Damp sketches on the Isle of Arran

Posted on 23rd November, 2011

I recently visited the Dulwich Picture Gallery to see the Painting Canada: Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven exhibition. Tackling the vast Canadian wilderness, this group of artists produced a stunning array of paintings, using colour, texture and light to great effect. Working in such remote locations, they armed themselves only with small wooden panels and a limited range of paints, creating miniature oil sketches. Back in the studio, some of these sketches would then be worked up into large paintings, using the full array of colours.

Interestingly, I often found myself enjoying the original sketch more than the final work of art. Perhaps it was the simpler treatment generally applied to the sketches, or perhaps they conveyed more the sense of being there, of experiencing that moment in the wilderness. In many cases the sketches were the work of art, with no larger, final piece being produced.

I found myself thinking about this a couple of weeks later as I attempted my own photographic sketches on a soggy day walking through the woods on Arran. Having absolutely exhausted myself the previous day, carrying far too much camera gear up to the summit of Goat Fell, I’d decided to travel light this time and restricted myself to the diminutive LX5.

There was just enough light in the sky and the rain soft enough for the woodland colours and textures to stand out and I set myself the task of capturing the best of these in square format. I had thoughts of coming back another day with tripod and dSLR to try to perfect these compositions but conditions didn’t allow it and I was reasonably pleased with a trio of images I made that day. The LX5 is a very capable little camera and is a great back-up for that occasion when you either do not have your ‘proper’ camera with you or there is not enough time to use anything else to capture a fleeting moment.

Coastal woodland tryitych, Isle of Arran
Coastal woodland triptych, Isle of Arran

Is a relatively quickly seen and taken image as valuable as one that you have pre-planned and spent hours waiting for? I believe it is – or it can be – it’s the end result that matters and if you create an image that works compositionally and that you feel successfully conveys what you saw and felt at that time, then its value stands. The most important thing is to make sure you make the best of the conditions and equipment you have with you at the time – often we don’t get the opportunity to go back and create that final work of art. Even when we do go back, our original interpretation may still end up being the best. The sketch may become the final piece, so make sure you create it to the best of your ability and leave with no regrets.

Regarding the exhibition: It runs until 8th January at the Dulwich Picture Gallery in South London – if you are in the area, it is well worth a visit. Highlights for me were Tom Thomson’s set of sketches and the later, very graphical work of Lawren S Harris.