Archives for posts with tag: seeing

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! 

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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.

 

When I’m out and about, occasionally I catch sight of something that’s been made, or hung, or arranged or displayed by someone who had no conscious intention of making a work of art at the time – and yet the result is something strikingly different, something that is expressing an idea, or maybe just presenting itself to the world in a way that says, ‘Look, here I am, take notice of me’.

I don’t want to get into the whole complex business of what constitutes a work of art, or at least, not here and now – but there are times when I feel liberated by stumbling across something in the street that could have been self consciously show-cased in a gallery as an art installation, and I want to celebrate its glory and freshness and integrity. ‘Yes!’ I want to shout, ‘you’re wonderful!’ So I take pictures.

These drain covers are a case in point. They’ve all been carefully constructed so that when in place the design of the stone paving continues across them in an uninterrupted flow; all you are supposed to see when they’re in their right places are the edges of the metal frames. But as each one has been taken out from time to time and put back, they’ve been jumbled up and now they’re a far more interesting visual picture – and a framed one at that. I stood a long time looking at them and enjoying their different shapes and textures, their tonal values and their colour, and the composition as a whole. If this had been hanging on the wall of a gallery I would have stood just as long and looked as thoroughly, but I confess that finding it in the street I enjoyed it more.

Actually I often like to look at drain covers – and street furniture generally. They are things so often ignored and overlooked. I have no idea why this inspection cover has been painted red. Right in the middle of a cobbled street, and not six feet from a neighbouring one that’s a natural unpainted brownish grey, it’s saying something important, but I have no idea what it is. Street furniture has a language of its own.

I’m not sure if this last example really counts as unintentional art, but I found it so arresting when I saw it the other day that I can’t resist including it. What are we to infer from this washing line, with just one single sock? A whole multitude of possibilities ran through my mind – and more entertaining notions than the sort I usually have when looking at something calling itself Art. Long live the art of the everyday, the art of everyone, the art that’s unintentional. All we have to do is get out there and see it.

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!