A Week in Sweltering Amsterdam with My Family

This year, I brought my family with me to the Urban Sketching Symposium. It provided a nice balance between work and relaxing. My family is unusual in that we occasionally have rows over stupid things, and the searing hot weather meant rows over stupid things were a little closer to the surface than normal, a little more likely to erupt.

A calmer moment in lovely Haarlem.

Marcel, Paddy and Liv arrived in Amsterdam Central Station on the Monday after my workshop in Haarlem wrapped up. My eldest had also arrived in Amsterdam that day, but she was doing her own thing with her own friends. I was treated to updates on her Instagram story throughout the following week – second-hand, through the two younger kids – and it was enough to reassure me that she was still alive.

On their second day in Holland, I brought Marcel and the two kids back to Haarlem, just because I wanted them to see the lovely place I had been teaching the previous few days. They loved it. I sketched a canal where I had been, and right in front of us a Great Crested Grebe appeared, caught a fish and wolfed it down the hatch…my youngest, Liv, was very quick with her camera and caught it perfectly. I had an empty patch on my page and drew it from the photo.

Poor roach

Next day was the “faculty field trip”, when the USk organisation lays on an excursion. I would spend the day without the family, so they went to Leiden (and loved it). This year the excursion was to the Royal Talens factory, a long way from Amsterdam. I told everyone that we were going to see watercolour paint being made. I was very excited about this. In the event, we saw oil paint, soft pastels and acrylic paint being made, but not watercolour. I was disappointed. The manufactuers are wary of their rivals – perhaps that was the reason we weren’t invited to see watercolour being made.

The factory was hot. The sizzling temperatures outdoors had somehow seeped into the factory and I was getting a little irritable. We were asked to put on (even hotter) yellow hi-viz vests, and just before we set off I grabbed my tiniest sketchbook (A6) and a fude pen, as you never want to be without a sketchbook.

“Please don’t draw the machinery,” said the staff. I love the idea that a rival would be able to build a copy from our scribbles. “We could number them wrongly,” said a funny sketcher in our group. We looked at bags of pigment, so intense the light seemed fully absorbed in the bags of powder. We saw how oil paint was churned, how acrylic tubes were filled and how soft pastels were put in boxes. Then the lovely, helpful guide stopped near some vats of pigment.

“The worker is going to check the pigment for quality now,” she said.

I saw a man go very close to the ground next to a vat of pigment, as if he was looking for something underneath. I thought he was being very dedicated for the tour, going above and beyond the call of duty by peering under the vat, but it didn’t take long for me to realise that it was a Muslim praying. He had taken a sheet of cardboard to act as a prayer mat, his shoes neatly beside him, and I guess he was facing towards Mecca. I took my tiny sketchbook and sketched him: I was impressed by his devotion, and it was special to see someone carrying out his spiritual activities despite the normal working day’s activities all around him.

Crazy intense pigments

When he was finished, he carefully put away his cardboard sheet, put his shoes back on and went back to work.

The pigments were so intense that only my Radiant Watercolour Inks could depict them adequately.

Back in Amsterdam that night, I was troubled in my sleep. My first workshop would take place on the Thursday morning, and the temperature was set to climb to forty degrees. What would I do to protect my students from heatstroke? Would they keel over? I’ve had sunstroke twice in my life and it is horrible. Fortunately, help was at hand: my dear Instagram friend Clarisa from Adelaide in Australia, who was there in person, suggested a remedy for too much sun when you can’t escape.

“Put on your sunhat,” she said, “and take a wide, lightweight scarf that you have drenched in water, and drape it over the hat and across your shoulders. It acts as an aircon unit.”

A million thanks to Clarisa – it worked. There was a fountain at my sketching location, as well as some shade under trees, and I even helped a girl in the group who was beginning to feel a little poorly with Clarisa’s technique.

My workshops went really well – I think – and the more I do them the more I realise I love teaching and seeing the scales fall away from the eyes of my students. The comments I got warmed my heart. My favourite was “You have set us free.” Good God! It doesn’t get better than that. The students who said it meant that the fude pen is so fantastic that your drawing soars. I think that’s what they meant, anyway.

This year, I got them to try using homemade ink and feather quills, just for fun, and then they used the fude pen to see how they liked the flattened nib. After that they used a nice sepia ink as a wash, to better understand values and how to depict light.

Marcel and Paddy and Olivia had to amuse themselves while I worked. That was no mean feat in the heat, but they had a great time. They visited the Science Museum, the Botanic Gardens, the flea market and the town of Leiden on their own: together we went to Zandvoort Beach, Haarlem, the Rijksmuseum and various restaurants and cafés. I have to say, it was great.

Liv turned fifteen on 25th July. That was the day it was going to be 40 degrees. We headed out to the beach at 6pm, had a big row over the destination of the furnace-like and air-conditioning-free train (Zandvoort vs. Sandfoort), in which I turned out to be right – that doesn’t work with husbands. But the beach was blissful. We walked far out to the sandbanks, where it didn’t get deeper than our waists. We were still swimming at eight pm, it was still warm,a nd then we had a long, cool wheat beer and pizza, the rows, and being wrong, forgotten.

(Paddy is nearly 18. He told me that I should embrace the fact that the others were so salty. “It shows they’re furious that you are right and they are wrong,” he said, “That is wonderful. Be happy!”)

We missed a hippie festival on the beach by a day.

“Are you sorry to have missed it?” I asked Liv this morning.

“No,” she said. “They would have sat cross-legged in the shallows, lotus-style. Braiding each others’ hair. Actually no – we all know they would have been protesting.”

I didn’t meet any unpleasant Dutch people. On the contrary, they were all very sweet and helpful. There was just one mean lady – pretty young – who hit me in the arm in a shop because I wasn’t queuing properly. She’d left a big gap and I didn’t know what she was at. I glared at her in an effort to look both scathing and nonchalant, and I wanted to say to her, “Lady, In Ireland if someone has two beers and a sandwich and the other person is clearly restocking their bedlinen and kitchen from scratch, we tell them to go ahead in front of us.” But all I know in Dutch is Thank You, Lovely and Chicken.

Another evening, when we were all very tired and very hot as usual, a man rang his bell on his bike when there was no pavement for us to walk on – the scaffolding came right to the edge of the bike path – and I sounded off to no one in particular that I would give him a piece of my mind, brave in the confidence that he was long ahead. I didn’t know he had pulled in to the next doorway, but Marcel did, and he gave him a piece of his mind for everyone. Cringe.

I loved the Rijksmuseum. I brought my teeny sketchbook with me and sketched a few exhibits.

(For the record, I dislike the title Gallery of Honour. Everyone who picked up a brush, including the women who were hampered from so doing because of family commitments – Judith Leyster of Haarlem is a perfect example – is deserving of honour. Remember! Until “honour” is divided equally between the sexes, and between those who had opportunity and those who did not, it’s meaningless. Men are no more deserving of honour than women, neither are the privileged especially deserving.)

Here’s my Angry Swan:

And my scant little take on Rembrandt’s Nightwatch:

I wandered through the Gallery of Honour, full of 17th Century paintings by all the people I know so well, and many I don’t. I heard a woman say to a guard,

“Is this the Van Goghs?”

“No Madam,” he replied, “they are on the first floor.”

“But these are very famous!” he called after her, but she and her companion had disappeared into the fray.

Another woman looked at an impossibly ornate, blowsy still life in classic Golden Age style. “Is that Van Gogh?” she asked someone.

It’s funny – everyone knows how Van Gogh struggled to turn a buck from his art, and the paintings that were being taken for his work were painted by very well-paid artists, funded by huge riches derived from the exploitation of the Far East. I told my husband Marcel what the women had said, sniggering at their ignorance.

“Everyone’s education has to start somewhere,” he said. I didn’t like being called out for scoffing, but he was right. Those ill-informed women probably didn’t have the amazing art teacher I had at school, nor the year in the top Irish art college, nor parents who took them to exhibitions from a very young age, nor gifts of art books throughout their lives. And I still know very little.

Finally, my sketch of an exhibit I found particularly moving. These six hats are some of those found on 185 skeletons, the bodies of Dutch whalers from the 17th century.

The hats were in a long glass cabinet, each propped up on a stand. The hats were very special. It is the small objects designed to bring comfort that touch me so much more than their beautiful ships or the places they conquered. I could see individual idiosyncracies included by the knitter in each hat: orange and golden stripes in a random pattern, orange spots on blue stripes, a yellow band. One was heavily darned in a rough but functional way. By the owner? His wife or mother? The hats were used to identify a deceased whaler and the yarn was thick and warm and looked like it would bring great comfort in the freezing North Sea. Seeing these hats are the reason I never leave my sketchbook at home. You never know when a small tidbit of life will grab you by the heart. Four hundred years later, the local guys I see working the seas off the west coast of Ireland winter wear the same kinds of hats.

I am reading a book called Why The Dutch Are Different. I’m enjoying it and learning lots about the Dutch, their character and their history. It looks like a great country, and my youngest wants to study there.

They need to be a bit more chill in queues though (as do the British, and if truth be told, as do I) and maybe back down when they are approached by a very overheated Englishman, bike lane or no bike lane.


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