Sketchjournal 19/11/09


“Autumn wins you best by this, its mute appeal to sympathy for its decay.” ~ Robert Browning

Last night I finally sat down to sketch a leaf I picked up about a week ago. Pressed between the pages of my sketchjournal, it was temporarily spared the fate of crumbling into dust (the fate of so many other leaves my little girl and I have brought home over these autumn months) and I was able to paint it in light washes of gouache and, for the patches of green, Victorian Gold acrylic.

This shimmery gold-green paint was purchased on a recent trip to an art materials shop in Cambridge, where I also bought some coppery gold-leaf flakes. I plan to experiment with both of these in my oil pastel paintings.

We are on the cusp of that dark, dread season where the reds and russets and yellows of autumn are lost, crumbled, trampled, rotted and gone for another year. During the bleaker months, we are left to create our own colours, and must conjure shimmer and sparkle and light however we can.

Sketch: Asakusa teacup

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If you are at all interested in the medium of oil pastel, or in the discipline of sketching from direct observation, then I warmly recommend a visit to the blog of Yusuke Katsurada. His daily oil pastels of single objects, sketched from life, continue to delight and inspire me for their quiet meditative quality and for the amount of lovingly precise detail achieved in what are largely one-hour sketches.

This teacup, a souvenir of Japan brought home by my husband some years ago, is my small homage to Yusuke, who has kindly clarified for me that the characters read “Asakusa”, the district of Tokyo where the Sensō-ji Buddhist temple is located.

Oil pastels (mostly Sennelier with some Caran d’Ache) on Daler Ingres paper, 24.10.09.

362 Days Later


Sharing more pages from my sketchjournal – the linen-bound Canson watercolour book I’ve been working in for almost a year and a half, but which (since October came, and with it a determination to seize more of the everyday) I’m newly confident of using up by the time 2009 is out. When I do, I shall replace it with another just like it. Though I also sketch on pastel paper and in a pocket Moleskine, I cannot imagine that there exists a more versatile everyday sketchbook than the Canson.

These were all done from life, the first of them in an attempt to resist the temptation I invariably feel, when sketching in graphite and watercolour, to strengthen the outlines in pen.

The next three pages were filled yesterday, during a wonderful, caffeinated afternoon of sketchwandering and chat here in Ely with Anita Davies. After lunch at The Maltings, we found ourselves a bench overlooking the River Ouse, and set out to sketch the Bantam tugboat moored opposite. I have never sketched boats before, which explains my tentative and unusual choice of graphite for this one; after a while, however, as Anita and I drew and talked and drew (and talked, and talked), I found myself relaxing into it.

Lunchtime’s chilly grey skies had given way to pleasant late-afternoon sunshine by the time we returned from a stroll around Ely to sketch the birdlife at Riverside. I was reminded that I’d long intended to try the first exercise in Sarah Simblet’s The Drawing Book, involving geese and some rapid gesture drawing. Each of these sketches was therefore done in about 10 seconds, but I wasn’t content with their layout on the page, so the real challenge became all about how to make the double-page spread work compositionally. The advantage of this lovely Canson is that it joyfully accepts most media; I solved the problem using gouache and white gel pen.

Anita and I were stunned to realise that it was three days shy of a year since our last meetup. We’ve pencilled in a trip to Cambridge’s Fitzwilliam Museum for the next one, which I’m determined to make happen much, much sooner …

Them apples


Ely Apple Day has been and gone, but it left me with a couple of Braeburns to sketch, so I plopped them on top of my trusty Canson sketchbook and went to it with my Sennelier oil pastels.

I realised, doing this, just how much I have missed the daily discipline of these small one-hour studies from life. They are so easy to fit into the evening of an otherwise busy day, and they’re great for keeping my observational skills sharp and my fingers familiar with the pastels. So why have I have neglected them?

Recent sketchjournal stuff

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It’s image dump time, now that the scanner’s in action again, and I’m pleased to be able to upload a few sketchjournal pages – the first I have posted in a while. However mediocre I tend to think these are when I’ve done them (inhibited as they are by pressure of time, the presence of other people and/or the subjects I have to hand), in the chronological context of my sketchjournal, they end up meaning something more to me than the sum of their modest parts.

This last sketch was done late this afternoon.

Thoughts on soft pastel


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.

Chop chop

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Sniffing around for a sketch subject last night, I remembered this oil pastel sketch from last summer …

… and decided to take 50 minutes to record its contents. This little box, purchased in Hong Kong, holds my personalized soapstone chop & red Chinese ink. The sketch is in oil pastel on Daler Murano paper.

Every Day in Feb: 12 & 13 …


On Friday afternoon, after an outing with my daughter, I realised we would most likely not be venturing out again that day; so I took M into a nearby bar/café in order to try to fit in my daily location sketch before heading home.

After getting M’s coat, hat and gloves off and settling her in a comfy seat with a newly-acquired toy while I purchased some refreshments, I found that I was cashless – and that card payments under £10 weren’t accepted. Unwilling either to get M all wrapped up again so that I could take her with me to a cash machine, or to leave her in the bar while I dashed out alone, I eventually managed to persuade the young bartender to make an exception and let me pay by card. Once I’d brought M’s orange juice and my pot of tea to the table and removed my own coat and gloves, I found her sippy cup had leaked grapefruit squash into my bag and over my Moleskine sketchbook. Shaking off my pen, I determined to sketch a nearby chair. Between repeatedly having to leap up to pass M her orange juice so she didn’t knock it over, or to retrieve the various tops and bottoms of the Russian dolls she kept dropping on the floor, and keeping a vigil on my cup of tea in case the little feet jogging the table should send it flying, you can guess how extremely not focused on my subject I was.

The rushed and half-hearted result was a sketch I thought so bad and unshareable on this blog that I questioned the very point of my February challenge. What on earth am I doing, I despaired, imposing on myself this pressure to produce something every day, no matter how difficult that is, at the risk of ending up with a bunch of sub-standard drawings that I do not want to share and know don’t represent what I am capable of when the time and place suit me better? Since fiddling with some hatching, I’m ok with the sketch and feel I may have overreacted to its rubbishness, but at the time, it shook my resolve, and I haven’t attempted a location sketch in the three days since.

The truth is that I haven’t had any time to myself in public places in those three days: any time spent in cafés has been surrounded by small children, and other adults, where my role has been that of mother, wife and/or responsible friend, and not compatible with that of artist. And although this was precisely one of the reasons I so wanted to succeed in proving to myself that some sort of drawing was possible every day (the feeling that I was artistically inferior – less committed – than others who sketch and post on a daily basis), I’m not going to beat myself up for that now. I was disappointed, too, that I managed so little sketching on our trip to Paris, but I understand now that being part of the moment meant, before anything else, being present for my family.

I will continue throughout February, despite the missed days.

My sketch from the day before this one is viewable here.



is a superb French film set in the late 18th century. The plot involves the Marquis Grégoire Ponceludon de Malavoy entering the court of Versailles with the aim of persuading Louis XVI to support his engineering project: to drain the disease-infested swamps which are killing all the peasants in his region. His struggle becomes, quite literally, a battle of wits, as survival at court is all about holding onto one’s reputation as a bel esprit by making witty remarks that ridicule and humiliate others.

While re-watching Ridicule yesterday, I grabbed an A4 sketchpad and my sepia pen and filled a page with sketches, pausing the DVD for between 30 seconds and 4 minutes to draw.

I’m pretty sure Judith Godrèche’s cleavage didn’t really grow to those proportions over the course of the film. This was a fun exercise, though, and I might try it again sometime with La Reine Margot – another of my favourite French costume dramas. More heaving bosoms coming soon to a blog near you!!