Plein Air – Choosing a Subject for Sketching Outside

I’m off to France this weekend for a week of cycling and painting. I’ve got my sketching kit – whittled down to the barest essentials (see my last post on plein air sketching kit) as I’m on my bike and carrying all my gear. Feels like quite an adventure and I’m really looking forward to it.

I’ll be taking advantage of coffee and lunch stops to get my sketch book and paints out to do a small sketch.  How do I choose?  For me it can be a myriad of things that catch my attention – the colours on a market stall, the shadows from a tree, the line or angle of a bench, a set of steps,  sunlight on water, roof tiles.  I draw what catches my attention in the moment.  Mostly I’m thinking about keeping it simple, as this is usually the most effective for me.

The temptation to paint the large and obvious I find doesn’t always work, the times I’ve done this I’ve often been dissatisfied with the result. Or, alternatively, when I spend ages and ages searching for the “perfect” view or the “right” thing to draw.  Spontaneity and being in the moment works well I find.

Here’s a few examples of some successful sketching, where there’s a narrow focus or I’ve kept it pretty simple.

Here’s a series of tree studies I did while away in Kent for the weekend. they were all located in the holiday park where we were staying!


Plein Air – What to take

Chesterfield Skyline on a moody evening.  Watercolour on Khadi Paper.
Chesterfield Skyline on a moody evening. Watercolour on Khadi Paper.

I really enjoy sketching and painting outside. It’s one of my recent discoveries and there’s a real delight for me in wandering around a new place, finding a view that appeals to me and settling myself down to draw and paint. My next post will deal with choosing what to paint, but this one is about the first step,  getting your kit together.

I mainly work in pen and wash, I’ve experimented with other media but for ease of use, what works well outside and being carried in a rucksack this works best for me.  Plus I like it.  I keep the kit pretty simple and have definitely whittled it down over the last couple of years.  Firstly the sketch book………

The Collection.......
The Collection…….

Have you an ever burgeoning collection of sketch books of various sizes, paper weights, styles??? I have.  Sketchbooks are a weakness of mine. I have an A4 book I use when I’m going to be in the car, or in one place for a while with good painting close by.   However, I’ve decided it’s too heavy for a rucksack.  Don’t get me wrong – it’s a great book, one of Stillman and Birn’s hardback lovelies but it weighs a tonne.  Far too heavy for carrying all day along with all my other bits and pieces.  I also find I have “current favourites” out of my sketchbook collection. My two most recent are a comfortably basic A5 cartidge paper book I picked up for a song at Art in the Gardens in Sheffield and a much more expensive purchase from the lovely L. Cornelissen on Great Russell Street London by Khadi Papers, so a rag paper with a fabulous tooth for watercolours and lovely absorbency.  Others that are waiting in the wings are a really special cloth covered delight from Global Art Materials in their Hand book series, and a very cute 6″x 8″ spiral bound number from Daler Rowney.  This latter I think will be great for quick sketches, notes and rough ideas.

Next brushes and paint.

I have a great brush case acquired from Patchings Art Festival a few years ago.  Patchings is definitely worth a visit, both for all the artists displaying their work, the demonstrations and workshops and the art supplies at bargain prices.  My brushes are Prolene Pro Arte and I usually take a 1″ flat,  a couple from the 101 Series a size 12 and 18 and one rigger size 3.  I have a couple of soft pencils,  a 3b and 6b, eraser, sharpener, couple of waterproof drawing pens in black and sepia.  I tend to use a fine pen now, but have experimented with different thicknesses and a brush pen. I think this is something for trial and error as you discover the type of marks you like to make.

Ready to go.
Ready to go.

My watercolour palette is one which has a good seal on it.  I keep to a fairly limited palette with colours I am drawn to, including lemon yellow, cadmium yellow, yellow ochre, cadmium red, windsor red, perylene maroon, indigo, paynes grey, dioxylene violet, perylene green, sap green and cerulean.  SO whilst I have quite a few colours with me I probably only use up to 3 or 4 in each sketch. Finally, a bottle of tap water, some drinking water (kept separate!) an old cloth for wiping any excess paint off my brush, small plastic pot for water and a wad of tissue for lifting out.  And that’s it.

Some sketches in the gallery below from over the last three of four years from close at home in the Peaks to as far afield as Cuba.


Tips, Techniques and How To’s

I’m exhibiting at the Horsforth Walk of Art this year on the 4th and 5th of July.  I like these type of open arts events, they attract a lot of people who like to paint, draw and craft themselves.  I get to meet people who want to find out about the work and who are often interested in trying the techniques for themselves. So, I thought in the run up I’ll do a weekly post where I will share one of the techniques I use, a tip about how to make use of a material, something I find useful in my painting or possibly a resource that I’ve found interesting or inspiring.

Centre outside
Come and see me at The Horsforth Centre, Low Lane.

If you want to be sure to receive each weekly post then make sure you sign up either to my blog, and if you have a technique or tip that you’d like to share then post a comment.

Happy Painting!

Viva Espania

Apartments overlooking the river.
Apartments overlooking the river.

I’m taking a break for a week.  I’m going to Catalonia on Friday to visit one of my favourite places  – Girona. It feels like a spiritual home. I love the architecture, the trees and parks, the apartments overlooking the river, the mixture of old and new that is a characteristic of the city. It has a vibrant atmosphere and is a place to wander for hours along its winding cobbled streets, leading to the hills the overlooking the city.

I’ve  not done my packing yet – but my new sketchbook is on the list along with a good selection of paints and probably some pastels too. I’ll be posting again when I get back along with my plein air work and while I’m away check me out on Instagram for daily updates with photos and sketches.

First Signs

Grape vine Amelanchier

The first signs of autumn are here. Leaves starting to turn, end of the blackberries, a cool crisp chill in the air first thing in the  morning, misty days like today.  I love the autumn colour, although its also tinged with a touch of wistfulness  for me as well.  The close of the summer, no more endlessly hot, bright days for a few months.   I always think that the glorious colours of autumn are natures last gasp of majesty before everything goes to sleep for the winter months. So, I’ve been capturing some of the early signs on my morning walks. The hawthorn, the rose hips, teasels, grasses and flowers going to seed and I’m beginning to think about autumn colour – burnt sienna, cadmium red, alizarin crimson, indigo and purple.

Hawthorn Rosehip 2 Teasel Blueberries

Absent for a While

It’s been a few months since my last post  – as well as a few months since I have been painting. The other part of my life – working as a psychotherapist – has taken priority for a while with lots of exciting new projects. However I’m getting back  into a painting groove and finding that absence is useful sometimes. I definitely finding that time away has been good as I’m coming back with fresh eyes and a new level of enthusiasm.  It’s also great to know that even with a few months away it’s not taking me long to feel at home again with a brush in my hand and to feel myself warming up to sketching and painting again.

I’ve not been completely inactive – I was in northern Italy earlier in the year and had a great time sketching in Venice. Here’s are a selection of my en plein air sketches.  I really enjoyed wandering the streets and allowing myself to be caught by a building, the light on one of the canals, the flowers in a window box.   There’s always a freshness and spontaneity to an outdoor sketch that can’t be replicated in the studio.


And finally a mixed media study.

Green Water
Green Water

Win a Print – Competition Time!

My latest competition to win a digital print of one of my paintings from the Blue of the Scillies collection starts today and ends on Saturday night at midnight.  Where on the Isles of Scilly is this? 


To enter reply here:

Two winners will be chosen at random from the correct answers.

Sign up to my mailing list to hear about future competitions.


There’s some wonderful moorland in the Peak District.  One of my favourite local walks is up on Stanage Edge.  Gritstone and heather with a skyline that seems to stretch on forever.  This time of year, before the heather blooms, makes for an interesting landscape with some fabulous colours.  The deep russets and purple of the shrubs contrasted with the sienna and yellows of the grasses. And as the  weather improves we get those days with intense cerulean skies and bright, bright light.


Endless Skies

Here’s a day just like that.  This day and photograph inspired some experimentation. I often like to play around with different versions of the same scene, in part preparation for larger paintings and sometimes just for the process.  After working through some ideas on composition and colour in my sketch OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAbook, I firstly tried a small watercolour and pastel sketch. I wanted to try out some colours on a larger scale and also see how they worked together on the paper.  These are current favourite combination, Perylene Maroon and Indigo.

Mixed Media Experiments. 

From this I developed another two versions, one a small acrylic and oil on canvas the other mixed media on paper.  The latter was great fun as I used tissue paper on watercolour paper first then primed it before painting to create a lot of texture.  So which one is your favourite?

Mixed media on paper
Mixed media on paper
Acrylic and oil on canvas.
Acrylic and oil on canvas.




What an amazing place Sicily is.  It’s about 6 months since our visit, we had 10 days in the Aeolian islands where we visited Stromboli, Lipari and Sicily, beautiful islands in a blue Mediterranean sea.  On Stromboli climbing the volcano to look down into the crater at sunset was an experience that has left me with a profound sense of the power of the planet.  To look down onto molten rock as the earth spews it out, to breath in the choking gas and steam, truly magical.

And time to sketch. I spent a lot of my time happily wandering the streets of the little towns where we stayed finding a spot to perch and set up my paints and sketch book and capturing a lovely view of a white church nestling in the trees, a distant island, a stunning view of hills and the sea.

Sometimes when I’ve been out sketching I’ve found myself wanting to capture everything I see and I’ve struggled with focussing on the key elements in front of me or simply missing bits out, because it’s just not possible or desirable to capture everything.  However in Sicily I found this happening, the process of leaving things out was much easier, I was able to concentrate on the key elements in the scene in front of me and capture these.  So here are a selection of my sketches from Sicily. With a few notes.

Competition Answer


I’d asked a question about this painting as my first “Win a Print” competition – here it is below.

What Colour?

I often like to use a single colour as an under-painting on a canvas or piece of board as a base.  The painting below is one of my earlier pieces of St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall. The question is:

What specific colour did I use for the under-painting on this picture  of St Michael’s Mount?

In this case the colour was Alizarin Crimson, although I would have also accepted red. There are some clues in the painting, for example in the top left you can see the red from the under-painting where I have deliberately left it showing through and there are hints of red too in the foreground.  Thanks very much to everyone who entered and better luck next time.