Pleasure and pain with Plein Air

For some time now, I’ve been hung up on trees. Not literally, I hasten to add… but when you’ve spent a good few years living somewhere trees are scarce, you really do appreciate having them around. They’re just huge, overgrown weeds really, aren’t they, yet nearly everyone feels some kind of affinity with them, conscious or not.

As a child in the south of England I was a tree-climber, and the species of choice was beech. I miss the Sussex Downland woods when I think of them; the smooth, pale trunks, low branches and gentle rustle of leaves in the sweet, warm breeze.

Here in the salt-washed, coastal Highlands we have lost much of the original Caledonian forest but initiatives for replanting with native species have begun to bear fruit.
Small stands of Scots pine survive around Assynt and in sheltered gulleys there are pockets of rowan, aspen, alder and oak. Despite the relatively large wild deer population, though, one of the predominant features of the landscape of this area is birch woodland, my current obsession. I can’t seem to get enough of painting their gnarled, twisted, lichen-covered trunks and, in spring, that which lurks beneath.

The primrose season lasts from mid April to the end of May and usually coincides with some of our loveliest weather. It’s absolutely my favourite time of year: the drab brown of March is turning a soft green although the bracken has not yet begun to shoot, interrupting the comfortable seating arrangements; midges are largely absent and tourists are few. Unfortunately it also signals the start of the very busy work season and you’d be surprised at how rarely I actually get the chance to go and paint on location during this magical time. Last week, however, I saw a window of opportunity and determined to paint some primroses within my precious birch woods.

This should not have been a difficult task.

I spent quite a while choosing the perfect clump of little yellow beauties below the perfect twist of trunk. I had to perform a spot of landscape gardening: removing fallen twigs, some distracting tall grasses and an untidy-looking frond of dead bracken. Next, I had to find somewhere to sit, which was close enough to see the primroses in enough detail yet far enough away that I could properly observe the tree; I would have preferred to lean against a trunk as a backrest but instead I found I was on a slope, not comfortable at all. After much shuffling, sighing and shifting I finally settled down but found the inspiration was waning. What I really wanted to do was open my flask of coffee and find a sunny rock upon which to savour the moment. However, I’d promised myself I’d complete one painting before allowing myself that pleasure, so I looked at the paper.

I couldn’t decide how best to tackle things and instinctively went in first with the pen, which I soon realised was a mistake. It was neither tight nor loose, detailed nor free and I understood it wasn’t working but, spurred on by the notion of hot coffee, I splashed on the colour. It was truly a case of ‘do as I say, not as I do’, as I failed to heed any of my own advice and I made a real pig’s ear of it all.

To successfully pull off the type of painting I inadvertently seemed to have attempted, I should have used masking fluid but I hadn’t brought any along. In frustration and annoyance at myself I picked up my water pot and emptied it over the whole painting, giving it a good scrubbing with the brush as I did so. My aim was to get rid of the evidence, turn the paper over and start again on the reverse. Remarkably, the water improved it no end. I was reminded of the Cadbury’s flake advert in the 70’s. I almost liked it.

Drinking my coffee – I deserved it by now – I looked at the fuzzy, drying, improved but still disappointing watercolour and scolded myself for being too urgent. I am always encouraging my students to know what they’re painting or sketching before they begin (unless doing an intuitive abstract exercise in the studio!) and to have some kind of idea about how they’ll approach the subject.

Ah well, you live and learn!

(If you like the idea of sketching in native woodland check out the ‘Windswept Wilderness’ itinerary in Scotland or ‘Mists of Time’ in La Gomera, with a day in the magical cloud forest.)