September 19, 2014

USK Flickr Digest 9/13- 9/19/2014

There is currently an unbridled intensity on USK Flickr that really requires attention. With a surge of impressive quality postings to the Flickr group, I would like to feature some of each weeks submissions. One of the interesting things about Flickr is the ability to scroll through the postings while comparing and contrasting hundreds of sketches all at once. The works can become great reminders of the potential for new formal explorations or technical ideas not being fully utilized. This week I was struck by the use of pattern in the images submitted, in particular the potential for patterns to activate the page and enhance the power of the image. Here are three of the many that stood out for their use of pattern.

Matt Wooding, Part of my commute, England  

Juan Maria, Vuelta al cole en Madrid, Spain

Take a few minutes and to look for that element or principle of art that can open new doors for your own work by checking in to USk Flickr here

Working with a Limited Color Palette at the 2014 Urban Sketchers Brazil Workshop

We are just back from the 2014 Urban Sketchers symposium in Paraty Brazil. I can’t begin to explain how great it was without waxing philosophical.

When you’re traveling, every view is fresh. The excitement of exploration gets into your sketches. Your work is tuned up by the heightened perception and the opportunity to sketch without interruption, working one day into the next, without life to get in the way.

Add to this, a group of like-minded artists, who are equally driven to be up early and out late, always on the move, sketching constantly. There's nothing more motivating, more fun, or more useful for an artist.


At the same time, the big challenge with travel sketching, is that it can't last. You're only there for a short time.  Every decision to stop and draw something is of course preventing you from seeing another view. You can only be in one place at a time. Eventually you’ve made all the choices time allowed, and in doing that given up infinite other possibilities.

This can drive you crazy if you let it. Can lead to a mentality of rushing around with your hair on fire, sketching madly. Trust me, this is only made worse if your wife is a great photographer. You see so many amazing things you wished you’d noticed at the time.

I did this running-around-like-mad thing last year in Barcelona, and came home with 200 pages of pencil drawings, but not a single painting to show for it. I had plans for what I’d do with all those drawings once I got home - but life being the way it is, I haven’t really gone back to revisit them.

My strategy this year was to pack light and work smaller than usual, so I’d be as flexible as possible - but to paint in color the whole time, even for the quickest of sketches.


The first few days in Sao Paulo were a high speed tour with correspondent Liz Steel of Australia and her friend Claudia, who is a Paulista currently living in Sydney. We took advantage of Claudia, having her drive us all over the city, from sketching spot to spot.

I’ve toured with Liz before, and I’m well aware that she’s much faster than I am. When you’re working with someone else, I find you naturally gravitate to a similar pace. Nobody wants to be holding up the others, or wandering around subtly pressuring them to wrap it up. So your either led by the fastest or the slowest person, depending on who’s more accommodating that day :)


I’d planned ahead, bringing a new watercolor travel set with a limited palette selected for Sao Paulo.

My colors consisted of a set of warm grayed darks (all from Daniel Smith) for the urban tropical setting (bloodstone genuine, piemonite genuine and hematite burnt scarlet).

These were tied into a powerful yellow orange pigment (quinacridone deep gold) that represented the sandstone color of the local architecture, and a minty blue-green (fuchsite genuine) the exact color of copper roofs.

Besides this, a cool-yet-strong sky blue (mayan blue) which I hardly used at all due to overcast winter skies, and my new favorite cold-green dark (perylene green) for the palms and tropical trees.


This very minimal set of 7 pigments, were all brand new to me (excepting the perylene green). I pulled them off the rack in a last minute impulse buy a few days before leaving. Colors turned out to be bang-on (to my eye). It was a bit of a gamble, might have ended up on the street with entirely the wrong shades, but my instincts turned out fine.


There’s one case where this palette let me down, this mission style church was in fact a coral pink.Well, to be less flattering I’d have to say pepto-bismol is what came to mind. Having only the limited palette actually improved things in this case.


The result of my experiment is this small sketchbook of Sao Paulo, with a consistent matching mood from page to page. It’s another example of less is more. Having fewer pigments to mix made for faster sketching, and the overall color scheme sets a shared tone for the sketchbook that I quite enjoy looking back on.


You can head on over to my personal blog for a photo set of Sao Paulo,

A Day in Paraty: Building up to the Symposium

Before the symposium, I had a full day to get my bearings in Paraty, so I decided to use one of the concertina sketchbooks I made recently to record my day and what I could see as I walked around.

I started with the Santa Rita (nicknamed 'Liz's Church', after Liz Steel of course, because it was her workshop spot). I was drawing alongside many fellow sketchers and one of them crept into shot - that's Flavio Ricardo, looking like an ant:

Then I went off to explore on my own. Round the corner was my own workshop spot, which included the fish market. Round the back was a view of the sea, but the tide was out and instead I watched these turkey vultures digging fish scraps from the mud:

At lunchtime, Murilo Romiero introduced a group of us to a brilliant little self-service place, where you paid by the weight of food eaten - a rather novel and very handy idea. We ate lunch there almost every day from then on, with more and more sketchers joining us each time until, on the last day, you couldn't move for urban sketchers and Murilo got his meal for free!

In the afternoon, I sat on a doorstep to draw this wonderful church across the Praca da Matriz, half-obscured by trees dripping with vines and covered in epiphytes. Unfortunately for me, the woman in the house behind me was doing her cleaning... 

I was suddenly enveloped in a cloud of dust and muck that she swept through a gap under her front door. Bits in my eyes, bits in my mouth... it also filled my paint palette. And then, just a few minutes later, I was sprayed with water from a passing van's windscreen washer. A rather eventful half hour! 

There were quite a few work-horses in Paraty. Some were pulling carts, but this one was for tourists, with a trap: 

In the evening we did our 'drink and draw' sessions, first in a little bar and then at a restaurant. I ended up doing more chatting than drawing, but managed these:

September 18, 2014

Soar Alba

Stall for Yes Scotland

It's been exciting times here, with the votes for Scotland's independence happening today and soon to close as I type this in the next hour or so. Recently our city, towns and villages have been busy with volunteers campaigning in an effort to sway people's opinions, apparantly 93% of the Scottish electorate have registered to vote so everyone is involved in this huge decision for the future.

Poll Station - Scotland's referendum

Here's a view of my local polling station in Gourock. The atmosphere was surprisingly quiet and respectful at the entrance - a few No Campaigners on the left and Yes on the right. As I was sitting there drawing, people would give a little nod to either side before going their way.

Feels great to contribute.

"Whatever the outcome of this exciting day,
we need to make this collection of islands a better one.

Peace & love to all the ayes & naws!"

- quote by illustrator Jen Collins

Johor Bahru Coffeeshops (Kopitiams)

Restoran Hua Mui is an iconic landmark in Johor Bahru, Malaysia; it has been in operation since 1946, when the Chiang family first opened it at this same street corner in the old heritage section. On weekends, Hua Mui becomes crowded, as people even come over from Singapore to have breakfast or lunch here - it’s a nice reminder of a simpler time. Unique characteristics are: the Deco-style grillwork on the second floor dining room windows, and the old-fashioned hand-operated ‘dumb waiter’ that still hauls the dishes from the ground floor kitchen to the second floor dining area.

Nearby is the Red House probably Johor’s best renovated mansion; it’s over 100 years old, and located in the Johor Heritage section. In recent years, it has periodically been used for special cultural events and a few art exhibitions, but in June, a local kopitiam (coffeeshop) opened in its’ premises. In my sketch, I purposely left the customers as black & white line drawings, as they seemed a good contrast to the over-abundance of red color on the Red House. 

Bakchang is a local dumpling in sticky rice, with added items like salted pork, egg, mushrooms, prawn, fish, etc, and wrapped in a leaf. This motor cart sits in front of the Kafe Red House several times a week, before making its rounds to other Johor eating areas.

September 16, 2014

Charming Sweden - part 02

I'm continuing my previous post about our trip to Sweden where I promised to post sketches from our trips to Stockholm. Stockholm is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful cities in the world: located on the Archipelago, with numerous bridges connecting different parts of the city, drowning in green and, of course, with its beautiful streets - products of Sweden's famous architecture and design! By the way, the influence of Swedish design, with its simplicity, minimalism and functionality, strong colors, and combination of preserving the past while using revolutionary new ideas,  was felt everywhere, in every tiny peripheral village.
As our cottage was half an hour drive from Stockholm, we could combine our explorations of nature with urban trips. 
Royal Guard changing near the Palace
Sketching together with Ru - sketcher from Malaysia travelling in Europe, at Gamla Stan
Stockholm has great coffee shops!
at Skansen museum - traveling to the past
at Trivoli Grona Lund - even an amusements park is charming in Stockholm!
trying out my new markers

Fashion Night at the streets - lot of young people gathering together
waiting for our bout tour to start
having lunch at Friday's at Kungstradgarden

What can I say to sum up? I'm totally in love with Sweden and I hope it wasn't my last trip there. 

You can find my entire Swedish sketchbook on Flickr.

The Singapore Botanic Garden

Took a short break back to Singapore to attend a wedding. The next day , we went down to visit The Singapore Botanic Garden and the Swan Lake. There is a nice cafe at the tourist center called Casa Verde serving nice local food.
Swan Lake is an artificial lake located at the Tyersall Avenue entrance to the gardens within the Tanglin Core, and is one of the most well-known locations in the garden's grounds. As the name suggests, the lake's name was inspired by swans   populating it. The pair of mute swans was imported from Amsterdam.

Pearls of the Atlantic...the Clarinbridge Oyster Festival, Co. Galway

September is an important month for Clarinbridge, Co. Galway. It's when the native oysters (Ostrea edulis) come to the end of their summer reprieve and are once again pounced upon by gourmets the length and breadth of Ireland and beyond. For a long while I had wanted to document the preparations for the Clarinbridge Oyster Festival in the village next to mine, and last week I got my chance.

The weather was truly exceptional for mid-September. Although the mornings were a little fresh, as each day wore on the sun beat down from a cloudless sky and Galwegians went around in a happy daze. It was more than I could have hoped for.

My first stop was the shoreline at Killeenaran, where the native oysters are harvested. They live on the seabed, wild and free, and are managed and harvested by the Kelly family in Kilcolgan, who have been in the business for nearly sixty years; Michael Kelly started it back in the 1950s, to be joined in the business by his bride Bernadette after their marriage in 1963. Three generations of the family have worked these seabeds, and the oysters found here are regarded by those who know about these things as being the very best in the world. My husband, an oceanographer, tells me that this area is unaffected by naturally-occurring red tides that can wreak havoc with sensitive shellfish - no one is quite sure why. What is sure is that fresh water from the Dunkellin River mingles with the salty water of Galway Bay at Killeenaran, creating the conditions that make oysters very happy. Nowadays, Michael and Bernadette's sons Mícheál and Diarmuid run the business, together with their wives Mary and Theresa, and are helped out by their children at busy periods.

I cycled to Kileenaran Pier from my home some two miles away on Tuesday morning, a place I've painted many times. The sky melted into the sea and it was the first time I haven't drawn a line for the horizon, simply because you couldn't see it in the hazy sunshine. I drew the Kelly's white truck, then Mícheál and the two guys from Brazil who work with him, sorting and washing the oysters at low tide in waist-high rubber trousers.

I wondered if the action was as visible as it might be, so the next morning I returned to draw from a closer vantage point. Here's Mícheál washing the oysters at low tide:

I was very excited at the combination of blue and orange. It was tricky to paint everything as I wanted it, as one of the hazards of painting people at work is that they keep taking away the subjects. But Mícheál works hard and there was much shaking of crates of oysters so I had plenty of chances to get his pose right.
As the tide rose and the guys went back to the factory a mile up the road, the two Brazilian guys stopped for a quick word.
"My friend says he wants a print of that, but an enlarged one, if that's okay," said Elizeu, who has excellent English.
"That's super," I said, "but hang on till I've done the whole lot, as I want to draw you guys at work too, and your tractor too, because it's beautiful."
They seemed to think that was perfectly reasonable, and said they would wait.

The next morning I drew Mícheáĺ in the factory, packing oysters for restaurants here and abroad.

The machine on the left is actually for the mussels that form part of the business. They get tossed around for cleaning before being returned to the sea for a rest, as they get stressed from their tumble in the machine, poor lambs. Again, I was in colour heaven with this sketch. Mícheál's action was repetitive so I was able to draw him as comprehensively as I wished. It turns out you don't do anything much to oysters to prepare them for sale - they're picked and packed within an hour of leaving the shore.

Here I am, snapped by Mary, Mícheál's wife, with a silly rabbit-in-headlamps expression and a mouth full of chocolate digestive biscuit, courtesy of Mary:

I drew Mícheál fully first, following the golden rule that if something is likely to move, draw it first - and he did. But just feast your eyes on that Schmincke yellow that I used for his glows.

It was chilly in there, not helped by the occasional icy blast from the cold room next to me. After I finished, I cycled back down to the pier with stiff, frozen hands and sketched the two Brazilian guys hard at work, taking large forkfuls of oysters from the sea:

The sun wasn't quite as strong as it had been for the two previous days but it was still warm enough to thaw me out and make for a fabulous sketching experience.
Those things in the foreground are wire bags, where the Pacific oysters (Ostrea gigas) are husbanded. They're an altogether different fella from the natives: available all year round, and quite delicious too, but they're not as delicate as their rounder cousins who get to live without shackles beside them. The Pacific oysters can grow so big, in fact, that their wire mesh bags are turned to put a halt to their gallop, as they like to grow towards the light. I was put in mind of a kind of steel corset, clamped around these feisty oysters to curb their natural exuberance.
The two Brazilians were delighted with the sketch and decided that this was the one they wanted. I don't know if they'll follow through on the plan, but I'm always honoured when hard-working guys like these consider buying my work. By contrast, I felt rather lazy, sitting there in the sunshine, exerting myself no more than stretching for my water jar...

Next I sketched the factory where the oysters are packed -

again, they WOULD keep messing with my subjects: that yellow thingie in the middle was moved and returned in a different position, so the light's wrong underneath it. But I think it's still identifiable as a thingie. I am almost 100% sure that the Kellys did not paint and arrange those palettes for my benefit, but I may as well have, as I found them poetic in their colours and positions. The orange crates and I have had our appointment now, and it's over - I won't miss them, despite their orange loveliness.

The weekend approached, and with it the culmination of all the hard work. On Friday night I let my hair down, got dressed up and set off with my husband to the marquee where the opening night of the Clarinbridge Oyster Festival was to be held, leaving my sketching stuff - and the kids - at home. We arrived a bit early and the room was still empty, giving us time to greet Mícheál and Mary at the stall where they were serving oysters to the festival goers. They immediately treated us to a plate and I finally got to sample the marvellous creatures that had been so near, and yet so tantalisingly out of reach all week. Eating the oysters, I was transported to an ocean realm, my senses flooded with visions of diving into the sea, the whole all inextricably bound up with flavour, texture... Does this go some way to describing the heavenly nature of a native oyster? The joy? I know people are divided about them. My only conflict is - when can I have more?

I didn't draw these on the night. Even if I had had my sketch kit with me, there's no way I would have been able to defer my reward long enough to draw these guys. No, I painted these at home the next day: it took me half an hour to open five of them, struggling with all kinds of knives - my respect for those super-fast oyster shuckers has only increased. Yesterday I bought me an oyster knife...

The next day I was back for the main event, but this time I had my kit with me again, and I was there as official sketch artist for the event. It was another hot, sunny day, and elegant ladies and their handsome escorts began to file into the marquee as the shadows began to lengthen and the afternoon turned to evening.

It was a real pleasure to paint Galway's glitterati. I was just a teensy bit sorry I wasn't one of them, but I'm sure that if I had, I would have been wishing I was sketching. After a while I went back inside and drew Kelly's stand, where three cousins from three families - all Michael Kelly's grandchildren - were helping out and manning the stall.

That's Michael Kelly Junior opening an oyster at the back. He's just returned from competing in the Canadian Oyster Shucking Championships in Toronto (his father Mícheál was European Champion in 2004). That lady in the pink dress was his first customer, but she disappeared before I could colour in her dress.
"Sure follow her around," said a few onlookers.
"I don't think that's gonna go down too well," I said, but later on, to my joy, she happened to wander in front of me as I sat in the garden - and moved away the second after I'd put the last brushstroke down, oblivious to my beavering away behind her.

After a while some friends invited me to join them at their table for a drink, so I thought I'd take a little break from sketching. I failed.

However, I still managed a delicious plate of oysters and a pint of Guinness, kindly offered by my friends (that's my pint on the table, and very welcome it was too).

The night wore on and the second band to play, the Amazing Apples, had the floor hopping. Their covers were great, but their own work was even better.

You'll see all ages on the dance floor at an Irish celebration, and often the aul' ones put the youngsters to shame. See the man at the back punching the air? He's someone I know, and I had to draw him punching the air because that's the kind of guy he is: a huge character and very loud. (I once sat in front of him in the library as he held forth to a friend for a good half-hour. I got crosser and crosser at his lack of volume control - and they say women gossip?) Sketching the marquee earlier, I had heard a booming voice drifted over from the garden, and before I looked up, I knew it could only be him. But he is genuinely great craic - larger than life.

It was fun to draw people dancing - there had been a lot of wine, champagne and Guinness taken by then, inhibitions were a vague memory, and lots of dancers wanted me to draw their special moves, which I only wish I'd been able to do. (I'm available for special-dance-move drawings.)

Eventually the band played their last tune, and the dance floor was cleared to make room for the oyster eating competition. This I HAD to sketch.

Not the most polished sketch I've ever done but certainly one of my favourites. I was laughing so hard I could barely draw. The lady on the far left was from Gort (I think) and ate her oysters so fast that she appeared to breathe them in - eight oysters in 7.6 seconds.
"What's your secret?" asked the host, the man who had been responsible for making me laugh so much.
"You don't know how much I love oysters," she said.
I've tried to suggest the thick crowd around the dance floor, phones poised and ready to time the contestants and film their efforts. I did consider volunteering myself as a contestant but then I remembered I was supposed to be working.

I was starting to tire by now, but there was one last sketch I needed to make. Every year a local beauty is crowned queen of the festival, and I had seen this picture of elegance floating around earlier, a vision in gold and pearls. The host had introduced her to the crowd - along with her grandmother, who was the first Oyster Queen a full sixty years ago. I expected to see a little old lady - she had to be at least in her late seventies by now - but the lady I saw, in a pearl grey sheer shawl and soft fuschia suit was beautiful and elegant, still very much a queen. There were only thirty-five people in the tent that night all those years ago, and now there were seven hundred.
I approached the young queen, Aoibheann, with a request for a quick sketch. She was obviously very tired but she obliged, asking a young male friend to sit with her for company. The lad went off to get her a coffee, and Aoibheann fell into conversation with the lady behind her. When he came back, I drew Aoibheann again, looking a little more relaxed: I could have drawn something a little more detailed, but I didn't want to keep her too long as she'd had a long weekend already, and it was still far from over.

"I think I know you," said Aoibheann.
"I think I know you too," I said.
We worked it out: she was a good friend of my next-door neighbour, who had babysat my kids years ago. It's a small and tight-knit community here, where everyone is only one or two friends in common from knowing everyone else.

If you're planning a trip to Galway, make it coincide with the Clarinbridge Oyster Festival in September. It'll be something to remember.

Next week: the Galway International Oyster Festival...oysters anyone?