Ten Thousand Hours (Some Of Them In Barbershops)

I was stuck indoors today: I have a chest infection and a broken, well, bum (see yesterday’s post about a flying high kick in Taekwon-Do that went wrong). Sometimes you have a workload such that you can’t get sick until it’s all done: that was the case with me recently. My family, with whom I share lots of germ vectors, have fallen like flies over the last few months, but throughout it all I remained standing. The threat of a lurgy hung over me like a sword of Damocles however, and I knew it was coming. (You’d swear I have TB. It’s just a chest infection.)

So I painted indoors today, preparing a sketch to illustrate a workshop I have coming up in October. My son Paddy has been wanting a haircut for about two weeks now, but there was never an evening that I was free to bring him. I had agreed to bring him to the barbers this evening. I was happy to go, even though I’d have been just as happy in bed under the covers.

Settled in to the bench in the barbershop, I got sketching. Some days everyone ignores you when you’re sketching. This wasn’t one of those days. Within five minutes two other customers were thoroughly engaged in what I was doing, One lady’s son, perched high on a booster seat in the barber’s chair, was so interested in my sketch that he kept twisting around to have a look – that’s definitely a first. The other customer, a man, wanted to know if I taught classes. He has a 13-year-old boy and we agreed that if he could rustle up a few kids besides his son, I would put a class on near his home (he reckons he has a venue too).

The colours I chose were indigo and a little cadmium yellow mixed with transparent pyrrol orange for the hair, and yellow ochre for the barber’s skin. He was Brazilian and he didn’t understand any English, but he seemed very pleased to see my sketch after he’d cut Paddy’s hair. I am trying to learn Portuguese and I find Brazilians easy to talk to, because I’m completely crap and lacking in confidence, and I know that they are used to Irish people speaking no Portuguese whatsoever. I’m ahead before I even say “I only speak a tiny bit of Portuguese,” after which time the ice is kind of broken and I get to say “thank you” or “yes” or something equally advanced.

The owner of the barbershop, Ali, is normally in charge of the music. His tastes run to reggae, chart stuff, rap, funk, that kind of thing. He was not there this evening, so the two Brazilian barbers had free rein to put on whatever music they liked. Unfortunately, they chose Christmas music: Hark The Herald Angels was followed by Mariah Carey belting out one of her songs featuring Santa Claus. Mariah Carey is never a good choice, regardless of the season. One of the other customers didn’t see things my way.

“Christmas songs are always a good idea,” she said.

“They’re banned in my house, at any time before or after December,” I said. I sketched furiously, hoping to distract myself from the terrible music.

He looks a bit funny…

The young barber looks just as I drew him. Getting a likeness is a funny thing. I used to be very envious of people who could do that. I could not achieve a likeness, not for many years. I used to work for brides who always wanted a perfect likeness of everyone on their wedding invitations, but I always told them at the outset that they wouldn’t be getting one. Then the pressure was off, and as long as I made them a bit prettier than in real life, they were happy.

The period during which I worked with brides was a time of a lot of drawing, at first because my method took a while to become efficient, later because I had a lot of clients. That intense period of drawing was one of my turning points as an artist: it was then that my style began to emerge. My drawing, like handwriting, became distinctly my own. Then, when I discovered urban sketching in 2012, I drew even more, for a different reason – I couldn’t stop. Keen observation became like breathing, and as the volume of work I created increased, I entered a phase when I knew how to approach any face: exactly how much pressure I needed to exert with my (fountain) pen, at exactly what point I could afford the bolder strokes, what to avoid when drawing eyes, which moment and at which position to best try to capture the sitter. Except that I never had sitters, I had standers, or fidgeters, or departers, or walkers. So I had to learn to be very fast as well as observant.

Now I can capture a likeness and I am rather pleased with myself: not because I think I’m fancy or anything but because I like to tell stories with my sketches, and it makes my stories much funnier if you can tell who’s talking. Even if you only have their essence – so much the better.

Many of the best urban sketchers are fantastic at capturing likenesses. They each have their own style. Look at the vivacity and colour of Marina Grechanik, the humour and wit of Pedro Loureiro or the wizardry and skill of Donald Owen Colley: they have such different styles, different media, different approaches. But what they have in common is a vast amount of ink time under their belts.

I wanted to capture the “id” that I saw in people for decades. About fifteen years ago I had the temerity to write to one of my heroes, Dame Posy Simmonds, to ask her what she used and what her method was. There was no Instagram of Facebook then (well, not that I was aware of anyway), so I sent her an email. She graciously wrote back and told me that among other things she used an almost-run-out marker. I couldn’t get my head around that and after trying it once, never did so again. Then I saw a documentary about Quentin Blake in which he shared some of his tips. He said always make sure you know which leg the weight is on. I use that every time.

That was then, and this is now. People write to me now and ask me what I use, and there’s tons of stuff on my website describing the tools and kit I use. Yes, I’ve found great tools and kit that suit me very well, but there is one thing and one thing only that made the real difference…

ten thousand hours!

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