No Time to Sketch? So Draw in the Cracks

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My friend Máire visited yesterday. A friend of hers has her hands full with one thing and another, but still reads a lot. “How do you find time to read so much?” Máire asked her. “I read in the cracks,” answered her friend.

I thought that was a great way to describe my approach to sketching. When I think I have no time to sketch, I draw in the cracks.

Last week I made a sketch which perfectly illustrates this. I drew it while I was waiting to pick up a couple of kids from the bus stop, which is the crack between sitting at my desk, trying to be productive, and starting to cook the dinner.

This drawing illustrates something else about sketching, which is not altogether unrelated to the idea of grabbing any few minutes to draw; namely, not taking your sketch too seriously.

If you look closely, you’ll see a funny shape in the branches of the tree. Look closer. It’s the outline of the beginning of another drawing: the day before I drew this, I had been drawing a scene which had a dustbin in the foreground. My first attempt at the bin wasn’t working for me, to say the least, so I turned the page and began a new sketch. Again I had a shaky start, but in the end I enjoyed myself and produced a passable sketch. The dustbin wasn’t too bad, at any rate.

Fast forward to the next day. I was in the car waiting for my daughter and our neighbours and I figured I’d do a bit of sketching while I waited.
Now, I HATE waste and am really quite a tightwad (or dustypockets, as my friend Clare so memorably once said). There was a perfectly good page in my sketchbook, with nothing but a badly-drawn bin on it. So I simply turned the book upside down, the better to get a larger expanse of white, and started drawing the Garda (police) station in my local village, Kilcolgan. I had a lovely time, and I quite like the result.

There are two lessons to be learned here, of which I am an enthusiastic and committed student.

One: Seek out those cracks. Use the few minutes at the bus stop as an opportunity to sketch. If you only have ten minutes – no matter, you’ll be back there tomorrow, at the same time – so it’s like time has conveniently rewound, allowing you to get the same shadows and light conditions as when you began the sketch. If you have to go and do the pick-up over three consecutive days, that’s half an hour sketching the same subject right there. Do it over five days, and you’ve got enough time for a finished sketch. And if you leave just five minutes earlier than you need to, before you know it you’ve spent ages sketching.

Same goes for waiting for ages to see the doctor. Instead of fretting and getting annoyed about the time you’re wasting, or feeling resentful about people ahead of you taking too long, you can whip out the sketchbook and draw the subjects, I mean patients, in front of you. You have to be subtle here, though – most people don’t like a stranger staring at them to draw them, let alone when they’re not feeling the best. The way to get around this is to focus on some blob on the wall when they look up, while pretending to sketch it carefully.

More cracks you can draw in: watching the kids while they swim. Although this might not be the best idea, because once I drew the pool while the kids splashed about, and even though I was right at the edge of the pool drawing intently for an hour, so intent on my drawing was I that I did not notice any of my three children in the water for the full hour that I was sketching. There they were, splashing about like maniacs on colourful float things, and I didn’t see them at all. Fortunately their dad was in there with them.

The airport is a another great place to sketch. You’re stuck there and so are most of your subjects. Drawing and even painting on the plane itself is brilliant – same reason, with the added advantage that if the plane starts bouncing up and down, you’ll be far more concerned that you’ll get your drawing finished before you land than whether the wings are about to be whipped off.
Another place to get a sneaky sketch in is while the dinner is cooking. Put something in the oven, set the timer (important bit) and open up the sketchbook. No one noticed yesterday that the chips were cold, they were so astonished to get them in the first place and I had a neat little sketch of the kitchen for it.
Last November, I drew while I was being the Supervisor at a science exhibition my daughter was at: she and her friend were manning their class’ stall, and I didn’t have to do anything apart from be a presence, for health and safety reasons or something I suppose. Not only were they still alive when the next parent took over, but I have a cute sketch of two adorable eight-year-old girls in lab coats that were too big for them. Another time I was at a restaurant with the family. The meal was divine and we’d all finished, but my husband was taking forever over his last bit of beer. I took out the sketchbook. “There’s no way you can do a sketch before I’ve finished this,” he said. I did – not a masterpiece, but a sketch nonetheless. (I think I must be terrible to live with.)

Are there any cracks in your day that you can squeeze a sketch into?

The second lesson is the bit about drawing on a page with a bin already drawn on it.

Drawing on an already-scribbled on piece of paper is an excellent way to banish stage fright. You won’t worry about making a mess because it’s already messed up. It’s a tried-and-tested technique. I’ve heard of people stamping on a piece of paper. Deliberately spilling some coffee on it. Being surprised when they make a lovely sketch on the back of an envelope. My sister had a huge commission once and it only started to flow when she covered the canvas in a thick layer of paint and took away the smooth newness of the surface. For me, I don’t have any more pages with bins on them, but I can get over the stage fright problem by roughing out a very quick sketch in pencil first. It works really well. Needless to say, I’ve got lots of lovely sketches on bus ticket stubs and leaflets from church – all kinds of things that will in all likelihood never be preserved.

Once I was in the supermarket. I pulled my trolley into the side of the aisle and got out my sketchbook. Sadly the lady I was drawing was far too efficient in the dairy aisle, and was gone before I could capture her (poor unsuspecting thing). Nonetheless, I thought it was a good idea in principle.

I hate shopping in supermarkets. I think we all do. It could be made infinitely better by taking a few minutes to zone out and sketch, unnoticed and unmissed by anyone, as we all know it takes forever anyway. Now that’s what I call drawing in a crack. Who knows – maybe I’ll aim for the slowest queue in future. I may as well make the most of it, since I always choose wrong anyway.

Keep an eye out for a drawing of a teetering pile of cereal, pasta and cheese with a yelling toddler nearby…Plein Air it ain’t.

Róisín Curé

Art Materials I Use and Can Recommend

My favourite watercolours are made by Schmincke. I use a very small set when I am on the move, or this set of 24, which is available to buy here from Utrecht Art Supplies (in the US):-

Set of 24

Set of 24

or in the UK and EU :-

Jackson’s Art Supplies
Schmincke : Horadam Watercolour : Metal Set : 12 Half Pans

I also use Escoda Versatil brushes (available from Dick Blick in the US) :-

Escoda Versatil Brushes

Escoda Versatil Brushes

or from Jackson’s in the UK and EU :-

Escoda : VERSATIL Kolinsky Synthetic : Series 1540 : # 8

There are three pens I always use. The first is the Platinum Carbon pen, which can be used with cartridges or a converter. A converter is useful when you are choosing your own ink. The Platinum has never let me down: they tell you to use it every couple of days to avoid clogging, but I have left it longer than that and I have never had a problem in many years of use. It is also very reasonably priced and is available to buy from Amazon :-

The second pen I am never without is the Kuretake Brush Pen. I always use waterproof Platinum Carbon ink cartridges in my brush pen. This is available to buy here from Dick Blick in the US :-

Kuretake Brush Pen

Kuretake Brush Pen

or from Jackson’s in the UK and EU :-

Kuretake : Bimoji Fude Pen : Black Medium BRUSH : Maroon pack XT5-10

The third pen I really enjoy using is more expensive, but I chose it for its flexible steel nib, which gives a lovely variable line thickness. It’s the Namiki Falcon and is available here from Amazon :-

I find that grey ink gives a softer line than black – it’s more like a pencil line – and I always make sure at least one of my fountain pens contains grey ink. I use Lexington Gray by Noodler’s, which is waterproof when dry, also from Amazon :-

I use various types of watercolour paper, but one I come back to a lot is by Langton, available here from Dick Blick :-

Daler-Rowney Langton Prestige Watercolor Blocks

Daler-Rowney Langton Prestige Watercolor Blocks

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