Archives for category: Life In The Landscape

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. 

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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. 

For a long time now I’ve been thinking of ways I could share the experience of walking about in the park with a sketchbook – not just by showing other people what I do but by giving them the chance to do it themselves, and get to know how it feels. Some months ago I was excited to get together with Louise Garrett – a sketching friend and fellow member of Yorkshire Urban Sketchers – and we started to plan ways we could do this. Last Thursday we ran our first experimental Sketchwalk.

We wanted to make this a welcome-all-comers occasion, something that would be enjoyable for people who’d never sketched before as well as for more experienced sketchers, so we worked out a programme we hoped would be good for everyone and invited some volunteers to come and try it out.

One of the best ways I know to relax and warm up your eye-hand co-ordination and to have some fun is to do some blind contour portrait drawing. You make a hole in a piece of paper and stick this over the pen you’re using, covering your hand so you can’t see the paper you’re drawing on, and you then draw ‘blind’, simply by looking at your subject and feeling your way. The good thing about this is that not even an experienced sketcher is going to be able to make a slick clever looking drawing, but amazingly it seems that everyone always makes a hilariously half-way recognisable portrait – and it’s a great ice-breaker. 

Blind contour portraits

We used ordinary A4 office paper and smooth-flowing ballpoint pens, resting on clipboards, and after we’d done a few of these sketches and laughed at the results we trooped off into the park to do some outdoor sketching using the same materials.

Sketching standing up – one of the things we wanted to help people feel comfortable with!

The café terrace is a great place to sketch from

There are some wonderful new sketching locations now – the glasshouse terrace has some great vantage points. I was a bit worried that we were throwing beginners in at the deep end here, (figuratively speaking) but we suggested starting with several quick sketches before meeting up again to compare notes and it turns out that blind contour drawing really does the trick – it makes you realise that you can sketch something without being worried about what happens on the page, and you’re more inclined to look a lot more at the subject and less at what your pen or pencil is doing. Amazing! 

All kinds of things to draw – quick sketches on the Glasshouse Terrace

We weren’t short of interesting things to draw. I started by sketching part of the castellated top of the Tower House with the delicate white fleur-de-lis ridge decorations of the glasshouses silhouetted against the old dark stone (I added the colour later when I got home to emphasise the dark-against-light, light-against-dark) but I soon became distracted by watching the rest of the group and I started sketching the sketchers. It was a cold day and luckily everyone had dressed up properly – Louise had even come wearing two pairs of trousers, which says a lot about what sort of sketcher she is – absolutely determined to get out and stay out in all weather. 

My page of quick sketches on the café terrace

She’s a phenomenally fast sketcher, too – maybe this helps her to keep warm as she can move more quickly from place to place. I can’t draw for longer than 10 minutes or so at a time without taking a break, and I can’t get anything like as much down on the page as Louise can. It’s fascinating to watch her drawing at breakneck speed with intense concentration.

A few of Louise’s sketches… 

and one with a splash of added colour!

After a while I paused to move to a different viewpoint and couldn’t resist doing a bit of landscape sketching. This is the view across Airedale from the Glasshouse terrace – 

When I got home I splashed some paint onto it as an experiment – this is just ordinary typing or printing paper, not designed for watercolour – but apart from the fact that the paper crinkles like crazy it is possible to get some colour down in quite an interesting way. 

We deliberately used simple, basic, cheap paper because we wanted everyone to see how you can make perfectly satisfactory drawings on paper like this and not be intimidated. Sketchbooks can make you feel a bit self conscious – and loose paper sheets are better for sharing and looking at drawings at the end of a session. Smooth flowing ballpoint pens are good for this kind of sketching, too – you can make strong dark lines and faint ones equally easily, and there’s no question about whether or not to rub something out so that’s not a decision you have to make.

At the end of the morning we gathered back indoors for tea and cake, to warm up and talk through what we’d done and how it had gone.

In just a morning there’s a limit to what you can hope to do, and of course some people had ‘how do I do such-and-such’ questions. We kept it simple, and I hope there will be other opportunities to expand and grow on what we were doing, which was very basic. 

We learnt a lot from this trial run. Even though the group was small we had a good cross-section of people with very different levels of experience and got some very helpful feedback. Our aim was simply to help people feel comfortable about sketching in the park and to see how drawing helps you to focus, notice things, and put everything else on hold for a while – and everyone agreed that the sketchwalk did all that, so together with having a very enjoyable morning, I’d say that counts as a success. There may be some things we’ll do a bit differently when we do this again, but I think it’s a good start – and we’re looking forward to the next time! 

Today the ongoing work in the park was merely a backdrop to a very important annual event, and I made sure I was there to meet some of the visitors and to try to sketch a few very quick portraits. 

Teddy bear sunbathing

The sun shone. In fact it was hot, which perhaps explains why a lot of bears simply lay around on picnic blankets, in various bear-like positions. Though some adopted more thoughtful and even strenuous poses…. 

Short haired bear doing yoga

I’ve often wondered if bears are interested in yoga. This one seemed to be holding a pose with a placid and peaceful demeanour and I couldn’t help thinking this would be a good addition to a picnic. Teddy bear yoga – or perhaps teddy bear Tai Chi? I’d find a bit of practice of that sort in the company of teddy bears very calming – they’re even less stretchy than me, and very much better at acheiving peaceful stillness. Something for next year? 

Teddy in a pushchair

This is Jasper (I know that by his necktie) who was one of the few bears I saw to have acquired a really comfortable seat. No doubt he was going to have to ride home in less style when his owner reclaimed the buggy but in the meantime he was reclining contentedly and observing the crowds queueing for balloons. 

Fluffy grey Me to You bear

And by the time I left some bears like their young owners were looking a bit sleepy…. some were getting squashed into carrying bags or tucked under arms or into the luggage carriers of buggys. This is Baby Bear, a fluffy grey long haired Me To You bear, waiting to be picked up and taken home. 

I took my own bear along to see what was happening. He’s been with me for almost as long as I can remember (off and on – over the years he’s had sabbaticals and gone on expeditions and adventures of his own; at one time he was a remedial teaching assistant) so he’s getting to be a venerable age. People were duly impressed by this – he must have been the oldest bear there. 

Bear accompanying me sketching

The beech tree in early autumn, in earlier and healthier times

The beech tree in early autumn, in earlier and healthier times. (photo: Sue Skinner) 

Throughout living memory, one of the most well known and well loved landmarks in Cliffe Castle Park has been the ancient and truly enormous beech tree in the lower field. It stood alone and magnificent; without competition from other trees nearby it had room to grow to its full potential and acheived a size and shape that was something to marvel at. It was beautiful in every season. 

Early spring (photo: Sue Skinner)

Early spring (photo: Sue Skinner)

Early summer (photo: Sue Skinner)

Early summer (photo: Sue Skinner)

Autumn (photo: Sue Skinner)

Autumn (photo: Sue Skinner)

Winter (photo: Sue Skinner)

Winter (photo: Sue Skinner)

Sadly the tree had been struggling in recent years and had reached the point where it was in danger of collapse, and with a tree of this size even falling branches can be dangerous; each massive branch was as big as a sizeable tree. Last week it finally had to be felled. 

Beech Tree felled (photo: Sue Skinner)

Beech Tree felled (photo: Sue Skinner)

Stump and trunk (photo: Sue Skinner)

Stump and trunk (photo: Sue Skinner)

Stump (photo: Elaine Cooper)

Stump (photo: Elaine Cooper)

It’s never easy to have to see an ancient and well loved tree taken down, but anyone looking closely in recent times will have seen it was in trouble. In the words of Bob Thorp, Trees & Woodlands manager: “the signs indicating a potential catastrophic failure have been present for at least 5 years – only 20% of the crown was producing normal sized leaves and shoot extension, the other 80% of the crown struggled to produce even small leaves and practically no shoot extension.  The effect of this loss of vigour is the tree is unable to make and  lay down sufficient new wood to deal with  mechanical stress – when that happens the tree begins to collapse.”
The tree was in danger, and potentially a danger to anyone passing by. The cause of its failure was probably the fungus Meripilus gigantes, a parasite of beech trees that makes the top of the tree slowly thin out until finally it can’t sustain itself and will start to collapse. 

Fungus on the trunk (photo: Sue Skinner)

Fungus on the trunk (photo: Sue Skinner)

Fungus on the ground at the root (photo: Sue Skinner)

Fungus on the ground at the root (photo: Sue Skinner)

Unfortunately I was away from Keighley at the time this happened – if I’d been there I’d have been sketching the whole process of felling – but this is an important event to record. It’s important to say our goodbyes and remember an old friend, so this has had to be a photographic rather than a sketched account – and it’s good to have a few pictures of the tree in all its glory at healthier times. 

Some of the timber has been saved, (a cross-section of the bole will be particularly interesting and hopefully may be displayed somewhere in the park or museum) and it may be possible to use some of the wood in a creative commemorative way – but all this is for the future. For now, it’s time to celebrate this wonderful tree and treasure our memories. 

Do you have pictures or memories of the beech tree you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments section below! 

The restoration project at Cliffe Castle is funded under an initiative called Parks For People. I’ve been sketching the work since it began last June, but when the building and landscaping is completed later this year, the project will continue – only from then on, it’s all about the life of the park as a living landscape, a place where people and nature can come together. I’ll carry on drawing. Instead of Drawing the Work I’m thinking of using the title Life in the Landscape – so from time to time titles such as this one will start to pop up here now. Hope you’ll want to keep following the story! 

Since work started last summer the population of the park has been swelled by a small army of workmen, but regular park-users still come every day, occasional visitors come from further afield, and everyone has their own reasons for being there and their favourite places to be. 

With work in progress, many of the figures in the landscape wear high-vis clothing, workboots and hard hats, but the regulars are there too, every day, doing whatever they do

It’s easy to see what some people are doing. I go there to walk, to sketch, and to take photos. I also go there to think, to clear my head, and to stop thinking (and I know plenty of other people do this too). I spend a lot of time just watching things; trees, sky, dogs (and their owners); birds, rabbits, squirrels; and the landscape of the Aire Valley. 

And a lot of the time I watch people, because that’s what a park is – a living landscape, with people doing what they do. 

The playground is one of my favourite parts of the park.

People of all ages, shapes and sizes come to the playground. There’s something there for everyone; smaller children bounce, swing, twirl, clamber, crawl and slide. Parents and grandparents push, guide, encourage, and watch; then they sit, and stand, and talk. Teenagers come there after school to hang out and chat as well as swing clamber and climb. And in the summer there’s the ice-cream van. (I love sketching here, but in case you’re wondering – in this location I never draw faces, and never make anyone recognisable, at least not if I can help it – particularly children. It’s an invasion of privacy.)

Other people come to walk their dogs, and play with their dogs, and to let their dogs play with other dogs, and to exercise….

The daily flood of school students on their way home through the park. (The figure in the distance, top left, is a dog walker and not someone having a tussle with a goat)

Children walk home from school. Families come to play cricket and football, and in summer to have picnics, to meet, to lie on the grass, to eat ice-cream, to hang out and to listen to music on the bandstand. 

And some people do things that are difficult to describe, but interesting to watch….

There are as many reasons for coming to the park as there are people who come there, which is what makes it such an interesting place to be. It’s life played out in the landscape. No wonder I never get bored.