Cadaver drawing 29/03/14

As previously blogged, I recently recorded two programmes shown on BBC4 which featured relatively detailed dissections – one of the hand, one of the foot. With Wifey out at a family do last night, I was able to give the second show a spin, sketchbook in hand. The programme itself was just as fascinating as the first, but the foot was a tougher subject to draw – as you can probably tell by the results below.

At certain stages there was just too much going on, incredibly intricate, and I couldn't really tell what to focus on and what I could just suggest without detail. Foolishly, I used an HB pencil rather than 2B, so the resulting sketches are just a bit too light, particularly when I've tried to add shading. Still, an interesting challenge, and although I won't be jacking in my job for a dream career in drawing anatomy any time soon, I do fancy taking a few hours out in April to sketch at the Surgeons' Hall Museum.


HB and red pencils in sketchbook

I'd love to see more of this sort of thing – alas, it was just a two-part programme, with no other body parts going under the scalpel, so it's Surgeons' Hall or nothing (although I suppose Edinburgh has past form in obtaining subjects for anatomical study). Shown in February, Dissected: The Incredible Human Foot has since gone from the iPlayer but, as with the hand programme, can be seen on YouTube. 


Making the habitual

Or, how a 15-a-day habit isn't always a bad thing.

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For someone who likes to think of himself as an artist, albeit one whose day job is the polar opposite of such a calling, I've been ruddy useless at creating new art. This is nothing new – years ago I needed the distraction-free discipline of life drawing sessions to actually draw or paint anything, being too scatty minded and procrastination-prone to do so at home. Then we moved to Fife, a new life happened and spare time became a luxury I didn't have – or, at least, one I didn't want to spend on artwork. What kind of artist doesn't create new artwork?

Then, in late 2013, I started life drawing again. Once a month, just for 3 hours, but it ended the drought and reminded me that, goddamn, I love this stuff. I'm grateful for my day job, but any job satisfaction I get from that pales in comparison to the thrill of drawing, of painting, and doing it well. And if I put my mind to it I can do it well – those years of animation weren't a waste as long as I'm still putting pencil, pen or brush to paper. So it was that, come the end of the year, I dug out a book I'd been given a few years before but never read: Creating A Life Worth Living by Carol Lloyd.

I'm still working through it (expect a review here when done) but it's already borne fruit in one respect. Early on the book commends the reader to take up and commit to a 'daily action' – something creative that you'll do, each and every day, for 15 minutes (ideally at the same time every day):

"The daily action is fifteen minutes of a focused activity performed every day at the same time. Choose an activity that creates an empty space where your creativity can reassert itself. […] Inspiration grows into full-scale creation through persistence and imagination. The daily action exercises both. Doing your daily action every day (seven days a week), at the same time of day, will make self-discipline a habit. […] Once your action becomes incorporated into your life, it will become a ritual imbued with its own power – the power of your own energy, focus, and joy."

Well, doesn't that sound lovely? The obvious choice for me was 'sketching', particularly as I was becoming increasingly envious of artists on Twitter posting the most amazing sketches. So I dug out an old sketchbook I couldn't get precious about and committed to drawing in it for at least 15 minutes every day.

It started tentatively, quickly realising the limits of my ability to draw from my imagination (unsurprising, having barely done so for years) and fretting that I'd never be as good as those other guys, so why even try? Daft, of course – they only got good from practice, tens of thousands of bad drawings hidden in the past – but if it wasn't for that commitment to myself I imagine I'd have stopped early on. But instead I carried on, through dull & desperate drawings, sometimes sketching while watching TV or knocking out a quick still-life. Sure, I missed the odd one – sleep remains precious, especially on work nights when I'm up the next day – but as days became weeks I got into the rhythm of these daily drawings. Unlike my figure work, I felt (and continue to feel) no pressure or expectation to share these drawings with anyone, let alone try to sell 'em. If I make a bad drawing, no matter, because I've still achieved my 15 minute goal for the day – and there's nothing to stop me doing another anyway. And if I make a good one, hooray!

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Less than three months on, I'm genuinely amazed at the difference this seemingly minimal daily commitment has made. There's been a clear, definite improvement in my drawing,no doubt about it. But, more importantly, I'm not scared of drawing, of sketching, of filling up the virginal white pages of a pristine sketchbook with my clumsy attempts. Funnily enough, I think using an old but empty, no-big-deal, non-Moleskine sketchbook helped get over that particular worry. You know the one? That a sketchbook (or notebook, perhaps) is itself so nice as an object, it feels deserving – no, demanding of perfection, and anything less will be a terrible waste. Daft, but a persistent dread when it comes to sketching (unless it's just me who gets this!).

Looking back it seems ludicrous that in almost two years of working slap-bang in the centre of Edinburgh I've never tried sketching the landmarks around me. Most likely I convinced myself it would take too long, that a half hour lunch break was far too brief for anything creative like that. Nope! And it was in an effort to get my 15-a-day met during daylight hours that I pootled up Calton Hill two weeks ago during lunchtime, whipped out my brush pen (of which more to come) and drew this.

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Turns out you can get LOADS done in 15 minutes (okay, maybe 20). Since then I've gone on to draw the National Monument, the City Observatory Dome, the Old Observatory and (just today) Salisbury Crags, all within that half-hour lunch break. It becomes the most satisfying part of the day and I'm aiming to use every non-raining lunch break at work to draw, even if it ultimately means multiple drawings of the same monuments – ach, there's always different angles to pick. Then there's the dissection sketches from the other day – without the 15-a-day commitment I'd never have considered such a thing, but the result kindled a brand new interest in drawing what lies beneath the skin, not just the surface.

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Of course, many of these drawings will go beyond 15 minutes – it's a minimum with no maximum – but the beauty of a quarter-hour commitment is that it's substantial enough to allow some focus, some flow, even if it's all too brief, but not so long that you can easily shrug it off as "nah, not got the time". From being a bit of a burden at the start of the year, this daily action has grown to become a highlight, something to look forward to – even if I do still end up with a few stinkers.

This is an idea that goes beyond just artwork, something for anyone who wants to either change who they are, or get back to who they once were, yet never seem to have the time to do so. Make that commitment, put the time in, see where it takes you. Surely it's no coincidence that when Alain de Botton's The School of Life started selling an hourglass to promote a regular daily activity, it's set for – yes! – 15 minutes:

To make sure our priorities are well set this year, we’ve created a finely crafted glass timer to remind us to carve out 15 minutes a day for what truly counts.  That isn't very long, and that's the point: it's longer than we often give to so many of the things we ostensibly think of as so important – like properly listening to a partner, rationally analysing our career ambitions, or playing in a concentrated way with a child. It delicately shames us into doing the minimum necessary to remain the person we want to be.

Me? I want to be an artist again. Play us out, Sheep On Drugs!


Cadaver drawing 14/03/14

Something just a bit different here – though possibly not for the squeamish.

A few weeks back our beloved BBC4 ran a series of different programmes based around the body, the Life Inside Out season. They all sounded very fascinating, and I wished I'd had time to catch more of it, but I made a special effort to record two particular documentaries – despite having no idea when I'd actually get the chance to watch them.

Why? Because the core of each programme was human dissection – indeed, that was the title - not something which appealed to my better half. The first focused on the hand, the second on the foot. Channel 4 did something similar with Dr Gunther von Hagens a few years back (which I missed) but otherwise it's incredibly rare for anyone outside the medical profession to actually have  sight of the workings of our own bodies from the corpse of another. For my part, I've seen plenty of anatomical drawings and images, not to mention von Hagens's Body Worlds exhibition in 2002, and goodness knows I'd love to spend a few hours in Surgeons' Hall with a sketchbook, but never anything quite like an actual dissection of an actual human being. Even though each programme is focused on one particular body part, removed before broadcast from the rest of the body, the concept of watching what was once a part of someone being opened up with blades is an unsettling one.

Then, last night, Wifey felt poorly and went to bed early. What to do with myself? Crack open a beer, grab the sketchbook and watch the dissection of a hand. Obviously.

I was curious to see how I'd respond, but any squeamish evaporated within seconds of the first incision. Of immediate fascination was how the arm and hand looked on the outside, the deadness of it. The skin dark, fingernails prominent, human and yet… not any more. The dissection began in the forearm to demonstrate how far back the tendons begin, before moving on to the hand itself, dissecting the palm to reveal first muscles, then nerves.

It was absolutely fascinating to watch, and the combination of an HD broadcast and a pause button meant I was able to stop on a particular shot and sketch it, the results being below. Despite knowing the human body so well after all these years of drawing it, going under the skin revealed a whole new world of confusion, of things to learn. It was damned hard (the beer lay untouched) but also really enjoyable – I certainly intend to do the same with the foot dissection, still sitting on the digibox.

All praise to the team at BBC Scotland who brought this around, the medical professionals involved – and the donor, whoever they were. Dissected really was an excellent piece of television, respectful of its subject, devoid of ghoulishness or showmanship, and profoundly enlightening. Indeed, despite being an hour long it felt too short; I would love to have seen some time spent on the skeleton and the other side of the hand, particularly the knuckles. Drawing the below made me daydream about medical illustration and whether that was a career I could ever consider (probably a decade late to make such a decision, alas). It also gave me a much greater appreciation of the genius of Da Vinci and his work on human anatomy – and to think I missed this exhibition last year! Arrrrrgh! Oh well, there's always an app.


2B and red pencils in sketchbook

Anyway, it's vanished from the iPlayer but YouTube has the whole thing – if you've got the time, the inclination and the sketchbook, click play below, select the highest resolution you can get and settle down. You'll never look at your hand the same way again, guaranteed.

The venerable Meades

image from what seems to have become an annual tradition, BBC4 recently screened a new two-part Jonathan Meades documentary (although the word fails to do it justice). I've written previously with frothy enthusiasm about the man's work, and he shows no sign of mellowing or capitulating, thank god. Bunkers, Brutalism and Bloodymindedness followed 2013's The Joy of Essex, 2012's Jonathan Meades on France and 2009's Off-Kilter (for my money the best television programmes about Scotland, real Scotland, not some shortbread-tin fantasy, in recent memory) as a where-the-hell-did-that-come-from blast of blistering polemic, attention-grabbing and unapologetically intelligent opinion and fact, shot through with a biting yet playful wit.

As usual, it's not so much thought-provoking as thought-detonating, unwilling to accommodate the lazy, the half-paying-attention, the easily offended. Utterly compelling, whether you agree with the views or find them contentious bunkum. Not only that, the soundtrack is sharp as fuck, the filming startlingly inventive (some of the shot compositions are stunning), and on top of all that it's educational in the best possible way. When it comes to contemporary television, only Waldemar Januszczak comes remotely close – his recent Rococo three-parter was a hoot.

'Bunkers…' has just moved on from the iPlayer, which hopefully means it'll make it's way into the MeadesShrine on YouTube, one of the most blessed corners of that bottomless AV pit. But there's mo' Meades to come this year, in the form of his autobiography An Encyclopedia of Myself. You can read an excerpt here:

This coincided with my leaving Holmwood School. My parents had been asked to remove me: they pleaded on my behalf, to no avail. The school had had enough of my unwitting disruptiveness. I hadn’t meant to projectile vomit melted butter in class: I had requested half a pound for breakfast and The Third German Girl had obliged me. I hadn’t meant to yelp every time I was pinched by Janet Wheelwright who lived in a house with its own squash court. I hadn’t meant to step in dog shit and trail it through the school. But I had. I was castigated too for my persistent lateness and my reveries. It was at Holmwood that I first suffered the intermittent hallucinations which have visited me all my life. Then, like my dreams, they often involved malevolent sheep. I was sitting on a bench outside the windowless room where we hung our coats. A flock ascended the staircase towards me. I gasped with delight. This was a secret world which, instinctively, I knew not to tell my parents about. Rather, then, like masturbation, but without RSI.

In anticipation, here's a decent interview from the Independent published ahead of Brutalism's broadcast:

"To think of an audience in terms of A-to-Bs, I find unbelievably patronising. It's one of the reasons that television is so terrible, so lowest common denominator. Everyone is trying to be accessible. But accessible to who? If it's going to be accessible to everyone, it has to be unbelievably low level, which means more intelligent people won't watch it. The whole idea of populism is inherently flawed."


Illustration Friday: Spark

It's been a while since I had a go at Illustration Friday, but I'd like to make a regular go of it again now I've taken to daily sketching. This comes with a new rule for myself: take part in IF, but don't take more than 30 minutes from idea-storming to finished piece – too often have I spent ages thinking about the snappiest, funniest, most beautifully composed image, running out of time to actually draw the damn thing. Enough! Think it, draw it, move on. This was drawn using black brush pen (of which more anon) and watercolour pencils.

Life drawing 02/03/14

Life drawing! Ah, what a treat! Alas, there'll be none in April, so hopefully I can fit another in this month – they're the highlight of the month, a few hours when I'm doing what I do best, even if I could be better still. Again, it was a really enjoyable session, with my output ranging from that's-going-straight-in-the-bin to HAPPYHAPPYJOYJOY, with some so-so in the middle.

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2 mins, black ink

We started off with 2 minute poses, which I again approached with black ink and brush after it went so well last month. I quickly thought "balls, this isn't working", that such sudden brush strokes were better for depicting a taut male figure than a voluptuous female body. This was, of course, nonsense – but it took a few goes before I acclimatised (if that's the right word) to this different body and how best to capture it in so little time. Funny thing at the start of life drawing, it's almost like you need a few minutes just to really 'see' the body, to adjust to it, to know it well enough to do it justice on the paper or canvas in front of you.

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2 mins, black ink

So it was – after persisting through a few clunkers going right in the bin, the next few turned out fine – and this one left me bloody delighted. It's the first time I've done a life drawing/painting that's come close to reflecting the principles extolled in Henry Yan's staggeringly good Figure Drawing book (along with Mike Mattesi's Force figure drawing book). By adding swathes of black around the body as well as just within it, there's a much greater sense of unity and drama, although there's probably a bit too much ink on the left side of the figure. Still, even though it was only painted in 2 minutes, I can't overstate what a boost it is for me to actually produce an image like this, a real progression from where I was. Not that there's any guarantee I could maintain this level, or that every piece at my next session won't be appalling, but it bodes well.

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25 mins, watercolour

With some longer poses I gave the watercolours a shot for the first time in years (god knows how many, but the bag I was keeping them in is biodegrading into shreds). The results weren't great, mainly because I approached them like oils or acrylics, when obviously they're very different beasts. By putting down thick, dark paint far too soon, the results quickly became a dark mess. It'll take more work, and sense on my part, to get back to work like this that actually makes the most of the properties of watercolour paint.

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50 mins, chinagraph

For the last 50 minute pose, I changed tack again, opting for black chinagraph on textured cartridge paper. Nothing revolutionary but satisfying all the same, making the most of the limited range of tones that chinagraphs provide without overdoing it (as I've done so many times before). Turned out nicely, I thought, proof that I could still produce a damn good full-length figure drawing if I put my mind to it. Funny how I'm increasingly drawn to paintings for the shorter poses and drawings for the longer ones, when I'd always assumed it would be the other way round.

The three of the best are now up for sale at the shop. Go! See! Buy!

Soundtrack for the session – BBC 6Music to start with, then And So I Watch You From Afar's blistering Gangs and Byetone's unsettling electronica SyMeta. Both worked nicely, Gangs pushing things forward with thundering drums and cheers, only to be followed with the unsettling precision and super-tight beats, if a bit too chilly.