Suzy Fasht RWS is a Dartmoor based painter who uses her sketchbook practice to support her painting practice, where she works in watercolour, oil and egg tempera to create observations of the natural world. Here she talks through the different reasons she turns to her sketchbooks, which vary in size depending on their purpose.
Suzy Fasht Takes Us Through Her Sketchbook Practice
Sketchbooks are in the background of my painting practice. When I look back through them I see the seeds of ideas that are now finished paintings and have left the studio. At the time of making initial drawings I won’t know which will directly feed into a painting so it’s interesting to look back and see the thread. I keep old sketchbooks because some ideas are picked up again after a long time.
I usually have two sketchbooks on the go: one smaller, more portable one for taking with me when, say, I visit a garden. Then a larger sketchbook for use in the studio. I prefer hardcover sketchbooks with sturdy cartridge paper because that will also take watery paint. I don’t get on with shiny paper or soft bound sketchbooks, they don’t feel right to hold. At the moment I’m into square sketchbooks and sometimes use both pages to make them landscape format.
My sketchbooks are useful to me for four main reasons:
1. On the spot drawings The most straightforward use: I take my smaller sketchbook when I visit Dartmoor, the woods or a garden in order to make on the spot drawings. I used to be fascinated by Bonnard’s quick drawings made with a soft stubby pencil and my older sketchbooks have much quicker rougher sketches in. More recently, after finding the right spot, I will take more time to make a drawing. I will use a fine ink pen or pencil, usually a B or HB, whatever I have to hand. I have a really good pencil sharpener which is one of my favourite things! although sometimes I will use a blade to sharpen pencils.
2. To warm up After time away from the studio, such as on a Monday morning, it’s useful to flick through a sketchbook or start “playing” in it in order to get myself mentally ready to tackle whatever painting(s) I’m working on currently, rather than going to them “cold”. Although sometimes I just need to start and get on with it.
If I’ve been concentrating on fine detail or keenly observing something it can be good to come away from it and do the opposite. My sketchbook is a good place to do this, to use whatever watercolour paint is left on the palette and playfully see what emerges – it’s interesting to see what appears. Sometimes new ideas for paintings come this way.
3. To interpret If I’ve been out drawing, when I return I use my larger sketchbook in the studio to make interpretive drawings from the source drawing. This is a really important part of my practice. Sometimes I do this with watercolour paint on loose pieces of watercolour offcuts rather than in the sketchbook. I need to get to know the source drawing, its structure and elements. I use colour at this stage, either coloured and watercolour pencils or watercolour or gouache. Editing is really important and a sense of the transition from observation into imagination is helped by these stages. The overall shape, colours, feel and focus of what I want to make becomes clearer. I don’t want a “finished” drawing, more a sense of the overall design to give me some structure before I move onto larger paper or canvas. In this way I bridge the huge gap between the initial idea and the finished painting.
4. A depository for inspiration The sketchbooks are also a depository and reminder to myself of things that help me with my painting. In particular poems and quotes but also studio shopping lists and pieces of music to listen to while I’m working.
I stumbled upon Ted Hughes’s poem “Trees” at a nearby poetry trail which I became particularly entranced with. I live near a wood and it’s a subject I often revisit in my paintings. Copying out the poem in my sketchbook and so getting to know it was an important part of the preparatory process. John Berger said “Poems… bring a kind of peace… by recognition and the promise that what has been experienced cannot disappear as if it had never been”; I feel my aim for a painting might be the same – that moment, captured.
I find poetry so helpful, perhaps because it takes me to a place of stillness or poise – this is the best state for me to make work from.
Materials Used In My Sketchbooks
In the studio I like to use soft coloured or watercolour pencils in my sketchbook best, but I tend to use them dry. They are a bridge between drawing and painting. As well as line drawings I can fill in areas/shapes by cross hatching different colours which anticipate a more painterly approach.
My sketchbooks are important to me but I don’t use them every day – I use them when I need to. I don’t usually show them to people as they feel very personal and are not made with “showing to others” in mind.
Recently I have been painting more directly from observation – particularly flowers from my garden. For these paintings I don’t want any planning at all and prefer to let the picture evolve, making visual decisions during the process of making. I might just make a quick line drawing in my sketchbook to sort out scale, shape of the picture, how things may fit together, but that’s it.
For my landscape oil paintings, a bit more forethought is sometimes useful. I try out coloured pencil drawings in the sketchbook to get some idea of composition, colours and content before I begin on canvas.
My egg tempera paintings involve a completely different method of working. The composition needs to be sorted from the outset, then transferred to a gesso panel. I will make some thumbnail sketches in my sketchbook then when ready, transfer this onto paper the same size as the panel in order to make a more complete study for the painting.
Tips For Others
It’s only recently I’ve found a way to use sketchbooks that suits me. It has evolved naturally by taking the pressure off myself and not forcing myself to use them when it’s not necessary. A great book I recommend to my students is Your Sketchbook, Your Self by Felicity Allen, who was formerly Head of Interpretation and Education at Tate Britain, published by Tate (you can get a second hand copy for under £4). It’s full of visual examples and suggestions with how to make a sketchbook your own.
List of Materials I Use
Seawhite Cloth Bound Sketchbooks 140 gsm, 25 x 25 cm and 19 x 19 cm
Hand Book Journal Company Sketchbook 14 x 14 cm
M+R Professional Solid Brass Circular Double Hole Sharpener
About Suzy Fasht
London born Suzy Fasht studied painting at the Royal Academy Schools after completing her degree in Fine art at Wimbledon School of Art in the 1990s. She currently lives and works at the edge of Dartmoor in Devon. A member of the Royal Watercolour Society, her paintings are regularly on show at Bankside Gallery, London.
Suzy makes paintings using imagery from the natural world around her: the forest, moor and gardens. Working in watercolour, oil or egg tempera, the different qualities of each paint demand particular working methods and scale. Recently she has been producing large scale floral paintings in oil which have been in shows at the Catto gallery, Moorwood Art and currently included in Bristol’s Royal West of England Academy Open exhibition.