felt tips

A couple of weeks ago, I went drawing in Birmingham with the artist who blogs as outside authority. OA had recently been at a workshop led by Sarah Cannell and had been encouraged to draw using three randomly chosen sharpies, using colours to annotate the composition, for example to outline shapes of interest or represent receding layers. After OA caught the train home, I nipped into the art shop just before it closed and bought three felt tips – chisel tipped at one end, brush pens at the other – and went in search of a subject. In this view of the old Curzon Street railway station behind the Woodman pub drawn on a scrap of brown paper, I almost but not completely missed the point of this technique. My colours were not randomly chosen – by selecting a cool lilac, warm orange and a green I found myself representing the colours I could see. I slipped into using a bit of conte crayon to bring out highlights and darks, pulling the pub forward. Still, it made me think differently.

The Secret Garden

The Secret Garden is a 3 1/2 acre site, a haven amid dense housing, implementing organic permaculture of plants and promoting wildlife.  It is run by the charity Mind to provide people with an environment supporting mental health.  My son has the great good fortune to be support worker there.  He originally trained in 3D design and then horticulture.  He is using these skills in a way that makes the garden accessible to individuals and which also reaches out to the community.  Weekends during May, they are raising funds through plant sales.  My wife, nephew and step-daughter have all been baking cakes for this enterprise.

The beds contain diverse growing frames, some simple and functional, others spiralling out of the ground.  I spent a few minutes yesterday sketching, in my smallest pad, first a willow growing frame and then a metallic sculpture turning gently in the wind, both set by the pond, home to newts.

Drawing cold

This week I went drawing with a friend, who posts under the enigmatic name outsideauthority.  We met in Cromford, a village in Derbyshire where the abundant running water became the driving force for the first powered factories at the start of the Industrial Revolution.  From the start I was fascinated by this construction which took the oily calm waters from outside the mills and dropped them into subterranean tunnels.


The purpose of the first sketch of the day was to warm up, to open my vision and loosen my hands.   The weather was icy, so as I warmed up, I became progressively stiffer and colder, my legs lost feeling and my ungloved right hand became numb.  Interestingly, in the time it took me to draw this first sketch, in graphite stick,  OA had drawn about eight simpler, smaller, dynamic, expressive views around the mill yard.

For my second drawing, of the same structure, I set out to work faster and looser in fountain pen and water.  This version has been minimally revised with a knife to make clearer the shape of the falling water.


A short way along the canal we found a stone bridge which lifted us above the canal and the families wandering along the towpath.  Beyond the gate, rough pasture led up to the bleak dark woods along the road interspersed with houses, under a creamy winter sky.  Here I roughed out two views in fountain pen with a light dusting of conte crayon.  The second version is dominated by the curve of the bridge wall in the foreground.

2016-12-27-cromford-8  2016-12-27-cromford-7

When I got home, I set out to rebuild this second sketch from memory, trying to find the tones and textures of the light lichened coping, smoother dark building stones, the rough concrete gate post and vegetation beneath.


Lastly, I looked along the canal.  What I saw was a glow of light catching the tree in the left mid ground and, at the back, a dark mass of wood spilling down from the hill, throwing black reflections in the flat grey water.  In the cold, conte crayons were hard and unyielding of pigment and brush pens made miserly marks.


At home again, I drew into this, but in the revised version the bare winter branches are at odds with what seems to be the bright colours of early spring.   Where are the dark trees which threw the black reflection into the canal?  The cold bleak dusk is lost and this sketch has become a confection.


Reflecting on our approaches to drawing, it seemed to me that OA made sketches, many very brief, full of life, replete with shape, line and feeling, which were complete in themselves, their purpose to carry information and ideas, perhaps for other times and new pictures painted in the studio.  I rarely now undertake new studio pieces. When I walked away from this last scene, the struggle with the sketch was not over.  I am on a journey with this particular piece that will not have reached a destination until I have taken charcoal and white gouache to it, and found again the feelings of that cold day in my marks.  

Mark-making I

2016-05-07 pulling down the libraryBirmingham Central Library has been rehoused and the old concrete building is being demolished.  The machine sprayed the structure with water while clawing at it.

At the beginning of May, during an outing for my son’s birthday, I stood in a vantage point and drew this in fountain pen and conte crayon while waiting for my family to catch up with me.


Urban sketching: Soho House II

This is the second set of sketches from a day around Soho House in Birmingham at the end of April.  2016-04-23 Around Soho House Birmingham (8)

Just round the corner from 18th century industrialist Matthew Boulton’s grand house I found a view down the road of a boarded up burnt out pub, the Beehive.  I chose a spot to draw where a wall served as a table, although this meant the composition was divided in half by a tree trunk.  This sketch was done on the wreckage of a previous drawing, scrubbed out and painted over in irritation with  white gouache.  I was curious to see how this surface would react to another layer: it resisted the crayon and lifted and merged with the new marks when I applied wet media.

2016-04-23 Around Soho House Birmingham (2)

Earlier in the day, I found a place looking across rough grass, weeds and a display of daffodils in the yard of the Church of England parish church, looking at the Methodist chapel across the road.  I was fascinated by a group going in and out the doors near me, mostly men, all young with very dark skin, speaking low  a language with (I guessed) African cadences, several putting on and taking off white robes.  They told me they had just finished rehearsing the Passion for Easter the next week, the Orthodox festival for the Eritrean community.  Had I realised sooner, I might have asked their permission to draw the rehearsal.

Urban sketching: Soho House I

Soho House was the elegant Georgian dwelling of the industrialist Matthew Boulton who, working with James Watt, developed steam power to support mechanisation in factories.  HIs mint first struck the large British copper penny which I remember being still in circulation when I was a child.

The Birmingham urban sketching group met there a couple of weekends ago.  Walking there along the dual carriageway opened my eyes to the varied urban landscape, dotted particularly with widely diverse places of faith.

2016-04-23 Around Soho House Birmingham (4)My first sketch, a warm up, was lightly drawn in pencil, worked up in pen and then again in crayon.  It was intended to be much more abstract, incorporating the lines of the building right into the tree shape, but deviated to become more straightforwardly representational.

2016-04-23 Around Soho House Birmingham (3)

I was less interested in the House itself than in the backdrop of smaller homes set at angles to one another yet sharing one roof.  This I worked up in pencil then pen, aiming to capture especially the reflections on the windows.  Eventually I brought in a wider range of colours and tones with conte crayon.

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Rethinking textures

2016-04-30 From the train

My approach to drawing has descended to making random marks in fountain pen secure in the knowledge that I can use water to move the ink about, disguising my sloppiness.    I can take things further and obscure the whole thing with conte crayon.

At a workshop last weekend, artist Oliver Lovley went back to the basics, using a palette of varied marks to represent different surfaces, part representational drawing, part mapping the subject’s components with textural symbols.

2016-04-30 Malt Cross Nottingham (2)

in this interior sketch, I used ruled lines to delineate the shading and reflected light on straight metal bars, contrasting this with looser lines building the wooden beams and panelling.  A simple trick I learned too late was to paint in soft shadows directly using the water brush, carrying ink lifted from the pen nib.  This would have worked better for the glass globes on the chandelier than what I show here, bleeding the tones from strongly drawn lines.

2016-04-30 Malt Cross Nottingham (4)

Reverting to pencil, I surrendered to the discipline of a straight edge to show light reflecting on the wooden panelling and plaster walls, contrasting this with the rough and curved surfaces on the pottery and the wavy hair lines on a fellow artist.

2016-04-30 Malt Cross Nottingham (1)

2016-04-30 Malt Cross Nottingham (3)

The upper rooms of the Malt Cross in Nottingham sit above caves hewn in sandstone, once used to keep cool ale.  Here the intersecting surfaces are of the rusting metal casing and smoother radiating fins of some contraption set against cracked stone and pointed bricks.  In a first quick sketch, I used my usual pen lines, liberated with water and a light dusting of crayon, using colour to set apart the surfaces.  In the second, I attempted to use just the pencil marks to show the same thing.

2016-05-01 Breakfast in Birmingham (5)This last drawing was from the following day, sitting with my children having breakfast in a café before going to watch my wife cross the finishing line in a 10K run (a creditable 56 minutes 9 seconds).  This composite of several waitresses as they each stood at the counter was drawn directly in pen and water, finished again with conte crayon.  Although drawn first in loose lines, I corrected the straight lines with a ruler, to set these against the curved bars of the seats.  I have tried make the marks differentiate between the rough wooden table and the finer grained seat backs, the loose weave of her hooded top and stretched fabric of her leggings.  I applied a minimum of crayon to a few surfaces, rather than obscuring the drawing by flooding the image with colours.