Wednesday, October 11, 2017

From Sketchbook to Studio

From Sketchbook to Studio

Behind all good paintings there is the initial spark of inspiration and excitement. Every artist has a different approach to working from that idea to something tangible. At times that vision is realized and, sadly, quite often it is not. Not to fear. Our mistakes teach us more about where that vision was lost and how to fix it than any piece that is successful. There is a simple tool, that if used with regularity, will begin habits that will change the way you approach your work and see the world in ways you cannot imagine. It’s often overlooked and underused. In short your sketchbook. There is no other tool at your disposal better suited to allow you to explore your ideas with abandon and a carefree attitude than a sketch. 

When on location your sketchbook not only serves as a place to record your surroundings. It becomes a time capsule taking you back to the place, sounds, conversations going on around you, the seagull that tried to steal your breakfast, standing outside a fish and chip shop warming yourself by the fryer vent on a July day in Scotland, that perfect moment when your wife brings you a lavender ice cream in Provence just as you are finishing up your work for the day. Your photographs serve as all too impersonal representations of what it is like to recall where you were. Whether you spend 5 minutes or an hour sketching you will know a place so much deeper than a tourist with a camera collecting images could in days. 

For every artist there is a process and the idea of a result and over the course of teaching across the US and abroad I have noticed one constant. The more you use your sketchbook the more you get out of your travels and the better your work becomes. This is my passion. This is my joy. When involved in the act of drawing on location I become me. I know I am creating memories and rarely worry about the outcome. After all it’s only a sketch right?

My focus over the last few years has been to recapture that feeling in my studio works. I will use site photography and sketches done on location to begin the important work of editing, creating a strong composition, and thinking in terms of shape and light rather than detail and other unnecessary clutter. 

In fleshing out a painting you need not be fearless but you certainly shouldn’t be hesitant or put too much pressure on yourself to perform. If a work becomes precious then the natural reaction is to protect it. This akin to putting a chain on a young bird as it begins to spread its wings and to take it’s first flight. Allow your work the freedom to soar or, if need be, fail in a spectacular fashion. No middle ground- go for it and don’t worry about the results. They will come in time. 

When moving from your sketchbook to the full easel set up and all it’s accoutrement there is a sense of now things are getting serious. Why? Don’t let those little voices start. Shut them down and enjoy being in that place at that particular time. Life is fleeting. Enjoy those moments. Cherish them and they will pay you back in ways you never expect. 

This is my passion. This is my joy. Painting for the sheer pleasure of the process from Sketchbook to Studio. Whether the studio is outside or indoors is irrelevant as long as you do spend as much time as possible drawing from life. To be outside amongst the elements and in full view of your subject is the best lesson in painting or drawing nothing can replace that. When you do take your work inside your studio those lessons will become more and more apparent as you spend time observing. If you take joy in the act of painting and let go of the dread of failure everything will fall in place in time and with practice. You will begin to surprise yourself. That will lead to repeating the process and around and around we go. The true beauty of this is you are building repeatable habits that will allow you to see more difficult subjects in less detailed ways. By using a sketch as your starting point you are creating a map that leads you to the final painting. Most importantly you are teaching yourself the important lessons of self critique, composition, editing, and line work. 

I started writing this as a new introduction to my workshops but quickly realized I needed to let myself write what I thought and not limit it to a few paragraphs. I invite you to visit my website and in particular the chance to paint with me in Italy next year from May 25-June 1. The information can be found here. Have a creative day!


  1. This is fantastic. You inspire me to pick up a sketchbook for the first time in eons.

  2. Iain, your work is absolutely refreshing and absorbing! i LOVE your website and follow it alot. I only found out about you 'looking for different watercolourists'. On question: How do you get the white of sails, railings etc...which are so delicate and fine. Do you use opaque/masking fluid?

    1. Typically it's the white of the paper. If I miss a bit then opaque. Thank you.

  3. I've always liked your work, Ian, and see now that you are coming to Portland, Or in July. Now the decision must be go or?

  4. Will said Sir, You inspired me a lot to become a better Artist and most of all become better person.To become an Artist is not just a hobby but a calling to be perfected in a lifetime..

  5. Will said Sir, You inspired me a lot to become a better Artist and most of all become better person.To become an Artist is not just a hobby but a calling to be perfected in a lifetime..