It’s Not What You Do It’s The Way That You Do It 

The 7th annual International Urban Sketchers Symposium starts this week in Manchester, and I have some thoughts and questions rattling around inside my head……..

I sometimes wonder, if I added up all the time I’ve spent drawing throughout my life how many hours it would come to. It’s the sort of odd question people sometimes ask when they get talking to me when I’m out sketching, and I always say that however much it is, it’s never enough. And I don’t have the strength or the energy to do anywhere near as much as I want to do. 
I know there are many sketchers – Urban and otherwise – whose sketching output is phenomenal. Some have more time and some have more energy than others, and those of us who have neither can sometimes feel a little wistful about this. (I’m putting that as gently as I can). I enjoy following several sketching bloggers whose volume of work frankly boggles the mind. I’m energised by their enthusiasm and excited by what they produce, but however often I hear them say that everyone has their own speed, and no-one should compare the sheer volume of what they do in a day, or be counting numbers of drawings done or sketchbooks filled – it still makes me sigh a little, now and again, and reflect that there are many people who, like me, for reasons of health or disability often struggle to draw for more than a few minutes a day, if at all.

Everyone knows that practice brings progress, and regular practice is much better than just now and again. The more you practise, the more you’re going to improve, and it shouldn’t be hard to make time to do something you love. But what do you do when the time that you’ve deliberately set aside for drawing comes along and you’re feeling limp and wobbly on your feet, foggy in the brain, generally unwell and drained of all the energy you had earlier but which you had to use to go out grocery shopping? (This is what life is like with ME/CFS). I’m not alone in this experience, I know that. It’s extremely frustrating and it can get you down. I’ve had to adapt and change my way of thinking, and be inventive and kind to myself.

The 7th annual International Urban Sketchers Symposium starts this week in Manchester, not more than a two hour drive from where I live, and when the venue was announced last year for a few moments I actually wondered if I might manage to go. (Last year it was in Singapore, the year before in Barcelona, next year’s will be somewhere else far-flung and unreachable; I will never get another chance like this). But for me this is an unrealistic proposition and I never seriously considered it; I have after all not even (yet) ever managed to meet up with my local chapter of Urban Sketchers to go on a sketch outing together. USk (as it’s known for short) emphasises that urban sketching is for everyone regardless of ability, that we ‘share, not compare’ and it is an amazingly kind, sharing, egalitarian community. I love it and I’ve got a lot of support from it. But that hasn’t stopped me wanting to write this post. In the next few days as the Symposium unfolds I’ll be keeping an eye out for news of anyone else like me – and for any activities on offer or discussions that happen about people who need to think differently about what they can achieve.

The drawing at the top of this post was done on one of the days when I felt well enough to stand for more than half an hour and draw something I’d deliberately gone out to sketch (the old public toilet block in Cliffe Castle Park that was about to be demolished). It was a wonderful feeling, doing this; the simple act of planning to go out to sketch and then not only having the strength to do it but to feel well while doing it is a piece of pure pleasure.

At other times I need different strategies.The following day I went back to sketch the same thing from a different angle (this is Urban Sketching for you) and by the time I’d dragged myself up the hill through the park all I could do was sit on a bit of low stone wall and stare at the building with an open sketchbook, and then finally manage a few rather meaningless pen lines. So I just sat there and did nothing. 

Struggling to push on at times like this is a bad idea. Doing nothing is a much better thing to do, but actually it’s the quality of the nothingness that counts. What’s needed is not a negative state of nothing, but a positive one; it’s counter intuitive but what you need is to let go of the desperate urge to do something worthwhile and with an intention of kindness, zone out completely for a minute or two (or longer) and just sit in a state of suspended animation. In other words, float….

This is takes practice. This feeling that I must achieve something, anything, is extraordinarily hard to overcome but usually, once I manage to drop all this urgency and clear my mind the next thing that happens is that I find myself just looking around, gazing, and enjoying where I am. Seeing things and just watching.

On this particular occasion, what happened next was a rabbit, and I found myself drawing before I knew I was doing it, hardly looking at the paper and just drawing without looking down, which I managed to keep up for the next ten minutes. And that was enough.

Letting go and doing nothing doesn’t suddenly give me energy or stop me from feeling ill, but it does take away the stress of feeling angry frustrated and miserable about it. It creates a new inner space for something better to materialise, and it generally does. 

Some days I resign myself to not drawing at all. Other days go well. I never know what sort if a day it will be when I wake up in the morning. I seldom arrange to meet up with other people because I never know how I’m going to be, and even if I’m well, being with people is exhausting and although I enjoy it, it’s stressful. This is not something that many – if any – of the sketchers attending the Symposium will experience, though perhaps some do, and if so I’d love to hear from them, or from anyone else who knows what this is like.

I wish everyone there in Manchester a hugely enjoyable time, and hope everyone enjoys doing what’s right for them, at their own right speed and in their own way, and that they make wonderful discoveries.

Postscript: anyone interested in following my sketching project, Drawing The Work at Cliffe Castle Park can find posts on it here.

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12 thoughts on “It’s Not What You Do It’s The Way That You Do It 

  1. Thank you for this post, I really relate to it – and it helped me to read your experience with drawing, and those times when you just can’t. To some extent I’ve learned to enjoy and value the necessary slowing down, and periods when looking is all I can manage, but it gets hard sometimes.

  2. Oh, fellow struggler, nice to have found you! We share similar troubles as I have MS – always I am trying to find the magic moments… and there are many, but hard won. Your drawings and thoughts are wonderful, I’ll happily follow your journey!

  3. I really enjoyed this post- and I can appreciate how as each day begins we really might not have a sense of what awaits us-and honestly the struggle it is sometimes to create. the rabbits are wonderful and what a wonderful surprise for letting yourself wait and look-

  4. I’ve read this twice now, and know I’ll return to it again. You describe beautifully a wise and kind attitude towards life, and how to live within limitations, which we all must find a way to do, whether or not we struggle with physical limitations– in my case, there are sometimes all-consuming family responsibilities and work commitments, important and necessary parts of life which need to thrive within the boundaries of available time and money. And somewhere in there, to have a happy life, I need to ladle out some time for creativity and solitude. Though I’ve never phrased it so gorgeously, your post puts into words who I am when I’m at my best—accepting that all lives have limitations, creating as I can within those limits, and loving the life built in this way. And also, I love the little bunny you drew–

    1. I wanted to say thanks for all this! Even though it’s taken me ages to respond – but it always means a lot when I know that something resonates. And you know, too, how it is with us – (I’m being presumptuous here) – that we write these things in part because we need to confirm them and affirm them, and not because we’re wise and diligent enough always to DO them – but that writing it helps! XXX

  5. I really like your sketches, I know what its like to struggle with life, and I hope you can be glad about the times you are able to do what you want and sketch. Thanks!

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