Tag Archives: Plein Air

The Art of Gardening

“As the light burns more persistently, and rain showers reflect the ever-changing landscape below, I seem to spend an inordinate amount of time just staring about. Knowing I could never capture the fleeting delights in front of me, I try and store them in my mind and notebook for future reference..  raindrops on prickly stems of briar rose shimmer impossibly ruby then sapphire in the spring light.” [ed.  Oh dear, it looks like I began this piece months ago but wilful inattention to public relations triumphed for the pursuit of practical application to craft.]

Sadly I didn’t get to the Royal Academy Show, so this isn’t going to be a critical commentary on that event. Monet was the show’s most obvious choice of pin-up, but there were millions of potential understudies; fortunately my favourite French painters of real life, Caillebotte, who after a fleeting 6-year art career retired to his garden in his early thirties in 1879, made the final cast.

Ask most living artists with an interest in landscape, and you will find they will admit to an almost addictive compulsion to get their hands on the sod – especially at this time of year. And yet I believe gardening is a natural companion to painting – not simply because of the appeal of a subtly ever-changing visual dialogue we have with our tamed wildernesses, or as a living canvas on which to express ourselves. Gardening presents a most tangible opportunity for us to interact with our environment.

Just how we approach the tasks in hand is also an indicator of our relationship with our work – do we tend our patch by guiding and coaxing, removing discordant elements patiently, teasing out roots with our hands? Or do we smash out roots, leaving fragments to re-emerge below the surface? Do we try to dominate and control, bring in alien elements to disrupt the space? Do we use chemical or organic agents to improve productivity, or tolerate the rhythm dictated to us by our materials? How we wrangle with the tougher elements in this verdant composition speaks volumes about our present attitude and attention span.

At the moment I give myself an hour most mornings for this meditation before heading into the studio. It is helping me look, at myself, and the interfering thought processes that distract me from my day.  It helps me both clear my head, and to limber up my hands – although it is a fine line I tread between developing strength in my wrists and stiffening them. As Cennini preached in his Craftsman’s Handbook, you should be ‘saving and sparing your hand, preserving it from such strains as heaving stone, crowbar, and many other things which are bad for your hand, from giving them a chance weary it.’

Easier said than done…


garden scene with chicken feeder wm
No Spring Chicken



early 19th cent. (earlier (mid 17th cent.) as hibernation): from Latin hibernare, from hiberna ‘winter quarters’, from hibernus  ‘wintry’.

1  (Of an animal or plant) spend the winter in a dormant state

1.1 (Of a person) remain inactive or indoors for an extended period

Many of the animals and plants have lost their rest time this year, while I have been pulled inside, further motivated by the strong weather in these parts.

In the city we forget about seasons, barely break the momentum of our summer stride, neon lights sustaining our wilful avoidance of the planet’s rotation. Our energy levels and motivations dip, and we often forget to ask why, berating ourselves for a loss of performance, productivity, and drive. In the countryside, no such illusion persists. We are as subject to light and cold as the next creature. The vulnerability of ageing, injury, and loss, sit more clearly somehow. The cycle of life shows more vivid.

So on those days I haven’t been working on my studio space, and my extremities complain against the cold at each furtive attempt at plein air practice, I found myself prone to hibernate. Trying to structure my days with research and method, reading up on this land, on Carravaggio (Helen Langdon), and Ruskin (Elements of Drawing); drawing; returning to some rudimentary exercises; completing some ‘artists admin’ i.e. sharpening my pencils, cleaning my paint tubes, or stretching paper.

interior with chair 28 01 16 wmJust in time, before ‘the fear’ firmly gripped me again, I remembered the words of a good friend: ‘When you can’t paint outside because of bad weather, just go back to those little interior paintings of yours’.

The more I painted, the happier I felt, and with the growing enjoyment of working with oil again, the pleasure intensified. What a relief…

‘I have a predilection for painting that lends joyousness to a wall ‘ (Renoir)

In Search of My Northern Soul.. 5

Inspired by my trip to the Netherlands with a wealth of visual information in my head, I was determined to get back out into the open air.

I have a bit of anxiety when it comes to winter plein air painting. Notorious amongst my friends for the numerous layers I need to take camping in the summer, I prepared as best I could: two pairs of glove liners, latex outers, wrist warmers, fingerless additions to the top of the three underlayers. For the feet, Two pairs of winter socks and one thin pair of silver socks recommended by the Raynaulds Society. My circulation is terrible!

I struck out for a sheltered spot in a copse of beech and fir. Starting fully 2015-11-20 10.40.26gloved I realised I had forgotten my palette knife (clearly I need to brush up on packing my school bag properly), which most definitely hampered my operating speed. I had to take off my gloves to work with a smaller brush, and within 10 minutes they were red raw. It may have been a bright day, but it was 4 degrees out there and the wind had a cunning instinct for seeking out its prey.

Beaten, I wove my way through the red-flagged shooting parties and resolved to try as do some other plein air painters like Tom Coates, finish the work in the studio, or in my case, the barn. I don’t usually adopt this practice because the change of pace alters the character of the work: you are not directly responding to the natural lighting conditions so you lose some dynamism. What is positively different is the dialogue with the material has the upper hand; this certainly shouldn’t be avoided – the balance and counterbalance of subject and process is the essential rhythm of a painters workflow.

So, another hour under cover and this was the result. Perhaps this approach has potential…

waterloo monument wm
The winning side, Ancrum