Drawing the City
The students all gathered on the evening of Sunday 13 August at the City University Finsbury Halls of Residence, where they would be staying for the week. It was conveniently placed within walking distance of the Prince’s Foundation and provided ideal accommodation and catering for the students. Joe Reeves, an 18 year old from Newcastle, who had recently completed his A-Levels and was hoping to go on to do an art foundation course, expresses feelings common to most of the students on arrival: ‘I was apprehensive to say the least about having to socialise with such a wide spread of students. Because I personally have lived in the same house since I was born, and have always gone on family holidays with other close family and friends, I have never really had to forge new friendships. So, the moment I arrived at the Finsbury Halls, I realised that there was only one way to proceed, to hit the ground running, and to conquer the daunting feeling of isolation that may have prevailed if I took the easiest option and kept myself to myself.’
Most students expected the course to concentrate on topographical and architectural drawing of the city of London, and were surprised on arriving at the Foundation on the Monday morning to discover how varied the curriculum would be. They were split up into two groups, one to go on a sketching tour of the locality for the morning, and the other to do life drawing in the Drawing Studio on the top floor. For the majority of students, life drawing was a new experience. Led by Catherine Goodman, the Director of the Studio, the first class comprised three ten-minute poses by a model followed by an hour-long study, with the students encouraged to use charcoal, ratherthan pencil.
Catherine showed the students how to position themselves correctly in relation to the modeland to view the subject from the right eye-level, and how to fix points of reference for their drawings using the head and the floor. Common mistakes made by those first tackling life drawing soon surfaced: timid drawing occupying a small area of the sheet of paper, and concentration on a feature of the body, such as the head, rather than the whole. ‘It’s a good thing to try to identify with the model. Think what it feels like to be in the same pose as the model,’ Catherine suggested. Throughout the week numerous aspects of life drawing would be conveyed to the students, from an awareness of scale, the shape and form of the model, seeing the figure in relation to the space, and the individual elements of the body in relation to each other, to the contrast of light and shade, the sense of structure and movement, and the journey of a line across the paper, and how to pace oneself and allow one’s graphic language to emerge and develop.
The initial ten minute poses led to some furious drawing, which helped to loosen inhibition and allowed each student to react more freely. Charcoal is more flexible than pencil, but more difficult to control. It encourages bold, gestural mark-making, more akin to paint. Few students were happy with their first day’s efforts, but the week would see positive development in all of their work. Claire Braybrook, 17, from Essex, explains: ‘Life drawing classes were something I enjoyed most because I felt I could see a dramatic improvement from my work as the week progressed.
I liked the fact that the classes were almost everyday because I think the skills you develop at life drawing can be applied to every aspect of art.’ Hannah Niblett, 18, from Derbyshire, discovered the importance of drawing as a tool for analysing, describing and then expressing one’s thoughts and feelings about what one sees: ‘I really learnt some new ways of looking at the figure, particularly in the context of its surroundings. The different exercises we did – drawing the figure without looking at the paper, drawing the internal structures, concentrating on emotion – were all new to me and very enlightening.’ The students were continually encouraged to try out new things in order to get a greater understanding of the subject. Though life drawing is challenging and requires regular practice, most had found it rewarding enough by the end of the week to want to continue with it afterwards, seeing it as an essential ingredient of their art education and development.
The second group of students spent the first morning of the course on a circular walking and sketching tour of the area of London immediately accessible from the Prince’s Foundation. The route was chosen by their tutor and guide Alan Powers, a notable architectural historian with a strong interest in 19th and 20th century building and design. He explains: ‘We walked about as far as we could in a three-hour period, in order to get to Hawksmoor’s church of Christ Church, Spitalfields, before turning back for home. The route there and back passes through some highly contrasted urban territory, from the visible signs of gentrification and urban renewal in Shoreditch to the high finance of Broadgate, then fairly sharply into the picturesque of Spitalfields and Brick Lane, and the near-dereliction of the Boundary Street estate.’
The route was also selected because it allowed the students to keep away from busy roads and to stop on the way to sketch. The first stop was by St Michael’s Church, not far from the Foundation, which is currently used as a huge architectural antiques emporium. Its dramatic Victorian gothic outlines and detailing are in marked contrast to the deadpan modern office building opposite, and provided an interesting first subject for the students to draw. The second stop was in Broadgate Square which is bordered by the metal and glass headquarters of financial institutions. Alan described how Broadgate had been developed in the 1980s on the site of old railway lines and how priority had been given to the sequence of open public spaces, which are reminiscent of squares in a traditional city.
The drawing stops lasted 30 minutes each and Alan encouraged students to do several sketches. There was not enough time to achieve very much in a drawing, but it gave them the idea that it was possible to sit down and draw in the street. Few had ever thought of doing this before. ‘There was another ulterior motive,’ Alan explains, ‘to get them to see the urban environment as a subject for drawing, with analogies to other kinds of drawing work, particularly in relation to life drawing and its concern with an object in space.’
During the tour, Alan Powers gave a fascinating commentary pointing out numerous things of potential visual interest to the artist’s eye, such as the pattern and line of streets, the siting and forms of buildings, and the transition of one type of building to another. He also talked about the extraordinary variety of building materials, their shapes and textures, and the accidental juxtapositions of colour which livened a composition. At Spitalfields, his commentary became more historical, encompassing the magnificent design of Hawksmoor’s church, now undergoing restoration, discussing the balance and order of Georgian Fournier Street which runs alongside, and pointing out a wonderful Georgian bowed shopfront in Artillery Lane, a rare survival. The students relished his story of the 18th century French Protestant church at the junction of Fournier Street and Brick Lane being successively a church, a synagogue and a mosque. He demonstrated that the seemingly everyday and mundane, if studied closely, could be a rich subject for pictorial representation and revealed the city as an organic, ever-changing and developing entity. Jennifer Laird, 17, from Scotland comments: ‘I never quite accepted that there was so much beautiful architecture in London. It was great just to slow down from the usual London pace and actually look at the buildings around you.’
On the afternoon of the first day, the two groups switched places and the life class and walking tour were repeated. In the evening, after a break for a meal at the hall of residence, the students returned to the Foundation for an art history lecture. It was clear to them from day one that the course would be both mentally and physically testing. All, however, understood the need to make the most of the unique opportunity available to them. Not a single event was missed by any student during the week, nor was anyone ever late in attending.
The lecture, on pigments, given by Pip Seymour, was a tour de force. Over two hours he reviewed the history of pigments, starting with ancient cave paintings in Zimbabwe, showing that the acquisition, preparation and use of art materials was a subject of immense complexity and interest. By the end of the lecture, the students knew that there was more to creating art than simply walking into an art shop, buying paints and having a go. Understanding and respect for materials, and a rigorous discipline of application, he emphasised, are important aspects of what it means to be a professional artist. Through the ages, artists have striven for the best materials they can get and, indeed, a great industry has grown to provide them. All the materials he showed and described were currently available commercially. Apart from revealing the astonishing beauty and spontaneity of early man’s work, he described ancient working methods and materials in depth, including the use of pig fat, soot, blood and wax. Moving swiftly on to the Italian and Northern Renaissance, and later periods, he illustrated the principal developments by showing paintings, peppering his talk with fascinating anecdotes about the source and properties of pigments. Most of his examples were taken from the National Gallery’s collection, which the students would be visiting later in the week.
On Tuesday, the students were again divided, one group to do a morning’s life drawing in the Studio and etching in the basement printmaking area, and the other to go to Spitalfields Market to draw, with each repeating the other’s activities in the afternoon. Martin Shortis, an accomplished figurative printmaker and teacher, took the etching class. Students were shown how to prepare their own etching plate and asked to draw something on it without making any visual reference to their surroundings or each other. Martin explained that etching was an excellent medium in which to work directly from one’s imagination. Taking the necessary precautions of wearing goggles, protective clothing and gloves, the students were taught how to immerse their plates in nitric acid, wait the correct period for the acid to bite into the plate, remove and clean it, apply the ink, and finally to place the plate on dampened paper and put it through the printing press. For most of the students, this was a new and exciting experience. Huge smiles broke out as each print was revealed, the students often surprised that their first attempt had been so successful. A variety of images emerged – self-portraits, landscapes, street scenes and stylised still-lifes. Although time was too short to do anything more, the students’ appetite had been whetted and a medium which had viewed by many of them beforehand as traditional, too complicated and with no contemporary relevance, had within a matter of hours fired them with enthusiasm for using it for their own art.
The drawing session at Spitalfields was taken by Greg Ward, a painter and teacher at the Byam Shaw School of Art who also helped take life drawing classes during the week. ‘The main aims and objectives of the course, as I understood it,’ he says, ‘were to provide a selection of students with an intense visual experience based on observational drawing and painting. In the short time that was available, I wanted to get across simple yet fundamental ideas concerning drawing and colour. I also tried to provide a framework that was at the same time both critical and supportive, thus allowing the students to develop technically and creatively. The intense nature of the course provided all the students with perhaps more teaching and certainly more involvement with art than they had experienced in the whole of last year.’
The covered late 19th century building of Spitalfields Market presented another challenge. Although the fruit and vegetable market, established in Charles II’s reign, is no longer operational, there is still a great deal of activity, as the area is undergoing a renewal reminiscent of Covent Garden’s twenty years ago. The cavernous space, where street traders mix with office workers, has book shops, antique stalls, cafes, restaurants and even tennis courts. The students were asked to choose an architectural vista and many found it difficult to make a choice as there was so much on offer. Eventually they spread out, most choosing to stay inside to draw a detail of an interior elevation, such as a row of shop fronts, or a view across the vast expanse, or looking through the arches to the streets. Some ventured out to draw the exterior or to turn their attention to an eye-catching view of Christ Church , newly cleaned and gleaming in the summer light. ‘Sketching in Spitalfields Market was the most useful part of the week for me,’ comments Roy Wilson, 17, from Yorkshire, ‘as I improved my interpretation of perspective and gained confidence from working from direct observation.’ As with so many other aspects of the course, many of the students were unsure when they started whether they could achieve anything with what appeared to be such a complex subject. But, coaxed and coached by Greg Ward about how to look and how to compose, their fears soon subsided. ‘When sketching in Spitalfields,’ recalls Rob Green, 17, from Berkshire , ‘I put this new-found appreciation into practice. The area didn’t particularly inspire me, and that often makes it difficult for me to work. Yet I produced a piece of work that I was pleased with.’ Greg was impressed with the commitment: ‘There was not one person on the course that I wasn’t glad to have met and I admired the students’ stamina, levels of concentration and willingness to work.’
These qualities were certainly tested in the evening when the students, tired after being on their feet all day, returned to their hall of residence for a quick meal before travelling across London to Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre. Here they stood in the ‘yard’ sketching the recreated Tudor building, the lavishly decorated stage, the audience tiers and a performance of The Antipodes, a comedy by Ben Jonson’s manservant, Richard Brome. For many, being in such an atmospheric place, in a theatre in the round and able to look up to the sky was an unforgettable experience. So much was happening on the stage that it was difficult to concentrate on sketching. Many of the students, however, valued the chance to draw an architectural detail, or to capture figures in movement on the stage, or the reactions and gestures of the audience. The sketchbooks, which Catherine Goodman had advised them on the first day to use like a ‘visual diary’, were particularly useful at the Globe as they could draw quietly without attracting attention or disturbing anyone’s view. The sketchbooks filled with studies and jottings of people, events and incidental details throughout the week.
The following morning, the students again travelled across London , this time to Trinity Buoy Wharf on the north side of the River Thames, which has a now famous view of the Millennium Dome opposite on the south side. The dramatic site, on a bend in the river, was chosen by Martin Shortis as an ideal location where the students could paint for two full days. Situated near the old East India Docks and stretching over three acres, it still has remnants of its former industrial life, including a boiler makers shop, a buoy shed, chainstores and a lighthouse. On one side is a tributary with old boats and rusting ships, and on the other the Thames , alive with river traffic. There are distant views of green landscape as well as of developments along the river, such as Canary Wharf . There were, therefore, opportunities to contrast old buildings on the site with the ultra-modern, which could be seen from it; or to concentrate on the detritus lying all around, including parts of old boilers and buoys. Perhaps most refreshing of all for the students, who had so far been confined to city streets was the tremendous sense of space and light, open skies and wide expanse of river. There was also a lot going on around, with the noise of construction, of planes taking off from City Airport , as well as of lorries parking up to fill waiting ships with fuel. During the students’ time there, a large warehouse was being used for rehearsals of a Gilbert and Sullivan opera. Live music and singing would suddenly break out, carried across the site by the wind and adding to the surreal atmosphere.
Martin Shortis and his fellow painting tutor, Greg Ward, first took the students on a tour of the site. ‘We tend to see in a narrow cone of vision, very sharply,’ Martin explained, ‘but as you walk around, try to be aware of a much wider frame of vision. Allow the random to feature, to frame a view. Investigate and think hard about what you are looking at. Try to be sensitive to it. Start to compose in your mind. What do you like about a view? What would you want to take out? What you leave out could be as important as what you put in.’ Afterwards, the students were taken into a building where all their art materials had been laid out ready for them: easels, canvases of different sizes, brushes, old shirts and dungarees to wear, palettes laid out with a chromatic sequence of oil colours, and white spirit and cleaning rags. Martin and Greg gave an introductory talk on oil painting, emphasising the need first for each student to be organised and disciplined and always to have the right equipment and materials for the job. Students were shown the basics: how to hold a palette; where and how to arrange the colours; how to make a start by thinning paint with spirit and working freely with a large brush; why it is important to work with several brushes at a time, one for each colour range; and why it is easier to work from light to dark. Martin and Greg agreed to disagree on various points, but emphasised to the group that it was healthy to have such a variety of views: the students must eventually make up their own minds. It was important for them to learn the fundamentals; but equally important, they argued, was for each of them to be free to discover and develop their own language of painting. It was not going to be easy; indeed, they would probably find the oil painting sessions the most demanding of the Drawing the City course.
Soon, the students were spread out around Trinity Buoy Wharf setting up their easels, positioning their canvases and making the first tentative marks. They had to be aware of the position of the sun and its journey during the day, so as to avoid, for example, painting a view in which they would later find themselves painting into full sunlight. The strength of light and colour would, of course, fluctuate continually. This makes painting outside so challenging and interesting, but it is important, the tutors pointed out, not to make fundamental errors at the start.
Surprisingly, the students did not rush to get a good position to paint the view across to the Dome. The lighthouse and old warehouses proved just as popular subjects. A handful of students painted the old riverboats and ships. ‘I think,’ says Joe Reeves, ‘that the idea was to do a picture around the Millennium Dome, but I preferred the secluded area around a boat because it was so old, and the rust and other details were really beautiful. The colours had formed over time, making them natural, lovely earthy tones. It was hard to believe there was something like this in London, right next to the Dome. It formed a nice contrast.’ Getting the composition down proved difficult for many. ‘Try to take on what you see,’ Greg advised them, ‘Painting doesn’t have to be literal. Remember, Matisse said that exactitude isn’t truth. Think where things are, the proportions and relationships between the elements. Don’t worry about making a mistake. It is all part of learning.’
During the two days, the students also had to contend with the elements. On Wednesday, the sun beat down and a strong breeze blew all day. Easels and paintings took off in the wind, with one student’s painting flying over a retaining wall, landing on a mud flat by the river below, irretrievable. On Thursday the wind got stronger, and easels had to be tied down and weighted with stones and bricks. Painting en plein air was certainly no easy option and practical lessons were quickly learnt.
The tips given by the tutors, even over such a short period, were invaluable. ‘At first I found it a challenge to get started,’ says Claire Braybrook, ‘but once I started painting, my style became stronger and more confident. Greg and Martin taught me to look at the picture as a whole, rather than concentrating on a corner and working across. This seemed to make my painting more alive as I considered the relationship between the different elements in my picture.’ For many, coping with the properties of oil paint and mixing the colours were a struggle. ‘Oil painting was new to me,’ says Rob Green, ‘and I quickly realised that there were little to no similarities between oil and acrylic. I think it taught me to be patient with a painting and that it is possible for a painting to go from awful to a reasonable quality over time.’
Few of the students were satisfied with their work after the first day. A feeling common to them all was that they had just been scratching the surface. In the evening they visited the National Gallery, first to look at the paintings Pip Seymour had discussed in his lecture, and afterwards to sketch from Old and Modern Masters of their own choice. Rebecca Grant, 18, from Nottingham, sketched the Cezannes: ‘Just walking around and observing made me realise how much time the Old Masters had on their hands to create such beautifully detailed, exquisite fine art. It was such an inspiration and honour to stand in front of paintings that are renowned for their beauty and individuality. It is amazing how much one can subconsciously take in by just looking.’
During the second day of oil painting, confidence grew and everyone was determined to finish their pictures by the end of the day. The tight afternoon deadline of 4 o’clock encouraged many to paint more freely and this helped their work. As the easels were packed up and the canvases gathered up for display, there was an almost palpable sense of relief and excitement at both the group and individual achievement. Jennifer Laird sums up the feelings of the group about the two days: ‘The oil painting at Trinity Buoy Wharf was a great experience. It was nice to be able to pursue something until it was finished while working with a new medium. It was a lovely place to choose with lots of areas of interest, being able to look upon the city as though through a window. Old contrasted against the new, compositionally interesting views, lovely textures, enticing angles, and lots more.’ On the journey back to central London along the Docklands Light Railway the students were attracted by the many dramatic views of the capital’s cityscape. Compared with the first day, they were now much more alert to the pictorial possibilities surrounding them.
In the evening, the students returned to the Foundation and split into two groups for more life drawing. Catherine Goodman took one class, leading them through some warm-up exercises first. The students stood at the sides of their easels so that they were unable to see their work, and, using charcoal, proceeded to draw the model. Catherine’s aim was to improve their concentration and observation and the exercise was repeated several times before they settled down to draw a one-hour pose. Greg Ward took the other class, which worked in pencil on A3 sheets. The students were instructed to indicate only the areas of light and shade that they identified on the model and not to mark any other lines on the sketch.
The following and final day began with a repeat of the previous evening’s classes with the groups switched around. In addition, a model was asked to pose for 10- minute sketches conveying three different emotions: sadness, joy and anger. After lunch, all the students, tutors and teaching assistants assembled for a critical assessment of the work produced during the week. They were joined by Steve Pleune, Managing Director of Winsor & Newton, the fine art materials company which had generously donated all the art materials for the Summer Programme. A display of drawings and prints had been put up in the Foundation’s exhibition space and outside the Trinity Buoy Wharf paintings were lined up. Only now was it clear just how much work, and what improvements, had been made during the 4 1/2 days. This was particularly noticeable when the students’ first day’s life drawings were compared with those produced that morning. In some cases the contrast was so great that they appeared to be by different people. ‘Everyone improved over the week. It’s just magic,’ says Bernard Barsley, 21, from London who had recently completed two diplomas in art and design and was due to start at Central St Martins School of Art. ‘In my first week at art school I hardly did anything. What we have learnt in the matter of a few days is quite incredible. You expect that rate of learning to happen maybe over three or four months at art college by which time you’ve begun to settle down. It was also great to rediscover drawing, which is such an important way of expressing ideas. It’s a cornerstone. Whatever you do, whether its sculpture, design or film, you can realise your ideas first with drawing and then go on to make it.’
During the late afternoon, the students went on their final trip, to Tate Modern. Rebecca Grant catches the spirit: ‘It was like stepping into a dream or a childhood fantasy. The ideas were simply out of this world and were quite difficult to understand at first, but some of the work doesn’t call for logic but merely for a single reaction.
Overall, it made me think how fortunate we are to have this ability to interpret, express and create what we see into whatever manner, shape or form. A most wonderful experience that has to be viewed with an open mind!’
Thankyous and goodbyes were said to all the teaching staff at a special meal held for the students that evening in a restaurant not far from the Foundation. Later, back at the hall of residence, the partying carried on into the early hours. On Saturday the students went their different ways. ‘There were no fall-outs at all and we had such an enjoyable week,’ says Rebecca. ‘Departing was quite depressing, even a few of the boys had tears in their eyes. I’ve met a lot of people in my life and I have never seen a group of new friends get on so well, especially as all of us were selected from completely different parts of the UK. It is an example of how people should be together.’
Drawing the City. 14-18 August 2000