Louise Balaam paints expressive, gestural landscapes in oil, but her process begins in the landscape, drawing with water-based materials. In this Inside the Sketchbook feature, Louise discusses how sketching is a practice of gathering information, and shares her advice for drawing on location.
Louise Balaam Takes Us Through Her Sketchbook Practice
As a landscape artist I believe drawing in the landscape is absolutely essential for my process – and such an enjoyable thing to do as well. I don’t see the drawings as particularly important in themselves and I don’t paint directly from my drawings, but I see the sketching process as a crucial way of gathering information for the artist. Being in the landscape with your drawing materials keeps you there for much longer than taking a photograph, and it gives you a chance to absorb and be aware of all the other aspects of where you are – birdsong, other sounds, the breeze, the feel of the air, the ground you’re sitting on… It all feeds into your understanding of the place, not just the visual aspects. I’ll often make notes on my drawings about particular birds I can hear, or what plants are around me, for example. I like to work quickly and spontaneously, capturing different aspects of the landscape in a range of sketches and media. I’m not aiming to make exact drawings but to somehow capture the feeling or the essence of where I am.
I use a range of sketchbooks when drawing outside. I find it very helpful to have two or three on the go at once – I often use water-based media and having more than one sketchbook means that I can put one drawing aside to dry and start to work on another one. I don’t have a favourite sketchbook type, though I do like to use paper which is heavy enough to take water-based media without cockling. I like to use a range of formats and sizes when I’m drawing, from square to a very wide double-page spread. In some situations, for instance drawing from other artists’ work in galleries or standing up in the landscape, a spiral-bound sketchbook is very useful as the sketchbook can be bent back on itself.
In terms of media, I use a range of different media when I’m drawing outside. I find that having media with colour really helps to remind me of the particular atmosphere of a place when I’m looking over my sketchbooks back in the studio. I like water-based media because of its fluidity and its painterliness. Although I don’t think of myself as a watercolour artist, I’ll usually have a box of watercolour pans, plus a watertight folding plastic palette which I use with tube watercolours. I like to have a tube of white artist’s gouache to use with the watercolours, which gives me some opacity and allows me to work in the spontaneous, gestural way I like.
I also use Derwent XL Water-soluble Sticks, which are so useful – they’re chunky sticks which can be scribbled with and then washed over with water, used on already-dampened paper, or used with a brush as a solid block of colour. The other water-soluble media with colour I use is acrylic inks. I like drawing directly with the bottle dropper and then using water to release the colour onto the page.
I like to have some monochromatic media as well. I find that using monochrome helps me focus on the structure of the landscape and its tonal values, without the distraction of colour, so it plays a different role. I generally have pencils (water-soluble pencils such as Derwent and propelling pencils with a rubber which are very handy to scribble with), charcoal, compressed charcoal and a water-soluble brush pen such as Tombeau. I like the Artgraf tailor’s chalk block of pigment, which is soft and fun to use.
I often use different media together on the same drawing, depending on the particular colour or consistency I’m looking for.
As I mentioned, I prefer not to use sketches or drawings directly to paint from. I find that this can lead to trying to copy the drawing with paint, and in my work I’m aiming to keep spontaneity and energy in the painting. I can’t do this if I’m trying to copy something, so my process is to look at the sketchbook to remind me of the feeling of the place and the colour relationships, but then to put it aside when I start to paint. I want the painting to take its own course – it will be informed by the drawings and by my experience of doing the drawings, but not necessarily be directly related to any one drawing.
I feel that drawing in the landscape is such a crucial part of a landscape artist’s practice. It provides the source material which the paintings come from. In my work I want to communicate my emotional response to the landscapes which are significant and meaningful to me, and I find it’s so helpful to have gotten to know those landscapes in different seasons and different weather. To my mind drawing is one of the best ways of getting to know those places at a deeper level.
My advice to artists (which I don’t always manage to follow myself!) is to make sure you have your sketching bag packed and ready wherever you might be – including water to draw with and a range of sketchbooks as I’ve mentioned. I find a rucksack the most practical way of carrying everything I need, plus a very useful bit of kit is a little folding seat pad (from camping shops.) I like to sit on the ground when I’m drawing as I can have all my media around me and I feel more in touch with the landscape. The seat pad means I can sit comfortably on wet grass or sharp rocks. Bulldog clips are handy to hold down the pages of a sketchbook in windy weather.
I find it useful to label sketchbooks with the relevant places and dates. Where possible I try to keep the drawings for one place – for example Pembrokeshire or St Ives – in the same sketchbook, so I can review a range of drawings from the same place together.
Seawhite Artists Gouache – White
Papermate Non-stop Propelling Pencil
About Louise Balaam
Louise Balaam is a member of the New English Art Club and of the Royal West of England Academy, and has a degree and a Masters in Fine Art. She has work in many private collections and has shown in the Royal Academy Summer Show, the Threadneedle Prize, the Lynn Painter-Stainer Prize, and the Discerning Eye exhibition. She is represented by Cricket Fine Art in Chelsea, London and other galleries. With the New School of Art she tutors workshops in Lewes, Sussex as well as producing online teaching content.