One of the beliefs I hold dear is that the only way to grow and evolve as a visual artist is to study for the entirety of your working career. Some of my biggest inspirations – artists like James Gurney, P.J. Lynch and Wouter Tulp – make no secret of the fact that they spend considerable time on everything from plain air landscape studies to regular figure drawing sessions.
1. Get back to study
In 2011, a few years after graduating, some commercial illustrations jobs confronted me with the feeling that I had studied real life too sparsely. I felt really uncomfortable with my skills at drawing anything outside of the cartoony realm. So I decided to take any chance I could get to join in on figure drawing classes, oil painting courses, sketching animals at the zoo, drawing in bars, trains – whatever helped to train my eye to discern shapes, colors and structures in my immediate surroundings. No matter how fantastical and off the wall my commissioned work might be, the best source for inspiration is still the real world.
These are some sketches I’ve done in live drawing classes, the zoo, museums and Draw club [link] 2011-2013 with pen and markers. Looking back at these I feel pleased that my sketching skills have evolved quite a bit since.
It took a while, but I noticed my drawing skills getting gradually better, my commercial work – from cartoony to more realistic styles – indirectly benefitting greatly since I added a regular study routine to my daily working life. I’m nowhere near the level of expertise I eventually want to get to, but if you approach improving your skills like it’s a natural evolution, every increment matters, like having 1% of your vision (light sensitive cells that can develop in eyes through evolution) is better than having no vision at all.
2. Making observing a ‘past time activity’
Finding enjoyment in sketching through observation while on the road led me to discover there’s a global urban sketching movement out there and seeing what other people put down when on the move inspired me to see my urban sketching as more than just study.
Here are some studies I did in Berlin while attending Pictoplasma. Some I colored with markers on location at first, but I felt the markers were a bit limiting in colour expression so I tried coloring in some sketches digitally. Which was interesting but the end result didn’t feel very authentic or engaging.
It dawned on me that the authentic quality I was after was probably best achieved by watercolor. Watercolor is a technique I abandoned after my teenage years in favor of more convenient methods of coloring like markers and Photoshop. When I saw the richness of watercolor as used in the beautiful animation feature Song of the Sea I saw at Klik Animation Festival last year my mind was set on getting back to watercolor again. But with its pigment-flow management it’s a scary, messy and difficult technique to master when you’re used to the forgiving nature of digital painting with its endless versions, layers and undos. I had little time between commercial work so I first tried a compromise: specialized digital brushes that try to mimic that unique watercolor feel.
The results were pretty cool, and it’s an style of working I’m definitely going to develop further for commercial projects, but as far as my ‘authentic feel’ for urban sketching, I felt it didn’t hold a candle compared to the real thing…
Then there was a sudden month-wide gap between projects in October. For the first time in a year I would have some free time on my hands to do some traveling and meet some old friends in London I had promised to visit a long time ago. So I booked a trip, added a few days to explore Oxford – a place I was really curious about, especially after I read Graham Byfield’s Oxford Sketchbook. And, as traveling puts some meaningful distance between me and my beloved computer, it would be the perfect chance to dive into real watercolor again, maybe even make an actual illustrated travel journal out of it. So I made a trip to the art supply shop, bought some water resistant fine liners, decent quality watercolor naps and watercolor paper dummy and decided to just see how it’d turn out…
Starting an illustrated travel journal – Oxford
Without further ado, I present the 18 spreads I’ve drawn during this trip.
DISCLAIMER: I felt a bit hesitant to publish this travel journal as it, by its very essence, blurs the line between professional and personal life, so I can understand if this journal feels a tad irrelevant or too personal to you – feel free to just quickly scroll through it to get the gist of it. I’m not planning to spend all my future holidays documenting my experiences like this: this was an experiment – an itch I needed to scratch.
I also want to apologize that most of the on-locale writing is in Dutch (I had no clear ambition to share it with world when I started) but I’ll explain the gist of the writing in the notes below the pictures.
Arriving in London, the first thing that struck me was the omnipresent CCTV. Of course, we Dutchies have our fair share of surveillance equipment but we usually invest in really sophisticated compact systems that blend in with the surroundings; not so much so in England. I found the ones I spotted on top of the information board really ridiculous and unfriendly looking – they remind me a bit of the squid-like robot creatures from the Matrix films.
I tried some focus effects by only using ink on the foreground. I found the effect pretty hard to pull off, something that’s really easy when working digitally.
My first taste of the English railway system, traveling from London to Oxford, was a bit underwhelming. We got halted indefinitely around Piscot, just outside Oxford because of some technical problem that needed to be solved, which took about an hour. At least I had a nice view (the page on the left), so I had plenty time to draw it up and color it in while waiting it out.
There’s more to see in Oxford than ancient colleges, lecture halls and libraries. Just outside the historical centre you can walk into a neighborhood called Jericho which houses a lot of small independent stores and bars. On Walton street I found a small bookstore / cafe / poetry centre called the Albion Beatnik that’s really the embodiment of everything impersonal chain stores are not, just visit it if you ever find yourself in the neighborhood – if you found this blog post interesting enough to read as much of it as you have, there’s good change you’ll find this place interesting as well.
I found this block of 6 houses and shops to be quite peculiar, and something I wanted to document. Since it was quite cold and windy I decided to take a few good pictures and stitch them together to one panoramic drawing in my travel journal later, like in this Rickmansworth’s pub.
The second day I set out early, determined to really sink my teeth into exploring the city. I decided to take a walking tour to get some decent background information because, why the hell not? I had an hour to wait for the tour to start and got inspired to capture the college in front of the bench I was waiting on. Well, it didn’t fit entirely into my journal… these ancient buildings are expansive and brimming with details. I noticed that although the architecture seems very uniform at a glance, the placing of windows among other elements is very asymmetrical, hinting at a lot of alterations and expansions of the building over the years. Something that actually makes perfect sense for century old student housing project…
I was in luck; the weekend I happened to be in Oxford was the official inauguration of the new first year students. So while my very proper Oxfordian guide was lecturing about the town’s age-old traditions, the more recent tradition of making selfies was taking place just behind his back. I managed to catch this wonderful moment on camera, to work out later.
In the Netherlands we are obsessed with tucking everything out of sight whenever possible. Electricity and internet cabling, plumbing… no expense is spared. Not so much in England, apparently.
After walking until I got blisters exploring every nook of Oxford on Saturday, I decided to spend the Sunday somewhere I could sit around and draw without freezing. The Oxford botanical garden turned out to be such a place. Plants have fascinating shapes and patterns.
Sketching in a large and reasonably quiet museum like the Ashmolean was also bliss. They had everything in stock, really… from Egyptian artifacts to lively 19th century artworks.
The slow boating life makes the travel journal swell
Monday it was time to travel from Oxford back to London and then take the underground to one of its outskirts, Rickmansworth, to meet up with Emma who had moored her boat there. Since she still had half a day worth of translation work to do, we spent the evening in the local pub. I was fascinated with the blueish illumination her laptop produced against the predominantly reddish pub light.
Emma keeps a lot of curious and often mysterious items around her place. And I love little particulars born out of practicality like the LED + battery rig of an antique stained-glass lamp.
Tuesday we traveled the waterways of greater London from Rickmansworth to Watford. It’s the ultimate form of slow travel, – it forces one to be patient and very physical to get to higher or lower grounds. While Emma devoted her attention to the boating I was able, thanks to the slow speed and the perfect sunny autumn weather, to live-draw the peaceful surroundings that passed by.
The very bohemian-spirited interior of Emma’s boat. I found it amazing how much functionality is possible in such a relatively small space. Emma really made this boat her home and you feel it in the careful consideration of every item that inhabits her space. One of the few drawings I felt were better not to color, the lines have an interesting quality that can speak on its own.
The boat is painted in a very particular blue-greenish hue that was pretty hard to capture in watercolor but Emma assured me that it was, in fact, also a particularly impossible hue to acquire. Funny to note that this location is still considered part of greater London, I wouldn’t know otherwise as nature is unusually vivid here and the bustling noises of the city are no more than a distant whisper.
The full day in Watford we spend some more time exploring nature around the boat and drawing some of it. I was pleased to see my ‘exploration partner’ who is usually all about words was inspired to draw from observation as well.
5. Food market London; an epilogue to an inspiring trip
The second and final weekend was dawning so Friday afternoon I dove back into the bustling mass that is central London to meet Arjen. Killed some time in a pretty hip bar, and had fun drawing up some casual observations about its guests and decoration in my travel journal. Having drawn continuously for a week I felt my lines and coloring becoming looser and more confident, which was a good thing.
The great thing about spending some time with a native is that you’ll see a place from a completely different perspective. This was very much the case with the chaotic tourist London I had known from my teenage years and the more sophisticated side Arjen showed me – a London where one can find refuge in its large parks, and find culinary opportunities in anything from food courts to wine bars in recently gentrified areas of an otherwise rough urban tapestry.
At this point I started to experiment a bit in my travel journal with leaving parts in pencil as a base (when using pencil) without a dominant ink line present. I see the watercolor taking more central stage, it’ll be a starting point for some more experimentation in order to get to a more painterly end result in the future.
The weekend – and my time in England – was over way too soon. I spend the last morning drawing the room at Arjen and Sophie’s place. I like how this place also reflects their inhabitants – the mix of urban professional with a breeze of artistic sensitivity if you look at specific details like the lamps, the cushions and what is framed on the wall.
One last drawing while waiting for boarding. I had a wonderful trip and the amount of focused drawing I got done while still being very social and open exceeded my expectations. I found out that I still have much to learn about watercolor, but I think I’ve seen more deeply through my pencil then I usually would with a camera.
I hope this was an interesting read. The next one will be more industry related and much less analog.