, dams, and in busy parks.

Tip 4. Keep trying, don’t worry about the end result. Paint, share and be proud. Join a community that helps you sketch regularly, #momentsketchers is a great way of being accountable, and has a great supportive community.

By June and July I gained more confidence, and began thinking more about composition and how I wanted my sketches to look. I had the confidence to sit a while longer and take a better look at what I was sketching, rather than frantically trying to get anything onto paper. I also felt able to play with my style too, attempting a looser painting style, or just using paint and not my pen. The great thing about the #momentsketchers community is the support and encouragement that’s always given, it feels like a safe space to share your work (even though it’s global, and fairly anonymous, which is a bit crazy).

Tip 5. Don’t be scared to try again. Change your style, play with composition. Sometimes happy accidents can happen.

I’d filled a whole watercolour moleskine sketchbook by the end of July!, that same sketchbook that I’d had since 2015, and only used about 10 pages. It feels good to look back, even at the awful ones, and see how I developed and changed in that short period of time. The only way that was going to happen was if I jumped in and had a go

Tip 6. Ask yourself ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’. Whenever I feel out of my comfort zone, feel silly, embarrassed I ask myself that question. “If I sit here and sketch, and someone sees me, or talks to me, what’s the worst that can happen?”

It’s now October, and I’m halfway through another sketchbook. This one is full of sketches that I am happy with. I spent our two week holiday in Wales in August sketching and painting outside everyday, I felt at ease with myself and relaxed. For the first time I didn’t have that immediate fear feeling, I just sketched without thinking.

Last week it was such a lovely sunny day, that I decided to take a ‘sketching lunch’ at one of my local nature reserves. There weren’t many birds at the hides, so I decided to walk around with my sketchbook and draw on the go. This is something I would never have done at the beginning of the year, I would have felt too exposed and self conscious.

It was a lovely way to spend my lunch. After my walk, I went back to a pond area where I knew there would be ducks or swans, and sat quietly painting. A gentleman and his father walked up as I was painting, and began chatting to me about what I was painting, if I was an artist. It turned out that the older gentleman was a figurative artist and had been to Art College with David Hockney, and had also brought his sketching stuff with him to the reserve. We had a lovely chat about art, and he gave me a couple of tips on watercolour painting. This was my first sketching chat, encounter! I did feel a little uncomfortable, and self conscious, but ‘What’s the worst that can happen?’ I walked away with a smile on my face after a lovely encounter. It’s taken time and a lot of trying, but it has been a journey that I have thoroughly enjoyed, and can not wait to fill the rest of my sketchbook, not just with paintings, but memories and chance encounters.

I hope my journey will help other nervous outdoor sketchers out there, you aren’t alone.

Tip 7. For me, having a minimal, organised kit has helped me feel more confident. It helps if stuff isn’t falling all over the place, or I can’t find something. I take a sketchbook, pencil, rubber, fineliner, a tiny watercolour kit (that I made myself), and a tiny jam pot for water.

A minimal sketch kit helps with discreet outdoor sketching.

A big bonus for me from outdoor sketching is that it has fed into my main artwork. It has helped me in lots of way. Developing better hand, eye coordination, better watercolour technique, and another opportunity to keep trying, keep practicing, as that is the only way to improve.

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