BLOG 013 Making Field Sketching Easierby Jim Rataczak on 05/03/13
Depending on your subject, field sketching can be pretty hard, and I suppose that is why more artists don’t do it. I’m a bird guy, and birds might be the most difficult of all things to sketch from life. They’re small, and often obscured, but hey at least they move around a lot. Yeesh. So, why do it? After all, there is this little invention called a camera that can make an image with much less effort on my part.
First off, I, as an artist, am after the truth, and cameras lie. By “truth”, here, I mean what I think is right and good, given all my passions and priorities. There is a great scene in the movie “Bullets over Broadway” where Rob Reiner, who plays an artist, says, “We’re artists, we create our own moral universes.” Precisely! Cameras dispassionately record all the details. But they still don’t tell the whole story, at least not the story as I see it and, most importantly, as I feel about it. Don’t get me wrong, the camera has its place, but as a method of gathering reference. The images it takes should not, in my humble opinion, be used as subjects for fine art paintings.
In my moral universe, I like to see things first hand, and whenever possible, sketch them as I see them. There is a quality to field sketches that is very difficult, if not impossible, to replicate in the studio. In the field, I am forced to work quickly; I can’t record everything. I have to make decisions about what’s most important, what to prioritize. I make those decisions based on my own biases and intuition. The result is a more personal statement, and that takes me further down my road towards truth.
So, before I start a sketch, I try to figure out what it is that struck me about the scene in the first place, and then prioritize that element over all others. For example, this morning, I watched a hen Wood Duck sitting in a tree in our backyard. I was absolutely beguiled by her eye, and set out to sketch it. I added other details, but only insofar that they added context to my original target. She ended up sticking around for a few minutes, allowing me time to add some color, and notes about color, in the areas where I knew a photograph would give me little or inaccurate information. The resulting sketch is certainly incomplete, but it gives a fair representation of how I felt about that duck on that day under those conditions. Coupled with the photos I took (which were lousy due to poor light and long distance), I got some pretty useful reference material.
So the next time you’re field sketching, don’t try to draw everything. Target that aspect of the scene that really strums your inner guitar. This approach will help you make a better sketch. Even better, it’ll help you become more aware of your own priorities and values, and move you a little further along in your journey towards truth.