The Importance of the Field Sketch


The resulting pastel field sketch from the outing seen below.

After a winter of studio work, I was fortunate to find myself teaching in Scottsdale, Arizona, at the first of March. The Pastel Painters of Arizona sponsored the event. It was great to be in a climate that invited plein air painting again. After the initial shock subsided of leaving the snowy, freezing temperatures of Oregon, I anxiously jumped into the dance of the artist, one-on-one with nature. While the studio provides the time to explore new techniques and the luxury of constant light, the ability to experience subject matter under the sun’s influence can’t be beat.

Whenever I come back to working directly on location, I am reminded of its benefits and pitfalls. Stepping into the Sonoran Desert was no different. The subject matter was totally different from what I had been working with in Oregon. The intensity of light was extreme and textural variations overwhelming. I had to remind myself, even with the students watching, to approach the scene simply and to not become lost in the minute detail. A basic field sketch painting is the best way of doing this. It forces us to see “the big picture,” which is the foundation of all good painting and especially useful on location.

What makes a field sketch different is attitude, not quality. There are many techniques of pastel application that I personally enjoy, but not all of them lend themselves to quick spontaneous fieldwork. They are better left to familiar scenes and repeat performances when confidence is higher. For the field sketch, work small. Simplify the elements of the scene into a few major abstract shapes. Associate a color and value sense to those shapes. Then expand on that foundation, building form and texture until the painting reads well. Let the camera record detail. Spend your time asking yourself, “What is it I can record that the camera cannot?” It is that information that makes someone an en plein air painter. Don’t get bogged down in technique; be messy if need be; it’s the information you are recording that is precious. These painting sketches may be winners and worthy of framing, or serve as reference back in the studio. Either way, they are an important element and should not be overlooked.

Having the opportunity to interact with painting friends in Arizona was a treat and it provided the means of reminding me of the importance of working en plein air. Now if only the weather would improve in Oregon!

A workshop demonstration in Scottsdale, AZ.


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4 thoughts on “The Importance of the Field Sketch

  1. Robert Sloan

    Thanks for a timely article! Arkansas is swinging into my good season for being able to go out at all – spring is the best time of year for handling my disabilities.

    I bought your book, "Pastel Pointers" and am enjoying it thoroughly. I have to thank you again for the long-ago entry where you showed your palette box.

    Today my small Dakota Traveler pastel box arrived, similar to a backpack Heilman in some ways though it hasn’t got all of the perks like the shoulder strap or the long single piano hinge or the clamp to keep it flat open. I spent the whole day cleaning pastels, peeling labels off sticks and breaking them to consolidate pieces from 7 different boxes and a drawer of open stock orphans into it – and now have a grand palette of 270 pieces to bring out with me in a box I can personally lift without help.

    Even once it was full.

    Your palette has always inspired me, that color/value organization is familiar now from many different professionals’ assorted pastels boxes and trays. I’ve finally crossed that line and done it – the impact in person is incredible. It’s so inspiring just looking at that when it’s sitting open. The colors become irresistible in that arrangement.

    It makes me want to grab my field easel, folding chair and an extra stool or table to hold the pastel box open and head right out to Mt. Nebo or Mt. Petit Jean this Spring. I’m finally ready.

    Thank you again for a reminder not to try to paint too much in too much detail, but to work large to small, within a limited subject choice. I’d do better trying to paint several little pieces than try for a big finished painting. Studies of the cool tree, the way the distant hills look, my favorite pile of rocks, that’s the way to do it.

    I tried a couple of years ago and you would be laughing your head off at my results. Illegible scribbles punctuated by careful little details the camera captured better. Getting the colors right is a lot more important! Along with what those colors represent so I don’t wind up wondering what the yellow blob was.


  2. Willo Balfrey

    After a winter in our snow country it was inspiring to read and reinforce the importance of the field sketch and our attitude en plein air. Sometimes after the "winter studio work" I just expect to accomplish a good plein air painting. Your blog reminds me that spring warm up has to begin and getting the basic information down is so important – of course hearing the birds sing also helps. Keep up the great blogs – they are well read and needed. Willo Balfrey