26 August 2020

Things Falling Apart - Three Frottage Drawings in Charcoal

During the lockdown, I joined a small group of fellow printmakers from Shadwell Print Studio on a test online course, which was all about printmaking at home with basic materials. In rediscovering frottage and printmaking without a press, I honed a relief printmaker's sharp eye for collecting printable textured surfaces, which is how the packing tape that I used for the mark making in these charcoal rubbings found a home in my studio.   


The postcard image below was another starting point  – I’ve had it for years, since I lived in Thailand in the 90s.

Bridge over the Mekong at Kompong Cham THIERRY DIWO


The rickety bridge particularly resonated with me, although a language of my own, of makeshift and collapse, emerged in my drawings: provisional, improvised, falling apart buildings, bridges, anonymous and abandoned shelters without human figures.

I thought too of Chinua Achebe quoting Yeats in the epigraph to Things Fall Apart:


Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold/

Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, 

My drawing and illustration practice is based on paying attention, in really taking the time to see and honour a certain kind of will to life, radiance and energy in the natural world. In these drawings, the will is towards dissolution, falling apart and decay, although it is part of 'nature' too, just not as we romantically define it.  Arguably, our homes, factories, highways and shanty towns are no less part of the natural world. Although I would mostly prefer to think otherwise, they are made of earth, iron, tin, oil and plastic, which came from the same place as every other thing we revere, after all. They too arise, and pass away. There is no thing on this planet that isn't subject to that natural law. Anthropogenic or otherwise.


In this upside-down time, the pandemic has exposed fault lines in the way we regard and sustain what we revere as 'nature', for sure. The cracks are harder and harder to ignore. 


Also, I have been thinking about the place of the trickster figure as a metaphor for the coronavirus, about how we need to get used to shape shifting, to the makeshift adaptations to how we live and relate to our world, which will clearly never be the same. Which anyway never was the same, from one moment to the next or from one point of view to the next. (As a person who draws and pays attention, and also as a meditator, I know that to be true for me). 


The climate and ecological crisis similarly continues to unfold and unleash havoc whether we choose to look in the eye or not, and it too brings rapid, unceasing change. Upsiding down our normals. We are already adapting and things are already makeshift in many parts of the world. 


I have no illusions that we can fix things outright at all, but I am committed to looking the change in the eye, and appreciating the inherent will to life and energy contained in it either way.  It feels a relief to be able to make work reflecting that and to incorporate the falling apartness of things into my practice more consciously.


07 August 2020

A bowl of ripe plums

It has been a fair while, friends.  Particularly if we aren't waving over to each other on Instagram already. 


Here's a watercolour peace offering for a hot summer's day in Hackney. Started left handed with willow twigs, finished right handed as best as could be given the wily qualities of watercolour , of shifting light and shifting goalposts.

30 October 2018

A beach painting for grey November days

I was experimenting. With ways to work from travel photos, freehand watercolour  and taking inspiration from one of my favourite watercolour illustrators, Dorry Spikes, without well, you know. Wholesale thievery. Which I hope I didn't do completely

I seem to be quite glued to accurate drawing with perspective and all. Maddening, since I'm not even interested in making that kind of picture. I'd much rather not draw what I'm trained to 'see' but it's hard to lose, that traditional way working. So here, to come up with something looser, I just put in few lines for the beach and the mountain, and then started populating the page with teeny houses, beachgoers and agave plants at random and freehand over a few days. Like a jigsaw puzzle, and equally satisfying.

The painting is based on photos I took of Praia de Sao Juliao, a beach town about an hour's drive from Sintra, Portugal. I have a fantasy about spending a time in simple seaside place like this one summer.

Oh, how I would read on my shaded lounger, take early swims in the tidal pool before anyone was up, sift through the flotsam and jetsom, make friends with the cats outside the beach restaurant. Where I'd have the set lunch every day. Ah. To be in one simple place and learn its rhythms intimately, to watch the families and locals come and go. With the gentle Mediterranean sunshine all the while.

16 August 2018

Notes on my weekly life drawing class.

It is so tempting to throw out the lot. And equally tempting to keep every one of the drawings in the unwieldy, growing pile of work that accumulates from my weekly life drawing class. Unedited, unloved. Under the bed, often, or in a folder propped up somewhere out of the way. A pile to be avoided for months on end (or years, used to be).

Ghosts of art school drawing crits linger therein. And charcoal dust. Smudged drawings. No good drawings. Can't remember if good or not drawings. So over it drawings. They hang about, those drawings, piling up week after week after my Friday drawing class.

I took courage, a few weeks ago, and had a good clear out, which was also a good look through, because it is actually quite lovely, to appreciate the work I have done. And to discern which drawings work and why, which drawings are not for keeping and which drawings point to a new way forward.

When I started life drawing again a few years ago, I didn't keep any drawings. I thought of each session as akin to a musician's scale practice and happily binned the results. Freeing, to know the sketches were just a record of a moment of seeing. Nothing to lose, and no pressure to improve, no need to evaluate even, at the time. A good way to dodge the ghosts of art schools past, perhaps.

The class could be what I needed it to be - just a process of turning up week after week with no expectations and getting on with some simple observational life drawing.

Now that I'm a regular (at the Friday morning sessions with London Drawing) I've found my groove again so that I now keep, and document, my work even while managing my expectations on the Must Make A Good Drawing front.

I'm learning to accept my drawings, even the not so successful ones. I value the effort of drawing for its own sake: I've turned up, I'm doing my best and that's good enough. It's been a way learn to be fine with making mistakes, a way to try new things and a way to learn to be patient with the days when I'm not really that focused and the drawings seem worthless at first glance.

When I take my recent drawings out and spread them all out in the lounge like this, I feel satisfied at my progress. And, in a good way, I see I have many more dodgy drawings to get onto the page, so much more to learn and so many reasons to keep giving it another go.

06 June 2018

Meditation notes - drawing in the Kalahari.

Here's a drawing made in the shelter of a cool, shady bird hide at Nossob, a camp deep in the Kgalagadi Transfrontier Park, some 200 km outside Upington on the SA/Botswana border.

The hide has a view onto an expanse of veld and waterhole a few meters away. In the heat of the afternoon, there's just the soothing cooing of doves, perhaps occasionally the snap of their tiny wings as a flock takes to the air as one when the resident falcon swoops.

Drawing in the silence of the hide invites simplicity. The tree up ahead, the play of light and shade, soft scrunch of charcoal on paper, I'm content to just record this meeting of hand, eye and world. It's a kind of simple that actually takes a lot of hard work to trust as internal scripts play, unbidden. 'What is this for? Is this good enough? This composition isn't right. This isn't going to work out. This branch isn't right. I've got the angles all wrong. I'd best stop now, I don't do landscapes anyway'.

Ah, anyone who has listened to their thoughts for even one minute while drawing will most probably recognise these thoughts. On and on they play. The trick is to just let them come, and keep drawing anyway.

As in meditation. Thoughts arise, sheer delight! Pema Chodrun.

Another drawing at a waterhole. The beautifully named Cubitjie Quap. This time I was drawing in a car, a sarong tucked into a window to shade us from the hot-even-in-March sun.

The meditation of a nothing happening waterhole. In an hour, not much happened. A jackal came to drink from one of the silver puddles on the dirt road behind us, but other than that, no beasts. It had rained well previously so the animals didn't have such a need for the waterholes in the otherwise arid park. Just the breeze, the dunes, the jewel colours of the tiny resident seed eating birds. Sheer delight.

There were times for watching and photographing animals too: lion, an elusive leopard, bright yellow cobras and even a very sweet looking long tailed tree rat, though I drew antelope mostly.

I'm not a super seasoned animal sketcher, and it felt tricky to draw animals in a grazing herd, since they shift constantly, checking the breeze, nuzzling one another out of the way, turning this way and that.

I gave up on a perfect drawing of any one of them. Instead, sketching out in the veld turned out to be about applying lessons in confidence from my regular life drawing class. To commit lines rapidly, to keep looking, keep drawing, to keep trusting that eventually something instinctive will show up on the page. I wipe the page clean with my hands and start again, draw another layer, keep feeling my way, keep going in spite of the feeling of failure. Until it got too hot in the car, and the flies that  accompany grazing herds (and evidently, game viewers in their cars) got too much.

That and the thought of a cold drink under a thorn tree back at camp, the evening braai fire.

Perhaps my perfect antelope drawn from life is many Kalahari trips away, but for now, these drawings feel like progress. Like enough. I'm grateful for the privilege, grateful for the experience and glad I gave it a confident go.

23 March 2017

Dispatches from the jungle

I made this drawing sitting in the conservatory at Kew yesterday. The soundtrack was sometimes long stretches of quiet, just the scraping of hand spades and a fountain trickling, and then sudden bursts of schoolchildren on educational tours. The adults pointing out the marvel of banana plants, the kids delighting in the wishing well and maybe the jungley magic of it all.

I felt so at home sketching in that steamy warmth, the familiar-to-me scent of a thousand tangled plants taking in light and nutrients from the air. My bones, too, drink in the comfortable temperature and my whole body feels at ease and at home.

Not that my native Cape Town is by any means tropical, but it is sometimes hot.

I spent a couple of very happy years teaching in Petchaburi, Thailand, a provincial town in the rice paddies south of Bangkok, in the mid nineties. I learned to love the smells and sounds of the moist tropics, that gentle humid air and the laid back ease which seems to be a part of rural Thai life.  Later, when I was living in Japan and still teaching English, I kept coming back to Thailand for a break from the formality of Japanese small town living.

I remember lying in my hammock on the second or third day of a cycling trip along the Thai side of the Mekong in early 2000, trying to make this drawing while also keeping up a rickety conversation with one of the young women who was helping to run the guesthouse.

She was delighted that I could speak some Thai, and although I don't remember much what we spoke about, I remember feeling so sorry that I couldn't answer her great curiosity about life outside Thailand as well as I would have liked to, in my passable by but no means fluent Thai. She got called to help with dinner, and I was relieved to be able to get back to my travel sketch.

So many years later, I'm still crazy mad keen to find some way of expressing that tangled tropical leafy beauty. I'm still not satisfied that my drawings do it justice, but the greater victory is that I have started to understand that the results of my drawings have got nothing to do with anything.

Drinking in the leaf shapes, textures and colours while responding to the plants and scenery as best I can on paper, is a love song, enough in itself.

May I learn to be content with that, and to let go of the results.

01 April 2016

Meditation notes: drawing

I wish you could also smell these blossoms. It is a delicate scent, a bit like honey, a bit like almonds. Outside, I hadn't really noticed the smell of flowering plum (from a tree that has emerged, guerilla style in a corner of our teeny garden) but in drawing these branches, I appreciated the scent just as much as I appreciated the delicacy of the white petals and tiny stamen bursts.

I was also listening to a dharma talk by Gil Fronsdal,(that most understated and friendly of Insight meditation teachers at Spirit Rock meditation centre) on noticing how we are aware, on examining, gently, the quality of attention we have when we meditate.

The talk is a meditation guide, which is also helpful in the slow process of learning to consider how I am while drawing, on investigating how I could bring a quality of 'open awareness' to my work. 

The mindfulness of drawing, if you like.

What comes to awareness simply? Am I forcing my attention somewhere? Am I gripping the pen or gripping somewhere else in my body or mind? Where is tension arising? And so on. Go on, have a listen, it's slow, quiet and lovely.

The hardest practice is, on noticing something unpleasant, not to disturb the moment with a remonstration, with the thinking 'Oh I shouldn't be gripping the pen so hard'. It's just something that is, in that moment.

Also, I remembered about letting go of the results, just enjoying looking, just enjoying the pen tracing my eye movements. Not making a project out of this moment of observing some flowers. If the drawing is good and shareable, that's fine. If the drawing totally sucks or isn't in some way right for keeping or sharing, that's fine too. Who cares? 

The main thing is to keep trying and in simple way to enjoy the sitting there, the looking, the scratching of a pen across a page, the honey scent of spring blossoms in a tiny glass bottle on a table in afternoon light.

May we all find the freedom of awakening to the present moment, may we all find real peace, real happiness.

10 March 2016

A link to my illustrations in the TV gardening show, if you want to catch up

Here are of my favourite illustrations made for use in the graphics for BBC2 gardening show, Big Dreams Small Spaces, Series Two

I scanned my watercolours and sometimes reworked them in Photoshop, and then sent them to the team at Flock who wove into the graphics to explain 'garden as envisaged by owners before Monty Don' and then 'garden plan with Monty's input' which they animated to voice overs. 

I have nothing at all to do with the animations, and generally see them on TV for the first time - an exercise in letting go of creative control and just kinda seeing what happens

Episode 2 is still on BBC iPlayer if you feel like watching (and as long as you're based in the UK). If you want to save time and just move the slider to the plant animation bits, they come up at around 07:48 - 9:51 and 15:35 - 17:20.

Hoping to save my faves to video in time, in which case they can be viewed by all. If you haven't already seen it, here's a link to the title sequence from Series 1 which should work wherever you are. (Animation was by Room60 for Series 1, and the programme is produced by Lion TV for BBC2).

18 February 2016

My plants on BBC2 again - on tonight

I loved working on this last autumn with animation company Flock, who did the graphics for Lion TV's Series Two of Big Dreams Small Spaces with Monty Don on BBC 2. It's on tonight at 8pm, or here on iPlayer soon afterwards.

Looking forward to watching all the love, hard graft and heartache that went into transforming each of the tiny gardens mixed in with  a good dose of Monty's cheerful interventions.

Of course, I can't wait to see my watercolours whizz by - keep an eye out for the plants in the animated 3D garden plans(which show the gardens before and after Monty's suggestions for improved designs and planting.

Above are two of my favourite elements, an olive and an apple tree. No idea whether they made it in the final cuts, but I was happy with the way they turned out. More plants to follow, now that I can share more of this commission.

08 September 2015

Autumn colours seeping in

It's kind of the sketching version of shooting fish in a barrel, drawing autumn leaves. As in, you can't really go wrong. But I can also walk past them thinking oh my, how beautiful, I'd love to draw those some time, and then not draw them at all. 

Here's to celebrating the victory of following through on an intention, and an hour spent really meeting these leaves with whatever I've got: the jar of coloured pencils, the training of really looking at the dentate outlines and way the stalks angle, the fun of scribbling colour onto paper without gripping onto the leaves in front of me too much.

As to the reality of it's sort of pretty much autumn now, meh. I'm not in such a hurry to meet that just yet.

02 July 2015

Holiday drawing

I usually don't draw much on holiday, but I have a happy memory of drawing these early one evening while D was making dinner in the tiny kitchen of our shepherd's hut in the middle of a field in West Wales.  

We had space for a mini break in early June and the plan was to explore the Pembrokeshire coast. Although the weather report wasn't saying camping, I wanted nature and super simple.   

We found a shepherd's hut (which is really a small tin shack on wagon wheels) just outside Tenby, Wales on airbnb. Perfect for camping lite but without rain soaked walks to the loo block and nights of flapping nylon.

I loved that it was a short walk across a potato field to the cliff path and then a choice of windswept hikes along the coastal reserve. Simple.

The hut was super cute inside, and I didn't feel the urge to clear away a single thing. Usually the first thing I do when I get to a hotel or B+B room is take down offending pictures, stuff frilly/satin cushions into a cupboard and get rid of all knicknaks. (Ye olde shepherdess figurines and jolly wooden lighthouse ornaments, I'm talking to YOU.)

We had cows for neighbours, and a little local train choo chooed by every hour or so, and birdsong - welcome respite from the sirens and constant traffic hum of home.

There was even time and inclination to draw. I love that I drew these campion flowers loosely, without that drawing school thing of 'draw what you see not what you think you see' sounding in my head.  This has its place, but for me it has become a Rule of Drawing, which is totally tiresome. 

I draw what I like these days, and how I like, more and more.

03 April 2015

Happy Easter 2015

Hot cross buns, catkins, blackthorn blossom and daffodils in all shapes and sizes...Easter in the northern hemisphere makes sense. Of course it does - the rebirth of Everything, the joy and relief of another cycle drawing towards the light.

And yet, in South Africa, Easter comes at the very end of summer. Last swims in the Breede River, melty chocolate eggs, lamb on the braai fire with loads of garlic and rosemary super pungent from a long hot dry season. 

Traffic queues to get out of town just the same as here.

As I've been painting these last few days, tiny leaves have been unfurling in the vase and a fabriano has a dusting of yellow pollen from the catkins. I love the softness of everything opening gently and irrevocably, even in the grey light of a London Easter. 

I made this painting for my mum and dad and my dearest sis M and the loveliest L - wish we could be eating hot cross buns in the same place all at once. Lamb barbeque and snow are optional details.

Either way, and how ever it works out for you, I hope you have a lovely rest this weekend and lots of chocolate. 

19 March 2015

Painting wildflowers in December...

I was commissioned to paint a small wildflower painting for the lovely Catherine, erstwhile of St Mary's Secret Garden, as a leaving present, late last year. I normally like to paint wildflowers from life, so I went a-hunting in the parks and overgrown abandoned flowerpots of Lower Clapton. Incredibly, in December, I found feverfew and dandelion still bravely in bloom.

14 February 2015

Happy Valentine's Day

I am partial to Valentine's Day myself. It's nice to know someone was willing to wade into the commercial fray to indulge my love of chocolate and roses in any shade from ivory to deep red, single or multiple, just for me.

When we were little, my mum would buy us a chocolate covered marzipan bar and a flowering plant, perhaps a viola, for Valentine's Day sometimes. I loved that too - how it brought family into the day and made the day hinge a little less 'how many cards did you get?' at school. 

For a really good warm heart though, I have been working with this - I forget where I read about it. I'm going to try it for more than a few seconds today.

Do that thing of being the love you want to see in the world by meeting everyone you encounter simply by giving them your full attention and accepting them, even for a moment, just as they are. Not how you want them to be, but how they already are, just in themselves. Perfect, fallible, full of fear and joy, just like you. The person opposite you on the train, the checkout person, the security guard, the waitress, the people you are planning to meet, perhaps. Your old friends, your new friends. Your cat. The one you love too, if they should happen to be in your life right now, of course don't forget that one. No need to say anything in particular, just be the love.

If you can manage that for more than um, say five seconds at any point today, I take my hat off to you. But see if it isn't heartwarming.

Happy Valentine's Day!

16 December 2014

Christmas in Cape Town

Oh yes. I'm swapping the promise of a frosty winter wonderland for watermelon by the pool. As of today, I'm outta here, London. Much as you looked beautiful in the sparkly winter sun today.

Home for Christmas - family, birdsong, tic tic of sprinklers on the lawn, swimming with my niece. Beach and mountain. Long dirt roads. Old friends. All the people I love most in the world in one town.

A different wonderland to be sure. And not winter. Great happiness.