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We all would like to improve our drawing skills.   I have a wonderful little exerise that will surely improve your drawing and the way you approach a composition.  And I have found a great way to test it too!

“When you fail to prepare, you prepare to fail!”

I learned some valuable lessons in both painting and sketching in my last workshop.  Practice drawing, sketching before you commit that final drawing and paint to canvas (or watercolor paper in this case).  Of course, there is no substitute for practice and drawing.

I have created a small practice exercise that you may enjoy!  You may want to review my last post before reading this one, but I will review the main concepts here.  But before we go on with this lesson, I want to share some of my thoughts on the subject of plein air composition and sketching with and without the aid of using your phone and photos for help.

As we all know, when we go to plein air paint, we want to make a value sketch of our subject.  Even Vladislav Yeliseyev discussed how you can use your phone to capture a scene, break it up into the rule of thirds for compositional positioning.  However, there are many plein air competitions that do not allow phones for photo reference.

So this got me to thinking:  HOW ACCURATE WOULD MY DRAWING BE WITHOUT THE USE OF A PICTURE TO HELP ME?  We all want to rely on ‘crutches’ less when painting, especially in plein air.  In the studio of course, many people use light boxes for tracing, opaque projectors and other aids such as photos and grids to help them compose a painting.

In fact, using grids as a mechanical aid has been going on for centuries.  In a great post by Mike Sibley, he discusses the ‘grid method’ and how it was used in early paintings.

Of course, when trying to get a more detailed drawing and its proportions, you can simply use a pencil called ‘sighting’ to  measure proportions or a proportional divider.  This is also a good way to test the photo-grid method when I describe this below.

As Robert Wade described in his book, “Painting Your Vision in Watercolor”, he emphasizes the importance of drawing.

“The more you improve your drawing, the better your paintings will be.  Once you have drawn the true facts, you may depart from them in whatever way you desire, but if you wish to paint in a representative way, drawing is the basis for all good painting. “

So our goal with these exercises is painting plein air without the need of using a photo to help you and to improve drawing skills.

Winslow Homer, Artists Sketching in the White Mountains, 1868, oil on panel, 24.1 × 40.3 cm, Portland Museum of Art

After all, many painters of the 18th and 19th centuries certainly didn’t have pictures to help them composes their work.  What they saw in nature, they put down on paper or canvas right?  This got me to thinking and asking some simple questions like 1)  How did the old masters compose their works in plein air?  2)  What did they actually do in the studio to help them make such wonderful paintings?

The first documented outdoor painters are Italian artist Agostino Tassi (1578-1644), who taught artist Claude Lorrain (1600-1682), who is known to many as the father of outdoor painting. Italian artist Salvato Rosa (1615-1673) and French artist Nicolas Poussin (1594-1665) also painted with Lorrain. (

These pioneering artist’s began to quickly realize that painting outside captured the light and color much better than trying to remember it in the studio. It became an acceptable way to capture clouds and light as they appeared. Although it took more effort, the payoffs were greater because these paintings seemed to become ‘more alive’ when painted outdoors. 1830 to 1870 is characterized as the Barbizon movement known for a renaissance of French plein air painting in this period.

Although many of these artists ventured outside, many only took notes, made sketches and did not complete their work outside. They simply took the sketches back to the studio to complete the full painting.

After the Barbizon period, plein air painting saw it’s greatest revolution. This high point was termed “impressionism”.

“In the early 1860s, four young painters met in art school and discovered that they shared an interest in painting landscapes and contemporary life. They often ventured into the countryside together to paint in the open air, but not for the purpose of making sketches to be developed into carefully finished works in the studio, as was customary at the time.

They painted finished works on location. These young rebels became legends: Claude Monet (1840-1926), Pierre-Auguste Renoir (1841-1919), Alfred Sisley (1839-1899), and Frédéric Bazille (1841-1870) discovered that by painting in sunlight, directly from nature, and making bold use of the vivid synthetic pigments that had recently been invented, they could develop a lighter and brighter style of painting than the Barbizon painters.

At that time in Paris, an artist was not accepted into society or considered important unless his work was juried into an annual show of artworks called the Salon de Paris. Yet these young painters and their radical approaches were rejected by the Salon, so on April 15, at 35 boulevard des Capucines in Paris, Monet and friends Renoir, Camille Pissarro, and Sisley organized a month-long show of their paintings.” (

It’s safe to say, that some of our modern watercolor artists such as Zbuckvic, Pekel and many others still complete many of their works outside as sort of “watercolor sketches”. Sometimes these works are re-created in the studio on larger canvases or more completed works. Even Herman Pekel will sometimes make minor adjustments to his works completed outside and many times never retouched.

Unfortunately, many art schools now do not stress the importance of drawing and perspective, which is essential with plein air. Art schools are mainly interested in ‘art expression’ rather than teaching some of the fundamental skills learned by the masters. That is why many plein air artists of today usually have a fundamental background in drawing skills, such as Iain Stewart and Vladislav Yeliseyev (just to name a few), who are both accomplished architects for example.

“While this focus on freedom of expression may facilitate variety and the development of new forms of artwork, it fails to inculcate the values and skills needed for outdoors painting. Because of this, more and more traditional artists are voicing their dissatisfaction with modern methods of teaching art, and with the reluctance of official arts bodies to promote the principles of painterly craftsmanship.” (Visual Arts)

So, for most of us who didn’t get this type of ‘drawing’ background, so visual aids are a great way to start this journey.  Before we get on with my little exercise, I first want to touch a little on photos and how they distort what you see.  The way you take a photo (either looking up or down) will distort your photo.  So, as in drawing and where the eye is located, it’s best to take a photo with your phone at eye level.  There are a number of distortion and perspective correction utilities for the iphone and computer such as Lightroom and a utility called ‘perspective correct’.  A discussion here is beyond the scope of this post, but I will say that the biggest problems with photos is the lights and darks.  Photos distort colors and their tones.

So, let’s move on to the exercise.

So, 1) first pick a subject such as a still life and anything outside to sketch. Then 2) Take a picture of it just before you sketch and then put it away. 3) After you have sketched, divide the sketch up into thirds.

So here is the tester.

Once you have taken the sketch and divided the work into thirds (a total of 9 squares), take your picture and go to the photo editor of your phone or on the computer. Check to see how accurately you drew the plein air vs the photo. How well did your sketch stick to the grids in the photo editor? Did you get close or were you way off the mark?

The following is one of my first attempts at drawing on the beach and testing my perspective without the phone:

A simple plein air sketch. After the sketch, I checked it against the photo.

Here, I use the photo-grid test to check my sketch. As you can see, some of the proportions and dimensions are off.

So, in the above photo-grid test, I started pretty good with the left hand building, but then as I look at the squares to the center and the right grid line, my perspective of the pier was way off and should have extended further to the right.  The smaller third building is actually almost in the middle of the central right middle grid.  In my sketch, this 3rd building is on the central right grid line.  It’s also interesting how the sketch is actually ‘magnified’ or enlarged compared to the photo.

Another test would be to take the same sketch and try and match the grid to it at one point.  Here , I took the third small building on the right and matched it to the grid.  Again, we can see how the perspective of all the buildings and the pier is off.

Here, in the this second photo, I paired up my sketch with the third building to the right. Again, you can see how off the perspective is in the drawing. This is a great example of how the brain enlarges a drawing, throwing off the perspective.

So some of you may say, “well the sketch is really not that bad a sketch.”   And it certainly could be used for a painting, even if the proportions are off a bit.  However, this exercise is mainly to see and test that what you draw is somewhat proportionally accurate to a photo reference.  Again, it’s just an exercise.

I think you may surprise yourself. The first time I did it, I was amazed at how off I was on my perspective and the proportions of buildings, etc. But more importantly, as you continue to do this, it will help in drawing the proper perspective and proportions of the subject in front of you. I have also found that starting the sketch very small will also help to identify the proper proportions and perspective.

You will begin to see points as lines intersect and cross in relation to one another. I found that just observing the shapes and how they relate to one another will help in drawing the proper proportions.

You will also soon find out that drawing exactly what you see is not always necessary to produce a great composition.  Drawings can also be skewed to get a particular effect such as enlarging a focal point or moving items around such as lamp posts or trees to get a better composition.  However, the photo-grid test ( I’ll call it that), is a good exercise and may improving your plein air drawing without relying on photos or other devices.

It’s an easy exercise and requires very little effort , just a sketch pad, drawing pencil and your phone.  Practice a few times and then check yourself with the photo editor of your phone.  Your brain will soon begin to capture what the camera picks up as an image.  Good luck!


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