Drawing in Clissold Park

After such a dreary and wet winter, the Spring sunshine is very welcome.  Not only was it shining on Thursday, it had been out long 2014-04-10 14.11.48enough to dry the ground sufficiently for me to sit on it and only get slightly damp.

Clissold Park is one of those places in north London that I have driven past more times that I could count, yet have never actually set foot in, so having a drawing class outing there provided an opportunity to tick it off the list of ‘things I’m too ashamed to admit I’ve never done in London’.

We were remarkably lucky with the weather, and as the day progressed more and more people joined us in the park.  Stoke Newington is the land of the organic babycino and all terrain baby buggies, but dog walkers, cyclists and small boys playing football were also lured out  into the open by the sun.  People watching was compulsory and compelling; as well as eavesdropping on conversations.  Or is that just me?  (Fran, over at Sequins and Cherry Blossom recommended the cafe for the people watching, but was silent on the eavesdropping ……)  And our small sketching party drew our own share of attention, and comment, and even a couple of annoying little dogs which weren’t beyond jumping in the water and then shaking themselves over the sketchbooks of my classmates.  It’s all added texture to the al fresco experience.

IMG_3715From some angles it is possible to believe that you are not in London, but instead in a small English Market town, with a Green in front  of the church, beside The Big House, and we spent the day drawing trees and leaves as well as the reflections in the stream.

Later, when I met a friend for supper, she observed that I’d caught a little but of sun on my face.  Now, that’s a proper day out!

Down with the Kids at the Horniman Museum

IMG_3714You know how much I enjoy visiting places in London that are new to me.  It’s even more fun when I didn’t know they existed before, and they turn out to be idiosyncratic and a bit bonkers.  Let me introduce you to The Horniman Museum.

If you live in south east London I expect you’ve heard of it already, but for those of us in the North, it was a mystery.  ‘South of the River’ represents a transport challenge we’re not always prepared to scale; south east in particular is one of those areas that, for me, is pretty much a blank on the map.  So when my Drawing in Museums class was due to take place there, I was torn: it was good to go somewhere new, but how on earth was I going to get there?  It turned out to be surprisingly easy, making use of the Overground lines, (which I have avoided since a particularly miserable journey from Richmond a couple of years ago.)  It turns out that some of their trains do actually go to where they say they will.

The Horniman Museum was established by Mr Horniman using the wealth his family had generated through tea trading in the 19th century.  His fancy for collecting ‘to bring the world to Forest Hill’ led to the building of a museum which he left to the people of London.  His main areas of interest seem to have been in zoological specimens, handicrafts from far flung cultures and musical instruments.

It’s an eccentric collection, but on the day of my visit it was undeniably popular, perhaps too popular, as a destination for the under 10s.  A brilliant place for a school trip, for crocodiles of small children to file past glass cases filled with stuffed animals, shells and animal bones before a visit to the aquarium.  The noise was astonishing.  The barrel ceiling and the wooden and glass cases threw back the squeals and chattering of scores of young voices and the tramp of school shoes on linoleum.

Sitting in front of a glass case of shells, I was the perfect height for the passers by to be able to peer at my sketch book and ask me IMG_3713questions.

‘Do you do this all the time?’

‘What is it?’

being my particular favourites.

It was quieter in the afternoon, and I spent the time in the Centenary Gallery where I started to sketch a little wooden figure apparently used to decorate the prow of a boat in the Samoan Islands, but my efforts were thwarted when the light that had been illuminating its display case went out.  I turned my attention to the chicken mask which is also from the Pacific Islands.

Some museum information shed light on the evolution of the curating philosophy of the Collection.  At the outset, much of its purpose was to illustrate ‘primitive’ arts from less advanced peoples to prove the superiority of the evolution of the western European.  In post Colonial times, the collection has been entirely reassessed and is now organised to show,  in the Centenary Gallery at least, the results of the same preoccupation with masks and the illustration of people in different communities around the world.

Part of the point of having our drawing classes in Museums is to look at entirely unfamiliar objects, and render them on paper.  Their unfamiliarity means that it is not possible to fall into the trap of assuming I know what they look like.  I find it a surprisingly relaxing and engaging thing to do.  I can sit quietly, and draw.  It doesn’t matter if I finish or not, it doesn’t matter if it’s any good or not.  It’s just a drawing; lines on a piece of paper.

As I’m writing this I realise that I have lost that feeling of freedom to experiment and to fail and it not matter, in my writing.  Somehow, if I take it seriously  it has to carry more weight and expectation, and it has become correspondingly more difficult.

Now what am I going to do with that realisation….?


A Day at The V&A

IMG_3616Another day, another drawing class, another museum.

This time, we were at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and spent the morning in the Cast Court, and the afternoon with the Mediaeval architectural detail.  And once again, we were in a nook of the museum, which I’d never spent any time visiting before.

The Cast Court is a strange, eerie place.  It’s a large space, filled to the glass covered roof in plaster casts of monuments and architectural bits and pieces from around the world, from Trajan’s  Column, displayed in two sections, to architraves, to the tombs of Mediaeval knights .  Evidently, the collection of such copies was a Victorian obsession, for both the act of collecting itself, as well as providing props through which to educate the contemporary designers about great historical art and architecture.  Consequently, much of the collection reflects the Victorian interest in the classical and gothic.

With over two hours to dedicate to one drawing, with no letting up of concentration or challenge from the teacher, I was forced to focus entirely on one object, while at the same time feeling the weight of all the other enormous casts bearing down on me.  I chose one of the Celtic crosses because I thought the areas of erosion would suit me – it doesn’t matter that the sketch looks like nothing, the thing itself was just covered in nobbly bits……  But the more I looked at it, the more I could discern what must have been the original design of the carvings.

The specific challenge of the class was to draw tonally and without line – I only cheated a little bit.  I simply couldn’t work out how to capture the circular element without an outline.

IMG_3617The afternoon presented another test for my concentration: hoards of French teenagers.  Attracted by the same comfy padded benches in part of the the Medieval Gallery as me, they spent a couple of hours playing with the various features on their telephones, and despite the best efforts of the museum’s custodians, sitting on some of the displays to eat the leftovers from each of their pack lunches, and jeering at their classmates.

I didn’t budge.

Finney’s Post, an elderly architectural detail, comes with an entertaining myth. Finney had a wife who was alleged to be a scold.  One day, she fell into a stupor and was believed to be dead.  On the way to the churchyard, her coffin was bumped into this post and she woke up.  She went on to live for several more years, not necessarily to the joy of her husband.  The post bore his name ever after.

I’m on Mrs Finney’s side.

With the Assyrians at The British Museum

IMG_3613One of the aspects of drawing in museums that I have discovered I enjoy the most, is the enforced opportunity to spend an extended period of time looking at one thing, or at most a small collection of things.

For each class, our teacher selects a limited range of pictures or artefacts for us to choose between, and then we have an hour or so to sit, on a little folding stool, in front of whichever one we pick.  They are frequently in parts of the galleries and museums that I may never have previously visited, or if I have, I’ve been like all the other visitors, walking past quickly, already gorged or desensitised by the visual overload offered by the institutions.

Last night, we were in the Assyrian galleries at the British Museum.  In contrast with other Galleries open late on a Friday evening, the British Museum is less busy than during the daytime, when it can be near impossible to walk around the more popular rooms unimpeded by large groups of tourists.  I had one room all to myself for the first hour; apart from the occasional visitor strolling past, and the blasts of comically prosaic communication about tea breaks from the attendant’s walkie talkie, I was able to sit and examine the patterns on the relief wall panels, and wonder at the hands that made them, as I failed to capture their essence in my sketchbook.  For all my many visit to the British Museum, I’ve never sat in such quiet contemplation there.

For the second part of the evening, all the members of the class sat together, gazing up at the monumental sculptures of , trying to capture the strangeness of the beasts; the crinkled hair, the bobbly beards and sharp human features.  There’s such drama in studying the details of the sculptures.

I admit it – I’m often one of those who just walks by, catching a glimpse of things out of the corner of my eye, and moving on to the next thing, so that I may never remember what I’ve actually seen.  But there are days where there is nothing better, calmer and more focussed than just looking at one or two things closely, and then going home.

A Mighty Fine Cabbage

IMG_3610Voluptuous and pulchritudinous are words for which I rarely find the need, but I think they are entirely on point to describe Nathaniel Bacon’s Cookmaid with Still Life of Vegetables and Fruit.  It’s a large painting, hung in a prominent position as you enter one of the galleries at Tate Britain.  It catches the eye e very time.  It’s not particularly admirable artwork, but I do wonder, each time I see it, at the fantastic cabbages.

It was the obvious choice on Friday night, when I was at Late at Tate Britain with my drawing class.  The object of the evening’s lesson was to consider all the apparently extraneous things that an artist has added to a portrait or a scene, and to think about what they add to the overall composition.  As it’s my default response to look at the detail rather than the subject, I had no difficulty leaving a space where the buxom maid might otherwise appear, but it was a rather over ambitious painting to choose to sketch.  In the process I learnt how difficult it is to draw a cabbage; something I had never before spent even the briefest moment considering.  But the more time I spent looking at the picture, the more voluptuous and suggestive all the blooming fruit and vegetables appeared; all those sliced melons, cucumbers and carrots, as well as the brassicas.

The rare Friday nights that Tate Britain is open late attract huge crowds.  When I was there in December last there were queues around the block, and the gallery was declared full, so that people were being allowed in only when someone left.  It wasn’t quite that humming this last week, but none the less, the place was buzzing with people and with the soundscape pumped out by the invited DJs.  It makes for an entirely different kind of way to experience the gallery.  Refreshed at the pop up bar in the atrium, many punters were not shy in expressing their opinion of both the painting in front of which I was sitting, but also my meagre attempts to capture some of the detail.  Fortunately, I no longer care what anyone thinks of my efforts……

After a break, we looked at what an animal might add to a picture.  There are some truly hideous pictures which include animals in IMG_3611the 1650 to 1810 rooms in the gallery.  I ended up in front of Thomas Woodward’s The Ratcatcher and his Dogs, attracted largely by the cat creeping from behind the door.  In the gallery, hung fairly high on the walls, the picture looks much darker than the reproduction on the website, but it’s still a sentimental scene.  I’ve never tried to draw a dog before, and I think it’s fair to say, it will be a while before I make a second (or third, if you count each of the mutts in this) attempt.

Not Entirely Idle

2014-01-15 16.24.12Just to show that I have not been entirely idle during my inarticulate, non communicative fug recently, as well as my knitting projects, which are continuing with what feels like a never ending ball of wool, I have been back to drawing class.

I’ve not been able to commit to a regular course over the last few months, but now my favourite teacher, Fabia, has begun running classes on a periodic basis, and has permitted me to mix and match days.  I’m no more skilled now than I ever was, but there is something very relaxing about spending a day focussed on the attempt to make a drawing.

I think the knowledge that I have no particular talent for it, but that I can still make incremental improvements to my level of accomplishment without it ever becoming something I’m good at, is an incredibly liberating feeling.  I can concentrate on it, it occupies my mind for a significant period of time, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter that the result looks like.  I take a photograph of it, and then put it in the bin.  (Really I don’t need yet another piece of rolled up paper in the cupboard – I refer you to my efforts at decluttering…….)

Not only could I spend a day studying a still life composition involving the by now compulsory, peacock feathers, pineapple, dried flowers, dog bowls, pomegranates, mirror  and candlesticks, I had to find my way to Stoke Newington by public transport.  It’s one of those areas of London, which are not at all far away from me,and would be quick to drive to, but where there is nowhere to park during the day for the non resident.  But just to prove that I shouldn’t let those sort of considerations hold me back, it proved very straightforward to get there by train and bus.  It’s a slightly strange place, of shops that don’t open until 11am and middle aged women in shiny new jogging gear queuing for coffee at the ‘quirky’ independent cafés, but with a Gothic looking Victorian cemetery in the heart of the High Street…… I’m already looking forward to the people watching opportunities when we go out for some al freso sketching…..

Meanwhile, on the knitting front,  the child’s jacket that’s in progress is complete apart from all the sewing up and finishing off.  Always the point at which losing interest is a significant risk…..

A Little Bit of Light and Dark

2013-06-21 22.11.04Friday evening at the National Gallery and it was humming with people.  Chattering groups of foreign school children, small groups talking about art history, and lots of sketchers.  Half the people wandering around seemed to be clutching one of the Gallery’s folding stools.  Now, feeling something of an experienced veteran of drawing in Museums, I can attest that the stools in the National Gallery are rather superior, having a back to them.  This additional feature does however frequently give rise to the usual folding deckchair comedy of failing to work out how to open or close the chair without either trapping your fingers or ending up with the thing wrapped around your upper arms.

The exercise this week was to look at both shape and form again, but this time with the addition of the lights and darks.  The plan had been to spend time with Rembrandt, but despite assurances sought from the Gallery on Thursday that the room would be open, when we arrived on Friday, it was closed, as were the adjacent Galleries of Dutch 17th century works, so instead, we spent our time with the Spanish artists of same period, as did many of the other late night visitors.

Our teacher pointed out a number of works in which areas of light and dark were used to great effect and told us to choose one to draw.  The only one without a complicated arrangement of people was Francisco de Zubaran’s A Cup of Water and a Rose, an image I’ve had on a postcard propped up at home for a number of years.  It seemed the obvious thing to pick.  But then, as always, once I started to draw, I realised it wasn’t as straightforward as it at first appeared; all those ellipses, all those different shades of dark (and hanging on the wall it looks substantially darker than the reproduction on the website), that flower.

But once again, despite the hubbub around me I spent an hour absorbed in it which in many ways is more important than the resulting sketch.

An Impossible Task

Can you tell what it is yet?

Can you tell what it is yet?

Ever tried drawing with wire?  It was a reinterpretation of the idea that drawing is taking a line for a walk – we were told to take some wire for a walk.  As much wire as we liked, from a choice of three gauges of thickness, to make a three dimensional representation.

We even had a model sitting there in front of us, a young man with an exquisitely shaped head and dramatic profile.  A model, some wire, wire cutters and hammers, although I couldn’t find an immediate use for the hammer.

I can honestly say that it is the sort of exercise I would never have persevered with were it not for the insistence of the teacher that we just have a go, and keep on adding bits. All that twisting and cutting and trying to keep it all from falling over played havoc with my manicure, I can tell you, even though after a couple of false starts, I kept mainly to the thinnest, most easily manipulated wire,

We were a very small class this week, but what was interesting was the very different approaches each of us took to the problem- each  equally bemused and struggling, but more or less willing to have a go.  I ended up with what was essentially a repetition of the profile, which handily folded flat what it came time to bring him home, others had much more rounded mannequin or helmet like forms.

Next week is the last class of term……

Drawing in the Africa Gallery

2013-06-14 21.35.58It was another evening of relaxing concentration sketching, this time in the Africa Gallery at the British Museum.  The fascination here is to examine unusual shapes and figurative representations, and to try to capture both their look and the texture.  The artefacts are displayed in large shining glass cabinets with focussed lighting.  I had a go at a couple of figure which were relatively simple curvy shapes, but which were smooth and shiny which I thought would be a real challenge.

And indeed it was, but I did make an attempt at both figures, although the second one was rather hasty as the museum guard counted down to closing time in ten minute intervals, anxious that we should vacate the gallery in good time.

I’m conscious that, notwithstanding the name of this blog, I’ve not written much about books lately.  This is mainly because I’ve been having a really disappointing run on novels; one of those periods where I seriously wondered if I’d lost the knack of enjoying a book.  The good news is that, much to my relief, I’ve just finished a novel I enjoyed, and have started another which has me gripped from the first page, and so now I’m feeling much more optimistic and will write something more about these books, because that’s a fun thing to do, while  there’s nothing more dispiriting than writing about a book which has not engaged me, and has felt like a little bit of a chore to read.

Drawing From Memory

2013-06-12 20.33.59The drawing task this week was to sketch something from memory, using any materials we wished.  After a false start trying to capture something from the day, I settled on the landscape which is most deeply embedded in my mind’s eye.  And going way back to the beginning of deciding to start to learn to draw when my basic objective was to learn how to work with pastels, I stuck with them, and tried to incorporate as many different types of mark as I could.

The thing about drawing from memory is that once you’ve started it gradually moves further and further away from the picture in your head, or at least that was my experience; and it turns out that’s all right because it is essentially abstract.  I still wish I had better control over the rendering of colour with pastels…..

%d bloggers like this: