Where do I start?

One of the challenges when travel sketching is where to start. Admittedly every artist has their own valid approach. Yet we often get hung up in the details, trying to create a sketch that looks like a photo, this can be intimidating and frustrating. Beyond that it goes against the key idea behind travel sketching which is to capture the moment.

Try rethinking your approach. Start by just looking at the scene before you, actually seeing what is there. You are not taking a selfie here, a quick snap on the run to the next selfie, you are capturing a moment, and to do that you have to take a moment to absorb the place. Next ask the question, “What is it about this time and place that makes me want to add it to my travel journal?” I sketched a teapot one morning in Bath, England, it reminds me of a quiet morning alone in a place called The Gather.

Here is a photo of San Gimignano, Italy – taken from our Agriturismo across the valley. We had a wonderful day in the town: some great food, and I bought a fountain pen that is one of my favorites.

After taking in the view for a bit, begin thinking about what you see. some one said, “Paint what you see, not what you think you see.” One of the challenges for beginners is that our brain fills in the blanks and we then attempt to paint what we think “should” be there instead of what “is” there.

You are looking for shapes (without labeling them) and areas of space. In this view there are four main spaces: Sky, city on the skyline, hillside buildings and foreground.

Notice that when you look at the scene what stands out is the skyline, you acknowledge the mosaic of buildings on the hillside, but do not really focus on each one. Yet many sketchers struggle because when they put pen to paper they attempt to draw every small building. Certainly there are those who have a style that makes that a beautiful sketch, but we are talking here about getting started as a travelsketcher, or a quicker way to capture the scene; all we will need to do is just suggest those buildings.

Many sketchers would next start with pen or pencil, for some though it is the precision of the pen that blocks the brain from seeing spaces and shapes, thus I recommend starting with paint and brush. The beauty of this is that you do not have to be exact, we will get more exact at the end with our pen. And there is the additional benefit that paint, by its very nature, does a lot of the work for us, it goes on unevenly, and that makes it appear we have spent deep thought in slight variations in color and shade, when quite often it is more good luck than good planning. So I begin,

The sky is usually a good place to start, Cerulean blue works well for those bright blue Italian skies. You want it varied, with even some white from the paper showing through, it makes it look realistic. Best practice would be to let it dry, yet at times we are in a hurry, or just impatient. Next we paint in the skyline area.

Here I used Yellow Ocher, a go to color for those European stone buildings, with maybe just a hint of some brown. So I painted the entire skyline in with the lighter color first, you don’t have to be exact, think shapes not details – don’t try to be defining what you are painting, just think of the shapes. I took a bit of burnt Sienna and painted over the Yellow Ocher on the dark sides of the towers (take a look at the photo). There are some red areas, roofs, between the towers, so a bit of Cadmium Red suggests those.

Now, again using Yellow Ocher and a bit of brown, I put in just the hint of some squarish shapes on the hillside, not trying in anyway to exactly duplicate what I am seeing, just general placements and shapes. Again using some Cadmium Red to add some rectangularish shapes, roofs.

Time now for the foreground, Sap green has always been my go-to green. Using a combination of more and less paint along with random, circular brush strokes fill in the greens of the foreground, noting that they are a bit darker in places. also note that there is green on the hillside around the buildings. Now let it all dry completely, this is pretty thin paint, was dry in just a few minutes.

I put down the brush and picked up a Micron 02. First I went over the skyline, neatening up the buildings while adding a bit of detail, even the hint of windows on the sides of the towers so they are not just blank walls. The buildings on the hillside are done with vague and casual squares, again just suggesting that those light brown areas have structure, the same thing with the red areas of roofs. the area immediately between the towers and the hillside needed some help so a few ink lines suggested buildings there.

When you get to using ink on the green areas, make the lines more curved, squiggly, you cant see every leaf or branch, but the ink suggests variations and foliage. The last thing I did was to go over the top edge of the skyline, making it just a bit darker – a tip an architect taught me many years ago to make the buildings stand out.

I am done, the whole process took about 15 minutes. Of course I could have, and at times would have wanted to, do a much more detailed painting, yet this quick sketch in a journal would easily remind you of the time you spent on the hillside with a glass of wine, remembering your afternoon in San Gimignano.

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