Drawing Your Surroundings

Illustrator Florence Rivest teaches us about the value of contemplation—both for drawing, and for becoming more grounded in our environment.

Text—Marie Charles Pelletier

In partnership with

Florence Rivest spent her childhood outdoors, in her native Bas-Saint-Laurent and on the rivers of Québec. And yet she never identified with what we call “plein air” living — a phrase she pronounces with an English accent and a hint of a smile, a slight jab at the European painters who climbed mountains with an easel and a parasol strapped to their backs.

For Rivest, nature was never something that had to be conquered or ascended in order to be enjoyed. In a canoe or on foot, rather than succumbing to the temptation to always go faster, she allowed herself to be carried by the current — or her own boots — to observe the reflection of the sky in the water, or hear the sound of wind in the trees.

One summer when she was working as the lighthouse keeper on l’Île Verte, in Bas-Saint-Laurent, Rivest started drawing the landscape, which was changing constantly before her eyes. At first she did it to pass the time, but soon she simply couldn’t stop. Sitting on a rock, she would patiently observe the hues in the eddies of the river and the grey of the clouds. These details, which only reveal themselves when we give them our full attention, are what she would capture on paper.

And that’s when she knew she would be drawing landscapes for the rest of her life — that outdoor exploration would give way to contemplation and pencils, and that she wouldn’t always have her Merrell boots on, because you have to be barefoot in order to feel the dew.

Years after her days in the lighthouse, her attachment to the land and the time she spends observing it can be felt in each of her paintings, which evoke a contemporary version of the naturalism movement. She also likes to paint people in the natural environment, as if to remind us that humans, rivers, black spruce, and chanterelles are all equally alive. And equally fragile.

How to draw your surroundings

with Florence Rivest 

A childhood spent outdoors allowed Florence Rivest to perfect the art of grounding herself in the present moment. Twenty years later, sitting on the same shores, she paints what she sees before her, forever discovering new hues. Here, Rivest invites us to take the time to settle and draw what’s around us, whether from an apartment on the third floor or from the water’s edge.

– 1 –

Choose your materials

Rivest can’t say it enough — you don’t need a Faber Castell box set, an easel or cold-pressed fine-grain paper. A notebook and a pen or pencil (ballpoint, lead pencil, brush pen) will all do just fine.

Of course, if you like colours, don’t hesitate to add some to your pencil case. Markers and watercolours can transform a drawing. If you’re heading outside or on a trip for a few days, don’t weigh yourself down with an 18×24 sketchpad or too many brushes. Take the weight of your materials into consideration, as well as drying time.

– 2 –

Choose a place or a subject

You don’t have to go to the Dolomites or the Fiji Islands to find something to draw. Take the time to admire the beauty of your daily surroundings. The oak tree in front of your house, your cactus collection, the bouquet of flowers on the dining-room table — all these things deserve your attention as you develop your eye, exercise your hand, and reproduce the texture of objects that may not be particularly grandiose, but become more beautiful with each pencil stroke.

– 3 –

Observe and draw (without hurry)

Once you’re comfortably settled — on the rocks, against a tree, or at a picnic table — take the time to observe your subject, carefully and at length. Notice the details, textures, and shades. Without hurry and without judgement, draw what you observe.

– 4 –

Notice what the moment inspires in you

Describe the moment in a few words. Give your drawing a title that will reflect the precious time you dedicated to observing your spider plant — because a drawing is a way of encapsulating time. It’s a way of preserving not just the image of a plant, a room, or the view from the balcony, but also of bearing witness to a moment of fullness, an era, or a state of mind.


Learn more about Florence Rivest and her artistic practice in the series Les chemins de travers. This series presents stories—not always smooth—of people who have decided to step outside the box, or rethink it. Presented by BESIDE, in partnership with Desjardins.


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