Archives for category: Watercolour

I’m doing a prolonged, slow walk around the perimeter of Cliffe Castle Park, sketching as I go. (There’s a map at the end of this post). Part 1 started (for no particular reason) in the Sensory Garden close to the Holly Lodge entrance, and I’m moving on in a northerly direction, anti-clockwise, across the Sports Field parallel to the Skipton Road….

Watercolour sketch of the view across Airedale from the top of the sports field

So…. if you leave the Sensory Garden through the gap in the hedge you find yourself at the top of the large, gently sloping field that stretches all along the lower edge of the park between the Skipton Road on one side and the path known as Dark Lane at the other. The views from here are some of the best you can find anywhere in the park – standing here looking across Airedale its hard to feel you’re in town and not way out in the country.

Sketch of oak sapling on the site of the venerable beech....

About two-thirds of the way down the field at this point you can still see the site of the giant tree that until last summer dominated the whole of this landscape. The Great Beech was truly remarkable and I wrote about it in a tribute post when I marked its sad passing – I wish I had sketched it before it eventually had to be felled, but I always found myself unable to draw it or even photograph it in a way that could express its enormous scale. I wish I’d tried to sketch it; it was extraordinary, and looking again at the photos I did take made me remember what it felt like to stand underneath its colossal branches. Generations of people in Keighley knew and loved this tree.

But the sapling oak that’s been planted here seems to be doing well despite the hot dry summer.

The field isn’t laid out for sports in any formal way – no pitch for cricket or football – it’s simply a good place to play games of all kinds, and big enough for a lot of games at the same time.

Quick sketch of girls playing rounders on the Sports Field, Cliffe Castle Park

A couple of weeks ago I watched a group of girls who’d come prepared to play a game of what looked to me like rounders, but while I sketched them a lot of discussion and organisation was going on, and after a while that game seemed to be put on hold and a tennis ball was batted about a bit. Hey, what does it matter what game you play? It was a lovely afternoon, not too hot, a pleasant breeze blowing, everyone enjoying themselves.

Sketch of two girls playing tennis in a rather informal way

I’ve seen all sorts of activities on this field; frisbees are popular, kites are sometimes flown, teams are organised, balls are kicked or batted or thrown (often for dogs).

Castellated top of the perimeter wall, Sports Field, Cliffe Castle Park

The castellated wall that runs round the edge of the park marks the boundary at the Skipton Road. Walls are a prominent feature of the landscape in the park, and they’re a subject in themselves – some are ancient, and some have been re-modelled and repositioned over time. From a sketching point of view a wall is a great thing to have in a landscape because it adds perspective and scale, and a nice sharp line to contrast softer shapes of trees and grass and people as well as often being a dark, solid form in the background.

Avenue of cherry trees at the bottom of the Sports Field, along the Skipton Road

Just inside the perimeter wall where the Skipton Road curves to the left at the roundabout there’s an avenue of ornamental cherry trees, and the unpaved path that runs along the edge of the field continues under the canopy of these trees, which in spring are a mass of pink blossom. In autumn the leaves turn delicate shades of apricot and lemon yellow and coppery red, and I picked up one or two windfall leaves that had already turned colour. I’m guessing that this line of trees may have been planted at the same time as the boundary was moved when the road layout changed – the older castellated wall ends just where the avenue of cherry trees starts, and the newer wall is lower and topped with flat flagstones. This means the trees are clearly seen from the road which was probably intentional, as they’re an eye-catching sight when they’re covered in blossom. But from inside the park they also successfully conceal most of the traffic on the Skipton Road, at least in summer, so the view is an uninterrupted leafy landscape.

To give an idea of where I started this walking project, here’s a map taken from one of the interpretation boards with my additions to show the location of the first two posts in this series. Part three to follow in due course!

Map of Cliffe Castle Park

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One of the things I like best about blogging is reading other people’s blogs. A favourite of mine is The Perimeter by photographer Quintin Lake, an ongoing record of his long-distance exploratory walk around the British Isles. I love his choice of subjects and the way he frames his stunning shots, and his often wry humour is a delight. I would love to be able to tramp about the countryside (or the urban environment come to that) noticing and recording what I pass – though a walk on this scale would always have been beyond me.

I started to play with the idea of doing a perimeter walk of Cliffe Castle Park, sketching as I went (this being the extent of what I’m realistically capable of, spread over days or weeks or even months) – but not sticking slavishly to the edges. Like Quintin I’ll move inwards a bit here and there where necessary. And to make things more confusing I’ve not begun with a location that’s an obvious place to start as this is not at one of the gates – though it’s very near to the Holly Lodge entrance.

Two girls sitting on the wall in the Sensory Garden in dappled sunlight, one playing guitar

The Sensory Garden is still, like so much of the park, a work in progress – but it’s taking shape. The pre-existing raised beds are being planted with herbs, shrubs and plants that all have particular things to offer in the way of texture, scent and colour so that the senses of touch and smell will be as much a part of the experience as the ability to see, and at a height where touching and sniffing are a more natural and easy thing to do. I love this idea, and I found it interesting on this warm sunny afternoon that two girls had chosen to sit on the edge of one of the raised beds amongst the plants in the border, rather than finding a bench. Actually I notice this not-sitting-on-a-seat is quite a common thing in the park, and it struck me as I was drawing that I often do it myself – choose a spot, irrespective of whether there’s something there that’s designed for sitting on. It has to do with knowing where you want to be, I suppose. Anyway, there they were, in dappled sunlight, playing and singing.

Below the wall where the girls were sitting is the site of what will one day be an orchard – the top part of the enclosed field that stretches from the Sensory Garden down to the Skipton Road has been planted with young fruit trees, helpfully tagged with labels that include QR codes so that I was able to discover that this one is a young Bloody Ploughman. Perhaps another addition to the sensory experience will be taste! A little further down the field and stretches of grass have been left uncut to be little oases of wildflowers (this whole field has in the past been allowed to grow as a natural wildflower meadow) and there are grasses and clover, poppies and dandelions, dock and sorrel blowing in the breeze and the buzz of flying insects.

This journey of mine will be sporadic and most likely non-linear – I’ll probably jump about from place to place without following a regular clockwise or anti-clockwise route – but it’ll take me to parts of the park that I visit less often, and also demonstrate what an extraordinarily varied place it is. For its size it has an enormous range of different kinds of place – it’s truly a park of many parts.

Drawing of barbed wire from the trenches on the Western Front

It’s hard to imagine, a hundred years on, what it was like for the soldiers during the First World War fighting on the Western Front. Cliffe Castle’s exhibition Keighley’s War continues through the summer and August 4th will be First World War Day, a chance to experience some of the day-to-day realities of what it was like for the people of Keighley during those years. (A chance to taste bread from recipes of the time as suggested by the Keighley Food Control Committee will be one of the things I’ll certainly have to try).

But many miles away from home in northern France soldiers were enduring life in the trenches and it wasn’t until I sketched certain objects in the collections that some of the horror of it all came home to me. The barbed wire fragment (German wire, incidentally – all wire is different) is probably for me the most moving and haunting thing of all the objects I’ve drawn. Partly I think because of the shadows cast by the twists and barbs – it seems to say so much and doesn’t need much explanation.

Flechettes, barbed steel darts dropped from biplanes into the trenches on the Western Front

By contrast these things look horrible but it’s not immediately obvious what they are. They’re called flechettes, and they were dropped into the enemy trenches by English pilots flying bi-planes, which must have been dangerous but which the pilots objected to because of the nature of the wounds inflicted, and the fact that they could be dropped without warning and silently, except for the noise of the plane. It’s a measure, I suppose, of how far and how fast things escalated and how quickly attitudes hardened that we are able to be surprised at soldiers expressing dislike at weaponry and tactics that they felt were ‘ungentlemanly’.

Drawing of a brown rat

Life in the trenches must have been awful in so many different ways. Rats were a big problem. At home in Keighley most people would have been accustomed to sharing their lives with rats to some extent as an inevitable thing, but being plagued by hungry rats in the cramped and muddy darkness of the trenches would have been something altogether different. (This Brown Rat is a specimen in the Natural History Gallery; over time it’s faded to the colour of honey.)

Once again, drawing acts like a kind of time-machine. Sketching things like the barbed wire and the flechettes I really do feel like I’m looking through a window into the First World War and feeling myself connected to that time and place. It’s an emotional, disturbing thing, and over and over again I realise what an important role museum collections have to play. I don’t need immersive virtual reality installations; if I take the time to look properly at objects (and drawing takes time, and makes you look) they will quietly tell their story, make history come alive, and unfold a direct, personal understanding of the past.

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 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!

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

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

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

Quick observations in the playground

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

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

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

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

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

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

At last the long awaited day for the re-opening of the restored park at Cliffe Castle finally arrived, last Sunday, and with fanfares and trumpets (well, a brass band)  we celebrated in style. 

The glasshouses have been decorated with birds from the 12 days of Christmas made by children from early-years age groups in local schools. I’d been dying to sketch them because they’re just gorgeous – and they look wonderful nesting among the succulents and ferns and flying overhead. Outside the Oompah band were playing with gusto in sub-zero temperatures; my fingers were almost too stiff to draw.

Along with hundreds of visitors, against a background of snow we heard speeches from dignataries, watched a costumed pageant of Cliffe Castle past present and future, listened to a children’s Christmas choir, and cheered when the Dome House was declared open as a golden ribbon held aloft by two stilt-walking fairies was ceremoniously cut. 

These stilt-walkers never stopped smiling and unbelievably showed no sign of feeling cold, even when waving their wands and standing around holding the ribbon. There was such a crowd I couldn’t get a good view for more than a few seconds at a time so I took photos – but they turned out to be extremely hard to draw. It’s very disconcerting looking up at someone who’s about 10 feet tall, and my brain must have stubbornly refused to accept this and wouldn’t let me get the foreshortening right, so they don’t look anywhere near as lofty as they should. Their costumes were so beautiful I had to do a bit of sketching from my photographs later but still got them out of proportion. And don’t ask what happened to the face of the fairy on the left….. 

The birds in the glasshouses include two gloriously chubby French Hens with outstretched wings that look extremely happy among the cacti – they were attracting admiring looks and smiles from everyone who passed them. They’re just irresistible. The immaculate Victorian costume and the stunning hat were from the pageant, thankfully indoors in the warmth of the Castle. 

The Keighley Christmas Carol was an ingenious way to present the past, the present and the future of Cliffe Castle – the children did a wonderful job of portraying the Butterfields. This is Henry Isaac Butterfield himself – or ‘HIB’. I couldn’t sketch fast enough to catch all the scenes….

So now the park is officially open again (even though there are still things to be finalised). The half-finished café opened for the day with a sign on the door saying ‘Opening Soon’ and was overwhelmed with customers. There was a real sense of catching a moment in history here; the children who played such a big part in the celebrations will be the ones who use the park for generations to come and who’ll look back and remember this day as the start of a new era at Cliffe Castle, and I will never forget it. Sketching the Oompah band on the glasshouse patio under the Tower House with fingers so cold I could hardly hold the pen, I felt suddenly and overwhelmingly happy to be part of this space suddenly alive and filled with people for the first time. I found myself grinning like the Christmas tree fairies.  

The covered patio at the Tower House end of the glasshouses is a wonderful space for performances – and sketching (I was drawing the band). The building in the background with the striped roof is the unfinished structure of the animal houses and the stripes, astonishingly, are where snow had slid off very decoratively in alternating sections, which is an unexplained mystery and something I shall have to investigate……