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.

The Virtually Real

‘Every time I see that tree I think it’s real!’ Alix, at the online private view.

Reality has felt shifty and evasive over the last year. The familiar pattern of life has had to be gradually re-woven after the sudden shock of the March 2020 arrival of coronavirus and the subsequent lockdowns, restrictions and upendings of what we knew as normal. Reality has felt shifty and evasive over the last year. The familiar pattern of life has had to be gradually re-woven after the sudden shock of the March 2020 arrival of coronavirus and the subsequent lockdowns, restrictions and upendings of what we knew as normal.

Something I have hung on to as a rock and a lifebelt has been my drawing practice. Fairly early on I went out with a giant piece of paper and some graphite putty, a wonderfully messy and tactile medium, and drew an oak tree in a field, far from anyone. On my knees on the grass with graphite shining all over my hands, I felt so much better, a burst of outward expansion after the sudden contraction to indoor space.

The oak tree drawing finally bore fruit – acorns, perhaps I should say – in November 2020, informing a commission to create a roughly 2m square mural for a private house. It was commissioned before coronavirus arrived in the UK, by a life long campaigner for rights of way and supporter of public access to the countryside; something whose value has become so obvious throughut the pandemic for helping people to stay sane and healthy. He wanted a scene which would be of the countryside, fields and trees, and importantly, it would show people using it – walkers, cyclists, out there enjoying the landscape. We met at the site (his house) in February 2020 to look and discuss ideas. I made a few very rough notes in my tiny postcard-sized sketchbook. We agreed the square scene woud be framed by two trees.

Back to March, April and May 2020. I went through anxiety and a burst of learning and experimentation as I found ways to work online teaching, all my work beforehand having been face to face teaching. A year later I feel very fortunate to have a wonderful and gradually growing community of online learners and drawing enthusiasts. All the while, the search for the landscape to feature in the mural and research for the elements within it – trees, their bark and foliage, wildflowers of many sorts and grasses – continued in the back of my awareness. It became a reason for bike rides to particular places, drawing trips, photograph-taking and generally being outdoors a lot, as safety allowed, as far as I could understand what was allowed.

The online learning went through a boom, and the drawing classes I taught online took all my time in the summer of 2020. I finally started work on the mural in October 2020, having gathered my resources and built up the courage to start. Doubt about whether I could continue when the November Lockdown was anounced halted it for a few days while we tried to work out what to do. My customer agreed to my working onsite with the door open and wearing a mask, and I agreed not to use the facilities or accept a drink.

It was a wonderful thing to work on during that time; I have no sense of there being any restrictions or really what else was going on. I was in my own emerging world. To be holding brushes, smoothing and shaping the buttery, creamy paint on the surface, thinking of oak leaves, poppies, daisies and bees… how to get just the right texture to a cloud, just the right sky blue for ths sunny day in June… it was grounding, and a journey into inner space.

The learning and experiences of the year had given me the idea of presenting it online in a private view, with the willing co-operation of my client. We were able to tell a story about how to engage with the image, and take the viewers on an imagine walk into the landscape. So please, if you will, step into this landscape. What does it bring up for you? what feelings, sensations or thoughts? What memories?

On Having the Courage to Not Know.

‘I’m rambling all over the place… sorry about that’. An apology from a Thinking colleague recently, one which I’ve heard before. People can feel very vulnerable, showing the rambling thought processes which emerge when we’re pushing the boundaries of our thinking or learning, and going to new places in our mental landscapes. Fortunately, in the space of a Thinking Environment® Think, there are strong boundaries and processes that make it safe. I’m not going to be interrupted and my colleague believes in me and gives encouragement.

Which line to follow? Creative confusion. C Homfray, Spirograph and watercolour, March 2019.

I’ve been struck again by the need for safety in thinking things through and learning. The mind can be woolly, like a big tangle of threads, whether it’s sorting through the oddments of one’s own mind to find the end of the thread, and therefore begin untangling it, or introducing something new which needs to be assimilated and woven into the fabric already there. There has to be a stage of confusion.

Our culture, as I may have observed in my blog before, isn’t sympathetic to admissions of uncertainy or not knowing on the part of adults. Interviewees on current affairs programmes are grilled without mercy, the interviewer pushing to find a chink of uncertainty, into which they rush with triumph when they find one. Although I am not often interviewed, thank goodness, this is the background music to all of our lives, and I’m aware of wanting others to see myself as successful. I fear that if they see my rambling thought processes, blind alleys of thinking and mistakes they will think I am weak, ill-informed or unable, and perhaps I’m afraid it could be used against me.

I often hear my students punishing themselves verbally or apologising for doing things ‘wrong’. And as a teacher I can feel my own vulnerability, and trying to embrace ‘learning opportunities’ of my own – making mistakes, dropping stitches, not being understandable in my explanations, getting a rhythm wrong, forgetting things. I want to demonstrate that it’s ok to make a mistake, more than that, it’s neccessary, to learn and expand one’s thinking. If I’m ok making mistakes, then it’s ok for you too. Trouble is, sometimes it’s hard to be that person in front of a group, feeling responsible for their wellbeing and learning yet feeling vulnerable myself.

However, it’s even harder to be the one who has authority and knows, and can’t be seen to make a mistake. I used to think as a beginning teacher that I had to know everything, or everything the students might want to know at least.

I’ve been giving that up in favour of vulnerability since I realised what a precarious and fragile position it can be trying to be the one who knows. And I’m grateful for Thinking Environment principles which enshrine within them ecouragement and permission to go beyond normal thinking.