Bright and bold were the words that came to mind when I first saw the work of UK artist Richard Suckling. His work dazzles with colour and light. I featured his work last March and since then have been awed every time he posts a new piece.
In October, I noticed he’d started to post pieces done en plein air in Spain. They startled me with their immediacy and had a quality of fearlessness. And so I invited Richard to contribute a blog about these pieces. Little did I know that they were indeed daring as painting on location was out of this studio painter’s comfort zone!
And in case you don’t already know the work of Richard Suckling, have a look at this glorious piece.
Before I hand over the blog to Richard Suckling, here’s a wee bit about him.
Richard Suckling Bio
Richard Suckling studied illustration at Cambridge School of Art in the UK and then worked in London as an Illustrator. He now lives in the fishing village of Newlyn, Cornwall, and works as a painter, working primarily in pastel and more recently acrylic. His work is on show in various galleries in the South West of England and most recently he was asked to write an article for The Artist magazine on pastel painting (January issue). You can see more of his work and read more about him on his website.
And now, heeeeere’s Richard!
Plein Air Painting in Costa Blanca
I would class myself primarily as a studio painter, using the sketches and notes I have made at my favourite locations, with a variety of media, backed up by the convenience of photographs. I have, from time to time, used pastels in the open air of course but I never really took to it in the past. I guess I liked the convenience of having all my studio paraphernalia at hand, especially the considerable choice of sumptuous pastels to dip in and out of to create my pictures.
In my previous career as illustrator, predominately working in pen and ink, the drawing on location was easy. But pastels, for me at least, involved a lot of preparation, weighty kit, and it never seemed that practical to do on the hoof so to speak; sketchbooks and fountain pens are convenient, fast and usually clean for travel.
However, this year has been a bit different for me and I have made some changes which I feel will impact positively on how I work in the future. Good steady sales of paintings and a chance to write an article on pastel painting for The Artist magazine in the U.K., buoyed my confidence you might say and I was inclined to stretch myself artistically as we entered late October.
An artist friend of mine had undertaken to not only produce a plein air painting each day of her vacation but to publish each and every effort on social media. I was both enthralled and inspired; I decided to take up her challenge and an autumn break to Costa Blanca, Spain, visiting my wife’s parents, offered up the perfect opportunity. It was time to take another stab at plein air work using pastels and see if I could begin to get to grips with this bad boy once and for all.
Spain in late October is mostly like Cornwall in the U.K. on a dry and sunny day in the height of summer, so perfect for outdoor artistic activities. My first job was to plan what to take equipment wise. It was a short break and we were travelling light so weight and size were imperative. I purchased and packed a lovely box of 36 Sennelier pastels, a brand I only occasionally use as they are very soft and I can be a little heavy-handed. I added some back up Unison colours I just couldn’t travel without. The Sennelier pastels did come in a rather lovely light weight wooden box with the pastels nestled in foam, ideal for travel.
I also packed two pads of Sennelier LaCarte pastel card 9” x 12”. This is a surface I use extensively and know well so a good choice it seemed. A few dark pastel pencils, baby wipes, and masking tape and I was almost done. My wife arranged for my father-in-law to obtain a craft knife for pencil sharpening in Spain as this was the one thing, understandably, banned from hand luggage! After many frustrating attempts to fit everything in, eventually all the kit was packed into my hand luggage (a tip I got from an article written by Stan Sperlak who said never put your pastels in the hold) and we were off.
So my first mistake was already made before we landed and I am sure all you plein air veterans are probably muttering, “the knuckle head has forgotten to pack an easel.” Well now I know and I will not repeat that mistake again. In my defense, however, in my studio I use French and wooden studio easels and, whilst these are great work horses, they are too heavy and not designed for air travel.
Not to be to thwarted at the first hurdle, I worked with what was available and it proved an interesting challenge. It was just a matter of finding a restaurant or tapas bar with a solid table and a fantastic view. We were duty bound to imbibe a glass or two of beer or Rioja and tapas here and there to appease the owners; the things we do for the sake of our art! There are also white balustrades hugging the many palm littered promenades, overlooking the beaches and coves, and I found these reasonably good to perch upon. However, despite my ingenuity in the field I must admit an appropriately light weight tripod, with the appropriate easel attachment, is now in my possession.
I had spent the year painting constantly for gallery sales so I set myself the target of a week painting nothing but 30-minute studies and this was surprisingly invigorating. I did not take my normal sketchbook and I worked in pure pastel – no underpainting – just direct pastel strokes, admittedly with a little smudging (sorry Gail). Instead of adding to the constraints, the actual lack of equipment, time, and commercial pressure allowed me to relax from my normal working practice and I found this particular aspect very liberating as an artist.
However, there was more to this plein air than that alone. Sketching in a book or snapping photos can be done very surreptitiously. Plein air pastel painting is more like busking in the streets; you are out there, exposed, open to view and scrutiny, and it was absolutely a revelation. I was not painting in the wilds of Spain but populated coastal areas and there were individuals and families milling around me.
Far from ignoring me or sneaking a peak, they were interested, some fascinated, some vocal and some, quite frankly, blooming intrusive. With pastels out and painting started, you cannot snap the sketchbook shut and pocket your pen or pencil in a second, which had always been my approach in the past. There was nowhere to hide, I just had to “man up” as they say here and get on with it; the theatre of plein air painting was as much a part of the experience as the doing of it and, I have to admit, it was addictive.
As the week progressed, I ran my first workshop ever to an eight-year-old young lady from Belgium, who just couldn’t take her eyes off of the pastels. Her father said she loves to draw and she showed no fear of getting stuck in; a future Gail Sibley I do not doubt! Another day, my wife and I enjoyed a delicious tapas lunch with a lovely bottle of Rioja, in exchange for one of my small pastels painted whilst sat at a table with a view. In fact, the owner of the establishment has commissioned a larger painting for our next visit. The last time I earned a long evening of free beer for drawing was in a music bar in Amsterdam, with my art school mates, but that’s another story!
On the equipment front it was a very steep learning curve and I now have refined this considerably since my return. A small plywood board fitted with a tripod adaptor and a Manfrotto photographic tripod with a decent height adjustment is my new field easel. The fancy wooden box of Sennelier pastels, which are lovely incidentally, are now incorporated into my studio pastel selection and being carefully used. But for plein air, Unison pastels are what I know and love best. I travel now with a set of 72 ideally or a set of 36 if pushed. I take them in the Unison heavy duty card boxes which are lighter than fancy wooden ones. Also their lids come off and fit underneath when in use so their footprint is halved.
A small selection of pastel pencils is added especially Carbothello’s deep dark and indispensable 1400/770 which is my “go to” sketching colour. Masking tape, great for some sharp edges and baby wipes for cleaning up and moving pastel around water resistant surfaces. A small spray water bottle and pastel pencil sharpener, just less aggravation when travelling than craft knives!
As to the all-important matter of painting surface for plein air painting involving travel, I love Sennelier LaCarte. It is such a luxurious surface to work on but just not in pad form from now on. Loose sheets in a small folio arrangement is so much more practical. I also take sheets of card prepared in advance using Art Spectrum pastel primer so I can spray the first layer of pastel with water to make a kind of underpainting.
The whole trip was a real eye-opener for me; I learnt a lot more than merely how to improve my plein air paintings. I was reminded that pastel painting does not have to be a constant isolated battle with your artistic demons alone in your studio but is something to share and involve others. Although the finished painting is always my ultimate aim, there is great value in showing people the process. An artist friend said to me the other day that she was just looking for some kind of recognition but really, if we are honest, aren’t we also looking to show off a little sometimes and plein air lets us do it? If you haven’t yet given it a go, take a deep breath and dive in; yes, it is a little nerve wrecking but it is great fun and the adrenaline rush is a little addictive.
I had to admit that when Gail asked me to write a feature on my experiences painting plein air, I was a bit apprehensive. However, I figured that if I could handle painting in front of people, I should be able to share the experience on paper with other artists too. Thank you Gail, it has been a delight.
Thank you Richard. Sooooooooo inspiring!! I may have to get one of those Carbothello pastel pencils to try instead of charcoal – a bit more control I’m thinking. Had to chuckle at the few references to me 🙂
Now, we want to hear from you! Have you been wanting to experiment with on-location painting? Has this post encouraged you to try it out? Or are you already an avid plein air painter? If so, what keeps you at it? We’d love to know!
AND, it’s now confirmed – I’ll be teaching on the Costa Brava in Spain in May 2018. That’s north of where Richard was painting. It’s stunning landscapes and towns along the lines of Richard’s subjects. Let’s be inspired by his work! Find out more here.
To see me in action and learn more about painting on location, you can also purchase my online course, Pastel Painting En Plein Air.
So that’s it for this time. I am really stuck into my BIG project (I hope to tell you about it soon!!) so I can’t promise when the next blog will be. Hopefully I won’t be away for tooooooo long.
Thanks for being on this pastel journey with me!