November in Italy in sketches

I like travelling, it’s fun and Europe’s a great place to scratch that itch in. I’ve been to Spain quite a bit recently and had a great time. I’ve really got over my initial aversion from a family trip to Madrid more than ten years ago – perhaps clouded by some internal issues which confined me to a rice based diet. In this burst of Iberian fever Italy has been a bit overlooked. I have religiously consumed pizza and pasta but not stepped foot in the country for a while ( of course apart from a wedding in Perugia last year…James & Angelica – if you read this!). That duck was broken last month when I was treated to two long weekends away to Venice – GF and Turin – Mum. Very nice of them.

Both lovely places which I thoroughly recommend. Venice, of course is pretty established on the mini-breaker radar. Turin certainly isn’t, we hardly saw any tourists but it has some great sites and architecture, is easy to get to and has great food and drink – and Cristiano Ronaldo if you like football!

I took a sketchbook (that doubled as a bit of a diary) to both places. The ‘mini-break’ is a pretty full on kind of concept (see Richard Ayoade’s Travel Man for a brilliant take on it all) so taking a bit of time out in the weekend is pretty essential. Sketching enforces that pause for me.

I’m more comfortable drawing the architecture, it stays nice and still, but am trying to capture people as well – with less success currently. Here’s a tour of Venice and Turin through sketches. You decide…

From the most recent – Turin

To Venice (only 2 weeks before)

That all said I haven’t yet visited Pizza Express Woking, perhaps my most memorable Italian experience is still to come…

Notebook and pen in my pocket: Some sketches from some travels

I have plenty of ideas for posts I’d like to write. However, thought and action don’t as often combine as I would like. Sometimes I get part of the way there – writing a post in note form or dragging my laptop with me for the weekend, or my sketchbook, pens and pencils – full of plans to write another blog or sit down to draw something. As with this post, noted down about 6 weeks ago but only now worked into something more concrete, it’s really hard to deliver on some of those aspirations.

Then again, a large part of the purpose of this website/blogsite when I originally envisioned it was to force myself to work those aspirations or daydreams into my routine. So, in that sense it’s doing its job, as here I am, thinking about sketching and, now, writing my thoughts down.

It’s an ambition which I was reminded of when I thought about writing a post on this mini notebook i’ve been doodling in. I’ve been taking this pocket-sized book with me on holiday for a while now. I bought it in the Miro museum in Barcelona and never really got round to using it. Then at some point I realised that I could put it in my pocket with a pen, where it would sit unobtrusively, biding its time until I got to a cafe or a nice spot. I found it an easy way to note down things done and an excuse for a brief pause and sketch in a nice spot. I have to admit, that I’m not very good at sitting still so it’s a great way for me to pause and concentrate on one thing!  A nice by product is some sketching practice and a rough image that might jog my memory in years to come. I suppose the modern terminology might be practicing mindfulness!

Also, the great benefit of the small pages (A6, I think) is to force a focus on something small or specific – it really takes any of the pressure off. I’ve culled some of the most scribbly of the scribbles to include a number of sketches from some recent trips. If I had the skill to draw the torrential rain when we were in Seville (turns out it isn’t always 40 degrees there), then there would have been plenty of those! The context to most of them, should be in the descriptions below…



Drawn to the subject groupies (I know you’re out there somewhere) will be relieved to know that I’ve just extended my wordpress subscription for a WHOLE year. 12 months of content coming right at you.

It also gives me a kick to write a new update, one that I have been meaning to type out for a while. That is since the end of March when I finished up a 10 week evening class at the Royal Drawing School. The name sounds imposing and perhaps highly selective, although if either were true, particularly the latter, I wouldn’t have got through the door. It’s a great venue for anyone who wants to exercise their artistic itches; running great evening courses for very reasonable rates. I think mine worked out at about £20 a week for a 2 ½ hour class.

My course was called Life Drawing: Subject and Object and involved a mixture of life models and still life. Week to week I never really knew what I was in for, but that didn’t matter. On previous courses I have been impatient to get things right immediately, draw some work of genius, step back, dust my hands off and declare my mastery of the whole drawing thing and move on to something like rocket science. This time it gradually occurred to me that it’s not so much about the outcome as the process – particularly given that I’m not about to crack out a Raphael nude. I enjoyed the couple of hours on a Monday night with no distractions and the occasional buzz of satisfaction when something emerged which captured something of what I was observing.

It’s a bit of a regret that I haven’t managed to find the time to keep up with the drawing – apart from some quite sketches on holiday in Sri Lanka recently. I should probably sign up for another course…

If this feels like a long preamble to excuse some mediocre attempts at representing some subjects and objects then I present my evidence for your critical eyes to judge. I’d like to claim these aren’t a selection of the ‘best’!


Doors, doors, doors

I have come to realise that I like taking photos of doors. Put like that it sounds a bit odd, but I don’t think it is. Doors carry all sorts of symbolism, they are entrances into another sphere, guardians of lots of stories, even secrets, and the sites of so many meetings and encounters.

I like a door that looks well worn and slightly down-at-heel; like a weather-beaten face you know that this indicates a life well lived. It makes me imagine a busy flow of people entering and leaving and to wonder who has passed through the boundary which it guards.

Doors can also be fun, real expressions of personality. I particularly like the Art Nouveau ones in this respect, all curvy lines and coloured glass, symbolic to me of adventurousness and optimism. Then there are those doors that you just don’t want to enter. Think of every haunted house in films or ghost stories. Just like the classic cartoon image below, we are conditioned to imagine that rundown doors lead to dark, creep places full of maleficent creatures and bad past deeds. Yet, it’s all a creation – a means of playing to our love of storytelling.

haunted house door
Doesn’t look so scary any more!

There are also those doors which act as portals to other places, as seen in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe. Yes, a fictional story where a girl enters another world through the back of a wardrobe but also an allegory for the joy of imagination.

Lion the witch and the wardrobe
Wardrobe from the Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe

So, doors are a form of art, but they are also everyday objects and their appeal relates to our intrigue about the lives of other people and the mystery of the unknown. For, unlike paintings that are revered from a distance and cordoned off, doors are opened and closed, scratched and bashed and assaulted by the elements. I like their authenticity and mystery.


Or maybe not a door… Is the allure the same when it’s basically a window?

mies van door
Door (or not door?) in Mies Van Der Rohe designed house

Pottery production at last

For a while I had a potter’s wheel and some clay, kindly given to me and my aunt by a retiring potter. I documented my early efforts to begin pottery production in a previous post (have a read here), which was admittedly a while ago. Only now am I sitting down to provide the next instalment in the tale.

Part of the slowness is simply down to geography, I spend most of my time in London while the wheel spends all of its time in Perthshire. Also, ceramics is not a pursuit for those in a hurry (partly why I like it as it counteracts my tendency towards impatience). There is the turning of clay into a form, then there is waiting for it to dry, then a first firing and a second firing. Amongst this there is the need to trim and decorate the pot. It takes some time!

Enough with the preamble. I can’t just have a wheel, I thought, that can only take me so far. It allows me to make some shapes but once dry they’re brittle and useless; I need to close the circle and turn this piece of clay into a usable bit of ceramics. I need a kiln. Locating one took a while, plenty of scouring Gumtree, then finally one was within my grasp – except that it was in Brora on the north east coast of Scotland. Many thanks here to Steven (if you ever read this!) for driving the whole way up there and somehow lifting what is a very heavy bit of kit into the back of a pickup truck, and repeating the same trick at the other end.

As I write I realise how many more words than I initially anticipated are being dedicated to the ‘setup admin’ of my soon to be flourishing pottery workshop. Part of the fun has been in how ad hoc the process has been. I have muddled through and in doing so learnt a whole lot more about what goes into the craft of a ceramicist – as well as realising just how much more there is left to learn.

I have found that the kiln needs to be plugged into a single phase electrical supply – which then had to be installed before the kiln could work (many, many thanks to my Aunt for sorting this!). Then came the assumption that I could operate the kiln computer without instruction (I now have had the basic induction). There has been deciding which type of clay to use, which glazes, how to apply the glazes etc etc.

The result, nevertheless, is that I have actually managed to turn a lump of clay into a finished product of sorts. Have a look below:

Snapshot of glamorous setup
A view of some of the bases which I tidy on the wheel once the clay is leather hard
An old photo of the kiln (the room is a bit neater now)
Loaded inside the kiln before the bisque firing
Post 1st firing (or bisque firing). I’m about to paint on the glazes
Close up of green glaze. This was less thick than the blue one and didn’t come out so strongly

Most of my output (featuring the kitchen table)

Hopefully future blogs will show some improvement…

*Point of info – The kiln and wheel are mine and my Aunt’s! Seems easier to clarify now than repeat throughout the blog

Barcelona and Gaudi: it’s all a bit much for me

After visiting Barcelona for the first time I have decided that I don’t like Gaudi much. For those that haven’t visited, he is the city’s most famous architect, the vision behind the Sagrada Familia, and is unavoidable in the city. His style is in your face, jagged edges, sharp curves and garish tiles; I would call it ostentatious and brash. Yet, I do have an admiration for what he was doing, it’s a pretty bold break from the past, when others in the early 19th century were creating pastiche roman buildings, neo-gothic and neo-baroque, he was doing his own thing. There are strong links to Art Nouveau, a style which I really like, and it is highly referential to Catalonia, making it admirably grounded in its setting.

Yet, my favourite piece of architecture in the city is the Barcelona Pavilion by Mies Van der Rohe. It is stunning, a temple to modernism designed by possibly the most influential modernist architect. In many ways it is the antithesis to Gaudian design, embodying the principle of less is more. Every surface is smooth, every junction is deliberate, and the ceilings is apparently suspended by a twine of invisible string. It feels strikingly modern, yet it was designed in 1929; imagine the stir it would have caused back then

While I think the Sagrada Familia is a pretty monstrous building what is has in common with the Barcelona Pavilion is a true sense of originality and boldness. I read that George Orwell, who fought in the Spanish Civil War, and was based in Barcelona called it “one of the most hideous buildings in the world and hoped that it would be destroyed in the war. On balance it’s fortunate that didn’t happen, as a record of Gaudi’s work it’s great that it can be seen and discussed. Yet, the continuing construction of the cathedral is farcical.

My issue is that none of Gaudi’s plans still exist, so the architects are simply imagining what might have been drawn. They are creating a pastiche of an already bizarre building and it’s hideous. It would have been much more atmospheric and meaningful to walk around the cathedral as Gaudi left it.

If you want to provide a completed building, then engage a modern Catalonian architect and make it clear the distinction between old and new. I’m not saying that would create a beautiful building, but it would be more honest and more forward looking. 

Inside the Barcelona Pavilion

Sunset (not my photo credit!)

Apart from a chair this is the single piece of decoration in the pavilion

Tourists at Park Guell

Casa Vicens – another Gaudi house (I like this one though!)

Sagrada Familia from its best side..

IMG_7442 (1)
impressive but not attractive


Sketch like an Egyptian

I try to maintain a vague link between what I write on this blog, although as I jot this down and consider what my next topic might be it does occur that I should define what the continuity is. ‘Things that look nice’ strikes me as the best tagline with the sub heading ‘and me trying to make things that look nice’. In that vein here comes my latest communication; me visiting Egypt (which looks nice) and trying to sketch bits of it (trying to make them look nice).

Egypt is really nice and I recommend. I spent nearly two weeks there over Easter and was taken in by almost everything it had to offer (except for the obligatory hassle). It has so much going for it; relatively short flight, 1 hour time difference, a totally fascinating history, sunshine, beautiful and ancient monuments, the red sea for some beach time and relatively few tourists. No, it really isn’t that dangerous!

Hopefully these, photos from the trip give a better sense of the place than I can write.


Aside from photography I also took a sketchbook along with me and made some quick sketches at a few of the monuments we went to. It was a relaxing to pause in a beautiful spot and attempt to capture its likeness on paper. There is something about a sketch which is particularly alluring, more so than a photo. It captures a place in a certain time as seen by the ‘artist’ – however inaccurate the sketches are (see mine below).


There is also something more about sketching which captures my sense of nostalgia/the historian in me. I am a bit of a sucker for Victorian exploration, not the exploitative aspects of it of course but the sense of adventure and glamour. David Livingstone, the early Victorian explorer, – him of ‘Dr Livingstone, I presume’ fame, followed the Nile into the interior of Africa in the mid 19th century. For the most part, he was stepping foot into territory which no European had ever seen. He existed before mass photography, before Iphones, before the internet and before fake news. Sketches and paintings of what he had seen made their way back to the UK and were the only images of this ‘far off land’. They played to the adventure and exoticism of travel. Travel back then was genuinely adventurous, it was also hugely dangerous.


I am happy with my comfortable hotel, malaria prophylaxis, mobile phone and motor car but what I do want now and again is to have my cake and eat it. I want to find amazing monuments to history and feel as though I am in some way stepping on virgin territory. The link, for me, between sketching and travel is a sense of storytelling. However amateur my sketch might be there will only be one if it, it also allows me to depict (skill permitting) my idealised vision of the place I am sitting in. No instagrammer is going to post that same photo online and suddenly undermine my sense of adventure and discovery!

I am not claiming that my sketches are going to find their way to the British Museum. I simply like the idea that, however amateur, they are at least unique and like the Victorian images – rather idealised. I also hope that through practice they will improve…..fingers crossed.

Finally from me, the Egyptian tourist board and their democratically elected president I do recommend visiting Egypt, whether or not you bring a sketchbook.