Constable's Oil Sketches

Today we value Constable's pencil, pen, watercolour and oil sketches for their freshness and vitality. However, at the time when he was working, the public expected a highly polished oil painting, executed in the studio not in the open air. Constable did not find the production of these finished paintings easy, which probably contributed to his late recognition by the art establishment.

The first stage of Constable's work was usually done outdoors, in a sketchbook. These sketchbooks were his storehouse of images, and he referred to the 1813 and 1814 sketchbooks of Suffolk scenes for the rest of his life. Often he made a sketch for its own sake, with no finished painting in mind.

In the early 1800s, many painters such as Constable, sought to capture subtle effects of light and atmosphere by making small-scale oil sketches out of doors.  In his open-air oil sketches, Constable applied colour in a variety of ways - rich impasto (thickly applied paint) and glazes (translucent oil paint), heavy dots of bright colour and light touches of pure white. Quick strokes with a brush bearing only a small amount of paint gave a dappled 'dry brush' effect, allowing the colours underneath to show through. Constable attempted the same fresh and rapid techniques when working on the final canvas back in his studio. He intended the varied paint surface to be examined close-up as well as viewed from a distance.

In 1888 thirty of Constable's oil sketches were given to the V&A by his daughter, Isabel Constable (1822 - 88).  They are on display in Room 88 at the V&A South Kensington.

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John Constable: Oil Sketches from the V&A

John Constable: Oil Sketches from the V&A

This exciting book presents a unique insight into Constable's working process through the V&A's unparalleled collection. It places the artist in t…

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Event - Constable: The Making of a Master

Sat 20 September 2014–Sun 11 January 2015

EXHIBITION: Presenting a fresh interpretation of Britain’s best-loved landscape painter, this major exhibition reveals how Constable combined a reverence for the old masters with a revolutionary approach to capturing light and atmosphere.

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