I’ve taught students from all over the world, in gorgeous places across Europe. It’s a great job, a dream job really – you see the most beautiful places and mix with the nicest company – but organising a workshop all by yourself comes with many logistical issues. As well as being responsible for people’s progress as sketchers, you find yourself the go-to person for every query and problem that might arise with people who are on a special vacation. And so, a few years ago, I decided that in future I would only organise solo sketching workshops when I was on home turf – Galway or Dublin only – and in tiny groups.
But I still love sharing my sketching skills with enthusiasts, and I still love visiting beautiful places to sketch, so I am always on the lookout for companies or events where learning to sketch is the focus. It’s not as easy as it sounds: the company might not share my ethos (I don’t go in for events where there’s a prize for the best painting, as sketching is never about competition for me): the other tutors might make my blood boil with their method (I am a woman of passionate and often unreasonable opinions): the organisers might be full of enthusiasm but less so in organisational skills (a danger!): the company might not share my values when it comes to sustainability (I can’t abide waste) – or it just might not be worth the time and effort.
Last year I came across Artform in Dunmore East. I come across lots of art schools, here in Ireland and abroad, but I rarely, if ever, reach out for the above reasons. Sometimes I do, and they don’t want me as a tutor. But when I saw the line-up of tutors at Artform, I was excited. The best names in Irish art tuition feature on their line-up, and my interest was piqued. Then, when I spoke to Martina O’Byrne who runs the operation, it was a no-brainer. Martina gets it. She understands the needs and sensitivities of the student, and the stamina limitations of the tutor. She gets it all. We spoke about what I might offer as part of an urban sketching course, and after an unrushed hour on the phone we arranged a date for the following year.
Dunmore East in Co. Waterford, where Artform is located, is a beautiful seaside village in the warmest part of Ireland. It’s hilly and green and low cliffs rise from the blue-green Celtic Sea. It’s on the bottom south-east corner of Ireland: if you swam south without stopping, you’d reach France. It has the lowest rainfall of the whole of Ireland, so important for a course in urban sketching. The art school itself is a big custom-built studio, above a restaurant and café, with a vaulted ceiling, masses of light and a balcony overlooking the village. A couple of doors down is the Strand Inn, where the tutors are offered food and accommodation, making our job just SO much easier. The Strand Inn has a large outdoor dining (and drinking) area in front, and the terrace overlooks a sea wall, and a sandy beach below – and when the tide is in, you can step off the terrace down a slip and wade into the sea for a dip.
I would like to tell you about my three days in Dunmore East, in the form of a diary.
Tuesday 4th July
I am on the platform at Oranmore Train Station, about fifteen minutes’ drive from my home. There is only one set of tracks, no station house or ticket office and just one shelter, but it’s great to have a station so nearby. A group of men are working on the hardcore rocks on the far side of the track. Two disappear and one rather heavyset man is left. It’s only 10.00am and, one would have thought, a bit early for a break, but he leans against a stack of something or other and turns to his phone.
“He’s checking to make sure the track still goes to Dublin,” says my husband. I snort with laughter before remembering the railway worker is only a few yards away.
On the other side of a dry stone wall just behind the railway worker is a rolling green field. There’s a mare grazing, her tiny foal near her. A flock of sheep are dotted around. A glossy bay stallion with feathery white fetlocks grazes, surrounded by the sheep. It’s so pastural and lovely, and in contrast to the incomplete railway station with its machinery and workers in high-vis jackets. I decide to sketch it: I have my brand new SketchPocket with me and I want to see if it “works” – that is, if it’s suitable for impromptu sketching. (I must be honest: it’s great, but the pens keep falling out. This is Version 6. In Version 7, the pens won’t fall out.) I make the above sketch in the ten minutes we wait before the train arrives.
There’s a young fella in my pre-booked seat, but I don’t ask him to move. This is most unusual behaviour for me, as I am usually quick to insist people get out of my seat. But he looks so comfortable that I can’t bring myself to move him. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. Behind me in the last seat before the corridor is a Traveller couple, a tall rangy young man in a grey tracksuit and his woman. She is tiny and very pretty, although she’s almost hidden this fact under her bleached hair, fake tan, fake eyelashes, fake lips and fake nails. They have an infant, happily playing in a car seat wedged into the window seat. The train inspector tells the young man he can’t leave the baby buggy in the corridor as it’s blocking the carriage door. The young woman leaps up to challenge him. “In fairness,” she says, “where am I supposed to put it?” The train inspector doesn’t have an answer. He asks them for their tickets. The girl has a travel pass but the young man makes a great play of patting all his pockets. Trousers, jacket, shirt, then back to trousers and the charade is repeated. The train inspector knows it isn’t worth the trouble and moves on. The young man plays reggae on his phone without earphones. I would normally be very annoyed by this but the music is good and I don’t feel too irritable.
A family is in the seat in front of me. There’s a man with a flatcap and full beard, two daughters of about 8 and 10, who are drawing and behaving nicely, and a toddler boy in big headphones. clutching a little toy sheep. The young mother has long, dark brown glossy hair, in long plaits down her back, and a huge baby boy on the breast. Every time he is off the breast he emits loud wails, with powerful lungs. I’ve been there, but unlike this young mother I found it very stressful. She is unfazed. I am becoming more and more irritable (that’s more like it) about the crying. It dawns on me that if I draw her I won’t notice the crying. It works a treat and I feel the familiar trance-like state descend, soothing me out of my crossness. The well-behaved toddler with the stuffed sheep starts crying, and I feel sorry for him. The dad in the beard starts to throw a packet of Jelly-Tots at the baby boy, who is one of those tough babies you hear about: he loves it, and stops crying. The mother remains serene throughout. They have vaguely American accents, and all their clothes are wool or tweed, and handknitted or homespun.
The lively Travellers with their reggae and the loud baby with his lungs would normally get under my skin but sketching keeps me calm.
The next leg of the journey is the train from Dublin to Waterford, and my carriage is almost empty. Two beautiful but unsmiling girls with thick black hair, olive skin and glorious figures take the seat on the other side of the corridor. Soon they are watching a show on a phone, loudly, without earphones, and munching Doritos. At first I decide to try to counter-annoy them by playing music loudly on my phone, but I feel far too self-conscious and anti-social and besides they don’t notice. So I sketch them instead and soon I am trying to capture their beautiful figures and delicate bone structure. How do I draw a Dorito? Is that a convincing Dorito? Not really…but hey, I’m calm again.
I am picked up at the station by Declan, the taxi driver who ferries Martina’s tutors back and forth. I sit beside him in the front, telling him I don’t take enough taxis to know the rules of taxi etiquette, but he’s lovely and gives me a guided tour of the area. He tells me about the Amish community who lives in Waterford, and how the women bake and the men do woodworking. I am fascinated by this information and I have questions. What happens if the lifestyle doesn’t suit someone – are they banished? Do they marry or mix with outsiders? Do they have American accents? How many are in the community? Declan answers it all. Yes, they have American accents. No, they don’t mix much. There are over 200 in the community. When one turns out to be a rebel…we’re not sure what happens then.
I arrive and settle into my nice little room. I am just in time for a hamburger from the restaurant bar. It’s perfectly nice. I take a drink outside and draw the view from one of the outdoor tables. I mean to draw all the houses but after an hour I am too cold to stay out there any longer, and just get three in…the next house has doors and windows with red trim and it’s a shame I didn’t draw it.
Wednesday 5th July
I start the day with a sketch of my cup of tea over breakfast. This hotel is so old-fashioned, in the nicest possible way: the breakfast dining room is exactly what I remember from the 1980s, with its linen tablecloths, classic teacups and triangles of white toast in little baskets. I order bacon and poached eggs. I am on my own, so I decide to sketch my tea cup. I mean to fill in the rest of the page over breakfast on the following two days, and besides I want to demonstrate to the students that there is always a little gap or space in time for some urban sketching.
An hour or so later, I meet the students for the first time. There are only six students, two having cancelled at the last minute. Of the six, two are beginners, and four have years of experience. One of those four has a degree in fine art. Of the beginners, neither has ever opened a box of watercolours. Two of the six don’t have anything resembling the correct sketching materials. I am axious and frustrated, as I take the students’ progress seriously, and I know they will be frustrated and disappointed not to be able to use the correct materials, even though it’s not my fault.
One of the beginners is clearly very anxious. The student says their spouse is outside and they can just as easily turn around and leave. This is as clear a case of “impostor syndrome” as I have ever seen, and it is up to me to convince the student to stay. I reassure the student that we don’t take ourselves too seriously in my classes, and the spouse is sent away…for now. The worried look is still there.
I start with a simple lesson on dilution and concentration – in just a few colours, so as not to frighten the horses. (I sometimes wonder art is seen as such a rarified activity. How can something that young children do every day be treated with such reverence? Or is it that therein lies the problem – it IS something we all enjoyed as children, and perhaps some people feel we need to underline the differences, now that we are all grown up…)
So far, so good, and no one has run for the door. Martina passes around a cup of tea to everyone but they’re not allowd to drink it – we are going to do the same thing with the cup of tea as I did an hour or two earlier over breakfast. It’s a great exercise. One student later says they found it a little basic for their level of experience, but there’s everything in a tea cup – you could say…it’s in the tea leaves!
In a simple sketch of a cup of tea you have the following challenges:
- dilution (paint)
- concentration (paint)
- timing (paint)
- ellipses (observation)
- highlights (observation)
- shadows (observation)
- contrast (values)
In the afternoon, we head outside to do some drawing practice. I introduce them to my infallible drawing technique. We are spoiled for choice and even though it’s raining, the students get a great scene to draw from the warmth and comfort of the enclosed terrace outside the Strand Inn. We have to make a judgment call on the weather, and we get it wrong – the rain stays away all afternoon, and we get very warm inside the glass-covered terrace – but it’s nice to be together, and comfortable, seeing as most of the students have never attempted this drawing technique before. The scene they draw is the one with the thatched cottages you see above: many of them really get to grips with the technique, and soon they have entire pages filled with detailed and accurate drawings of thatched houses, street signs and cars.
Thursday 6th July
The morning is dedicated to values and skin tones, two extremely useful elements of urban sketching. After painting swatch squares using five base colours, then mixing them in various dilutions and colours to produce multi-toned paint swatches that look like they’ve jumped out of a Bobbi Brown commercial, we head down to the café below the studio to put it into practice. Soon there’s a long table of students happily sketching their surroundings, while drinking coffee. It’s a bit cold and wet out this morning so it’s great to be cosy indoors.
The brief is to make a values sketch but with the addition of browns or skin tones, and I tell them to look out for things being darker or lighter than the neighbouring object. I join in, to better demonstrate what I am trying to explain.
The students do beautiful work. Two beginners draw each other and are very satisfied with what they produce. The others make creative and imaginative compositions and I am delighted with them. The nervous beginner who was ready to flee on the first morning has already discovered they’re perfectly capable of making a sophisticated portrait that resembles the sitter…and they’re thrilled.
In the afternoon, we head up to the Haven Hotel at the top of the hilly town. It’s an old-fashioned town and choc-a-bloc with every manner of objets: statues of all sizes, framed prints and mirrors, mismatched, riotously vibrant fabric prints and mantelpieces heaving with candlesticks and shiny silver and gold objects. I want to sketch everything and I want my students to do the same…and in a flash of inspiration I tell the students that for the afternoon we are playing a game called Sketching Bingo.
“You have two hours in total,” I tell them, “in which you must draw: a statue, a shiny object, a mirror, something in a frame and a fabric print. Twenty minutes each. Go!”
I get a huge pleasure from seeing the students lurking in corners of the idiosyncratically-furnished hotel, skectching away. I join in to some extent, balancing guiding the students with using some of the techniques I want to share with them.
I don’t get my Bingo card fully filled in – I miss the shiny object – as I am helping my students, but it’s a lot of fun for everyone. I think the students are really getting the idea that urban sketching is mindful and can be a lot of fun.
Next: Part Two…The last day of the course, and continuing it afterwards, after Waterford is a lovely memory.
Would you like to join in the fun? At the time of writing, I have space left in my online course “Urban Sketching in Watercolour For Beginners”, 21st to 25th August, from 7.00-8.30pm GMT+1 each day. That’s a good choice if you’re not intending to leave home for that week, as it’s live over Zoom. If you won’t be at home at that time, it’s recorded so you can watch it back at your convenience.
And, if you’re minded to travel this summer, I currently have ONE place left in my Galway workshop 18th-20th August and TWO places left in my Dublin workshop, 25th-27th September.
You’ll find links to all of these here on my website. Any questions? I will post an article with all the info you’ll need for the online course in a few days’ time. It’s nearly half full but you’ll be safe enough for a while.
See you soon, for some creative and mindful fun!