One thing that would help me in my art is plein air painting. It’s been suggested to me many times, and the art groups I belong to occasionally hold plein air sessions. I conveniently manage to be busy on those days simply because I don’t want to embarrass myself.
I would like to get comfortable with painting on location, though. It would be a huge step forward for me. So, now and then, I force myself outdoors — but usually no farther than our porch. Last summer I grew quite comfortable with drawing out of doors, and I looked forward to my “nature drawing time” each day.
Going outside to draw is simple. I grab a sketchbook and a pencil. Going outside to paint is a bit more complicated.
So when I decided to get out of the house and into nature today, I wanted to make things as easy for myself as possible. Instead of gathering up oil paints, brushes, and the rest of the paraphernalia a good artist needs, I chose a much easier route. Or so I thought, at least. I took a 12 x 16 canvas — one already toned with a lovely yellow acrylic — put it in my shoulder bag, and then grabbed a charcoal kit. What I planned, you see, was to just sketch out the basic elements of a scene on my canvas. Later, with the help of a photo reference, I could complete the painting at my easel.
Yeah, right. As you can see, I wasn’t very successful in sketching anything!
I know. You can’t tell what it’s supposed to be. That’s all right. Neither can I.
I made this “Charcoal Mess” at a nearby place called “Lord’s Park”. I chose that location because it’s never busy in the summer. Other than a swing set and one shelter house with a grill, there’s really nothing there except trees surrounded by lots of lush greenery. I knew I could visit the park and not have a lot of curious onlookers peering over my shoulder to see what I was doing.
In the winter, however, it all changes. Lord’s Park is home to “Sledding Hill”, the place to go if you want all the thrills, chills, and spills of sliding down one long, steep slope.
To reach the top of that slope, you climb up a long stairway. That’s what you’re seeing in my Charcoal Mess. You’re actually seeing it in two different places, because I struggled with figuring out exactly where it was supposed to go. If at first you don’t succeed, you know.
The stairway looks rather forlorn in the summer. It’s overgrown and lots of that lush greenness hangs down and around, almost obliterating the stairs from view.
Here’s the first photo I took. Yes, it’s very blurry. I tried using the zoom feature on my smart phone, so it’s not a good image. I wasn’t planning to sketch from the photo. It was only for reference.
So I started sketching, beginning with the visible sections of the rails and stairs.
Why, oh, why, did I deliberately choose a scene with a man-made structure? Definitely not a good idea, but I plodded along with my charcoal pencil, doing my best to draw what I saw.
Unfortunately I was seeing more than what’s shown in the reference photo. This is a real problem for me when I’m doing plein air painting. I can’t tell where the boundaries are. So as I sketched a bit more, I included some of the trees to the right of the stairway.
Here’s another photo with an expanded view of the scene. Now you’ll see why I moved the stairway way over to the left. I liked the clump of trees I’d started sketching, and I wanted them in the picture.
Of course, that clump of trees is no longer recognizable in my “Charcoal Mess”, so don’t bother looking for them.
I was having problems with the charcoal pencils — ones from a General’s 12-piece kit. Ordinarily I enjoy working with charcoal, but these pencils were extremely hard to use. I couldn’t get strong, consistent marks, so I put the pencils back and grabbed a thick piece of charcoal.
Now, how to illustrate all the leafy boughs and all that lush greenery I was seeing? I just started scribbling around, trying to suggest the shapes, adding in limbs here and there, and just making a big mess. I also tried to mark places where the grass was dappled with light. I tried to suggest the slope of the hill. I tried to show a bit of the path. But despite my best efforts — and yes, I really did try — all I had was that awful mess.
I had allotted myself an hour for sketching, but after about forty-five minutes, I gave up on the canvas. I’d made enough of a mess. That’s when I looked at my hands and realized I hadn’t brought anything to clean up with. No water. No rags. Not even a paper towel. The bathroom at the park was closed and locked, and there was no water fountain around. Yikes! I truly had a bigger mess on my hands than I’d thought!
Nothing to be done but live with it, though. I did walk up to the stairway and grabbed a couple photos:
And, yes, despite all the mis-steps of today’s sketching session, I’d still like to try drawing this stairway. The next time I feel like challenging myself with a drawing project, I’ll probably pull out one of these pictures.
With a few minutes to spare, I turned my attention to other little features in the park and did manage to do a nice charcoal sketch of an old stump. That made me feel better. It’s always nice to come away from a painting or drawing session feeling that I accomplished something.
And, in all honesty, in some perverse way, my “Charcoal Mess” has a certain charm about it. So, I packed it all up and headed to Wal-Mart for a bit of shopping.
First stop, the restroom! I felt a lot better about my drawing time once I’d washed my hands.
What will become of my yellow canvas with all those crazy scribbles? I don’t know. Maybe I’ll go ahead and use it, working from my expanded photo reference. Or maybe I’ll just hang it on the wall here in my little art room as a reminder of why I don’t do plein air.