Archives for category: Art Practice


This summer I’ve been drawing people more than ever before, whenever I’ve had the chance – and athough I find it compelling (it’s becoming addictive), I still find it quite intimidating, particularly when I’m sketching in a crowded place. I’m always anxious that someone won’t like being drawn and I don’t want to make anyone uneasy or uncomfortable, though I have to admit that actually this seems to happen fairly infrequently.

I thought the Teddy Bears’ Picnic at Cliffe Castle this week would be full of sketching opportunities, and I certainly found plenty of unselfconscious children (both with and without teddies), alongside a lot of slightly less comfortable adults (also with and without bears).


I’d also hoped to find interesting subjects amongst the bears themselves, but especially at first they proved to be elusive as many of them were small and the picnicking groups were spread out, so to begin with I warmed up by drawing the first group I could watch unobtrusively even though there were no visible teddy bears.
I wasn’t feeling terribly well that day and this made me even more nervous, but as usual once I’d started drawing I stopped being aware of anything else.


Feeling more relaxed I wandered over to a spot that was dotted with picnic blankets spread on the grass where families and bears were having lunch, and I sat myself down under a tree.


I’d imagined that I’d have the chance to do some studies of individual bears, but I quickly discovered that teddies don’t stay in one place for long when they’re accompanied by their owners. However as the afternoon wore on tiredness set in, and I was able to find one or two interesting characters who’d been left to relax on their own.


The party was gatecrashed by a few non-bears. Just in front of where I was sitting a couple of soft fleecy dinosaurs spent a quiet half hour dozing, and I spotted several fluffy individuals that looked to me as if they might be rabbits. No-one seemed to mind. I wished I’d brought my rat.



I’ve been sketching people quite a bit lately and mostly while they’re moving about, which is a challenge, to put it mildly – but it’s what I want to draw more than anything else at the moment.


I find it irresistible and at the same time frustratingly hard. I realise that I’ve forgotten much of what I knew about figure drawing and it’s such a long time since I attended a life drawing class – which I’d love to do again – but in the meantime I want to understand more about how bodies move – what really happens for example, when we walk? There’s nothing like direct observation – watching and drawing as much as possible is the best way to improve – but I don’t have enough opportunity.

I trawled the internet, and after a few red-herrings and blind alleys I came across this tutorial from Elfwood, called Figure Drawing: Basic Pose and Construction.

It’s really designed to help animators and graphic artists but it’s a good step-by-step workout to help you understand how the body is constructed and connected, and how it moves, and it’s all about using stick-figures, or what we used to call pin-men.


This is where it all became a lot of fun. I hadn’t drawn stick-figures for years, and I’d forgotten how expressive they can be. But this lesson takes you further than just those rather stiff little pin-men everyone loves to draw, and introduces an advanced species of figures that have shoulders and pelvises, who have all the major human joints and a bit of spring and curve in the spine. Before long they’re capering about across the page and doing things you recognise but would have struggled to draw. I was hooked.


The next step is to flesh them out and give them a bit of substance, and here I’ve departed a bit from the tutorial which sticks to a more geometrical approach with simple cylinders for the trunk and limbs, but I was in a hurry to get my little tribe looking a bit more lifelike. They took on a life of their own remarkably quickly.

The question of whether all this helps when drawing real people from life was answered for me when the boiler repair men came and I drew them surreptitiously from behind while they were working. One of them was stretching and peering and grappling with the boiler while the other watched, and I realised I could sum up each movement rapidly in my head as if I was looking at a stick-figure with clothes on.


This is them, on the left and right of the page (though not at the top left – they didn’t arrive holding a flag on a pole or hopping on one leg -) and although baggy combat trousers don’t help show off what the legs underneath are doing, stick-figures really helped me see what his whole body was doing as it moved – even if I didn’t have any idea about what he was doing to the boiler.


Not too much time for sketching – as I was too busy taking long slow looks at the selected artworks, but I couldn’t resist doing a ten minute drawing of a detail of Anna Lambert’s ‘Hedge Candlestick’.

Cliffe Castle was the only venue in Yorkshire to put on a Slow Art Day event, and one of only a handful in the UK – two of them being the Ashmolean in Oxford and Tate Modern – so we felt among distinguished company. Exciting to think of people all over the world participating on the same day, in a total of 205 galleries and museums in Australia, Africa, Europe the USA and Canada.

There’s something deeply pleasurable about taking a long slow look at a painting or sculpture and it was especially good to be part of a group doing it – we had a lively discussion afterwards and are looking forward to next year!


Outside the weather was not what it was two days earlier when I sat on the grass near the playground and then on the bank above one of the fountains (yet to be restored), and sketched in the sunshine.



One of the things that impresses me most about Urban Sketchers is the way so many will draw just about anything they see in front of them. I’ve seen lovely sketches of feet, of corners of bedrooms and living rooms, even drawings of full garbage bags. It’s taken a shift of attitude for me to see the attraction in this – I used only to want to draw when I found something excited me, but increasingly I’m discovering the addictive pleasure of just drawing what’s there, wherever I am.


The whole of one afternoon last week I found myself sitting in a hospital outpatient waiting room, waiting for far longer than I’d expected and with nothing more interesting to look at than a not too healthy plant in a large pot, in front of the usual paraphernalia of office and reception desk clutter. Computer screen, keyboard, files, papers, electrical wiring, and notices on bits of paper stuck randomly here and there informing us and warning us of things. (I didn’t read them.) But after a while I thought that here was an opportunity to draw something that didn’t interest me much, purely as an experiment, so I spent the next half hour doing just that and found after 5 minutes that it did interest me after all.

However as the seats in front of me in the waiting area filled up, things appeared that appealed to me much more and I spent the remaining part of the afternoon sketching the backs of people’s heads.


These are just some. There were more husbands (or sons) waiting for wives (or mothers) than there were wives or daughters, so I had a whole series of back views of men to look at, keeping still for several minutes at a time. (It’s interesting that people move far more than they probably think they do when sitting in waiting rooms.) Do men’s ears grow bigger as they get older? I’ve often wondered because from observation I’d say they do, but it seems rather odd that they should. One of the younger men was a translator who had come to keep an appointment with a patient who needed an interpreter, only the patient never turned up. There was an attempt by the receptionist to contact him by phone – it’s impossible not to overhear things like this even if you try not to listen – but with no success. I wondered if he had mistaken the day, or the location, or simply forgotten, and I’ll never know. I was hoping I’d hear the translator speak on the phone as he offered to help, and I wanted to hear what language he’d speak as I couldn’t work out from his appearance or his accent what it might be, but I never got the chance. He got his papers signed and validated so he could claim his expenses, and left.

I never mind waiting as I don’t think of it as time lost, even when I’m just sitting still. Getting into the habit of sketching anything, anywhere, makes me look forward to the next time I have a good long time to wait.


I have a new brush, unlike any brush I’ve ever used before because it’s a brush that thinks it’s a pen – it fills with water like a fountain pen fills with ink, and the brush is where a nib would be. It’s called a Water Brush (this one is made by Pentel) and it’s quite weird to use. I need practice.

I decided to try it out by doing a small quick sketch of my neighbour’s front garden, full of winter pruned bushes all hunched and huddled in the dusk on a cold afternoon.

The more I draw every day, the more things I see that want to draw; everyday things that I see all the time. Suddenly my seeing sense has woken up again after a period of hibernation. Colours jump out at me. Shapes catch my eye. Pattern, texture, light and shadow have my attention before I’ve even realised it. Today this patch of garden is full of dark colour; tomorrow it may well be transformed by snow.

Sketching spontaneously when I see something that grabs me is not always easy to do and I’m out of practice, so it’s a good opportunity to experiment with new tools and materials that open up new possibilities.


Back to the Water Brush – if you squeeze the soft plastic body of the brush, the water flows out more fully into the bristles and you can pick up colour straight from a watercolour pan; then when you apply colour to the paper you can soften this out as more clean water flows into the bristles. It takes a bit of getting used to, but for sketching on location it would be really helpful as you could manage without a water pot – which is what these brushes were created to do. Big, graded washes are not going to be viable but overall the possibilities are huge. Lots of artists use them with water soluble pencils and I haven’t tried this yet.

Being more like a pen to hold, quite a lot of the time I find myself using the brush more like a pen. It comes back to a fiendishly sharp point as the bristles are sturdy nylon, though at the same time it’s soft and responsive enough to do a lot of the things you’d want in a painterly sort of way (though it’s very unlike using a sable watercolour brush).

So this exciting – more learning, experimenting, looking at new possibilities and hopefully changing the way I do things.

Note: this post appears in a slightly different form on another WordPress blog of mine. If you see it there there’s no plagiarism – or at least only by me!
Wordpress has weekly writing and photography challenges – but how about a regular drawing challenge?

Given the drab greyness of the landscape at the moment, and the way winter drags on here without showing much sign of spring, perhaps it’s not surprising that to counteract all this my head is full of vivid colours. Blue, yellow, red. I want to bask in memories of blue-green translucent seas, golden sands, and the sudden exclamation of brightly painted boats.

I can’t keep away from this digital drawing thing. It’s taken me by surprise because I found it clumsy and frustrating at first and I’m still struggling and way out of my depth, but this is probably why its so compelling. I can’t use it to draw the way I do on paper – I can’t control it the way I’m used to when I’m handling a pencil or a brush – so I’ve stopped trying to make the same sort of marks that I’d use if I was working in any conventional way, and instead I’m drawing in a way that I probably haven’t done since I was a child, most of the time using my fingers. (I’ve tried all kinds of different apps, and different styluses, but nothing works as well as a finger – and strangely this does make it a sensuous, tactile experience which I would never have believed possible. When you’re rubbing or stroking on colour you really can have the sensation that you’re applying rich creamy oil pastel, or crumbly chalk…)

The one thing I really haven’t mastered yet is using layers in the Artflow app. If anyone can offer me any helpful tips I’d be grateful. (I tried to put the boat shapes in using a layer after I’d put down all the sea and sand, but whatever I drew on the layer was invisible – except on the thumbnail icon thingy of the layer itself. What am I doing wrong?) Also I must remember to save things – I’ve already lost I don’t know how many drawings. But when all’s said and done, I love learning – even if sometimes it’s a lot of trial and a great deal of error!


I used to draw a lot from imagination and memory, but that was a long time ago and I’m completely out of the habit.

Something else to rediscover.

Window sill vase

I didn’t think I’d be able to do this.

On the window ledge in my bedroom is a translucent glass vase. It has a bunch of very beautiful peonies in it, artificial but lifelike and nice to gaze at when I’m resting in bed. I particularly love watching it as the light outside fades at the end of the afternoon and the glow from the street lamps slowly collects in the glass, as if in some magical way light is drawn into it and then trapped there. I thought I’d try drawing on my smartphone while lying down – just to see if I could – and to my surprise I soon realised that this is one very compelling reason to use a drawing app. Even on very small screen (I have the smallest smartphone on the market) I managed to draw most of what I wanted. I just had to cut off the tops of the peonies. And I could never have done this on paper or in a sketchbook from my resting position on the bed.

When I started playing with digital drawing I didn’t think I’d be likely to take it seriously but somehow I can’t put it aside, and I’m not sure why. I need to get more comfortable with it, and faster too; but even at this stage I can see some of the advantages. I also need to avoid some of the pitfalls, one of which is the relative ease of making images that are pretty and slick but not honest, not really well seen. An easy trap to fall into. But it’s going to be fun grappling with this, and that’s important; having fun is good.

This post is part of a series in the Draw More Project – an investigation into what drawing means to me, what it can do, and why it’s important. It’s a practice, an exercise, and a journey of discovery all rolled into one.


I’ve been looking at different apps for sketching and painting on a tablet, and it’s a pretty confusing thing for someone like me who trained long before anyone had computers in the home or studio, and digital artwork was unknown.

I was at Goldsmiths’ College in the 1970’s. This obviously wasn’t my only source of learning and I’ve been adding to my understanding of materials and techniques ever since – adding things like printmaking and silversmithing through courses and workshops – but I’ve never had the chance to learn things like photo editing, and until I recently got a tablet and a smartphone, I’d never tried digital drawing or painting.

I’ve experimented with a few different apps, but I like to approach the learning of any new skill by trying to grasp the basics so in the end I opted for the simplest one I could find, Mobile Sketch, which does seem to do most of the things a more sophisticated app will offer without being too confusing. Since they all come without instructions and assume you know what things like layers are, and what they’re for, (I think no-one who designs these things can actually bring themselves to believe that there are still people like me on the planet, who didn’t grow up almost permanently attached to one electronic device or another) I’ve had to discover what’s possible by just splashing around and experimenting – which isn’t a bad way of learning. If I pursue it I’ll seek out tutorials on YouTube!

The first thing I did after simply covering the screen with various different swooshes and speckles and colours of infill was to try a stylus rather than my finger, and found that with this simple app most styluses (stylii?) work OK, so I can draw in a way that is not too unresponsive. Finding this rather fun I then realised that I could edit and adapt and add to photos, so after entertaining myself adding the effect of mist and fog to some landscape photos, I imported a watercolour sketch of the trunk of a beech tree I had in my sketchbook and added a background to the plain white of the paper, which was easier than I’d thought.

Saving the picture to the device (this is on a Samsung Galaxy tablet) seems to reduce the original jpeg to a much smaller png file, so the resolution is not all that great, and when I experimented today with a quick drawing of a glass vase done on my smartphone, the end result was the same – a very small file. This doesn’t matter for the time being as I’m only keeping anything I do like this as a kind of digital sketchbook for now, but nevertheless it’s something I want to understand more about.

digital, glass vase

There’s no point in pushing a medium to do something it’s simply not able to do all that well, so I’m not trying to replicate the kind of drawings I’d do if I were holding a pencil or a brush. I’m interested to see what I can do on my tablet and phone that I couldn’t do in a sketchbook. I’ve been looking at all sorts of digital art and admiring what some people do – there’s some incredible work out there and the best digital art looks like just that, good digital art, not pretending to be a watercolour or a pastel or an oil – but I’ve also seen a lot that seems a bit lazy and predictable. Drawing, for me, is always about recording, exploring and learning, so that’s what I want to use this digital thing for – another new tool, new skills, new possibilities.


page of birds

I much prefer to draw from life, but if I can’t do that I do draw from photographs, almost always pictures I have taken myself and invariably nowadays from a screen. I find it much harder to draw from pictures taken from another source, presumably because when I’m photgraphing something I’m doing a lot of looking before and after pressing the shutter, and even if this is not the same quality of observation that comes from drawing, it is helpful.

Creatures that move fast and are likely to flee or fly after a few seconds are hard subjects, though there’s a lot to be learnt by trying. It just isn’t possible to gain as much understanding from a photograph as you can from the real thing, and in the case of a live animal the greatest loss is the sense of connection and the degree to which you become aware of each other’s energy.

sketchbook page, guinea pigs

The robin and the barn owl I drew from photos on my tablet. The guinea pigs I drew this afternoon, observing them through the bars of their pen at the top of the park where I walk almost every day. I watch them closely, spending much more time looking at them than looking at the page, and they watch me carefully, keeping a close eye on what I’m up to. They are wonderful; I think that quite honestly I am happier drawing guinea pigs than any other animal, and possibly more than anything else. I completely lose track of time.