Sketching as Tranquiliser


I am in the unfortunate position of visiting our local hospital frequently. I’m not ill, but I accompany someone who is. The waits are long and so I occasionally sketch.

Other than in hospital, I haven’t had many chances to sketch of late because I have to use my time productively (you don’t get paid to sketch) but luckily there are always gaps in the day when you get the chance. When I sat down to sketch this one of the café in University College Hospital, Galway, I felt a frisson of excitement knowing I had an uninterrupted hour ahead of me. It says a lot about the intensity of my life over the last two months that I had a wonderful feeling of freedom at the prospect of a single hour when no one would need me and I couldn’t do any work.

Finbar's Mural

Some farsighted person in the Galway University Hospitals Arts Trust has allowed a very talented young man called Finbar 247 to be let loose with buckets of black and white paint in the main foyer of the hospital. When you have real talent, that’s all you need. He has made beautiful graffiti-type art on the walls, with slogans and messages about looking after yourself and making the most of your time. I normally ignore people trying to remedy my laziness but somehow when I read Finbar’s words I want to get fitter and stay healthy. I loved sketching his work but I haven’t done it any kind of justice. You should check out his website of the same name.

A mix of medical staff, patients and visitors file past at speed. The ground floor of the hospital resembles a very busy train station with a disproportionate number of people in pyjamas or aqua-green uniforms. The ill people move very slowly and the medical staff stride along. Unbuttoned white coats billow past, their wearers like low-key superheroes, which of course a lot of them are.

Two men came to sit at my table. They were chatting in Irish, which I understand for the most part as not only was it drummed into me since I was 4 but my kids attend a Gaelscoil and I get to speak it quite a bit (very badly, usually ending somewhat pathetically in English, having failed to get my point across well enough). Like many well-educated Irish people I speak one or two European languages but Irish isn’t my strong suit, despite the decades of enforced learning (we had no choice). I love it now, and I was really hoping the men who sat down would strike up conversation. One was too ill to talk much. His younger companion was really sweet to him, trying to persuade him to eat a sandwich and have sugar in his tea. I practiced my Irish sketching-related phrases in my mind but in the end the younger man just spoke to me in English and when I replied in Irish he acted all confused. This happens a lot. I say my piece in perfect Irish – I am Irish, for crying out loud – and there’s an awkward silence, followed by English. As an amateur linguist I do get it, but it’s a bit annoying nonetheless.

Here’s a bit more detail of my sketch.

Finbar detail

Finbar's Message

And here’s a sketch from before our dreams of Rugby World Cup glory were dashed. This young man was wearing a RWC shirt. I got a silly kick out of using Phthalo green undiluted as I never use it like that – nothing is that colour in nature, except maybe the sea in Mauritius, which I know because I painted it lots of times.

Rugby World Cup

This one is just a line drawing but it got me out of my head for a bit. I’m getting quite used to drawing hand-cleanse dispensers. Their angles are a bit funny so I won’t master them for a while yet.

Clinic Line drawing

Finally, one from a few months back. This time my charge and I had to watch the entire waiting room empty little by little, leaving us the last to be seen just before the clinic closed for the evening. My young companion became very frustrated, and of course the omnipresent phone doesn’t serve to calm nerves. Watching the sketch unfolding did seem to soothe somewhat…

Beads in a clinic

I also did one a few days ago of a lady receiving an iron infusion but she was snoozing away in blissful ignorance of the stupid eejit with the paintbox manically scribbling her likeness as she slept. I will allow her her privacy and not post the sketch.

So there you go. Our health system could do with improvement on many fronts and you can get very stressed in our hospitals, what with the waiting, the worry and all.

Hospital + sketching = calmer me.

Sketching tips:

To sketch successfully – by which I mean to make a sketch that looks like what you’re drawing – there are certain things you can do to make it easier. Think of your page as having an imaginary grid on top. I don’t do this. But it’s the best way I can think of to explain the technique I use, which is to make a kind of invisible map. Everything has its place, which I try to recreate exactly. So I do hundreds of little measurements in my mind, and calibrate them against other elements in my sketch. That’s kind of what I mean by a grid.

I always start with the most rapid, rough pencil line, just to place the drawing in the right spot on the page. Once I know where it’s going to end up, I start drawing with a fountain pen. For example: Finbar 247’s mural was the whole point and focus of my sketch at the top of the page, and so I would have been very cross if the letters had all drifted off the page. So I made a little rectangle for the first line of text, and then I measured each successive line from it. I made sure, for instance, a “t” would end up under the right “s” or whatever. Before you know it, you’ve done all the lettering and your sketch is taking shape.

My next task is to get the perspective right. I don’t measure – far too tedious. I just try to observe correctly.

Then to the people: they’re not likely to stick around very long. That man on the phone had a friend, but he looks like Billy No-Mates because by the time I’d done him, his friend had got bored and left (or went off to perform surgery on someone, I don’t know). But there’s no point trying to do both, because you’ll end up with neither figure finished. Same applies for the lady in the dark jacket. You never know how long you’ll get out of a person, so draw and paint them quickly, and leave the architecture for your last few minutes. Timing is everything!

The mural, being the point of the sketch, had to be done well. Finbar’s work is immaculate, which I really respond to: I have no time for sloppy, ill-drawn work. Therefore it was incumbent on me to honour his skill. My time was running out – I had to pick up the young patient I had brought in – so I needed to make sure I wouldn’t mess up. So I drew a rough rectangle and divided it up into however many lines of text there were, realised it was in the wrong place entirely, rubbed it out and put it in the right(ish) place. I had no time to fill in the hourglass but that’s what urban sketching is about sometimes, so I left it alone afterwards.

But the sketch very nearly didn’t happen…

When I knew that I was going to hospital, I was secretly anticipating the time I was sure I’d get to sketch. Then to my dismay I realised I’d been messing with my sketch kit and had taken all my brushes out. I looked in desperation upon my person for something I could use in lieu. The tassels on my scarf? Nope. Then I remembered – I had a make-up brush in the car. Yes! A bit of warm soapy water and it would work fine…then – eureka! – I remembered further – I had a paintbrush in the make-up bag as I had been painting my daughter’s face for Hallowe’en. Happy days! So I sketched – and then I was offered a job, a proper, regular job, mostly on the strength of the earlier version of this blog post…remember that rhyme – “for want of a nail, the shoe was lost…”

That’s it – I hope it was helpful! Please feel free to comment about any sketching issues you might have – I will do my best to help.

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  1. Karlijn van de Wier

    November 8, 2015 at 8:10 am

    Oh how I really love your sketches! Thanks for your inspiration!

    It’s such a shame we don’t get paid to sketch ;), but on the other hand it’s a really good way of exercising and experimenting, isn’t it?

    I admire your work and really appreciate your sketch tips, thanks!

    • Róisín Curé

      November 8, 2015 at 9:42 am

      Thank you Karlijn, it’s my pleasure. I don’t worry too much about not getting paid – I get a constant stream of commissions and print sales, and my classes are well-subscribed, all on the strength of my sketches so I guess I do get paid indirectly! Lots more tips to follow!

      • Karlijn van de Wier

        November 12, 2015 at 5:03 pm

        True, it really does work like that!
        Looking forward to your posts-to-come 🙂


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