Add to Basket

We are receivers. Every day, every minute, we are collecting, whether we know it or not – images, sounds, stories. Ideas. And we react to these things, because it’s human to do so, and some make a deeper impression than others. 

Drawing of little red insect

But just because we’re picking things up all the time, it doesn’t mean we have to stow them all away and keep them – it is possible just to notice some things and then allow them to leave, even if at first this sounds improbable. It requires practice. 

I don’t have any difficulty knowing which things I should keep and which to let go – but negative things stick more readily and tenaciously than positive ones. It’s how we evolved. It’s said that you need the conscious awareness of five positive things to balance out one negative one, because the negative is so much more powerfully drawn to our attention.  

Drawing of coriander

I’ve started keeping an imaginary basket that I collect things in. I choose these things, and at the end of each day I can take them out one at a time and look at them again, and feel the same sensation I had when I first encountered them…. like the red and black flying beetle that landed on the garden wall, and stayed for a few moments in the sun before flying off before I could identify it. Or like the smell of coriander when I was chopping it at lunchtime. And the children I watched one afternoon running around in the playground after their karate class while older people walked their dogs, or just stood around in the sunshine. 

Sketches of karate kids and man with dog

These are the things I can draw. There are other things that can’t be sketched, like the wood-pigeon and the blackbird that I hear when I’m sleepily awake at 6.00 am, and the taste of the melted dark chocolate sauce I made yesterday with brandy mixed in it to pour on vanilla ice cream. 

These are just a few of the things in my basket, and writing this I’ve tasted them all over again – but I realise what may be even more important is that now I’ve shared them as well. Good things are meant for sharing. 

The idea of a basket of collected memories is not my own. I wish it were, but I first heard of it from my mother, who inherited it in turn from a dear friend of my sister, so it kind of runs in the family. 

In the UK, when you shop online and choose your purchases you collect them by clicking ‘add to basket’. In the US this would be ‘add to cart’ which to me always sounds mildly hilarious because it conjures up images of a chunky wooden wheeled horse-drawn sort of a thing. In supermarkets in England we use a trolley…….or a basket. 

Learning How To Be A Beginner 

I’ve often wondered why it is when I draw something or make something, my first effort is often good, and later things go downhill. I know this sounds all contradictory and upside-down, but I’ve noticed it happens time and time again; the first drawing or whatever it is might be inaccurate, the proportions off, a bit wonky – but essentially it’s good. The trouble is that from then on I’ll continue in a different frame of mind. I’ll be thinking, ah, here we go, I know how to do this now – and my drawing will be worse. 

It was especially obvious when I did the #1week100people sketching challenge. Along with lots of sketchers all over the world, I sketched lots of people – around about a hundred – and not much else for a whole week. It was an exciting, freewheeling exercise and I was looking forward to seeing an improvement in my drawings. I was hoping – well, actually, expecting that. 

I couldn’t have been more wrong. 

Or at least, so it seemed to me at the time. I noticed as I went along that things weren’t going as I’d hoped because as I complained in my previous post, ‘every now and then I’ll find myself drawing with ease and fluency and suddenly it’ll all go right, and then the next minute I fall off the edge and lose the flow, and do something that’s completely off’. I thought I was going to learn and advance in an obvious way, and I thought at the time that this definately wasn’t happening – but in the end I discovered the answer to something that’s puzzled me for a long time, something more interesting and more valuable. 

I have Susan McCulley and her latest post, Revisiting Beginner’s Mind to thank for this insight, and it’s going to pop up again and again in everything I think and do for the foreseeable future. What it is, in simple terms, is that I need to stop thinking that I know what I’m doing and learn to be a beginner. Or rather, I need to think like a beginner, with all that freshness, openness and excitement about the unknown, because as soon as I start to think ‘I know all about this’ I’m no longer really looking, or not looking with a spirit of enquiry. I’ve boxed myself in and closed the door on all kinds of possibilities. 

There are all sorts of ways to do this, none of them comfortable. Like shaking things up and switching materials. Drawing with something uncompromising like a sharpened stick can be a good way. Drawing fast, drawing people in motion helps. But it all requires letting go of what I think I know, trusting my eyes and my hands and the mysterious process that happens when I really look at something as if I’m seeing it for the first time. 

None of this is easy. It’s not just about drawing, either – it’s about the way to approach everything. Beginner’s Mind is a concept in Zen Buddhism called Shoshin, which refers to “having an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions when studying a subject, even when studying at an advanced level, just as a beginner in that subject would.”

If all this seems rather obvious, perhaps it is – but the implications are far reaching. If I slip into the habit of thinking the same way about something simply because I believe I know all about it, I’m never going to learn anything new about it. In the words of the Zen teacher Shunryu Suzuki, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, in the expert’s mind there are few.” 

One Wobbly Challenge: #OneWeek100People2017 

If you haven’t heard of the sketching event #OneWeek100People2017 that’s going on all over the world this week, have a look at Marc Taro Holmes’ blog Citizen Sketcher. His drawings of people in motion – or people of any kind doing just about anything or nothing – are completely wonderful and inspirational. 

I’m sort of trying to do this challenge myself, though I should have known that saying I’d do it would be a bit ridiculous and sure enough, my health threw a wobbly and hasn’t let me do anywhere near as much drawing as I’d hoped, and certainly not 20 people a day!  

Schoolboys in Cliffe Castle Park

But it’s a lot of fun. It’s great looking at what other people are posting online, and it’s really fun, drawing people in a sort of mad loose way and just enjoying it without worrying much about the outcome. Something to do a lot more of – whether I complete the challenge or not. And who cares – that’s not what it’s really about anyway. It’s all about having fun! 

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.

The Blessings Of A Building Site

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I do love a building site. Perhaps it’s that I enjoy watching people at work, and because it’s the next best thing to doing it myself. I like tools, and how they’re handled. I like watching how things unfold and change, and I really like mechanical diggers – especially the small ones that are quite nippy.

The restoration project in the grounds of Cliffe Castle is under way, and I’m up there whenever I can. It’s a blessing, because it’s so absorbing and interesting and it takes my mind off the horrible mess the country is in and is creating something good.

I’m going to try to post regular bulletins with drawings on my other site, here – because the story will run and run. It’s going to be a long process. And no doubt I’ll be writing about it here as well – because it’s such a blessing, and we could all do with such things. Here’s to all such projects, wherever and whatever – and may we continue to value our arts and our heritage enough to continue to find funding for them.

As Quiet As A Mouse

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A whole day given over to silence! Today in the USA it’s National Day of Silence, a wonderful idea, and I wish I’d been able to do this – to be completely wordless for 24 hours. Drawing is always a good way for me to drop into silence and to stop even thinking in words – which is a difficult thing to do when I try to meditate. Then often as not my mind goes into non-stop random pop-up mode and thoughts just jostle and push to try to get my attention. (The idea is to notice them, acknowledge them, and then quietly let them go and come back to a space of wordlessness, again and again. I do a lot of this.)

But there’s something about drawing that makes this state of silence happen automatically, and depending on what I’m drawing, it can be a lively, awake sort of silence or sometimes a deep and profound sort of wordless attention – which is what happened when I drew this little yellow-necked mouse in the natural history gallery at Cliffe Castle. The Easter holidays are over, children are back at school, and afternoons in the museum are quiet again. All alone in the gallery, I sketch tucked away in a corner amongst the Small Mammals. Not a sound. I’m as quiet as a mouse.

Fast Sketches on Slow Art Day

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Watercolour sketch of Liza Dracup's work 'greenfinch' - a collaged archival photographic print

Every year, one day in April, people all over the world take time to slow down and look at five works of art, slowly. Slow Art Day takes place in galleries and museums internationally; from New York to Shanghai, from London to Helsinki – and about 200 other places in between, scattered across the globe. One of these venues is Cliffe Castle in Keighley; last year was the first time they hosted Slow Art, and 5 people came – on Saturday the place was buzzing with almost 50 enthusiastic art-watchers – and quite a few sketchers.

My favourite of the five selected artworks was Liza Dracup’s ‘Greenfinch’, which fascinated everyone because no-one really understood the technique. (See the original online here.) I loved it so much I spent rather longer than the allocated 10 minutes, getting completely absorbed – and then had to rush round to try to give the other four selected pieces a fair deal before we all gathered to drink tea, eat cake, and discuss. This is the other enjoyable part of the day – listening to each other’s thoughts and feelings about the artworks, and learning some more about what we’ve all been slowly looking at.

I whizzed past the enormous and sumptuously gorgeous portrait of an Italian opera singer in stunning pink satin whose name I forget, because I’d indulged myself by looking at it for a long long time only the day before, and set myself stoically to sketching Queen Victoria by Lowes Cato Dickinson. The room where it’s hung is small and I couldn’t get a good view for the crowd, but even allowing for that my drawing was pathetic (perhaps through lack of enthusiasm) and things didn’t really perk up when I found the next piece, a fantastically detailed painting of an elaborate baroque interior with the diminutive figures of the Emperor Napoleon lll and Empress Eugenie, by Guiseppe Castilione.
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There was only one thing to do – concentrate on tiny Napoleon and his Empress, and in the process somewhat surprisingly I found myself getting drawn into the painting and lost in its own world. It’s strangely three dimensional and gives you the weird feeling that you could be looking through a window into a separate but solid reality. I could only photograph it from an angle, and it’s poorly lit, but drawing it made it far more interesting than I could have imagined.
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Only five minutes to go, and I scuttled back to the entrance hall and two gigantic 1890’s Chinese bottle vases, porcelain and enamel and a rather horrible mixture of sky blue with wishy-washy yellow and coral pink. Not really my cup of tea but again, once I started drawing, I started to get seduced by the shape and intrigued by the decoration. What are those squiggly things around the middle that look a bit like bats? I didn’t have time to sketch them recognisably, but it turns out that they may in fact be bats after all – red bats. A monk from the Buddhist centre is coming in on Tuesday to help with some interpretation…..
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Ten minutes spent looking at a work of art either seems like the blink of an eye or an eternity, depending on what you normally do in galleries. There are times when I flash past a painting or a piece of pottery without a second glance because I don’t much like the look of it. But there’s so much to see, when you stop and stand and stare. And some of it very surprising. It’s good to be challenged this way; I should do it more often.

Nosocomephobia

I have an on-going, occasional project where from time to time I explore drawing, and fear, and particularly the way drawing something that’s troubling or scary can affect the way I feel about it. This is part five; these are the previous posts – part one, part two, part three, part four.

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There’s a word for the fear of hospitals. I looked it up, since there’s a word for most fears – it’s
nosocomephobia, a word I don’t know how to pronounce, which is a good thing because since I can’t hear it in my head I can detach myself from it quite easily and reassure myself that my anxiety around hospitals is not really a phobia, just a learned response.

This shouldn’t surprise me as I’ve had a history of hospital experiences that started with an admission when I was was two and a half, and another when I was six, both of which I remember as difficult times despite kindly nurses and frequent family visits. They must have contributed to the sinking feeling I get when faced with a hospital appointment, and they’ve been reinforced over the years with a considerable number of nasty moments supporting my husband through emergencies, admissions and treatments.

So now, whatever I actually see or hear or experience makes no difference – the older memories are hard-wired in me.
Or so I thought.

Last weekend I was admitted as a day-patient for minor surgery to a hospital I hadn’t attended before (which was a bonus – no specific memories attached -) and all my preconceived anxieties were dissolved away, as one by one each thing on my list of nasty possibilities not only failed to happen but was replaced by something reassuring and wonderful. The sun shone all morning. I sat waiting in the sunlit ward after being seen by the warmly sympathetic consultant (whose attitude was so exceptional, as consultants go, that it made me feel dizzy), and as I lay on my back in the operating theatre gazing at the stainless steel ceiling and chatting to the sweetly smiling theatre nurses, I wondered if all this was simply a miracle, (which I’m quite prepared to believe) or if I had, just perhaps, assisted the miraculous by arriving that morning in a different state of mind……

Just two weeks earlier I’d been in a different hospital for a different reason and in a different state of mind, this time as driver-and-carer and not patient, and I was distinctly nervous and wobbly. All the buttons that get pushed when I’m in a hospital situation were fully activated, and needing some focus and a chance to re-balance I took refuge in the coffee shop, found a corner table and whipped out a sketchbook. I sat and sketched whoever I could watch without drawing attention, and without thinking – simply observing. Patients, relatives, friends and carers, and surgeons on their coffee break. People, doing ordinary things. It calmed me instantly, as I knew it would.

I didn’t think much about it at the time, but looking back I realise that drawing there that morning did more than just give me a reassuring focus; it gave me a different viewpoint – an imperceptible shift of angle so that I was soaking up the ordinariness of the place, the way this is a normal place of work that happens to be a busy city hospital. I watched two surgeons in blue surgical gowns queuing for their coffee orders and chatting as they waited, and saw them as people. As customers waiting in line, having to be patient and wait their turn, talking to each other. Only later did I get to wondering what they’d be doing to once their coffee break was over….

Once again, drawing comes to the rescue, educates me into seeing what’s really there instead of what my mind imagines. Like putting on a pair of reality spectacles, opening me to learn about what’s actually going on. Reminding me to expect – nothing; to be open to everything, as it happens – and just to be there.

Going With The Flow

Anyone following my posts for the last few weeks will know I’m in the middle of exploring drawing and fear – but I felt I needed a break so this is a brief detour for a short exploration of something else. Like most artists I love playing with new materials and exploring what they can do, and I just had the chance to try out some new permanent inks for fountain pens……

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Whatever you do in life, well designed tools and materials that are responsive make you happy. And when you combine a certain amount of skill with the right tools and a relaxed attentive state of mind, what you get is flow.

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Anyway for anyone who sketches in ink and watercolour these new inks by Rohrer and Klingner are worth exploring, so if you’re a bit of an art materials addict or just rather fond of drawing with a fountain pen (so much better than using a fineliner) – you may be interested in a really in-depth review of how they perform that I’ve written here.

So that was my brief technical break; normal posting will resume shortly!