Eye and Hand
Practical Art for Paddlers —
Just a Quick Sketch
By Tamia Nelson
May 4, 2010
With a sketchbook and a pencil in your pack, you're always ready to capture the passing scene, whether you're in a boat or walking along a portage trail. You don't need to worry about dying batteries, failing light, or an almost‑full memory card spoiling your chances of getting that once‑in‑a‑lifetime shot. Plus, you won't have to carry a bulky, heavy dry box to keep your equipment safe — a couple of ziplock bags will do the job. Don't fret about not being a born artist, either. If you can sign a check, you can learn to sketch whatever catches your eye, and on any paddling trip you're sure to find plenty of subjects. Birds and wildflowers, trees and landscapes, animals and their tracks, your boat and your buddies…whatever has had you reaching for your camera in the past can also be caught with a few quick strokes of a pencil. So why not give it a try?
All of which is old news to anyone who's read the earlier articles in this series. In "First Strokes," I made the case for adding field sketching to every paddler's bag of tricks. Then, last month, in "Tools of the Trade," I inventoried the equipment you'll need. (Relax. The list is short.) So much for preliminaries. It's time to do the deed. Don't break out in a sweat. This isn't hard. And it will help you burn all that you see deep in the "emulsion of memory," now and forever — or as close to forever as any of us can hope for. Ready? Great! Let's…
Put Pencil to Paper
You can't sketch something without looking at it, and if you're like me, the first thing you notice (after color) is shape. Shape is what defines the objects in the world around us. Your computer display is a rectangle. Your fingers are tapered cylinders. The DVD on your desk is circular. And so on and so forth. There are often shapes within shapes, too. Your head is probably more or less oval, for instance, but your eyes and nose define a triangle.
You get the idea. Shapes are the building blocks of our visual environment. Now think about what you see when you're out in your boat. Triangular leaves. Conical firs. Spherical potholes. The more you look, the more shapes you'll find. But shape isn't the whole story. Shapes come in many sizes. Take a complex entity like a flower. It's a collection of shapes, yes, but the whole — the flower — is characterized by the interplay of shape and size. Some shapes are bigger than others. So now you have two things to take note of: shape and proportion, or relative size. Observation begins when you pick something apart — in your mind's eye, of course; you don't want to start tearing up wildflowers — resolving a coherent whole into its constituent shapes and ranking them by size. Sketching then requires that you put the parts together again on paper, taking care to preserve both shape and proportion. In other words, observation is analytic; sketching, synthetic.
Now let's give this a try. Here's a side view of a budding trillium I saw on the portage trail along The River:
What shapes do you see? Don't work too hard. Keep things simple. The petals are triangles, the stalk is a cylinder, and the bud is shaped like an elongated almond. And what about proportions? There's no need to whip out a pocket caliper. Relative size is what you're interested in here. Use the smallest element as your standard of measure. In this case it's the flower bud. The individual leaves are about twice as long as the bud, while the stalk and stem together are nearly three times its length. Now compare the bud stalk to the main stem. About half as wide, wouldn't you say? What else strikes your eye? (Remember: Keep it simple.) Well, all the leaves sport prominent veins, and there's only the one bud. Moreover, the two leaves in the foreground are steeply angled, and their central ribs define a skyward‑thrusting line. (The third leaf points away from you.) Lastly, the lone bud droops languidly toward the earth on a trajectory that parallels the leaf‑line, while the main stem leans to the right, weighed down by the bud.
You now have all you need to sketch the flower. Try it. Don't fuss. Make your drawing on the back of an envelope, if you want, or the brown paper bag that you brought your lunch in. Use a light touch. You're sketching, not engraving. And don't worry if the pencil sometimes seems to have a mind of its own. Simply try again until it goes where you want it to. Done? Good. Finish up by retracing the preliminary sketch with a slightly heavier hand, darkening the lines. (Avoid the ones where your pencil strayed.)
Here's my attempt:
It's not great art, of course, and it wouldn't satisfy the editor of a botanical field guide, but there's no mistaking the subject. It's a trillium, sure enough. And I'll bet your sketch is every bit as good.
Wildflowers are one thing. But trees are another. Flowers make ideal subjects for artists‑in‑training. They're accessible, they're easy to reduce to a handful of simple shapes, they usually exhibit a high degree of symmetry, and they don't fidget. Of course, trees don't fidget, either, but they often drive novice artists to despair nonetheless. To begin with, there are all those branches and leaves. How can you possibly put every one in just the right place? OK. Here's a hint: You can't. And now for some good news: It doesn't matter. You can rely on the power of suggestion. Concentrate on the tree's overall shape and "density." The observer can then fill in the details for herself. Here's an example of a sketch I made of a white pine:
The photo shows two white pines growing alongside The River. I sketched the larger of the pair. It was a hurried sketch, and it shows, but there's no mistaking my pine for a maple or a beech. A few squiggled lines stand in for countless sprays of needles, but the overall shape and proportion are spot on. It's a workmanlike portrait, in other words. And that's all I ask.
So far, so good. But the leap from portraiture to landscapes is a giant step. Sketching a single flower or a lone tree is pretty straightforward. Evoking the whole sweep of a landscape is something else. So let's take a look at…
The Big Picture
The River plummets down through a channel carved into deeply fissured, blocky bedrock. Steep wooded slopes rise above beaches littered with moss‑covered cobbles. In summer, blue flag irises and clouds of jewelweed brighten the banks. In the autumn, the portage trail disappears beneath a thick carpet of pine needles and drifts of leaves the color of old gold. You'd go crazy trying to draw every individual flower, tree, leaf, and cobble. So don't do it. Concentrate instead on shape and size, outline and proportion. Here's a for‑instance:
The scene? A falls on The River in high summer. Pines and maples on the right (that's "river right"; it's the left side in the photo) crowd down to the water's edge, while hemlocks overhang the cliffs on the left bank. A large pothole yawns open at our feet, revealing the grinding stones lodged in its deepest recesses. I set my camera for a long exposure, reducing the rushing river to a blur and obliterating the chaos in the plunge pool below the falls. The sketch I made at the same time obviously leaves many things out, but it actually reveals more about the dynamics of the moving water than the photo does. I concentrated on capturing the elements of the scene, and I think I succeeded.
Shape and proportion dominate in this sketch, as in all my efforts so far. But a third ingredient has crept in unannounced: shading. You can see it in my earlier portrait of the pine, as well. And its role? Adding…
Depth and Definition
Lines can be heavy or light, spaced closely or far apart. This variability can be exploited to indicate the steepness of slopes. (Hachures — closely spaced lines running perpendicular to the fall‑line — have long been used as an alternative to contour lines on topographic maps. The closer the spacing of the hachures, the steeper the slope.) Shading can also be used to better define the physical form of objects. But this takes time. Only you can decide if it's worth it. That's important. Sketching gives you a degree of freedom not enjoyed by any photographer. You can add elements to a scene, if you wish, showing current lines in places where no camera could find them, for instance. Then again, you can opt for a reductionist approach and concentrate on the big picture. Or you can go to the other extreme, spending long hours recording tiny details too fine for anything short of a photomicrograph to capture. The choice is yours.
You can improve on the camera in another way, too. Even a simple sketch can incorporate your notes about a scene, as in the following example:
This was a complex vista, far too complex for me to capture completely in the time I'd alloted to the job. But my sketch does what I wanted it to do. There may not be a lot of detail, but I have all I need to reconstruct the scene in my mind's eye, thanks in large measure to the notes I added while I was drawing it. I know exactly where to haul out and I've marked the best site to set up camp. I also know what to expect when the wind blows upriver, carrying clouds of mist from the falls. (Hint: I better not plan on drying any laundry.) I'm reminded of the ceaseless roar of hurtling water, too, and warned to watch my step on the moss‑slick cobbles.
The bottom line? Sketching is simple. Just do it. Pick up a pencil and begin. Start by outlining shapes and getting things in proportion, then move on to defining objects with judicious use of thicker, bolder lines and rough shading. Choose subjects from your house or garden — there's a reason why art classes usually start out with still lifes — or make sketches from photos you've shot on previous canoeing and kayaking trips. Then take your pencil and sketchpad out on the water. Don't be discouraged if your first efforts fall short of your expectations. Practice makes perfect, to be sure, but perfection isn't necessary here. This is one place where good enough is just that: good enough. And you're the only critic whose opinion matters. Remember that.
Once your eye and hand are working together, you're ready to capture even the most complex scene with the simplest of tools. You can strip a landscape down to a few basic elements or elaborate endlessly on a single flower. It's your call, and yours alone. The pencil is in your hand. You're making the decisions. And you'll reap the rewards. What are you waiting for?
What's next? Well, we've learned something about shape and proportion, but we've only just introduced the notion of shading. So next month I'll have more to say about the many ways light and shadow can give a sketch depth and dimension. See you then!
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