In my previous post I wrote about urban sketching and how it had come my main art focus (urban sketching post) but without knowing it, this came at the expense of portrait sketching. However as my urban sketching group moved mostly online a splinter group formed focusing on portraits, sometimes live portrait models would sit on a zoom call with us and sometimes from photos, sometimes for 5 minutes a portrait sometimes up to 20minutes. In my own time I tend to use Pintrest for reference photos (portrait references on Pintrest) and love throwing vibrant colours down sometimes more successfully than others.
The group sketching reminded me how as a teen portrait sketching was my main go-to. It was easy to see if you’d “got it right” by whether the portrait was recognisable as the individual (often celebrity). Back then I tended to draw in pencil or charcoal almost never with a coloured medium. The style and technique were never important to me, only ever the likeness.
Here are a few of my favourite portraits from pre 2010
Looking back I’m surprised to find how much my portraits have changed, and in my opinion improved. Although the shapes and colours are vastly different in portraits and urban sketches, the skills used are very similar. The need for observation, perspective and contrast are equally important in both subjects consequently practicing these for any sketch will improve them for all. I think the most notable change is how much quicker and looser my sketches are. Being far more relaxed and confident in my sketching the final products often end up looking fresher and less over worked.
Here are a few more recent sketches using similar supplies.
I’ve also gained the confidence required to incorporate colour. My first memorable attempt was using a handful of cheap alcohol markers (chisel tip no brush tip) and I still enjoy using them.
More recently I’ve experimented with every type of coloured supply I could find:
Felt tip pens
Markers with felt tip pens (My current favourite)
Other line drawings and 3 tonesketches
I’m glad I’ve rediscovered portrait sketching and with resources such as Pintrest to provide references the possibilities are endless. Here’s a link to a collection of portrait references I use on Pintrest.
I’ve written about urban sketching previously (urban sketching post). It’s been one of the most successful New Year’s Resolutions I’ve ever made. Even in the present climate it provides a way to relate to your surroundings and and other people without requiring any compromise in personal safety. Traditionally urban sketching involves drawing the whole scene in front of you to capture the moment: people, structures, vehicles, weather etc, but in my own sketches I find I tend to focus on one thing or another. When out and about sketching I usually categorise my sketching into two groups: people sketches and architectural sketches, both require completely different approaches, skills consequently they are suited to completely different situations.
Speed People Sketching
These are sketches I often refer to as coffee shop sketches as that’s my main venue. With these my aim is always to capture a persons posture, movement or attitude as quickly as possible. Sometimes furtively so they don’t notice me staring at them and sometimes in seconds as they are walking past the window. The practice leaves no time for hesitation or perfectionism and the results are fun little moments. I always keep a small sketchbook with me with a couple of pens; pencil is no good as its tempting to try and “correct” things resulting in missing the moment or removing the essence of the sketch.
Stationary people are simpler to sketch, people on phones, reading or eating, whereas passers by provide the challenge of movement and a maximum of 20 seconds before they’re out of sight. Admittedly some of the results are unidentifiable as people but it can be endlessly entertaining. You never really know how much you can do in those short seconds until you try, and as with everything you improve the more you practice.
Architectural Urban Sketching
Architectural sketches in many ways are the easier of the two. Firstly buildings don’t move giving you all the time you need, secondly they usually involve a lot of straight lines and follow very clear rules about perspective giving you some leeway in observation and thirdly you don’t tend to offend anyone if its not a great likeness or unflattering. For a good few years this type of sketch has been my preference enjoying the lack of time constraint and clearly identifiable results sometimes with sketching groups and sometimes alone. I also enjoy the way it forms a travel journal of the places I’ve been and seen.
With the current restrictions a lot of our normal meet-ups and live urban sketching has gone online and we have utilised google street view all over the world seeing places and buildings we have never seen before and still maintaining that human connection through zoom and group pages. In additions my urban sketching group have began a weekly perspective challenge based on personal photos with the intention of developing or skill with understanding and representing perspective in the image we see.
It’s not the same as real life urban sketching, it suffers from the same problem as drawing from pictures. The screen image has already been converted to a 2D representation, bypassing the need for you brain to do the job of understanding the 3 dimensions and sense of depth and space, but it still provides useful and enjoyable practice.
The reasons for reading are many and varied. For some it’s academic; a need to understand a new idea, for work, school or even just out of curiosity. For others it’s for entertainment, they want to laugh at humorous events, or feel the rush of adrenaline during tense moments. For a lot of people the reason they state is escapism. They get to leave their current life behind and enter another. One which they get to choose, maybe with quests, wizards and dragons. Maybe they visit a new land and culture, or experience a different career and colleagues. Perhaps they participate in a high speed chase, or a battle or an intergalactic war. Whatever floats your boat, there is a book that can take you there.
I am part of a few Facebook book groups, in general they are open and friendly and as a group non-judgmental. That being said individuals will state their opinions that you may or may not agree with. One I’ve seen a lot of is that there are so many books in the world, why would you ever re-read a book. Another almost unconscious bias, is that some books are more worthy than others, children’s books or young adult books (YA) seem to have a stigma attached to them, almost like you need to apologise for reading or enjoying them. People are allowed their opinions and they are perfectly valid. I however disagree with these two ideas.
Sometimes though, what you need is a comfort reads; when you aren’t looking for a grand epiphany, or a rollercoaster of emotions, instead a sense of soothing familiarity and innocent positivity. There are books that naturally fall into this category for example “cozy mysteries” where everything turns out well for the characters you are invested in such as Miss Marple by Agatha Christie, or Agatha Raisin by M.C. Beaton (review here). Or easy reading chick-lit such as Wild Designs by Katie Fforde (review here) or Afternoon Tea at the Sunflower Café by Millie Johnson. If you enjoy farcical capers there’s P.G Wodehouse (review here) or The fugitive Pigeon by Donald E Westlake (review here).
But these aren’t the type of books I want to focus on. Instead, when I’m stressed or down, homesick or lonely, what I crave is a re-read of a favourite, or books aimed at younger people
Recently on a road trip in my campervan, we started experiencing mechanical difficulties, we needed to carry on, and so we listened to Claudine at St Clare’s by Enid Blyton. One of my childhood favourites I have read many times, even as an adult. Did I learn anything? No. Did I feel any strong emotions? No. But that was the point. I could escape into this world I knew inside out and allow myself to relax into the gentle humour of the book without worrying about twists or turns. I am also very excited about the new Malory towers TV series that’s just starting. From what I’ve seen on social media, it’s the parents who are really interested in this, probably for a similar nostalgic reason.
Another week, I was a having a difficult and stressful week at work. I felt the week slipping out of my control. So I downloaded Winnie the Pooh by A.A. Milne. I’d never listened to or read it before, so I didn’t know the exact storyline, but the idealistic nature, charming naivety and cheerful positivity allowed me to relax and filled me with a sense of serenity. I even painted a little watercolour of my favourite scene.
This week I was due to go on holiday to see my family. I live and work abroad in Kazakhstan where I don’t speak their language and in general they don’t speak mine, consequently it can be quite isolating so I was excited to go home for a bit. Obviously things being as they are at the moment it didn’t happen and so I needed to provide myself with a sense of home and comfort another way. The books that give me greatest sense of home, are The Belgariad by David Eddings.
This is a light and easy going traditional fantasy series written in the early 1980s. It’s not written in a YA or children’s style, though its innocence and child friendly subject matter make it perfectly suitable for that age group. Unlike the popular heavy and brutal grim dark style that dominates the fantasy genre today, these books promote all the positive attributes of the genre. They books take me back to my childhood, my Dad loves them, and introduced me to them when I was about 12 (in between Harry Potter books). Since then I have read them many times, the characters feel like friends, the cities and towns like holiday destinations, the world itself as familiar to me as any home would be, in fact more consistently so as I’ve moved so often in my adult life.
What I’m trying to say is, reading isn’t a competition; there are no prizes for completing a reading challenge, or reading the Booker Prize nominees, or ploughing through the classics. By all means set goals, and work on self improvement or study if you want. But allow yourself some comfort reading along the way
For more information of where to get hold of audiobooks have a look at my previous post here
In case you don’t know, Toby is my campervan; a 1991 Talbot Express to be precise.
Having just bought Toby from a private seller I decided to take him for a brand new MOT despite his current one only being 1 month old. If I was driving him all the way to Spain I wanted him in tip top condition. He failed on loads of points that the previous MOT should have picked up on, he needed some welding and a few other bits and pieces (though by all accounts he was in very good condition for his age). I did the only sensible thing, I threw money at the problem. I was planning on leaving in 2 weeks. The guys at the garage were incredibly helpful and by the time I got him back he was driving like a dream and I felt very poor.
Road Trip to the Ferry Port
After the final packing and loading of the camper-van we finally left for Spain. Our first stop was the local Morrisons. We bought petrol, snacks and had macaroni cheese to tide us over. Having never driven Toby more than 15 miles, we were now driving to 300 miles or so to Dover to get the ferry. He drove so much better than he had before the trip to the garage, he could even cruise at 65 mph on the motorway without complaining. I think we even managed to over-take a lorry at one point, it was exciting. We didn’t make it to the ferry port until about 11:30 pm which was a bit later than I’d hoped but the ferry wasn’t until about 6 a.m. the next day. We drove around looking for a likely spot to pull up for the night and settled on a small carpark; we pulled our curtains closed ready for a few hours sleep.
Things that went unexpectedly well:
Toby – he drove really well and used less petrol than I feared.
Margot – she loves being in the camper and snoozed most of the way.
Things we we should have considered earlier:
Toilets – the carpark did not have a toilet. Mum and I both dealt with this differently but I’ll leave out the details.
The bed – we hadn’t actually investigated how the bed set up; by morning we knew it wasn’t how we’d done it.
Driving Through France
We took the non toll road route. I had a vague outline of a plan, places I wanted to reach each day though no actual idea about where we’d sleep. A lot of Europe is very campervan friendly so I figured we’d make it up as we went along, after all we couldn’t really know how far we’d go each day.
The roads through France are very wide and well kept, there were views of fields for miles and we eventually made it into areas of sunflower fields (my favourite). I’d hoped to make close to Bordeaux that first day but it was getting dark and late and we decided to find a campsite for the comfort of a hit shower. We made a better attempt at creating the bed, but it still didn’t seem right. We covered about 500 miles from the port to the campsite, we were hungry, grimy and a little grumpy but the campsite staff were friendly and chatty and the inevitable pouring rain came more as a relief than a problem.
As the driver, I was happy to just keep driving, I would have hated to be a passenger though so I tried to keep in mind what it was like for Mum. As I mentioned before Margot was having a great time so I wasn’t too concerned about her. I’d connected my MP3 player to the sound system so we had music and we kept trying to find a coffee shop on the road but it seemed impossible. It was difficult enough to find a petrol station at times, and we really needed petrol, with Toby being so old it wasn’t a good idea to run low on Petrol.
For day 2 we decided to take a detour into Bordeaux, it seemed a shame to do all that driving and not actually visit anywhere. We were listening to “A Good Year” by Peter Mayle as an audiobook in the camper (downloadable from audible). It’s set in France with vineyards, wine and eccentric French plumbing (read unreliable French plumbing) and they went to Bordeaux at one point so we thought it fitting.
The traffic getting in was appalling, and getting out was even worse. We were in the middle of a heat wave and you may be surprised to learn that Toby doesn’t have air conditioning. In fact with the crawling pace of the traffic the engine was getting worryingly hot (I didn’t mention this to mum) the dashboard indicator was creeping closer and closer to the red zone. Once we were moving it was fine, it just needed the air flow.
We arrived in Bordeaux about 1pm, it was was beautiful. I love architecture and I could have spent weeks wandering around and sketching, but alas that wasn’t the sort of trip we were on this time so I took photos. We managed to find an open cafe eventually (everything was closed for the holidays) and spent a fortune on one creme-brulee and a single profiterole. After only and hour or so we decided to continue on our way. We wanted to reach Spain that day and that meant getting through the mountains.
We took one more stop before heading into the mountain at a town called Orthez. We made sandwiches and took Margot for a stroll. It was a little cooler and the town was pretty and quiet. It was as we started making our way through the Mountains that Toby started having “moments”. He had a “cough” he used to do this quite a lot before he went into the garage and usually he just snapped out of it. We made it up and through the mountains without too much concern though I was going as easily as I could. He’s quite a big heavy beast for the size of his engine and it was quite a climb. I was relieved when we made it to the decent though I hadn’t really indicated my concerns to mum (you notice it far more as the driver).
We’d driven about 400 miles that second day and had made it into Spain without me realising. I’d expected some sort of notable border, someone to check documentation etc but nope, nothing. So we carried on driving into the night.
Tune in next time to find out about where we slept and how Toby coped with a very hilly Spain.
Ooh another Kazakhstan section, but you’ve turned down the job, what could possibly be happening now I hear you ask. Well, 4 days after declining the job offer in Kazakhstan, the international recruitment lady contacted me to suggest the same job, for the same group of schools, in a different city, in the same country, where I would be able to find accommodation allowing dogs, and as it’s a rural city it pays more (counter-intuitively).
Though I would have to re-interview for the role with the staff at the new school. I now considered myself experienced with these interviews having completed one before with great success, so I thought, Why not and signed myself up for another Skype interview.
The interview seemed very much more a token interview this time. They seemed to have decided that if the previous school in the big city had wanted me then it must be their lucky day to get me out in the sticks.
After a little deliberation I decided to accept this job offer.
Team teaching grade 10-12 physics only, class size a maximum of 12 students: it sounded like a the most idyllic job I could have ever imagined.
Then came the logistics. This is one of the main things about being a grown-up that I hate. Admin. Insurance, documentation, notaries, visas, vaccines, flights, council tax … and so on and so forth.
Plus I still had to get through the rest of the school term; though as the year 11’s had gone on exam leave my timetable was significantly improved and summer time on a narrowboat is wonderful, I especially enjoyed my mini veg garden.
Many of my colleagues were both envious and confused by my decision. Envious as I was leaving before what looked to be a difficult year, and confused as Kazakhstan wasn’t really an obvious choice. I don’t know the precise nuances of each of their situations, but I do believe people are rarely as trapped in their jobs as they think they are. If they really wanted a change they could do it, it might be difficult or uncomfortable but I don’t believe impossible.
I was due to start at the beginning of September alas the paperwork side of things slowed things down considerably to the point that I wasn’t entirely sure it would all come together, but , spoiler alert, it did, and I’ll tell you more about that in another post.
So here is where the real tale begins, as I start my journey towards teaching physics in Kazakhstan.
At the start of 2017, while living in Gloucestershire, I made a New Year’s resolution to draw more from real life, to be specific to begin urban sketching. If you aren’t sure what that means, it is simply drawing what you see in an ‘urban’ location. The aim is draw on site using whatever supplies you brought with you. Of course, no-one is going to stop you taking your sketch home and improving it or adding colour, but the intention is the sketches are created from real life.
There is a whole global art community dedicated to the practice of urban sketching; in hundreds of cities and towns in many countries sketching groups meet up to draw their environments. This community is known as USk and they have their own website listing each affiliated group around the world. That’s not to mention all of the unofficial groups around the world. It’s exciting to feel part of something so big, their website says:
“Come join us in showing the world one drawing at a time.”
and that sounds like a great adventure to be part of. Sure photos are great, but art can be so much more interesting.
At first I couldn’t find a group in Gloucestershire to join so I would go out sketching on my own. The sketch below is my first intentional Urban Sketch. I drew it sat on a bench in the middle of March, wrapped up cozy in my big coat and hat. I chose my church (Mariners) surrounded by the historic Gloucester docks as my first drawing. I sketched in pencil on location, then added colour at home using a mixture of Posca paint pens and coloured pencils from the pound shop.
Mariners are a very friendly supportive church, and when they saw my sketch on Facebook asked if they could make postcards from it to place in the church for visitors to have and donations would go to the church. I was more than happy to do so (its a bit like the story of the talents in the bible). Of course many artists would frown on giving work away for free however I saw it more as giving back to God, he was welcome to use my work however he wanted, plus it’s nice to think there are random strangers out there in the world somewhere with a little piece of my art work (even better a piece I am pleased with).
In 2018 I did eventually find a group that met once a month in Bristol, and I would join them from time to time (work permitting). We visited all sorts of locations, all free and all accessible by public transport. Museums, parks, interesting streets, markets, docks, anything and everything and the organisers were always open to suggestions.
There are so many advantages to urban sketching, and even more to meeting with a group.
1. You actually look at your surroundings.
I am not a naturally observant person, in fact many would call me oblivious. Sitting down and consciously observing your environment and the people around you really makes you notice and appreciate things you might have missed otherwise.
2. You can explore
As an extension to the first point, I particularly enjoy urban sketching when I am somewhere new. It’s a great way to explore and understand the area you are in. I try to ensure I sketch wherever I travel. Sometimes the buildings (I love buildings, they don’t move) and sometimes the people (they do move); you get to see similarities and differences and you gain some understanding.
3. You meet other people
I am also not naturally especially sociable, however the social side of urban sketching is within my comfort zone. Everyone has a common interest and there’s easy conversations to be had about art supplies, styles, and general preferences. All the events I’ve attended have ended up at a coffee shop where everyone is happy to share ideas and knowledge whilst eating cake (an obvious advantage).
4. Seeing a wide variety of art
During the coffee meet up at the end people generally pass their work around and it is fascinating (in a non-sarcastic way). You see so many ways to create an impression of your surroundings. Sure it can be daunting and you may not feel as capable as some of the others but you don’t have to share your work if you’d rather not. Either way I’ve definitely felt inspired and gained ideas from some of the pieces I’ve seen over the years.
5. You improve your skills
As with any activity, the more you practice the better you get. In this case, you get a wide range of subjects and conditions to sketch in. If you’re drawing people then maybe you’ll have a very short amount of time. If you’re drawing outside maybe the weather or lighting will be difficult. When you only have the items you brought with you, you will find a way to get along with them.
6. Its makes an interesting journal
Many people like to keep some sort of record of their lives, these days social media and photos on your phone do the job, but some people still like to keep a personal diary or journal. I love having these sketches as a travel journal. Places and people I’ve seen, events I’ve experienced. Sure they don’t have the perfect glossy finish a photo has, but I think they’re better for it. They show your personal impression of it all rather than an often impersonal, more factual representation.
Eventually an urban sketch group did form in Gloucestershire and I attended when I could. Sometimes some of the Bristol group would join us too. The Bristol group had really grown over the 2 years I’d been attending. It was good to see, though made finding a space for us all to sit together a bit tricky.
Now I am travelling again and sketching is still my way to explore and record my life and you will see some more glimpses of my life over the next few posts.
The Easter holidays had arrived, and I had decided to visit my parents in Spain (proper Spanish Spain in the mountains, I explain this every time as I subconsciously fear people imagining us as classic Brits abroad. Maybe we really are and just don’t know it). I hadn’t been out that way since I had got my dog the previous summer. I still didn’t have a post teaching plan but was very much looking forward to some down time and maybe putting in some serious thought on the subject.
Teaching abroad wasn’t an option I had considered seriously mostly due to being kind of over it by this point. However, as I was in Spain anyway, I emailed the local international school and asked to have a look around. I had no frame of reference for teaching in Spain, what were the conditions like, working hours, salary, student mentality etc, it was worth looking into. The school were more than happy for me to visit. They gave me a guided tour followed by asking me if I would come for an interview for a physics position they had available immediately. I thought, Why not?, so turned up at beautiful marbled school all shiny and slippery and expensive looking, designed to impress parents into spending large amounts of money to educate their children there.
I gave a spectacular interview.
I never heard from them again.
I didn’t want to work there anyway.
No really I didn’t. The pay was less than the UK, the working hours and holidays were similar, the workload was maybe lighter, there was a language barrier and general differences in behaviour expectations. From my point of view the pupils were chatty and rude. It didn’t seem like a great alternative to teaching in the UK.
carob tree 2019
carob tree 2019
carob tree 2018
carob tree 2018
So there you are, this isn’t a tale about taking a teaching job in Spain, rather a mini tale of being ghosted by a Spanish school after they asked me to interview.
Immediately after my Spain interview I knew it wasn’t for me so I sat outside in the Spanish sun and googled where in the world is it best to teach. On a random list, somewhere near the top was listed Kazakhstan with a link to a job advert in Astana and I thought why not? So I spent the next hour filling in their application form and sent it off.
This was the one and only application form I had submitted since handing in my notice.
Way, way back, at the end of 2015 I started a daily doodle challenge. I did complete the challenge however never did get around to posting the doodles for the second half of the year. So here is a best of the rest from that challenge. During this time I discovered Posca pens and thoroughly enjoyed developing a new style which has become integral to a lot of what I do currently (more on this coming soon).
It has been ages since I uploaded me daily doodles. Rest assured I have been doodling daily, it just seemed such a hassle to scan them all in, but finally I have managed it, at least for June. I’m still enjoying the use of my tanned scrapbook, and the new Posca pens. In fact I treated myself to set so I now have more than just black and white.
Enjoy this set of doodles whilst you can, because July brings with it bit of an uninspired spell. But before we get there, appreciate the bright, vivid colours of this lot, because I have. It’s hard to pick a favourite, but it would have to be either the pig, the chicken or the jaguar.
19 more daily doodles lie ahead. A great highlight of this bunch is some new art materials. I got my hands on a 36 pack of Faber-Castel oil pastels second hand (hardly used) for 3 Euro! I used to love working in oil pastels, they give such bold colours, and there is a childish, hands-on feel to them that makes me smile; they’re kind of like a more sophisticated version of wax crayons.
I also splashed on on 2 Posca paint pens. I’d heard such great things about their versatility and thickness of pigment I thought I’d give them a go. I bought a white one about 2 mm thick and a black about 1 mm thick. The black is great, though my scratchy toned scrap book I’ve been using is a bit hard on the nib, but the white is a little disappointing. The pigment is a bit weak and Doesn’t really paint over dark colours as well as I’d hoped. One of my greatest missions in life is to find the perfect white pen/pencil for art highlights, as yet I haven’t found it.
I’m trying to cut down on animations based doodles, but there’s still a few; they’re a comfortable fall back when I don’t know what to do. They’re also relatively easy, look clean and tidy with little effort and I am inherently lazy; they are the easy option. There’s a couple more architectural type doodles, these are a newly discovered favorite of mine. I have only really started to draw buildings this year so I have the daily doodle challenge to thank for this discovery.
So without further ado, here are 19 doodles, judge for yourself whether the new art supplies were worth my excitement.