Taking your paints and sketchbook outside is an incredibly rewarding way to make unique memories of a special place, but if you find the thought of creating plein air intimidating, you’re not alone. When I first ventured outside with my sketchbook, I felt a bit overwhelmed. What should I sketch, what if it all went wrong, what if people looked at what I was doing? Thankfully, I gave it a go, and sketching on location is now at the heart of my art practice.
Working plein air helps me slow down and build my sense of connection to a place. My sketches aren’t perfect, but they keep locations in my memory in a way that taking photos with my phone doesn’t.
I feel like my sketches are just for me, which takes away some of the pressure when I’m sketching. Sketches don’t need to be works of art, worthy of hanging on the wall. I can treat my sketchbook like a playground, a laboratory and a journal – I can have fun, record my thoughts and experiences and I don’t need to share it with anyone if I don’t want to!
Where to sketch
My first attempts at sketching outside were mostly done at coffee shops. I’d sit at a window seat or find a quiet table outside. I used small sketchbooks, often portrait format so it looked like I was taking notes. Most people were so focused on their coffee and conversation that they didn’t notice what I was up to, and sometimes I felt confident enough to take out my little watercolour palette or aquarelle pencils and add colour.
Park benches also made quiet places to sit- especially if they had a wall, tree or hedge behind them. And wearing a large pair of headphones sent out ‘don’t talk to me’ vibes (leave the music off if you want to listen to the birds or be aware of what’s going on around you)!
Our plein air sketchbooks can be just for us and it’s up to you whether you share yours or not.
What to sketch
I like to focus on whatever interests me most about a scene. Choosing what to include in a sketch can feel overwhelming, and it’s easy to finish a painting and realize that there is so much going on that the most important thing doesn’t stand out at all- or I’ve run out of space to include it! Painting the most important thing first means I can make sure it’s the star or the sketch, then I can add more of the surrounding scene if I want to.
It can be hard to filter out all the details, especially if we’re at a location where there’s lots to see. Squinting at the scene helps us tune out all that extra information so we can focus on the main shapes and values. It can also be fun to just sketch the details- you don’t need to paint the whole building if the windows are the bit that really catch your attention.
Working small and simple is also really helpful when we don’t have much time. A lot of pages in my sketchbooks are made up of thumbnail sketches- quick, tiny paintings that only take a few minutes and show the main shapes and colours or values in a scene. I love to make series of thumbnails to show the changing light on a landscape or interesting features of a building.
What if it all goes wrong?
Sand, bugs, dirt, pollen, overexcited dogs, sunscreen, rain, wonky lines, watercolor paint with a mind of its own… many things can happen to a sketch! I try to give myself permission to let my sketches be (very) imperfect and to enjoy the process and the experience of creating outside. Specks of rain just add to the story, and getting the perfect wash seems less important than the joy of slowing down for a few minutes, really looking at a place, and trying recreate the way it feels with paint on paper.
Have you ever tried sketching on location? Do you have questions about taking your art outside? I’d love to hear!
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