Art — for Sanity’s Sake

In this time of Covid-19 lockdown, many are finding relief from the isolation tedium by rediscovering forgotten hobbies and long-held interests, as well as connecting with others who share the same passions via online tools such as Zoom. The UK and other governments may downplay the necessity of the arts in terms of their willingness to fund them, but at times of crisis, they are necessary to our health and wellbeing. Indeed, where would we be without art?

Over the past few years, one of the things that has helped keep me sane, positive and creatively productive is developing my drawing and painting skills through joining various Shoal of Art Meet-up groups run by Mark Lovelace, as well as other working artists and teachers such as Debra Collis and others. This practice has been vital for me as much in my occasionally sporadic freelance journalism, etc career as during the current lockdown situation, as it provides a very welcome opportunity to break the tedium of working from home on my own by meeting up with fellow like-minded artists or artists-in-progress (as in fact we all are — Paul Gardner’s oft-cited quote, “A painting is never finished; it only stops in interesting places”, which itself derives from Leonardo da Vinci’s quote, “Art is never finished, only abandoned”, should perhaps be reworded to apply to any artist or would-be artist).

Most of the Shoal of Art-run groups focus on producing portrait sketches and paintings from life – e.g., with live models – also drawings and paintings based on old and recent masters at the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square, London. The groups are open to all artists in various stages of developing their skills; some are professional or ‘full-time’ artists, while others are serious or semi-serious dabblers.

As for me, I grew up in an artistic household, and so learned to consider the practice of art and creativity in general to be essential to life and wellbeing in the same way others value team sports and developing athletic skills as vital to one’s social, personal and physical development. My mother — a professional fashion illustrator and a lifelong craftswoman and quilter — raised my sister Betsey and I to express ourselves creatively through visual media; in addition to doing art projects at home, we studied it in school and were known for our artistic talents. But whereas my sister continued to focus on art, specifically ceramics, into university, eventually becoming a professional fine artist with a specialism in equine art, I was torn between studying art and writing at university as I was also interested in English literature and creative writing, so perhaps naturally gravitated towards publications work — for example, I created and edited an illustrated literary magazine during high school that featured stories, poems and artworks from myself and other colleagues, and edited the school [and later, Bard’s] newspaper.

Perhaps Paul Gardner’s oft-cited quote “A painting is never finished; it only stops in interesting places” — which itself derives from Leonardo da Vinci’s quote, “Art is never finished, only abandoned” — should be reworded to apply to any artist or would-be artist

Left: Me in high school editing the literary magazine I also designed and contributed to

So while art may be one of my ‘roads not taken’, since in the end I went with English Lit/Creative Writing (I also excelled in writing about art when I studied Renaissance art history), I have continued to study and write about art, visit galleries regularly, maintain friendships with other artists, and draw, paint and take art classes on and off throughout my travels and living abroad – which is why I realised how much I needed to continue to practise this in London during my ‘time off’ from freelance engagements. To me, indeed, art is life as life is art.

I also find that as a somewhat extroverted artistic type, I’ve always enjoyed sketching people as it provides the perfect opportunity to tune out, reflect and observe others while simultaneously being around them, as occasionally I just need a balance between being around people 24/7 and total solitude. But another obvious benefit of being in a group with other artists is that although the process of drawing and painting is itself a solo activity, there is the valuable aspect of peer-learning in that you can see and learn from others’ techniques, processes and practices. It’s also nice just getting to know the rolling group of eclectic regulars and visitors/newbies from around the world who join the cafe- or pub-based life-drawing sessions, as well as those who meet at the National Gallery — if you are an artist or artistically inclined, it is a wonderful way to add to the richness of visiting London as one of the world’s leading cultural cities.

For the National Gallery meet-ups, we usually meet in the reception of the Sainsbury’s Wing at 10.30am, then decide which room(s) of the Gallery we will focus on. If you ask nicely at one of the information desks or in the cloakroom – and of course only when they are available – you can usually borrow a stool to sit on too. We then go off to sketch for a couple of hours before finally meeting downstairs in the Espresso Bar to chat and exchange views of our work over a coffee.

Above: a few of my sketches from the National Gallery – not all my best, perhaps

There are a few other artists who come along to join for a coffee and chat and then go off to continue drawing on their own, as well as others who seem to sketch in the cafe regularly. Now, during the lockdown, we are making use of the gallery’s extensive online catalogue while we are working from home, which at least allows for more diversity in materials. Occasionally Mark or whoever is leading the session will urge the group to focus on a particular theme or technique — as in a recent online National Gallery session, where the focus was on capturing spring light as it was reflected on a figure and landscape.

Although I struggled with the particular problems of working with a variety of soft/hard and chalk-/oil-based pastels on plain mixed-media paper (I was advised later by another artist in the group that I should have used a special pastel paper, since it absorbs and smooths the colours better), the two hours I spent trying to replicate Seurat’s Morning Walk were nevertheless a joyously glorious — if deeply messy — challenge.

The portrait and life-drawing sessions, on the other hand, usually involve working with a professional model for a small fee (typically between £7–£15 per person attending). The model will hold timed poses for periods ranging from 10–40 minutes long; some of them are happy to have their image taken if you need to carry on working to finish a drawing, whereas others are not — it’s always best to ask rather than assume.

The life-drawing sessions with a model are held at various evenings or days throughout the week — with some on the weekend, too — and at various pub locations in London, although most are now functioning just as effectively online, typically at the same times as the London sessions ran. I have infrequently attended the paid-model sessions at the Archduke pub near Waterloo station on Sundays from 2–4pm, and once or twice produced drawings I have been quite pleased with. However, I find working with the model online from home at least allows for more opportunities to explore using a variety of media.

But now that we can join these paid sessions online from home, it is so much easier to mix paints to use in our sketches – I’ve only just started experimenting with adding watercolour to my charcoal or pencil sketches, or even working directly from my paintbox, but this is an area I do wish to grow in (so far, I have mostly used pen, pastels, charcoals, graphite pencils, etc, but now in addition to using watercolour, I would like to try using a brush with ink, as I have observed others using in portraits and see this can be quite effective and expressive).

There are also several free ‘Portraits in the Cafe’ sessions involving drawing each other in quick 5- to 15-minute poses. In non-lockdown times, these sessions are usually held at the Roman Road site of the Muxima Cafe in Bow – a Time Out ‘Best Cafe in Bow’ for two years running. It’s a friendly, relaxed and quietly bohemian venue, perfect for an evening of social portrait sketching – if a little out of the way for me (however, I usually head into London to dance at SOS on a Sunday night, so the timing – from 6–8pm, is actually perfect). Of course these are also now being done online, again at the same time as the Muxima sessions. Below are a few of these 5- to 15-minute portrait sketches from the live Cafe sessions, as well as some of our more recent online sessions.

I’ve also benefitted occasionally from joining Mark Fennell‘s workshops at his studio in Henley-on-Thames, which involve portrait painting in oils. As this is a new or less-familiar medium for me, I still need to work on mastering blending the pigments, but I am pleased with some of my results, which were included in a local art exhibition last year (see below).

Most of the artists who attend are very experienced – some are also professional artists – and bring their own canvases, oil paints, spirits / mixers, brushes and other materials, as well as their knowledge of how to use them; if not, Mark kindly helps out by providing materials some hands-on tuition, as well as the photographs of the subjects and materials if needed.

Above: Inside Mark Fennell’s studio in Henley-on-Thames; my oil painting of one of the characterful subjects Mark presents in his class sessions; my first two oil portraits, both done in one of Mark’s workshops, were included in an exhibition of local artists’ work in Micklefield, put together by Reverend Wendy Bull, vicar of St Anne’s and St Peter’s parish in Loudwater to showcase work by fellow artists in her parish. Below: another ‘Portraits in the Café’ session in progress at Muxima Café in Bow Road, London.

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