Archives for posts with tag: urban sketching

The next stage of my journey around the perimeter of Cliffe Castle Park is an exercise in not getting lost.

Sketch of where the path divides

A fork in the path calls for a decision. As you enter Moorside Wood from the Beechcliffe end you soon come to a place where the path divides.

It’s obvious that if you go to the left, you’ll follow the edge of the field and climb uphill keeping the open ground of the park visible through the trees. This path is still visibly paved with old tarmac which in places is as smooth as the trunk of a beech tree (there are plenty here for comparison which is why I thought of it) and it can be slippery – whereas the path that goes off to the right is unpaved but well trodden, and anyone coming into the wood to explore would be likely to choose this direction. This path leads off in a promising way and seems to be well used…..

Sketch of tree on the lower path that leads nowhere

…… and it carries on looking as if it’s going somewhere for several hundred yards, until it loses confidence and fades away, leaving you wondering what on earth has happened. (A large yellow arrow painted on the trunk of a beech tree adds to the confusion as it points, for no reason, away from the path.) When I explored it again a couple of months ago determined to find a reason for this the same thing occurred and I ended up in the undergrowth in the no-man’s land between the wood and the school with nothing much to show for my determination, so I retraced my steps a bit and discovered an ancient drystone wall along this boundary, most of it now almost completely fallen down. It’s covered in moss, but clearly visible, and a compelling thing to draw so I took cover from the light rain that had started to fall and lurked there sketching for half an hour.

Green moss growing on a tumble down section of drystone wall

The discovery of this wall did nothing to explain the disappearance of the path, but walking back this far made me realise how to remember the way through the woods from here. The ground slopes steeply uphill through a stand of magnificent beech trees and if you walk straight up this bank and bear to the right, before long you find yourself joining the path that leads to High Utley.

The path towards High Utley

Although it’s less obvious now, this is not one wood, but in fact two. Moorside Wood is the older part and has tall, old, mature trees – beech, oak, ash, holly – and there’s even a walnut tree at the very edge of the field. The beech trees are some of the tallest I’ve ever seen, and standing beneath them is always for me the best part of every walk here. I never get tired of the way the sight of them takes me by surprise – this is a very small wood, but there’s something about these trees that could make you think you were in a forest.

Beech trees in Moorside Wood - photo, in spring

But the part of the wood that extends towards High Utley is a long narrow strip, planted much more recently and consequently it has a different character. It has a different name, too; Steepfield Wood. I’ve only recently discovered this, from an old Cliffe Castle Discovery Trail published (I think) in the 1970’s – and this younger bit of woodland is mostly sycamore, lime and oak, and a lot of ornamental cherry trees that were planted along the path here many of which are now falling down (not being a very long-lived species). I’m going to explore this part of the park in the next post, as there’s a lot more to discover.

Briefly though, and backtracking a bit to where I started at the fork in the path – to the winding route that climbs up at the edge of the field just inside the wood. It’s a lovely walk, with beautiful views, and recently it’s been cleared so that the old tarmac is clearly visible and all the more interesting for being in a dilapidated state. You can see the layers of hardcore and tar, the thickness of it and how it was laid. Add to that a sprinkling of glowing autumn leaves and there’s such a richness of colour and texture that I could spend a whole day here just in this tiny bit of wood, drawing and taking photos, and still not get enough of it.

Old tarmac on the path at the edge of the woods

Advertisements

sketchbook page with notes

Is it good to have a plan?

I’m continually evaluating the things I do when I go out to walk and sketch, and my sketchbook pages often end up with notes to myself that are supposed to make things clearer (which does sometimes help). I find it helps me to have a plan; but ironically at the same time it also helps if I know I’m probably going to drop all these ideas once I’m out in the park and just respond to what’s there.

The big dilemma when going out for a walk with a sketchbook is how much walking to do, and how much sketching. If I go out as I generally do for about an hour, there’s only time for a certain amount of drawing if I’m also going to have a satisfying walk. Take the pages above for example – the line drawing on the left took about 3 or 4 minutes and is really not much more than a diagram but records and identifies a place. The drawing on the right was a bit of a closer investigation of what I’d just discovered and took about 5 to 10 minutes doing just the line work with a pen – I added colour when I got home. The sketch below, of a large beech tree in Moorhouse Wood was done entirely on the spot and took about 20 minutes. That may not sound a lot, but it’s a fairly large chunk out of an hour’s walk. (Sketching with a waterbrush and a tiny palette with just 2 pigments, in this case Paynes grey and Burnt Umber, for cool and warm tones is something I’ve been doing a lot recently).

Monochrome sketch of beech tree in Moorhouse Wood

To try to lessen the dilemma about how much to draw and how much to walk I was suggesting to myself (in the notes under the drawing at the top) that I should go out with the intention to either
a) walk more, stopping now and again to do very quick drawings;
b) walk less, and do fewer, more considered drawings that take more time;
c) a mixture of both, or
d) a flexible combination of all this with the addition of taking photographs whenever I feel like it.

The weather has a big part to play, and so does how well I’m feeling, but I never really know for sure what’s going to happen. Something may catch my eye and before long I’m immersed in drawing, and then before I know it I find I’ve been standing sketching in one place for anything up to 30 minutes. That’s my limit though – I start to get tired and stiff. A sketch like the one below in the Garden of Life took me about that long in the open air and about the same amount of time to finish at home.

Ring of stones in the Garden of Life, Watercolour sketch

It amuses me that I both like to plan ahead but at the same time to know I’m not going to stick to it. Some days I come back with several pages of sketches, sometimes just one drawing, sometimes a string of photos in my phone and sometimes nothing at all – whatever happens is just fine and it’s important to remember that. It’s what being outdoors is all about – looking, feeling, spotting what’s new, seeing something unremarkable but extraordinary, taking time without thinking. Getting lungfuls of air and feeling the earth under my feet.

Squeeze stile, Beechcliffe Enclosure, Cliffe Castle Park

If you make your way through the avenue of cherry trees to the bottom corner of the Sports Field (part 2 of my slow walk with a sketchbook around the perimeter of Cliffe Castle Park) you come to a low wall which would stop you in your tracks if it weren’t for a carefully constructed gap. I don’t know the names for things like this, (being not originally from Yorkshire) and I have to look them up, but I think this is a squeeze stile – wide enough for people (and dogs) to pass through but too narrow for livestock (though true squeeze stiles are a lot narrower at the bottom and wider at the top, and the wall is higher) – presumably this gap is there just to allow the path to continue on down the bank to the Beechcliffe Entrance below.

You scramble down the bank and arrive on the paved surface of the main path that enters the park here through a gateway between tall stone pillars. If you carry on by climbing up the opposite bank, the perimeter path continues across the grass and alongside the wall, but if you look up the slope to the left there’s a landmark that’s hard to miss. In fact it’s clearly visible as you drive along the Skipton Road and for years I used to wonder what it was.

Watercolour sketch of the site of Beechcliffe House

The terraced rise which was the site of Beechcliffe House, bought by Henry Isaac Butterfield in 1875 to add to the Cliffe Castle estate. The house was eventually demolished in 1962 because of extensive dry rot and replaced in 1968 by a purpose built centre for elderly people which in turn burnt down in 1996.

It’s immediately obvious that this must have been the the site of something – the telegraph pole alone would tell you that – but it’s not clear what, and once you get up the hill and stand on the flat terrace at the top things get even more intriguing because there are raised planted beds (abandoned), a ring of standing stones, and at the entrance to the site beneath a stand of bamboo is a marker stone engraved with the words Keighley Garden of Life. The ring of stones is a lovely place – slightly mysterious as you come across it unexpectedly and there’s no indication of how long it’s been there, or why.

Watercolour drawing of the Keighley Garden of Life

Standing stones on the terrace in the Beechcliffe Enclosure. The site was briefly taken over and re-landscaped by a community project, the Garden of Life, in (I think) 2014, when the stone circle was built and other features were added (which are mostly now gone).

These stones in fact are a good example of how a place can be different things for different people. I often used to wonder if this spot was much visited but during just one hour of drawing I saw crows perching on them, small children clambering over them, dog walkers passing between them and families using them for photo-opportunities. There must be all kinds of other visitors both human and animal coming here at different times of the day and night.

Photo-opportunities in the Garden of Life

Photo-opportunities and gatherings in the Garden of Life

This part of the park which is known as the Beechcliffe Enclosure is layered with history, most of which isn’t obvious until you prowl around. Then you stumble upon things like a cast iron drain cover where you wouldn’t expect one, traces of the foundations of a buried wall, a hole that looks like a collapsing well cover (or another kind of drain) a pair of cast iron gate posts standing rather forlorn and crooked and without a gate – and a lot more. Like this…

Mosaic tile in the Garden of Life

Mosaic tile in the Garden of Life

I can’t help getting excited and then increasingly curious about these sort of things. Mysterious objects and buried history with an oblique meaning just demand investigation and sketching the things just intensifies my curiosity.

I know that Beechcliffe House itself was a very substantial building with more than 28 rooms, and the property included a coach house, stables, and a cottage – though where all these buildings were exactly, and how the boundaries and access roads and paths and entrances were arranged is more than I can work out – it requires the serious study of old maps and archive photos and the historical record and that’s a compelling red-herring that for now I have to resist.

The whole of the Beechcliffe Enclosure is perhaps about half the size of the Sports Field, but it’s so packed with interest that it’s too much to cover in one go. Some of this will have to wait until the next installment when I’ll be making my way north through the lower half towards the entrance nearest to Utley…

Aerial photo of Beechcliffe House, courtesy of Bradford Libraries

Aerial photo of Beechcliffe House, courtesy of Bradford Libraries

I’m doing a prolonged, slow walk around the perimeter of Cliffe Castle Park, sketching as I go. (There’s a map at the end of this post). Part 1 started (for no particular reason) in the Sensory Garden close to the Holly Lodge entrance, and I’m moving on in a northerly direction, anti-clockwise, across the Sports Field parallel to the Skipton Road….

Watercolour sketch of the view across Airedale from the top of the sports field

So…. if you leave the Sensory Garden through the gap in the hedge you find yourself at the top of the large, gently sloping field that stretches all along the lower edge of the park between the Skipton Road on one side and the path known as Dark Lane at the other. The views from here are some of the best you can find anywhere in the park – standing here looking across Airedale its hard to feel you’re in town and not way out in the country.

Sketch of oak sapling on the site of the venerable beech....

About two-thirds of the way down the field at this point you can still see the site of the giant tree that until last summer dominated the whole of this landscape. The Great Beech was truly remarkable and I wrote about it in a tribute post when I marked its sad passing – I wish I had sketched it before it eventually had to be felled, but I always found myself unable to draw it or even photograph it in a way that could express its enormous scale. I wish I’d tried to sketch it; it was extraordinary, and looking again at the photos I did take made me remember what it felt like to stand underneath its colossal branches. Generations of people in Keighley knew and loved this tree.

But the sapling oak that’s been planted here seems to be doing well despite the hot dry summer.

The field isn’t laid out for sports in any formal way – no pitch for cricket or football – it’s simply a good place to play games of all kinds, and big enough for a lot of games at the same time.

Quick sketch of girls playing rounders on the Sports Field, Cliffe Castle Park

A couple of weeks ago I watched a group of girls who’d come prepared to play a game of what looked to me like rounders, but while I sketched them a lot of discussion and organisation was going on, and after a while that game seemed to be put on hold and a tennis ball was batted about a bit. Hey, what does it matter what game you play? It was a lovely afternoon, not too hot, a pleasant breeze blowing, everyone enjoying themselves.

Sketch of two girls playing tennis in a rather informal way

I’ve seen all sorts of activities on this field; frisbees are popular, kites are sometimes flown, teams are organised, balls are kicked or batted or thrown (often for dogs).

Castellated top of the perimeter wall, Sports Field, Cliffe Castle Park

The castellated wall that runs round the edge of the park marks the boundary at the Skipton Road. Walls are a prominent feature of the landscape in the park, and they’re a subject in themselves – some are ancient, and some have been re-modelled and repositioned over time. From a sketching point of view a wall is a great thing to have in a landscape because it adds perspective and scale, and a nice sharp line to contrast softer shapes of trees and grass and people as well as often being a dark, solid form in the background.

Avenue of cherry trees at the bottom of the Sports Field, along the Skipton Road

Just inside the perimeter wall where the Skipton Road curves to the left at the roundabout there’s an avenue of ornamental cherry trees, and the unpaved path that runs along the edge of the field continues under the canopy of these trees, which in spring are a mass of pink blossom. In autumn the leaves turn delicate shades of apricot and lemon yellow and coppery red, and I picked up one or two windfall leaves that had already turned colour. I’m guessing that this line of trees may have been planted at the same time as the boundary was moved when the road layout changed – the older castellated wall ends just where the avenue of cherry trees starts, and the newer wall is lower and topped with flat flagstones. This means the trees are clearly seen from the road which was probably intentional, as they’re an eye-catching sight when they’re covered in blossom. But from inside the park they also successfully conceal most of the traffic on the Skipton Road, at least in summer, so the view is an uninterrupted leafy landscape.

To give an idea of where I started this walking project, here’s a map taken from one of the interpretation boards with my additions to show the location of the first two posts in this series. Part three to follow in due course!

Map of Cliffe Castle Park

One of the things I like best about blogging is reading other people’s blogs. A favourite of mine is The Perimeter by photographer Quintin Lake, an ongoing record of his long-distance exploratory walk around the British Isles. I love his choice of subjects and the way he frames his stunning shots, and his often wry humour is a delight. I would love to be able to tramp about the countryside (or the urban environment come to that) noticing and recording what I pass – though a walk on this scale would always have been beyond me.

I started to play with the idea of doing a perimeter walk of Cliffe Castle Park, sketching as I went (this being the extent of what I’m realistically capable of, spread over days or weeks or even months) – but not sticking slavishly to the edges. Like Quintin I’ll move inwards a bit here and there where necessary. And to make things more confusing I’ve not begun with a location that’s an obvious place to start as this is not at one of the gates – though it’s very near to the Holly Lodge entrance.

Two girls sitting on the wall in the Sensory Garden in dappled sunlight, one playing guitar

The Sensory Garden is still, like so much of the park, a work in progress – but it’s taking shape. The pre-existing raised beds are being planted with herbs, shrubs and plants that all have particular things to offer in the way of texture, scent and colour so that the senses of touch and smell will be as much a part of the experience as the ability to see, and at a height where touching and sniffing are a more natural and easy thing to do. I love this idea, and I found it interesting on this warm sunny afternoon that two girls had chosen to sit on the edge of one of the raised beds amongst the plants in the border, rather than finding a bench. Actually I notice this not-sitting-on-a-seat is quite a common thing in the park, and it struck me as I was drawing that I often do it myself – choose a spot, irrespective of whether there’s something there that’s designed for sitting on. It has to do with knowing where you want to be, I suppose. Anyway, there they were, in dappled sunlight, playing and singing.

Below the wall where the girls were sitting is the site of what will one day be an orchard – the top part of the enclosed field that stretches from the Sensory Garden down to the Skipton Road has been planted with young fruit trees, helpfully tagged with labels that include QR codes so that I was able to discover that this one is a young Bloody Ploughman. Perhaps another addition to the sensory experience will be taste! A little further down the field and stretches of grass have been left uncut to be little oases of wildflowers (this whole field has in the past been allowed to grow as a natural wildflower meadow) and there are grasses and clover, poppies and dandelions, dock and sorrel blowing in the breeze and the buzz of flying insects.

This journey of mine will be sporadic and most likely non-linear – I’ll probably jump about from place to place without following a regular clockwise or anti-clockwise route – but it’ll take me to parts of the park that I visit less often, and also demonstrate what an extraordinarily varied place it is. For its size it has an enormous range of different kinds of place – it’s truly a park of many parts.

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.

Ever thought you might like to join in and try sketching in the glasshouses and the park at Cliffe Castle?

Ferns in a hanging watering can, in the glasshouses Cliffe Castle

Louise Garrett and I are planning a series of Sketchwalks at Cliffe Castle. They’ll be a kind of cross between what Urban Sketchers call a sketchcrawl (a fairly informal get-together at a prearranged spot to meet, sketch and enjoy each others company) – and a guided workshop.

We’ll be welcoming Sketchers of all levels of ability and experience – even those who have never sketched before but who’d like to – and exploring sketching skills in the newly opened glasshouses and around the park. A bonus is that the café in the glasshouses is now open!

The sessions will be led by Louise, and the first is on Wednesday February 28th, from 10.30 – 12.30.

The Sketchwalks are being supported by the Parks Dept and Cliffe Castle Conservation Group and are being advertised locally to anyone interested in sketching. They’ll be in sets of 2, the first set Feb 28th and March 14th, and the second set May 16th and May 30th. Numbers have to be limited, due to the workshop format and space limitations – so if you’re interested, more information is on Facebook here – and if you’d like to reserve a place, email cliffe.castle.park@bradford.gov.uk – and you’ll get your place confirmed.

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!