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A few weeks ago my town of Galway was honoured. In fact it was honoured twice: firstly by the fact that forty-five sketchers came from the far corners of the planet to join Shari Blaukopf, Marc Taro Holmes and me for a three-day urban sketching workshop. Then halfway through the workshop, the news came through that Galway has been selected to be European Capital of Culture 2020. It says a lot about the people who attended the workshop that they were so excited for me when the bid was about to be announced. At the time we were on the top floor of Galway City Museum, drawing the view of the Claddagh, which used to be a distinct part of Galway (it even had its own king until recently). The winner of the bid was to be announced at midday: I couldn’t resist a sneaky peek at Twitter, but then one or two students started asking me, “Have you heard yet? Have you heard?” and I realised they were eager to know too. When I read the words “WE WON!” on Twitter, it was all I could do to remain professional and not cry in front of everyone. It was just too much – to be with these wonderful sketchers, hearing this wonderful news…
The absolutely stellar Shari Blaukopf and I met a few days before the workshop began, and sat side by side at the Claddagh. After all my years of corresponding with sketchers from a distance, I can’t describe the joy of having a real, live, flesh and blood urban sketcher at my side, filling me in on all kinds of tidbits about urban sketching symposia through the years, making me hoot with laughter. I was amazed at how instantaneously Shari picked up the spirit of the Galway sky, and, just for the craic, I sketched the same scene on my own a day later to see how our respective styles would differ.
Meanwhile, I met Marc and his wonderful wife Laurel and we did a quick recce of some of our sketching spots. All was in order and on Wednesday evening I met 45 more living, breathing urban sketchers on our meet-and-greet evening in Tribeton restaurant and cocktail bar in Galway. The name of the restaurant was apt – I knew as soon as I started chatting with the delegates that I was with my tribe. What an amazing feeling. We could chat about pens and paper and our preferred colours, and no one’s eyes would glaze over.
Thursday morning dawned warm and sunny. I met my first group at the Fishery Watchtower on Wolfe Tone Bridge, on the west bank of the River Corrib. The theme of my morning session was twofold: accurate drawing and creative use of colour. The Watchtower offered the perfect subject for the former, being a simple but exacting shape. I showed the delegates my technique for putting each point in the right place, which is very simply to start at point A, make a line, then draw each subsequent line in relation to the preceding one (how far from, how long etc.). I explained how, rather than teaching the rules of perspective, I would teach looking honestly and drawing shapes. I passed on my clever friend Brenda Malley’s genius tip for determining the slope of a line if it’s not obvious at first, which is to superimpose the face of an imaginary clock on the subject, then ask yourself “If that line was the long hand, what time would it say?”
After that I showed the group how to put watercolour on for a lively result, which is to apply a selection of colours and let them flow together on the page by themselves, without a brush.
I some incredible work that day, and picked up some new tips of my own from looking at students’ work: it’s one of the unexpected perks of teaching.
I’m relatively new to the teaching of an urban sketching workshop, and I soon realised that rather than dragging students from their positions of concentration for demos it worked better for me to go around each individually and see what issues, if any, they had, scribbling sketches on my own drawing board as a mathematician uses a blackboard. This worked really well, and I swelled with pride as people said things like “I’ve never got the hang of foliage before now” or “you make it look so easy.” This was music to my ears: I’m basically a self-taught artist, so I know what it feels like to be frustrated when things aren’t going well. As a result, it gives me great pleasure to take whatever frustration a sketcher might be experiencing and send it running for the hills – if I can.
Our afternoon sessions were to be focused on capturing people in motion, followed by more shape-capturing, at Eyre Square at the top of the town. I showed how drawing a continuous line to draw moving people was a good technique when speed was of the essence.
I showed how much fun it was to try and guess how long someone would be stationary – sort of like being a bird-watcher, not that I know whether or not they do that. You can see some of our lovely sketchers here: Jan was a popular subject for the other sketchers, as was Laura made a nice shape on the grass; both were under umbrellas. Mary is the lady with the backpack; the toddler, just learning to walk, is my favourite, for it reminds me of the sketchers’ sketch, a drawing depicting the same subject by Rembrandt.
My group was hardy and intrepid, and valiantly battled the rain, but it started to rain just as everyone’s lovely sketches of the fountain were ready for painting, meaning I didn’t have the chance to demonstrate how watercolour can be made to dance and swirl even on a seemingly flat-coloured surface. The sketch here was done before the workshop, on a sunny day. Never mind – I had a lovely wet-weather sketching location up my sleeve…
We slopped our way through the wet streets teeming with holidaymakers running for cover. The workshop took place right in the middle of Galway’s International Arts Festival, and the town was thronged with visitors. St. Nicholas’ Church in Market Street was our next stop, a medieval church whose most recent addition was built in the seventeenth century, but parts of it date to the fifteenth. It was the perfect spot to demonstrate the value of values, so to speak – using just one or two colours to show depth and form, light and shadow…in this demo I used two colours, just to add a bit of interest. And, in the absence of any colour at all, I wanted to show how the white of the page can be the most powerful asset you have.
I repeated the format on Friday with my second group – a rainy morning at the Fishery Watchtower and Galway City Museum followed by a downright wet afternoon in St. Nicholas’s Church. Towards the end of the afternoon I sensed that the sketchers were starting to tire, so I did a very quick values demonstration. The sketchers found it interesting that I could chat while drawing and painting, and I hastened to tell them that it wasn’t always like that. One of the sketchers told me that she’d read a study which showed that after a certain amount of time doing an activity it becomes automatic, like driving, and you can put the thinking part of your mind to bed for a bit – it becomes a right-brained activity, I think was the conclusion. I was delighted! I have to admit is very useful to be able to sketch whilst driving or operating heavy machinery (ha ha).
By Saturday the weather had warmed up and I even had a few sketchers taking advantage of the trees for shade. The sun gave me a great opportunity to show my technique for “keeping the lights on” – exaggerating the effect of light by using one colour (indigo is my favourite) and leaving the sunny side unpainted.
The gentleman on the far right is called Michael. Michael had a sad episode during the morning session. It had been very windy and a gust took his sketch, his favourite of the entire three days, and carried it into the Corrib right in front of his eyes. In seconds it was technically out of the river and into the Atlantic Ocean, where a swan gazed inscrutably at it as it lay face down, but still afloat. I raced around to the boats and beseeched someone to take us to the spot where the paper lay, but no fisherman was available. Michael was crestfallen, but he was amazingly stoic about it.
“It’s gone to the gods of the sea,” he said.
Meanwhile, Marc and Shari were sketching up a storm in the Claddagh, the Bridge Mills and Galway Cathedral, but the only downside of the workshop was that I couldn’t watch them at work myself! But their renown goes before them, and many sketchers told me they hadn’t hesitated to book when they heard Shari and Marc would be teaching in Galway. Laurel, Marc’s wife, made it all possible by her unsurpassed organisational skills, and I’m eternally grateful to her.
Every evening the entire workshop took over the Kitchen Café, next to Galway City Museum, where the work of the day was laid out for everyone to enjoy. There were 45 sketchers, three instructors and various travelling companions, so we made quite a crowd. It was the perfect location: central, served super cakes, tea and coffee as well as alcohol, and we were looked after beautifully by the friendly staff. My mother Cinnie joined us from the second evening onwards: she’s Canadian, from Montreal, and a watercolour artist to boot – there was no way she was missing this.
“I’ve been to many workshops, as you know,” she said to me, “and I’ve never experienced a buzz like this.”
“That’s just urban sketchers, Mum,” I said. “They’re an incredibly jolly bunch.”
Of course, the host city played a huge part in this – you can’t come to Galway in the summer, during the Arts Festival, and not be blown away by the colour, atmosphere and happy vibe of the city.
On the last evening, I moved mountains to get a table in my favourite restaurant (okay, begged for a text if there was a cancellation) for a farewell dinner with Cinnie, Shari, Spyro, Marc and Laurel. It was a late booking and I squeezed in a sketch of one of Galway’s colourful buskers, standing in a crowd – nay, a stampede – outside Neachtain’s pub on Quay Street.
After it was all over, I couldn’t resist going back to the Long Walk for another sketch. The sun had temporarily taken cover and it was a soft day – although it didn’t seem to be raining, the paint in my palette had rain spots on them, making it feel as if I was sitting in a cloud. Seagulls swooped and whirled, making their plaintive cries, and I drew as many as I could…
Will there be another urban sketching workshop in Galway? Wild horses couldn’t stop me…
If you would like to take part in an urban sketching workshop in Galway in 2017, please so in the comments below, and I will keep you up-to-date on any developments. It will take place in late June or early to mid-July, but I’ll let you know dates as soon as I can!
See you then!