Morning at the Museum

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Ely’s Stained Glass Museum is reached via a winding stone staircase which leads to the south triforium (elevated gallery) of the Cathedral. On a brilliantly sunny Saturday morning in mid December, it proved the perfect location for a sketcher on a mission to fill a couple of pages: out of the chill, far from the madding Christmas shoppers, with sunshine filtering through the coloured glass and enough space and solitude for unselfconscious drawing.

Halfway into my 75-minute visit, a carol service kicked off below; fittingly, “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” was my accompaniment as I stood and sketched one of Edward Burne-Jones’s angel musicians.

The museum is essentially a one-room exhibition, but just the handful of subjects I chose to draw spanned the centuries, from 15th to 20th. I feel my visit was hugely enriched by having a sketchbook in tow: my eye lingered where it might not otherwise have done, enjoying the details of a few exhibits rather than pointlessly skimming them all. And even though, for me, God was not in those details, something pretty wonderful was.

It has been a long time since I last sketched in a museum, and I have Roz Stendahl to thank for the suggestion – and for so much else that’s influencing my sketchjournal lately.

My back pages

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This past week has seen me making a real effort to fill the remaining pages of my Canson sketchbook by the end of the year: I’ve covered seven pages in six days, two of them double-page spreads, and although not all of them are worth sharing, I’ve decided to stick a few of them up on my Flickr page for anyone who’s interested. As usual, you can find them in my Sketchjournal & Sketchbook set.

This double-page spread was done in pen and gouache with white gel pen, and shows you what I usually eat for breakfast (because, naturally, such questions drive the readers of my blog insane with curiosity.)

I am very motivated, as I continue to browse the pages of Danny Gregory’s An Illustrated Life: Drawing Inspiration from the Private Sketchbooks of Artists, Illustrators and Designers, by the possibility of taking my sketchjournalling to another level. My current Canson sketchbook has accompanied me for 18 months now, and has been a breakthrough book for me, its lovely smooth just-off-white paper accepting most kinds of media and allowing for a good amount of experimentation. It has seen me become far less concerned about making perfect pictures, more considerate of things like composition, mixing different media, incorporating written diary elements and – most importantly – just knuckling down to the act of sketching itself. I often cringe, though, at my own handwritten notes: the banality, the clumsiness, the obvious self-consciousness of them (… of me!). I’d like to do something about this, when I open my new sketchbook at the start of the new year.

Nine pages and counting.

Art or Motherhood? Motherhood and Art

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Remember Venn diagrams? Those interlinked circles you used to have to draw in maths lessons at school? I can’t say I have ever consciously used one of those to illustrate anything since I put my O-Level days behind me, but I couldn’t help being reminded of them today, as I reflected on the relationships between what I now see as the two great interlinked circles of my life: Art and Motherhood. What is the overlap between these circles, these activities, these two essential parts of me? How much of one of them must inextricably be part of the other?

Knitting a tension square which becomes a hat when a small voice asks, “Is that for me, Mummy?” Is that about art (or is it “only” craft? … another discussion entirely, and not one that concerns me too much here) or is it more about being a mother to M? Or is it both in equal measure?

Cutting, tearing, gluing, sticking, drawing … My daughter and I, collaborating on an art project (or more usually, a vague serving suggestion of mine which she’ll end up completely overturning), bossing one another around until a picture happens, occasionally something joyous but more often a bit of a mess. Is that always, mostly or a little bit “art”? It isn’t the art that goes into my sketchbook or gets commissioned, but it is art, nonetheless. How much of that art is about me just trying to be me rather than me trying to be a mother? And does it even matter, if we’ve both had fun? (The white scribble is, she tells me, “a big planet”.)
 
M blowing streams of bubbles that pop and splat all around us as I rapidly take photos, almost 50 of them, which I then sift through once she’s in bed, keeping only the handful that please me, and using them to create a Flickr mosaic. That’s an artistic endeavour, right? Only she’s the one who inspired it: the one who started the game, made the bubbles, insisted I watch her and went about being as photogenic as a person can be.

The overlap, the intersection, the shared space between Art and Motherhood: it’s a hard thing to calculate, and can often seem frustratingly non-existent. Once you start to notice and celebrate this kind of symbiotic creativity, though, it becomes a joy of huge proportions.

Now she is three

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Life has been too busy for artmaking this past week or so. It’s not that I couldn’t have made the time for an evening painting session, or opened my sketchbook one lunchtime: simply that my little girl turned 3, and we threw a birthday party for her, and this somehow ended up consuming every bit of my physical, mental and emotional energy.

There was facepainting at the party, though. After sitting patiently for the duration of my flower-painting, suddenly she grabbed the paintbrush and daubed her other cheek, first with tentative streaks of red, orange and yellow, then more heavily with her favourite colour: black … It’s only just glimpseable here, but in its full glory, that big black smudge gave her the appearance of a chimney sweep. We all laughed (we couldn’t not), but M was extremely pleased with her handiwork.

I’m never overly fussy about mess, particularly when there’s painting involved, and yet it was hard for me to relinquish that brush and allow her to make the marks, however messy, that she wanted to make: to allow her to smear up the paint pans, to “do it wrong” – but so rewarding to see that impish smile as she admired the results of her creativity. It feels as though, in a very real way, my daughter is a Big Girl now (though her own feelings about the business of suddenly aging by one whole number have veered wildly from total, stubborn denial to huge enthusiasm and back again) and it’s a bumpy ride as we negotiate a path towards the ever-greater independence that life will ask of her. Whatever the challenges, she’s such a spirited, vibrant and funny little girl. I think we’re going to be doing some pretty cool artmaking together … and I know which of us will be calling the creative shots.

Happy birthday, sweet girl.

A work in progress, 2

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Day 2 of Ben!


I’ve roughly put in the background blues, laid in the darkest shadow areas of his coat and made a complete pass with a mid-tone, hard pastel.


Every painting has an ugly stage; some, like this one, are destined to go through several. Every time I put down a paler-value layer (especially with the softer brands of pastel) it appears to sit roughly on the surface of the paper, and I’m faced with having to integrate it into the picture by blending with fingers and with harder pastel sticks – without overworking.


We’re getting there, but I have so much more to do before Ben is complete. Much of the fur texture seen here will be sacrificed for the sake of making him pale-coated enough to convince and please the client who’s commissioned him.

A work in progress, 1

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Ben is a pale golden retriever. He’s my first painting commission in over three years, and I started work on him today. He will be 12×12″ in soft pastel on Art Spectrum Colourfix paper. I thought I’d post my progress here for those of you who don’t have me as a contact on Flickr (roseanglaise), which is where I do most of my image-sharing these days.


Double-page spread of nose and eye studies. Pen in Canson sketchbook.


Here I’m about to transfer my drawing of Ben (done freehand, using a grid) to the painting surface.


The underdrawing’s now done. I used black conté stick and a putty eraser.

Time now for a rummage through my pastel box. Tomorrow I’ll be going in with colour …

Thoughts on soft pastel

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A scorchingly hot day of cloudless blue found me digging my soft pastels out of storage for an outdoor sketching session. Two sessions, in fact, each one cut short as I started wilting and had to seek shade.

Since I have a soft pastel commission lined up and have, shockingly (to me), used my softies just twice in the past 3 years, I figured I could do with the practice.

“Floppy Poppy” took about 40 minutes, and doing it reminded me of several things about this medium, the first of these being that it’s no wonder beginners to dry pastel become quickly discouraged by a lack of contrast in their work; you need DARK darks, which the most readily-found assorted pastel sets do not provide. I rummaged around for a few Unison pastels (including a deep red) to supplement my half-stick Rembrandts, but really should have made use of them earlier. This brings me to the second point: if you want the colours you lay down to look clean and vibrant, avoiding an icky smeary appearance, it really, really helps to work gradually from dark values towards light.

This next sketch took about 35 minutes, and by now I was starting to look forward to working on an abrasive paper again (such as Colourfix), which would hold more layers of colour, as well as limiting pastel dust.

Once you’re familiar with soft pastels, you know there’s going to be dust and you just suck it up (not literally, though – please!) and get on with things. But, though I had a cloth over my knees and regularly took my sketch aside to tap off the dust, I couldn’t help but marvel, as though a beginner again, at how messy these things are. In comparison with the oil pastels I’ve been using, this is obviously true; but the softies are like an old friend, and though I was pretty underwhelmed by the sketches I made today, I was hugely enthused by the act of sketching with my dusty sticks again.