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If it was a snake it would bite you!  This is what my mother always told me when ever I was looking for something that was right under my nose.   Being a want-a-be herpetologist I always loved that saying, but never forgot the connotation that maybe I was looking too hard!

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No, the Snake isn’t dead – it’s just tired of trying to crawl away!

Finding a good subject to draw often seems more difficult than it need be.   Even if you know what you’re looking for it’s often right under your nose – like that snake my Mom was always referring to.  There’s an old saying, “if y’er look’n fer it you’ll neber find it.”  Well, I’ve proved the truth of that saying time and again!  So, if you have the itch to get out and sketch nature but don’t know where to start, then I suggest you do what my artist friend, Lynn Waltke, recently told me, she said, I just want to “go out and do some sketching in whatever field I can find!”  Good idea Lynn … Grab your sketchbook or field journal and follow me!   Wait… I’m getting ahead of myself.  I first want to talk about my approach to going out and looking for a subject.

Sometimes I’ll go out looking for a certain type of bird, plant or habitat to gain more reference for a painting in progress, but more often I’m out exploring wherever inspiration leads me with this thought in mind:  the success of my studio paintings are directly related to my knowledge of and field experience with my subject.  Therefore, my goal is to do more than just find something to draw or paint, it’s to explore and record what I find of interest in a given area, gaining knowledge and first-hand experience in the process.   For years I was an avid birder, so any exploration was all about finding birds – that made me predisposed to looking for them.   Now I’m more of a “generalist”, with a focus on birds, but just as interested in a new flower or some strange lizard!   If you are like me (God help you) and  interested in everything in nature, then the great outdoors might be a bit overwhelming.  I need a way to break things down into more focused units of study; allowing myself time to take things in.

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Sue and I exploring a Mexican beach

There are many ways of finding a subject, but if you are with a friend who is also an artist (like my wife and best friend , Sue Westin) you can walk and look together for something to catch your eye but eventually you will need time and space to process your discovery.  For me this is best done alone without the distractions of a shared experience.   When I’m on an art adventure with Sue, we will usually start off together but nearly always end up solo, then by hand radios we arrange to rendezvous later.

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A quite time on the Passaic River, NJ

When I first walk into an area I assume everything alive is aware of my arrival, so I’ll look for a nice place to sit down and wait for the critters to come out of hiding.  My Dad first taught me this as a youngster when he’d take me out Squirrel hunting.  He called it “still hunting”.  After about ten or fifteen minutes the woods would start to come alive again.  I no longer hunt but still use the technique.  Here is how it works.

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“Still Hunting” with a brush.

Reading  the Field Journal text above reveals my attraction to an area of color and texture, inspiring me to making a small  landscape study in my field journal.  I made this study because I knew in doing so I would make a right brain “cognitive connection” with the natural world around me.  I painted atmosphere while breathing it in, spring smells and earth colors mixed into one memory, as the birds came out of hiding they added melody to the mix.  I now associate Cardinals, Juncos, Grackles and Red-winged Blackbirds with the smells, colors and textures of Spring’s vernal pools and melting snow.

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If you wait they will come!

Another example of a journal painting from where I sat down and waited for nature to reveal ideas to paint.  I don’t always just sit and paint, sometimes I slowly and quietly walk around with my binoculars looking and sketching while exploring the many different treasures to be found.  It seems like as soon as you start sketching something it’s not long before other things will catch your eye, like this kinglet that popped up for a peek.  These little “happenings” might be the beginning of a new idea or just part of the learning process.

The View Finder

When drawing landscapes or scenes with complicated shapes you might want to try using a view finder.  The examples show ones I have used in the past.  I would mount them on my tripod so my hands were free to make the drawing.   You can buy view finders but I make my own from thick plastic, with cut-outs the same proportions as my canvas sizes.  I can then place the VF on my paper and trace out the rectangle so my sketch proportions will match what I see through the finder.  The sketch can later be enlarged directly to a canvas of the same proportion.

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Labrador tundra shoreline and plant study.

If I’m interested in an area and really think I may do a painting from it I like to survey the area, then write down the forest type or the dominate plants of a field or shrub community.  Being a naturalist and an artist I often combine my art with a little science as shown in these two field studies that record plant diversity of the barren-ground tundra I was exploring in northern Labrador.  Writing down your feelings about the place is a good way to get in touch with how you are responding to the scene.  The more you know about your subject the more freedom, and authority, you have in making composition, color and subject decisions back in the studio.   If you’re in a new area and don’t know the names of the plants, that’s OK.  I often don’t.  In that case I sketch and photograph the plants that attract my attention and look them up later.  This is the  “gaining knowledge” part of my creative process

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Caribou and tundra field studies – George River, N. Quebec, Canada

After a while I have a collection of sketches, photographs and small location paintings.  From these references and the new experiences gained collecting them I will start getting ideas for studio paintings.

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Thumbnail location sketches from my small pocket journals.

While still in the field I’ll sketch out small thumbnail compositions to play around with different themes.  This way I won’t forget about an idea, but, more importantly it helps me focus on what other sketches and photo references I may need to acquire before leaving the area.

There is nothing more frustrating than getting back to the studio only to find out you don’t have all the references needed to finish an idea. I don’t think being flustered over finding a subject is like the “White Out” experience I blogged about earlier, where one is afraid to start a drawing – although it’s related if one is afraid they won’t find anything worth drawing.  Does that little voice inside you keep telling you to stop wasting  time wandering around with a sketchbook when you could be back in the studio painting – making money?  Well, tell that “little voice” that Andrew Wyeth spent a lot of time wandering around with his sketchbook and he managed to find time in the studio and make money!   Jean Shadrach, an artist friend and early mentor of mine, used to tell me, when I’d complain about how hard it was to find a suitable (salable) subject, “don’t worry, John, about what you draw – I believe you can turn anything you choose to draw into a work of art”  It took me a while to buy into that statement and realize the truth in it.  She was right, not because she felt  I was a good artist, but because she knew from her own experience that a sense of design and aesthetic will instinctively find its way into an artist’s work, even their preliminary sketches.  It may take time to trust and believe in that but it’s well worth remembering.

 Good luck sketching on your next adventure – may your pencils always be sharp and your binoculars in focus!

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I think one of the reasons many artists don’t do a lot of location sketching is because they aren’t prepared to.  That is to say they don’t have pen and paper with them so when a sketching opportunity arises they can take advantage of it.

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 My vest or shirt pocket almost always carries  a small black Moleskine and a couple of pens in it.    If my shirt or coat doesn’t have the right size pockets to accommodate a small sketchbook I don’t wear them!   I don’t feel the need to draw everything I see but I know that if I have paper and pen I’m far more likely to practice!  I no longer worry if I can draw something or not, I just do it and if it doesn’t turn out – so what?  It’s all about practice and keeping your hand moving.  Regardless whether you’re a portrait artist, an architectural artist or landscape painter don’t restrict yourself to just drawing within your specialty.   I’m a professional wildlife artist, which means I draw and paint pictures of nature, but, I don’t feel I have to see a bird or find a flower before I can sketch!  That wasn’t always the case.  I use to put only nature stuff in my field journals and sketchbooks.   Now I draw or write what ever inspires me, and as a result,  I actually sketch more and draw better.  Here are some different ways that keep me sketching even when I’m not working in the field.

I see two basic ways to keep in practice.

1. Private Sketching

Private sketching is drawing at a place where you don’t have to worry about strangers watching you as you draw.  You can practice with less stress which means you can concentrate and do a better job of interpreting your subject.

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Sketching  people around you, such as a spouse, room-mate or your kids is always good practice.  Don’t overlook the TV as a source for study.  The two characters on the left are from a local weather channel.  It is a challenge to sketch from TV,  as the camera jumps from person to person and sometimes you end up with a composite image.  That’s OK because your goal is to practice, not create a likeness.  The little French girl in my sketch is not French at all, she is my daughter Liz.  I actually drew this image from a photo, but included it as a reminder that kids are great subjects.  When sketching family I usually do simple contour drawings like the one of my son Chris with his first beard!

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If you don’t have kids, then sketch a spouse or a room-mate.   You don’t get off the hook that easy!  There are always pets, yours or your neighbors, or just look for things around the house that can keep your pen to the paper.

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Now let’s assume you don’t live with some kind of family, there are no pets,  no TV and nothing lying around the house.  Well then just Doodle for practice.  I sometimes like to “phone doodle”.  I made these doodles years ago during long, long distance calls to my future wife (each sketch was one call).  I know,  judging from the detailed nature of the works one might wonder just how much I was paying attention to what she was saying.  I guess you’ll  never know,  I just liked hearing her voice!

2. Public Sketching

Now public sketching is where it gets a little tricky.  If you’re anything like me (and you should hope not) you will need a way to soften the public humiliation that comes with sketching or painting in public.   I will talk more about this in later posts but for now I have a couple of tips.  Start by drawing with other artists or in front of people who are “safe”.  Who is safe?   How about your Great-grandmother that sleeps all day and walks the halls all night – I think she is safe.   A safe person is anybody who will not criticize your efforts or make tongue-in-cheek remarks about keeping your day job!   You are looking for someone like my Mother, may she rest in peace, no matter how bad I drew she was always amazed at my unharnessed potential for greatness –  what a Mom!   I think one of the safest audiences found are kids.

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Like my niece, Elizabeth.  I used to drawn simple bird sketches for her and then give her the pen and let her draw one for me.  We both loved it and we grew in confidence as we encouraged each other with exclaims of wonder.  Try sketching at your kid’s preschool class or contact a local school and tell the art teacher (if there is one) that you would like to share some drawing skills with the students.  This may seem stressful at first but you will be working in a supportive environment.   Most art teachers I know welcome guest artists and always find ways to fit demonstrations into their curriculum .  I always ask if the school has a budget that supports guest instructors – they usually find a way to pay me a few bucks!

My next advise is to go to church!  Church is always a safe place, no one dares to say anything while your sketching.  If you stay for “coffee hour” people may ask you about it, and if you wish to share the sketch they are always polite with their comments…after all they’re in church!

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Church and social functions are good places to practice sketching

I don’t go out looking for public places to draw, but there are certain places I like to sketch at and church is one of them.  Sometimes I take a 9 x 12 sketchbook to church but mostly I just draw in a small Moleskine book.   If I forget my sketchbook I draw on the back of a bulletin (I never draw in the hymnals).  I’ll sit in the pew and sketch during the sermon – don’t worry, the minister will just think you’re taking notes on his wonderful sermon.  BLOG WARNING: If you are sitting with your spouse, or significant other, you must not let them think your art is more important than being with them.  I suggest only one small sketch per sermon. Hold their hand gently, smile at them frequently, wink appropriately and you’ll be fine!

Church Sketches 96My sketches will range from simple line drawings to more shaded renderings.  I treat church drawings as simply exercises in seeing shapes, negative spaces and as practice in creating controlled compositions out of chaos.  It is not how good they are that matters, it’s that I’m exercising my creative muscle that counts!

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If you don’t have paper use a napkin!

Another fun place to practice your eye-hand coordination is at a cafe or restaurant.  If you forget your sketchbook you can always make the ever popular “napkin drawing”.  In a cafe setting I do more or less blind contour drawings (drawing without looking much at your paper).  they’re simple, quick and you can do it without the people knowing you are sketching them.  Here again, likeness is not the goal.  You may not realize all the interesting faces around you until you start making contours of them.  Have fun!

All material in this blog is strictly copyrighted by John C. Pitcher 2020

WHITE OUT – Page Fright!

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What better way to start a blog on field sketching and painting than by talking about a nearly universal fear called ” page fright ” or what I call



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I’m not afraid!

 When I stare at a blank white drawing pad or journal page it reminds me of the Midwest “white out” snow storms of my youth, and having lived in Alaska for twelve years I can remember snow conditions being so blinding that you almost come to a halt …you know you must proceed forward but it feels so scary!   If you’re a seasoned artist you have probably found ways to deal with this but if your just starting to draw nature from life, keep sketchbooks or start a nature journal, it might comfort you to know that any fear of a blank page you may have you do not face alone.  Artists and writers alike deal with this in some form or another.

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Facing that blank sheet – how do I start?

It’s different from “writer’s block”… when you just can’t think of what to write or paint.  Some artists say it’s the feeling of not wanting to ruin a good clean page in a sketchbook, an expensive sheet of watercolor paper or a page in a fancy empty book that causes such a stressful beginning.   When I first started sketching outdoors a combination of things caused “White Out”:  little experience in drawing moving objects, not being very familiar with my subjects (birds), and an unhealthy fear of failure as an artist.  My fears were fed by that little voice inside of me, whispering, ” you can’t draw very good and to try will only prove it!”  I also questioned if my subject was important enough to justify marking up a clean sheet of paper… “Little Voice” might say, “maybe you should draw on scrap paper; therefore, if it doesn’t turn out you’re not wasting another page with a silly little sketch”.  That approach may seem to make sense at first but it implies that I’m not good enough to use a “real” sheet of paper!  I needed to learn how to control such negative thoughts, not feed them.  Alternatively, start by using an inexpensive spiral bound sketchbook to just practice drawing in.  Think of this sketchbook as personal, you don’t have to show it to anyone.  A musician often practices just warm-up scales in addition to his repertoire of songs – but he never performs a “Warm-up Scale” Concert.  Do practice sketching different things, not just what you like best, all in the frame of mind that they are just “scales”, not to be judged too harshly.  I doubt I will ever rid myself completely of “White Out fears” but I have learned ways to control them … and I know practice is one of the best ways!

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Freedom at last – I don’t have to erase! (but I still want to)

With me, page fright is mostly psychological, rooted in my perceived skill and confidence levels.   How I view myself and what I think others may expect of me plays an even bigger role in trying to deal with this fear.  Over the course of my adult life, not so much my youth, I have been dealing with an inferiority complex about calling myself an artist.  That said, my main weakness is a lack of confidence in my drawing ability.  Having never gone to art school (or counseling) I had to find my own way to deal with this complex.  About thirty years ago I reasoned that if everyone else seems to think I’m an artist, than OK, I give up – I’m an artist!  Continuing that line of thought I reasoned that if I’m an artist than “wrong lines” were not mistakes after all, just “artistic expressions”!   Back then I mostly used a pencil for drawing, which allowed me to erase and erase and erase…often ending in a smudgy mess.  But with new insight, thinking every line I drew was artistic I no longer needed to erase. Right?  After all, why would I want to erase an artistic line?  From that time on I started drawing with an ink pen so as to take erasing out of the equation.  Sure it was scary, but by drawing lightly at first, when searching for a shape, then applying bolder lines to define the subject I surprised myself.  This technique was much like my pencil work, but now, without the added stress of erasing, it started to build my confidence in drawing.  Notice in the above Bald Eagle sketches how all the “mistakes” simply add gesture and movement to the work.  Also notice the more times I drew it the better it got!

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Find the pen that works for you.

A ball point pen works well for this, but make sure it is “light-fast”.  A Bic Ballpoint Pen is not stable and fades with sunlight exposure.  I could not find a light-fast ball point pen so I now use various gel-ink pens – I will talk more about that in later posts.  The pen trick has helped build my confidence as an artist to the point where I now draw fearlessly with a pen or a pencil and erase only to benefit the sketch and not out of fear that someone might think I can’t draw.

 If the ever-expanding universe is God’s creative energy at work, as I believe it is, then we are part of that energy…free to let it guide our creative desires onto the canvas.   Take a creative act of faith and make those first marks!

All material in this blog is strictly copyrighted by John C. Pitcher 2020