Friday, 26 January 2007

In the city

I have a day off work and plan to head outdoors with the sketchbook. Inevitably, it rains. Of course, it is the middle of winter and there is no reason to expect that it should do anything else. Who knows what a better climate – induced by global warming or otherwise – might do for our landscape painting tradition?

But having spent too much time in front of a computer – for the day job as well as for scanning in drawings, getting the website set up and applying for things – I’m not going to be put off getting outside to draw. A dose of elemental forces, in the shape of wind and rain, is a relief after too much time spent working in offices.

Discomfort, for me at least, doesn’t preclude creativity. At art school we’d be encouraged to stand up as we worked, which could mean, despite the usual preconceived ideas about art students, that we were on our feet next to an easel for eight hours. Painting can be, should be, a physically draining exercise. Of course, a day spent drawing is a doddle compared with patrolling Basra or being a nurse, and we usually had the strength to stay on our feet by the student union bar in the evenings.

(I still think it makes sense to stay on your feet at an easel if you’re fit and mobile enough: it makes it easy to get in position to make the right marks, especially if you are working large, and it enables you to move away from the work to see how it is going. Sitting down seems to me to be just a little too comfortable.)

King’s Cross in London is hardly the most comfortable place to be drawing either. The area is currently in the grip of developers, as what was once a congested drug-riddled area frequented by kerb-crawlers tries to turn itself into a cosy inner-city neighbourbood where a flat is worth more than the GDP of some African nations. I like its transitional period anyway. The scaffolding is up, cranes abound, and there is an energy about the place that is infectious. The lines of the scaffolding accentuate perspective, shrouding the shape of George Gilbert Scott’s magnificent Midland Grand Hotel.

Drawing somewhere so busy – people are pouring in and out of the railway station, and it is hard to find a place to stand that isn’t in the way – means that one becomes more or less invisible, in a way that is impossible in less populated locations. There is, in my experience, less chance of someone coming up to you in a busy place and asking the dreaded “What are you doing then?” than there is in quieter places.

A few years back I spent six months travelling around England in a camper van loaded with pencils and sketchbooks, drawing every day. I soon became accustomed to people coming over and chatting to me as I worked. At rural Bradford-upon-Avon a man came over to see what I was doing as he waited for his wife and children to finish shopping. As they all left in the car on their way home, his wife wound down the window, and invited me to their home for dinner and to park my van in their drive for the night.

When I turned up at their house on the edge of town that evening, there was roast chicken, home grown vegetables, bottles of beer, and a warmth and generosity that was quite breathtaking. When I left in my van the next morning to head for the next town there was a touching farewell ceremony in the drive, and gifts of home grown tomatoes and apples (that helped keep scurvy at bay). Throwing their doors open to complete strangers isn’t what the English are renowned for. Mind you, if I’d had a similar invitation from someone as I drawn at King’s Cross, I’d have turned it down.