For as long as I can remember there has always been a discussion (and sometimes heated arguments) about where and how painters get their inspiration and ideas to work from and in particular whether it’s OK to work from photographs or whether there is something special about those who choose to work on the spot en plein air. 

For those who know me as an advocate of the latter approach, it might come as a bit of a surprise to hear that actually I don’t give a hoot how a painter acquires the information they need to produce a finished work because for me all that matters is the quality of the painting itself. 

For those of us who might be considered devotees of figurative art and for the public in general, the period of 19th century French impressionism is highly regarded and it’s worth occasionally taking the time to ask ourselves why. 

Perhaps the biggest influence was the fact that paint became available in tubes, which were much more portable and convenient than previous arrangements of pigs’ bladders and studio assistants carrying the gear, making it much easier to work out in the open air but I would suggest that arguably an even bigger advantage (apart from the French climate), was that they didn’t have digital cameras. 

OK, they may have had access to early plate cameras and images or camera-obscura arrangements but in the main, for the Impressionists and in particular, Turner and Constable before them, the only way to get the information needed was to get out there and look, sketch, and where possible paint on the spot. 

Painting en plein air has many advantages but I readily accept that it also poses problems. The weather changes, shadows move, people and wildlife sometimes get in the way, the tide comes and goes and there is usually a need to get on with it without too much fiddling about and too much fine detail. 

The main advantage is that decisions are made there and then about what to include or leave out, what is important or what isn’t and you become much more aware of the subject and the surroundings as well as the subtle changes of tone and colour, much more so than you would in a photograph. 

Plein air painters, in general, are a hardy bunch but I recognise that however for many, it isn’t always possible or even advisable to be spending hours working outside for long periods. 

However, there are ways of working that can achieve the same sort of result and avoid the pattern of just taking a few photographs and taking them back home to paint from, not least because unless you are pretty good at photography and kitted out with a decent camera, the results in terms of tone, colour and perspective can often be less than ideal and they tend to lead into the trap of copying the photo in all its fine detail and lose the critical individual creative input.

My way of working for much of the time is to use a sketchbook. In its simplest form, I will often just use a pencil – an 8 or 9B is absolutely fine or sometimes I will use a clutch pencil, which has a fatter soft lead that can be retracted and therefore is easier to stuff in a pocket. 

This is not about detailed drawing with a fine point but about the ability to produce a loose monochrome sketch with loose shading, free lines and tones by just increasing or decreasing the pressure on the pencil. 

I find that spending 5 minutes or less on one of these sketches will usually give me enough information to work from and it means that I’m already making crucial decisions about the subject of the painting and where it is placed within the composition. 

Working like this means that I have the freedom to re-arrange the elements to make a better picture. If a boat needs moving to balance the composition, fine. If a mooring pole or a mooring is effectively out of the line of sight but adds something to the composition, then I move it into the frame. 

I’m creating a picture, with an atmosphere and a sense of time and place, rather than trying to paint exactly what’s there. When working from a photograph it’s all too easy to get trapped into painting the image exactly as it appears.

This is an example of the pencil sketch approach in a little fishing village called in Tigert, Morocco. I have photographs of course but producing a sketch enabled me to incorporate the figures (they weren’t there) and for the sake of composition, the boats have been realigned somewhat. Everything is loose in terms of line and block shading.

This is a quick sketch of cottages beside the beck at Staithes in North Yorkshire. This is a location where it is all too easy to become bogged down with detailed or even architectural drawing but the attraction for me is the way the cottages tumble down towards the water. 

I let the pencil wander, I like bent roofs and walls that aren’t quite straight and working quickly like this encourages a loose approach which won’t happen if you have all the time in the world to copy a photo. 

Both of these sketches were made with an 8B soft pencil. Used gently it will produce light and thin lines whilst increasing the pressure increases the tone and thickness.

A slightly different approach with this sketch which is made with a clutch pencil. These have a thicker lead than a conventional pencil – carefully drawn lines are impossible – but it’s ideal for fast blocked in areas of tone, producing a lively loose drawing that can be used to paint from.

I don’t need any more information than this. I’m quite happy to make up anything that I feel is missing and I can concentrate on the overall effect of the composition rather than worrying about fine detail.

There does come a point of course when you need more information about colours, although it’s surprising how much information is retained by just concentrating for 5 or 10 minutes. I used to carry around a roll of coloured pencils, which worked fine by extending the pencil sketching process into colour. 

I haven‘t really abandoned that approach but in recent years, I’ve tended to move towards sketching in watercolour. 

The secret with this approach is to keep the equipment to a minimum – in my case, it consists of small Winsor & Newton ‘Bottle Box’, which hold 12 ½ pans of paint and has a water container built-in, with a small reservoir which hooks on the side and I use a size 12 retractable Escoda sable brush, all which fit easily into a pocket and of course a small sketchbook of watercolour paper. 

This approach obviously takes longer but the results are worth the extra time it takes. It’s almost a halfway stage towards a plein air painting but it takes a lot less time. The secret is to keep it small and doesn’t overwork it.

This sketch was painted on a beach north of Essaouira and was the information for the larger finished work that is in this year’s RSMA show. It’s painted on a Khadi sketchbook, beginning to fall apart and held together with clips - my sketchbooks have a hard life! 

I love this handmade Indian paper, colour repro is great and these 20 x 20 cm sketchbooks are ideal for this sort of approach. In this instance, there is a little bit of pen work as well with a Faber Castell PITT artist waterproof pen.

This is a pure watercolour sketch at Paull on the North Bank of the River Humber. In a way it doesn’t get more minimalist than this – just watercolour painted quickly, again on Khadi paper – this time it was just a small A4 size sheet, held down with a couple of clips. 

The paper wasn’t stretched or carefully prepared, which meant it buckled a bit but I like the spontaneity of it, the loose sky and the reflections and a happy memory of an hour or so painting.


As an occasional teacher on painting courses I see so many students whose first course of action when arriving at a painting spot is to start taking photos in all directions and then later I find them trying to study the results on smartphones and iPads and attempting to work from or copying the image and I spend a lot of time trying to explain that painting is not about accuracy. 

If I painted the little watercolour of Paull above accurately from a photo, it is highly likely it would be rather boring. It wouldn’t have the freedom to use a little imagination and get the feeling of the moment.

Finally for those of you who feel you must use photos, can I suggest an alternative approach? Try sketching from the photograph. Put the photo up on a screen, the bigger the better and produce a sketch from it. Don’t attempt to copy it, just use the information that you want and ignore the things that aren’t of interest. 

If there’s something you can’t be sure of what it’s all about, don’t start messing with a magnifying glass or blowing up the image, just use your imagination and most importantly when you have finished, turn off the computer, hide the photo and don’t keep going back to it. Just use the sketch and be creative.

David Howell PPRSMA is a Past President of the Royal Society of Marine Artists, and has a collection of works as part of the Annual Exhibition taking place until 10 October.

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