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Sometimes the most effective way to help writers leap ahead, is to slow things down and take a step back.
The final item in this History of my Archive in 10 Objects found in my father's loft are two sketchbooks from my earliest days in Japan in 1987.
Just after I arrived in Tokyo in January 1987 I bought a number sketchbooks of various sizes and spent a lot of the first year in particular being the sketching tourist, drawing, painting and photographing downtown Tokyo, the people around me, the whole experience of being in Japan. I didn't think any
sketchbooks from early days in Japan had survived, I had a series of major purges for one reason or another over the 21 years I was there, the biggest down-size being at the very end when I left most of my belongings behind and threw away much of my commercial illustration artwork.
These two sketchbooks survived because I brought them back from Japan in the early '90's after buying a house in London, they stayed there until I later gave up the house, then found their way with a few other items to my dad's loft.
|Iidabashi, 6th May 1987. This old building stood near the West exit of the station (the Kagurazaka side), and was I believe demolished in the early '90's development of the area. pen & ink. |
|Street vendor's cart, Yotsuya, 6th May 1987. pen & ink|
There are so many memories wrapped up in these pages, that first year in Tokyo was a roller-coaster of experiences - I had a sponsor when I first arrived in the country, they had no real work for me but nevertheless required me to sit in their dingy downtown office every day, doing literally nothing except breathe in the permament fog of tobacco smoke (I was a non-smoker) and hope the editor would come back to the office and give me permission to go out. Initial joy at being in Tokyo was soon replaced by deep unhappiness, after six frustrating months of this our relationship finally unravelled, and I was out on my own in Shitamachi, free but penniless, fraught with fear over the future. These two sketchbooks cover that period.
|The office, waiting for permission to leave, 17th June 1987. ballpen|
Because I was under-employed (and yet tightly under the watchful eye of the sponsor), I leaped on any opportunity to slip out of the nicotine stained office in Iidabashi and study Japanese in the quiet of the British Council building, or go walk-about in downtown Tokyo. When I eventually found my own place to rent in Yanaka and parted company with the sponsor these sketchbooks were both a comfort and way to come to terms with Tokyo, it's architecture, atmosphere, details, all things that would serve me well later on.
|Roppongi, 18th April 1987, ballpen|
|On the Hibiya Line, 8th October 1987. ballpen|
So these drawings were at a point of change for me, initially a creative escape from my sponsor's office, they then became a comfort when I was on my own in Yanaka, it was a time just before things started to move for me, so looking back at them now brings a mixture of nostalgia and vivid memories of the turmoil I was in then.
|Mishima village near Sendai, painted during a volunteer weekend with UNICEF, Summer 1987. watercolour|
With these drawings I come to the end of the 10 pieces from my archives. Discovering all of these things in my late father's loft has made me very contemplative about my current position in life, especially after his passing. If there's any lesson looking through these old archive things has taught me, it's that change is generally good, and provided you keep moving forward, things will most definitely get better!
So, we approach the end of summer, and for me things are beginning to calm down after months of precipitous highs and lows. Amongst the highs are the release of two picture books - Will's Words in the US (distributed in the UK) I've previously mentioned, but also Yozora o Miage-yo (Look Up at the Night Sky) for Fukuinkan Shoten in Japan..... more on these titles shortly.
|Yozora o Miage-yo, written by Yuriko Matsumura|
I've talked about these releases on Twitter and Facebook, but the reason I've not blogged about new books, or much else at all this year is due to all the other stuff, a variety of pressures, much of it (though not all) work related, as hinted in previous posts, plus latterly these have been overshadowed by the terminal illness of my father. I'll not linger on these, other than to say that things are just beginning to settle down now.
One consequence of all this has been much rail travel between Norwich and the Midlands for one reason or another, which has seen a lot of sketchbook activity. Having been shut up in my studio with deadlines for so long, just getting out and about is nourishing, whatever the circumstances. When I travel, I tend to sketch and doodle a lot more, lately I've been taking a revived look at my creative direction and position in the UK.
|Enroute to the SCBWI Picturebook Retreat in Worcestershire, June.|
In June, straight after completing the last of a string of challenging picture book deadlines I was off to the Worcestershire countryside for the SCBWI Picture-book Retreat. This was a fantastic weekend held at Holland House in Cropthorne, focused entirely on creating picture books, led by illustrators David Lucas and Lynne Chapman, both inspiring speakers. There's a full report of the weekend by Helen Liston in the SCBWI journal Words and Pictures
. As I've been so focused on illustrating books by other writers the last few years the weekend was particularly effective for just nurturing the neglected buds of storytelling in my own right. Though I've had my own stories published in Japan, I find myself easily disheartened with story submission in the UK, so this was just a perfect weekend.
|Most of the retreat attendees, mentors and leaders at Holland House, missing chief organiser Anne-Marie Perks and a few others (photo by Candy Gourlay)|
While I was there my father was taken seriously ill, and I spent the following week further north in the Midlands, in Lichfield, travelling by bus to his hospital in Burton-upon-Trent every day. I know Lichfield well, having lived there a year when daughter and I first came back to the UK, but Burton was new to me. The return journey from the hospital meant long waits in in the town centre for the evening X12 express bus, so plenty of time to ponder the sights.
|Burton War Memorial|
|On the wall of the Leopard Inn|
It was the time of that intense heat wave in July, the beautiful, lush green of summer contrasted against the declining health of my dad. On a couple of days I gave up waiting for the X12 and took the local village bus, which winds it's way through the villages of Branston, Barton-under-Needwood, Yoxall, Kings Bromley, Alrewas, Fradley and Streethay. Glimpses of the narrow boats... the half timbered cottages... I thought I knew the area, but this was a revelation. A bus crawling the bumpy local back lanes of rural Staffordshire are hardly the best for sketching, but I managed to record his man and his coiffure...
|On the local No.7 bus from Burton to Lichfield, 18th July|
Staying on my own in Lichfield I ate out every night, so had the chance to try a large range of eateries. The solitude of thoughts and my sketchbook was comforting, as was re-discovering the town.
|Diners in the Bowling Green pub, 18th July|
I grew up a few miles south of Lichfield in Four Oaks, which I also got to see during this week. I left the area in 1978 and have rarely been back since, I couldn't believe how green everything had become in the intervening years. Standing one night on the platform of my old local station, I was gripped by a sudden bond with the Midlands. It felt like everything was falling into place, every experience framed within context of the circumstances of impending loss.
|Waiting for the last train to Lichfield, 11pm, Butler's Lane Station|
At the end of the week I had to return to Norwich due to visiting family from Japan, but soon booked another train ticket to Lichfield as my dad's condition worsened. Unfortunately I missed his passing by one day, nevertheless it seemed like I'd already shared a journey of conclusion with my father. I felt like he was with me all the time. He'll be with me in memory forever.
John and I bought a new tent recently, and a little one-ring stove. We were getting ready for last weekend. Like half the residents of Nether Edge, we were all excited, because our favourite music venue, Café #9, had decided to put on a mini music festival!
It was very do-it-yourself: Jonny hired a field, a generator, a couple of portaloos and some hay bales, bought a big star-shaped marque, then divvied up the cost between about 40 participants and everyone else mucked in to make it happen. Various people offered their different skills and we had a bunting-making evening at the café.
On the Friday afternoon, John and I helped to get things set up.
The sun was shining and the reservoir was glinting behind tall pine trees. Jonny's wife India unpacked buckets of beautiful things and turned our little encampment into a colourful paradise of flowers and lights, pom-poms and cushions. The stage was set!
The music was mainly in the evenings, but people had offered to run different activities during the day. John organised a Saturday morning walk. I offered a sketching session for Saturday afternoon. Unfortunately the rain put paid to most of that... Yes, there was rain. Then more rain.
At least we got our tent up before it hit. By Friday night though, it was pouring down and those coming after work weren't so lucky.
It poured and poured. India's paper stars dissolved. The wind blew the rain in and her cushions and throws wicked up water. It put out the fires. The rain might have dampened everything in sight, but it didn't dampen our spirits. Oh no. We Nether-Edgers are a tough lot.
We huddled under our marquee and ate and drank and chatted and sang. People played guitars, someone brought out a mandolin. Someone arrived with home-baked cheese muffins. someone else brought out a wind-up gramophone and a pile of old 78 records:
In moments when the deluge slowed to a drizzle, kids ran around and people hula-hooped:
Somehow the time became half past two in the morning and we dashed back through the rain to our tents.
Next day started dry, so John's walk went ahead. It was great to see where we actually were. We walked up onto the moors and around the reservoir. We were out for two and a half hours and only got rained on once. It was saving itself...
Yep. Saturday afternoon and evening were EVEN WETTER! Was this possible? John described it best: the rain was biblical. The thing was, even though we couldn't do all the dancing, painting, yoga and star-gazing we had planned, the weather almost did us a favour. Because we spent the whole time together in the marquee, sitting on our hay bales, we really got to know each other and I made so many new friends.
Then in the evening, when the bands arrived the wonderful music totally eclipsed the rain. The main act were the fabulous Goat Ropers Rodeo Band, all the way from Rhyl. Fantastic.
As you can see, I did plenty of painting, though it got tricky as it got dark and we were operating with decorative lights alone.
Some time around midnight the rain stopped. Dan, who had set up a cocktail bar from the back of his van, brought out a record player and a massive pile of LPs. We danced in the mud, in wellies and walking boots, cocktails in hand, to hits from the 70 and 80s mostly. The best boogie I've had in a long while. Numbers dwindled gradually. At half three, John and I gave it up, but apparently the last few stopped up until 5.30!
Sunday was glorious. While those who had to get home packed up their stuff, we put on the kettle for constant tea and a small encampment of 'morning-afters' lounged around our tent.
There was some guitar playing, a bit more hula-hooping, but mostly we just wanted to chill. The Café #9 bus served coffees.
A bass player was discovered asleep under a hay bale.
And then it was time to pack up ourselves. The stragglers mucked in to help clear up and ferry things back into Jonny's van and we said our final goodbyes. not that final though - Jonny is already planning another one for mid summer!
Thanks to various people for taking such great photos, especially Charlie Osguthorpe. And of course thanks to Jonny, for such a brilliant idea and having the energy to make it happen.
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The end of April marks the end of the teaching period at the University of Manchester, so each of the academics I have been shadowing for my residency has been doing final lectures in their modules, preparing their students for end of year exams. As this also means that my chance to sit in on lectures has therefore come to an end, I wanted to make sure I sketched what was left.
So, both last Tuesday and Wednesday, I sketched a 2-hour session, filling up another book. I have had so much practise now at speed-painting people, I have got more and more confident at just diving in. Most of the work I am doing at the moment involves 'drawing' with paint, only using line-tools after some watercolour is down, to pull things into focus and define details where necessary.
My added confidence proved very handy on Wednesday as, to add an extra frisson of pressure to the lecture, I also had a professional film-maker there, recording me in action. Earlier this year, we put in a bid to the university, asking for some money to make a film about the project, both to show at the July exhibition and at various subsequent academic presentations. We just found out a couple of weeks ago that we got all the money (hurrah!), but of course, we now have a very short time to get all the necessary filming done, not to mention all the time it will take to edit things together.
Anyway, we have now made a start. And luckily nothing went embarrassingly wrong with the sketches from the session!
As well as footage of me in action, we are going to be filming interviews with lots of the other academics who have been involved, getting the sociological perspective on the value and interest of the work. We began though, with a quick interview with me after the Wednesday morning lecture had finished, talking about how I choose what to include in the sketches, how I decide where to place things on the page, the degree to which I incorporate the verbal content of the lecture etc.
Here's how the sketchbook looks as one continuous piece:
Those kind folks at Derwent have been in touch again and sent me another parcel: a pressie of art materials play with. It came almost on my birthday too! I got all sorts of bits and bobs, some familiar, some new things to try...
They sent me another set of my all-time favourite tool: the Inktense watercolour pencils.
This 12 set is really all you need. I once went to their shop in the Lake District and bought lots of other colours to add to my kit, but have taken most of them out again, because these colours are so well chosen.
Inktense pencils are absolutely perfect for sketching on the go. I just love the way you can combine dynamic drawing with painterly mark-making and fill the page with vibrant colour, while carrying almost no kit - just a handful of pencils and a waterbrush.
Derwent also sent me some pastels and pastel pencils, knowing how I create my picture book artwork.
The pastel pencils were the perfect thing: really lovely quality of course, richer and softer than a lot of brands, but also very timely, providing me with some new and useful colours which I have already pressed into service, working on Class One Farmyard Fun. You need the pastel pencils for all the fiddly detail which is impossible to achieve otherwise: like all those itsy bitsy outfits the children wear, and tiny animals in the background. The Derwent pastel bars are just slightly harder than I like for my illustrations, but that will make them ideal for outdoor sketching, as soft pastels are a bit of a messy nightmare when you are out and about, so I shall save them to use for landscapes, when the weather is a bit warmer.
For the last 2 years running, John and I have enjoyed a week's caravan holiday in the Lake District, where I have spent my time sitting on top of hills, or down by the water, sketching every day, while John goes off walking. Once my busy period is over, I'm sure we'll be off to do it again, and I shall take my new Derwent pastels with me. Can't wait.
Most exciting of all, Derwent sent me something I haven't tried before: a set of water-soluble, tinted, graphite pencils:
I tried them out on a recent sketchcrawl. It was one if my residency days, taking my volunteer group of academic newbie-sketchers out of the safety of the university, to draw in the big wide world for the first time. We didn't go far, just down the road to the Manchester Museum, the same place I took my Urban Sketchers last week.
I thought I would document the occasion by drawing them sketching, rather than focusing on the exhibits, and I used my new pencils to sketch Vanessa and Andy.
The Graphitint are similar to my Inktense pencils, because of being soluble, so I used the same technique - vigorous mark-making followed by quick, understated gestures with a waterbrush - but the Graphitint pencils were different to use in three important ways.
Firstly, the lead is softer than either Inktense or any regular watercolour pencils I have tried before, giving a thicker line which you can see really picked up the grainy surface of the watercolour paper, creating a slightly looser, more textured result:
Secondly, whereas the Inktense are extremely vibrant and explode into colour when you add the water, the Graphitint are far more understated: certainly the set I was given were slightly muted shades, which work well together to create a softer overall effect, whereas the Inktense tend to be more contrasting and zingy.
Lastly, the Graphitint colour doesn't change when wet, it just dissolves. Though less exciting than the Inktense, this makes them more predictable and so slightly easier to manage. It is less easy to 'overdo it' - with the Inktense pencils, if you apply too much pencil work before the water, you can quickly get into a mess. It just depends what you are after.
I think these are going to be great for life drawing, although I have not had time to go in ages. Perhaps this will give me the push I need to make some time.
In the meantime, thank you Derwent, for my gorgeous pressies. Much appreciated.
I spent one of my residency days sketching at home last week, because I am still not 100% over my cold, even now. Do you remember the fascinating Dormant Things project, looking at the various bits and bobs we have tucked away in corners, stuff we have no actual use for, but can't quite bring ourselves to throw away? I sketched some examples a while ago. last week, I decided it was time to drag some more of my personal clutter out into the limelight.
I have been meaning to record my various pairs of old glasses for a while. They are all old prescriptions, so no use to me, but they were so expensive and are still in perfect condition, which makes it impossible for me to dump them. I tried to give them to charity but, because they are varifocals, matched specifically to my eyes, they are no use to them either. So they sit in a drawer in my bedroom. Probably be there forever, slowly growing in number. they are a little like a collection of stuffed birds or pinned butterflies: delicate and colourful, but gone beyond their moment.
Another object which I don't use, but can't part with, is my tenor recorder from primary school. When my parents bought me this, I felt very grown up, because it felt like a REAL musical instrument, whereas the boring old descants were commonplace and without any status. I was particularly impressed by the brass tab for the little finger - very special. It got lots of use at the time. I'm sure I could still play it, but I don't. I feel a bit guilty, as instruments exist to be played. A bit of my heart still loves it though, in its posh case. That's going back into storage too. Shame on you Lynne!
Finally, I thought I ought to have a go at sketching the obligatory drawer of anonymous cables. We now have 3 of these drawers, in 3 different rooms. There is no logic to this, as we have scant idea what the vast majority of them are for. But you know that, if you throw them out, you are bound to need them. Not that I would know which one you needed, even if I did. I wrote on the sketch that they scare me. They do, in the way that maths equations scare some people: I feel I should make the effort to look through them, but really, really don't want to go there.
So, spring is pretty much here (in the UK, it has been trying to be here all winter) and while the birds and bees are starting to get creative, it seems a good time for the rest of us to do the same. No... I don't mean THAT (although I don't want to be a party-pooper if you're in the mood), I mean arty stuff!
With that in mind, and in honor of National Craft Month, a little group of Craftsy instructors, who are also Urban Sketchers, are banding together to share an arty opportunity with you...
If you register for any of the 13 classes below, between Feb 29th and March 13th (using the special links here), you will not only receive a HUGE discount, but be entered into a prize draw, where you could win the chance to donate $1000 - $2000 to the 'craft' charity of your choice (Urban Sketchers is one possibility, if you don't have anything in mind. Did you know they were a charity?)
So, what makes a Craftsy class so special?
Well, Craftsy offers high quality, online courses which you can watch whenever you want, as many times as you want, and from any device.
You can ask questions of your instructor, post comments and pictures you create, plus you can see the work posted by other participants in the class from all around the world.
Each class consists of 6-7 short lessons, with homework exercises, and runs for about 1.5 - 2 hours. We are all experienced teachers and, between us, we Urban Sketchers correspondents offer 13 sketching classes - hurrah!
Several people have asked if I am planning to do a Craftsy class on 'sketching people', to go with my book. For the moment I'm not, partly because I have so much on right now. Also, I think the next class I do probably ought to be a follow-up to my existing, illustration workshop. But also, there are already two really good workshops on sketching people. One is by my good friend (and excellent sketcher) Suhita Shirodkar:
The second is by Marc Holmes, who really needs no introduction if you follow Urban Sketchers:
I can't recommend these classes enough. They are very professionally put together and delivered by experts in the field. Each one takes you through the subject carefully, with lots of demonstrations, which are all beautifully filmed, so you can see what you need to, unlike your average YouTube videos.
My class is a wee bit different to all the others, as mine is the only one on sketching for book illustration, whereas the other classes are all about drawing and painting as an urban sketcher.
This promotion is only offered via the actual instructors, so you need to use these special discount links for it to kick in. If you do, you help us instructors as well because, if we attract new people to Craftsy and they register during National Craft Week, we instructors get entered into a prize draw too. Everyone's a winner!
As part of my residency, I ran another of my empowerment workshops recently, working with the academics at the Morgan Centre. My merry band of would-be sketchers were all given a free set of watercolours at the outset and, although we did do some playing around with them during our very first meeting, I have noticed that most people aren't really using them. Not surprising - I know some very seasoned sketchers who are still terrified of watercolour.
So, I thought we would do some work with paint, to get them more familiar with how it feels and to discover some of the simple but effective things you can do.
For people to feel comfortable, it is vital that these workshops are fun and that results are acheivable. I need people to not only learn useful techniques, but to enjoy the session sufficiently that they are inspired to give things a go when they are on their own, with the SCARY blank page.
First of all, we used wet paper and explored simple mark-making methods, introducing watercolour to the page, but then leaving it alone, letting the water take it off to interesting places, resisting the urge to scrub and mix.
Then I asked people to see if they could see an image in the blobs and squiggles. The challenge was to use as few drawn marks as possible to turn the splodges into something. Love these funky birds:
Next, we played a game in pairs, where people took it in turns to add a mark to a shared painting, building up images which were initially abstract, but waiting for the suggestion of something representational to emerge. It's fun because people sometimes have different ideas of where it's going. You can choose to cooperate with your partner, or you can subvert their ideas as you see them emerging and deliberately take it off on a different track.
The idea of the exercise was to get people painting freely, but to keep it light-hearted and devoid of expectation. I wanted them to learn how the paint worked - what consistency to use, which colours reacted together well, the difference between working onto wet and dry paper - all this, without any pressure to create something successful.
Finally, I asked them to use the techniques we had learnt, to do a very quick watercolour sketch of an item of fruit or veg that I'd asked everyone to bring. I showed them how you can restrict where the wet paint is going to go, by creating the shape of your object in water first, then quickly introducing the paint while it's wet. This is my 10-second mango:
I asked people to use only 2 or 3 colours and to let the paint settle on its own, as before. Finally, to finish off with the minimal amount of line-work needed to make the object identifiable. This is my example apple and satsuma:
We suddenly ran out of time and everyone had to rush off, so I only got a photo of one person's painting, this gorgeous garlic. Quite a tricky thing to choose, particularly as an absolute beginner, but she did a fantastic job:
Everyone did really well. Their 'homework' was to go away and use the techniques in their sketchbooks over the next few weeks. My hope is that the workshop demonstrated that you can be quite free and easy with watercolour and still get quite dramatic results, by sticking to a few simple rules:
* Use water first to tell the paint where to go and to give you lovely marks
* Limit yourself to 2 or 3 colours
* Let the paint do its thing - don't fiddle and scrub!
* Less is more: you often don't need outlines
If you are afraid of watercolour, give it a whirl. You need plenty of clean water, a hairdryer to encourage the drying along and a good size brush, so you get enough paint down. Watercolour paper is ideal, but we only had ordinary cartridge paper books to work in and, as you can see, it was fine. So long as it isn't too flimsy. Have fun!
Yep, today is the official publication day for my new book Sketching People: an Urban Sketcher's Guide. Hurrah!
So, if you have pre-ordered a copy, it should be with you today or tomorrow. If this is the first you have heard about it (though that would be hard, the way I have been banging on about it...), you can read all about it and see lots of sample pages here. If you are in the US, your co-edition isn't quite published yet, I'm afraid, but you only have to wait another 3 weeks. This is where you pre-order the American edition.
Happy sketching everyone! Don't forget to leave me some lovely reviews on Amazon :-)
When it comes to my residency at the Morgan Centre, I have licence to pretty much draw whatever I want. I have a security pass to all the university buildings and have already drawn in lectures, tutorials, meetings, leaving dos, student areas... I am keen though to get a breadth of approach and want the sketchbooks to contain as much visual variety as possible. So, we hatched the idea of the desk-drawer portrait. Professor Sue Heath is the person who got the ball rolling with the Leverhulme Trust grant and is very supportive of my work, so she volunteered to be my first desk-drawer victim. She promised not to interfere with what was in there: she took the whole top drawer out of her desk and handed it to me. It was a jumble of all sorts.
I sat quietly and sorted the contents into little piles, then methodically drew everything. It turned out to be much more amusing than I expected, because 90% of the contents were either completely unused, had not been looked at in eons, or were so well past their sell-by date, they belonged in the bin (totally dry Tippex with a brush-end like an exploding firework, glue-stick dried to a skinny, petrified finger...)
It took up half of one of my concertina books. I put down a painted background first, to tie it all together, so it wouldn't look 'bitty'. I also used text to add my own personal commentary. I left absolutely nothing out. I counted all the perished rubber bands and even drew the bent staples I fished out of the back corners:
It took me 3 sessions to sketch it all, but I eventually got it done. It was rather revealing that, in the entire week I had her drawer contents held captive, Sue missed only I item: her stapler. But like many other objects in her drawer, it came with a sibling, so she took one and left me the other to sketch:
I had great fun and thoroughly enjoyed adding my ironic labels alongside each item. Luckily Sue has a good sense of humour, so I wasn't run out of town!
Okay, own up, who is already peering sheepishly into their own desk drawer and wondering..?
Yesterday I went to Westminster for a debate at the House of Commons. The event was to mark the anniversary of Nancy Astor, the first women MP, taking her seat in the Common's 96 years ago.
The room was packed. The seat next to me was shared by two people, and there was a small standing crowd by the door. It was a diverse crowd, including some very eloquent minors.
This is the issue:
Of the 650 seats in the House of Commons 459 are occupied by men and 191 women.Here's the Petition
There are 32 million women in the UK,
51% of the population. They are a diverse majority.
But the House of Commons is 71% male.
for you to sign if you agree that this is a bad situation and must change sooner rather than later.
And here are my sketches! Enjoy. And click to see them big.
The Panel (can't see them all here, they had to run in and out to cast votes and debate elsewhere):
Maria Miller MP, Chair of the Women and Equalities Select Committee, Jess Phillips MP, Angela Crawley MP, Caroline Lucas MP, Baroness Smith of Newnham, Callum McCaig MP, Wes Streeting MP, Ben Howlett MP and Sophie Walker, Leader of the Women's Equality Party.
"There are some awfully, awfully average men in here". Callum McCaig on Whitehall.
Ellan asked Maria Miller if her boss would introduce a quota for his party.
No, he won't.
Baroness Smith of Newnham and Ben Howlett.
Sophie Walker from the Women's Equality Party.
Many good questions asked.
The last question came from a child, to great applause, and was answered by every member of the panel (in the case of Maria Miller with s shrug - the rest gave firm estimates).
On Saturday, we had our annual Urban Sketchers Yorkshire Christmas sketch-party. It is always a good laugh. Everyone brings food and drink, so I don't have lots of catering to do, which also helps with planning, because I never know how many are going to turn up. This time round, there were about 14 of us I think, though it's been as many as 40 on occasion.
It's a nice way to throw a do: I just had to deck out the house, lay the table, put some mulled wine on the stove and wait.
We always follow a similar format - people gather round our long dining table as they arrive and start to sketch the food. It's an unusual sort of party though: after the initial chatter and excitement, it eventual goes completely silent, with everyone concentrating on what they are drawing.
We nibble as we go along and then eventually give in and start to scoff and chatter again.
We took our puddings into the front room this year, for some silly drawing games. We started off with 1-minute portraits of each other, which is always quite funny. Then we played a sketching challenge: a sort if cross between I-Spy and The Twelve Days of Christmas.
You had to take a letter from a Scrabble bag and find something in the room beginning with that letter, then turn it into one of the gifts from The Twelve Days of Christmas song and draw it on your postcard - all within 5 minutes! Above are a few examples. I encouraged cheating, not least because it helped me: my letter was 'M' so I drew '...a much-decorated Christmas tree'.
What you can't see until you zoom in, is how clever Matthew Midgley's letter 'D' illustration is. Each of the 6 drawing pens is named after a reindeer, and Rudolph has red ends:
Finally, we did a reprise of last year's 'drawing on espresso cups' game.
Quite a few people had to go after that, but those left standing finished off back in the dining room, eating cake and drawing on the paper tablecloth. Because I was playing host, I didn't get to do much actually drawing during the party, so went to town on the tablecloth with my watercolours:
There were some fabulous sketches. I took photos, but of course ultimately had to clear it all away in the bin. You can see them all on the Urban Sketchers Yorkshire Facebook group.
I've had a couple of lovely Christmas presents arrive through the post in the run up to the holiday.
I received complimentary copies of both books and they look fabulous - packed with information as well as gorgeous artwork by sketchers from around the world. I am honoured to be in such glorious company. This is a spread from Archisketcher featuring my painting of my neighbour's house:
I have five pieces in Archisketcher. I was thrilled to bits that Simone used so many of my sketches. I am a big fan of her work, so am very happy to be included. She tackles complex architecture, but works very quickly, so her architecture is never stiff, but always vibrantly alive:
The two books are a little different in approach. Archisketcher concentrates on important aspects to consider when sketching architecture. It has detailed sections giving advice on perspective, style, choosing viewpoints, colour and composition. It is lavishly illustrated, both with Simone's own work and with a really diverse selection of top class artists.
This is a sketch I did when feel very brave in Brazil, in the section on perspective:
This one is in a section looking at how to tackle interiors. It's a sketch I did in The Sheffield Tap pub, while on a sketchcrawl with my group. I was experimenting with 'drawing' in paint:
Pete Scully's Creative Sketching Workshop covers all sorts of different subjects for sketching. It is divided into 4 sections: Indoor Scenes, Outdoor Scenes, Buildings and People & Pets. These are all sub-divided into more specific subjects, each of which is presented by a different sketcher in that field, setting the reader exercises to try.
So for instance, James Hobbs gives instruction on sketching waterside scenes. Pete himself does a section on sketching in bars, at which he is quite a master, and also on drawing objects which link into a series, like the delightful fire hydrant sketches for which he is so well known: I only have one sketch in Pete's book, in a section by Rita Sabler on drawing musicians, so I was quite surprised, and of course delighted, to get a freebie copy.
I have been so busy, I have not had time yet to give either book the attention it deserves, but they are clearly going to be very interesting and inspirational. At £12.99 each they seem really good value too, as they are both chunky at 160 and 176 pages each. So, if nobody you know was kind enough to buy you one of these gorgeous books for Christmas, I think you deserve to treat yourself, don't you?
Happy New Year all! I'm 3 months into my residency now and have so far mostly been painting a general picture of university life. I have been really looking forward to this next bit though, as I will be getting increasingly involved in the research projects of the various academics at the Morgan Centre.
Just before Christmas, I got a sneak preview or what is to come. I took my sketchbook to my very first research interview, for the Dormant Things project. It looks at the way in which almost all of us has a weakness when it comes to throwing certain objects away. We don't actually need them though, so we shove them under the bed, in a drawer, or shoehorn them into the already chocka cupboard under the stairs. Even better, we stash them conveniently out of sight and mind, up in an attic or down in the cellar. Unless you are a rare creature indeed, you will know that I mean. Yep? Thought so.
Our reasons for hanging onto these unneeded objects vary. Often they carry important memories or mark significant moments in our life. They might be 'things that could come in handy one day'. Some are unwanted gifts, or objects whose use we have forgotten but don't like to throw away, 'just in case'. I have hung onto my cut-off hair, because it is a part of me, a part of the younger me who had long hair all through senior school and university. I don't need it, I don't even need to see it, it just feels wrong to part with it.The research interview was with a woman in Stretford. All interviewees need to remain anonymous, so we called her Margaret for the day. The researcher, Sophie Woodward, had already explained about my Artist-in-Residence role and so Margaret was expected me. We had a cup of tea and she chatted generally about her personal clutter, then the three of us when into the hall, where Margaret spent about 40 minutes 'unpacking' the contents of her hall cupboard for us. I sat on the floor, a fly-on-the-wall, while she took out one thing at a time, explaining to Sophie why she had decided to store it in there, rather than get rid of it.
My task was to try my best to record the objects and their significance. I obviously couldn't draw them all. Even scribbling away at super-lightning speed, I could only get the highlights and try to capture the flavour of the interview. When we were done, I showed Margaret what I had done and she got quite emotional. I was very pleased, since I felt it showed I had captured the poignancy of her saved objects.
Once we had left Margaret, I chatted to Sophie about some of my own Dormant Things and she thought I should record them too. Which is why I dug my old hair out of the attic. It was good fun, having a reason to rummage. I found lots of contenders and am going to enjoy sketching some of them this week. Here's the first one I did:
It was a wedding present from my mum and dad. Unfortunately, it never worked properly, so was eventually stored away: too beautiful and too significant to be parted with.
If you feel inspired and fancy a bit of personal rummaging, Sophie says that she would love to see your sketches, so please do send them to her by email.
Quiz question for the day: what do these objects have in common?
Answer: they are all examples of Dormant Things, yet more objects of limited use, pulled from their hiding places in my attic and in the nooks and crannies of the studio.
Apart from a rather lovely visit to Pye Bank Primary School on Tuesday, I have been working at home this week. There have been a lot of back emails to plough through (groan) but, in between, I have been working on the Dormant Things project, filling the rest of the sketchbook I started before Christmas.
Posting some of this work on social media has brought out many interesting points. Should we be working towards getting rid of much of the clutter we gather around ourselves, or are our personal reasons for keeping things of dubious value justification enough, no matter how daft they might seem? I have managed to dump some truly pointless items, like the half a tea strainer above (kept in case it came in handy) and the anonymous key in the bottom sketch. Objects with symbolic or sentimental significance are mostly staying put.
Sentimental objects have given rise to another interesting discussion: items like the candle-sticks below, which John and I found on our honeymoon, are often the guardians and triggers of important memories. We tend to take photographs of significant people and places, but not significant objects. But, if you sketch the object, does the sketch take over the role of memory-guardian and allow you to release the object into the wild? I think for me, the answer is 'sometimes'. I am more likely to let go, if the object could be loved by a new owner and have another life, instead of sitting in the dark forever.
I'm having a lot of fun with this project and, as you can see, it's provoking a lot of thought. I've now completed the whole of this concertina book, but I have of course only scratched the surface and will continue to reveal the dark underbelly of my hoarded clutter...
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so sometime this winter, i'd really love to see some snow...until then, i'll have to paint myself a beautiful winter muse. and that's exactly what i've been working on....
Last Saturday, Urban Sketchers Yorkshire had their January SketchCrawl. I have been a bit busy lately, so I thought I would do an easy one and get people together for a coffee-house crawl, always nice and cosy at this time of year.
There is a particular stretch of road not far from me, with loads of little places but, as usual, I didn't know how many would turn up, so we met in a big Wetherspoons nearby first. Good job we did, as over 30 people showed up!
We filled one whole section - pretty much everyone you can see above is a sketcher. It's a good place to draw, as the glass walls give easy views out all round. I was doing a lot of meeting and greeting, as about half a dozen new members arrived too, which meant not much time for sketching, but I managed this one painting. The highlights are white chalk:
We decided to split into smaller groups when we got to the smaller coffee-shops, although we were lucky with timing and about half the group fitted into The Rude Shipyard, again, more or less filling the place on both floors.
They too have great window views. They also do AMAZING food, so I spent half my time gorging not sketching. Actually, I spent at least half the remaining time chatting, so I went for a quick watercolour impression of the street outside:
We were intending to work our way down the Abbeydale Road, popping into various cafes, fitting in where we could, but something rather exciting came up instead. It turns out that one of our members knows the man who has taken on the considerable challenge of renovating the old Abbeydale Picture House, a huge, badly decaying cinema from 1922. It was once a very grand place, the largest in Sheffield, with a ballroom and a billiard hall inside as well. I painted it last year, but from the outside:
It's been closed to the public since 1975, when it went rather down in the world and was used as an office furniture showroom. Things got worse though, and it was boarded up in 1991.
Anyway, a quick phone call and we suddenly had permission to go and draw inside for the rest of the afternoon. It is in a bad state, but the original splendour is still there, clinging on to the crumbling walls. We spread out all over the cinema, with some people up on the balcony, with great views down.
It was hard to know where to start, so I just sat in front of the screen and painted the view back across the stalls. I loved the time-scourged glamour.
It was slightly spooky. It was also freezing cold. I think everyone would have liked to stay longer, but our fingers were giving up the ghost, so we walked a bit further down the road to the Broadfield pub, where we warmed up while sharing the work. There were still so many of us that we had to sit at two separate tables.
These are just some of the sketchbooks from the day:
I wonder if the brilliant turn-out was a result of all those New Year resolutions. If so, that's great - it was lovely to see new faces and to re-meet some people who'd not been for a good while. Come again next time everyone! Not sure what we are doing yet, but the date is Feb 13th, so mark it in your diary and join our Facebook group to get updates. It's all free!
On Friday night, John and I went to a wonderfully intimate evening of music at Cafe#9 in Sheffield. You can just spot us at the back. The photo was taken through the goldfish tank above the piano, hence the ghostly floating fish: I was with friends, so I didn't spent the whole evening sketching, but I couldn't resist whipping my book out for a quick spurt, when the totally brilliant Goat Roper Rodeo Band did their set. They describe their music as 'cosmic country blues' - great harmonies but also very lively stuff, which made them very tricky to draw, as they were jumping around most of the time.
I used watercolour and white chalk in a Strathmore tinted sketchbook, to try and capture the flavour and movement:
Cafe#9 is a favourite place of ours, both for just hanging out and for its music nights. Because the place can only take about 25 people, there is a unique atmosphere. It's like the artists are performing in your sitting room.
In fact, there is an occasional event there called Gig in Me Lounge, which originally started with a bunch of friends playing for each other in their lounge but, in recent times, they have progressed to using Cafe#9. These two sketches were done for the last Gig in Me Lounge evening.
Whoever is playing at the cafe, the music is always really good and there is always the same relaxed, informal atmosphere. We are so lucky to have it just round the corner. I only have to walk 5 minutes to get there - the poor Goat Roper Rodeo Band had to drive all the way from Wales to play for me!
I've not posted any sketches to the blog for a while, for a variety of reasons, the main one being that I've just not been travelling very much lately, and it's on train journeys that I tend to find the time to sketch and doodle for the most part. Most of this past year has been spent in the studio every day, working on overdue picture books and other work tasks, no trip to Tokyo last year, (almost) no train journeys outside this area. The fact is I just don't sketch as much when I'm in the home/studio all the time. One of my New Year resolutions is to get out a lot more, it's important to refresh, exercise your legs ... and brain!
I've not posted any doodles from my sketchbook pages either recently, partly for the same reason. But also I made a conscience decision last year not to post idea drawings to social media, for once a drawing is "out there" it's shared, it's somehow "finished" so I thought I'd be less likely to do anything else with it, like re-work it as a finished illustration/exhibition piece, or develop it into a story. I also wondered what my patient editors may think of it all - are they not worrying "why does he have time to doodle and post things on social media? What about my deadline?" If you're in your work studio (as opposed to time off on a train journey) is doodling simply a form of procrastination, distracting you from the real job in hand?
And there's the dilemma.
Drawing for yourself is good for you, sketching and doodling is very important for illustrators, without it we become stale, we need to sketch and doodle to explore and express our creativity outside the confines of commissions. Sharing encourages you to draw more and create new ideas - one drawing shared makes you want to create another. But you still have to work and earn a crust!
Getting the balance right is the key thing, everyone has 'time-off' from work, whether you realise it or not, no artist works from early morning until late at night without break, seven days a week. The challenge is to identify those transient time-off moments and focus on using them in a creative way, though it may be difficult to differentiate between time "on" and time "off" when your studio is a room in your domestic home. Switching between work and non-work is tough, work and home life, everything blends together. You can try placing a sketchbook in every room in the house, so that when the urge to sketch hits you the materials are always at the ready, however there no guarantee you'll use them. It's not about the convenience of materials, it's focusing the brain on using time-off to sketch, and that's very tough in a home studio.
So this is another reason it's important to just get out, get away from the studio for a change of scene, "sketching lunches" in cafe's etc..... if only there was a decent cafe near where I live!
The advance copies of my urban sketching book just arrived - hurrah! They should have been here a couple of weeks earlier it turns out, but they went astray in the mail and the publisher didn't realise I hadn't had them. It's been a bit fraught with technical hitches to be honest because, when they resent my package this week, someone put in the American edition and one by a Singapore publisher (below), but left out the UK one (above). Never mind - they look gorgeous and glossy and I am very pleased. The contents on the inside of the different editions are more or less the same, it's just odd words and grammatical variations - it's mainly the covers which look different.
It's lovely to see how all the content looks, in it's proper form. I spent so long putting it all together and now here it is, looking like a real book!
I thought I'd take some snaps to give you a sneak preview, though you probably have a pretty good idea by now, since I've talked about it in progress often enough (hit the Sketching People label on the right, if you're interested).
There a section which looks at art materials, with a specific eye on how you choose tools which are appropriate to the problems of drawing people out on location:
I look at how you choose your subject, which is hugely important. There are some locations and activities which are virtually impossible, but plenty of others which make things a lot easier for you, especially if you are cutting your teeth:
Then there are the different possible angles to tackle. I would rarely advise drawing people front-on. It's much more interesting and far easier on the whole, to tackle them in profile or in three-quarter view, particularly when you are concentrating on faces:
I write a fair bit on techniques to deal with the fact that people move about a lot, which is of course one of the main things which makes them so tricky. I can't stress enough the benefits of trying contour drawing, both for warming up your arm and eye and for tackling your subject as swiftly as possible:
Plus another technique, handy particularly if you are drawing groups of people or people passing by, is using composites - sketches made up of a little of one person and a bit of another, with maybe the head of someone else again!
There is a lot more too, of course. I tried to think of everything I know. It's hard when you have been doing something for so very many years. It all becomes second-nature. Writing the book has been really interesting, because it has helped to make me analyse what I know. Which has actually really helped for when I am teaching workshops, like the ones I am doing at the moment for the Morgan Centre as part of my Artist-in-Residence year, and of course the work I do with Urban Sketchers.
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I have done lots and lots of drawings of people for my residency. There are, of course, no end of meetings to document. I am in my element there, but I have been trying to think of ways to make sure the sketchbooks don't look too samey.
I am interested in the way we move through familiar spaces. After a while, a home or a workplace can become so commonplace for us, that we no longer really notice it. I thought it might be fun to get people to re-engage with the intimate elements of the building they work in and to show the spaces through an outsider's eyes.
I began this book back on December 1st and have been adding to it here and there, when I have spare pockets of time. I wanted to focus in, so I began with the big revolving doors which everyone has to go through every single day. To give this context, you can see the relevant section of the university map and the local Oxford Road station most people use.
When you get inside the doors, you are faced with two alternatives: stairs or lifts. I had to borrow a chair and sit in the middle of the foyer to do these two sketches, which was great, as lots of people stopped to talk to me in their way in and out of the building. Someone bought me a coffee.
I needed to include the little coffee shop beside the lifts, as stopping off there, to pick up a drink or something to eat, is an important part of many people's journey to their work area. I got into conversation with the lovely Elenor who mans the cafe every day. She was delighted to be featured and I got another free coffee. Excellent.
I made my way up to the 3rd floor, where the Morgan Centre people are based. There is a loo just behind the lifts, another important feature. I toyed with drawing inside, but decided to be more discrete. The area outside reception is where students wait to be met for tutorials. This one looks a bit nervous I think. The water-cooler seemed a key feature too, as it's well-used.
I really zoomed in next, on the area in the centre of the reception drawing, to capture Martine, the Sociology receptionist, who is really friendly and much loved. Her pink hair is a great visual indicator of her radiant personality. I just caught her Christmas trimmings in time, before they came down at the end of term.
There is a bookswap shelf just inside the security doors. I borrowed Gone Girl over the Christmas holidays - a great page-turner. I was interested in the nature of the books, which wasn't quite what I expected. I simply had to record the juxtaposition of Feminist Review and Victoria Holt, as it was too perfect!
Once you get inside properly, the space is mainly divided between offices, like the one with the pink window where Professor Heath is based, and open-plan work areas. The desks there are laid out in a way I thought could best be captured with a aerial, plan view.
And then I was at the end of my book.
I have just begun a new book with a conventional drawing of the open-plan space. In the meantime, this Wednesday we are having the next workshop, where I will be showing the academics more techniques to try in their own sketchbooks. We will be getting out the watercolours again this time. I will also get to see how they got on with following up on December's workshop, where we had fun with collage. Watch this space!