Drawing in the City

Tuesday, 8th March 2005
Wild West Yorkshire nature diary

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sketching When I meet up with my seven students in the Café Nero in Wakefield I start by passing around some drawing journals to show the range of subjects that you can find in a city: not just architectural details but people, pigeons, stalls, booths . . . coffee cups.

plane treesI show them Danny Gregory's Everyday Matters, Dan Price's Moonlight Chronicles, Michael Nobbs' The Beany, John Welding's Awakefield Diary and a three of my Sushi Sketchbooks on Yorkshire towns. All combine drawings made on location with handwritten comments.

It's the first time I've been out with a drawing group since I taught at Leeds College of Art 20 years ago.

Drawing in Public

A few of my students are diffident about drawing in public so we find a couple of benches by the cathedral and I sit and draw with them to give them a bit of moral support. They soon seem at ease (although after an hour three of them go to draw inside the cathedral 'in the interests of avoiding hypothermia').

Art Deco Details

Marks and Spencer, WakefieldI'm invariably drawing alone when I'm on location so I enjoy the camaraderie of working in a group. I soon feel as if I know my companions quite well; the way someone draws tells you a lot about the way they see the world. My seven students come up with seven different approaches to the city centre scene.

One of my students, Jean, has focused on one of the shop fronts: the Marks and Spencer store opposite the cathedral. It's a frontage that you wouldn't normally notice because at street level the art deco detailing has long been replaced by gleaming glass panels and sliding doors.

The first floor looks plain at first glance but as I sit next to Jean (blotting her out altogether in the photograph taken by Eleanor, above left) and start drawing a small section of the facade I notice the dog tooth decorations and scalloped panel above the windows. That flourish on the pediment is very 1930s: it reminds me of the picture palaces - the Gaumonts and Odeons - of the day.

line of beauty Line of Beauty

from Hogarth's self portrait It also reminds me of Hogarth's 'line of beauty'. Hogarth shows the line on the palette that he includes in the foreground of his self-portrait and on the title page of his book The Analysis of Beauty (1753).

For all his aesthetic theorising, Hogarth (1697-1764) found most of his inspiration in the bustling streets around his studio in what is now Leicester Square.

'Beer Street', 1750. He didn't go out sketching as such; Hogarth's method was to imprint a scene on his inner eye - the lighting, the colours, the arrangement of figures - and make his drawing back in the studio. He must have developed an extraordinary visual memory by using this method.

Corner Shop

One student asks me: how do you draw a building to show it in correct perspective?

You don't need to draw a perspective grid, just observe carefully what is in front of you. That's the great thing about drawing on location: nothing is hidden; everything that you need for your drawing is right there in front of you. You just need to take your time and relate each part of the drawing to what you've previously drawn. Slow down. Relax. Enjoy it.

corner building
negative shape

1. It's easy enough to start with a vertical, like the drain pipe on this corner shop, but how do you judge the angle at which the roof-line slopes off into perspective?

2. I often find myself visualising a clock face. In the corner building I'd say that the first roof-line slopes off at about '20 past',while the next goes down steeply at about '25 past' (about 110 and 150 degrees to vertical).

3. There's a way of double-checking these angles: imagine that the whole of the building is one piece of a child's wooden jigsaw puzzle: you'd now be looking for the corresponding piece of sky that would interlock with it.

You need to look not only for 'positive' shapes like the building but also 'negative' shapes like the visible portion of the sky behind it.

Negative Spaces

plane trees
negative spaces
negative spaces

1. When my students started drawing various parts of the precinct, I decided that the most interesting things I could see were the London plane trees growing by the cathedral tower.

2. All those more or less parallel branches can be confusing so I started with a solid anchor point: the main fork of the tree's boughs. Instead of continuing the two main boughs onwards and upwards I kept jumping to the next interlocking shape.

3. I've coloured these negative shapes in Photoshop so that you can see them more clearly. If I then erase the original line drawing you can see that it would be possible to 'draw' the tree just by mapping all those negative spaces.
That fork now looks like the left ventricle of the heart.

A Crit over Coffee

Eleanor and SallyUsually after a day's sketching I just pack up and go home so it's great to meet up again with the group to discuss what we've each been up to and what we might try and tackle next time we meet up in town. So not the dreaded 'crit' of my art student days, just a relaxing, inspiring way to round off the work of the day.

I thought that I would learn as much from working with my students as they would from working with me and that has certainly been the case. A couple of them comment on how quickly the day has passed; 3½ hours drawing sounds like a long session but when you get absorbed in what you're doing the time flies by.

Eleanor and Sally (left) only met today but they're chatting away like old friends.

Eleanor is a keen photographer so today has been a fresh challenge for her.

Sally (right) is an arts graduate. She put the elements of the cathedral precint into a kind of drawn collage: the gravestone paving slabs, a swirl of fallen leaves, a posse of pigeons, a detail of medieval stonework and even one of the sketchers (me). Next Page


Richard Bell, richard@willowisland.co.uk

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