Archives for posts with tag: learning
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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I love learning. I love going back to basics, doing exercises, practising. There’s no moment in any lifetime of art practice when drawing exercises aren’t a great thing to do – I really ought to do things like this more often.

We’ve had two Sketchwalks at Cliffe Castle Park now – the first one had to be rescheduled because of snow and I couldn’t get to it, but yesterday I was able to take part. It was refreshing, incredibly useful, and a lot of fun.

Louise Garrett led both workshops and we had an enthusiastic group of Sketchers on both days. The first session concentrated mainly on contour and line, and then looked briefly at tonal values – these are just a few of the drawings done on that day:

The second session was a chance to have a good look at composition, simplifying how we see when we’re sketching on location and exploring ways to organise what we draw in the best possible way. Louise had made us all adjustable cardboard viewfinders! We used them in a variety of different exercises and discovered what an incredibly useful thing this simple tool can be.

One of the things Louise asked us to do was to look at an earlier sketch we’d done previously in the glasshouses, and then draw the same object from various angles using a viewfinder. I had a sketch of a hanging cactus in my sketchbook that I’d done a few weeks ago, so I advanced on the same plant viewfinder in hand, and very quickly realised that if I’d had this handy tool with me when I drew it before, things would have gone much more smoothly from the start.

Hanging cactus, sketchbook page

Hanging cactus, viewfinder thumbnails

In fact, with the viewfinder I’d have been able to tackle the crazy angles of the clothes-airer that the cactus hangs from without getting all despairing about it.

Lastly, I made an effort to try to record as many of our group as I could with a quick scribble – hoping it would also help me remember everyone’s names.

Sketchwalk participants examining their cardboard viewfinders

Another pair of Sketchwalks will be happening later this Spring, and judging by the way the first two sessions went and the response we’ve had they’ll be well attended. Sketching on location is getting increasingly popular and it doesn’t matter whether you’re a complete beginner or a sketcher with a lifetime’s experience – these sort of practice sessions are a real boost, and a great way to explore drawing and enjoy it in the company of others.

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! 

I’ve been sketching people quite a bit lately and mostly while they’re moving about, which is a challenge, to put it mildly – but it’s what I want to draw more than anything else at the moment.

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I find it irresistible and at the same time frustratingly hard. I realise that I’ve forgotten much of what I knew about figure drawing and it’s such a long time since I attended a life drawing class – which I’d love to do again – but in the meantime I want to understand more about how bodies move – what really happens for example, when we walk? There’s nothing like direct observation – watching and drawing as much as possible is the best way to improve – but I don’t have enough opportunity.

I trawled the internet, and after a few red-herrings and blind alleys I came across this tutorial from Elfwood, called Figure Drawing: Basic Pose and Construction.

It’s really designed to help animators and graphic artists but it’s a good step-by-step workout to help you understand how the body is constructed and connected, and how it moves, and it’s all about using stick-figures, or what we used to call pin-men.

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This is where it all became a lot of fun. I hadn’t drawn stick-figures for years, and I’d forgotten how expressive they can be. But this lesson takes you further than just those rather stiff little pin-men everyone loves to draw, and introduces an advanced species of figures that have shoulders and pelvises, who have all the major human joints and a bit of spring and curve in the spine. Before long they’re capering about across the page and doing things you recognise but would have struggled to draw. I was hooked.

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The next step is to flesh them out and give them a bit of substance, and here I’ve departed a bit from the tutorial which sticks to a more geometrical approach with simple cylinders for the trunk and limbs, but I was in a hurry to get my little tribe looking a bit more lifelike. They took on a life of their own remarkably quickly.

The question of whether all this helps when drawing real people from life was answered for me when the boiler repair men came and I drew them surreptitiously from behind while they were working. One of them was stretching and peering and grappling with the boiler while the other watched, and I realised I could sum up each movement rapidly in my head as if I was looking at a stick-figure with clothes on.

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This is them, on the left and right of the page (though not at the top left – they didn’t arrive holding a flag on a pole or hopping on one leg -) and although baggy combat trousers don’t help show off what the legs underneath are doing, stick-figures really helped me see what his whole body was doing as it moved – even if I didn’t have any idea about what he was doing to the boiler.

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Given the drab greyness of the landscape at the moment, and the way winter drags on here without showing much sign of spring, perhaps it’s not surprising that to counteract all this my head is full of vivid colours. Blue, yellow, red. I want to bask in memories of blue-green translucent seas, golden sands, and the sudden exclamation of brightly painted boats.

I can’t keep away from this digital drawing thing. It’s taken me by surprise because I found it clumsy and frustrating at first and I’m still struggling and way out of my depth, but this is probably why its so compelling. I can’t use it to draw the way I do on paper – I can’t control it the way I’m used to when I’m handling a pencil or a brush – so I’ve stopped trying to make the same sort of marks that I’d use if I was working in any conventional way, and instead I’m drawing in a way that I probably haven’t done since I was a child, most of the time using my fingers. (I’ve tried all kinds of different apps, and different styluses, but nothing works as well as a finger – and strangely this does make it a sensuous, tactile experience which I would never have believed possible. When you’re rubbing or stroking on colour you really can have the sensation that you’re applying rich creamy oil pastel, or crumbly chalk…)

The one thing I really haven’t mastered yet is using layers in the Artflow app. If anyone can offer me any helpful tips I’d be grateful. (I tried to put the boat shapes in using a layer after I’d put down all the sea and sand, but whatever I drew on the layer was invisible – except on the thumbnail icon thingy of the layer itself. What am I doing wrong?) Also I must remember to save things – I’ve already lost I don’t know how many drawings. But when all’s said and done, I love learning – even if sometimes it’s a lot of trial and a great deal of error!

Old Sheds

It can sometimes be a good idea to make things a bit difficult by choosing materials that might not seem right for the job. I’m no masochist and I’m not trying to jump through hoops for the sake of it, but if you go on picking up the same tools every time you start drawing you’ll find yourself going through the same process – and some of that will be repetitive and predictable, which means you may not learn much.

This can be uncomfortable to say the least. You can find yourself on a path that is unrecognisable and you can think you’re lost. It can make you feel rather miserable. But the good news is that in many ways, feeling lost can be a very good thing because it’s when you’re lost that you do more looking, in order to find your way forward.

This is drawn on not very good quality tissue paper, with areas of colour printed from paint applied to a sheet of plastic. I deliberately didn’t start by drawing with a pen. In the end I drew into it because I couldn’t resist pulling it together with some line drawing, but before I did that I had looked harder and made discoveries I wouldn’t have made otherwise.

I probably would have learnt more if I’d been braver and not reached for a pen. But it’s a toe in the water; and that at least feels good.