En Plein Air

Drawing and painting outside, or as the French say it with much more elegance, <<en plein air>>, has been a passion of mine since childhood. Our holidays were often spent in gîtes in France (once an economical holiday option...not so much now, I've discovered!) where I would set up outside with a sketchbook or paper pad, pencils and pens, inventing stories about the passing slugs and sketching the details of countryside life around me. I like to think I was quite an easy child to entertain.

Later, I began taking a watercolour set and brushes with me and I still do, on most holidays and camping trips. We take thousands of photographs in this digital age, which is wonderful of course, but for me, there's something very special about a sketch or painting to conjure up memories of a trip. Some of the examples below are almost 30 years old and they still transport me right back to particular moments when I look at them.

Watercolour painting of French countryside

Watercolour and ink painting of French flowers in a glass jar

Watercolour and ink sketch of a green car outside a house in France

As a teenager and into my 20s, I got into cycling along the coastal paths from my hometown of Blyth to Seaton Sluice, to sketch the boats in the harbour. I had acquired an Observer's Book of Ships from who knows where and it was the perfect size to take with me, along with a trusty fineliner. With my simple annotations of location and date, it became something of a visual diary. Sketching outdoors really can be as simple as a piece of paper or small book, a pen and something to lean on. 

The Observer's Book of Ships blue cover

Fineliner sketches of boats inside The Observer's Book of Ships

I keep hold of my worldly possessions tightly and not only do I still ride the bike I had as a teenager (a sturdy Raleigh Alaska mountain bike, if you were wondering), I also use the same watercolour set. A little watercolour paint goes a very long way, apparently.

Watercolour paints and a glass of wine by the pool on holiday

A few years ago, I was gifted a travel watercolour set by dear friends, along with a water brush and I'm ashamed to say I had never used them. Determined to rectify this, I took them away with me on our recent camping trip for a test run. Here are my thoughts...

Travel watercolour paints and mustard coloured pencil case on a camping table in front of a bell tent

Watercolour painting onto a fineliner drawing in front of a bell tent

Watercolour sketch of foliage using bright green tones

I started with a fineliner sketch, as I would with my usual watercolour set. I then filled the reservoir of the brush with water and used it in the travel paint palette. It took a bit of getting used to and the brush was bulkier than I would usually use so I felt I had less control but the flip side of that is that it felt very free and I ended up creating quite a loose watercolour sketch because of that. I would say that the water brush is perfect for quick sketches but for something more refined, smaller brushes that can be dipped in water for just the right amount are probably preferable. I wasn't sure how to best clean the brush so ended up with a piece of kitchen towel to dab it on between colours, which did work quite well.

Watercolour painting of trees on a blue table with travel watercolour set 

Last year I discovered watercolour pencils and have been singing their praises ever since (I've even designed my Summer Art Set around them...more info on that below!). When out and about, the easiest way to use them is to sketch as you would with an ordinary colouring pencil, then add water later to create a watercolour effect. All you need is one paintbrush and a cup / bowl / pot of water or a water brush if you prefer.

Staedtler watercolour pencils

I promise I'm not affiliated with them but after trying out a few different brands, I have found Staedtler Aquarell watercolour pencils to be a great, reasonably priced option. They don't leave the pencil stroke marks when water is added, as some watercolour pencils do and they blend brilliantly. Word of warning, though...I have found the black watercolour pencil in this set to be very intense so take care or it can dominate when you add water. A little goes a long way!

watercolour pencil sketch of natural object in front of a campfire

Watercolour pencil sketch with water being added using a water brush, in front of a campfire

Watercolour pencil painting of a seascape

So to finish, here are my 5 Top Tips for drawing and painting en plein air:

1. Keep it low stakes and low pressure. Everyone has their own preference of scale but I prefer to draw and paint in a small sketchbook as it feel more low key and is easily transportable. I'm not very consistent in my use of sketchbooks so I have loads of unfinished books of all shapes and sizes. It took me a while to make peace with the fact that it's a disorganised, scattered collection. I've come to terms with it now (just about!). Annotating with date and location can help you make sense of it all in years to come.

Ringbound sketchbook on a pebble beach with a watercolour painting on the open page

2. Try painting on watercolour postcards. You can buy these as a pack or simply cut down some heavy watercolour paper to postcard size. Send to your friends and family. I promise you, they will be delighted.

Postcards scattered on a plain surface, featuring watercolour and ink paintings

3. Keep your tools and materials simple and minimal. A water bottle or flask lid can double as a water pot for painting. One paintbrush is sufficient and a biro makes a great alternative if you don't have a fineliner to hand. You can even sketch in pen or pencil, take a reference photograph then add colour when you're back home if you don't want to carry too many materials around. Make the technology work for you!

Fineliner drawing on watercolour paper, sitting on the beach on a tartan picnic rug

4. If you have children, get them involved! My little Mini Me now sometimes joins in, sitting beside me with his sketchpad, watercolour postcards or just a pencil and whichever leaf, feather or fantasy creature has taken his fancy as subject matter. 

Pencil sketch of an Osprey feather with the real feather next to it

Drawing whilst sitting on the pier

5. Remember these are NOT photographs. It sounds obvious but if you want it to look exactly like a photograph, then take a photograph. When you're drawing or painting, embrace the fact that it won't look exactly like reality. Enjoy the wobbly lines and incorrect proportions. They are your interpretations, your memories and they are precious!

Sketch of a pinecone with the date in French

Sketchbook open with fineliner drawing on the page, in front of a beautiful French country house

Nature sketches in watercolour and ink, in a ringbound sketchbook with a mustard coloured pencil case next to it

Detail of a French house in watercolour and ink

Sketchbook open with a fineliner drawing on the page, on a garden table

Watercolour sketch of a French house, in a ringbound sketchbook with paintbrushes resting beside it

Fineliner sketch of a detail from a French house

Watercolour sketch of a wooden bench in a garden

Watercolour and ink nature sketches in a ringbound sketchbook

Illustrator Suzanne Pink sketching on holiday in France, wearing sunglasses and a wide-brimmed hat 

Suzanne Pink Creative Club Summer Art Set



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