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For the whole month of June I’ve been taking part in a marathon international watercolour event, #30x30DirectWatercolor2018. By taking part I mean just doing as much as I could, when I could – not the painting-a-day that lots of of people signed up for – but I’ve been watching and reading about what all the others have been doing and it’s been an eventful month, full of wonders and surprises. The participants have been a richly varied lot – some professional artists, some experienced watercolourists, some complete beginners and some, like me, who use watercolour a lot but seldom without some kind of line drawing. This was all about jumping straight into paint, and thinking about shape, tone and colour. And simply enjoying what watercolour can do.

There have been some wonderful pictures shared (I’ve followed the whole thing on Facebook, though not on Instagram where many people posted) – but reading the stories that go with the paintings has often been just as fun and just as interesting as seeing the pictures. Like me, a lot of people found themselves flailing about in uncharted waters without having the familiarity of a pen or pencil to hang onto and almost every day someone would post cries of frustration or wail about how they felt completely at sea – but I never heard anyone say they were ready to give up. There were always responses of solidarity and support. ‘We’re feeling it, too!’ And as time went on, the unfamiliarity started to feel less alarming. Discoveries were made. Things got more exciting; possibilities started to outweigh the difficulties.

Watercolour is a very particular medium, and people seem to either love it or hate it. Some people try it once and never give it another go; others get so hooked on it that it becomes a sort of obsession. (It can get me like that sometimes – I’ve been known to dream about nothing more than pure watercolour pigments and the way they mix and interact; I remember a particularly vivid dream about cobalt blue and burnt umber……) One of the complaints you often hear is that it’s unforgiving and unpredictable – and therefore unmanageable – but its unpredictability is its greatest strength. At its best, in moments when everything aligns and goes mysteriously right, the most extraordinarily beautiful things happen.

We all know this. That’s why we never give up – it’s like a yearning or a quest for a mostly unreachable goal that we know to be sublime, and we try all kinds of things to acheive it predictably and regularly. Practice, practice, practice – but the thing is, practice alone is not enough, and there are no shortcuts.

Like dance, or calligraphy, or playing an instrument, or for that matter like reading a bedtime story or baking a cake, things will never go right if something inside you is wrong. It’s astonishing how clearly this shows up – but unsurprising. As I told myself this morning when baking whilst feeling hurried, harried, unbalanced and out of sorts; the cake bubbled out of its tin, burnt on the top and then collapsed in the middle. I took a deep breath, threw it out and started again.

What’s inside, shows up on the outside. It’s a simple fact; we need kindness in everything.

Watercolour drawing of Keighley National Shell Factory in WW1

When I was given a list of objects to draw to illustrate the Story Trail for the Keighley’s War exhibition at Cliffe Castle, some things seemed pretty straightforward, and others – well, not. One of them was a small sepia photograph of workers in the National Shell Factory in Keighley. Indistinct, detailed, crowded, complex, and behind glass – I was at a loss as to quite how I was going to approach it.

But as it turned out, it was perhaps the most fascinating and enjoyable subject of all the curious objects I drew, and a lot of this was due to the way I set about doing it.

My usual sketching method relies a lot on line, and a pen is what I generally start with. But here I could see that was simply not going to work – the photograph was simply a mass of complicated tonal values. So I decided to jump straight in with watercolour with almost no drawing, even in pencil, and build it in stages as a painting. (Click on any of these images to see them larger).

Stage one in the painting process, broad washes of pale colour

Once I’d got to the halfway point I realised it would be interesting to record it stage by stage, so I’ve had to simulate stage one by editing the second stage photo with a bit of bleaching and blurring, but basically the first thing I did was to put down large washes of pale colour and tone with no detail at all, reserving just a few small white unpainted areas. Then in the next stage I started to construct by blocking in more tone and colour, leaving pale spots for faces and highlights…..

Stage two, building detail slowly

Stage two, above, has moved on quite a bit from just pale washes. I worked with a 1/2″ dagger brush which was exactly right for this painting (I love this brush and use it more and more often – it gives you sharp, dead straight lines and very precise detail at the same time as lovely big, broad, fluid, flowing strokes. Very exciting.)

Stage three, below, doesn’t look a whole lot different but by this time I’ve started to deepen and darken certain areas and define some parts more clearly.

Stage three, more detail, darkening tones

And finally I worked in just enough detail to focus on some of the principal faces and some bits of machinery. (Here I did use a very small amount of line with a pen – and here and there a touch of watercolour pencil, plus tiny bits of white gouache for highlights).

Finished painting, details of faces, machinery, piles of munitions, the crowded factory floor and the roof structure overhead

I wanted to keep a feeling of the complexity of the scene which is extremely crowded and busy without getting carried away with the detail – so that the principal characters stand out as the focus of the story, along with the machinery they’re using and the work that they’re doing. It would be wonderful to know who these people were, their names, their stories – what exactly was happening there in the factory on this day, November 13th 1915. All I know about them as individuals is what I learned from studying the photograph, but drawing it let me sink into its depths, absorbing how it must have felt to work in this wartime munitions factory.

Just look – here’s the photograph.

Watercolour sketches of a pot of mint in the sunlight

Pot of mint in the sun on the kitchen windowsill – just watercolour with no line drawing to hang on to.

Sometimes it pays to turn everything on its head. Do something you do a lot of, but in a different way. You don’t really learn, or expand, or grow if you don’t shake things up a bit from time to time.

When I draw, I tend to think in terms of line and contour first. Sometimes if I’m drawing a subject that’s really all about big blocks of shape and colour it’ll be obvious that lines aren’t going to serve me well, and I’ll adapt – but still, in the main, lines are my way of getting a handle on things and so I’ll reach for a pen every time. Which is fine – except you can get stuck in habits that can be limiting.

So when Marc Taro Holmes threw up a new challenge for the month of June I decided I’d join in – no promises about how many days I’ll manage, but the idea of it is just too much fun to ignore.

#30x30DirectWatercolor2018 has its own public Facebook page for participants to post on, so anyone can see what we’re all up to – and people have been signing up from all corners of the globe. It’s all about watercolour with as little line work as possible – just what I need to get me out of my comfort zone and into thinking differently.

Close up of watercolor of pot of mint

I’m only going to do quick sketches and nothing in the least ambitious. But the fun will be sharing my experiences with others and seeing what everyone else is doing – and hopefully growing a bit in the process!

A new exhibition opens this week at Cliffe Castle Museum. Keighley’s War commemorates the end of the First World War, exploring some of the ways the lives of the people living in this part of West Yorkshire were affected by the fighting, the trauma and suffering, and the seismic social changes which were a part of the period.

It goes without saying that the First World War is not an easy subject to reflect on. History is full of dark times as well as moments that are easier to look back on – and this period in particular is full of things that are frankly terrible, a huge challenge to present it as the subject of an exhibition. But spending some time learning about the lives of our not-very-distant ancestors, the conditions in which they lived, the challenges they faced and the social changes that affected them is deeply worthwhile, and a compelling journey of discovery.

To offer this journey the museum has produced a clever, concertina-fold illustrated Trail that unfurls and becomes a guide-book to help visitors search out and find objects in the collections. Each one of these objects has a story to tell about the First World War – and I was asked to draw them to illustrate the guide.

Unsurprisingly, working on the drawings was an absorbing, challenging, and often disturbing experience. Getting to know something intimately by drawing it means that you literally get drawn in – and all these objects had a powerful effect on me. So I thought it would be interesting to share a bit about what this felt like and what I discovered – the story of the drawings, one at a time. Here are two; others I’ll write about in future posts.

The call to arms; Kitchener’s Men

Kitchener's Man armband

I had no idea what this was when I first saw it. A piece of stitched calico printed with the words ‘Kitchener’s Man’. I knew the famous recruiting poster of Lord Kitchener with his finger pointing directly out, with the words ‘Your Country Needs You!’ but I didn’t know that those early volunteers were called ‘Kitchener’s Men’, and because at first there weren’t uniforms to issue to these civilian soldiers they were given cotton armbands like this one to wear.

The men who joined up from a local district were often formed into single units which turned out to be an appalling decision. In their book ‘Kitchener’s Mob‘ Peter Doyle and Chris Foster describe how the idea of recruiting men into local “Pals” regiments – essentially all coming from the same community – was a tragic mistake when later these close-knit communities were devastated by the loss of their young men – fathers and sons, brothers and cousins.

The cover photo of the book shows recruits at Grassington Station proudly wearing their armbands – the Upper Wharfedale chaps leaving their home village on September 21, 1914, on their way to boost the troops of the regular army which had embarked for France on August 4. Massively outnumbered but with their murderous rapid rifle fire, they were attempting to hold off the hordes of German soldiers sweeping across Flanders and northern France.

As I sketched it I wondered if this armband could possibly have been worn by one of these men. They were on their way to the battle of the Somme, not knowing what awaited them in France……

Following the fighting from back home

Booklet, The Western Front at a Glance - WW1

This is not an especially rare artifact. You can still buy copies of this booklet on Ebay and elsewhere (different editions were published as the war progressed, at different prices) but what I was so struck by was the condition of this copy. It’s worn and dog-eared, well thumbed at the corners and cracked at the spine. Whoever owned this book must have pored over it daily, studied the route and the progress of – who? A husband? Brother? Son?

The drawing took a long time to do and I had the opportunity to immerse myself completely in the graphic style of the period – the colours, the fonts, the layout. And I kept thinking what a strange mixture of ideas it represents – on the one hand a kind of cheerful, eager, educational guide to troop movements and military events (it reminded me a bit of the I-Spy books we used to use as children) and on the other – a terrible reminder of what was happening day by day to the soldier in your family, so far from home.

Saying ‘No’ to War

As a counterpoint – and a different view of the events of 1914 – 18, the opening of the exhibition Keighley’s War coincides with International Conscientious Objector’s Day on the 15th May, a day marked this year by the Peace Museum in Bradford by a lecture called ‘Oh What a Lovely War-Resistance; music in opposition to war, 1914 – 18’. It’s easy to find recollections of heroism in acts of war; what’s not so easy is to remember the particular kind of courage it took – and takes – to refuse to fight and oppose military action. The Peace Museum is a unique celebration of the peace movement and its history, exploring the often untold stories of peacemakers and social reform.

More on exhibitions at both Cliffe Castle Museum and the Peace Museum in future posts………

Some people draw to relax. I’m never quite sure whether I do this or not; I don’t think I do. I know I don’t deliberately pick up a pen and a sketchbook and think, ah, this is going to really help me unwind. No. I wish it were that easy. But – then again – perhaps that’s not what people mean, by saying that drawing helps them relax. Drawing takes energy and it can be exhausting, but it does bring me into a state of focused attention – and that more than anything is what I need, day in day out. But when I’m not well and have very little energy this something of a dilemma.

Partly, it’s what to draw. If I found quiet still-life drawings of flowers or fruit really got me going it might be easier, but I don’t generally get excited by flowers or fruit, it’s just not compelling enough as a subject and I can’t bring myself to start, especially if I’m feeling low. What I find totally absorbing is things that move, and that usually means people or animals, (quite why this is I don’t know) – but give me the chance to watch someone at work, or hanging out with other people just holding a conversation, waving their hands about occasionally, doing something not too impossibly fast – and I’m hooked. Once I start drawing I’m lost to everything else. Pain melts into the background. Tiredness doesn’t count. It’s always been this way.

Sketchbook pages with gesture drawings of people talking and drinking

So if I see anything going on outside that I can sketch from the window, I’m engrossed. This warm weather has brought people out of doors to stand around and talk to each other in the street, or chat over the fence. I can try to guess the conversation (!) and just enjoy understanding what’s happening by looking at body language, learning about people by watching how they stand, what they do with their arms and their legs and their heads. And then, if I there’s no live action, there’s always the TV (the sketches on the left hand page were done while watching a film).

It’s amazing really, all the things a sketchbook can be. This is a really restorative thing for me – connecting, observing, recording, this odd process that involves a pen and a page and me looking and looking and moving the pen……

Gesture drawings of people

Now, if I could figure out a way to find flowers as exciting as people, I’d be able to get this stimulating-connecting-sketching thing to work any time I look out into the garden. If only flowers moved.

This is a degu.

Watercolour drawing of a degu

At first glance you might be forgiven for thinking, rat? Mouse? But then you look at the tail…. and you say to yourself, hmm, dormouse? But the size rules that out (it’s bigger than a hamster) and you realise you’re looking at something entirely different from all of these.

Sketchbook page of degu studies in pencil

The first time I sketched them about a fortnight ago in their new home at Cliffe Castle all these thoughts were going through my head and I admit I was confused. In fact as I looked at their little rounded bottoms I kept thinking of guinea pigs, and just once in a while I’d suddenly see something in the eyes or the shape of a nose that made me think rabbit (though that immediately seemed ridiculous) so I kept on looking and drawing, although for a long while all my sketches looked either rat-like or guinea-pig-like – until I felt I knew what I was looking at. Degus. Very special little animals.

For sketching purposes it’s not that easy to see them clearly through the narrow link fence at the front of their enclosure (though after a while I discovered that if you crouch down until you’re on the same level as they are, you can see a lot better – perfect for children, a bit more awkward for me.) So to understand them better, when I got home I looked up some facts, googled photographs and did a couple of drawings from the screen –

Degus, sketched from photographs

– which meant that when I went back again to the animal houses a couple of days ago I had a better idea of what I’d be looking at. (I also learnt that they’re related to guinea-pigs and chinchillas and come from the high Andes, are active during the day but don’t like hotter temperatures, that they’re highly social, and that they live longer and are more intelligent than their near relatives).

Interesting facts – but I can learn a lot by watching.

So I stand with my nose pressed up against the wire, sketchbook and pen ready, and wait.

It’s a warm afternoon, and because of that they’re all inside their custom-built house which has two floors, several entrances and exits and lots of hay for bedding. I can imagine them inside all in a heap, snuggled together. (What’s the collective term for degus, I wonder?) I can just see a couple of noses, two pairs of beady eyes. They’re awake and watching me.

I don’t know if it’s getting cooler or whether they’re just curious, but one by one they start to come out of their house, sniff the air, look around. One or two of them do look at me, one from a lookout position at the top of the plank that leads to their second storey entrance, one perching on the edge of a large empty red bowl. I can see how their tails help them balance. I can see tiny toes, (I know there are five) and ears like crumpled petals.

Watercolour drawing of a degu

I can see their very impressive whiskers. And the tails – with their lovely black tufted ends that I try not to exaggerate, though it’s hard not to…

Watercolour illustration of a degu

Pretty soon one of them ambles slowly over to the green plastic exercise wheel, climbs in and gives it a whirl. I wonder whether I’ll be able to draw those flying feet and have serious doubts, but I give it a go anyway….. and there’s no squabbling when a second degu arrives and also wants a turn. They fit amiably side by side and go racing round together in perfect unison. I can’t draw that.

Drawing of a degu in an exercise wheel

The plastic wheel is also very good for gnawing….

Degu gnawing plastic wheel - pencil drawing

By now I’m beginning to feel I’ve started to get to know them, and the more I watch the more I want to touch and stroke those little rounded backs, feel the sleekness of fur, and if possible very, very gently touch a fragile ear with the tip of my finger. I can’t do that, but drawing almost does it for me; my hand may be holding a pen and touching paper, but my mind is feeling fur, whiskers, skin.

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.