Archives for category: Watercolour

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!

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……

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! 

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.

The bandstand roof has been repaired. It required a full framework of scaffolding, ladders, and protective fencing (which made it a pretty interesting thing to climb on) and luckily I managed to sketch it one evening earlier in the Spring before the scaffolding came down. (I love drawing scaffolding). Then the front of the stage needed attention, and the steps, and various other bits and pieces…. 

Some parks have pretty, round, wrought iron Victorian bandstands. They look very nice and especially so with a brass band or a string quartet or a folk band playing in them. I know some people were hoping that the restoration project would include a Victorian design for the bandstand, but actually this kind of structure doesn’t necessarily enhance the music, especially certain kinds of music, or even make it very easy to hear. 

Because of its design – it is after all shaped like a giant megaphone – the bandstand does work really well from an acoustic point of view (as demonstrated by Philip Rushworth not too long ago, on a recent Heritage Walk, seen here) – and I love sketching performances in the park. The musicians are always really enjoyable to hear but also great to watch and wonderful to draw. 

Irish band concert on the bandstand

The bandstand is now ready to host performers again and this Sunday afternoon sees the start of the summer programme of bandstand concerts – starting with Hurricane Blue – who I sketched when they played here last year:

Hurricane Blue playing a bandstand concert July 2016

The sloping lawn is a perfect place to sit and listen to bands play

And there’s always such a variety of music in the bandstand programme – which is another good reason to keep the design of the stage as it is. How would a 6 piece heavy rock/symphonic metal group like Wolf 359 look (or sound) on a pretty little wrought iron bandstand? I sketched them belting out a fantastic set at last year’s Fresh Aire music festival (sadly not happening this summer, but hopefully scheduled again for next year). 

Fresh Aire 2016 Bandstand sets and spectator

The bandstand is such an important part of life in the park and will be welcoming performers and audiences all summer – including of course, at the Grand Opening Party on the 30th July when we celebrate the completion of the restoration and the re-opening of the park. 

Lots to look forward to! 

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.

Back in April, the bank beneath the glasshouse terrace that stretches between the museum and the junction of paths at the top of the hill near the playground was planted with rhododendrons.* Just last week, a lot more planting started and the lawn in front of the bank is now laid out as planned (I’ll get to sketching all this sometime soon) – but the bank of rhododendrons got me really excited when I first saw it more than a month ago. As soon as the plants were in it looked lovely, but in only a few days some of the little bushes started to throw out buds which soon began to hint at opening, and at this moment they looked so extraordinarily exotic. It made me realise how the Victorians must have seen them, when these plants were new arrivals in England – there’s such drama and excitement about the way the buds prepare themselves as if they’re going to explode into something alien and unknown. As I sketched them I was wondering what they reminded me of and I found myself thinking not of plants at all, but more mythical things. They look like dragon’s eggs, about to hatch. 

Perhaps this isn’t quite as crazy an idea as it might seem. The rhododendrons that were originally planted all along this bank – and on the other side of the house as well, so the the building stood framed by an arc of glorious coloured blossoming bushes – all came from China, famously a land of dragons. And just overhead, clutching a weather-vane and gazing balefully across the lawn towards the Aire Valley is a more gothic, Northern type of dragon, hard to see clearly in detail because it’s perched so high up, but a landmark visible from all over this part of the park.  

A few days later the buds opened and spilled out in a riot of colour. I have to confess that I don’t often get this excited by horticulture, but all this was somehow so much more than I’d expected – I suppose I’d got caught up in the story as much as the drama and beauty of the flowers. 

For such a long time up until now the daily stories in the restoration project have been about chopping down, digging out, excavating and construction, and the landscape has been one of mud and frequently churned up grass – so the start of planting and the sight of these flowers seemed like a real celebration and the start of something new. There’s so much more to come! And already it’s possible to imagine what this part of the park will look like at the same time next year….. more beauty, and lots more stories. 

* For those interested in such things I asked about the varieties of different rhododendrons planted and they include Edith Bosley, Snow White, Mothers Day, Horizon Monarch, Mrs Lowinsky, Albert Schweizer and Delta. The ones I sketched are (probably} Horizon Monarch. 

POSTSCRIPT: it’s not long to go now until the Saltaire Arts Trail – the weekend of the 27th to 29th May – and I’ve sent in another entry to the Postcard Exhibition to be held in the United Reform Church in Saltaire Village – a drawing of a fantastically gnarled old root grubbed out during the relandscaping somewhere in the park. All the postcards will be on display and for sale (at extremely reasonable prices) with the proceeds going to The Cellar Trust – so if you fancy an original watercolour of a genuine Cliffe Castle root get along to the exhibition! 




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.