Author: Alan

Pastel sketch from a quick snap, Bamburgh Castle bathed in morning light

Bamburgh June morning, pastel 2024

I’m visiting Northumberland for the first time, in a sunny a warm week in June. Setting off for an early morning walk on the empty wide beach beyond the dunes, itself a special landscape of long grasses, wildflowers and this time of year, many orchids.

Bamburgh Castle dominates the view in silhouette as we approach, the clear morning light is spectacular. Today is one of those occasions where you can take a quick snap from inside the car – there is no-one around – except dog walkers and bird watchers. I used the photo reference a week later to produce a pastel sketch on Fabriano paper, aiming to illustrate the light that bathes the seen in morning glory.

The sound of the sedge warblers singing from the tops of the bushes in the dunes goes hand in hand with this picture, I hear them when I look at it.

In the evening, the light from the West gives the castle a completely different look, though no less spectacular. Well worth a visit.

Bamburgh Castle evening

Plein Air Painting: high sun diffused by thin cloud

Very often I see something of interest whilst driving. If I can stop – and it’s not always convenient or even possible – I will try a loose sketch and a quick phone snap as a reference. back in the studio I’ll work a sketch up in acrylics, pastel or a mix of media. Here I was interested in the effect of high sun diffused by thin cloud. Will this scene make a good painting?

More often though, walking familiar ground in different seasons, times of day and weather conditions is very revealing. The ordinary can become astonishing in a different light, and a touch of atmosphere can produce surprising changes of appearance, even in the most familiar scenes.

Below is a quick charcoal sketch drawn in a quiet lane in Hertfordshire. I was interested in the road disappearing into the wood beyond, guarded by the tree on the left, and although it had seen better days, I liked the shape against the flat sky.

Bramfield Holly Grove road,charcoal
Holly Grove Road, Bramfield, Herts. Charcoal sketch

A few days later I produced a larger version in acrylic in an A3 sketchbook. The flat but bright overhead light gives form to the hedges and reflects off of the road, and without painting the sky and leaving it as white paper, I seem to have captured the diffused glow of the scene.

Bramfield Holly Grove road, Acrylic sketch, sun diffused by thin cloud
Holly Grove Road, Bramfield, Herts. Acrylic in sketchbook, 2024

Familiar Ground

My local vineyard is familiar ground, drawing and painting there often. With this plein air acrylic sketch, I was interested in the arrangement of verticals and horizontals, with the support posts of the vines at uneven angles leading to the single apple tree in blossom. The flat bright light overhead reveals the crown of the handsome sycamore in the centre of the picture, with the farm in the middle distance and the Downs beyond.

May in the Vineyard acrylic sketch
May in the Vineyard. Acrylic in A3 sketchbook, 2024

I wasn’t sure I wanted to include the distant hill, so produced a charcoal drawing bringing the farm down
and altering the format to a more square proportion.

May in the Vineyard charcoal sketch
May in the Vineyard, charcoal sketch

The painting I ended up with had no buildings in the frame, and I opted to use painting knives instead of brushes. Two plein air sessions of about an hour and a half each, and some finishing touches in the studio completed the picture, and I like the effect of the high sun diffused by thin cloud.

May in the Vineyard, oil, 30x20 2024
May in the Vineyard, oil on canvas, 30×20″, 2024

Painting in the studio from plein air charcoal sketch

Often when out and about something catches the eye, whether a pattern, group of objects or angles etc.

These two charcoal drawings were made this summer on sunny days with strong light and shade.
Just for a change I decided to paint the scenes in the studio, using just the sketches and memory.
I used acrylics, applying lose washes and glazes building up from light to dark, similar approach to watercolour.

The result is a feeling of spontaneity and vibrance, helped by the larger sizes of canvas than that which
I normally paint.

Summer shadows, charcoal in A3 sketchbook, and below, acrylic painting from the sketch, 40 x 30″
High sun on the Stour, charcoal sketch, and below, acrylic painting
from the drawing, 36 x 24″

Late Spring: mixed media sketching in the woods

Late Spring, where the plant life is literally bursting out in colour accompanied by the buzz of insects and the trills and warbles of birdsong is a favourite time of year for a lot of folks. The day breaks early towards mid June, so no excuses – I made a flask of tea and got out in the local woods for some mixed media sketch studies in May and early June.

I’ve used all sorts of materials with the drawings here: oil and acrylic paint, felt tip and brush pens, charcoal, pastel, coloured pencil – whatever would give me the effect I was after. Spontaneity and free brushwork is important in my oil paintings, and with sketching I’m trying to make an interesting vibrant drawing. Responding to something rather than describing it.
All the work here is in an A3 cartridge wire bound sketchbook.

Broken beech
May 7, 2023. Broken beech: felt tip pen over spray fixed charcoal and pastel

Below on the left is a study of a stand of tall beech trees together with pines. I used gouache and watercolour, some acrylic paint, and felt tip pen over the top. I was interested in the grandeur of the trunks, reminding me of an early travel poster, with the light and shade cascading down to the ground, the track disappearing mysteriously round the bend. What’s around the corner?
The drawing on the right was made using some left over oil paint on my palette from a landscape study. Over the top of which I applied a little pastel and some more detailed work with felt tip pens.
I had been looking at the work of British abstract artist Victor Pasmore particularly his 1940’s paintings, so there is a heavy influence here, particularly in the stylised, dotted foliage.

May 25 and May 18 (right)

Painted from under a large oak full of character, with this very loose sketch I started with watered down acrylic over which is some charcoal, white conte and some pen work. This one didn’t quite come off the way I planned but I quite like the no holds barred ‘of the moment’ feel to it. There was also a Cuckoo calling nearby, a classic spring sound much less common of late.

Under the oak, May 28

Looking out from under the oak across buttercup meadows, with cuckoo just audible

There have been good numbers of Brimstone butterflies this year. This female looked to be settling as some clouds threatened a shower. Underneath the bramble leaves it is well camouflaged.

May into June

Below left: This avenue of stately beech trees were drawn in the late afternoon, using charcoal and pastel. I didn’t feel the need to render all the groups of foliage on the spot, but did add some felt tip pen and crayon work when back indoors, and some white acrylic to help separate the line of trees either side of the track.

On the right is a friend’s woodshed on their farm, at the entrance to a copse. The focus of my attention was the bright sunlight on the wooden frame, and the splash of dappled sun filtered through the elder in full flower on the left. This drawing is largely washes of acrylic with a small amount of crayon over the top. Like most of these sketches, it took about an hour and a half to get to a point where I felt I should stop! Interesting to compare these drawings with the plein air sketching I was producing ten years ago, and how I’ve loosened up! and also here

May 28, Beech avenue, and right, June 3 Woodshed

Here I was attracted to the very different shapes of the three trees. The oak in front is backlit by the sunshine, and there is a good carpet of bluebells. Largely pastel with some charcoal, I made another study (right) later indoors from the first one, using coloured pencils and charcoal, simplifying the shapes somewhat. More work needed to make this work, I feel.

Three trees in the Spring

Orchids can pop up anywhere
when trees have been cleared,
making them more visible in the
relative open space. This one is a
Greater Butterfly Orchid

Taking advantage of the continuing sunny spell, the two drawings below were made within a few feet of each other. I used acrylic washes so that the paint doesn’t ‘lift’ if I work over the top. With the hazel coppice on the left, I cut leaf shaped pieces of masking tape to leave those areas untouched, and paint freely over them, picking off when dry. I was rendering the effect of the sun reflecting off the odd leaf of ground foliage, and the reult works, but could benefit from a little more perhaps.

On the right the foxgloves looked splendid backlit by the sun in a clearing. I tried to describe what I was seeing without overtly drawing anything at all, to convey the sensation. There is more pen work over the paint with this drawing, I do like to try things out. Sometimes they work!

Hazel and foxgloves, June 7 2023.

Plein air painting: same view, different season

Red Roof 2, Frosty Morning.Oil, 11.75 x 16.5″ Dec 15 2022

I took advantage of a few days of heavy frost to return to a favourite subject. A view along a hedgerow leading up to a cottage with a red roof which I had painted in late summer of 2021, here . Now my challenge was to use the shadows and sunlit areas to create a strong value pattern that led up to the main subject. The crystals of ice that had grown daily clung on to the rough vegetation, except where exposed to sunshine for hours. There were plenty of muted colours in the shadow areas, and the vertical telephone poles were sharply lit on one side as the sun moved across the cold blue sky.

This painting is a different format to the summer version, extended to the right hand side. I had been working very quickly which gave the brushwork plenty of energy, similar to when painting with an imposed time limit. I find that to be good practice, preventing me from fussing over details.
After about an hour and a quarter I started to feel the cold, despite standing in the sun, and decided to stop.

I decent result. The feeling of cold comes across well – not just because I experienced it – as does the thin air and quality of late morning December light. A decent result.

Plein air painting along the Stour, heatwave and breeze

Revisiting the River Stour at Spetisbury after twenty five years, prompted by looking through old sketches. I came across a river scene I remember from early one summer morning. I was experimenting with water soluble crayon. How had the scene changed in that time? Would I be able to access the same part of the river? Yes, and I think I recognised the same stretch of riverbank, but things had changed and become more overgrown, and the water level was noticeably lower than that in my sketch, despite it being a similar time of year

The first painting was of very large trees – I think maybe Grey Poplar – on the opposite bank. Late August, very hot and against the light, the intention was to convey the high hot sun using limited palette of crimson, cobalt blue and a raw sienna plus white, on a pink ground. I worked quickly on a 24 x 20 inch canvas.

August Heatwave, Stour – first stage block-in

As the painting progressed I realised I needed to add a couple more colours to the palette but keep things restrained. After an hour and a half I was ready to stop. I returned for a second session to finish the painting a couple of days later.

August Heatwave, Stour. Oil on canvas, 24 x 20″

I looked for the same spot that I drew all those years ago. Not sure I found it, willows grow very quickly
and the whole feel of the place was oddly different.

River Stour, water soluble crayon on cream watercolour paper, 1997

For the second painting I chose a spot where I could see the river turn away in the distance.
There were egrets fishing the shallow water and there are always swans here. Next time I’ll consider including them. This painting progressed very well, and almost completed it in the first session, but returned for a second day to finish off. This time I used a ‘guest’ colour of lamp black – quite fatty and opaque as oil paints go. I rarely use black paint, but used judiciously gives a nice harmony across the colour scheme here. Learning to keep my brushwork looser and without fussing, I feel this is one of my better efforts this year, and working against the light is a real challenge, but I’ve captured something of that feeling in both of these paintings.

September afternoon, River Stour, work in progress day one
September Afternoon, River Stour. oil on canvas 20 x 18″

I also produced two smaller paintings. On a different stretch of the river, where willows have been planted to line the banks, and back at the first location on a breezy September afternoon.

Riverside willows, oil on canvas 14 x 18″

What drew me to this view was the contrast between the grey willows and the large dark oaks behind them, throwing them forward in the soft afternoon sunlight. With the painting below, the breeze whipped up suddenly turning the leaves to show their whitish underside. Colours becoming autumnal but still with warmth to the sunshine, a brilliant time of year. I intend to return later in the autumn to see how things have changed, and perhaps produce more paintings.

September Breeze, oil on canvas 12 x 16″

Plein Air Painting: new local views in oil

Here are two small 12 x 8 inch canvases painted in the same week, at different times of day.
Both are looking Southwest from the Downs here in Dorset.
The first painting went very smoothly, and was painted mid morning with a fair amount of cloud.
I used a red ground to help the greens and blues pop a little. Before I’d finished, a lady passed by with her dogs and stopped to admire my progress. She ended up buying the picture ‘off the easel’, which I was thrilled about, as that almost never happens! It’s now my new favourite thing.

Work in progress, red ground showing
The finished painting

The second painting didn’t go quite as smoothly, but came together right at the end. I had two sessions for this one, on consecutive evenings. The main problem was the low sun cast shadows on the right hand bank which moved very quickly. The first day I worked on the distance and middle distance, and by the time I was happy with that, the whole track was in shadow. The following evening I reworked the middle distance trees and concentrated on the track. It’s still not the painting I had in my mind’s eye when I started, but I’m content that it’s all a learning process!

The finished painting. Compton Abbas from the Capstitch, July evening. Oil 12 x 8

Pike in the pond – mixed media collage

Taking a break from the current spell of plein air oil painting, I switched mediums to work up the sketches I had made of pike, lurking almost motionless in the weeds. Difficult to spot as they look just like debris hanging midway in the water column. Irregular stripes along the body mimic waves of refracted sunlight. Perfect camouflage.

Medium sized Pike, sketchbook drawings

I used an old ink drawing of a landscape that had ‘failed’ some time ago and set about tearing up pieces of it being careful to include dark/light patterns or irregular marks. A patch of winter trees against the sky would serve as weeds in this collage. Laid out in an A3 sketchbook, the angle I chose for the fish is pretty much how I viewed it from the bank, and helps to suggest the fish is just hanging around at a slightly upward tilt.

Work in progress, mixed media collage

The only colour in the picture is the brown paper strip, complete with shadow, strategically placed to suggest the water surface. I find working this way very liberating, placing the pieces where it feels right, and not being too bothered about the literal.

The cropped version adds a little dynamic back into the composition. I reigned in the dappled stripe effect and added a suggestion of a shadow on the silty pond bottom.

The view from the middle of the road

Sometimes something catches my eye when driving, but there isn’t always a convenient place to stop.
The view from the middle of the road that was so inspiring means going back on foot to photograph or sketch the scene or whatever it was.

Here is an example of just that. Soft light on a crossroads junction on the Wilts/Dorset border, so typical of the countryside in May, with Cow Parsley in full bloom, new leaf growth providing many different shades, and the scratchy twitter of a Whitethroat nearby.

For this sketch I used coloured pencil over a yellow pastel base. Cropping in tightly on where the lane disappears round the bend, where the maximum contrast between values in the scene, draws the eye.

The small oil study was produced later in the studio.

… and speaking of whitethroats, here’s my paper collage from a couple of years ago. Trying to capture the busy character in a few simple shapes…


Painting in between showers

Three new paintings of local fishery ponds that have been left pretty much to nature. Apart from our designated nature reserves, places like these can be the closest we get to wilderness here in the UK.

In May, the very lush growth and new leaves on trees present a range of greens that I find challenging.
I usually mix greens with French Ultramarine and various yellows and reds, and added manganese blue with the third painting. As a result there is a certain azure quality to it, set off by the pink ground to the canvas, a change from my usual sienna ground.

Pond 9: Willow and Poplar. oil 16 x 12″

Painted en plein air in between showers, and at different times of day,
I’ll leave the subject now and return when the spring has changed to summer.

Cloud Over Pond 8, 3may 12 x 10 plein air oil painting
Cloud Over Pond 8, 3 may 12 x 10 oil
Spring morning on the ponds oil, 10 x 8 plein air oil painting
Spring Morning on the Ponds, oil, 10 x 8 28 April 2022