Archives for category: Wellbeing

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.

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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!

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. 

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.

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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.

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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.

imageUntil recently I’d never heard of Urban Sketchers (though you’d think that to have missed them I must have been living under a rock, or on some remote island without an internet connection). USk as it’s known for short was launched in 2007 by Seattle-based journalist and illustrator Gabriel Campanario who created an online community of urban sketches on Flickr.com. Sketchers could scan their drawings and share them on the group’s Flickr site, Facebook page or blog – and the idea went viral; so far communities of sketchers have formed 60 regional chapters in 29 countries. “Artists of all ages and skill levels have stories to tell,” says founder Gabi Campanario. “Urban Sketchers is a free group that provides a platform for them to renew their love of drawing and to learn more about storytelling”.*

In order to qualify, a drawing must be done from life, on location, a record of place and time and done without using photos for reference – and at this time of year in this part of the world that can mean braving some pretty uncomfortable weather – but fortunately drawing barefoot isn’t a literal requirement; this kind of drawing is about going back to the basics, the nitty gritty of connecting with what’s in front of you and getting it down on paper. And you don’t always have to become numb with cold or struggle with wind and rain – indoor sketching is fine (the Yorkshire group have just done a lively sketchcrawl at the Hat Works in Stockport) and sketching from a car, or a window (as my drawing above) is another good grim weather option. No wonder it’s so popular. I’ve joined Urban Sketchers Yorkshire and even though as yet I’ve not made it to a sketch meeting I’m delighted to have found this bunch of friendly sketchers in my part of the world.

There’s an accepted ethos about urban sketching and the group has a manifesto, which goes like this:

  1. We draw on location, indoors or out, capturing what we see from direct observation.
  2. Our drawings tell the story of our surroundings, the places we live and where we travel.
  3. Our drawings are a record of time and place.
  4. We are truthful to the scenes we witness.
  5. We use any kind of media and cherish our individual styles.
  6. We support each other and draw together.
  7. We share our drawings online.
  8. We show the world, one drawing at a time.

I’ve picked up some invaluable tips on drawing tools and new materials from discussions on the group’s Facebook page (there’s nothing like hearing other people’s personal recommendations and exchanging experiences) – and I’m really enjoying the opportunity to keep in touch this way.

(*Thanks to Lynne Chapman of ‎Urban Sketchers Yorkshire for her short written introduction to USk)

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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.

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Papergirl Leeds 2013 is the art of giving art. It’s an original, playful idea and very simple; after the Papergirl Leeds Exhibition later this year every single piece of work submitted to the show will be rolled up and handed to members of the public by papergirls (and boys) on bicycles at the Papergirl Leeds Ride event.

I love the idea of creating and giving away. It’s a refreshing, liberating opportunity – and giving away in this wide, sweeping, public distribution makes it appealing in quite a different way to the feeling of making art for someone you know. I like the way that the work will be made available randomly, like snowfall or leaves in the wind. I wonder who will end up with the pieces I put in to the exhibition?

Does it matter that they may, perhaps, not be appreciated and end up discarded, dumped into the nearest waste paper bin? Not really. Or not to me, anyway. It’s a wonderful exercise in letting go. It’s been a good opportunity to create something in a different way and to feel that I am sending these thoughts and images out like messages in a bottle. They may sink or float – they may find an audience and possibly a home, or they may perish without a trace. As I put them in the post box they are gone, launched into the world, and they go with my best wishes and my love.

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Whenever I look at something with all my attention – look so that I’m soaking it in and really seeing – everything else stops. It’s why for me going out for a walk is such a good way to unwind, because I can’t go far before I see something that I want to stop and gaze at.

We have a choice about the things we look at and concentrate on. In fact we have a choice about whether we really look at all. At times it would be easy to go through a day without stopping to look (and also to listen, touch, and smell) and sometimes it can even be hard to do it at all. This is what depression is about, when it feels as if you are locked in and don’t have a choice, and then it doesn’t matter what you look at, you can’t make the connection or escape from this imprisoned state of mind.

(A quick note, though, about the picture above – I couldn’t resist using it to illustrate that last sentence, but I didn’t take the photograph while feeling depressed! Far from it, in fact. I love the wonderful richness of the texture of the wall and the wood of the shutter, the pattern and contrast of the bars and the mesh, the subtlety of the colour and the mysteriousness of what might lie inside, behind the open window….)

If you’re depressed you tend to go about not seeing at all, or worse, noticing only things that reinforce feelings of bleakness and despair, so I’ve learnt that it’s important to maintain good habits all the time. I find that going out every day to take photographs but more importantly, to look, is much more than gathering source material and hoping that I’ll stumble upon something exciting. It’s more than taking some much needed exercise. More than anything else it’s about deliberately being aware, and paying attention.

In fact recently, I’ve learnt something astonishing – that simply by paying attention to the right things and making a habit of it, over time we can – and in fact, do – actually change the way our brains are wired.

This is from an e mail newsletter that I subscribe to called Just One Thing, by Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist from California:

“Moment to moment, the flows of thoughts and feelings, sensations and desires, and conscious and unconscious processes sculpt your nervous system like water gradually carving furrows and eventually gullies on a hillside. Your brain is continually changing its structure. The only question is: is it for better or worse?

In particular, because of what’s called ‘experience-dependent neuroplasticity,’ whatever you hold in attention has a special power to change your brain. Attention is like a combination spotlight and vacuum cleaner: it illuminates what it rests upon and then sucks it into your brain – and your self.

Therefore, controlling your attention – becoming more able to place it where you want it and keep it there is the foundation of changing your brain, and thus your life, for the better.”

I’m still not sure exactly why, but this idea got me really excited. Possibly it’s because I like the tangible fact that something I’ve always felt to be true is actually a scientific fact. More probably it’s because I am so preoccupied with landscape and the way water erodes and changes it that I find this such a powerful metaphor, and now I can feel myself creating new channels in the landscape of my mind. If my brain is continually changing its structure, I’m determined to try to make it for the better!