Thursday 31st March
In the morning, I spend a couple of hours in Galway City with my younger brother Cormac, who lives in the south of Spain. He is considering third-level education for his wonderful daughter and has come to spend a few days in Ireland investigating the various universities. While I wait for him and his lovely girl to explore NUIG I grab a quick sketch. I am outside McCambridge’s in the main street, my favourite outdoor café to sketch – or indeed have a coffee. I choose a woman who looks like she won’t notice anyone sketching her. I draw in green ink because I have forgotten my pen with brown ink: the traces of brown are from an unfinished sketch a few days earlier, when my subjects disappeared. That’s the way it goes! You can choose carefully and still choose someone who gets up and leaves as soon as you have ruined your nice white page. Still, I am happy to have rescued this page.
Later that afternoon, when Cormac has driven back to Dublin to catch the next morning’s flight, I head out to sketch, as I want to capture a dramatic, cloudy scene for my students. I walk up the road from my house and sketch a sky quickly, but my sketch hasn’t got exactly what I want to share with them…
…so I return the next afternoon and turn through a few degrees to capture the view a few feet up the road from the first one. Saturday will be the first in the series of classes on Skies and Landscape, and I want to make sure I bring scenes to class that contain lots of learning points. I sketch the beautiful vista of Tyrone House and its surrounding fields. The sky that is all-enveloping there is dramatically beautiful. I have been painting clouds in watercolour for a very long time and while I wouldn’t claim to be perfect – I have a long way to go – I am confident and competent. I sincerely believe it’s just not that hard to get right and I think I can share some ways to make their capture easier for my students. It’s a very cold session of sketching, but it stays dry. The little dog is shivering but uncomplaining when I pack up after about an hour. I shoot a Reel of the making of the sketch for Instagram, which I always find a lot of fun. (I scan the image and only afterwards realise there are green smears on the glass, where I probably scanned a sketch that wasn’t quite dry. You can see the green splodges in the sky on both sides!)
Class goes very well: the students produce beautiful work from their homes across the four corners of the globe. I share a few of the ghost stories that I’ve heard about Tyrone House, which are always a little disturbing given the unpleasant history of the house. One marvellous student draws, right onto her sketch, three beautiful little zombies staggering across the field in front of the ruin. One has a red dress on, one yellow and one blue. Two of them are in little hats. This total irreverance is what I adore about my students and about our collective approach to art: it’s there to be enjoyed, and never to be fretted over, or taken too seriously. Now, the subject matter, that’s a different thing – its beauty is definitely to be taken seriously, and that’s what I always try to do. To honour the beauty of the world. The art I produce? It’s not really about me…never has been. I think that’s why I struggle to call myself an artist.
In the morning I record an episode of my podcast, which is called Sketch Therapist (“the podcast that will improve your sketch life!”). I recount one of the ghost stories I have heard about Tyrone House, so if you want to know more, you know where to find it!
Afterwards, my younger daughter Liv and I go to Galway City together. She has to buy a book for school: Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier. The kids have voted on it from a selection they’ve been given, and I am enthusiastic on her behalf, but once she realises she’s expected to cover the pages in highlighter pen and analyse it to death, she’s less impressed. She resolves to read it on her own, quickly, before battering the life out of it in English class.
She knows that the deal is that we’ll go into town, I’ll sketch, and she’ll shop for her book. We stop at a café to have a nice coffee and a little snack – I have a tiny square of Rocky Road, with which I have recently fallen in love – and I draw the man sitting opposite. I want to do a couple of café scenes for Tuesday’s “fresh sketches” class, and I already have one from the previous Thursday. The man’s companion, a lady, must have her spidey senses on alert for sketchers, as she moves opposite him where she can’t be stared at by me, but that’s fine because the man is completely insensible to the fact that he’s being sketched. I start with his head, making it a little too squat, and he looks rather Uncle Fester-y in the final sketch. But on the whole it’s a nice sketch, fresh and spontaneous, which is how any sketch done of a fellow customer has to be.
I buy ingredients to make Rocky road on the way home. Pink and white marshmallows. A giant bar of milk chocolate. A heavy packet of digestives. I’m hoping the resulting concoction will look better once it’s set. It does – just enough not to put me off – but it’s sickly sweet and kind of delicious in an evil way.
Class normally takes place on Tuesdays, but today it’s on Monday, as I have a gig on Tuesday. The two café sketches are presented to my wonderful students in class, and they respond with enthusiasm. I am delighted with their work, which they post in our closed Facebook group. I say “closed” because it’s only open to my students. Many of them wouldn’t feel comfortable to share their art in front of the whole world, but they know they’re amongst friends with the other students in the class. I love these sketches and I delight in their use of colour and line, and I feel proud to think I have instigated much of it.
I go the doctor and even though it’s not the reason I am there, the doctor tells me that my cholesterol reading is crazy (it’s hereditary, which seems a bit unfair). Doctors can be sneaky that way – looking out for your overall health and all. The doctor prescribes statins. No more Rocky Road for me, which is probably as well, as I feel unwell after each sneaked slice. At this age I must be careful not to throw all decorum to the wind and feast on things that are natural to neither man nor beast. Pink and white marshmallows fall into this category.
The reason my class has been moved to Monday is that I have been invited to sketch in Galway’s Town Hall Theatre in aid of the Simon Community, an Irish charity that helps homeless people. It’s also a very special goodbye-send-off for a well-known and well-loved singer called Mary McPartlan, who died at the start of the pandemic and was not publicly mourned because of the covid restrictions. A line up of exceptional talent will appear on stage this evening, mostly Irish trad but in a huge variety of styles. I have been allotted two seats in the balcony, right at the very end, and I have a great view of the action. I only have five or perhaps ten minutes to sketch each musician from start to finish, and I have developed a great technique to do this out of pure necessity. (I am going to teach it, naturally!) The night is extremely moving and the musicians who are performing there are hugely talented, but I am sketching so furiously that I do not really hear much. That’s part of the job description, I am afraid. I could be treated to an actual choir of angels and I wouldn’t hear it if I was also sketching the ensemble. I am so engrossed in my work, and so frantic to get everything finished in time to be sent down to be framed and raffled, that I forget to take pictures of the results. On the whole I don’t mind apart from one tiny sketch of Gawlay’s ConTempo Quartet. It is no bigger than a credit card – all four of them, in their black suits and playing their fine string instruments – and it is one of the most beautiful sketches I have ever done. I will never see it again, alas. Part of the job description, I remind myself. When the concert is over, and all four sketches have been collected to be framed and handed over to the winners, I am alone in the semi-gloom of the balcony, the theatre now deserted, gathering up my belongings. It takes me a while to make sure I haven’t left anything behnd. When I make my way down to the packed foyer, there is lots of excitement over the paintings. One winner keeps looking at the painting he has won and says he can’t believe it. But on the whole I have missed all the excitement in which I might have revelled, if I had a factotum, or assistant. The egoist in me is disappointed, but on the way home I look at it another way – this woman was clearly very loved, led a productive life in the service of others, and it’s good enough for me, and I should seriously cop myself on and get over myself. Then I think of the sketch I did where I caught Mary’s widower Paddy on the crowded stage at the end, with his arm around the shoulder of his beautiful teenage daughter, holding her close, with his other daughter standing just in front of him. I realise that my life is a privileged one in which I am frequently honoured to record these special moments.
The next day I put it to my husband Marcel that he might act as my assistant on sketching forays. That he would be there to carry everything, protect his bride from harm and generally treat me like a queen. (I am thinking of a colleague I have who has just such a knight to look after her). My husband is decidedly unenthusiastic.
I fill in the 2022 census form. On the last page there is a blank rectangle in which you are invited to write something by hand. I decide to draw something instead. Marcel says Iit looks like the sort of thing you’d draw on an exam paper, instead of doing the actual exam. He has put into words exactly the spirit of the thing. I am very pleased with my doodle…
…so much so that I make a little Reel the next day of the “household”. I have added a little who’s-who underneath:
- Me, my husband and daughter (I will also mention that there are two absent progeny in college, as per the census insructions).
- Terrier (partially makes up for absent progeny, see cradled-in-arms position)
- Fox (in battle for turf with terrier)
- Visiting cat (encouraging it to stay with friendly, meaningful looks – as opposed to food – see item 5 below)
- Rats and mice
- Birds, including an owl and a sparrowhawk who perhaps could be pulling their weight a little better (see 5 above)
- A pheasant
- A stoat and its child
- Koi carp, born here in our pond to sadly mourned parents
- Heron (may have koi on its mind)
- Swans (fleeting and only in our air space but too magical to leave out)
- Possible goose, judging by “leavings” on the lawn – or might possibly belong to an accident by swans in flight
- Water boatmen – small but perfect for lazy afternoons lying on the warm slates around the pond
- Worms, slugs and snails – many
I have been eyeing the weather and watching the sky, and later on I make my way to the Burren to gather material for my wonderful students. I spend at least three quarters of an hour crouched behind a wall with a dodgy umbrella clutched desperately in my paw. Reuben’s lovely fluffy white fur becomes soaking, bedraggled clumps, stuck on the sides of his head, rendering his skull tiny and his face bug-eyed. My sketchbook becomes thoroughy sodden and I fear I have made a wasted trip. Then the sun comes out with a vengeance once the rain showers pass and the result is a sketch with decidely mixed light conditions. It ends up being two hours of pure bliss on that mountainside. Reuben is fluffy and soft again, he chases a hare and I even take off my coat. Such is the life of a plein air sketcher…it’s truly a beautiful life.
Just before I leave I grab a quick sketch in line only and then decide to paint it…but wait, haven’t I noticed that dark cloud on the left? You can see what happens next…
I will report back after class! Remember you can join until just before the start at 4.00pm Irish time, and many of my favourite classes are available for download elsewhere in the website.
Until next time…happy sketching!