Yesterday (shortly after I’d decided to write about my bike) I came across a wonderful quote, used as the title for a photo (which you can see at Flickr if you want to — I haven’t included it here since it belongs to somebody else and I haven’t sought permission to reproduce it).

The quote (which happens to be in Spanish) is:

La paciencia es un árbol de raiz amarga, pero de frutos muy dulces

A translation (by me, without recourse to dictionaries, Google Translate etc., so I hope it’s reasonably accurate) is:

Patience is a tree with bitter roots but very sweet fruit

Actually, after I came up with the translation I looked back at the picture from which I borrowed it and discovered that a translation was given there, which was the same as mine but with a comma (as in the Spanish version) that I deemed unnecessary in the English rendering. I wasn’t aware of it before providing my own translation, but it’s possible that I’d subconsciously glimpsed it.

Also, since I first mentioned this quote on Facebook (very shortly after stumbling across it), it has been drawn to my attention that this is pretty much the same as a quote that’s variously attributed to Aristotle and Jean-Jacques Rousseau:

Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet

I couldn’t find any references to a specific source for the attribution to Aristotle (such as, for example, any of his writings) but I did find evidence that it didn’t originate with Rousseau. It appears (in French, as La patience est amère, mais son fruit est doux) on page 175 of the book Voyages en Perse et autres lieux de l’Orient by John Chardin, published in 1711, the year before Rousseau was born (a copy of the page can be seen here, courtesy of Google Books; I got to this information via Wikiquote). That’s not to say that Rousseau didn’t use it (perhaps having read it in Chardin’s book), or that Chardin didn’t get it ultimately from Aristotle, or even that Aristotle (if he did say / write it) didn’t get it from someone else.

I think it’s highly likely that the quote as used in the picture title came from this one that may or may not have been from Aristotle or Chardin, whether or not the artist who made and titled the picture was aware of the source, or whether she herself altered it to include the reference to the tree or came across it in that form (perhaps introduced more or less by accident when it was translated from Greek or French into Spanish, or perhaps done deliberately for extra poetic effect). In any case, I particularly like the version I first came across (not to mention the picture that went with it).

Definitely one to think about (and to take your time doing so!).


Incremental Upgrade

My cycle ride to work this morning was definitely the wettest I’ve had so far this year (though with 11 months to go, I suspect it won’t retain that crown permanently).

This reminds me that I haven’t so far got round to mentioning that I got another new bike just after Easter last year.

My previous new bike had only come along about 15 months earlier but on that occasion I made what in hindsight was the mistake of going for the cheapest one I could find on eBay. It has a very heavy steel frame, needed some fairly major work (such as truing the wheels) to get it roadworthy in the first place and within just over a year it had got quite rusty and the bottom bracket had worn out, with several other components probably not all that far behind.

I’m fairly confident that I can repair the bottom bracket, and indeed I have by now got the replacement part I need although I haven’t got round to fitting it yet (it’s only been 9 months, after all!). This bike could at least still be useful as a backup, but I decided that since I use a bike on a more or less daily basis for my commute to work, and occasional longer rides, it would be better to bite the bullet and invest a little bit more in a slightly better one.

It turned out that “a little bit more” amounted to only around £100 (the first bike had been around £150, and the new one was valued at £300, about the same price as I’d paid for my bike before last about 16 years ago, but I picked it up cheap in a sale at my local branch of Halfords and even managed to get a pannier rack and mudguards out of my £250). So far I’ve only had to do minor routine maintenance (adjusting brake cables etc.) and repair a handful of punctures, but not had to take it off the road for any extended period or do any major repairs.

The new bike is, I think, technically classed as a hybrid. It’s got a nice sturdy (and lightweight) frame, 27″ wheels with relatively fat but not too knobbly tyres, reasonably low gearing (great for the steep hills round here) and no suspension. This latter was a deliberate choice, as I do the vast majority of my cycling on fairly well-surfaced roads, where suspension is not really necessary and is arguably counter-productive since some of the energy that would get transferred to forward motion instead gets eaten up by the up-down motion of the suspension. In other words, the bike is somewhat optimised for road use but can stand moderately heavy handling and at least occasional forays off-road, which is just what I need.

Apart from the slightly better build quality, this bike has two main features that I was particularly keen to get for the first time: disc brakes and trigger shifters.

Disc brakes have been around for a pretty long time but seem to be becoming a bit more common on relatively low-end bikes these days. They work by friction, just like pretty much any other sort of brake I can think of, but instead of pressing rubber pads against the rim of the wheel to obtain this friction (like rim brakes do — the clue is in the name), they have a separate metal disc (again, hence the name!) attached at the hub and rotating parallel to the wheel itself, and the brake pads are applied to this. The major benefit of this is that you get a lot more stopping power than a rim brake; presumably this due to the much smaller thickness involved, since you’re generating considerably less torque that close to the centre of rotation — essentially, if I’ve understood the physics correctly, you need to clamp the braking surface more firmly but that’s much easier to achieve. Another advantage is that the disc is much further away from the water and mud etc. that tend to reduce stopping power in wet weather. Since we get a lot of wet weather round here (and have quite a few steep hills to cycle down), this is a good thing. Mine are mechanically-actuated disc brakes, which means they are operated by steel cables just like on most rim brakes. Many, probably most, disc brakes are hydraulic, which give more stopping power (though the mechanical ones seem to me to give plenty) but tend to be a bit more fiddly to maintain.

Trigger shifters (for the gears) have also been around for quite a while. I’m fairly sure I remember seeing them in bike magazines back in the early 1990s but I’ve never previously had them on any of my bikes. With the twist-grip shifters on my old bike, I was beginning to find that my thumbs would get quite sore when changing gear, although I wasn’t sure whether the pain was caused by the gear shifting or a symptom of some other cause, such as general wear and tear. In any case, when I came to get the new bike I decided to take the opportunity if possible to try out trigger shifters instead and see if they were more comfortable. After a few days getting used to the system and remembering that I have to use the big lever to shift down and the small lever to shift up on the back gears, but the big lever to shift up and the small one to shift down on the front (which actually amounts to increasing the tension with the big lever and decreasing it with the small one in both cases), I have found them to be much easier on my thumbs. Another thing I like about them is the facility (on the back gears) to change down a couple of gears at once by pressing harder on the lever (you could possibly do the same thing to change up both chain rings at the front, but I rarely go down to the granny gear range anyway, and when I do I nearly always need the intermediate range for a bit before I’m ready to go all the way back up to the large chainring); this is particularly handy if you need to change in a hurry, such as one or two places on my regular commute where the gradient suddenly increases quite sharply.

All told, I’m very pleased with my (not so) new bike and look forward to travelling many more miles with it.

Dusting off the dice

Looking back at the last couple of years of my blog, I’m slightly surprised that I haven’t posted anything about my return to playing D&D, which has been one of my major recreational activities since the summer before last. Mind you, I didn’t blog at all for much of that time, so maybe it’s not so surprising.

As I mentioned in a previous post (several years ago), I grew up playing roleplaying games (RPGs). I didn’t actually list D&D (that’s Dungeons & Dragons, arguably the classic fantasy RPG, in case you were wondering) in that post, but it was probably the first such game I played (back in the days of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, before even 2nd edition D&D existed). Fairly soon, we moved onto other games and eventually I stopped playing RPGs altogether for quite a few years, though not without occasionally thinking that it would be nice to play again. (I did continue to play computer RPGs from time to time, but it’s really not the same thing.)

About 18 months ago, several friends and I got together to start a D&D campaign, led by one who had actually played fairly recently, though I think this was his first go as dungeon master. By this point, D&D had reached its 5th Edition and this was the one we were, and are, using. We got stuck into the officially published Horde of the Dragon Queen campaign, albeit with quite a lot of additional homebrew material from Rob, the DM. My character was a bard called Vrach Kto (a far too literal Russian translation of “Doctor Who”) and he was quite instrumental in keeping the party together in the early sessions when I was the only one other than Rob with any experience of how RPGs work. Unlike previous editions of D&D, in which bards were seriously gimped, they are actually a pretty useful class in 5e, and probably one of my favourites (though I also have a soft spot for druids and, as in most other things, I tend to the view that variety is the spice of life).

Several months later, Vrach met an unfortunate end when one of his companions rashly set off a gas trap which forced us to flee unprepared into a room full of bad guys. Unperturbed, I created a new character, a dragonborn paladin called Claudius Occulus, and the campaign continued. But not for very long, as we soon took an extended break to allow Rob more time to write his homebrew content for the adventure.

Rather than putting our D&D on hold indefinitely, we launched into a series of one-shot adventures with different members of the group taking turns as DM, and then started on another campaign (The Lost Mines of Phandelver, from the 5e Starter Set), with me at the helm. That’s a much shorter campaign and we are about half-way through by now, but it is proving difficult to get all the players together at the same time so we are still throwing in quite a few one-shots, which is a great opportunity to play a variety of characters at different levels, and doesn’t need the same players (or DM) every time.

This Saturday we’re due to be playing a one-shot with a party of 9th level characters, which should be fun as the highest I’ve ever played under 5e rules (which allow for characters up to level 20) is level 5. I’m in the process of creating a new character for this game, using a more or less random character generation scheme I came up with – so far she’s shaping up to be a female human bard who will probably resemble Vrach Kto to a certain extent, though less inclined to wade into the middle of combat.

Hopefully it won’t be too long before we get back to Rob’s campaign too. As I recall, we finished our last session of that one half way up a tower full of fiendish puzzles on our way to hoist a pair of bloomers we’d just stolen from the local nobility on a flagpole as part of a challenge that Claudius, aided by his companions, had taken on in order to impress a guard captain we were trying to persuade to cooperate in our attempt to stop a crazy dragon cult from taking over the known world. Or something like that (it’s been a while!).

Third time’s the charm

With this post, you could be forgiven for thinking that my blog is moving to a regular weekly publishing schedule and turning into a dedicated single-subject blog about life drawing, as this is the third consecutive weekly post on the subject (see also the first and second such posts).

However, I’ll endeavour to keep writing occasionally about other things, doubtless with my usual lack of regularity (although perhaps a slightly higher frequency than last year) and, although I’m intending to keep going to my weekly life drawing classes I probably won’t blog about them unless anything particularly noteworthy happens. I’m intending to keep posting the results of my labours in my life drawing album at Flickr (I haven’t posted today’s output yet, as by the time I’d finished drawing them it was a bit too dark to take successful photos, so I’ll have to wait until tomorrow), therefore if you keep an eye on there you should stay more or less up to date with what I’m doing. I generally put at least some commentary along with most of my photos as well, so if you’re interested in more than just the visuals you can check that out too.

Anyway, back to the subject of today’s life class. This was, of course, my third (not counting the ones I went to 25 years ago – I think there were 3 of those too, though hopefully the current lot will continue for significantly longer). As mentioned above, I’ll be commenting on most of the individual drawings when I post them on Flickr, hopefully by tomorrow evening, so for now I’ll confine myself to a handful of general observations.

I think my drawing is already starting to show definite improvement since I started. Paradoxically, I think that in many ways I’m finding myself less satisfied with the results, but I think that’s largely because I’m beginning to look at my drawings more critically (as well as learning more about anatomy etc.) and am becoming more aware of their deficiencies. Fortunately I have no aspirations to become a professional artist so I can afford to enjoy the journey without worrying too much about the destination, or how long it takes to get there.

And I certainly have been enjoying the journey. In between the life classes I’ve been doing more or less daily figure drawing practice using resources such as Croquis Café, as well as a fair amount of other drawing and a bit of painting. All that is both enjoyable and useful, but nothing else quite compares to the sheer visceral thrill of drawing a real live person while in the company of other artists also making their own interpretations of the same model in the same pose (albeit from a slightly or radically different angle), and knowing that there is a definite (and often pretty short) time limit to the opportunity I’ll have to study the particular pose I’m working on, and that my work can be seen by all the other artists and potentially by the model herself (or himself).

Today, I managed to catch the very start of the session and I got so engrossed in the first few poses that I quite forgot to go back to the office after 20 minutes or so as I had intended. Since I’d been having a pretty quiet day in terms of phone calls and emails, with absolutely no visitors to the office up to that point, I decided to stay for most of the session and just nip back into the office a couple of times to check my email and the answering machine, and then stay on afterwards to catch up on the work I’d been intending to do in the afternoon. That seemed to work out pretty well (although I probably won’t try to do the same every week), and it was great to have a bit more time to draw more poses, including several relatively long ones. Perhaps largely due to this, though perhaps also just because some of the faces are becoming more familiar after a couple of weeks and I’m more able to overcome my natural shyness, I was able to have quite a nice chat to some of the other artists over our tea break and at the end of the session (we’re all far too busy drawing the rest of the time) and am beginning to feel more like part of the group rather than just someone who parachutes in briefly from time to time. I even had a quick chat with the model (Lauren), as we happened to reach the teapot at the same time, so she poured me a cup of tea and I reached the milk for her.

Another factor that enhanced my enjoyment today (and perhaps gave me some slightly better drawings, though I’ll reevaluate that tomorrow when I look at them afresh) was that in addition to my A4 sketchbook and a bunch of pens and pencils, I managed to take a slightly larger sketchbook and some charcoal and conté crayons (sanguine, bistre, white and black), which are probably my favourite drawing media and enabled me to work on a slightly larger scale. I’m slightly limited by the size of my bike’s panniers, and I wouldn’t easily be able to carry A3 or larger paper to and from home, but my 12×9″ sketchbooks fit the pannier fairly comfortably, so I’ll probably be taking them fairly regularly.

At some point I may see if I can find somewhere in the office to tuck away an A3 or larger sketchbook so I could work even bigger. My next plan, however, is to try taking some watercolour paints along and have a go at line and wash drawings for some of the longer poses. I’ve tried a couple at home (the first week and this evening) from sketches I’d done earlier, but it would be better to work directly from the live model so I don’t have to guess quite so much about the shading.



Second Life

In case you’re wondering about the title, I’m not talking about the virtual world Second Life, although I do still visit there from time to time.

Rather, I am referring to my second visit to the life drawing class I wrote about last week.

After I blogged last week, my brother (also a keen artist) drew my attention to a couple of figure drawing resources available on YouTube. One is a series of lessons at Love Life Drawing. The other is Croquis Café, which has a number of different things available including several of their own tips videos (effectively short lessons) but, to my mind, the best of them is a whole set of virtual life drawing sessions (roughly 25 minute videos each featuring a model, or occasionally two, holding a series of short poses to give a slightly better approximation of a real life drawing session than just using photos).

I’ll probably write a bit more about the pros and cons of using videos such as those found at Croquis Café in another blog post soon. For now, suffice it to say that I’ve worked through several videos (mostly CC ones, but also about half the beginner lessons at LLD) in the past week, as well as doing quite a lot of more general drawing practice and reading a bit more on figure drawing and anatomy.

I think that preparation paid off as I felt a bit more confident at today’s life class, and I think my results were slightly better too, although it will take a lot more time and practice before I really get a handle on life drawing (and at least a lifetime to master the subject).

Rather than give a blow by blow account of today’s session here, I’ll just direct your attention to my album of life drawing pictures at Flickr, where you can see my sketches from today’s session, as well as last week and hopefully in future plenty more to come. I’ve used the description area of each photo’s page to provide a bit of a running commentary on the sketches. This particular album is reserved for my actual drawings from real life (although I’m including artwork I’ve based directly on such sketches as well), while I’ve got another album set up for drawings from Croquis Café resources.

Is this the real life?

A few weeks ago I mentioned that I had restarted drawing and painting.

I didn’t state it explicitly in that post, but around the time I posted it I more or less set myself a goal to try and draw or paint at least one thing every day for as long as possible. So far, and I realise that 3 weeks isn’t an exceptionally long time by any reasonable standard, I have managed to do this. Some days it has pretty much been just one or two quick sketches and some days I’ve managed to spend several hours working at arty things and come up with several pictures that I’m quite pleased with.

Today I have taken another step that will, I hope, help me to keep this goal going for quite a bit longer, as well as to provide a significant boost to my drawing (and hence painting, and perhaps even at some point sculpture) skills and give me a great deal of pleasure along the way. I have joined a life drawing class.

Life drawing has traditionally been considered an extremely beneficial exercise for learning to draw, perhaps because the human body is an intrinsically complex (and fascinating) subject offering a wide variety of challenges. As traditional wisdom goes, I think that viewpoint has a lot to recommend it. I’m also of the school of thought that the figure (both draped and undraped) is a worthy subject in its own right as well as being an excellent stepping stone to mastery of drawing more generally.

I got an opportunity to attend a handful of life drawing sessions when I was studying for my GCSE art exam 25 years or so ago. I’m still not quite sure how I ended up doing that, as it was actually a course for A-Level students, but I’m very grateful for the opportunity as it was an excellent experience (and furnished several items towards my GCSE portfolio).

Since then, even when I have been going through artistically productive phases, the closest I’ve got to life drawing is a handful of sketches from statues seen in museums or from photographic references, and perhaps a couple of times when I’ve attempted self-portraits beyond my usual head-and-shoulders approach. Personally, I think that both self-portaiture and life drawing have enough challenges individually that they are probably best kept largely separate!

A few months ago, a life drawing class started meeting on Wednesday afternoons at the community centre where I work. Since I wasn’t doing any drawing at the time, it didn’t cross my mind to consider joining them, and I just let them get on with their own thing while I carried on with my work in the office next door. However, once I picked up my pencils again it didn’t take too long for the idea to occur to me.

The group usually runs from 1 to 4pm on Wednesdays and while my working hours are fairly flexible I am supposed to keep the office open until 3pm. I figured that I might be able to catch the final hour of the session and perhaps sneak in a quick bit of sketching earlier on during my lunch break. I was quite busy with Christmas preparations for the final couple of weeks before the group broke up for the holiday, and they didn’t start meeting again until today, so this was the first opportunity I had to see whether this would be feasible.

My first life sketches for quite a long time The good news is that it is. Shortly after 1pm, nervously clutching my brand new A4 sketchbook (a comfortable compromise between the smaller ones I usually take out for sketching on location and the bigger ones that I prefer to use but can’t easily carry on my bike) and a tin of pencils, I made my way into the hall, where the group were already well under way, doing drawings or paintings in various media from short poses held by this week’s model. I think she was called Elen or Ella, but I didn’t catch the name clearly.

From entering the room I had about 30 seconds to make my first sketch before the pose came to an end. I can’t remember whether the next pose was held for 5 or 10 minutes but I managed to get four sketches out of it, before heading back to the office to actually eat my lunch and then carry on with my work. Here you should be able to see my first page of sketches.

A bit later in the afternoon, I came back through to grab a cup of tea and another quickish sketch. At this stage they were working on 20 minute poses and I caught the last 5 minutes of one. A fringe benefit of having joined the group is that I can now nip through the hall and get to the kitchen to make myself tea on Wednesday afternoons (normally I have to stay out of the hall when groups are in there).

I’d managed to get through today’s work load by the time the clock struck 3, so I hurried back in to catch almost the whole of the final hour of the session. They were still working on fairly short poses when I got in, but after a couple more of those we moved on to a 30 minute pose to finish the afternoon. I spent most of that time on one pen drawing and finished off with another quick pencil sketch.

It was certainly very exciting to be drawing from life again. Apart from anything else, there is the knowledge that you only have a very limited time in which to complete the drawing (which is not generally the case if you’re working from a photo or a sculpture), and at least with the shorter poses, this has the positive effect that it becomes much harder to overwork the drawing, which is something I’m quite prone to doing. Also, the slight movements that even the best models make while holding a pose help add to the dynamicism of the drawings, while there’s something about being in a room full of artists all working feverishly to produce their impressions of the model and all coming up with quite different results, even when looking from more or less the same angle, that adds a dimension to the creative experience that isn’t there when you’re working alone in your home studio.

Line & wash drawing based on first life sketchesI must admit, though, that I was feeling so inspired by my hour and a bit in the life class this afternoon that when I got home I spent another hour or so working up a few more drawings and paintings based on my earlier sketches. I mainly wanted to use the opportunity to try a few different media (e.g. charcoal, working on a slightly bigger scale) and to make use of the sketches while they were still backed up with fresh memories of observing the model.

I have taken photos of pretty much all of today’s output and put them up on Flickr, with a fairly extensive commentary. If you check out my Life Drawing album there, you should find them in more or less chronological order.

Having got off to a great start, I’m looking forward to more life drawing over the coming weeks. Doubtless at least some of my sketches from the life class and subsequent works based on them will be appearing in my Flickr photostream. There may even be one or two more blog posts to come.