Letters for the twelve months to come

Small white feather fallen on dry leaves


Softness

Standing at the doorway of a new year and just about to put a foot forwards, I realise there are certain words that I wish for myself during the journey through the next twelve months. Pausing and reflecting (a good time to do this, today, with a pale grey light in the window and the sound of rain on the glass) I know there are things I want to embrace and other things that I want to let go. These are not resolutions exactly, nor even intentions – they’re more in the way of senses, feelings, perhaps ways of being, and to write about them or try to explain them in anything more than a whisper would be to bring them under a harsh spotlight that will not help me remember them any better.

I don’t set goals. But I like the idea of way-markers, or torches to light a gloomy bit of path, or firesides to come home to. 

So here for the next few days I’ll share a handful of these – whatever you like to call them. They’re like one-word letters addressed to myself, to carry with me on the next bit of the journey, and at the end of the year I’ll be able to spread them out and look at them, and gaze at the way I’ve come, and ponder…. 

New Brush…New Possibilities

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I have a new brush, and like the new pen I recently bought it brings with it all kinds of new and interesting possibilities. It’s unlike any brush I’ve ever used before because it’s a brush that thinks it’s a pen – it fills with water like a fountain pen fills with ink, and the brush is where a nib would be. It’s called a Water Brush and it’s quite weird to use. I need practice.

I tried it out by doing a quick sketch of my neighbour’s front garden, full of winter pruned bushes all hunched and huddled in the dusk on a cold afternoon.

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For some time now I’ve been trying to wake up my drawing practice from a state of hibernation, and the more I draw, the more I want to; everyday things that I see all the time are becoming things I simply can’t ignore. Colours jump out at me. Shapes catch my eye. Pattern, texture, light and shadow have my attention before I’ve even realised it. Today this patch of garden is full of dark colour; tomorrow it may well be transformed by snow.

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This Water Brush is a clever thing. If you squeeze the soft plastic body of the brush, the water flows out more quickly into the bristles and you can pick up colour straight from a watercolour pan; then when you apply colour to the paper you can soften it out as more clean water flows into the bristles. It takes a bit of getting used to, but it means that you could manage without a water pot, great for sketching on location.

There are so many reasons to draw, just as there are lots of reasons to write, but they’re both things that need to be practised all the time if you’re going to do them even passably well. Andrea Badgley just wrote a great piece for the Daily Post on using a writing prompt box to kick start those times when you can’t get the words to flow. I use WordPress writing and photography challenges as prompts, but I often want to post drawings and it got me wondering why there’s no weekly WordPress drawing challenge. There are lots of artists and illustrators and urban sketchers out there who are WordPress bloggers.
Anyone else like the sound of this idea?

Note: I’ve published this post at the same time in a slightly different form on another WordPress blog of mine. If you come across it, for the record it’s not been pirated or plagiarised by anyone except me.

Telling The Truth

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I wrote in my sketchbook, “this is no exaggeration” – it isn’t a caricature. Drawn rapidly from a distance of 30 yards, in strong sunlight, all the inaccuracies are due to speed, a moving subject and lack of skill…..

I’m not always as honest as I could be, or should be – not even to myself; and being dishonest, even just slightly, can get to be a habit. You can start out small, with something that’s just a bit of an exaggeration and then before you know it you’re saying something else that isn’t quite true, and after a while you stop noticing. It becomes part of the way you express yourself.

When I first went to art college way back in the 1970’s I could already draw because I’d been doing it all my life, and I practised enthusiastically while I studied illustration. I became pretty good at producing work that was convincing and good to look at. I confess that with the ignorance and arrogance of youth I was rather pleased with myself and my drawing skills. If I hadn’t changed courses, if I hadn’t abandoned what looked like a promising beginning and struck out into the unknown, things would have been different; but after a while I found myself on a different course in a different college and, as part of my first year in fine art, doing a three week life drawing course in a remote and isolated old building in London’s Surrey Docks (which was at that time an undeveloped wasteland). The tutor for this course was Harry Thubron, who I now know was one of the best drawing teachers of his time and who revolutionised art education in England (though at the time I had no idea who he was).

Harry and his wife Elma taught us together as a team, which was just as well because by this time in his life Harry’s health was deteriorating, his communication skills diminishing, but nevertheless he was still a forceful and intimidating presence. He shuffled about behind us watching as we drew, peering over our shoulders and seldom saying much, hunched inside an old overcoat and smelling strongly of garlic. Elma was the one who gave us directions and interpreted Harry’s occasional muttered remarks, but as a team the two of them were formidably effective as teachers, and I realise now, strangely compassionate. They knew what they were doing. Together they quickly and thoroughly disassembled all I thought I was good at and changed forever the way I thought about drawing.

It took a full week of pain and confusion before everything I thought I knew and was good at was pulled out from underneath me, and I understood for the first time that drawing is really not about making beautiful marks on paper, but about the process of understanding through looking and exploring. You draw from a place inside yourself that is not available to you when you think. (Harry was fond of saying ‘When you’re drawing, you should cut off the top of your head’, a startling remark interpreted for us by Elma in case we hadn’t grasped the meaning and might be even more worried than we already were). You learn to use your eyes and trust them, and stop concerning yourself about how things look on the paper in front of you. You look, and look, and while looking you try to register that understanding and draw as honestly as possible – on a sheet of white paper with a pencil, or a stick of charcoal, or – as we frequently did during those three weeks – with a bit of broken stick and black ink.

I don’t think I’ve ever been so uncomfortable and at times so totally lost and miserable as I was at the beginning of those three weeks of the spring term. It was February, dreary and cold, and as we were miles from anywhere in the bleak wastes of the abandoned docks there was no distraction and no escape. But little by little I began to understand that I was learning something more important than I’d ever learnt before, something that fundamentally changed the way I understood drawing. I’d been good at putting up a show that was not much more than smoke and mirrors; now I had to take a deep breath and start again.

You can’t unlearn something like this, and thankfully I never have, but you can still choose to ignore it. The difference is that ever since those weeks in the Surrey Docks I’ve never done a drawing without being aware of whether I’m being honest, or whether I’m winging it. And another thing – it’s a transferable skill; the same is just as true for writing, and even (gulp) speaking, and (even bigger gulp, and a sigh) – thinking. I know, if I just stop to be aware of it, whether I’m being honest or not – and then I have a choice.

Honest drawings are remarkable, powerful things. Through following Shari Blaukopf’s lovely blog The Sketchbook I recently discovered Richard Johnson and his work as reporter and illustrator for the Washington Post. (Eternal thanks to Shari for this introduction). His drawings, and his writing, overwhelm me; I spent three consecutive evenings looking at everything I could find, being moved and stirred and woken up, loving everything I saw and read. His are some of the most beautfully honest drawings I’ve ever seen, and they do more for me than any photograph can (many readers obviously feel the same; Richard responded to the following he had for his postings from Afghanistan with this piece written on his return). I also felt the urgent need to do more drawing myself (though however much I practise I’ll never be able to do drawings as good as these.)

Ultimately, there’s no satisfaction in being dishonest with yourself or anyone else. It leads irrevocably in the wrong direction, undermines you and feels shaky and shallow, whereas even the quickest sketch (drawn or written) feels satisfying and right if it’s honest. I still find it hard to do and mostly I fail, but at least I know when I’m doing it wrong and recognise the rare occasions when I’m doing it right; and when I find work like Richard Johnson’s I can enjoy it and celebrate it for the rare and wonderful thing that it is.

I Remembered To Plant Daffodils

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Last November I remembered to plant daffodil bulbs, and almost a month ago now, up they came, and flowered. I’m a hopeless gardener; I amost never plan, and when I do I often get it wrong and plant things in totally the wrong places, but I always get excited when I see green shoots appearing from beneath bare earth and it always seems miraculous.

The daffodils stand amongst a sea of wild celandines which arrive unbidden and cover every inch of open soil, but I can’t bear to tear them out; I welcome them every bit as much as the plants I put in myself and I’m grateful that they feel at home.

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The flowers open and close again during the course of the day as warmth and sunlight reaches them in the morning and then fades away in the evening. Opening, closing; one of the natural cycles that is easy to see. I watch them from the kitchen  window as I stand washing dishes, and gaze down on them from the bedroom window first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Qigong is all about opening and closing, too; the movements are circular, everything flows. I have taken to practising Tai Chi in the garden.

Mostly I practise just standing, which is not as easy as it sounds but which my body seems to find strangely familiar, as if this is something it already knows how to do and has always known. In fact I’m beginning to suspect that my body knows an awful lot about healing, and even untutored could accomplish miracles if only I would listen to it and let it teach me. It’s so easy to forget but it just needs time, and patience, and the simple matter of paying attention.

Learning To Stand Like A Tree

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I’m trying to learn Tai Chi – or actually, Qi Gong (no need to get technical but sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference) – and it’s turning out to be one of those why have I waited so long to do this? kind of experiences.

I love learning; in fact if I’m not in the process of learning something or other I feel that I’m in some way stuck, that the doors and windows of my life are closed and I’m not really alive. Like WordPresser Pamela Young, I’m a Magpie Learner – I tick all the boxes on her aptly described list of what makes a learner of this kind, and I love knowing there are others out there who feel that if they’re not learning they’re not living, and can’t wait to take on something new. But I’m not good at learning in a normal or formal way; I prefer to explore and discover, to root out and experiment, and this can be a meandering and unpredictable way of doing things.

In the end I found learning simple Qi Gong from videos was a great introduction. Once I’d spent time weeding out the good from the bad (and this took some doing, as I doggedly viewed my way through hours of YouTube footage, watching everything from home movies of performances against a backdrop of wild nature, to pedantic descriptions of how to stand in exactly the right way and use measuring devices to correct the angles of your arms and legs) I ended up with a short collection of clear demonstrations (and some fascinating background information) which means I can now practise simple moves and postures and be pretty sure I’m getting it right. I would love to learn at first hand from a good teacher, but for now at least I’ve got a road map, courtesy of some the best teachers there are through the medium of the internet (and I’ll put some links below).

There have been surprises. I hadn’t realised how just standing still in a certain way and sensing and releasing the tensions throughout your body can make you slide naturally into relaxation much more easily than, for me anyway, a sitting meditation can. And the slow, rythymic movements of Tai Chi automatically slow your mind down to the pace of your body – it’s as if you can feel the wheels engaging and then gradually, effortlessly moving together in a slow hypnotic descent. I’ve never felt anything like it – except when I’m walking slowly and aimlessly in the woods, being rather than doing, seeing and feeling rather than thinking. (Another discovery is that Tai Chi is said to be even more effective when practised out of doors and particularly under trees; I’ve tried this out and would swear it’s true. Ten minutes practice under an enormous spreading copper beech the other day and I felt I was walking on air, and even my eyesight was clearer. Colours were brighter. Everything looked crisp.)

The most unexpected thing of all has been finding that it simply makes me happy. I can’t understand why it should but it does, reliably and somehow without my noticing – until the realisation steals over me and I smile. Even the names of some of the movements make me feel good; White Crane Spreads Its Wings; Parting The Horse’s Mane; Calming the Waters of the Heart; and my absolute favourite – Immortal Paddles Boat. Yes, really! This one is an easy relaxation or song gong exercise; every time I even think about it I smile, and when I actually do it the smile often spills over into laughter. Its ridiculous; I feel like a child running in a playground, swinging on a swing, laughing for no reason. Immortal paddles boat. It’s wonderful.

Standing Qi Gong is a practice all of its own; you hold a position and ‘stand like a tree’, rooted, still, balanced, while at the same time staying relaxed and supple, simply noticing and accepting all sounds and sensations, being aware of energy. Now I not only walk in the woods and gaze at trees – I’ve found a way to exercise like one. Isn’t life extraordinary?

 

Various resources – in no particular order

Rolling The Ball by Dan Kleinman

5 YouTube Videos You Can Actually Learn From by Dan Kleinman

Daily Qigong – 4 minute exercise by Don Fiore

Tai Chi Standing Exercise from Beginners Tai Chi website

Qigong: the art of developing vital energy from shaolin.org