Friday, March 28, 2014

Drawing High Tea

High Tea in a hotel restaurant is one of the most fun places to sketch on location.

Here's why:

1. The variety of finger food means you get a choice about what to draw. Traditionally there are three layers. The first is sandwiches, the middle layer holds scones and pastries and the top layer displays beautiful, dainty and often colourful sweets. Lots to draw!

2. You're expected to stay for hours. High Tea is to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace and no one is going to rush you out of your seat. Granted, we stayed longer than most tables! But no one seemed to mind.

3. Other guests are often enjoying High Tea for their own special occasions so no one is very interested in what you're doing. Apart from the wait-staff, who usually like a little look :)

4. You get to eat the subject. And drawing it first means the delayed gratification makes it all the more delicious!

Thanks to my Mum for this birthday treat...which is fast turning into a yearly tradition of enjoying afternoon tea and sketching together!

Monday, March 24, 2014

Just keep drawing

For a long time my aim was to make sketching a daily habit. And finally, I feel it is.

I get itchy fingers if I haven't sketched for a day. And pulling out the sketchbook at every opportunity has become second nature.

I even look at scenes during times I can't sketch and imagine how I'd compose them on the page. What I'd put in, what I'd leave out.

But a funny thing has also happened. At the same time as I'm sketching more and more, my standards for my own sketches are getting higher. Sometimes higher than I can currently meet. I'm more often disappointed with what I produce, whereas previously I'd be happy just to have made marks on the page.

I have to keep reminding myself that the outcome is not the point, it's the process. It's about the exploration of materials and subject. And the precious state of creative flow that is achieved mid-sketch. Being present. A state so hard to achieve in everyday life, which is almost always about what's next.

An improvement in skill is a desirable by-product of keeping a sketchbook, but not the actual point.

Also something brought me up short the other day. I discovered at the bottom of a drawer a sketchbook I'd tried to start about four years ago. I wasn't in the habit of sketching back then, not one little bit. And I was amazed at how far I've come.

I have improved, I realised. I just haven't noticed it. Like the way your children grow before your eyes, so you barely even notice until you look back at photos and are floored by the changes.

Lately, when I have been frustrated by the outcome of a sketch, every fibre of my being has urged, 'just leave it, have a break from the sketchbook, this is not working'. But what I actually need to do is the opposite. Keep going. Smash through that block.

Just keep drawing.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The Art of Waiting: a sketchbook approach

There are two things I've realised.

1.) There's no point in waiting until I have enough time to sketch. That time will never come. It's up to me to fit it into my days.

2.) There's no point in getting frustrated with my drawing skills or hoping they will miraculously improve. The only way to get better is to do.

So with those two points in mind combined with this post by Roz Stendahl (which gives some great tips about how to go about drawing people discreetly), I've tried to integrate sketching more seamlessly into my days.

A small pocket-sized book and a handful of pens always come with me, and even if I only have a fleeting moment, I pull out the sketchbook and draw something. I've been trying to take this approach for a while, but recently I've been more intentional about it, and it's slowly becoming second nature.

I've found the best time for a super-quick sketch is when I'm waiting. Waiting for a coffee to arrive, waiting for an appointment, waiting and watching my kids' structured activities - swimming, gymnastics.

And because one of the things I struggle with most is sketching fast (I love nothing more than spending an hour or two on one drawing, which is not in the least bit practical, and if I tell myself that this is the only way I can draw, then I'm sabotaging my chances of improving) and the other thing I struggle with is drawing people, I've decided to make these two things the focus of my regular sketching practice.

Already I feel some improvement in my approach: a lack of hesitation before beginning, more confidence in restating lines when they didn't come out right in the first place (instead of giving in to that feeling of defeat when it all goes horribly wrong).

I've been experimenting a little with media - nothing too messy. Just simple pen, sometimes colour. Maybe a waterbrush over soluble ink.

And it doesn't matter if it's not quite right. I just turn the page and start a new drawing. It's not meant for an art gallery!

One thing I've noticed is that I am definitely getting better at drawing the back of people's heads! Now to muster up the confidence to draw faces and people in profile more often. Yikes!

But I can tell you that by sketching during wait times I'm very slowly, but surely, clocking up more drawing hours.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Reading, writing, drawing, books

I've had my eye on this little corner to draw for a while. It's the entrance way to our house. I love the way the light comes through the frosted glass at certain times of the day. And I love the bookcase. It's from Ikea but it runs the length of the wall and almost reaches the ceiling and is a compromise on my childhood fantasy of having a built-in floor to ceiling bookcase in my own home.

What actually made me draw the scene, funnily enough, was that chair. We found it by the side of the road and thought it looked kind of vintage so we grabbed it. We don't, however, have any place to put it, so it's lived in this spot for the last few weeks. And the reason it's stayed there is because the day after it appeared, I discovered my two-and-a-half-year-old had climbed up onto it, and was sitting there pulling out the grown-up books - novels and non-fiction - to 'read'. This soon turned the bookshelf into a bit of a dog's breakfast. But I didn't mind because she was playing with books.

My big fear is that my children won't love reading. And not only that, they might not even like it. It has always been such a joy for me - a comfort and a solace. A way to pass the time and relax. A way to go deep into that calm place in an instant. I've worked in a library. I've tried to write a novel. I've been an English teacher. Much of my life has been about books.

But now reading is in snippets. It's on a screen. It's all surface and very little depth. I'm guilty of reading this way. I love surfing, clicking through different links, sampling. But it's not reading. Not really. Not like sinking into a good book is reading. I still read of course, but not as much. But what if they never do? Maybe my fear is unfounded. But it's there.

My hope is that this bookshelf does not become a museum piece. These are the grown-up books in the house. Their picture books are in their own rooms and they love reading them. Storytime is a nightly ritual. And I hope this sets the tone for their future.

I made this sketch this afternoon. I had a couple of kid-free hours and because I'm between paintings, I gave myself permission to indulge in this drawing. I used pencil for set-up lines - trying to get the perspective to at least look like it might be right - and then I went in with pen for the detail. I had thought about cross-hatching, but in the end went for watercolour.

I left that big gaping white space on the left for some writing. I'm not good at writing in my sketchbook. I always feel like it ruins the picture. My writing can be neat when I'm really trying, but when I'm writing on the fly, it's a scrawl. But I know that in the future, the journalling part will be just as interesting as the picture.

So I did end up writing in that space. And then I had to scratch out two mistakes in the first couple of lines, which really annoyed me. See, I thought, this is why you don't write in your sketchbook. But then I got over it. And I'm glad I wrote.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Book launch sketch - Coming of Age

Last night I went along to my friend Amra Pajalic's book launch. She co-edited the fantastic anthology Coming of Age: Growing up Muslim in Australia and the Melbourne launch was held at The Wheeler Centre.

Amra Pajalic at the lectern at the Wheeler Centre (Micron pen in Hand*Book journal)

Firstly, it was the biggest book launch I've ever been to (go Amra!).

Secondly, the most entertaining - all the speakers were funny and engaging.

Thirdly, the most emotional.

I was overwhelmed with pride for the friend I met 15 years ago in a Professional Writing course (how time flies!), who through grit, determination and sheer hard work continues to follow her passion to write and to put into the world important work that matters.

If you see the book around town, buy it. It's full of excellent, gripping stories of coming of age - tales that people of all faiths can identify with and be moved by.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Review: Now where was I? by Steven Reddy

This week I received in the mail my eagerly anticipated copy of Steven Reddy's sketchbook memoir Now Where Was I?

I first encountered Reddy through Danny Gregory's An Illustrated Journey and was taken with the amazing quality of his sketches (they're hardly 'sketches' - they're complete, detailed and very accomplished drawings on location) and I was also interested in the fact that he had spent time as an expat teaching English in China.

He drew the whole time he was there (many of these incredible drawings appear in this new book) which made me lament the fact I took no drawings home from my own expat experience of teaching English in Japan. But alas, that was ten years ago and before I'd started keeping a sketchbook journal. (But still.)

What I like best about this collection is that it not only collates work from the many, many sketchbooks Reddy has kept over the years, but includes text alongside the images which might variously describe the circumstance of the drawing, place it in context, or locate it in a particular phase of his life. It's this narrative element which had me glued to the book, snatching time throughout my day to sit down and read just a little bit more. I finished it in several sittings this week.

It doesn't have to be read in this way though, but can be leafed through like a coffee table book. The images sometimes imply a narrative in themselves and you just have to let the book fall open at any page to be inspired by the possibilities of sketchbook journaling. (He's annotated the drawings with the media used and dimensions for those interested in that.) Reddy has also included very early work - comic-style pages, life drawing and studio paintings, giving an idea of the breadth of his skills, as well as the way his work has developed over time.

My favourite sections were those on Urban Sketching (of course) and his China experience. I loved the drawings he made during his career as a Seattle Public School teacher and a series of drawings he made in clutter-filled vintage stores. (I've often thought of drawing in these places but have always been too shy to ask. Maybe I will one day!) I also loved his 'downsizing' sketches - the drawings he did when he was giving his stuff away to go and live in China. (Very inspiring as I'm working on a similar series of drawings of my kids' things). 

Last year Reddy ran a Kickstarter campaign to crowd-fund the publishing of this book and I was lucky enough to be one of the first 50 supporters, therefore receiving a nice little discount on the title. Holding it my hands now, I can say it's well worth the full price.

It's so big! It's jam-packed full of drawings which I know I'll return to again and again for inspiration. It's designed beautifully and the production is of very high quality (amazingly good - and it's self-published!). If you love urban sketching, sketchbook journaling or just peeking inside the sketchbooks of others, then I think you'll love this book too.

You can still get a copy here.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Little decisions

I have drawn the same building three times over the last three years. It wasn't intentional, and it's not a significant building. It just happens to be the scene out a window at a cafe I like.

When choosing what to draw, I will more often consider my own comfort and the availability of good coffee over any other consideration, including whether or not the view is worth drawing. I can usually find something of interest to sketch if the chairs are comfortable.

But in this case, I like this little scene. It's a bit quirky and feels very 'Melbourne' to me. I also like the building and the surrounding laneways. It's a favourite part of the city.

When I look at the drawings I can see their similarities. Each was drawn with an ink fineliner. The first one was probably a Uni Pin, can't remember the second, and the third was a Micron. I like switching pens to see how they go and I'm not very loyal to brands.

Even though on first viewing these drawings look extremely similar, I can also detect small differences.

The hatching is looser on this first one, and I chose to show the entrance to the lane which runs to the left of the Centre House building. I don't think this was a particularly successful decision, but that's okay. The drawing wasn't sketched out in pencil first, it was ink straight on the page, so I was pretty much winging it. I also didn't show the point at which the building met the ground, which was typical of my drawings at this time.

The next one was part of a panel page, which dictated most of my decisions. It was nice to have the freedom to only show a section of the building and not feel overwhelmed by 'grounding' it in context. I used a little watercolour wash on this one in addition to hatching.

I did this final one just last month and I can see it's more successful, both because my skills had improved and because I had a plan.

Having drawn the building before, I knew I didn't want to show the adjacent lane to the left, so I simply blocked it out with black pen. I used less hatching this time, but the hatching I did use is tighter and to better effect I think.

I also used grey and black pen to show some shadow, but not too much. The red awning was done in pen, the previous two coloured with watercolour. The fact that the little shop beneath it was closed meant I got to draw a very cool roller door covered in graffiti (and avoided the complicated counter of the open shop). And finally, the building touched the ground. As buildings are want to do.

So what did I learn from drawing the same scene thrice?

- Have a plan. Decide what I will and won't include in the drawing before I put pen to paper. This means a bit of editing has to go on in my head before I begin. There's no harm in sitting with a scene for a while before opening the sketchbook.

- Select (and limit) materials. If it's a pen drawing, make it pen. If it's watercolour, then it's watercolour. Or graphite and watercolour. Whatever. Just make a decision at the outset. Every time I decide at the eleventh hour a pen drawing could do with a bit of colour, I overwork it and it ends in disaster. It's not so evident here (I often don't show these disasters) but sometimes less is more. For me, anyway.

- Keep drawing. I can see a progression of skills over the year and a half these drawings span. The more I draw, the more confident I get in the decisions I make on the page.

- And lastly, experiment now and then. I can see that I haven't deviated much in my materials of choice. I would like to try dip pen or fountain pen for a more fluid line. And maybe try this scene using only watercolour (scary). But it would be good to step outside my comfort zone and see what happens.