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Sunday Salon: Sitting Down with Katherine Tyrrell

Today I am sitting down with Katherine Tyrrell, the very knowledgeable and wonderfully generous author of Making a Mark, as well as her other resources and blogs.  Since she works "en plein air" a lot, and I don't, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to get feedback from an expert.

    As you know I am a novice when it comes to working "en plein air" and I've got a number of practical questions.  What materials do you carry with you? Do you park your car and walk to the location? What if the view you want is on private property - how do you find out who to ask for permission, or do you settle for a photograph through the "zoom" lens?

First of all thanks for asking me to do this interview.  I'm sure I'm only one of many who've been enjoying your series of Sunday Salon interviews.

Everybody's different and it's not surprising that everybody varies as to their individual preferences around materials and working methods.  My view is it's always best if people work out for themselves what materials they should use for working plein air through a process of trial and error.  It's fine for me to give recommendations but our materials can really be as individual as our drawings.  For example, I'm usually a "kitchen sink artiste" but I admire hugely those who can pare it right down.  What I am happy to do is suggest somethings to think about.

Ktweb_pastelsatwaldenpond_2 Figure 1: The 'kitchen sink artist" pastel painting plein-air - my set up at Walden Pond, Massachusetts September 2006. copyright Katherine Tyrrell

In relation to sketching "plein air" my particular preference is for dry media - I find it a lot simpler to get out pen and pencils then to start painting.  It's easy just to pack a sketchbook a pen and a small pencil case of coloured pencils.  On the other hand when I'm working plein air doing large pastels then the kit can often end up looking like the photo!  In this particular instance, I was trying out a new bag for my pastel boxes and had taken far too much with me given the gradient and state of the path round the pond!
I tend to walk around a lot before settling to work plein air so there's a big emphasis for me on trying to keep things portable.  For those of us who have trouble with mobility and stability at times (like me) then shopping trollies can provide a very welcome way of easily transporting out materials if you have a lot of things to carry!  I bought a wonderful stylish Italian one while in Venice, used it all the time and then brought it home with me!

I have a page on my website called "Advice on Sketching" which includes advice about sketching materials.  It also shows off what I take out for different sorts of sketching expeditions - from the kit for an overseas trip, through to a day out sketching with a backpack and the kit for sketching on a motorbike trip.  It also has a lot more practical information about sketching and includes tips and technique and links to relevant advice in my blog posts plus files of articles for FREE DOWNLOAD for personal and educational use only.  It's organized as follows:


  1. Advice on Sketching Toolkits and Materials 
  2. Sketching for Real - a class with assignments
  3. Travels with a Sketchbook - tips and techniques
  4. Starting to Sketch with Coloured Pencils
  5. From sketch to painting - a slideshow of a work in progress
  6. More information about sketching and travels with a sketchbook

Ktweb_kew040506_066_2 Figure 2: Out for the day - sketching with coloured pencils: Sketchbooks (large and small) and coloured pencils in warm and cool colors plus plastic try for pencils in use and pencil sharpener copyright Katherine Tyrrell

I designed the Sketching for Real Class for people who can draw but who are also complete beginners when it comes to sketching.  It takes you from doing 5 minute sketches around your own home to feeling comfortable about sketching in a public place.  In between you get to grips with all the issues to do with being outside - such as the light changing and what sort of materials you need when not in a studio - while initially only going as far as the comfort of your own garden!  I deliberately set it up like this so people could try working out what they wanted to take out with them while still near to home.

I tend to stick to public places if I'm on my own.  My own rule of thumb for being sensible as to location is 'see and been seen'.  If you know your neighborhood really well and know where it's safe for a woman to be on her own then it can be fine venturing further afield and off the beaten track.  Lots of people feel more comfortable going out in a group - although it's much better if this is a group of artists rather than family as the latter tend to get bored.  Luckily my partner is fond of reading so we always make sure he has a good book with him!

I live in London so I travel to lots of places in London by public transport.  This tends to mean lots of sketches of parks, gardens, galleries and cafes in and around London - you can see the results in the online version of my London sketchbook.  You can also read about my various expeditions in my Travels with a Sketchbook in... blog.

Ktweb_bixbybridgebigsur Figure 3: 260 feet up at Bixby Bridge, Big Sur (in fog) - a 10 minute sketch at the cliff edge copyright Katherine Tyrrell

Otherwise, I take the car and get out of London and I often travel by car to sketch when abroad.  For example, in my California sketchbook you can see sketches from my driving trip down Highway 1 from San Francisco to San Diego.  You get better at making instant decisions to pull over...

I advise keeping a sketchbook permanently in the car so you've got something to do it you ever get stuck in traffic but in fact I very rarely sketch from inside the car!  Wind and rain are the main reasons for taking cover.  Which reminds me - always take really good bulldog clips or similar to keep your paper from flapping around in a stiff breeze otherwise it can drive you to distraction!

On the question of photography, my understanding is you can photograph anything you can see while standing in a public place even if you're using a zoom lens.  In other words you may own a property but you don't own it's image.  I've heard of a few people who carry around a copy of the copyright law on that topic - which I guess I've probably saved in the copyright section of my Art Business - Resources for Artists site.

I might see a fantastic subject while I'm driving my car, or I'll go out to paint and not find anything.  When you go to sketch on location, you talk about the importance of "just being there" and "letting your eyes do the work".  What are you looking for, what thoughts and processes do you consider before you begin to sketch?

I was very fortunate when I came back to art after a big break to collect initials after my name.  I was taught by somebody who placed a huge emphasis on learning how to see rather than learning how to make paint.  It's always stayed with me and it's why I now suggest that the main thing that people need to focus on when starting out is learning how to look.

Being a novice at sketching is good - you'll be able to bring a fresh eye to observing a scene - but first you have to train your eye to see.  Observing life and your surroundings - in the home and office or studio -- and looking for compositions while out and about in day to day life can be a huge help to being able to spot a potential subject much more quickly when you do finally get the time to draw plein air.  When doing your errands, try pretending you're actually walking around looking for something to sketch and see what happens.  There is always something - but quite often you won't see it until you've accustomed yourself to a place and walked around a bit.

Figure 4: Umbrian Umbrella Pines (Coloured pencils, 27cm x 35cm)  copyright Katherine Tyrrell

Ktweb_umbrianumbrellapines3 When working plein air, the most important thing is to try and get a sense of the place - while all the time remembering that the way you react to a place is personal to you and what you are interested in.  I guess what I do is unconsciously notice the things which are different and the things which seem to be a 'motif' of the place.  Our personal perspective will always influence this.  For example, I always notice in particular the features which relate to my personal interests - the structure and patterns of the built environment and the natural world - as found in architecture, flowers, trees and 'big views'.  Somebody else might really like lines and textures and they'll find a different set of subject matter to interest them.  Try answer the questions "what do you notice most?" and "What does your eye keep coming back to?"

Buildings are buildings the world over - but they all look slightly different because their style and architectural features vary.  Vegetation may be green in most places, but the shape of the leaves and colors of the green can be different.

In Italy I was very taken with the Umbrella Pine trees. I loved them - they were such an unusual shape.  At the same time of course you have the Lombardy Poplars - very dark blue green and a very slim pencil shape.

Views actually very quite a lot because of the terrain.  Crossing Arizona, what I noticed was a very flat plain with enormous clouds in the distance over some hills - they were the big view.

Often it's a trick of the light which makes something look sensational.  If you have time, get outside at the beginning and end of the day when the light is low and shadows can be very dramatic.  I remember the last time I was in Venice, I was up at 6am on the first morning and was walking across an almost completely empty Piazza San Marco just as the clocks struck 7am.  As I suspected I was finally able to Ktweb_7amsundaymorning see what was there without the constant throngs of people around and about - and the lighting was very dramatic.

Figure 5: 7am Sunday morning (coloured pencils, 8" x 10") copyright Katherine Tyrrell

Seeing wonderful scenes while driving your car is a hazard for most artists.  I have, on occasion, when driving down a quiet country road been known to screech to a stop and then back up and whip out a sketchbook and camera to record the scene very quickly.

I'm a firm believer that making a quick sketch of something really makes you look.  You get a benefit from spending that time looking which just isn't there if you just take a quick snap.  In fact if you just take a photo then you'll probably be looking at that photo and wondering what was it you'd seen in the view as the tones and colours will all look different.  Instead make a note of the place and, most important, the time of day.  It might be worthwhile planning to come back and take another look at the same sort of time. 

By and large though, I lean toward favoring serendipity - an opportunity is always going to pop up when you least expect it and it's usually best to grab it while you can even if you don't have 'enough time'.

If you're traveling to new places or just visiting somewhere new then visual overload can sometimes be a rel problem - I know it certainly was for me on my first visit to Venice.  My blog post on How good is your visual recognition memory? suggests some ways in which you can get to grips with this.

Once you have decided on a location, and found your inspirational idea, how much time do you spend thinking about your composition and how much time actually drawing?  Is one part of that equation more important than the other?

It's usually an inspirational view for me rather than an idea.

I think we need to differentiate between sketching for enjoyment and sketching with producing a definite work in mind. I work up great pictures from sketches I did years ago.  Similarly I can spend a lot of time working on a 'definitive work' on site only to find that it just doesn't work out

I've come to the conclusion that the more pressure you put on yourself the more you will tighten up and produce cliche art and/or complete rubbish! The best work I ever did was on a painting holiday where I started out by giving myself permission to go home without having finished anything.  Only later did I find out that Monet used to produce a massive number of 'starts' when working plein air which he used to finish in the studio.  Now I'm happy if I can get a good 'start' down!

What I do partly depends on how much time I've got.  If I've got 15 minutes I'll probably spend a minute or two looking - because I know I can get a lot down in 10 minutes and can also carry a lot in my head for a short time afterwards.  If I've got a whole morning, then I often walk around for 15 minutes and might then spend another 10-15 minutes trying out different options before settling on one.  Time spent looking is never wasted.  You can continue to work on a piece away from it much more effectively if you've spent a lot of time looking.

What I do now is practice developing my skills, for example around different approaches to composition, at home so I can use them without thinking too much when working plein air.

I wrote about some of the things I do when settling down to sketch in this post Jeanne asked a question about...sketching.

How many sketchbooks have you completed over the years and why do you consider this a valuable resource?

I lost count a long time ago!  I've got the most recent ones (about 15?) in a basket and there's another stack sitting in an inaccessible spot.  I also now take out a portfolio with small and medium size sheets of good art paper so I can do more 'finished' drawings in pen and ink/coloured pencils for sale.

We're all familiar with the notion that we remember times past through sensory experiences of the memory which can be triggered by smells, sights, sounds, or touch.  For me, the value of my sketchbooks is that every time I open one up I'm immediately transported back to that place and time and people.  I think the act of drawing must in some way be responsible for this as I just don't find that photos work in the same way.  You can't put a price on that - they are absolutely invaluable.  My sketchbooks never ever go in the hold baggage when I'm traveling - they always come with me.

I don't find it any surprise at all that most artists who are or were active in their use of sketchbooks while working plein air always tend to keep them.  For example, they've got 300 sketchbooks belonging to Turner sitting in Tate Britain!

I'm actually going to be writing a post next week which touches on a number of the questions you raised in the interview - so thank you for making me think about what I do -- it'll help with writing the post!


  • Pastels and pencils

Thank you so much, Katherine! I am not the only Ancient Artist who appreciates your various blogs and resource pages.  I, myself, am a great fan of Turner - I envy your ability to visit those sketchbooks whenever you want.

I am now quite inspired - emboldened !- to go out and try sketching "en plein air" and I hope that you all are too!