Archives for posts with tag: drawing
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!

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This is a degu.

Watercolour drawing of a degu

At first glance you might be forgiven for thinking, rat? Mouse? But then you look at the tail…. and you say to yourself, hmm, dormouse? But the size rules that out (it’s bigger than a hamster) and you realise you’re looking at something entirely different from all of these.

Sketchbook page of degu studies in pencil

The first time I sketched them about a fortnight ago in their new home at Cliffe Castle all these thoughts were going through my head and I admit I was confused. In fact as I looked at their little rounded bottoms I kept thinking of guinea pigs, and just once in a while I’d suddenly see something in the eyes or the shape of a nose that made me think rabbit (though that immediately seemed ridiculous) so I kept on looking and drawing, although for a long while all my sketches looked either rat-like or guinea-pig-like – until I felt I knew what I was looking at. Degus. Very special little animals.

For sketching purposes it’s not that easy to see them clearly through the narrow link fence at the front of their enclosure (though after a while I discovered that if you crouch down until you’re on the same level as they are, you can see a lot better – perfect for children, a bit more awkward for me.) So to understand them better, when I got home I looked up some facts, googled photographs and did a couple of drawings from the screen –

Degus, sketched from photographs

– which meant that when I went back again to the animal houses a couple of days ago I had a better idea of what I’d be looking at. (I also learnt that they’re related to guinea-pigs and chinchillas and come from the high Andes, are active during the day but don’t like hotter temperatures, that they’re highly social, and that they live longer and are more intelligent than their near relatives).

Interesting facts – but I can learn a lot by watching.

So I stand with my nose pressed up against the wire, sketchbook and pen ready, and wait.

It’s a warm afternoon, and because of that they’re all inside their custom-built house which has two floors, several entrances and exits and lots of hay for bedding. I can imagine them inside all in a heap, snuggled together. (What’s the collective term for degus, I wonder?) I can just see a couple of noses, two pairs of beady eyes. They’re awake and watching me.

I don’t know if it’s getting cooler or whether they’re just curious, but one by one they start to come out of their house, sniff the air, look around. One or two of them do look at me, one from a lookout position at the top of the plank that leads to their second storey entrance, one perching on the edge of a large empty red bowl. I can see how their tails help them balance. I can see tiny toes, (I know there are five) and ears like crumpled petals.

Watercolour drawing of a degu

I can see their very impressive whiskers. And the tails – with their lovely black tufted ends that I try not to exaggerate, though it’s hard not to…

Watercolour illustration of a degu

Pretty soon one of them ambles slowly over to the green plastic exercise wheel, climbs in and gives it a whirl. I wonder whether I’ll be able to draw those flying feet and have serious doubts, but I give it a go anyway….. and there’s no squabbling when a second degu arrives and also wants a turn. They fit amiably side by side and go racing round together in perfect unison. I can’t draw that.

Drawing of a degu in an exercise wheel

The plastic wheel is also very good for gnawing….

Degu gnawing plastic wheel - pencil drawing

By now I’m beginning to feel I’ve started to get to know them, and the more I watch the more I want to touch and stroke those little rounded backs, feel the sleekness of fur, and if possible very, very gently touch a fragile ear with the tip of my finger. I can’t do that, but drawing almost does it for me; my hand may be holding a pen and touching paper, but my mind is feeling fur, whiskers, skin.

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!

Half way through the week I realised I might actually make the 100 tally – it’s now Friday afternoon and I’m over 80, so I might just get there.

I’ve been sketching from the TV a lot. News programmes feel almost like drawing from life, but no matter what I’m watching I fairly often miss vital features. So eyes get left out, or mouths….

But it’s a great way to observe an extraordinary range of different faces, even if they do move about at an unnerving pace and then suddenly disappear altogether.

It’s made me realise how much I need to study the shape of eyes and mouths, from different angles and in different expressions. Fascinating.

And of course I’ve been drawing outdoors as well, in the park. Thursday was snow in the morning, and cold bright Spring sunshine in the afternoon.

I know I’m learning a lot from all this – mostly I’m discovering what I find hard and what I really need to work on – but it’s so enjoyable. I think for now I’m not going to worry about what needs improving, and just go on enjoying myself for the rest of the week.

I try to understand things by drawing them. It helps me think.

Since the Parkland school shooting in Florida last week, like everyone who was appalled that this can have happened, again, I’ve watched and listened, wondering – again – how this can be allowed to happen.

This time the aftermath does seem to be different. Those teenagers who huddled in terror, those who witnessed their close friends being killed beside them – are standing up and demanding that things must change, that laws must change, that politicians must stop taking money from the NRA. And they’re speaking with dignity, with clarity, and determination. It takes my breath away. Just look at this video of Cameron Kasky asking Senator Marco Rubio whether he will pledge not to accept NRA donations…. and read the account of it here.

I’ve read a lot about all the nuances behind the gun laws in America, which from over here in Britain seem hard to understand. I believe absolutely in listening to all sides. The one thing I keep coming back to is the thought of children going to school in fear; having to take part in routine drills for procedure when there is an ‘active shooter in the school’. Having to know how to barricade doors and what a kevlar blanket is for. Fear of any kind is pervasive, corrosive, corrupting – it is massively destructive, both in the short term and over a lifetime. And fear feeds other fears, feeds on itself, breeds distrust, does all kinds of dark and damaging things. All that – and of course you may well be shot, or see your fellow students or your teacher killed.

I try to understand by drawing. Sometimes understanding is impossible, but sometimes it’s possible to imagine more accurately that way. It can be a kind of listening.

I can only draw this story from photographs, and through the eyes of whoever took the picture. I won’t draw people in distress whose privacy I’d always respect but anyone demonstrating, debating, putting themselves in the public eye – these people I can try to celebrate. A small way of showing solidarity.

The#OneWeek100People2018 event starts again this year on March 5th. This year you can bet I’ll be drawing some of the people who are saying ‘Never Again’.

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

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

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

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

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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.

page of birds

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

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

sketchbook page, guinea pigs

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

 

Walking The Dog

Continuing to draw in ways I wouldn’t normally choose I picked up a very soft, thick graphite pencil lead and tried to think in terms of areas of tone and not line.

Line is actually an abstraction – we don’t see outlines around objects, and so defining the contours of something or showing tonal values by hatching with lines is a graphic convention that we have learnt to accept and understand. We don’t see like that. I am extremely short-sighted and without my glasses the world is composed of blurry masses. When I got my first pair of spectacles at the age of six, I remember being astonished to see that trees were more than fuzzy masses and that it was possible to see individual leaves and twigs even at a distance. I sometimes wonder if this is why I have always been inclined to draw fine detail and not to use bold, broad strokes, and why the first tool I’ll always reach for is always a pencil or a pen, not charcoal or a brush. Ever since that first pair of glasses I’ve been celebrating the fact that I can see more than the broad picture. But the devil is in the detail, and a drawing is not just the sum of its parts. The whole, in the end, is far more important than each tiny composite portion.