Archives for category: Art Practice

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.

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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!

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.

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.

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. 

Fallen leaves

The days are so short now that the light is often fading by the time I get up to the park, so I’m watching where I put my feet (it’s often muddy) and with my eyes down what I mostly see is the ground. But this is often the best place to look for the most colour and beauty on a dark misty afternoon. I can’t help picking up leaves one after the other just to marvel at them – whole trees look spectacular when they turn gold, as some do – but individually every leaf is a world of beauty. There are so many of them lying around everywhere, making a nuisance of themselves on the paths and lawns and having to be raked and swept up – and yet each one taken separately is so incredibly lovely and every one unique.

Most of the trees have lost their leaves now, and this year some never turned the truly glorious colour we hope for in Autumn anyway, but near the Beechcliffe entrance there are three handkerchief trees that always turn a wonderful golden yellow, and these still glow in the fading light, so yesterday I did a fast sketch of one of them before the cold made me move on.

Handkerchief tree

I did a brisk walk, round to the pond, (enjoying the fountains) up to the Castle (a quick look at the animal houses that are still not finished, but it was too dark there to draw) and over to the playground where there were a few mothers, hands in pockets and coats zipped and buttoned, with children all open coated and un-gloved running about and climbing on things with never a thought for the cold.

Mothers in the playground

It may be damp and cold (and the forecast is for it to get colder) and the afternoons may be short and dark, but out there in the park there’s colour and life in the landscape. 

Not too long ago I was sketching up at the glasshouse terrace, the only part of the park that was still a building site. Walls were being built at the edge of the walkway that will curve along the front of the animal houses and aviary, and I was watching (and sketching) a skillful bit of bricklaying. After a while the bricklayer stopped to go off in search of something and as he passed me in the carpark he asked what I was doing, so I explained. (It seems he hadn’t been working on the site all that long and hadn’t seen me before). 

The conversation went like this:

Bricklayer: Are you an artist?
Me: Yes. I’ve been drawing this project since the beginning….
Short pause.
Bricklayer, thoughtfully: Only difference is, I draw with a trowel, and you draw with a pencil. 

I liked this, and wrote it down – though I didn’t really need to write it to remember it. It says a lot about what drawing is. Of course bricks (or Yorkshire stone) aren’t a sketchbook and a wall isn’t a drawing, but a trowel is a tool just as much as a pencil or a pen, and bricklaying and drawing both require eye/hand co-ordination and a lot of practice. When you do a lot of it and practise often, you get better at it and it more often goes well. Not always – and I imagine bricklayers have good days and bad days just as a sketcher does, though the consequences of a bad bricklaying day could be more serious and long lasting than the times that I do wonky unsatisfactory drawings. I can just turn the page and start another sketch, and try not to mind when things don’t go right – though it’s a fact that I never get over the feeling of uneasiness whenever this happens. After days of not drawing, when I need a lot of warming up before anything will flow there’s always a small sinking feeling, a nagging little voice that says you’ve lost it, it’s never going to go right. It does come right, eventually, after a fair bit of exercise, but it always feels the same. 

I was talking about this with a sketcher-friend of mine recently, Louise Garrett, and she had what I think is the brilliant idea of carrying a rough book around as well as a current sketchbook. Something to scribble in and do quick drawings with lots and lots of looking, lots of warming up. Drawing is like dancing, or singing. It’s a physical-neuralogical-emotional thing, and you have to respect that and be patient. And just do the work. 

My ‘Drawing The Work’ project and the exhibition now on in Cliffe Castle are going to be the focus of the October session of Bradford Museums’ ‘Responses to Art’ programme – this coming Thursday, 5th October, 10.30 – 3.00. Very unfortunately I’m not going to be able to be there myself, but Joe Bean from Yorkshire Urban Sketchers is going to come along and talk about Urban Sketching – and hopefully bring lots of examples of his own work. Joe loves building sites just as much as I do and draws them brilliantly – he’s just done a wonderful series of sketches of the demolition of the historic South Stand at Headingley Stadium. I’m thrilled that people will be able to see his work at Cliffe Castle and have a chance to hear him explain what Urban Sketching is all about – like me Joe is a passionate urban sketcher! 

Anyone interested in going along on Thursday should ring Cliffe Castle to book a place, on 01535 618231. It should be an interesting day! 

Demolition work in June 2016

Back in June last year when I started this project that I’ve called Drawing The Work, I had no idea quite what might come of it. Four and a half sketchbooks and a pile of looseleaf drawings later, and I realise it’s taken on a life of its own, and it isn’t finished yet. But since this Sunday saw the opening of the display of all my work in Cliffe Castle Museum it seems like a good time to talk a bit about what it’s like to sketch in the park, and how I go about doing it. So what follows is the How, followed by the Why, in two parts. 

1. Practical matters: tools and equipment 
People always seem interested in my sketching kit – well, other sketchers are, anyway – so here’s the chance to see what’s in my bag. (Part one may get a bit technical so if you’re not a sketcher you may want to skip to part 2).

Mini sketching kit in a bag

Essentials: small bag on a strap that I always wear. It’s just big enough to hold 2 or three pens with different inks, sometimes a pencil, 2 waterbrushes (one with water, one with indigo ink diluted about 50:50 with water) a couple of sheets of kitchen paper and my mini-palette (see below).

This is my absolutely basic essential kit and goes with me everywhere – most days I go out with just this little bag and a spiral bound sketchbook. Most of my pens are Lamy Safari, and the one I use the most (and love the best) is the one dangling from the strap on the front of the bag; it’s a Lamy Safari Vista filled with De Atramentis Document ink that’s permanent and waterproof. I have other pens with other colours of ink, some waterproof and some not, and those I vary from day to day. The strap across the front of the bag is mostly for hanging pens on when I’m actually sketching, for easy access and a quick draw (!) and there’s a mini-pocket and a flap-strap with velcro to hold other things, like kitchen paper for blotting and brush cleaning. I don’t often take a water pot with me but usually rely on waterbrushes; although they have their drawbacks they’re incredibly useful especially since I do all my sketching standing up. 

My homemade mini-palette

My homemade mini-palette made from plastic packaging for inter-dental toothbrushes. The watercolour pans are blister packs for indigestion tablets.

I try to keep everything I carry as lightweight as possible so this tiny palette is ideal as it weighs almost nothing. I’ve also added a strap across the back made from 2.5cm masking tape that I can slide a flat stick of rigid card through, and then this gives me a paintbox-on-a-stick, that I can hold in the same hand as my sketchbook:

Paintbox-on-a-stick

Paintbox-on-a-stick – looking a bit battered now. I may have to make a new one soon; the corners started to leak and I patched them up with nail polish. 

I’ve used many different sketchbooks over time but I’ve never got over feeling inhibited by books that have expensive paper. I want to be able to draw fast and fill pages with drawings that may be terrible, especially if I’m warming up after not sketching for a few days, so I use A5 sketchbooks by Crawford and Black which are really cheap, and are spiral bound so that I can open the book right up and fold it round to hold it easily in one hand. In fact the paper is surprisingly good – it works fine for drawing with a pen, and takes light watercolour washes, and I rather like the way watercolour behaves on this paper – washes tend to ‘bloom’ a lot because of the sizing.

A5 Crawford and Black sketchbook

A5 Crawford and Black sketchbook. I reinforce the cover by taping some of the first pages to the inside of it to make it more rigid. 

If I want to do a sketch that’s more painterly in a watercolour way, I use a loose sheet of heavy (300gsm) watercolour paper cut and folded into a concertina-fold strip – this way I can end up doing either a panoramic landscape view, or a series of sketches related to each other that make up a story. 

Panoramic sketch of the old toilet block

Panoramic sketch of the old toilet block on a concertina-fold sheet of watercolour paper

I’ve already mentioned that I do all my sketching standing up. There are several reasons for this; firstly I’m more comfortable that way, and also I’ve noticed that people don’t come up and peer at what you’re drawing as much if you’re standing rather than sitting. I don’t mind this and I like talking but it can be a bit distracting, and more importantly I need to get into exactly the right place to get the best view of what I’m drawing which often means walking about and moving frequently from one place to another, especially if I’m sketching work that’s in action. This is fine, but standing in one place to do a drawing for more than ten minutes gets tiring. Holding a sketchbook in one hand like this can be a strain. So I have an adaptable contraption like a tray with a strap, that supports my sketchbook and takes the weight of it off my arm. The strap goes round my back and over my shoulder, like a guitar strap, and the whole thing is held together with binder-clips. 

Wearable drawing-board with a strap

Wearable drawing-board with a strap, made from two hardback A4 desk-diaries with all the paper removed, and only the hard binders remaining. Overlapping and clipped together they can make a longer rectangular shaped board…

Wearable drawing-board with a strap, unassembled

…. when unclipped, the two A4 binders sit next to each other to make them more compact to carry about. 

I carry all this stuff in a cotton bag with a long strap that I can sling across me to walk easily, and I’ve become easily identifiable at a distance because of this bag. I don’t know if this is a good thing or not – it means I can’t easily sneak up on people and draw without being noticed… 

Cotton carrying bag

Cotton carrying bag, not rain proof, so I have a plastic carrier bag in it just in case.

I always have my phone camera with me and I do sometimes take reference shots, to remind me about colour if I add watercolour later at home – I sometimes do this if there isn’t time to paint on the spot or if there’s a lot of rapid complicated work going on, just so I catch anything that happens a bit too fast to sketch. But I do this as little as possible and I seldom actually draw from photos. I find this quite hard to do as I’m not really seeing the thing itself but just an image of it, and it feels unresponsive. The exception is if I want to do a recognisable and careful portrait of someone, and then a photo helps. 

Michael Scarborough, of The Friends of Cliffe Castle and the Conservation Group

Michael Scarborough, of The Friends of Cliffe Castle and the Conservation Group, at the occasion of the raising of the dome on the glasshouses

This pretty much sums up the how, but then there’s the why.  

2. Why Draw? And Why Cliffe Castle? 

People sketch for different reasons, all individual, all of them valid. I can only talk about why I do it, and there are two reasons; one is to record – actually it would be better to say witness – and the other is to understand, discover, and connect. Something happens when you stand in front of a thing and draw it that is quite different from simply looking at it or taking a photograph of it; sketching is an encounter, and after drawing something you have a relationship with it that you didn’t have before, and that you’ll never forget. This is what Urban Sketching is about. 

I first discovered the Urban Sketchers movement back in 2015 and it’s had a huge influence on my drawing. Realising that there are people all over the world who have the same compulsion to sketch from life as I do, and being able to see their work online and share mine as well has been absolutely life changing. Without this feeling of being part of a sketching community I would never have had the confidence to start my sketching project Drawing The Work, and as it’s gone on I’ve had so much encouragement and support – especially from Yorkshire Sketchers. 

And I can’t talk about Urban Sketchers without mentioning  Richard Johnson, news illustrator and Urban Sketcher whose extraordinary drawings – and writing – have made such an impact on me. Rather than try to explain what his work is like I’ll leave it for you to discover yourself; have at a look at Why We Draw and you’ll see what I mean. 

Cliffe Castle is on my doorstep, which means I’m extremely lucky to have such good sketching opportunities close enough for me to reach. My condition with ME/CFS means I can’t make long excursions but I can get to the park almost every day. The Parks Department and Museum staff have been an enormous help, always interested and encouraging and ready to give me time to answer questions (sometimes very long lists of them) and now and again take me on supervised tours of the building site. 

So, special thanks to Dan Palmer the Heritage Officer (seen above, one grey and muddy day back in March), Mel Smith the Parks Manager (who I have yet to sketch – I promise I will!), Dave Bennison the Parks Technical Officer, Daru Rooke the Museum Manager (it was Daru and Dave who first made contact with me when I was sketching them peering excitedly into an excavation at the site of the pond) and Geri Abruzzese (whose job title I’m not sure of, but who always seems to be around in the Gardener’s Lodge whenever I need something). And a very big thank you to Kirsty Gaskin the curator at the museum who has made such an exceptional job of the exhibition of my sketches. 

Thank you all, for reading. And as always, do get in touch if you’d like to – leave a comment here below this post or send me a message through my contact page. 

If you’re already a sketcher, happy sketching – and if you’re not, why not give it a try? 

Deborah 

Cliffe Castle Park in Keighley is being restored with funds from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Work started on site back in June 2016 and I’m following progress and sketching whenever I can.

Finishing the animal enclosures

Everywhere in the park things are taking shape and getting nearer to completion, and even though there’s still a lot to be done, every day there are signs that we’re in the final stages. The animal enclosures and the aviary have now been constructed and the back wall is clearly visible (with work still going on) behind the Grotto – which has now been fully cleared of its tangle of ivy, and has a smart new pair of Victorian style street lights. You can now see the steps of the aerial walkway that climbed from the cave up and across to the flower gardens behind the castle (I haven’t drawn these right, because in my sketch they don’t seem to end up in the cave as they should – the sunlight was very bright that afternoon and the shadows too dark for me to make it out properly). 

The Rose Garden

Beneath the bank of rhododendrons the rose garden has been planted with red and white standard roses in neat lines that look like something straight out of Alice-in-Wonderland, and dainty wooden slatted benches are appearing all over the place, all curvaceous and pretty. (Will they be comfortable? I’m not too sure about this, but time will tell.) 

Glasshouses

Glasshouses and dome

The glasshouses are still getting finishing touches but at least we can see them properly now the hoardings have been removed. A chance for me to try drawing the dome, and make a mess of it – I got all the elipses wrong and the proportions aren’t right either, even after a couple of attempts – but there’ll be plenty of opportunities to practise from now on!

Cherub on the north fountain

And at long last the fountains are complete, cherubs and all. I wish now that I’d had the chance to sketch the top bits before they were hoisted up and fixed in place because actually it’s quite hard to see all the detail, as they’re so high up – but they look lovely.

Cherub on the south fountain

Next Sunday is the Cliffe Castle Garden Party – not the official opening of the completed park as was originally planned (this will happen at a later date) but a chance to celebrate everything that’s happened so far, and with work going on at the speed we’re seeing now, there’ll be plenty more finishing touches ready by then….


More updates on the work of the conservation project, photos, plans, and background information here, and at the Cliffe Castle Park Conservation Group website and on the Parks Service page of Bradford Leisure Services.

Cliffe Castle Park in Keighley is being restored with funds from the Heritage Lottery Fund. Work started on site back in June 2016 and I’m following progress and sketching whenever I can.

It’s now more than a year since work started in the park and we’re past the deadline for completion, but with a project of this scale these things can happen.

This means that the Grand Opening Event on July 30th has had to be trimmed down accordingly and won’t be the full-blown celebration that was originally planned; instead it’ll be a day of music and other attractions, re-titled the Cliffe Castle Garden Party. But for me, the fact that work is still going on means there are still interesting stories unfolding and lots still to record. 

Lowering the carved dolphin support onto the fountain base

The restored marble fountains are being put back together, and I caught the act of lowering the carved dolphin support and fixing it into place on the north fountain. These structures are like tiered wedding cakes – two great dishes one on top of the other supported by carved middle sections, topped off by carved cherubs (which had been badly damaged – one was missing a head, and the other was riding a headless goose. Or swan? You can see the whole post I did on the unrestored fountains here.) 

Fountain before restoration

Fountain before restoration in 2016

It was exciting to see the cleaned up dolphins back, and interesting to watch as holes were drilled in the marble so the whole piece could be pinned in place on top of the first dish with stainless steel threaded rods. The blue pipes that supply water up to the top of the fountain had to be carefully threaded through each section…but before that could happen the crane had to carefully raise and lower the thing into place. Guiding it into position was a two man job and the best way to grasp hold of it was generally one hand firmly in a dolphin’s open mouth… 

Drilling holes and lowering the dolphins into placeThreading water pipes through dolphins Quite tricky, as the dolphins all have to end up facing in exactly the right direction. 

Then it was all about making sure everything was level and perfectly upright…. and in a day or so the next section will be going up. Before long now we’ll see the fountains looking as they once were – and I can’t wait to see water spouting and gushing and overflowing! 

In the meantime I hope I catch more of these moments as the restoration story continues. It’s easy to miss – and often things happen before I know it and take me by surprise. This was a lucky day. 




More updates on the work of the conservation project, photos, plans, and background information here, and at the Cliffe Castle Park Conservation Group website and on the Parks Service page of Bradford Leisure Services.