Many of the grand buildings that inspire a travel sketch quite often are intimidating in the perspective challenges they present. Perspective seems daunting, I get that. Yet a few tips make it work.
Trust the process – horizon line and focal point, it all starts there. There are lines that just seem to be at extreme angles, yet if they converge on the focal point they will end up being right.
Start at the distant point or plane and work your way back to the foreground. This was a game changer for me, for I had this instinct to start close, yet always had it wrong when I got to the distant.
It really does help to use a straight edge to pencil in the converging lines, then go as loose as you want with the details.
This is the Biblioteca Mediciea Laurenziana in Florence, Italy. I will confess I was a bit daunted, but it was impressive and I wanted to revisit the day we were there in 2017, so I spent some time with an IPA at the hotel lounge, a photo, my Moleskein, and art-toolkit. The results works, and it was a good moment, both yesterday and in 2017.
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.
A key concept for travel sketching when trying to capture a distant landscape or cityscape is to first get the skyline right, and make it just a bit more bold.
Thinking back over my years of doing watercolor I remember a time I almost gave it up completely. I was in Sydney, Australia doing seminars, but of course always found time to sketch a bit, and Sydney Harbour has plenty of vistas. This is a photo of Kirribilli Point, at the end of the famous Bridge, just across from the Ferry Terminals.
I worked for an hour or so on a watercolor, slightly different angle, but the end result was such a muddy mess that I considered giving up watercolor for good; thankfully I kept at it. Today I did a sketch of the same place to demonstrate a key trevelsketching tip.
Many years ago I learned from an architect to emphasize the skyline by making the lines of the buildings a bit bolder; it defines them for the viewer and helps them stand out. For the travelsketcher it becomes a starting point and prevents getting caught up in unnecessary details. Remember, we are capturing a moment, not trying to create a photographic image. If you get the skyline roughly right, you can be vague on the hillside details, yet the scene will be recognizable. Here is the ink drawing I did using a Duke Confucius Fude pen.
I started by drawing in the skyline, beginning with the pillar of the bridge working my way across the top. You don’t have to be exact, don’t fret if it is not perfect. Next I drew in the water line, and added a few suggestions of the buildings and roofs on the hillside, don’t overdue it. Lastly I did just a hint of hashing in the darker side of a few buildings. After allowing the ink to dry completely I began adding watercolor from my Expiditionary Art-toolkit.
You most always do well to begin with the sky, rarely is it all blue – there are white and grays. I took a light Cerulean Blue, varied the shades, left a bit of white. Never paint it all the same, it is not a coloring book. I also added a bit of gray on the dark sides of the buildings, Ultramarine and Burnt Umber make my favorite gray. Next some darker gray for the skyline buildings and suggesting a few of the buildings on the hilside.
I also used a bit of Cadmium Red to suggest some of the red roofs in the photo. Added the gray under the bridge. Then we are ready for the foliage and a bit more detail.
Note that I varied the greens. Sap Green is my go-to green, I added Dark Sap Green to my pallet as it makes adding a darker, or you can mix a bit of ultramarine with the sap green for a bit more gray. I put on one layer of Sap Green, let it dry, then added a bit of darker to vary the folages. All that was left was the water.
Usually the water will be pretty close to the color of the sky, yet in Sydney Harbour the water is even more green than it shows here. Again, leave some white as it adds highlights. The last step was to use a Micron 01 pen to add some random high lites to the buildings – fountain pens don’t work well over watercolor.
Tomorrow marks the middle of winter, or so it has been seen for most of history. The sun is at its lowest point and begins its climb back up into the sky. The days begin to lengthen with spring beginning in February. I like that, it makes more sense than Solstice being the first day of winter and the first day of summer. The shadows will be long tomorrow.