Discover more from Diane V. Mulligan - Teacher, Novelist, Artist
Vol. 1: Portrait of a Sketcher as a Middle-aged Woman
A little bit about how I came back to art in my 40s after decades away, a sketchbook prompt, and a podcast recommendation.
A few weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of attending the Urban Sketchers UK annual symposium in Coventry. I happened to be visiting England and the symposium was right smack in the middle of my trip, so I decided to make Coventry one of my stops and partake in a weekend of sketching.
At one point on Saturday afternoon during the “sip and draw” happy hour, I was sitting at a table with a number of other women and everyone was sharing their sketchbooks. The woman across from me produced this massive book from her bag and took it from its protective case. She handed it to another sketcher who gently opened it as, in unison, those of us around the table said, “Ooooo, it’s a concertina.” Without a doubt, I had found my people.
Urban Sketchers is an international, non-profit organization with chapters all over the globe. Urban Sketchers record the world as they see it from direct observation and share their work online. Anyone can participate regardless of experience level and events are free and open to the public. While the word “urban” appears in the name, sketches do not have to be urban at all. Rural scenes, domestic scenes, food sketches, portraits—anything goes as long as it is completed from direct observation with the objective of conveying the world truthfully. I only learned about urban sketching last summer, but I was immediately hooked. I participate in two local chapters: Boston and Rhode Island, as there is no chapter here in Central MA.
A concertina book is a type of sketchbook whose pages open like an accordion instead of being organized around a spine. I believe the one my fellow sketcher had was by Seawhite of Brighton. Throughout my UK trip, I filled my first-ever concertina book as a travel journal. My travel journal is not full of urban sketches. I completed each page at night from my photos of the day instead of working on location. I kept my urban sketchers in a different (non-concertina) book
Okay, now that we’ve got our terms straight, let’s see if I can come around to the point of this story. Last summer, about a year into my watercolor journey, I really wanted to start painting on location—painting en plein air to use the fine-art term (which just means “in the open air” in French and is properly pronounced “plen air” not “plain air”).
But I had a little voice in my head that said, “You aren’t an artist. Who do you think you are, taking your easel out to a park and painting?” And “What will people think? Do you want other people to think you think you’re an artist, when, obviously, you are not?” And “When you’re out there wasting paint and paper and people come to look over your shoulder, they’ll laugh at you for thinking you’re an artist.” And also just “Don’t be weird.”
In my head artists were people who didn’t take twenty years off from painting. They studied art in school and had credentials. They made a living, or at least made some income, by selling art and teaching art. Meanwhile, I had yet to paint a landscape from a photo reference without hating the result, so the odds were strong that I would be painting pretty bad paintings outside, too.
Still, I was drawing more and more from direct observation and my drawings from life were so much better than those from pictures. The lines were bolder, more dynamic, and more energetic. What if the key to painting the sorts of things I wanted to paint was to go outside and paint what I saw?
Finally, somehow, I managed to quiet my inner critic, gather my gear, and get outside. It was scary to go it alone, and keeping my inner critic caged was a constant struggle. I felt overwhelmed by my efforts at conveying a landscape and nearly quit before I started, but finally I settled in and turned to my comfort zone: Flowers. I painted some wildflowers near the picnic table where I was sitting. They weren’t a masterpiece, but I had done the thing I set out to do. I still felt like I was doing something eccentric but I was learning to be okay with eccentric (I think I might need to revisit this topic in a later post. After all, what’s wrong with being eccentric?).
Shortly after this first plein air day, I stumbled upon the term urban sketching and learned that there are in fact loads of people all over the world who are not “Artists” who go out into their communities and make art on location! And they go in groups! No need to be a solo eccentric. Safety in numbers.
In my mind, USk doesn’t have the art snobbery of en plein air (any time we have to resort to French terms (or, for that matter, discipline-specific jargon), there’s some snobbery). There’s a lot of overlap between en plein air and USk, but the difference seems to boil down to this: the goal of USk is not to create a beautiful painting. Plein air paintings often beautify what they see and romanticize it, but sketchers try to be faithful to observation. For example, a fine art painter might omit the garbage cans at the curb, but the sketcher includes them.
I began going to local chapters for meet-ups when I could, and I joined their Facebook pages where people share their sketches both from meet-ups and from solo outings. This gave me the confidence to get out more in my own neighborhood, too. A year into my urban sketching journey, I no longer hesitate to say I’m an artist or (at least a sketcher). Heck, I have now sketched on both sides of the Atlantic!
Finding my people was an important part of creating robust daily art practice, and I suppose I think of this newsletter as a way of paying it forward. If you’re new to art or returning to art and you haven’t found your people yet, perhaps you can find them here at the Paint Wasters’ Club! Check out the Prelude post for more about being a paint waster.
This Week’s Sketchbook Prompt: Mood Boxes
This week’s prompt is a great warm-up exercise or an exercise you can do on a day when you feel like you have no inspiration at all. As with our heart spiral prompt, you don’t need any special supplies. If you’re interested in starting a sketchbook habit and aren’t sure what to look for in terms of supplies, I’ll talk more about that in Volume 2.
A sketchbook or sheets of paper.
A pen or marker or pencil that you feel comfortable drawing lines with.
Paint, markers, colored pencils, or crayons in a variety of colors
Step 1: Divide your paper into several boxes.
If you are using regular 8.5x11 paper, four is a good number. If you are using a sketchbook, let the paper size be your guide. You should be able to fit either four boxes on one page or four across a two-page spread. There’s no need to measure or worry about straight lines. Just divide things up into evenish boxes.
Step 2: Label each box with an emotion.
Pick any four you like, but I do recommend having a mix of both pleasant and unpleasant emotions. For my sample, I chose peaceful, energetic, frustrated, and nostalgic. Write down your choices in each box.
Step 3: Fill the boxes with marks that match the emotion.
Here’s where things get interesting. Pick up your pen or marker, close your eyes, take a few deep breaths, and try to really feel the first emotion you’ve chosen. Imagine a time you recently felt that emotion. Let the sensation settle into your body. Then fill the box with lines or marks that feel right for that emotion. You may even want to keep your eyes closed as you draw the lines or marks.
Notice what happens in your body as you do this. Where does this emotion reside in you? What sort of movement of your pen seems to match it? Is your hand relaxed or tight? There is no right way and there is no expected outcome, so just go with your emotions. If you feel stressed out to make your page “good,” pause and try pairing your lines to your breath as we did in the heart spiral, remembering that the goal is not to make ART but rather to let your creativity flow. There is no wrong way. Here’s my page:
As I was doing my peaceful box, flowing lines felt right, and in fact, it felt appropriate to keep my eyes closed, so that is what I did. For my energetic box, short bursts of lines going in different directions away from the center felt right. For my frustrated box, a line devolving into a dark, chaotic tangle left my hand curled tightly around the pen and my jaw set. My whole self felt the frustration! Nostalgia led me to create lines that sort of sway and drift down the through box. I drew it with my eyes closed. My lines for peace and for nostalgia are actually quite similar. Interesting, right?
Step 3: Add color.
Go back to each box and—without overthinking—add some touches of colors that you associate with the emotions. Try not to fill in the shapes of your lines. Let the lines and marks serve as a guide, but we aren’t making a coloring book! You can make marks or lines with color over the top of the existing lines or add touches here and there. Don’t worry about notions of what a color symbolizes. Just go with your gut. What are the colors of your emotions?
You can repeat this exercise over and over with different emotions or return to the same ones, which might feel different on another day. Try placing color before lines and marks. Try filling a whole sheet of paper so you can close your eyes and make marks freely. Later, when you are seeking inspiration for color palettes, shapes, and marks, you can return to the library you build through this simple exercise and draw upon your raw emotions in your work.
A couple of years ago, when I was trying to make an abstract painting for my sister, I spent a lot of time making mood boxes in order to generate ideas. In the end, what I created for her was directly based on the colors and marks I had created in a box representing serenity!
This Week’s Resource Recommendation
If you want to learn to paint, you definitely need to check out the Learn to Paint Podcast hosted by Kelly Anne Powers. Kelly Anne gets great guests and has deep-dive conversations. She also regularly updates the blog with informative posts and has a Patreon page where she offers early releases and runs challenges to help members take their art further.
If you enjoyed Vol. 1 of The Paint Wasters’ Club, please subscribe for future updates! And if you try this week’s prompt, share your experience in the comments. I’d love to hear how it goes for you!