One of the best ways I know to sail through the seaons with equanimity and serenity about the inevitable cold and miserable weather that’s on the way is to look it right in the face and sketch it. To see the beauty in it, and to enjoy it mindfully.
That’s easy to say…but what does it look like in practice? What happens when nature herself is adding to my discomfort?
September – Blackberries
Just outside the door to my studio is a dry stone wall. On the other side is a very messy hedge that divides my back garden from the field next door. The hedge is unkempt, exactly how the wildlife likes it: there are lovely things in it like foxes and stoats, and less lovely things like rats, but mostly out-of-control brambles. In September the brambles are temporarily forgiven their aggressive march forward, when they groan with blackberries, and play host to little spiders that love to hang out upside down in the webs they’ve strung between the branches, waiting for flies.
I take my SketchPocket and stand as far into the hedge as I can without getting scratched, and draw. I use a beautiful blue-grey ink called Frieda. It’s in the Sketch Ink range by Rohrer & Klingner and it’s waterproof, and never clogs your pen. I use a Sailor fude pen, with a 55º degree nib, for its beautiful, expressive line.
It is lovely to stand here and sketch, with everything to hand: waterbrush for colouring with watercolour, tiny sketchbook for convenience. I discover that spiders fix holes in their webs, as best they can. I love to think of a spider noticing the breach of its trap and deciding on the best stitch to repair it. It humanises a spider, a creature with which I have had a fear-respect relationship since I was small. These days I welcome spiders in my home because they take care of flies and things. I know they must do, because they are large (ugh).
Looking at this sketch now, I think about a pleasant day at the very start of autumn, when the weather was still warm. That’s a nice memory aand it takes me away from the cold wet day I can see out of my window…
I present this subject to my students for class. It is the first day back after my three-month-long summer recess, during which time I have been designing and sewing versions of my SketchPocket. I have been looking forward to seeing my students again, but to see their smiling faces on the screen in front of me is even better than I have imagined. Soon after the class ends and the recording is sent out to all those who can’t be at the Live for whatever reason, the sketches come flooding into our Facebook group, along with comments, observations and the usual jolly banter that is guaranteed to make me smile.
While I am frightened to go too close to the spider, this has been a surprisingly easy and straightforward sketching session. No scratches, no nettle stings…but I do end up with purple-stained fingers and nails that look like I’ve been digging in the soil without gloves. This is because the blackberries are juicy and irresistible.
October – Seashore
In mid-October I find myself at the shore in Co. Clare. I have just returned from a few days i nDublin, where I have presented a masterclass on sketching people (“Sketching Humans in the Wild”) to the European Confederation of Watercolour Societies for the Watercolour Society of Ireland, and caught the Coronavirus. However, I do not yet know this, as I sit on the jagged rocks of the Flaggy Shore and sketch.
The day before, I visit with my husband: it is warm and dry and.the sea is mirror-calm, and transparent, babbling and splashing prettily around the edges, with adorable rock pools dotted here and there along the rocks we walk on. The Sunday trippers are out in force and the vibe is terrific. I do not sketch, as I am there to be sociable with my husband. I figure I can return the next day on my own.
I do so, arriving the following afternoon. It is not the beautiful experience I have envisaged. I am alone, all honest folk are at work (as am I, since this is a trial for a new book I may or may not do), and the calm has been replaced with wind. Worse, the tide is doing the wrong thing, and is coming in much faster than I can remember a tide coming in hitherto. My little terrier Reuben and I keep having to migrate higher up the rocks, inland, which means my POV keeps shifting; then again so does the light, as the clouds obscure and reveal the sun in turn. This all makes my sketching more difficult.
The rocks are sore under my behind, so I am sitting on Reuben’s cosy fleece coat. Then I see he is shivering, so I relinquish it and dress him up in it, as he is a far more needy cause than I. I do my best, but my rising fever is not helping my general mood. I remind myself I am a professional: over the years I have developed the ability to sketch my way through all kinds of physical discomfort. In Portugal and Spain, on three sketching assignments for the Portuguese and Spanish governments, I worked through food poisoning (baby squid, cockles and mussels, je vous accuse!) and in France I worked through Coronavirus (what has Continental Europe got against me?). So a little fever shouldn’t knock me off my stride. By next day I am worse, and the day after that I take to my bed.
Between wind, rising sea and barnacley, knobbly rocks, nature has really got it in for me this time. But I capture a beautiful West of Ireland sky and a little bit of pristine, if choppy, Atlantic Ocean.
October – Autumn Leaves
After a few days in bed (my illness is short-lived) I am out once more, hunting for autumn made manifest. I find these beautiful trees on the bank of the Claddagh Basin in Galway City. It’s as perfect a representation of the turning of the trees as anything I have seen, and I am satisfied. Reuben isn’t too pleased to be tied up to the railing beside me, but he is so close to me I can pat him as I sketch, so he can’t complain. There is traffic, after all. But complain he does when he finds he is not free to mingle with the dog-passers-by. A youngish man walks along the pavement on the other side of the street. He is dressed in the uniform of the “alternative” which is about as mainstream as it gets in Galway: hand-knits, hand-weaves, guitar over shoulder, long loping stride ending in huge, tatty boots. His two young collies have widened the gap between they and him, and he’s not happy.
“Hey hey HEY!” he calls. “I TOLD you! There’s fookin’ CARS!”
Weirdly, the dogs seem to get it and close the gap to safety. But Reuben thinks it’s desperately unfair that they’re free and he’s not. He’s a good little dog, though, and he tolerates my sketching session for however long his mistress needs.
I develop a great technique for autumn trees, one that I first tried in France last year (before plague came knocking). It involves drawing the trunks and branches first, then “planting” on the leaves afterwards. It works a treat, and when I bring it to the students a few days later they find it great too.
Drawing the trees makes me think a LOT about, well, trees. Trees in gold and orange and brown. I think about what makes them change colour (no clue, really) and how they’re greener towards the base, usually, and why that might be (again, no clue). The little red barge with its blue hull is the perfect foil for the trees’ orangeyness.
However, it IS late October, and I get so cold that I skulk back to the car with Reuben, unable to paint in the buildings on the far side of the river because my fingers are numb. But I love to mark the passage of time through the seasons, rather than by the wrinkles on my face, and I am very familiar with these trees in their summer lushness, so I drive home most contended.
November – A Walk In The Woods
This year has been exceptionally beautiful for golden trees. The best place around me to see trees at their most glorious is…my neck of the woods. So I drive the fifteen minutes to Coole Park, a lovely park and grounds of an estate house that used to belong to Augusta, Lady Gregory, who was a close friend of W.B. Yeats, our greatest poet (maybe he ties with Séamus Heaney, now that I think of it). When I arrive, it’s even more beautiful than I remember. Just adorable. So nice that I decide to invite the members of Sketch With Roisin (that’s what I call my private Facebook group) – partly for that reason, and partly because I think it will be cool to do a live on Facebook so that I get used to the idea of sketching live somewhere just for them.
It’s super fun to see their names scroll past on my little screen, so when I see a park workman blowing leaves around, I ham it up pretend I’m in the Blair Witch Project and run away, panting theatrically. I think this is hilarious but no one else seems to. Then, when I am in the same place the following day with my son Paddy and tell him about my funny skit, he explains that it had nothing to do with The Blair Witch Project. This could be because when my brand-new boyfriend (that’ll be my husband of 24 years) forced me to go to the movie on Halloween, I went, but kept my eyes tightly shut and my fingers in my ears throughout the entire movie, so I don’t actually know what it’s about. Still. My thing was funny.
I show the viewers the little fungi in the leaf-mould amongst the trees, and the golden beauty of the path. Then I gather up some of what I find into a brown paper bag and bring it home to sketch. In the bag there are mushrooms, leaves, some lichen on a stick, some spiky balls from a plane tree and some beech nut things covered in the cutest little “hairs” . At home I make a composition but there is too much in it, so I whittle it down to a few shapes. I try to keep the colour palette to a minimum and to be honest I am delighted with the result.
I will do this in class: one of my lovely students, a newer member, has requested fungi as a subject. I have done fungi before in class, long before she joined us, but it’s such a lovely subject I am more than happy to do a new one. Besides, you could pick and paint fungi every day of your life and they would never be the same twice. Once, a couple of years ago, I stepped into the little copse of trees that runs alongside my studio: in a stretch about 80m (90 yards) I picked about eight or nine varieties of fungi. You can see it in my archived classes: it’s the one with “there’s always something worth noticing” written above it.
This one is a little different, with just three or four colours used to make the whole thing. I am just going into class to do it with my students, and I can’t wait. I have a great technique for it, which you’ll see in my next (or next-but-one) YouTube video, or more comprehensively if you join us in class – live or when it gets to the archives.
That’s it for now! If I have inspired you to sketch from nature (although I have bad-mouthed nature too, by going on about how cold and miserable it can be to be out there) then think about joining us. Even if you don’t want to spend any money at the moment – understandable in the current climate, as they say – then I have a few free classes you can try on my website. I am due a new one, it has to be said, so watch this space!