A Watercolour Sketching Workshop in Haarlem, 19th-21st July 2019

I was in Porto, Portugal, last year when this year’s Urban Sketching Symposium location was announced. It would take place in Amsterdam. “You should consider staying in Haarlem,” said Anne Rose Oosterbaan, one of the many Dutch sketchers in Porto. “It’s very pretty, cheaper than Amsterdam – and only twenty minutes away by train.”

That was the first time I heard of the original Haarlem, as opposed to its namesake in New York. The date of the 2019 Symposium would coincide with my younger daughter’s birthday: she would turn fifteen on 25th July, right in the middle of it. I wasn’t going to leave her on her birthday, but neither did I want to miss the Symposium. I decided that I would bring the whole family with me if my proposal were accepted, and I would give a workshop beforehand, partly to help with the cost of a family holiday, but also because Anne Rose had made her home town of Haarlem sound very attractive. In Porto I had spent nearly a week before the Symposium sketching the city and enjoying Portugal, and I thought it would be nice to do the same thing again in the Netherlands.

Nearly a year later I found myself doing just that. I arrived on a Thursday afternoon, spent the next few hours exploring – and learning to accept that the huge people on huge fast bikes don’t mess around – and was then further shown around by the inimitable Anne Rose, who gave me her evening to help me look at locations to sketch. As we traipsed along alleys, by canals and through squares we were caught in a heavy downpour. We stopped by a pretty bridge over a canal in a pathetic attempt to shelter under a tree (where I would bring my sketchers a day or two later) and heard low laughter: we couldn’t figure out where it was coming from, until we saw a huge flat-bottomed tub of a boat moored under the bridge, filled with teenagers, cosy and dry in the gloom, unlike me and Anne Rose, who were now drenched to the skin.

Nothing a warm bar couldn’t fix, though, and soon we’d met the first of the sketchers in Jopen, a brewery in a converted church. I developed a taste for Mooie Nel and was soon on one of those highs you get when you’ve been a bit wound up about an upcoming event…and then have a drink.

Haarlem is really very pretty. It’s neat as ninepence (“Just don’t be messy,” counselled my husband Marcel on the phone that evening, “and you’ll be fine.”) You really can’t imagine just how pretty it is without seeing it, which I highly recommend. The canals surround the city, rather than cut through it like Amsterdam, and the central focal point is Groote Markt with the beautiful St Bavo Church in the middle.

Haarlem girls are absolutely beautiful, nearly always straw blonde, and being unencumbered with visible eyebrows myself, I felt right at home. Sadly I don’t share their statuesque physique: not only are they tall, but they are big too. (“It’s the buttermilk,” said Marcel.) They’re never fat – see note on bikes, above – and they exude confidence, often carrying a box of blonde babies on the bike too. My daughter Olivia was very much looking forward to not being the tallest in the town (no idea how I produced such a lithe, graceful girl) and in the event, she was delighted.

(“No one has asked me for directions,” she said, disappointed not to have been mistaken for Dutch. She plans to study here when she graduates.)

The men didn’t impress me the way the women did – perhaps I’m used to seeing large, confident men elsewhere – but the women were an ode to strength, beauty and confidence. Respect.

Next morning our workshop group gathered in a pretty café between my hotel and the main square. I had two ladies from Hong Kong (one of whom had recently moved back to the US), two from Canada, three from the Netherlands and two from Italy. Off we set for our first stop.

Day 1 – Morning Session: Values

I found the perfect first subject. I deliberately chose something without a recognisable form, so as not to put people off on their first day, and it was no surprise to me that they all made a strong rendition of the abstract statue I chose to explain how values work.

Here I am telling them stuff – isn’t the square pretty?

After a while I sat opposite them and sketched the line of ladies as they sketched.

Left to right:

Paola, Monique, Debs, Emma, Patricia, Mary, Giulia, Kim and Ellen. You can look at the photo of us further down having a drink and see if I was on the money!

My ladies!

Day 1 – Afternoon: Reflections and Foliage

After lunch we went to go and find some reflections. I wanted to show how easy it can be to get a convincing feeling of water with some simple devices.

A bit of wildlife in the foreground always looks lovely and helps with scale.

The weather was cooperating: the water was still enough to provide uniform reflections, and lively enough to offer the necessary challenge of movement. So I skipped to the next day’s lesson, which was to attempt some foliage. Having done the trees beyond the river, we walked down to the nearest “hofje”, Teyler’s Hofje. Teyler was a wealthy man of the 18th century, who decided to spread his largesse in a charitable way: he established homes for elderly single women, which surrounded a beautiful courtyard garden. To this day, the gardens are immaculate, and I think the residents are still older ladies, judging by those we saw sitting around under shady umbrellas in the garden reading or taking tea. It looked heavenly.

Here’s Teyler’s Hofje, where we sketched more greens:

We all want to live here when we are old ladies…or now would be good.

That evening, I was fit to collapse, but I was persuaded to join one of my lovely workshop students for a quick meal. One of the nice things about socialising with sketchers is that they NEVER get sick of sketching, and NEVER complain when someone else wants to sketch, even during dinner. I craned my neck to sketch the row of buildings behind me in Grote Markt. (Seemingly there are two o’s when it’s been spelled the old-fashioned way, as it is on the street sign on the square.)

Day 2 – Morning: People and Composition

The next day was promised wet, and Haarlem was as good as its word. We made ourselves comfortable under the awning of a café and sketched the people around us, and discussed various elements of composition. My tea grew cold and undrinkable, but as a teacher of outdoor sketching panic about rain is never far away, and so I would have bought and allowed to grow cold ten glasses of tea for the privilege of a large, comfortable, interesting and dry area to bring my sketchers.

By lunchtime it cleared up and we delighted in sketching the open Saturday market that thronged the square outside the magnificent St. Bavo Church. Once again the theme was to sketch people…

…and the sketchers did exactly that, sketching and weaving their way through flower stalls, Turkish pizza stalls (yum), a shop that sold wooden clogs and tulips, vegetable stalls, stalls covered in huge wheels of cheese, stalls filled with gorgeous sausage, one that was hung with great twisted skeins of smoked garlic…

Day 2 – Afternoon: Using a Limited Palette

In we went to the beautiful church. The largest organ in Europe is there, and Mozart played on it when he was ten years old. The space inside is glorious. Lofty, soaring, splendid. Tasteful. Here’s a contemporaneous painting:

My ladies enjoyed sketching in the church, and one or two channelled this painter to make sketches through arches.

For my part, I had decided to use three colours for the organ: red, indigo and yellow. First I sketched it – not too small so as to lose the detail – but with an A5 sketchbook I couldn’t fit all of it in. I couldn’t see the poor lions’ faces, so they ended up looking a bit like teddies. None the worse for that!

After the church, we were all feeling a little happy with how well we were all getting along, so we took ourselves to an outdoor bar and settled in for some drinks. The early evening sun shone on us, and the warm wind was pleasant. Seeds from a nearby tree floated through shafts of sunlight and were caught in our hair – and on our pages, like the one seed that I didn’t manage to brush away. The beer was delicious. The bitterballen were piping hot and also delicious, deep fried spheres of something, coated in breadcrumbs and dipped in mustard.

“Can you give us any tips for hands?” asked someone.

Sure that I could, I launched in. It turned out I couldn’t. I drew a few sets of hands then feebly told everyone that it was just good observation – but by then they’d moved on, sharing stories, careless of what hands did or didn’t look like.

Hands, schmands…
Can you guess who’s who from the sketch above?

Day 3 – Morning: Reflections and Foliage – Consolidated

Finally, back to the spot where those teenagers lurked under the bridge to keep dry. The bird on the left is a grebe – a Great Crested Grebe, I believe – and it has caught a roach, according to my husband. (How did he know? I drew that grebe at a later date, after my workshops was done, when I brought my family to Haarlem to show it off, like a kid bringing his mum to his new classroom. Our girl Liv took the photo so fast, when the bird had just started to gulp down its prey, and I drew it from the photo.)

As my group and I started to sketch, a wailing could be heard from a bench across the river. A young woman in her early twenties was having a tearful conversation on the phone to someone, and she was just across the canal from us, so it was very audible (not that I knew any Dutch, and our three Dutch students were far too discreet to translate). On and on she wailed and sobbed. I had had a discreet look at her as I’d passed on the way to our spot, because I have a daughter just a bit younger than her. I know better than to interfere, but in my glance I took in a healthy (if thin) body and glossy (if dyed) hair, which told me she was okay. Her miserable conversation went on for what seemed like ages. Eventually she hung up, dried her tear-stained face and resumed her day, looking rather better (if a bit morose), I thought.

The grebe on the left was caught on camera by my girl Olivia…

Later we walked up the river a little and sketched the famous bridge. It was “up” when we arrived, and stayed that way for twenty minutes, to allow tall and masted craft to pass underneath. Apparently “the bridge was up” is a cast-iron and unquestioned excuse for being late in the Netherlands.

Day 3 – Afternoon: Direct Painting

After lunch we sketched the Molen de Adriaan, one of Haarlem’s most famous sights. Windmills always get the better of me, so I sketched it in watercolour first, line afterwards, as did my ladies. They all made a great job of it and went away happy.

Afterwards we met up with Urban Sketchers Haarlem and made a group photo. Anne Rose had invited anyone who had arrived a few days early for the Symposium to come to Haarlem for the day and we were delighted to say hello to them. By the time the photo was taken I had lost a few sketchers to early flights and work commitments…but a few of us were still standing!

I’m wearing my skirt of barbershop sketches in this one. My son (who is the subject of the hair cuts) has asked me to make swimming shorts out of the rest of the fabric.

Well, a drink was called for after three days’ intense sketching, and whoever was left of our group repaired to a café-bar thing and had a round of aperol spritzes. Mmmm. Refreshing. After that the girls wanted to find some dinner and I felt like I needed to…do some sketching, and so I settled down to sketch another statue in Groote Markt, albeit somewhat tipsy by now.

This chap invented the printing press at the same time as Gotenburg (who cares who was first? They’re both great). He made a great subject, all coppery and green. I wanted to show how I mixed those colours, but we ran out of time. Drawing statues is a good halfway house for drawing people – they don’t move.

Well done Mynheer Coster.

I was sad to leave Haarlem for Amsterdam the next day, and spent the following morning sketching here and there, before I left. I found these crests on the wall of Sint Bavo Kerk and sat in the café in the church (yes, right in the middle of the church) and was very happy to be there.

A café in a church and an obsession with bee-keeping.

Goodbye Haarlem – I will be back.

And to my lovely ladies – you are just that, so lovely. I look forward to sketching with you again soon.

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