- Orla Stevens
A beginners guide to sketching the abstract landscape
Everything you need to know, to start sketching outdoors.
In this post I cover what plein air sketching is, why I love to combine walking and drawing, and why & how you can give it a go! This post is full of practical tips on how to get drawing and remove the pressure that can come along with learning: I also share my favourite fun ways to start drawing the landscape abstractly.
This post is part of an ongoing Plein Air series I am writing and filming, which you will find here and on Youtube. Through this series of art & nature posts, I hope to encourage as many people as I can to get outside and appreciate time in nature, through drawing and creativity.
If you enjoy the new video format, please give it a like, and subscribe to stay tuned for the full film series.
Walking Guide - Ben Gullipen
Illustrated Sketching Outdoors Route Guide
I've mentioned this walking route below and in my video. If you're passing through, this is a lovely and accessible hill for beginner hikers. I've chosen it for its easy navigation, wide tracks and good views across Stirlingshire. It also makes a great mountain / gravel bike route if that's more your thing!
This walk up Ben Gullipen starts in Callander, in the Trossachs National Park.
Located at the start of the Trossachs, Callander is 1 hour from Edinburgh & Glasgow by car, and a common through-route heading further north.
Links to parking below:
Walking Time: approx 2 hours
Walking & sketching time: 3 hours +
Route: The way down is the same as the way up, simply retrace your steps, following the signposts.
The hill is sign posted through the forrest, and terrain is on old forestry tracks.
Walking trainers or boots advised. Always bring extra food and water with you when going outside, and a layer or two in case the weather turns.
The walk begins here, along from Bridgend, near McLaren High School on the A81:
What is Plein Air Sketching?
Quite simply, it translates to outdoors - so Plein Air means sketching outside. There are no right or wrong ways to do this: Typically you see people out with full easels and paint sets, set up for the day. I’ve always found this way of working cumbersome, and impractical for moving and working in Scottish weather. Instead, I’ve adapted my outdoor sessions to be research trips - where I blend walking and sketching, often taking in new hills and routes on the way.
My approach to working outside is to research the landscape, notice new things, and gather details, thoughts and experiences to later inspire abstract works in the studio. So what I’m looking for may differ from you: depending on what you want to achieve from your sketching session. This post is written as an intro to exploring the landscape within the framework of abstract sketching.
I’ll break down my lightweight sketching kit - everything I typically take out with me. Everything listed at the end of this post fits into my 20L backpack (including camera equipment and snacks!) - So it really is a lightweight set up.
Why combine walking & drawing?
Walking & drawing really makes you slow down and appreciate your surroundings. Blending these two activities together is a great way to see more on your trip!
I think that removing yourself from your daily routine and your go-to locations, and getting outdoors to draw is another great way to remove judgement from the learning process. There’s something special about working outdoors with few people around you, in nature. The peaceful environment and lack of onlookers can be great factors to help get you drawing with more freedom; which in turn improves your abilities in leaps and bounds! When we can remove fear from whatever we are learning, it allows all that extra headspace to improve.
The process of tuning in to nature more closely is proven to help your mental health too; drawing is the best way I know how to focus my attention and look deeply at where I am. This time in turn often gives me time to reflect on how I am feeling - really, it’s the best way I know how to manage my head space.
Looking out to Ben Ledi
How to structure your walk & draw session:
Keeping your materials super minimal and lightweight, as mentioned above, is key! The reality is that you’ll use what is easy to grab, and pack away. Especially when walking and drawing along a route, you don’t want to be using any paints that won’t dry in time - speaking from experience, it’s a sure fire way to get paint all over your kit, and damage your drawings. Perhaps if you live in a warm country where your work will dry very fast, you might get away with it. Sadly, here in Scotland you’ll be few and far between to get these opportunities to walk far and easily with a full paint set!
When outdoors, I keep a paper or sketchbook in my hand, and one or two materials in the other - most often charcoal and one oil pastel. This frees me up to move and hop from one thing to another; gathering lots of very fast 30 second - 4 minute sketches as I go.
It’s a good idea not to spend too long in one spot on your walk, as you might get cold fast. Another bonus to working quickly is that there’s less time to overthink your drawing! This leads to very loose, expressive and reactive drawing which is much freer.
It’s a good idea to have a place in mind where you know you’ll sit longer at, capturing a full view. Tie this in with your lunch break or longer planned rest spot. This might be a viewpoint, bench or hill top. Please note that there are no benches on this trail listed above, along or at the top of the hill.
Tip: It’s a great opportunity to slow down and look closely at your surroundings. Really zoom in on the textures of the leaves, rocks, plants, the texture of the ground. Imagine you have a camera set to macro - all the details this picks up is what we’re looking to draw.
Drawing details in the landscape is another great way in if you’re new to abstraction. Zooming in creates new compositions, textures and scales to work from; and can be less daunting than capturing a whole scene.
Often times, trying to capture literal references can be a stressful experience, as it involves some element of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ - which brings stress, and negates the whole point of this experience: Which is to help us relax in both our movement and our drawing.
We’re always looking to bring ourselves back to our inner five year old - seeing and drawing the world in a playful and non-judgemental way.
If you’d like to see how I translate this research process to final paintings, check out my solo show ‘Playground’ at the Tolbooth Gallery, which you can view online here:
The show runs until the 17th June 2023. Should you want to visit in person, the gallery is open from 10am - 5pm, Tuesday - Saturday.
The benefits of sketching outdoors:
This is the most fun way for me to exercise! I love it because it can be done solo or with friends, and always makes me feel better after a session. Sketching outside is great for my head; the combination of moving my body and focused attention to drawing and looking at things outside myself is a really great way to reset when I’m stressed, tired or feeling anxious. It’s been a really important part of my own self care, and a big reason why it’s been a part of my practice for the last seven years.
This is truly a lovely thing to share with other people - so if you do go sketching outside with friends or by yourself after reading this post, do send me a photo or a message of your trip, it always makes me happy to know that others are getting the benefits of this experience!
Tip 1: Look Up!
Don’t look at your page much, or reach for perfection.
The quickest way to improve our drawing is to improve how much we can see. By learning to notice more, have a better focus and attention, and open our minds to new perspectives, we’re going to be open to so many new ideas. It lets us understand how shapes and forms fit together, how scale works; everything you need for drawing first starts in learning to see better. So don’t bury your head in the page, searching for the perfect drawing. Instead, look up as you work, and embrace what results on your paper. Really, the drawing is the least important result from this trip - what will stay with you is the memories, and what you saw.
Tip 2: Skyline
Simply trace the sky line. This is a lovely way to abstract your line work. Let your pencil follow along the ridges, fields, or whatever is sitting on your horizon line. Let the pencil flow, and don’t worry about capturing too much detail. Instead, focus on the quality of this line: does it need to be thick, or thin? Light, or heavy? Drawn slowly or fast?
Tip 3: Upside Down
Recommended by Barbara Hepworth, this is a great way to see the new landscape from a new perspective. Simply turn yourself upside down, or tilt your head to an angle to see the landscape from a new point of view. Don’t think about what to is when you’re drawing - sky, hill, rock: instead, just focus on the shapes, the textures. Let yourself loose the literal reference to what you’re looking at, and focus on documenting the abstract view.
Tip 4: Viewfinder
A variation on the previous exercise is using one hand as a viewfinder. Curl up your fingers to make a shape, and look through that shape and draw what you see within that framework. Another way to focus your attention on a specific detail, or later your composition!
Last tip is bring tasty snacks!
My favourite Plein Air Sketching Materials:
Paper - I encourage you to recycle papers, draw over old drawings. Otherwise, I recommend 200gsm cartridge paper, which is a lovely thick mixed media paper.
1 paintbrush (for watering down the charcoal as a paint like substance - tutorial on this coming soon)
Bare minimum materials: All you really need is a pencil / pen and paper to get going. Don’t let materials hold you back from going outside. If in doubt, check out Facebook marketplace, swap and share hubs, or ask to borrow something from a friend.
That’s all for now! If you have any questions or would like me to focus on a specific toping in the future, send my your ideas in a dm or email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you’ve enjoyed this tutorial & video, please share with a friend you’d like to go walking & sketching with! I’m really hoping to help make art education and the outdoors as accessible as I can with these posts; a mission that’s very close to my heart.
I’m planning some group outdoor drawing classes this summer - so if you’d like to be the first to know about these, sign up to my newsletter to keep in the loop.
See you outside,