Importance of Composition and Color Studies en Plein Air
I don't always do compositional sketches before embarking on a painting. When working out on location, the time to paint is always too short as it is. However, sometimes there are many elements we plan to move around or change. The sketches above are about 4.5x6", done in my Stillman & Birn hardbound sketchbook. The top one is acrylic over a pencil sketch, and the bottom one is watercolor over pencil.
In the top sketch, there was actually no pathway at all going into the field. I felt the scene needed a way to draw the viewer into the composition. I did the sketch in pencil to test drive my ideas. After setting up to paint applying some color over my pencil sketch gave me a chance to try out some color mixes too. When I stepped in to do the actual painting (in acrylic), which was 15x20, I'd resolved many potential problems before I even lifted my brush. This is the finished painting, which will be going up on my Hudson Valley Painter blog soon.
Based on the sketch I'd done, I made further changes when doing the painting. The sketch gave me a chance to consider more options.
The sketch of Croton Gorge Dam was done because the scene was so complex. I wasn't planning to make changes as much as I was trying to wrap my head around what would go where in the confusing mass of shapes, textures and perspective. It took three sketches before I had something I felt I could work with. The first two failures made me extremely grateful that I hadn't just jumped in on my 16x20" painting. Once I did this third sketch of the gorge, waterfall, dam, and bridge, I took out my watercolors and splashed some color on just to get a better idea of what it would look like. I felt I finally had a good working design, and broke out the larger panel for my painting and my acrylics.
This one still needs a few studio tweaks, but I don't think I could have captured this scene effectively if I hadn't taken the time to do the sketches. In this case, the sketches were more complicated and took a lot more time than usual. That proved to me how much I needed to do them, and how far off the mark my painting would have been if I'd neglected that step. It would have ended up as poorly designed as my first sketch of the day (which was so bad that I actually erased it even though it was in my sketchbook!)
The moral of my story to myself is that sometimes it is well worth the time and effort to Sketch Before You Paint. It's the artist's equivalent to Think Before You Speak, and Look Before You Leap!