Ann Witheridge is the founder of London Fine Art Studios and has been teaching the craft of painting and drawing for over 25 years. Ann visited Jackson’s Studio with her daughter Liberty, an artist following in her mother’s footsteps, to share her sketchbook practice with us. Find out what kind of materials she uses, and her advice for other artists approaching their sketchbook practice.
Ann Witheridge Takes us Through Her Sketchbook Practice
I have been painting full-time and teaching for 25 years. I have always had a sketchbook with me and love buying new sketchbooks. There is a real pleasure in trying different papers and buying a sketchbook, which before you have even put pencil to paper, holds a whole range of possibilities and potential ideas for you. Although I always carry a sketchbook with me, I tend to use it more in my studio practice and as a teaching tool.
There are many reasons to keep a sketchbook and to sketch. I think it is very important that you do it for joy and learning, which will become one of the same. I prefer working on toned paper as then we can put down darks and lights, starting off from a midpoint. Lots of artists work on white paper but I find it quite intimidating to be faced with a blank page of white paper. If I have a white sketchbook, I might put down a watercolour wash, or coffee wash first; in this way the paper already looks inviting before you have even started with the drawing.
Much like toning a canvas with a particular colour, toning the paper first or working on different coloured papers invites you to move in different creative ways. There are those artists who have a clear methodology and always work in the same manner. I am not one of those artists; I like to experiment and challenge myself to use different media, different papers, and different surfaces.
I do a lot of sketching with my daughters who are now young teenagers, I encourage them to tone their papers and bring pencils and chalks wherever we go. They are so used to it, and even more natural than me. I think you want it to become part of your routine and not see your sketches as pieces of art work. Perhaps draw one sketch next to another so that you learn from each different drawing and approach. Some of my sketches I reference and use as part of my painting practice. Some I do just as doodles and might not return to them for some time. Like writing a diary, I am not sketching for the public view, or for affirmation, they are part of my personal journey. It is amazing how sometimes I go back to old sketchbooks, and they can evoke such personal dialogues, places and times, which for me a piece of writing would be less able to do.
I have so many sketchbooks and must confess that I love buying and collecting them, and dreaming up what I will put in them, more than filling them. I definitely have a great variety which I use for very different projects. My studio sketchbooks are much larger and I use them as preliminary studies before painting. My plein air (landscape) sketchbooks are much smaller. I use them to work out compositions and get me into the rhythm before I start painting.
In the studio I have very large ones, often with toned paper, these are more for projects. I like Strathmore paper, mainly because they have a great variety of papers and weights. Also the papers come in different colours; greys, tanned and pastel colours. If we use the same brand then we get used to the feel of the paper but can switch up the colour. Knowing your papers is quite important to me, as all papers have a different feel. You need a certain fluency when sketching, and if you are also having to battle papers and adjust to new surfaces, this can take away from the process. When I am sketching outdoors or in museums, I am often just using pencils and therefore I am less fussy about the surface, but the look of the sketchbook becomes important to me. I love holding an exquisite small sketchbook as it puts me in the right mood when in the hubbub of life.
I like to use a variety of materials. I am not an artist with a strict methodology, although I always work from life. With my materials I prefer to be experimental. When sketching out and about, my materials are simpler, I using graphite pencils as soft as I can find and maybe I bring some chalk or sanguine. In the studio I have a much broader range of materials. I use pastels, charcoal, I experiment with toning the paper with inks, watercolour washes and even with casein powder to get a gritty build up.
If I have toned the paper before I start a painting, it sets me off to work in a freer, more creative process. If looking at a blank piece of white paper, I can feel a little uninspired. Much like toning a canvas before you start a painting, the colour and surface on which you start can lead your creative process into a different direction that you hadn’t anticipated.
I refer to my sketchbook quite often, but I don’t really have a routine of when I use my sketchbook. I am definitely sporadic. I have a sketchbook with me all the time in my bag but haven’t made it part of my daily practice. Often a part of my new year’s resolution is to be more routine with my sketchbook, but like most of us I trail off course by February.
With my landscape sketchbooks, the sketches are definitely used as a stepping stone towards the painting, to think out and whittle away potential compositional mistakes and ideas.
I think when you first start drawing and painting, you should use a sketchbook lots, and draw many drawings on the same page. Use your sketchbook for practice in mark making, design and musings. Your sketchbook is a personal journey and not for public show, use it for experimenting and playing with ideas. It is best to do more than one drawing on a page as each drawing will inform the other, also composing a page of drawings is so good to teach you about design and how compositions work together.
Every aspect of your sketchbook is important. If you are an artist, then you like the visual world and are an aesthete. So do think about what type of sketchbook you want to work on. I often start my sketchbook from the back as I am presuming that I am going to get better not worse as I progress. Like walking around an exhibition, I never follow the route set out by the curators which is usually chronological. I like to start in the last room, which is often emptier and see the artist’s work from their mature works to their beginnings.
About Ann Witheridge
Ann Witheridge has been teaching painting for over twenty years. She read History of Art at Christ’s College Cambridge before moving to Italy to study art full time. She returned to London in 2004 and founded her own art school London Fine Art Studios. She has written articles for many art periodicals and given painting demonstrations and workshops in museums across London including the National Portrait Gallery, Dulwich Picture Gallery and Leighton House Museum. She has also been invited abroad to give workshops in Paris, Addis Ababa and Charleston, South Carolina. She loves teaching and painting in equal measure.