I used photos from a gig I went to last Tuesday in a series of watercolour exercises aimed at gradually reducing the amount of line and paint I apply to the paper. The top two were the last I did, the rest are a jumble of earlier attempts. The more white paper I leave the better the effect. The gig was by the fabulous Bonfire Radicals, an experimental folk band.
I have been using a pen and Indian ink, drawing texture from inside shapes as in the next two pictures. However, I want to simplify my field sketches.
I have approached these next drawings differently. I start by mapping the image mentally onto a square and then apply simple blocky shapes to build the sketch.
The instrument I chanced upon is an old charcoal pencil. It is an unsubtle H grade, unyielding when mark making. Even sharpened it quickly reverts to a chisel. The squared-off edge imposes jerky movements and irregular polygonal shapes.
Even so, it is easy to succumb to the temptation to try for shading tones and building textures, as in the evening fields below (I was out looking for owls and observing Jupiter and Saturn rise). But the tool is too crude for this purpose.
Below are two attempts at the same woodland, looking through the leaf-clad trunks rising from dense fern undergrowth. Light filters through from the sky and there is dense shade in a hollow made by an A of two leaning trees and a bush. The hard charcoal cannot offer the contrasts of shading I wanted.
Further along the same woodland (I was cycling the Tarka trail between Great Torrington and Bideford in Devon) I tried again. This time I licked the drawing point (and a little grossed out, dipped it in water) to deepen the tones.
In the next pair of drawings, now from a cliff top, I started with a charcoal sketch overdrawn with a soft graphite stick. I then redrew this, reverting to heavy lines and crude shapes, splodging it with watercolour from a fat squirrel hair brush. Interestingly the H grade charcoal seems pretty water-fast.
In another clifftop view, the charcoal and watercolour is overlaid with a black marker for depth of tone and conte crayon for texture.
At the estuary at Bideford, a boat drawn up onto the bank gave the foreground, with the Torridge bridge behind. On a baking afternoon, the sun behind me, there were few variations in tone. I found myself simply colouring in my shapes, making this a naive (= childish?) painting.
Further up river, from the Landcross bridge I drew a crenellated building on the river bank, set against trees. A search on the internet reveals this to be ruined lime kilns, shaped according to the landowners whim. This simple fast drawing is closer to my purpose: the paint should not simply follow the lines.
I lost the charcoal pencil from my drawing kit. So I reverted to the pen, but now keeping the lines to a minimum. I could not use the bite of this smooth paper to capture the reflected sky sparkling from the water. Instead I used a white conte crayon as a resist before dragging wet colour across. I also used crayon to adjust the intensity of tone on the distant hills and overlay the near grasses.
I tried to get a ticket for the Labour Party’s State of the Economy conference on Saturday 21st. Labour has commissioned leading economists to help build an economic model supporting a fairer society, as well as expert reviews on the workings and failings of the financial institutions. It was sold out in under a day. So I reverted to our original plan: my older son looked after the younger children and Jane and I went to the Old Joint Stock pub where Dr Sketchy’s anti art school had taken over the upper floor theatre as part of a Festival of Cabaret and where, by pleasing coincidence, they were also celebrating a Festival of Gin.
Compered by jazz singer Liberty Pink, it took the theme of burlesque cabaret, with music and appearance recalling the brittle cheer of a world on the edge of calamity (as in the film Cabaret). Liberty Pink sang at least one Kurt Weill number, the heartfelt “je ne t’aime pas” in its English translation.
This music speaks to me. Growing up in the 60s, we had a limited set of vinyl records and one I played repeatedly was Kurt Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper (the Threepenny Opera) with Lotte Lenya’s voice switching between frantic despair and soaring fantasy as she dreams of liberation from … well, liberation from all men, through the agency of pirate slaughter.
Previously, I had used fountain pen and conte crayon with reasonable effect for 20 minute poses, but had really struggled to make decent drawings like this for the 5-10 minute sketches in the Star Wars themed Dr Sketchy’s. This time I had pre-planned my approach: each sketch had brief pencil construction, mark making in permanent ink and a limited range of pre-mixed colour daubed with a water brush.
Burlesque in the 1930s had come to mix female striptease with bawdy and irreverent humour. This Dr Sketchy’s session unashamedly celebrated humour and vibrant humanity through drawing (without striptease!). Thank you to Liberty Pink, Miss Malone, Verity Grey and Kitten von Mew who modelled for us, and to Lisa who is the force that makes Dr Sketchy’s happen in Birmingham.
It was a great afternoon and for us a kind of married date day: a chance to get out together, sit in a pub with fun music and drink two different gins, surrounded by diverse people united in drawing. My wife’s pictures in graphite and soluble colour pencil are mixed with mine in the gallery above.
This is how this picture now sits after working into the distant moor and cliff faces with sandpaper, knife, pumice, washes of sepia ink and a dusting of conte crayon. I have accentuated the highlights of the water and brought the tide further inland. The next challenge is the foreground which needs more respect. I like the textures that arose from the netting but want to wash over the white and bright green, and shape the near slopes more. I need to unite foreground and background into one image and that means, in part, stripping off the clean white sea I seem now to have painted. I have a photo showing grass heads – but how much now should I follow the photo?
Here is a gallery of images of this one scene on St Abbs Head in the Scottish coast, drawn originally in July 2013, some original field sketches and some in various stages of re-purposing.
This is the remaining sketch from our holiday in August. I took a long walk past the expensive marina, along the coast path and then inland up steep wooded hills. It was hot.
This sketch began with a layer of conte crayon, then water colour scattering over the layer of resist. This is shown below. It’s photographed under different lighting I notice (intense sunlight), showing more dramatically the blue of sea and sky.
After a couple more layers of crayon and paint, I blocked in deep shadows with the black brush pen.
September has been a thin month for drawing, limited to a charcoal sketch of Jeremy Corbyn when he won the Labour leadership and some desultory drawings of birds in the nature reserve. I tried to mix conte crayon and watercolour again as well as drawing in ink, but could not find the technique that day.
The less often I draw, the harder it becomes to do it.
As an artist, I have been trying to express myself through line, tone and colour. In a similar way, the Pope is a Catholic and bears are ardently exploring the fundamental nature of their being by crapping in the woods.
Talking of woods, I walked on Saturday for several hours around a small copse, part of the nature reserve, which appears is visited rarely by birders (or by bears exploring their spirituality). I can draw undisturbed. Buzzards were roosting in the northern edge and periodically sweeping out across a recently cut field and back up over the trees, voicing their decrescendo cries.
On both the last two weekends, at one particular point, I could hear above me in the high foliage a duet, each a sequence of sharp calls of slightly over a quarter note in each of four or five bars. Then a rest before a repeat sequence. These moved through the canopy but only once did I glimpse a brown barred body. The closest I can come to identifying these is as sparrowhawks. This is based on the RSPB website, though many other recordings show sparrowhawks to make a more rapid staccato sound.
The picture above was an exercise to get myself drawing. This comprised a quick pen sketch in fast ink then watercolour over this. I stopped myself short of obscuring all the white paper.
This was the second sketch of the same composition, with photos on site of its first steps shown below. Watercolour was spread on wet then lifted with damp tissue. I drew into this in a mixture of paint and conte crayon. The most essential colour is the pink which sits between and behind the greens and yellows.
This last was intended simply as a tonal study of the sunlight slanting down onto the trunk and leaves, in charcoal and white on warm-grey paper. However, I found it hard to resist overlaying this in the greens and browns, thus losing the point of the exercise.
Today it has rained solidly and I have missed any chance to go out and draw.
Last Sunday, I got up early to go out, leaving the family to sleep in. I wanted to walk round the area I had seen the buzzards roosting. I was caught on my way out by my 8 year old daughter who decided she would come too. She agreed that she too would draw the landscape on condition I would then find somewhere to buy her breakfast.
So we only walked half a mile or s up the path but were rewarded with buzzards calling from several directions. She noticed the first to launch into the air and we watched it circling and feinting as it hunted.
We stopped in the corner of a field. The exercise is to structure the composition in light watercolour and work into it in conte crayon. I show here both our sketches. We shared the same palette but my paper had more weight and texture than hers. I also took a knife to mine to recapture the highlights on the barley heads. Composition is interesting. I realise I am trying to create big blocks of foreground colour in the sketch but to make this work I need to make the trees recede and give more strength to the sky. I had hoped to explore this idea again today, but as I say, it is raining solidly.
I have a Spotify playlist containing fifteen versions of Summertime, the Gershwins’ resiliently popular aria. These are in various keys with different accompaniments. They range from the apple crumble duet of Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong with trumpet, the rich tones of Annie Lennox backed by a simple piano refrain, a version backed by Larry Adler trembling and wailing on mouth organ and the rock blues sound of Janis Joplin. Billie Holiday’s version opens with an urgent beat and a brass growl. Charlie Parker’s saxophone sings with no need for human voice.
This song is a lullaby, and perhaps also draws on the regular rhythms of manual farm work. Louis Armstrong’s trumpet and the backing band swings slowly back and forth, and Ella Fitzgerald’s voice draws out slow notes leading to “hush little baby”. The swing picks up as Armstrong’s voice comes in, looking forward to “one of these days you will rise up singing, yes you’ll spread your wings and you’ll take to the sky”. He leads to the parent’s promise “’til that morning, there’s nothing can harm you, yes, with daddy and mammy standing by “. An R+B singer called Aaron Neville sings a soul jazz version in which this is chillingly conditional “if your mommy and daddy keep on standing by”.
About five tonight I realised the day would disappear and I would not have been outside or away from the computer. I drove out into the countryside with lightning crossing the sky horizontally and fat raindrops falling. Once I was encased in waterproofs and boots, the rain stopped. A full rainbow arched across low grey clouds as the sky above blued. I walked down a path between fields of knee-high green corn which glowed yellow in the evening sunlight or waved into blue shadow.
I stood on the path and painted these small sketches in watercolour. I then drew into the wet paper with conte crayon, lifting the paper’s surface to create highlights and shadows. These were photographed held at arm’s length in the sunlight without fixing.
At yesterday’s barbeque in the garden, my adult and ten year old sons told the oldest jokes in the book and fell about laughing. My daughter twizzling on the climbing frame is next to impossibly to capture as a sketch. Luckily her flailing hair obscures my poor attempt at her face.
These last few weeks I have grabbed an occasional hour at the end of the day to cycle and catch one sketch as the light fades.
As I finished painting this next one, the dusk had fallen to near darkness. I must have been a strange sight for the couple who walked past.
At the tops of trees scattered across the meadows, crows marked the corners of shifting polygons.
On our last day in Mallorca I took a full day out, hiring a car to drive further afield. I had seen booted eagles and buzzards hunting over the Albufereta Nature Reserve but I wanted to see and draw black vultures. I drove to the Cuber reservoir in the northern mountain range. This is a wide valley between steep heights. The slopes were patrolled by what I am sure were common kestrels but their colouring seemed much lighter than I see at home, their wings almost transparent in the sunshine. High up, out of sight except with a telescope, an osprey watched.
These sketches were drawn in ink with water to catch the tones.
There is no detail for the talons because I could not see them.
There were no vultures to be seen. I drove back along the high plateau. Late in the afternoon, near a vineyard and winery at Mortitz, I found a path winding off into the mountains, and from the map, I could see it would eventually reach a spectacular view of the sea. Posters advertised this was a conservation area for the Bonelli’s eagle and I had picked up intelligence that vultures were encouraged to congregate there. But it was too late. I had abandoned my family all day and I could not stay.
This sketch was done in minutes and wholly fails to capture the appearance and mood of the place. It was like a film setting for a magical tale, perhaps one might see Oberon and Titania laughing at Bottom there. The bare karst rocks were broken by aromatic greenery and twisted trunks against the backdrop of the limestone heights.