Every Leaf Tells A Story

Leaves fall in their thousands,
possibly their millions;
a landscape lit from below
like golden snow.

And as I stand and gaze, slowly
breathing golden air,
enter (stage left), a man
with dog.

‘Autumn leaves!’ he says
and ‘wonderful’ I reply,
watching the dog
nose down, pulling at the leash.

‘Ah, wonderful, except’ –
(and here he smiles)
‘he has to sniff
every
single
leaf‘.

It’s been a while since I posted here and it feels good to be back. I’ve been drawing and writing and posting on my other blog but I’ve slipped out of the habit of slowing down and being more reflective, so I hope to put this right.

It’s not that I haven’t been noticing things – but more perhaps that I haven’t been giving them enough space. And having a place to put thoughts like this is like having a quiet garden set aside, to sit in and not to think, and just to let things grow. It’s a good season for change.

I Am That Horse

Watercolour drawing; close-up of a horse's eye

From time to time I think about the title of this blog. Ever wondered why it’s called Invisible Horse? I thought I knew, and I’ve talked about it before, even if sometimes I was explaining it to myself in the way I have to when something does make absolute sense but I’m not quite sure why.

One explanation is that horses have always run deep through my life as a constant thread, as far as I know from the day I was born because I don’t remember a time when this wasn’t so, even though there were no visible horses or ponies in my life until about the age of six when I finally started to ride and spend time with ponies (from which time on I thought of little else until the age of about sixteen). But even then this thread was never broken. They’re always there, the feel and the smell and the sense of them, and I only have to catch sight of a real live horse and I sort of melt and everything else drops away.

Thankfully I know there are other people like me, and this isn’t a kind of madness (although on the other hand perhaps it is). Some of them explain all this much better than I can – like Anna Blake, in her blog Relaxed and Forward – she knows how this feels, and how it always has…. ‘Maybe a better question is what is it about horses that hook us so deeply? I’m not being rhetorical; since the beginning of time, when horses first started trying to domesticate us, we’ve painted them on cave walls, burst into tears watching them run, and for some of us, took the blame when we fell short.’

But not too long ago I stumbled upon Andrea Datz’s blog Integrative Horsemanship,and now I know exactly why this title of mine has always been so right. The Invisible Horse is me.

Watercolour drawing of trotting horse

Earlier this year I wrote a series of posts called Letters To Myself, trying to be more self-sensitive, aware and compassionate, trying to plant signposts that were supposed to say, stop! Look! Here’s the way, and actually you know it……! But I’m not too good at these conversations, or rather I don’t listen or take the advice. I carry on in the wrong direction. When I notice (for the twentieth time in an hour, often) that my jaw is tight, my shoulders are hunched, my stomach’s in a knot, I’m liable to snap irritably and tell myself oh, for goodness sake, get a grip, stop doing this! And it’s not effective. It’s not even polite. It’s certainly not respectful. And the thing is, what I now realise is that although it seems I don’t know how to behave towards myself, I do know a bit about how to behave with a horse.

It’s been a long time since I worked with horses but it’s there, inside, as clearly as if it were yesterday – all the sensations intact – and the feeling is strong. I need to talk with myself as I’d talk to a horse.

Andrea speaks horse. She’s learned to slow down, to pay attention, to wait and to observe. She’s learned to let horses be horses, to speak in their own way through body language and resonance, teaching her to understand what they’re saying. And how she accomplished this is important – because as she describes it was largely by paying close attention to herself – to her own emotions, her nervous system, her reactions and responses – all the things humans ignore and repress.

The language of horse is subtle and easily missed or overlooked. So is the equally expressive body-language of humans (something else we don’t pay enough attention to). The language of my inner horse – my Invisible Horse – is subtle too, but easy enough to understand when I give it the chance and let it speak, and the best thing is that I immediately want to take up the conversation because I recognise it, and I’m happy to listen and respond.

There’s an African greeting, Sawubona, that means ‘I see you’. The response, Ngikhona means ‘I am here’. The sense in this Zulu greeting is that in a way, until you saw me, I didn’t exist. *

Sawubona, Invisible Horse. Ngikhona.

Notes on the sources:

Thanks to Bridget Edwards for the definition of Sawubona and Ngikhona.

I sketched both these watercolours using photos from Andrea Datz’s blog as a source. They were both painted directly in watercolour with no initial drawing in pencil or pen, partly as an exercise in Marc Taro Holmes’ current #30x30DirectWatercolor2018 challenge for the month of June. But there was another reason for me to paint like this, which I only understood while doing it, and that was to work more instinctively and responsively than I would if I’d drawn first and then painted. Another kind of communication, I suppose. I know enough about horses to see all the errors I’ve made in the drawing, but I’ll let that go. The painting was what mattered.

Barbed Wire and Fairy Lights

I find it hard to know what to say these days. This last week, watching the new order play out under newly installed president Trump has been a bit like standing in a blizzard. I’ve found it hard to take in, and exhausting; if it’s having this effect on me here in Britain, I can only imagine how it feels on the other side of the Atlantic. When my thoughts are in a tangle, I write; when I can’t think, I draw, and often I discover more that way. 

Barbed wire from the trenches, 1st World War

My local museum has a cabinet with a miscellaneous collection of objects from the first world war and on Thursday, the day Theresa May travelled to Washington as the first world leader to meet Donald Trump I found myself standing in front of this display drawing strands of barbed wire from the trenches on the western front. I don’t have the words to describe how I felt, studying this stuff, thinking about what it means to create barriers of this kind and the horrors of what this did. I stood there drawing and thinking about walls, and fences, and detention centres; about refusing refugees. About people who are now living in increasing uncertainty and fear, and how the whole world is now a more uncertain place for everyone. 

I thought a lot after I’d come home with this drawing about what its opposite would be. Closing my eyes and drifting off to sleep that night I thought about Amnesty International’s symbol of a burning candle surrounded by barbed wire…….. 

Faced with such immediate threats to democracy, to freedom of speech and freedom of movement, being fed lies and witnessing ever more division and racism and hatred – it’s hard to know what to do, what to say, or how to say it. It’s overwhelming and intimidating, and it’s easy to feel that there’s nothing I could do that could possibly make the slightest difference. But neither can I bear to stand by and not do anything. I keep thinking of those words of Edmund Burke’s, “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” As true today as it was 200 years ago (except that today he would have said men and women). I can’t go on marches, the way thousands did last weekend all around the world. I can support organisations like Amnesty, I can show solidarity and add my signature to petitions and write to my MP. But none of these make me feel as if I’m creating any light in the darkness. 

I spend the first few minutes of every day after waking up simply filling the landscape of my heart and mind with light. I imagine I’m watching the sun rise and I watch it hit the tops of distant mountains and gradually flow down the slopes and into every valley. I consciously try to feel the warmth of the sun, and I greet it with every part of me. If I can start the day filled with light, it makes a difference to the way I read the news, the way I talk over breakfast with my husband, the way I think when I go out shopping, when I drive the car, when I speak to the assistant at the supermarket checkout. I smile more often. I think fewer dark thoughts, I’m less anxious and more relaxed. 

I think this can produce a chain reaction. I think it often does. 

Like a tiny ant, I’m not going to look up at the towering ant-hill above me and think, I can’t do this, building this is beyond me. I can simply be a good ant and do what I can as well as possible – and actually that feels good. And then I realise that there are thousands – millions – of us out there doing the same thing, glowing not terribly brightly but glowing all the same, and together we’re lighting the darkness like a string of fairy lights. 

Then I knew what I had to draw. 

Spanish Solutions

(I’m trying to practise my rusty Spanish. Don’t be alarmed; a translation follows. My idea is to write posts in both languages from time to time.) 

No hago propósitos del nuevo año. No tengo suficiente energía ni voluntad, asi prefiero proponerse intenciones, (evidentemente algo diferente) y este año tengo dos: practicar español cuando y en cualquier manera que pueda y hacer más dibujos. Pensé hacer los dos a la vez – publicar aqui de vez en cuando bocetos de mi cuaderno y escribir en ambos lenguas, español y inglés. 

Bien, este dibujo – es una raíz enredada que fueron la única cosa en el parque cuando estaba allí otro día haciendo bocetos que tenía colores cálidos, o por lo menos más cálido que lo demás del paisaje de invierno. 

Me gusta intentar usar una lengua otra que la mía. Aunque que me cuesta bastante, una ventaja es que tengo que pensar sencillamente, siempre una cosa buena. 

Gracias a quienquiera que sea leyendo! 

***

I don’t make new year’s resolutions. I don’t have the strength or determination so I prefer to have intentions (obviously something quite different) and this year I have two; to practise Spanish whenever and however I can and to do more drawing. I thought I’d do both at the same time – publish sketchbook drawings here from time to time and write in both Spanish and English. 

So, this drawing is of a tangled root that that was the only thing in the park the other day when I was there sketching that had warm colours, or at least colours that were warmer than the rest of the winter landscape. 

I like trying to use a language other than my own. Although it’s quite an effort one advantage is that I have to think simply, which is always a good thing. 

Thanks to whoever may be reading this! 

Postscript:

Writing (or trying to write) precisely the same thing in two languages when you’re nowhere near fluent in the one that’s not your own is very much harder than I’d – stupidly – thought it would be. I may have to give up this idea and do an approximate and relaxed translation. Besides which I obviously think differently in English (because I can) and trying to say exactly the same thing has made me write in an odd way that I don’t quite recognise. Oh well. A work in progress. 

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.

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.

A Bird Out Of Hand

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Today is another one of those National Days in the USA – and one I didn’t want to miss – National Draw a Bird Day. But since I’m having a bad day myself and have had to spend most of it in bed, drawing from life wasn’t an option. Cliffe Castle museum is where I would have headed, as usual. I had it in mind to sketch the Passenger Pigeon which would have been appropriate, being American and being extinct (I thought I’d use the opportunity to celebrate it and mourn it at the same time) but it’s not an easy specimen to draw as it’s kept in an especially gloomy light to conserve it, and it’s such a sad bird anyway because of its sensitive looks and its extinctness that up to now I haven’t been able to being myself to draw it.

I settled for sketching from a photo, something I find extremely difficult (Charlie O’Shields is so good at this!) and since drawing a bird in flight from life is practically impossible I thought I might as well try a full-wing-stretch caught-in-mid-air kind of thing. Sigh! Sadly it looks less lively than the dead stuffed birds I sketch in the museum. Oh well. I’m glad to have been able to join in!

Day Of The Rat

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After having so much fun drawing a ferret for National Ferret Day, I couldn’t pass up the chance to sketch a rat for the US National Day of the Rat on Monday 5th and join the Doodlewash April challenge for a second time. Coincidentally unless I’ve got this wrong, in America today is also National Walk Around It Day – (yes, really) something that could be construed in a number of ways, but I imagine it’s something many people would be inclined to do if they came upon a dead rat, and encountering a live one many people would scream and wave their arms in the air, or throw things, and call the pest control people.

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I don’t feel this way about rats, though I’d be wary as I know they do sometimes live in sewers and can deliver a nasty bite (if provoked) but actually they’re very clean animals, and I’ve even wondered occasionally about the idea of having one as a pet.

The rat I drew today is a Brown Rat, and like the ferret it’s a stuffed specimen in Cliffe Castle museum. (I think it may have faded; it’s honey-coloured and I’ve seen rats outside in the park that are a lot browner than that.) There’s a Black Rat in the same display case for comparison – and I didn’t realise how small these are, and also how much less lovable they look – so much so that I think this would even be a contender for my series on drawing things that are frightening. (Though of course the taxidermist could have deliberately made it look this way; I have to keep reminding myself that taxidermy is an art, open to expression and not always very successful. There’s a duck-billed platypus in the mixed foreign species cabinet that looks sadly like a cow-pat with a beak and flippers.) Black Rats are the ones that were responsible for spreading bubonic plague and came to this country on ships, which must have made an ideal habitat as they’re climbers (easy to scamper up all that rigging and across gang-planks) rather than burrowers, which is what their brown cousins prefer to do. Though apparently Brown Rats are also not native to Britain and first came here in the 18th century.

Sketching this made me wonder if what people mostly dislike is the tail. Hairless and snake-like. If it had a tail like a squirrel, or even like a ferret, might it have greater appeal? Or is it just memories of bubonic plague that makes people shudder? Either way I’m still not worried by any part of the Brown Rat, and I’d still be tempted to have one as a pet. For now I make do with an even softer, more cuddly version, the one that lives on my window sill and which I pick up and stroke from time to time…
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