Travel Sketching in Ireland Part One : Five Strategies for Sketching in the Rain
If you’re spending any length of time plein-air painting in Ireland, eventually you’ll be painting in the rain.
I wouldn’t actually want it any other way. It gives you a romantic landscape of deep greens and floating cloud that seems to be made for watercolor.
Of course you can bring an umbrella. But I’m getting averse to even the smallest extra bit of weight in my drawing kit. Plus there is the issue of how you’re going to paint while holding an umbrella? That starts to make you want to bring an easel – and then with easel and umbrella – you’re going to be in real trouble if there’s wind.
So let’s talk Five Strategies for Painting in the Rain:
Rain Strategy 01: Ignore it!
These two were sketched up on the rocky tableland they call The Burren. There isn’t a bit of cover for miles in either direction. Just a huge heap of boulders with the occasional wind-dwarfed tree, and the farmers fields cutting up the landscape.
So if it’s just off-and-on again showers, or a light mist – well – that you can just ignore.
It should give your painting a kind of wet-in-wet effect that you won’t get any other way. See how the green hills are blooming into the sky? That’s a pretty nice watery bit. And in the second sketch – how there are rain-marks all over the surface?
In general, a light shower can actually work in your favor.
So I’d say, a rain coat is more important than an umbrella. Just stand your ground and keep painting. It will probably pass.
If you pack up and run for cover, I am quite sure tea and scones will sound much better than waiting around hoping to set up again.
Rain Strategy 02: Cover your painting, if not yourself:
These were painted at the Cliff’s of Moher, in a more persistent drizzle.
I loved the dark skies and the way the cliffs turned into silhouettes in the distance.
It was quite windy, as you might imagine, but there was a stone wall along the cliff edge, which made for a very convenient standing desk. Actually, there are low stone walls just about everywhere in Ireland. A very convenient country to be a street sketcher.
So, when it became clear it was going to rain all day, I tried something a bit different.
I normally paint on paper taped down to coroplast backing boards. I took two of my boards and hinged them together with tape, making a kind of ‘laptop’. Or you might say, a slim hard cover sketchbook with only one page inside.
This way I could work holding the boards about a quarter of the way open, peeking into the narrow gap.
This kept the paintings out of direct rain – and let me walk around with them still wet, (keeping a finger between the boards so the pages didn’t touch). I’m sure a lot of you do this with sketchbooks all the time.
Rain Strategy 03: Worst case – you can paint from the car.
I first saw this little ruin in the form of a porcelain miniature in a gift shop in Kenmare.
Then we saw the real thing across an estuary, and had to drive around until we found the one-way bridge that leads you onto its spit of land.
Most Irish castles are just lone towers, so it was nice to see the crumbling walls covered in ivy. In this case, there was a little parking lot right at the bottom of the hill – so I took the easy way out and painted this from the car.
I did need the window open to see anything so I still got wet. Until someone left and I got the one good parking spot front and center.
If you want to lay darks onto a wet painting like this – you have to use the pigment as thick as possible. I remember touching dark areas over and over. They would sneakily melt into the ground. I believe I put this under the car fan for a while to get it ready for adding the darkest-darks. Plus I have a very opaque pigment: Bloodstone Genuine, which I use when I need good coverage.
Rain Strategy 04: Make an Annotated Sketch and heed the call of Tea and Scones.
Here’s a couple of thatched-roof houses in the village of Adare.
I love these cute drawings, as they look much better than the real thing.
There was a fire at the first house, so it’s partially in ruins. There are blue tarps, chain link fences, and a burnt couch on the lawn. Unlike a photographer, I can just quietly leave all that out, and still make a good sketch.
The method here was to make a very simple pencil drawing just outlining the major shapes, and underneath I write a pigment code and a value number.
You need to sketch quickly enough that your paper won’t get saturated. Once it’s wet through, you can’t draw in pencil any longer. The paper gets too soft and the graphite won’t transfer. So keep the drawing as bare bones as possible. Which is a good idea any time really.
I would jot down a letter number code for each major shape – like PG5 for Perlyne Green Value 5 (in the upper right of the top sketch for instance), or PG3, for the upper right in the second.
I’m talking about a 5 value scale here – it’s just easier to estimate than the traditional 10 scale. With 5 values you have White(1) and Black(5) – which is an easy call – so all you ever need to evaluate is Light(2), Middle(3) or Dark(4) . That’s something anyone can eyeball.
As long as I have that simple code, I can paint it from memory.
There is a much more sophisticated method called the Munsell Color System, which I have never bothered to learn. (Feel free if you have the patience, then you can explain it to me!)
This is one benefit of sticking with the same limited color palette for quite a while. I immediately know the pigments I’ll use.
I do recommend heading straight to a cafe and painting while the memory is fresh.
You can also snap a cellphone photo to remind you of what you saw – as long as you don’t rely too much on that for color choices.
Rain Strategy 05: With the right paper, even in solid rain, you can still draw.
When we stopped at the Rock of Cashel we had some serious rain.
This was one of the more interesting ruins we visited. The old walls are only partially roofed in, which is always a melancholy feeling. You can’t help but think of mortality and the fall of man, seeing these soaring walls crumbled around you. A mood emphasized by the weathered graveyard out back.
Poke around the tombstones and crypts however, and you’ll find some excellent stone carvings.
So, initially, with my new weatherproof confidence, I tried a painting. But it simply washed away. I kept putting down color and seeing it just run off the paper.
So this time I had to bail out and draw in waterproof ink (I use Platinum Carbon black).
These days I like to jump directly from my thinnest pen up to my thickest. So going from a crow-quill to a 3mm wide chisel nib. It gives you the best combination of detail and ‘brushwork’. Remember to pull the nib, not push – especially with damp paper.
But the trick here really is the paper.
This paper is a unique blend of natural and synthetic fibers that is pretty much waterproof.
No matter how wet it gets, it won’t ripple. Even if the paper ‘swells’ and raises up off the taped board – it does not develop those rises and troughs (sometimes called cockling). Given a little time to dry out, it lays completely flat. You wouldn’t have to tape it at all – except that’s still a good idea in case of wind.
So there you go: The bottom line is – everyone should try painting in the rain!
Photographers have a saying: Bad weather makes good photos.
If you’re starting to feel all the sunny days in the park are robbing your work of some gravitas – head out on a dark and stormy afternoon, and see what you can do with it!
Note: This is part 1/2 of the 2016 Irish painting trip. You can read the second post over here.