Leading you up the garden path

Those of you that read my blog here regularly are probably aware that one of my big loves of sketching is so-called reportage drawing, that is the process of reporting news or events or activities of general interest through drawing.  I was therefore thrilled to be able to visit the Imperial War museum towards the end of August, with the Manchester Urban Sketchers group, to draw at Salford Quays (the sun shone!) and to attend a talk by the talented George Butler, war reportage illustrator and journalist.


The basis of his talk and exhibition was the time he spent out in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of British troops at the end of 2014, recording, through exquisite ink and watercolour drawings, the everyday lives of the Iraq people.  Through his drawings, he offers a unique and extraordinary insight into the lives of those living with conflict.  Actually, I was doubly lucky as I was able to go one week to hear the talk and see George’s drawings (as slides) and then, the following week, to attend again and see the images themselves, displayed in frames, at the entrance to the cafe.  I was glad to get two ‘helpings’ of this experience.  It is powerful stuff.

George Butlers Talk at the Imperial War Museum North

Since I started urban sketching I have been interested in the curiosity and fascination that people have with those of us drawing out on the streets.  People will engage freely in conversation about what you are drawing and how you are going about it.  In his talk, George talks about the value of illustration, as a viable and powerful alternative to photography and film in recording today’s news.  He describes how the openness  and non-threatening nature of drawing, standing with a board and pen and drawing onto paper, where anyone can look over his shoulder, enables a unique insight and an opportunity to capture emotional subject matters.

George Butler images
George Butler images

In his talk,  and though study of his drawings, it is clear that there are a number of fundamentals that drive him in his reportage work and I am going to try to consider these in my own work too.  He mentions firstly that often what you leave out of a drawing is as important as what you leave in and he does seem to be a real expert at paring the scene down to the most important elements.  I need to get better at this and think more and draw less!  I probably need to be more disciplined perhaps using the idea of time constraint to force selection.  Here’s an image I did recently with only a short time frame.  You can see the focus and the selection, with windows just outlined and the lines of the buildings drifting away.  Similarly on the left hand side there is white space.  George seems to be a master at white space in his work too!


Another key comment related to the need to tell the story and to have something to say (and say it!).  I think this is quite critical for reportage work and its something that takes some exploration and development. It’s not just about recording what you see, its about an interpretation, an angle, a visual statement.  It is this, I believe, that holds people’s attention. Linked to this is the way in which the drawing is created.

It is fascinating to look at a number of his stunning drawings because they all seem to have this special way of leading you through and ‘up the garden path’!.  The line work together with the sensitive and selective painting are clearly very well thought through.  The eye is led through the drawing, either across or up or however the drawing is laid out.  Colours and the addition of colour is a very deliberate and carefully considered, albeit subtle and often muted and there are places to rest the eye before moving on through the scene.  I think I am going to have to study these types of painting much more to gain more insight and understanding of this approach.   Here is an image that I produced recently.  If we ignore the perhaps overly detailed nature of the scene and rather messy colour application, I have tried to use colour to pull you into the market place and through into the central area.2015-09-14_0004

Overall, this was an inspiring insight into the processes and approach of this Reportage illustrator whose images have given me much food for thought.

A drawing a day…..

Throughout August I have been getting involved in the #DrawingAugust activity on Social Media (twitter) as another means of encouraging me to draw daily. I post my drawings regularly on social media and have to confess that I have been a little confused by the comments about being ‘prolific’. This is because my understanding is that to get good at anything you need to practice regularly and in order to get anywhere with drawing, you need to do this daily (not a few times a week or when you feel like it, but daily). Now that is not to say I am critical of anyone else that doesn’t do this, its just for me, in order to stand any chance of improvement, I need to do it daily. I need to focus on regularity and in the past, where I haven’t done this, I have slipped back to irregular practice. In summary, I wouldn’t say that I am prolific, (actually, I take too much time and I do not do it for hours and hours daily), it is more about trying to improve by regular practice. I would advise anyone who is getting into drawing and wants to improve to do this, because I think without the regular practice, it becomes just too hard and not second nature enough to weather the inevitably bumpy rides.

Now to drawing August. There have been a variety of themes in my month so I thought I would share my month’s worth of sketching in these themes. That way you can get to see the ways that I have tackled them. On some days, especially those where I have been doing some reportage sketching, I have done more than one drawing, so I have selected 31 sketches to share here. You can see my sketching practice on Flickr here and on Instagram here.

Reportage Sketching

I am particularly interested in reportage sketching of events and activities and so it makes sense to start with that aspect of my drawing first. The beginning of the month started with reportage sketching at the Manchester Dig the City gardening event. You can read the full blog about this here .

Another activity attended was the Saturday market in my home town of Bury St Edmunds Suffolk, a market town with a fruit and vegetable market every Saturday and Wednesday. Then most recently I attended a new vintage fair at Manchester cathedral and a boat show in Redhill. Well they say that variety is the spice of life!


here are the most recent sketches a little larger for easier viewing:


Café Sketching of people

I have been trying to improve my people sketching and therefore have frequented several cafes and shopping centres to capture people.   People in cafes are usually moving to a lesser extent than those in crowds and it is often possible to capture a little more detail because they are often in one position for a period of time! These sketches are usually done as a gesture in pencil to which the detail is then added in pen or a contour. I am trying to improve my cleanness of line.


Allotment and plant sketching

It’s a great time of the year to be sketching my boutique allotment and some of the fruits (and flowers of our labours), so here are a few of such images, some in situ on the plot and others already picked!   Oh and Mum and Dad’s apple tree in their garden is included too!  You can see more of my sketching on my boutique allotment here.


Location sketching

This month I have also been out and about sketching with the Manchester Urban sketchers: earlier in the month at Piccadilly train station and then more recently at Salford Quays. Other location sketches include a visit to Pomona, a wonderful wild landscape on the edge of the city and the start of a series of sketches around the streets of residential Salford.  Oh and almost all the sketches throughout this blog are in a moleskin watercolour sketchbook using watercolour paint.  The 4 on the right below (and the dill picture left above) are different: done in a strathmore tinted paper sketchbook and using coloured pencil.


This is somewhat of an eclectic mix of subject matters and I am thrilled to have taken part in this useful sharing activity throughout August. Now that September is nearly here, I have plenty more drawing activities to occupy me! Thank you for joining me on my sketching journey and I hope that you will continue to follow my sketching adventures!

My urban sketching collaboration with a playwright

As a landscape architect as well as urban sketcher, the idea of a Sense of Place, providing designs and drawings that connect with a place and what it is about are critical. In my urban sketching, I am always looking to create A sense of the Place in my drawings, whether it is through line, form, colour or detail (and usually a mixture), this is what I set out to achieve: an interpretation of the place in a way that resonates with the viewer that is familiar and provides a reference point.


I post my drawings on a variety of social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook and Flickr. It is through these routes that I am able to connect with a variety of other sketchers, artists and other creatives, whether it is to learn from others approaches, have a conversation about artworks or to learn about the overlap and potential collaborative opportunities, these are important connections. Of particular importance to me in my sketching is the reportage angle of urban sketching. Recently, I was contacted by an independent playwright and director, Vanessa Brooks, because the images I was posting, resonated particularly with the locations that she was incorporating into the writing of her new play: I love you baby.

Initially, the images that caught Vanessa’s attention were drawings in and around Salford in the North of England, UK: Samantha, one of the lead characters in the play lives in a hi-rise luxury apartment in Salford Quays and Vanessa has used my images initially to help route her internal view of the location. The two images below set the scene here with the views of the immediate apartment surroundings and the famous Lowry theatre on the Quays:


As well as the views of the quays, Samantha has views of the deprived and undeveloped Salford, the place from which young man Tyler comes from:


Sister Sadie, travels through Manchester Piccadilly station with its queues of people and across Manchester to Samantha’s apartment for their mothers funeral and wake:



This is what Vanessa calls ‘dipping into my visual world’ and now that she is moving from writing the first draft, to the process of developing the play on stage, my drawings appear large in her contextualization of the onstage activity

Having established a connection and resonance with these initial images, Vanessa then took a trip through my Flickr drawings and realized that many more would be of use in the establishment of places/things associated with other characters in the play.   These include the following:

A character called Clarence who lived with his elderly mother in a cottage in Yorkshire. This drawing took the playwright into Clarence’s past and the context he grieves for:


A sister called Grace who is a nurturer and professional carer of dogs.   Here, my drawings of my own greyhound Tanzi have provided inspiration:


Another sister Sadie comes to Salford from London where she has a night-life existence. My drawings of Camden in London, provided some resonance here:


Vanessa makes the comment that ‘the drawings help root her internal view into a reality but not a photographic one as this is too stark, but an interpretation of a place, which fits in well with the landscape, she imagines’. I am thrilled that my sketches have helped to inspire the contextual detail surrounding the characters of this new play and excited about the collaborative opportunities that urban sketching appears to enable. In Vanessa’s words, ‘ the context I’ve drawn from Liz’s work has been invaluable and demonstrates one of the principals of playwriting in particular and theatre-making in general: It’s a collaborative medium’

Over the next few months the play will be developed with three project partners including The Lowry in Salford and I am looking forward to attending the Scratch performance of the play there in November! You can read Vanessa’s blog about the use of my drawings to inform the play here.