Inspiration: a scruffy sketchbook and leaky pen

The right tools are nice to have — artist quality paints, high quality paper designed for the medium you are using and lovely lines made with a flexi-nib fountain pen. 

I can really get caught up in an art store looking for right sketchbook, newest art book and perfect pen. In Manchester, I bought some lovely Kuretake watercolor markers.  Yummy.

BUT. Sometimes I hide behind the search for the perfect materials,  stiffen up –forget myself and get stuck.

Then I’ll rediscover my favourite sketchbook — a Leichtturm1917 designed for writing not sketching. The paper is impossibly thin for splashes of wet media such as watercolour and ink. It buckles, the ink seeps through to the other side and the paint pools. Imperfection. 

And yet it’s the sketchbook with all of my best drawings.  When I sketch in that scruffy book, it’s like hanging out with a close friend. I relax.  Play around, capture the moment from observation, draw comics, write grocery lists and take notes. No masterpiece for show and tell – just the pleasure of messing about with ideas.

Inside that sketchbook,  I have the most fun. So, as I’m feeling a bit stuck — it’s time to put the fancy stuff aside and tuck the red Leichtturm1917 into my bag and go draw something!

a quick sketch of a fellow traveller and her blue dog

Playing with point of view and bending the rules of perspective 

Even in the rain, Manchester is a brilliant city to draw. Everywhere you look there is something going on between the past and the present.  

The juxtaposition of the grand, ornamental Victorian buildings, the gritty  mills – brick ghosts of city’s industrial past – and the sleek lines of  its modern architecture create visual music. You’d think it would be a jumbly mess. But instead, it’s like watching musicians jam together. It’s exciting. 

Today’s workshop got about 12 of us out of the rain and into Manchester’s Barton Arcade to bend the rules of perspective with Swasky – a talented illustrator and fearless guide to stretching our point of view.

“Our way of using perspective to express space is a convention,” he said, “…it doesn’t  necessarily capture the real sense of how we experience a space. Our eyes are always moving, taking in the whole scene by combining multiple perspectives simultaneously.”

So right in the middle of the busy arcade – we learned to combine multiple perspectives into one sketch – (mostly) seamlessly using “hinge points” to transition from one view of the space to the next. Kinda like drunk drawing really! I loved it because Swasky’s technique  gives you a tool to play with the limitation of two-dimensions and wing-it when perspective feels daunting.

The drawings we did remind me of Art Brut – dynamic, slightly wonky and alive. And that’s how I like my sketches – not perfect, I can take a photo for that – but acting as doorways to reverie.

Urban sketching in Manchester: the secret to getting started 

After getting my bearings and adjusting to the scale of the place, I found a spot in the All Saints park near The Manchester School of Art to sit and draw all the urban sketchers.  The city of Manchester is more beautiful than I had imagined – truly a city of contrasts. Victorian detail in brick and stone set against the minimalistic lines of glass and steel. The city has a pulse!

But to get started after taking a 2 month break from drawing to take care of other projects – the only way was to jump right in with loose contour sketches of people. I needed to start by just dropping a line! Contour drawing never fails to push through inhibitions and remind me that sketching is a joyful practice.

There are 500 participants from 44 countries attending the Urban Sketchers Symposium  in Manchester. Seeing so many other people who love to draw and capture the spirit of the city in their sketchbooks sure makes me feel at home here. 

Where to sketch on a rainy day

April was full of surprises. Last week, with the forecast looking rather wet, I spent an afternoon sketching under the glass dome of “The Dry Room” at the University of Zurich’s Botanical Gardens. The warm palette of the desert plants made me forget the grey sky outside.

Happily absorbed in drawing the Echinocactus grusonli’s (I didn’t make that up) spikey bits and the Opunita robusta’s (my favourite) funky shapes – I barely noticed that the rain had stopped and the room was not only dry, it was downright toasty.

Located near Seefeld, you can visit the Botanical Gardens year round for free. The spot attracts the most ameniable people. I spoke with the gardener about his favorite plants and enjoyed a coffee – always sketch within reach of a coffee shop – with a gentleman who visits regularly to photograph the subtle changes even just a few days can make.

The grounds are beautiful and next time I’ll take a pic nic and have a snooze in the grass between sketches! Unless it’s raining. If it does, I’ll be back in The Dry Room with the Parodia magnifica from Brazil and the Copiapopa cinera from Chile.

Take a collapsable, light-weight camping stool with you.
Have to go back to paint this one!
Step by step cacti
Progress shot of the Echinocactus grusonli – the big round one in the background.
The domes housing the tropical gardens.

How urban sketchers stay warm

Six fantastic and fearless women from the American Women’s Club in Zurich met with me today to sketch Ankerstrasse of all places – thank you ladies!

Sketching together

After teaching them three simple techniques to capture the city in ink and watercolour, we found a great spot to sit and sketch the world going by.

I was so impressed with their stamina, desire to sketch and the beautiful images they created. It was a super experience – sketching as a part of a group is so much fun.

And we got lots of practice – three hours – so I think the answer to how to keep warm is to sketch like mad.

Still, fingers do tend to get cold and then you get chunky sketches.

You can either pop into a café to warm up or wear super thin gloves made of flexible fabric so you have warmth and dexterity. I use a fine pair of wool gloves which are actually meant to be worn under other mittens.

Looking forward to more sketching with you ladies!



Scandal in Zürich: Do you know your Dada?

I had a little time between appointments yesterday – near Zurich’s main station. So I jumped at the chance to go to the Landesmuseum and learn a bit about the Dadaists and Dadaism.

And found…a urinal referred to as both the modern ‘Mona Lisa’ and the most important art work of the 20th century. What you been smokin? was my first thought actually. So insightful, I know. Then, as you can see,  I sketched Marcel Duchamp’s masterpiece.

In 1917 Marcel Duchamp caused one of the biggest scandals in art history with this urinal.

As I drew, I thought even if Marcel was taking the piss  (he wasn’t actually, he was rebelling against the horrors of WWI) – this is definitely something you’d find in Switzerland – an absolutely immaculate toilet. 

Switzerland’s major contribution to art history, Dadaism was founded in February 1916 by immigrants and exiles at Zürich’s Cabaret Voltaire. The art movement tapered off around 1924, but led to surrealism and eventually the early roots of punk.

The multimedia exhibition is small – easy to see in an hour and then stop for coffee at the museum café – and open until 28 March.  The CHF10 ticket price also gets you into the rest of the museum where there are plenty of sketching opportunities – so on a rainy afternoon – why not?

The highlight for me – four black walls of floor-to-ceiling visitor grafitti enclosing the exhibition. You are invited to doodle or scribble your response or non-response to Dada right there on the wall. I think the Dadaists would have loved that. I sure did.

Zurich’s best spot for cafe-sketching: Kafi für Dich

With a down-to-earth atmosphere, the largest Spielecke for kids that I’ve ever seen, a floor-to-ceiling chalkboard and long, deep tables – you can easily spend hours absorbed in your sketchbook amongst the locals, the mommies, the students and the business-lunch guests. Quite an eclectic mix.

If you are shy about drawing in public, start with a sketching session at Kafi für Dich – you’ll feel at home! Spreading out  our markers, pencil crayons, sketchbooks and apples didn’t wreak havoc with die Ordnung, confuzzle the other guests or irritate the waitress. In fact, she invited us to come and draw anytime.

As you know, feeding the artist is essential to good sketching (and keeping the waitress happy). So we ordered feta and spinach quiche with salad and homemade ice tea – for under CHF 20. The cheesecake looked mighty fine too, but we lost track of time and had to sprint back to the office.

Sketching the process of eating an apple trains your eye and introduces the basics of storytelling.

You’ll find Kafi für Dich in Kreis 4. A 10 minute walk from Stauffacher, it’s situated right across from the Bäckeranlag at Stauffacherstrasse 141.