I’ve had quite the week. They come along like that every once in a while.
Last Saturday week I met with members of Urban Sketchers Galway for a really lovely afternoon of sketching. We met on the steps of Galway City Museum on a beautiful sunny afternoon, and to our delight there was a Traveller Fair taking place on the plaza right in front of us. We had no idea it would be there and decided to go no further.
The first thing that caught my eye was a table covered in tin mugs for sale. Of the dozens on display, there were three or four that were made of copper: they gleamed and shone with a pinkish-golden colour. Beautiful. I bought two…
“What are these for?” I said to a middle-aged man.
“Well,” he said, “you could use it as an ornament, or I believe they make a grand cup of tea.” He must have been thinking, is this woman for real? What is a mug for, she says? Come on, woman!
“My grandfather made them,” said a young boy of about twelve, probably the guy’s son.
Then just to his right I watched as an older gentleman made a copper mug. He cut a piece from a flat sheet of copper, curved over the lip to make it safe to drink out of, then added a handle and stamped his name on the outside.
I sat on the steps in warm sunshine with Robert, Ciarán and Emily of USk Galway. A Guard or two arrived and chatted with the Travellers. No idea what the chat was about but they were on duty and hung around for ages. Then it occurred to me that I have never drawn a Guard. So I did. My Opera Rose got quite the outing for his pink nose.
(On my workshop a few days later, I had a student called Joe, who was rather quick with the repartee. “Opera Rose?” he said, “Garda Nose.”)
Then he left before I had done the garda’s legs, which is why he just has a rectangle below the jacket. But at least he has his thumbs hooked, Guard-like, in his day-glo yellow jacket. “Keeping his thumbs warm,” said Ciarán.
A traveller lady sang to a guitar at the foot of the steps of the Museum. She had a beautiful voice and it was super to be serenaded there in the sun. A man, her husband I think, was on duty with their baby girl, who wasn’t happy. Her daddy couldn’t soothe her and in the end he gave up and put her back in her buggy and strapped her in, whereupon she set up a mournful wail. Mam wasn’t having that, so she parked her beside where she was singing and gave her a bottle. Nope. Wasn’t going to fix it. In the end she sat the baby beside her on the chair and tried to manage her with one arm and strum the guitar with her other. That doesn’t work either. I was brought back to the days of trying to work while also making a baby stop crying, and the baby not interested in anyone but mummy.
God be with the days.
Thursday, Friday and Saturday saw my most recent workshop in Galway City. This one was called “An Introduction to Urban Sketching” and for the first time I had Irish participants: I think I’ve only ever had two or three before, out of well over a hundred. Most of them were brand new to urban sketching, although many had some painting or sketching experience behind them.
I started gently with the participants: Thursday dawned bright enough and it looked like we’d be sketching outdoors. The first task was to sketch something relatively straightforward, with a simple front elevation. The tiny peek of “perspective” around the side of the building was just what I wanted. There were two heavy downpours but the resourceful sketchers ran for cover in the Fishery Watchtower museum – and took the chance to sketch inside there. I loved the sketches they made there – nets hanging down, flies, photos of Galway’s fishing past. I love that urban sketching can mean juxtaposing two or more subjects that are connected, but are not necessarily seen at the same time.
In the afternoon, the sketching spotlight was on foliage, and I showed the sketchers a quick and easy way to do dense trees or bushes – no matter what the shape, or light conditions. That went down a treat and I think they found it useful.
My idea for after the foliage was to spotlight reflections in calm conditions. Trouble was, it was very windy, so despite the strong sunshine – for which I was extremely grateful – the water was choppy and reflections of any sort, never mind calm ones, were in short supply.
And so we concentrated on what we could see: floating buoys with strongly-coloured reflections and well-defines highlights; reflections in the water of the canal beside the river and waves as they moved and changed. They’re tricky in the best of conditions. No sooner had a sketcher started tracing the shapes of a given reflection than the light and wind would change, and so would the reflection. Such is the nature of urban sketching: they acquitted themselves well.
My mother Cinnie is no stranger to my workshops – and she and I had coffee together outside McCambridge’s, and I took the opportunity to show her a simple technique that makes drawing quite fun. I explained that while it results in a wobbly drawing, it also gives a dynamic and fresh result, and you will never go too far wrong.
The next day was really warm: the wind had died down and the rain clouds had scudded off somewhere else. We sat on the grassy bank of the Claddagh opposite the Long Walk, and I demonstrated another method I use for drawing complicated scenes with confidence.
Mum and I bought a sandwich and sat outside McCambridge’s at lunchtime. A very little old lady sat at our table, looking as if she was waiting for someone. She had snow-white straight hair in a perfect bob, a bright green padded anorak and was so frail and thin that she looked as if a breeze would blow her away. It was very sunny for such a warm jacket.
“Are you a visitor to Galway?” she asked.
I told her I wasn’t, and that I lived here, and established that she was visiting Galway for the day from Ballinasloe. Then her husband came to collect her. He was decidedly more sturdy.
“Why don’t you take off your coat?” he said.
“The old lady looked at me with a smile, and a long-suffering expression.
“He wants me to take off my coat,” she said to me.
“She’ll make maggots,” said her husband.
I let out a very loud guffaw.
Back at the Claddagh, a traditional wooden boat – a gleoiteog if I’m not mistaken – was being hammered on the shore at the foot of the sea wall, and the hammering, drifting across the wide River Corrib, was a soundtrack to the otherwise quiet afternoon. After lunch I demonstrated a simple sky – it took me all of about two minutes, which is the key to a successful sky. Dive in quickly and with confidence!
As I said at the top of the page, it was a busy week for me: the launch of my book took place on the Friday evening. I finished the day at 5.30pm and the book launch began at 6.30pm: no time to spruce up, to grab a coffee, no time for anything except a quick Superman-like change from sketching clothes to public-presentation clothes in a café bathroom.
The launch went really well: how perfectly wonderful it was to be in a room full of books, with the soft, kind faces of my nearest and dearest all around me. It was presented by the man who first sold my art, Tom Kenny, back in the day.
I shall elaborate about my journey to achieving the dream of creating a book of stories and sketches someday, but for now I will just say that the first Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook I took out of the library (in which I researched which publishers and agents might like me) had 2006 written on the cover, and the last had 2017 on it; the years in between contained lots of sighing, putting my head on my hands, reading rejections, clicking “delete” on emails that helpfully gave the gist away in the subject line, and generally feeling indescribably frustrated that I could not make others see what I could see.
But one day I met a publisher who gave me a hearing. Who invited me to come and show them my work: who didn’t throw me out when I was over an hour late, and who trusted me and my vision from the start. Being an artist can be a bit wobbly. You are sometimes in thrall to a whim, following some kind of esoteric idea until you reach a dead end (I have a drawer full of half-written comics). It is vital to be guided by someone who walks the line between trusting you, and keeping you on the straight and narrow. Currach Press did that, and their trust paid off.
(Then the night before my launch I couldn’t sleep because I had a dreadful panic attack about putting a personal memoir out there, but that wasn’t part of the plan…)
But back to the sketching workshop.
The three-day workshop was designed to give my participants a taste of as many of the different flavours of urban sketching as I could. With this aim in mind, I wanted to give them a completely different experience on the last day, and so we concentrated on rapid sketches of people in a busy place. I chose the busy Saturday market in Galway for this: there has been a market there for more than 500 years, and I wonder if the market-goers walked as slowly past the stalls then as they do now. In any case, they made the perfect subjects.
I suggested a few tips that would make drawing people easier, and I encouraged the participants to try to record stories they found, either through sight or sound. I drew an oriental guy who couldn’t see and who was being guided by a companion; and a man in an embroidered hippie hat – very Galway – with fatty bags under his eyes – very hippie. Two Americans walked along the narrow lane of the market, thronged so thick with people it was almost impossible to move.
“Hey!” said one, “It’s the Galway Yoga Centre!” He pronounced it Gall-Way Yoga Cenner.
“Oh!” said his companion, “the yoga cenner, dude.”
Straight from Central Casting, as they say.
Some young men operated a juice stall. They were great guys, and I got the strong feeling that they were Galwegians (we’re a friendly bunch). The guy doing most of the serving bantered with the customers. He was very nice to the girls and the children, and friendly to the guys: then a plump young American man asked what was in a particular juice.
“Blueberries, strawberries, beetroot, carrot,” said the guy, “everything a growing boy needs.”
The guy laughed…I don’t think he was the type to mind.
An Englishwoman asked how much the cherries were.
“Three for a bowl or two for a fiver,” said another lovely young chap (there were lots).
“Three euros?” said the woman. “Euros?”
“Yes,” said the lad.
What currency was she expecting?
I was sketching the bowls of cherries, dark and ripe, and finally couldn’t resist any longer. I asked for a bowl.
“Two euros for you,” said the lad, “I saw you sketching.”
The next exercise was to draw the buskers along the main street. Galway is pretty crazy on a summer’s day, and it was a great experience for the sketchers to draw in the street and feel the reality of urban sketching at its most dynamic.
I gotta tell you, I was very lucky with this workshop. It was no different from any other in that a bunch of strangers with a shared interest got to know and like each other over three days. But I was lucky with the weather – it was warm and sunny for the most part – I was lucky with the participants, who were trusting and friendly, and I was lucky with the time of year – it was still the start of summer, with all the promise of holiday season ahead of us.
You can still join me in Haarlem, Netherlands, this summer: from 19th-21st July I will be sharing more of my magic watercolour tricks with a small but select group of sketchers. I have room for one or two more!
If Galway and the West of Ireland is more your thing, let me draw breath for a few days and I’ll organise the next urban sketching workshop. I have rather a special winter sketching idea up my sleeve…