Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Suddenly understanding sketching

Dear Diane,

I thought I would bring you to Cafe Lucca in Bath today for rooibos tea and cinnamon biscuits. Although I only come to Bath maybe twice or three times a year I have a favourite seat I make a beeline for. But today I have gone to the sofas on the diagonal opposite side of the restaurant. Daring, huh?! Got to shake things up and try something new sometimes:)

Which, is, as you know, sort of what I have been trying with the sketching. You and Terry Grant have been encouraging me to do this for a long time and I have been Resistant. A little of it was time. There are too many things I want to do already without adding more. But really, it went a lot deeper than that and related to how I defined myself and how I approach life. See.. Look how much hippy-dippy-Haight- therapy talk has rubbed off just from having a Californian friend!!

I am sure I am not alone in having a formative 'bad teacher moment'. in the UK at the end of your third year in senior school you got to do your 'options'. I.e to choose which subjects you would study to exam level for the next two years. Your choice was influenced by your own likes, your teachers guidance and parental influence but oddly the choice was made before the exam results at the end of the third year. Nontheless I clearly remember my art exam that year.

We were given a list of themes beforehand and had to produce a piece of work in a set time which was then graded for the exam. (Because of course all artists produce their best work to time deadlines and art can be graded accurately as right or wrong just like maths.. But that's a rant for another day.) I chose the theme 'Streetlife' and chose to draw with my paper in portrait orientation. Down the left side was the side of a building with a myriad of Chinese neon signs sticking out, the right hand side being night sky. ( For night sky read 'pretty much blank and therefore less work').

Photo from

(Photo from

Mr Barr the chemistry teacher was invigilating. That's the Mr Barr with a comb over and dandruff who still lived wth his parents and always spoiled your 'effort cards' by making it impossible to get a set of straight E for Excellent grades saying that he expected excellence from everyone and so even if you put in superdooper effort you could only get an S for satisfactory. (Of course the fact that he is right and that anyway the scheme was designed to make kids who got really poor achievement grades feel better about themselves because they could be said to have put in excellent effort to get a failing grade is also a rant for another day.)

So anyway, he sidles up and looks at my pencilled in shop signage and asks how I intend to finish it. "With coloured pencils", I told him. He shook his head sadly, "You won't get high marks if you don't use paint. Proper artists use paint." And off he went leaving me feeling a failure before I had even started to add colour. I knew that if I went anywhere near paint I would make a mess of it. Now, I appreciate that, given I was being asked to use poster paint on rough sugar paper, I was not excactly being given a head start with my equippment but then I blamed it entirely on my ineptitude. So I decided that it was better to do the best I could and not do it properly than try to do it properly and mess up. (See how that stupid effort card system worked to stop you taking risks?!)

So, pencils it was and actually, I came third in my class. So yah-boo-sucks Mr Barr. (On a whim I just googled him and found this description of him posted on Friends Reunited .Sarky’ Barr – Prone to uncontrolled sarcasm and chemistry tests with a pass mark of 100%. Had the capacity for genuine human compassion but kept it very well hidden. And also this one I remember being terrified of Mr Barr's verbal Chemistry tests. If you got an answer wrong you had to stand on the chair, if you got a second answer wrong on the chemistry lab bench. I remember that it was usually me and Gillian Boulter who would end up on the bench, with everyone looking up at us. Unfortunately, short skirts were also in - cringe!!Nice legacy he left in all our memories then! I remember that he refused to mark work nor written in fountain pen.) I dropped both art and would have dropped chemistry except it was compulsory and so I went on in life labelled as 'not a proper artist'.

Which might not have mattered if it wasn't for my perfectionist personality. Why do something if you can't do it properly? Waste of time when you could be doing something you can do properly. And its not enjoyable to know that you are not doing things properly. Not for me anyway. I don't mean that its not enjoyable to learn how to do something properly. It certainly is. But in this context there was no point getting a third place in art because I got a third in something of no value because it wasn't proper art. I was just less inept at doing it improperly than someone else was.

And so I trundled on in life having been strongly encouraged to take all the accademic exam options and being told not to choose typing or child care as I considered because 'they were really for the bottom sets'. And now I spend my work life making judgments with no childcare qualifications on how people bring up their children and typing whole family law books out very badly. Go figure.

Anyway, to come back to the point ( its sitting on this sofa - its making me all analytical) I was defined from early days as an accademic not an artist and I knew ( believed?) that I had no talent for doing perfect representational paintings. Which is why quilting was something I so warmly embraced because it was creative, artistic even and required no painting.

So, sketching to me was a nice activity for other people that just wasn't me. I like to look at your sketchbooks, I really do, but I have no desire to draw a lemon for the sake of drawing a lemon. What do I do with it? What is if for? Ooops, sorry, I had a moment of chanelling my Mother there! Journalling I took to like a duck to water on the other hand. Words are fine. They are in the academic camp where I belong. Drawings? Primary school and bottom set or people who do it properly like David Hockney. Not me. Just not who I am.

Then As I mentioned on Down the Well I found Danny Gregory's books Creative Licence and Illustrated Life. I enjoyed seeing those quirky casual drawings and started to admire them from afar. But I didn't make a connection to them. Danny Gregory is an advertsing executive not a lawyer. He is supposed to draw and clearly he does it properly for his field. And he has time in the morning to draw his breakfast.Huh. Not in my house. So I kind of began to wish I was the kind of person who did sketch but knew that 7am bagel illustration was not me or my life. I wrote in this post about setting up an Osterley Filofax with paper so I could sketch and I did do some half hearted doodling in there but I was not really committed to it.


Then I found the Urban Sketching book and somehow the penny clanged right into my vacuous brain. First: these are people like me. They like what I like, to travel, to meet up, to observe people in cafes. (2pm cakes in a cafe are entirely different animals to 7am bagels at home!) Secondly, they are not even trying to produce a perfect painting. Not even a beautifully balanced and delicate spread about a lemon. They capture a memory of travel, of place of people. (Note to childhood self: they draw Hong Kong with pencils if they feel like it). They keep journals which are about their life experiences not fruit. Unless they happen to spend a day eating fruit in which case those bananas are fair game. And they are a community.

One quote from the book in particular struck me for its obviousness. One guy advised not spending too much time on a sketch otherwise it becomes a painting. I looked at the examples, done with intricate ink lines or hard scribbly markers, with pencils and fountain pens (Mr Barr ought to at least be accepting of that!). Some even let their watercolours go outside the lines! And suddenly, without warning, I was into sketching. I had found a way to connect to it that allowed me to feel I was doing it properly and that it was something that a person like me was allowed to do.

I decided to give it a time limited trial. I had two train journeys to London and a fortnight here. I devised a Project ( its official if you call it a Project, did you know that?!) in which I was to try out one sketchbook for that time only. The Project was not to do it to my perfectionist satisfaction. It was to do it. If, after that time I got no pleasure from it then I would set it aside and move on.

On my first train journey I drew this man. And this one.

And then I sat there thinking: they actually do look like that! And I did that! Me! I did it properly. And it was fun!

So I kept going. For specific inspiration I googled 'Bath Sketches' and found Ed of the Mostly Drawing blog. He invited visitors to Bath to contact him so I did and togethet we formed Bath's first urban sketching sketchcrawl. Very cool! Ed is a teacher and a lovely warm personable guy and was exceedingly generous with the knowledge he has accumulated over the last couple of years since he too was drawn in by Danny Gregory's books. We met in the choir stalls in Bath Abbey and I was able to look through his self-bound sketchbooks and try his kit out before we set out to a cafe to litter the table with said kit and sketch. This is his sketch of me to prove what I was doing!

I realise that if I am going to do this, it is important to me to do it in a way that reflects my personality and that the tools and results reflect what I understand work for me and not someone else, whilst at the same time I want to take every opportunity to learn from others. So I was very intererested in what Ed has to say about the paper he uses and why. I saw how he bought a job lot of out of date moleskine diaries and used the covers to bind in watercolour paper. The results are personal, practical, cheap and every sketchbook including his current one has 2012 embossed on the cover... I cannot tell you how bananas that would drive me!!

Down here I am using two small sketchbooks, a gorgeous leather bound Windsor and Newton cartridge paper one that you cannot get anymore which has been in my cupboard being intimidating for years. And a Moleskine watercolor pocket book. Which has a very annoying thin shape and orientation.

I did consider trawling the second hand ( sorry, this is Bath, antiquarian) book shops and finding covers to reuse. ( I have just read and highly recommend A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Oskei in which the diary key to the plot is made in that way) I understand the logic of the bound book ( continuity, portablity, telling a continuous story) but also know that I like new beautiful covers that feel good in my hands with total flexibily of paper. So.. You know where this is going, don't you?!....

An A5 filofax will obviously work. Would a personal? Wouldn't the rings get in the way? Nope. Not even if I do a full page spread. I just hold the pencil differently and draw around them. I used pencil only here because I only had very thin Filofax paper in the Malden at the time. Its not even a good pencil, its the mechanical plastic ones you get in hotel rooms. It also works if I turn the pages to landscape orientation.

And it was lovely to hold which is going to help me be motivated to pick me up. i can always fold bigger paper in and the pockets will be great for carrying colour mix charts. But this Malden is earmarked for my yoga binder ( containing class schedules, pose instrutions and benefits, sequencing instructions, mediatation notes etc) So I had to grab another one in grey, cheap from Amazon warehouse. Shame! You will notice that these urban sketches are the kind of urban sketches you do at midnight in a hotel room when there is nothing urban to draw :)

So, my plan is to equip myself with different papers and try out different media as I go and make this very much a visual journal. I have all those tins of stuff that you tied me down and made me buy at the Pencil Museum, remember? A personal sized filofax is portable enough for me. But I also often use a pocket as a wallet and can carry oages to draw on in that too should I want to. As I plan to do with my word journal which is also now in a filofax, for archiving I will make beautiful covers and bind with book rings at the end of the year so each book can ( to please my OCD) have matching covers with the right year on the front. Ahem. And of course there is a whole new world of shopping opening up to me including things like Noodlers Lexington Grey ink that you cannot get here and which is likley to arrive at your house for me a few days before I do!! Ed used this in waterbrushes, neat and diluted to paint with and add watercolour over in places - it was very effective.

I am still struggling with making the pages feel they have a point to them ( other than at the moment, just being a for the sake of learning kind of page) and with intrusive bouts of self loathing at the standard of what I do. ( Yes, yes, I know. Its been three weeks, I am not supposed to know anything!). But I shall perserve. If you look at mabeloos on you will see this page where she sketches right along her to do lists and daily diary which is interesting and inspiring. And scary for those of us used to nice neat worded planners! And also how she put watercolour pages into her Malden. I am such a copy cat. If only I could copy her art that well!!

I was chatting to a filofax seller earlier this week and she said she kept two diaries in hers, one for her plans and one to deal with her Mother's life as her Mum had Alzheimers. Maybe I should have two - one for the lawyerly wordy neat side of my personality and behind another tab one for my artist self! It would be quite fun to put in entirely fictitious appointment entries too don't you think? The life I wished I was living today. Or an armchair travel diary . Tab one: 10am, windowless courtroom in Northern England. Tab two 10 am, yoga class, beach, Bora Bora with sketch of me in tree pose under a palm tree. I found this little gallery quite fun too.

At the moment I am seeing this more as an extension of my journalling than my art quilting but I am very open to seeing how, if at all, they begin to blend. One major irritation I have always had with the concept of designing in paper for quilts is that the colours would never be extactly the same. Well, duh! I can fill waterbrushes with dye solution and work on paper. So obvious! Ed wonders whether I will end up sketching direct onto cloth. We will see, but I can see maybe sketches becoming screens rather than starting with manipulated photos. A big challenge will be finding time.

Speaking of which, my Brick Lane transition quilts are here with me having the final hand stiching put on. I need to get on with them as they need to go off for the Uttoxeter show soon.

And I need to have a poke about the internet and choose a hotel in Stockholm. We hope to go in July and I hope to be confident enough so do some good travel journal pages by then.

In the meantime, to stop you feeling aggrieved about the lemon comment I went to the fruit stall outside the Thai Restaurant where we had lunch ( it had taken all day and a tour of Bath eating places to finish this post!) and drew some fruit.

I really could do with you getting over here sometime soon and showing me how to do it better.





Terry Grant said...

I am sorry that this made me laugh so hard, Helen! It was just your typically analytical and compulsive approach, but the end result--that you are drawing and enjoying it is wonderful, and your drawings have great personality and energy. And, if I had any influence on any of this I am thrilled!

Sandra Wyman said...

Had to take a break from THE quilt to tell you how much I enjoyed this post - and am VERY impressed with your portraiture skills. It has inspired me to get back to drawing when said quilt is complete and delivered. Really identified with the need to be a perfectionist bit: my big breakthrough came when I discovered how much you could learn from making mistakes - and therefore gave myself permission to do so! Apart from anything else it stops you from playing safe (not that either you or I are inclined to do that!

Unknown said...

Oh Helen I loved this post. I too am trying to add sketching to my journal and its comforting to find someone else in the same boat. However your sketches are much more detailed and skilled than mine.

LJ said...

I suffer from the academic not creative thing. I was so pleased with my GCSE art exam piece, and got a grade D (which to be fair, I was quite proud of, I thought it was pretty good for someone who couldn't drawer a box if their life depended on it). A few years have passed since then and I am looking at taking up journalling, and having read this post I think I may try to add sketching into it - I need to learn that although my drawing skills are limited, there is no reason why I can't do this for my own pleasure. Who knows, one day my sketches, with lots of practise, may end up looking like the things I am trying to draw :-) Thank you for your inspiration.

Anonymous said...

I love this....i journal alot in my filofax, and never thought i could combine it with watercolors...great post and inspiration!

Anonymous said...

This is a great Post....I am following the same path as you...completely captivated by Urban Sketchers and Danny Grefory et al....I feel I can finally do something that doesn't require complete perfection, but it can still be satisfying..

Unknown said...

I'm not much of an artist - not really a painter (too heavy handed with the colours for watercolours, I hate acrylics and I have no idea about any of those other fancy paint types) and a bit too... juvenile in style for anything decent but it's a hobby I enjoy.
The trouble I have is inspiration - if I'm not inspired by something I won't attempt to draw it. If I'm not fully committed to what I'm drawing I will inevitably hate the result no matter what so I just don't bother until I get the pull of it.
Your filo sketches are something quite marvelous, I love them! You are very talented. Don't let anyone ever let you believe otherwise (especially yourself)