Today, the pencil, pen, watercolour and oil sketches produced by John Constable (1776 – 1837) in the open air are valued for their freshness and vitality. However, at the time when Constable was working, the public expected a highly polished oil painting, executed in the studio.
Like many artists practising at the time, Constable used sketches as source material for fully worked-up compositions. He did not find the production of finished paintings easy, which probably contributed to his late recognition by the art establishment.
Constable's letters mention 'sketches' and 'studies' in oils. The practice of sketching in oils spread throughout Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. Claude Lorrain (1600 – 82) was said to have painted out of doors, and several handbooks for students of art recommended open-air sketching in oils. Thomas Jones (1742 – 1803) made impressive oil sketches in Wales and Italy from 1772 to 1782, and the likes of J.M.W. Turner (1775 – 1851), William Mulready (1786 – 1863) and John Linnell (1792 – 1882) all painted vivid outdoor sketches.
Constable's sketches include studies from nature showing motifs such as a portion of landscape and various effects of light, shade or weather. Some sketches were made in the studio as a first draft for a composition – however, Constable was unique in making full-size studio sketches in preparation for an exhibition painting, like his full-scale oil sketch for The Hay Wain. Studies made directly from nature were sometimes revised later in the studio – provided with a sufficient level of finish, they were judged to be suitable for exhibition and sale.
When working outdoors, Constable painted on fragments of canvas, millboard or homemade paper. As he explained to a friend in 1825, his oil sketches 'were done in the lid of my box on my knees as usual'. 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 transformed the genre of oil sketching from one used for recording landscape motifs to a means of capturing transient effects of light and weather. When his daughter Isabel gave the oil sketches remaining with the family to the South Kensington Museum (now the V&A) in 1888, they were aptly described by a reviewer in the London Standard as 'brilliant transcriptions of the thing of the moment – Nature caught in the very act'.