Drawing from life in the field


Reference material is an essential tool for artists of all disciplines and many of us rely on photographic reference to help keep our work looking realistic and accurate. However, the only thing better than photos is the chance to work directly from life. There’s just no replacement for looking at an object or animal in three-dimensional space and really getting a sense of how it is built.

In this tutorial, I’ll be taking you into the field with me to discover how a live setting can not only inform your drawings but also perhaps provide the inspirational spark for your work.

cicada on thumb

Packing for an outing

If you’re planning on spending some time drawing in the field, it’s important that you have whatever you need to get the job done and stay comfortable. For a long day outdoors in the Oregon summer, I brought a small folding tripod stool that clips to my backpack, paper and a hard surface to lean on while drawing, drawing tools, and my camera. I also had the basic outdoor essentials: a sun hat, sunscreen, comfortable walking shoes, lots of water, and an arsenal of snacks.

travel drawing kit

My travel drawing kit has a set of my favorite pens and pencils, backup ink and lead refills, and a good eraser.

Become an information sponge

I often go into the field with a sense of what I want to draw, but experience has taught me that searching for something specific in nature guarantees that I won’t find it that day. For this outing, my goal was to make a painting that captured the essence of the oak savannahs in summer. To that end I spent a couple of hours just walking and absorbing the visuals and sounds of the space, making mental notes of things that repeatedly caught my interest: purple and pink wildflowers in the dry grass fields, and cicada song from all directions.

purple flowers in countryside

These flowers caught my eye as a good visual pairing.

Get ready for surprises

Having decided that I wanted to do something with wildflowers and cicadas, I stopped and set up my drawing stool to draw some of the flowers. The moment I sat down, a cicada crawled out of the grass and onto my leg to see what the fuss was about. I immediately switched focus and started the piece with the cicada as my model. Field sketching is all about adaptability, taking advantage of unexpected opportunities, and accepting that things will move and change before you’re ready. Before I start drawing something I always take a very thorough look at it so that I can remember what I saw if it decides to leave suddenly.

cicada on thumb

Having a form right in front of you enables you to look at it from different angles and get a better understanding of its structure.

Putting a composition together

Normally I’ll start the drawing process with thumbnail sketches to figure out a composition, but in the field I really want to use the opportunity I have to capture what’s in front of me, so I usually jump right in as soon as I have a vague idea. I started with the cicada, filled in the flowers, and decided that the flowers ought to be coming from somewhere. This time of year I see a lot of cicada nymph casings around, so I thought it would be appropriate with the theme of growth and early summer to make it look as though everything had emerged and grown from one of these exoskeletons.

cicada and flowers sketch

Make sure to take lots of reference photos before you leave the field so you can use them later in the process.

Thinking about inking

Once the drawing is reasonably filled out, I begin inking with a black Pentel brush pen. Brush pens mimic a traditional fiber brush, but feed ink to the bristles at a consistent rate so that it is easy to make both very delicate and very bold lines. A benefit of Pentel brush pens in particular is that their ink is 100% waterproof and won’t lift up with anything less than a hard scrubbing, so they’re ideal for work that you are going to watercolor later.

inking cicada

I use cold press watercolor paper, which gives my ink lines more texture and character.

Toning the paper

My first step in the painting process is almost always to put down a light, flat layer of a neutral color. Getting rid of the white of the page takes away some of the intimidation factor from starting a painting, and it is also helpful for setting up your value structure. An initial application of watercolor on a white page can look dark, but it’s difficult to get actual dark values with watercolor, and as the painting progresses you may discover that your darks weren’t dark enough at all. By toning the page just a bit, I am ensuring that the bright white paper doesn’t skew my ability to determine how dark my values should be.

wash over ink

This wash technique only works if you’re planning to repaint your lightest areas with an opaque medium- otherwise you need to mask off your light areas to keep them white.

Watercolor foundations

After letting my toning layer dry, I start putting down watercolor layers. My goal in the watercolor phase is to determine the overall color palette of the painting, and to get all my darkest areas painted in. I am not going to address any areas that need to be lighter than the background until the next step.

coloring inked drawing

Ink line art simplifies the coloring process by providing a framework for the elements of your piece.

Opaque layers with gouache

Gouache is an excellent medium for clarifying areas of bright color that might have gotten muddy in the watercolor stage, and painting in all of the areas that are lighter than the base background layer. Regular gouache is water-soluble so it can be moved around while acrylic gouache, as the name suggests, is more like acrylic paint and is not very workable at all. I use acrylic gouache because I occasionally add more watercolor after the gouache phase and I don’t want that water washing all my gouache work away.

Opaque layers with gouache

These bright highlights will make the cicada carapace shine and give it some dimension against the neutral background.

Shiny, sparkly details

I typically save the background design of my vignette paintings for last. Sometimes this means a flat gouache shape framing the main subject, or more drawn elements like clouds or patterns that compliment the subject thematically. For this painting, I chose to draw in an abstract design of concentric lines with white gel pen. I wanted it to be reminiscent of clouds, the wildfire smoke that is a staple of summer in this part of the world, or perhaps even sound lines to represent cicada song.

painting of cicada and flowers

Using only my eyes and my camera, I was able to gather everything I needed to complete this painting.

Respect your models

Always respect the space and autonomy of animals while drawing in the field. Do not attempt to handle any animal that hasn’t volunteered, and make sure to keep a considerate distance from anything that might be stressed by your presence. When field sketching you are a visitor in the animal’s habitat, and no one likes a rude guest.

starfish illustration

This starfish didn’t want to sit still for its portrait. Moving it back would have been stressful for it, so I took photos and let it go on its way.

The magic of sand erasers

Made a bad mistake with your watercolor or ink? Try a sand eraser. Erase gently but persistently, and the sand eraser will scrape off the very top layer of the paper and remove the problem spot. (This change in surface texture can change how watercolor is absorbed later, so be cautious about repainting if you erase a large area.)

sand eraser

If you can’t get your hands on one of these, medium grit sandpaper will work too.

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