Put that pen down! You’re not ready to sketch yet!

This afternoon I walked out into the field behind our house in Torchamp, Normandie. We are surrounded by dairy farms so this kind of view is c’est normal. It is late July, the hay has been cut and bailed. It lays in the field to dry and await storage – certainly worth a sketch. BUT not so fast.

Majestic landscapes are a menace for most of us who sketch. Monet and Van Gough often painted them, but they of course are in a league of their own. When I stand before a broad vista I want to capture it all, invariably my sketch ends up flat and boring and captures nothing.

“The best artists know what to leave out.”

Charles de Lint

Charles de Lint is a writer, not a visual artist. His advice is relevant for writing, as well as music, his other medium. Yet it is completely relevant for photography, painting, sculpture, and travelsketching. The message for us is do not begin putting ink or paint on paper until you have cropped and composed.

Let’s take a closer look at the vista before us:

First off there is a wide, and boring, yellow ocher expanse taking up half of the view. On the left is a huge expanse of really dark trees which in my experience with ink and watercolor are a major challenge; too often I end up with a muddy mess, and in reality they do not add much interest to the sketch. Then there is a huge expanse of sky, the clouds today are particularly dramatic, and I do know that some artists capture that drama so well, but for me today the sky is overpowering and does not add to the objective.

This view needs cropping- almost always the best place to start. We laugh at movie folks who use their hands to creat a view finder, but in reality it works quite well. I carry a pocket viewfinder, which I wrote about in another blog some time ago. Your cell phone makes a wonderful cropping tool: take a photo, then crop it to get down to the essentials. That is what I did here. (Check Travels Through My Lens for some examples of good cropping, Tricia does it well.)

Here is what I ended up with.

One of the most common mistakes I and many others commit is to sketch without having a focal point, or main object. In this situation it is the three hay bales closest to me. Here are some comments on the composition.

Notice that the horizon line is in the bottom third of the picture. Avoid letting the horizon line divide the paper in half, thirds are one of the basic rules that actually make for better composition.

I included the distant tree indicated by the blue arrow, it ads balance. In addition when you look at the photo your eyes are first attracted to the dark mass in the distance, then they slide down to the right, when they come to the tree your gaze is directed to the bales, which is what you want to feature.

The orange arrows are for caution. If you squint while looking at the photo you realize that the trees in the distance are just dark masses. Your mind is struggling to tell you all about the details of the branches and leaves, and that they are dark green, yet in reality they are almost black, the bales pop out in contrast. So be cautious to just indicate the major shape and dark color, the less details the better.

The pink box is for artistic licence. If you look closely you will see that there are actually two bales in the box, one just peeking out from behind, when I sketch it there will only be one bale, to try to show the other would just clutter things. The small bales in the far distance will also be ignored, remember what de Lint said.

In the next two blogs I will show two different approaches to sketching it – paint then ink, or ink then paint.

Keep on traveling and sketching. Enjoy the summer.

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