Taking your drawing outside

How to take the skills you’ve learned on a small scale into the outdoors.

Go on a small local expedition first.

A Simple Kit. Take familiar materials which are convenient and easily portable. What are you most comfortable with? Perhaps just starting with a 2B pencil and small sketchbook is easiest – you can fit thos into a pocket. A little case of select coloured pencils? You can work with 12 and make most colours. Take a camera too, if you like to record information that way. It’s especially useful for things which are transient or in motion and are hard to capture without that magic of being able to freeze them in a photo.

Clothing. Wear clothes and shoes or boots in which you will be comfortable, and will protect you from whatever elements are at play – whether it’s sun, wind, or even rain. Remember if you are standing for any length of time without moving, you will cool off, so might need another layer, thicker socks, a hat. How are you going to access your materials? A small bag or a pocket might be enough. Decide if you are happy standing or sitting on the ground; you could take a small stool, or something waterproof to sit on (I often sit on my waterproof trousers, or a carrier bag, on the ground).

Optional: portable cup of tea. I always take one! Some water is a good idea, especially in hot conditions. When drawing one can forget the passage of time and ‘come to’ feeling hungry and thirsty.

Start walking. Amble, in a non-purposeful, easy way. You want to feel unpressured and be able to pay attention to what’s around you. One way to do this is to pay attention to your senses – not just sight, but scents, and sounds; the feel of the ground, the smell of the earth, the noise made by your footfall, and any sounds you can hear, whether wildlife or man-made. These can help you get into the ‘right mode’ way of being, which is optimal for creativity (see Betty Edwards, Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, for more about that).

Look and See. What catches your attention? Here are some things which caught my eye three different local outings recently, two in gardens, one on the river Wey.

The subtle colours of the mossy rocks, and their shapes, against the leaf mould; the strong lines of the lock sides gates and the water pouring over the gates; the texture of the delicate spring flowers and the path receding away to …who knows where?

Start simple. All those things which apply to drawing small subjects indoors apply outside, it’s just on a different scale. You might start with drawing a detail – some leaves, some bark. If you’re drawing a scene, the trick is to focus on the larger aspects first – the large shapes, the colour contrasts, the textures and what marks might convey them. Make studies, not a finished drawing: get the composition right with a quick sketch of the large shapes; record the colour, either with colour swatches or notes about what colours are there; make some sketches of the details. This is drawing as a process, to learn about the subject.

Set a time limit. Draw for 10 minutes, to capture some element of what interests you. Draw for longer and you’ll have more time to investigate some other elements, as above.

I don’t really draw this fast….

Revist. If it’s local you can go back and look some more. There is always more to see; one reason for specialsing in a subject matter is because it takes time to truly see that subject and get to know it.

If you are anxious about being observed. A small sketchbook is very hard for others to look into. You can discourage looking with your body-language, hiding behind sunglasses or wearing a large hat! However, in my experience if anyone is curious, it is because thay have an interest in art and wish they could do it themselves. They might even be wishing they had your spirit of adventure to try.

Have you tried drawing outside? I would love to hear about your experiences: how was it? and perhaps what you drew, if you’re willing to share. Did any questions arise for you? Use the comments section below or send me a message via the contact form.

5th May: Two years of Zoom Art for the RSN

On 5th May 2022 it will be two years since I ran the first pilot Zoom session for the Royal School of Needlework – it was the last of a three-day drawing course, of which the first two days were delivered in person at Hampton Court.

The virus moved fast. By 23rd March we were in lockdown, a word I had not been aware of before the arrival of Coronavirus. I had one final drawing session to run of that three day course, as well as a ragular class of my own and a monthly ukulele group session I was responsible for- so lots of things which I wanted to keep going if I could find a way. I ran the first ukulele group session on 24th March 2020, with quite a bit of anxiety and finding the lack of feedback strange – I remember it felt very one way, me projecting outward. But it was better than not meeting at all.

As I remember, I’d spent April getting used to Zoom and training my various students and ukulele group members how to work it. I got my own local drawing class going online on 30th March. I’d run a few sessions for the ukers and my own class weekly so I was in a good position to respond when Noleen, responsible for organising day classes at the Royal School of Needlework, asked me to try the remaining drawing session online on 5th May. I had an old webcam strapped onto an overhead lamp with a bit of masking tape, which I used to show my paper and the exercises during the session, and I used my facilitation skills to help everyone feel engaged and get them all interacting, which can be a challenge in Zoom. Students were so appreciative of the chance to go on learning online. Noleen was very enthusiastic and encouraging about trying it out, and very positive about the results.

The 5th May 2020 final drawing class session worked well enough on Zoom for the RSN to go forward with advertising and running online classes.

Over the next few months I upgraded my tech to a visualiser with high quality definition, organised my space at home more carefully for teaching and redesigned the RSN drawing classes in the summer of 2020 into the current series of 4, which offer a drawing pathway right from the beginning. We ran a massive number of them through 2020. I think I ran the series twice in August, 8 classes in all, and about 4 of the RSN Drawing Flowers classes through May and June in 2020… I’ve lost count of how many classes I have run for the RSN since, and how many people have completed them.

It’s interesting to look back on it from this perspective; to remember that time and how strange it was, and what has become normal as a result. People have joined from many countries and continue to do so. I’ve counted students from the US, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Spain, France, Belgium, Russia, and of course all over the UK and Wales, including a remote student in the Isle of Mull in Scotland.

Now, two years later, we are trying to find our way back towards normal life – but of course, some things have changed for ever. We can’t go back to the world we had before, but it turns out that the pandemic provided an opportunity as well as a crisis. One of those unforeseeable changes is that the RSN now has a permanent programme of online learning -for those who would never have come to Hampton Court in the UK, for those who can’t leave home very easily, and for those who are still shielding ‘online’ has opened up a new world.

For myself, my local class going online resulted in a community of students, who met in person at my Drawing weekend summer school in August 2021. I have another drawing weekend planned for this August, and it’s been great to come full circle – to finally meet in person those whom we’ve met and got to know online. More details about that here: https://carolinehomfray.co.uk/

For the current Royal School of Needlework online classes, embroidery and design: https://royal-needlework.org.uk/courses/day-classes/

For my own drop-in classes : https://carolinehomfray.co.uk/drawing/

On really seeing, and expressing.

It’s chilly out this morning. Across the river, the grass is a very pale blue-ish green with its coating of frost. The bare treetrunks are dark umber browns, with a surprising cast of purple around the haze of twigs at the ends of their branches. The deep browny purple is lifted by the golden ochre colour of the grasses nearby. Behind, the soft, indistinct masses of hedgerows and trees are the stubtlest hues of blues and purples.

I’m surveying my selection of coloured pencils, tuning in to find the ones which will enable me to create the right hues for the landscape I’m in, how they look to me at this point in the day, in these conditions of light and cold. This red-violet, this ochre, this turqouise blue… how will they work together? I’m absorbed, and even though I’ve seen this view many times a week over the last ten years, I haven’t seen this version of it before.

That’s one of the things drawing does for me; gives me a way to be present, to really look, and look again. It stops me assuming I know what things are, prevents me from getting stale and becoming bored by my surroundings – and how important has that been, since our lives have been circumscribed by the pandemic and kept close to home? What a gift, to have a way to see the familiar afresh.

It’s also a tactile process. I love to focus on the feel of soft, creamy pencils or paint sticks; the sudden burst of colour as water brings a solid paint block to life; the feel of a paint-loaded brush moving across the sandy texture of a heavy watercolour paper. Do I like how the paint sits on this paper, or that paper? Do I prefer the feel of this pencil, as it leaves a trace of pigment from the stroke I make, or that one? Finding materials which feel right is part of the process, grounding and comforting, connecting me with my own tastes in a small but crucial way.

Since March 2020 drawing has become a mainstay, and I am lucky to have been able to share it with my students. Real-life classes which I taught before the lockdowns became virtual, and instead of constricting my world, running them live online has enabled me to connect with others across the country and the world. I’ve had students from the US, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Spain, Brussels, Germany, and Russia join me and share their drawing journey together, many through the classes I teach at the Royal School of Needlework, and some from classes I run. I learn as much from students as they from me, and we have had moments of realisation, empowerment, joy, and laughter as we try things out, explore basic principles, find out what we like and don’t like, discover what we want to express, and how to encourage ourselves in the cradle of a supportive group.

I love to share what drawing gives to me, and to hear what it does for others, so I’m running another class for total beginners live online, starting on Janury 19th. It runs over three weeks on a Wednesday evening, via Zoom, and will be a small and supportive group. There will be plenty of opportunity to share and ask questions, but also no requirement to share if you don’t want to – after all, participants are at home and one of the benefits of that is that you can control your privacy. There wil be some suggestions of things to try between the sessions, and the chance to join one free Thursday evening or Monday morning drop-in session for free after the course, should you wish to. More information is available below on the learning page, and a link to book.

New: Thursday Evening Drawing Class, 21st Jan, 19.30 GMT

Now available to register your interest for. This is another drop-in drawing session like my Monday morning class, but timed for evening to suit workers and my American friends. Get your drawing gear, whatever you have – a biro and printer paper will get you started. Graphite pencils and some good quality coloured pencils will give you lots to explore. Check out the Drawing Page of my website for more information about materials, and use the contact form there to sign up.

These drop-in sessions are a chance to practise your skills, train your eye and also have a bit of fun. No outcome is required, you can choose the subject matter and what media you want to play with. We share the work of artists we like, think about how their work could influence us, experiment and doodle.

Just some things we’ve played with: ways of framing a composition, mark making experiments, measuring, perspective, colour theory, watery media, pens, doodling, choosing subjects, even drawing with our feet and mouth!

Drawing in lockdown and beyond

Wildflowers in Shalford

Drawing practice has always been sustaining for me, but in recent months it has often felt like the most grounded, steadying and real thing I’ve been doing.

The reduction of stimulation which happened straight away on the implementation of lockdown restrictions made those things which were left feel very important. My sense of time changed, and what mattered to be done changed. It became easier to spend time scrutinising the structure of a flower, or watch the flight of an insect, and it also felt important in a way it hasn’t before. It has become very clear to me that people have relied on the arts and culture to occupy them and give their lives meaning, and as a teacher of arts it has re-affirmed my commitment to that. The value of culture and art to our society beyond simply the amount of money it brings in as a industry has become much clearer.

I know for some this time has been perceived as a reduction in opportunities. I’m very aware of having been lucky so far, having blessedly stayed well, and those around me have stayed well, and their jobs have been safe. People’s desire for the arts, for learning and for finding meaning has brought me new students, through online teaching. I’m really enjoying having students from Canada, America, Australia and elsewhere in the UK in my classes now. I can think and prepare demonstrations, make video recordings and have found ways to help me share their own images with me and each other for comment.

There’s a real sense in each class of choosing to focus on something with meaning and find ways to keep doing it, keep looking, keep seeing the beauty and keep sharing, no matter what obstacles lie in the way.

On Drawing: Why it Matters.

‘I feel like I have new eyes – when I’m out for a run I keep stopping to look at shapes and colours I didn’t see before’. ‘I hadn’t realised just how intricate that shell is and how many colours there are in it.’ ‘I really have to concentrate, to look’…. just a few of the things students have said to me in drawing classes over the last few years.

My sister Sarah and I have been running drawing classes for about 3 years at the Royal School of Needlework in Hampton Court, Surrey. Sarah had initially designed the course for embroiderers who wanted more confidence to design their stitched pieces; we offered it at Hampton Court with great success, succeeding in giving students confidence, tools and the courage to experiment and believe in their own vision.

In the teaching I’ve bcome more aware find drawing has a great value for itself, for centring my focus, calming me and above all helping me to really pay attention: to the moment I’m in, to what’s in front of me right now, and following my observation down a path of curiosity and discovery.

The three-day classes are an intense blast of information and activity, and both students and ourselves as teachers are often exhausted by the end of it. It’s great fun but intense! I wondered what it would be like to run a class where we have time to relax into drawing, that anyone, whatever their background in art, can enjoy.

Now I’ve started running a class once a week in Godalming, for two hours of drawing in a very relaxed and supportive environment. There’s no aim other than this: to observe, to draw, to play with materials, to explore colour. There’s certainly no pressure to produce finished works. It matter because for me observational drawing is about connecting with the world, by trying to see as truthfully as possible what is in front of us and attempting to capture this. We normally see so little of what’s around us, being inundated with demands on our attention. Taking the time to pay close attention has really enriched my life; taking up some colours grounds me in times of stress and helps me to stay present in myself.

I also wonder if taking the time to be present, to overome visual assumptions about what the world looks like and to check in with our own response is connected to being able to ‘see’ more clearly in other ways as well. It’s a practise of gaining clarity, and can often show me something about what I’m thinking and feeling that nothing else can.

NEW! Drawing, once a week, Mondays 10-12 in Godalming. £27 a session, pay on the door. Please contact me if you’d like to come! it’s a small class.

Drawing and Design for Embroidery Course

A student’s reaction to our recent embroidery class, taught with Sarah Homfray. I’m glad to see the Thinking Environment additions of ‘what’s going well?’ were a valued part of the course. Thanks, Marlous.

The Stitching sheep

Last weekend I was back at the Royal School of Needlework. Not to continue with the next module of my certificate course but to attend a 3-day class on drawing and design for embroidery. This class was offered as one of the RSN-day classes but was specifically aimed at certificate & diploma students but anyone could attend.

The tutors for the 3 days were sisters Sarah and Caroline Homfray. As they are sisters they immediately created a relaxed atmosphere in the classroom with jokes and comments about each other. Both tutors have lots of experience in embroidery and art and they had brought lots of their own sketchbooks, art books and art materials with them for us to have a look at. They even decorated the central table with lots of different items (jars, masks, feathers, leaves etc.) that we could draw or be inspired by throughout the course. On…

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Harbingers of joy…. or dilapidated musical instruments

A weekend in Oxford: Blake at the Ashmolean, a sampling of the culinary delights of the covered market and then the architectural heights of Oxford’s colleges, followed by a trip to see the infamous shrunken heads at the Pitt Rivers Museum. https://www.flickr.com/photos/brett-tully/3824170054/

This last is the polar opposite of the first, which features carefully-grouped objects and award-winning interpretations. The Pitt Rivers is ordered chaos, closely-packed cases crammed with objects grouped by theme. This results in surprising juxtapositions, quite apart from some of the themes themselves being unexpected. ‘Treatment of Dead Enemies’ features not only the infamous shrunken heads, which are about the size of a golf ball, but also skulls caged in woven wicker and carefully removed and tanned skins re-stretched over bone. Compare and contrast with ‘Treatment of Relatives’ nearby. in ‘Stringed instruments’, an Hawaiian ukulele can be found back to back with a fantastically creative Burmese interpretation of the European violin, presumably copied from a sailor’s fiddle. It looks (roughly) the right shape, with four corners instead of two, topped by fantastically ornate Burmese ‘scroll’. But possibly heavy and unresponsive…

‘To know what is enough one must know more than enough’. William Blake, works on display in the Ashmolean. His vision was so personal I wondered if one can understand it without having had one’s own mystical experiences. Certainly, the inadequacy of reason as a tool in understanding his work seems to have unsettled many. I experienced moments of direct response, and found joy in a small relief etching from ‘Europe: A Prophecy’ of two dynamc human figures, male and female, buoyed up on flowing lines, blowing fantastical trumpets.