year one part one: jumping in feet first

I had already booked two consecutive courses at West Dean in January and they fitted in with my plan very well.The first was “Winter Trees in Pencil and Charcoal” and the second “Creative Ink Drawing”.

I felt enthusiastic about the trees as they were within my comfort zone of landscape. I set off with my sketch pad, but was daunted by the sheer expanse of the landscape and how to use it. Although I relied on my memory a lot, I had always used cropped photos as a starting point and spent a long time composing. Having to do it on site seemed impossible. My sketches for etching had been minimal as the textures did the work. I didn’t even know what 2B, 4B and 6B would do and had no mark making vocabulary for reference. Connie, whom I knew already from a previous course, put on a hat and storm coat, tied a pashmina round her bum and set off into the icy morning. She came back bedraggled, but with some spontaneous sketches I would have loved to have done. I felt pathetic.Then I got a grip, used some new methods from the close observation work we had done in the studio to draw the foreground branches and tried to use the different pencils to convey distance and variety. It just about worked, but I was still fighting shy.

Creative Ink Drawing looked promising. I knew that if the worst came to the worst I could unleash my inner German Expressionist. Did I mention my hidden Nolde? I have always been two artists.One is a finicky perfectionist who always gets mired in detail.The other appears later when I get impatient and bored and throws things about a bit. In etching I made the two operate together, starting precisely and then swiping spitbite about to give a bit of mood.This may be what attracts me to ink as it will do both. A big swish of background and texture then some fiddly bits – but please, not too many. John Piper did it perfectly.

Felicity, our tutor, had us all firmly under control.There was no chance of being a prima donna, so I set off obediently for the Oak Hall to get to grips with a bit of panelling, some heavy brocade curtains and an old armchair. Definitely new territory for me.


30 minute sketch in the oak hall

I used Ingres paper for the first time and was astonished to produce quite a nice little pen drawing.Then I changed tack with a leafy plant and did something completely different in 10 minutes.


10 minute plant sketch in ink

Our next task was a pencil sketch of a corner of West Dean. I did two ink paintings, one in Indian ink and the other in Cornelissen French sepia.The sepia was a bit of a revelation, as it has a viscous quality which pools well and gives a glistening texture. Samuel Palmer often used this in his landscapes and it works particularly well on tinted papers.

Working next day on quick, large scale fruit and veg studies in Indian and acrylic inks left no time for deliberation. By then I was getting used to the feel of the ink and holding back on the excessive detail. I do think I caught the juiciness of the pomegranates!


two pomegranates

Back home, I started my new small sketch book with some ink drawings. I hit on the idea of going through my day, so I started with (after all, there is a precedent) “My Unmade Bed” and followed it with “What’s the Weather Like ?” and “A Choice of Woollies”. These were unexpectedly difficult. I’d decided to go ahead and not bother too much about the accuracy, but of course I ended up struggling with shelves and folded fabrics, outside and inside views, and how to vary my range of marks so that I could convey textures, shadows and worst of all, smoothness.The simplest everyday things were a nightmare to draw. I was not very inspired by the results and somehow everything looked furry. The knitwear of an old hippie .Can do better.


a choice of woollies

I tried some observation work in pencil. Seduced by the beauty of a turnip in the farm shop, I decided to put it with a pale hellebore as a representation of January. I have an uneasy relationship with turnips. Aged five, I ate the whole of the inside of a raw one on Halloween afternoon and vomited spectacularly for most of the night. I still can’t stand the smell of them cooking. Anyway, this one was OK, I kept my distance and did a reasonable drawing.The hellebore had to be done first, and quickly before it wilted – which it did by the end of the day, sinking lower all the time and finally expiring before I had time to put in its shadow. Can an artist estimate a shadow? Not this one, certainly. However, I was quite pleased with the way I managed this time to vary the pencils and their tones.


january hellebore and turnip

I must have been the first visitor at “Turner and the Elements” in Margate, determined to get there before it was featured on the telly. It was memorable; a beautifully conceived exhibition, full of inspiring works. I found it very helpful because Turner obviously just got on with it, anywhere, anyhow. Some of the sketches were little bits of whirlwind, patches of sky etc. and yet stood alone. Several pieces gave me that stinging feeling behind the eyes which means art has hit the spot.

I’m starting a mark making anthology in a little sketch book. So many artists have idiosyncratic ways of filling a drawing space. Ravilious is different from Hockney who is different from Matisse. I’m hoping it will open my eyes to working in pencil and ink and build up a store of ideas.

My last achievement for January was an ink and wash piece from life (or should I say from the car). I’m out there, but not battling the elements yet. I have to resolve the fact that despite being an etcher, I’m very clumsy and can’t manipulate the brushes, paint, water etc. all at the same time. However, I did the wash bits first, which I found liberating, and used the pen marks just give it form and a bit of detail. I’ll admit that I am getting interested.The colours worked well and the whole thing did have a freshness, so I’m keen to try again.


fields by the sea

Next month
february year one: the best laid plans meet watercolour