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To help make it easier to find posts on different subjects, this post will stay at the top of the blog page to point you where you might want to go.

If you want to find my sketching record of the restoration work at Cliffe Castle Park in 2016 and 2017, the link below will take you to all the posts in the series. (Only about 10 are shown on screen at a time, so when you get to the bottom click ‘Show Older Posts’.)

Cliffe Castle/Drawing The Work

Other Cliffe Castle posts that are not directly about the restoration work, but about activities and daily life in the park are archived under the category:

Life In The Landscape

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If what you want is simply to see the sketches from Drawing The Work on their own, rather than seeing them as part of the story in a blog post – I’ve put a selection of the sketches on the Drawings page.

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A chameleon does not look much like this….

The animals have returned to Cliffe Castle. The resident creatures (more about them later) are now established in their new home, but on Easter Saturday they were welcomed back with a custom-made rabbit-treat cake with carrot candles and enjoyed the company of invited guests; ferrets, who raced, and an assortment of reptiles and arachnids who occupied the glasshouses. I’d been eagerly looking forward to this event but in the end I couldn’t make it, and only got a tantalising glimpse of what happened from Elaine, my friend and fellow member of the Cliffe Castle Conservation Group who sent me a picture of a chameleon sitting on her hand. (She owned up to being unwilling to handle the tarantula, even though she’s not afraid of spiders. I was happier to have the chameleon. Even photos of large arachnids are not exactly easy for me, though I’m working on this – I’d have liked to have tried drawing one. At a distance.)

Thanks to Elaine Cooper for her hand, the chameleon and this photo

The reason I was keen to see reptiles was a preoccupation I’ve had lately with chameleons, or rather the idea of a chameleon – as in the drawing at the top of this post, which doesn’t look very much like one. They have the ability to change colour according to mood or condition in order to signal this state of affairs to other chameleons and it’s this that I’d been thinking is such a handy device. I wish I could do it, or something like it, because it would be so useful.

My physical and mental state varies from week to week, day to day, minute by minute. The condition I live with (ME) means that I’m never feeling fully well, or at least very rarely and only fleetingly for a few minutes at a time. Mostly I’m on one of about three different levels of un-wellness and I tend to stay on the same level for weeks and sometimes months at a time, but I slide up and down between these levels on a daily, hourly and sometimes momentary basis just to add variety to the mix.

Definately a Green day, overall – but with early outbreaks of Blue shading to a tendency towards Orange in the late afternoon…..

It would be so useful to be able to colour code these changing conditions and broadcast them, in a subtle but demonstrable way. I present as a confusingly erratic presence (or absence) because it’s hard for other people to get a handle on what’s going on. It’s sometimes hard for me to get a handle on it for that matter.

I think of blue as the largely absent state of perfect wellness (happily I do get to experience this in a transient way once in a while, and it’s extraordinarily, gloriously wonderful) and the next level down would be green, which is my highest level and which I call Restricted But Reliable. The next level is yellow, More Restricted, Unreliable. After that comes orange, where I’m basically Poorly, Largely Unavailable; and the bottom level would be red, where thankfully I’ve been only rarely and for short periods, but it would be called something like Completely Unable, Count Me Out.

I don’t know much about chameleons but they seem to be able to change colour rapidly as their situation dictates, and this is how my signalling system would ideally work – and so as long as my colours were understandable to others this would seem like a very handy tool. I wonder if anyone’s tried this, or something like it…….?

Chameleons that are still imaginary but look a bit more like chameleons….

I plan to do some dedicated sketching up at the animal houses soon, and even though there are no reptiles or spiders (except very tiny ones, mostly hiding) I can’t wait to renew my friendship with the rabbits and guinea-pigs, and I’m looking forward to meeting some new animals that that I understand have arrived, which I’ve heard about but never seen. Watch this space!

I love learning. I love going back to basics, doing exercises, practising. There’s no moment in any lifetime of art practice when drawing exercises aren’t a great thing to do – I really ought to do things like this more often.

We’ve had two Sketchwalks at Cliffe Castle Park now – the first one had to be rescheduled because of snow and I couldn’t get to it, but yesterday I was able to take part. It was refreshing, incredibly useful, and a lot of fun.

Louise Garrett led both workshops and we had an enthusiastic group of Sketchers on both days. The first session concentrated mainly on contour and line, and then looked briefly at tonal values – these are just a few of the drawings done on that day:

The second session was a chance to have a good look at composition, simplifying how we see when we’re sketching on location and exploring ways to organise what we draw in the best possible way. Louise had made us all adjustable cardboard viewfinders! We used them in a variety of different exercises and discovered what an incredibly useful thing this simple tool can be.

One of the things Louise asked us to do was to look at an earlier sketch we’d done previously in the glasshouses, and then draw the same object from various angles using a viewfinder. I had a sketch of a hanging cactus in my sketchbook that I’d done a few weeks ago, so I advanced on the same plant viewfinder in hand, and very quickly realised that if I’d had this handy tool with me when I drew it before, things would have gone much more smoothly from the start.

Hanging cactus, sketchbook page

Hanging cactus, viewfinder thumbnails

In fact, with the viewfinder I’d have been able to tackle the crazy angles of the clothes-airer that the cactus hangs from without getting all despairing about it.

Lastly, I made an effort to try to record as many of our group as I could with a quick scribble – hoping it would also help me remember everyone’s names.

Sketchwalk participants examining their cardboard viewfinders

Another pair of Sketchwalks will be happening later this Spring, and judging by the way the first two sessions went and the response we’ve had they’ll be well attended. Sketching on location is getting increasingly popular and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a complete beginner or a sketcher with a lifetime’s experience – these sort of practice sessions are a real boost, and a great way to explore drawing and enjoy it in the company of others.

Scales for weighing individual gooseberries, circa 1870. Cliffe Castle Museum.

Scales for weighing individual gooseberries, circa 1870. Cliffe Castle Museum.

I love drawing in museums. I think this fascination with strange objects goes right back to my childhood, because I remember at the age of about 7 or 8 I created a tiny museum of my own in the Wendy House my father had built for us at the bottom of the garden. It had an odd assortment of things on display, each carefully labelled – an elephant’s tooth paper-weight, a stone age scraping tool made of flint (I found this on the North Downs near our home) several disassembled owl-pellets (collected and examined by my sister and me) and a small clay hippopotamus with a gaping mouth displaying my own teeth, thoughtfully returned by the tooth-fairy. There was an obvious bias towards natural history, but also a preoccupation with oddities – probably influenced by our occasional visits to Potter’s Museum in Bramber, on the South Downs in Sussex.

Vintage photo of Potter’s Museum at Bramber: Photograph: Dr Pat Morris/ Joanna Ebenstein

It was an extraordinary place, very unlike the museum in our county town of Maidstone (where my flint tool was authenticated) or the Natural History Museum in London, which I also came to love. Potter’s Museum was dark and crowded to overflowing with indescribably strange things many of which were weird and slightly grisly. We loved it.

Sketchbook page of drawings done in the natural history gallery at Cliffe Castle a couple of years ago when I was exploring the idea of drawing things I’m frightened of, like spiders. (Skeletons don’t worry me, and neither do hares – they just happen to be on the same page)

Perhaps this is partly why I enjoy sketching in Cliffe Castle Museum so much – not just because I love exploring by drawing and it’s a treasure-trove of things waiting to be discovered – but because somewhere in the dark reaches of my memory there are misty recollections of things like a stuffed giant albatross, and an elephant’s foot waste-paper bin……

Half way through the week I realised I might actually make the 100 tally – it’s now Friday afternoon and I’m over 80, so I might just get there.

I’ve been sketching from the TV a lot. News programmes feel almost like drawing from life, but no matter what I’m watching I fairly often miss vital features. So eyes get left out, or mouths….

But it’s a great way to observe an extraordinary range of different faces, even if they do move about at an unnerving pace and then suddenly disappear altogether.

It’s made me realise how much I need to study the shape of eyes and mouths, from different angles and in different expressions. Fascinating.

And of course I’ve been drawing outdoors as well, in the park. Thursday was snow in the morning, and cold bright Spring sunshine in the afternoon.

I know I’m learning a lot from all this – mostly I’m discovering what I find hard and what I really need to work on – but it’s so enjoyable. I think for now I’m not going to worry about what needs improving, and just go on enjoying myself for the rest of the week.

It’s that time of year again – the 1 Week 100 People sketching challenge.

I’m not going to stress myself by trying too hard to hit the target of 100 people, although you never know – but I haven’t been sketching fast enough or for long enough. But for me that’s not really the point – I’m getting a lot of practice – and I’m using the challenge to sketch in different ways. Some more successful than others – but all fun.

I sketch a lot from the TV – anything I happen to be watching, news broadcasts, dramas, documentaries, films. People moving are a lot more interesting to draw than people caught in a still photo, and there’s such a huge variety of faces and expressions.

But then there’s always the challenge of doing a bit of a portrait study from a photo, and I realised I’m not even restricted to drawing living people – so here’s Robert Browning, from an incredible portrait photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron. The drawing doesn’t do the photograph justice – he’s actually far more charismatic and doesn’t look half as pale and worried.

I’d said I would draw from images of the students who survived the Florida school shooting and who have been campaigning for gun control and I have a number of photos that I intended to sketch, but today when I looked at them I felt very reluctant to use them in this way. I may come back to them but it doesn’t feel right at the moment. Instead I drew from a photo of two young armed women police officers who were patrolling the area around the school just after the shooting.

Impossible to record everything I felt as I sketched this; I haven’t caught the complexity of emotion on their faces but there was so much there – anxiety, determination, shock, and a sort of stoicism and sense of duty. I couldn’t help but be struck by the amount of arms and weaponry they carry which seems overwhelming, and the fact that they both look so young. I felt it shows a lot, too, about the way an incident like this traumatises the whole community and what a burden of responsibility is carried by the police and security services, and also all the teachers and staff at schools across America – who incidentally do not want to be asked to carry guns.

And when I can I sketch from life! The task of nail-cutting, requiring concentration and a lot of movement in the hands, which explains the confused blurriness of fingers.

The week goes on – I’ll post more towards the end of the challenge.

And a technical note: I’d recently ordered some De Atramentis Document Ink Thinner from The Writing Desk and it arrived just in time for me to try it out this week. I love it! You can use it to dilute De Atramentis ink and I’ve mixed this lovely pale grey using blue + brown mixed with thinner. Great possibilities…….

I try to understand things by drawing them. It helps me think.

Since the Parkland school shooting in Florida last week, like everyone who was appalled that this can have happened, again, I’ve watched and listened, wondering – again – how this can be allowed to happen.

This time the aftermath does seem to be different. Those teenagers who huddled in terror, those who witnessed their close friends being killed beside them – are standing up and demanding that things must change, that laws must change, that politicians must stop taking money from the NRA. And they’re speaking with dignity, with clarity, and determination. It takes my breath away. Just look at this video of Cameron Kasky asking Senator Marco Rubio whether he will pledge not to accept NRA donations…. and read the account of it here.

I’ve read a lot about all the nuances behind the gun laws in America, which from over here in Britain seem hard to understand. I believe absolutely in listening to all sides. The one thing I keep coming back to is the thought of children going to school in fear; having to take part in routine drills for procedure when there is an ‘active shooter in the school’. Having to know how to barricade doors and what a kevlar blanket is for. Fear of any kind is pervasive, corrosive, corrupting – it is massively destructive, both in the short term and over a lifetime. And fear feeds other fears, feeds on itself, breeds distrust, does all kinds of dark and damaging things. All that – and of course you may well be shot, or see your fellow students or your teacher killed.

I try to understand by drawing. Sometimes understanding is impossible, but sometimes it’s possible to imagine more accurately that way. It can be a kind of listening.

I can only draw this story from photographs, and through the eyes of whoever took the picture. I won’t draw people in distress whose privacy I’d always respect but anyone demonstrating, debating, putting themselves in the public eye – these people I can try to celebrate. A small way of showing solidarity.

The#OneWeek100People2018 event starts again this year on March 5th. This year you can bet I’ll be drawing some of the people who are saying ‘Never Again’.

Ever thought you might like to join in and try sketching in the glasshouses and the park at Cliffe Castle?

Ferns in a hanging watering can, in the glasshouses Cliffe Castle

Louise Garrett and I are planning a series of Sketchwalks at Cliffe Castle. They’ll be a kind of cross between what Urban Sketchers call a sketchcrawl (a fairly informal get-together at a prearranged spot to meet, sketch and enjoy each others company) – and a guided workshop.

We’ll be welcoming Sketchers of all levels of ability and experience – even those who have never sketched before but who’d like to – and exploring sketching skills in the newly opened glasshouses and around the park. A bonus is that the café in the glasshouses is now open!

The sessions will be led by Louise, and the first is on Wednesday February 28th, from 10.30 – 12.30.

The Sketchwalks are being supported by the Parks Dept and Cliffe Castle Conservation Group and are being advertised locally to anyone interested in sketching. They’ll be in sets of 2, the first set Feb 28th and March 14th, and the second set May 16th and May 30th. Numbers have to be limited, due to the workshop format and space limitations – so if you’re interested, more information is on Facebook here – and if you’d like to reserve a place, email cliffe.castle.park@bradford.gov.uk – and you’ll get your place confirmed.

Throughout the whole restoration project at Cliffe Castle I was reluctant to draw the new glasshouses, at first because the site was mostly hidden behind security fences and was hard to see. I sketched the dome when it first arrived on site and later when it was raised, by a huge crane, and carefully lowered onto the framework.

And earlier still, right back at the beginning when things were being demolished, I sketched the old glasshouses to capture them as they were before they disappeared.

But for the last month or so the terrace has been complete (although we’re still waiting for the animal houses and aviaries to be finished) so I didn’t really have an excuse, other than the weather. I kept telling myself I really must have a go, but every time I looked at them I was alarmed by the technicalities – delicate white glass structures are hard to draw and the dome is full of complex elipses, (spot where I got that wrong) not to mention the perspective and the fact that whole thing is built on a hill. So in the end, especially as it’s still cold and often windy (today we’ve got intermittent storms of sleet) I took numerous careful photographs and worked from those. I don’t really enjoy doing this – it doesn’t give me the buzz that working directly outside on location does, and I never feel I’ve really connected with the place – but it does mean I could take my time working out how to get to grips with all that spindly white framework. Unfortunately it also made me work less spontaneously and fluidly and much more tightly than I normally do these days – but hey, these things happen. Now I know the structure better and next time I sketch it – from life, hopefully! – I’ll be more relaxed and look forward to drawing it in a completely different way.

Quick observations in the playground

I don’t often write about it, but I suffer from ME/CFS (which I’ve had for 30 years).  It’s one of the reasons that I sketch the way I do (in short bursts, and fairly quickly), and also why sketching is so important to me (more of this in a minute).

When I started sketching the restoration work at Cliffe Castle I didn’t know how often I’d be able to get up to the park or how much I’d be able to do, because my condition is variable and unpredictable, but it turned out that I managed quite a lot. And somewhere along the line I realised that Urban Sketching of this kind, with the support and encouragement of other Urban Sketchers, had made a huge difference to the way I felt and to what I was able to do.

I also began to think that it was important for other people to realise this as well, because it’s probably not obvious that sketching on location is something that can be so useful in managing a chronic condition – not just to people like me with a disability but also to people who aren’t disabled, to make it easier for them to understand what I can do and what I can’t. And an added bonus is that I’ve become more confident and better at explaining this, which makes things easier for everyone.

The exciting thing is that this month’s edition of Drawing Attention, the online newsletter of the international Urban Sketchers organisation has picked up on this theme, and back in December I was interviewed for an article on the subject which has now been published! (Note: it’s better viewed in an internet browser on a computer rather than on a tablet or phone).

When I sketch I disappear into a space and time that separates me from everything else that’s going on around me, which is one of the reasons it’s so important to me and why it’s such a useful tool in a situation that would otherwise be overwhelming and exhausting. Drawing is tiring, but much less tiring for me than talking and listening and interacting with people (no matter how much I’m enjoying the conversation!)

I’m amazed at what the last two years have taught me. I hope more than anything that other people can discover this too.