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.

Advertisements

Welsh Cellar Doors

Here is a post that I wrote over a year ago but never got round to publishing. I’m not sure why as it was almost complete, with only minor editing required (though some may debate that point). I offer it now as a Christmas present to the wider world. Nadolig llawen!

Quite a long time ago, I mentioned in one of my blog posts the subject of cellar doors.

There is a branch of linguistics called phonaesthetics, which considers the aesthetic properties of sound. Within this is the idea that certain words or phrases are particularly euphonious (i.e. nice sounding). This can be because the sound seems particularly fit-for-purpose in conveying the meaning or the word or can be entirely independent of the meaning. It’s obviously a highly subjective concept, since beauty is in the eye (or, in this case, the ear) of the beholder. In other words, whereas it’s generally possible to classify a given word as, say, a noun or a verb (although sometimes there are words that defy easy categorisation), or to agree on how many letters or syllables a word has (again, there are potential cans of worms to be opened there), it’s almost certain that there will be some words I consider to sound beautiful that you will think are rather plain, if not downright ugly, and vice versa.

One particular word / phrase (depending on whether you hyphenate it, and if so whether you consider that to bind it tightly enough to be a single word, though I don’t want to get too sidetracked into semantics at this point) that many people, including both me and J. R. R. Tolkien, take to be especially beautiful in the English language is “cellar-door” and, because it has often been cited by Tolkien and others as a good example of euphony (in Tolkien’s opinion, at least, this is best appreciated when the sound is dissociated from the meaning and perhaps even the spelling of the word), “cellar-door” is often used as a shorthand way to refer to the general concept of euphonious words.

Another point on which I totally agree with the good Professor is that Welsh is a language that is particularly rich in “cellar-door” words. Here are a few of my own personal favourites, in alphabetical order (rather than any attempt at ordering according to preference):

Ailwampio

To revamp. “Ail” means “second” (the ordinal number, not the unit of time) and is quite often used as a prefix equivalent to “re-” in English. “Wampio” is clearly either borrowed from “vamp” or they both come from the same root (I’ve no idea of the etymology there).

Panad

A cup of tea. Possibly the first Welsh word I learned on moving to Wales (though I’d previously tried to learn a bit of the language), and certainly one of the most useful in everyday life. It comes from cwpanaid, which literally means “a cupful”. Some people would say that a panad specifically means tea, though many others (myself included) would include coffee and other hot beverages in the definition; you can narrow it down by referring to a “panad o de” (tea), “panad o goffi” (coffee), etc. Interestingly, in South Wales they tend to use the word dishgled instead, which means “a basinful”, although I don’t think they drink their tea from basins down there. It may be just familiarity, but I personally think panad is a much nicer word (even though the idea of a whole basin full of tea is quite appealing).

Pobty Ping

Microwave [oven]. The official Welsh word for “microwave” is the rather more boring meicrodon, which like its equivalents in just about every other language I can think of (e.g. Mikrowelle in German, Micro-ondes in French or Microondas in Spanish, and for that matter, Microwave in English), consists of the Greek-originated prefix Micro- (or some spelling variation to take account of local phonetics), meaning “small”, and the native word for “wave”. Pobty ping, by contrast, literally means “the oven which goes ‘ping'”. This is apparently quite localised slang, as I learned it from a native Welsh speaker from Anglesey (where it has wide currency) and shortly afterwards used it when talking to a native Welsh speaker from Conwy (not all that far down the road), who had never heard of it. I think it’s probably become more widespread over the last couple of decades.

Sboncen

Squash (as in the game). This one sounds nicely onomatopoeic, evoking a small rubber ball bouncing round an enclosed court at high velocity in a way that the English term doesn’t quite manage.

Smaragdus

Emerald. This is a fairly obscure word, that I came across in the William Morgan translation of the Bible (which dates back to 1588, although my copy is a later edition). The more standard word for emerald in contemporary Welsh is Emrallt, which is much more closely related to the English but doesn’t have quite the same ring to it. Apparently, the Ancient Greek word for emerald is σμάραγδος (smaragdos, “green gem”), which passed into Classical Latin as smaragdus and then into Vulgar Latin as esmaraldus or esmaralda, from which it’s a short hop to the English, while William Morgan (if not the Welsh language at large) stuck much more closely to the Greek roots.

Smwddio

Ironing. I know I said this list wasn’t in order of preference but I’ve still somehow managed to save the best till last. I’ve always loved this word since the moment I first met it, largely because it seems so fit for purpose in describing the intended and usual (though not always, when I’m trying to do it) result of ironing. In fact, I once got banned from using the word in my Welsh lessons as it was always the first one I’d suggest when we were looking for verbs to try out with a new pattern we were learning (my Welsh teacher seemed to have just as much of an obsession with garden sheds, but seemed happy for them to turn up in every exercise!). It should be noted that I don’t particularly enjoy ironing, though I do like to talk about it in Welsh.

Brushing Up

After far too long a gap, I have recently begun to draw and paint again.

Although music has long been, and will probably always remain, my primary creative outlet, I have also had a lifelong fascination for, and leaning towards, the more visual arts such as painting and drawing. This is probably not altogether surprising since my dad was both an artist (primarily a sculptor, though in later life he concentrated almost exclusively on the arts of brush and pen) and an art teacher, giving me a tremendous amount of support, encouragement, instruction and inspiration over many years.

Like so many of my other interests, my active engagement with creating art tends to wax and wane. In fact, looking back through the dates jotted down in my old sketchbooks it appears that, apart from a few sporadic bursts of drawing, my last real creative period in visual art (as opposed to music, which is more or less constant, or poetry, which is also fairly sporadic but has seen some more recent activity) was around 2009. In particular, when I last moved house, in 2011, I packed most of my art materials away into various boxes and cupboards and have barely touched them since.

Until now.

I have been thinking for several years that I ought to get round to doing some more painting, and looking at the various pieces of my own artwork adorning my walls (the latest of which, until this week, was painted nearly 10 years ago) reinforced that feeling, but never quite enough to actually doing anything about it.

The first step back to painting came after Dad died last February. When I was down for the funeral I did a painting using some of his art materials, which was probably more successful on a therapeutic level than a strictly artistic one. I planned to dig out my own paints when I got home, but somehow that didn’t quite happen.

Fast forward to early December and I found myself putting together some slides for a carol service. I needed a background picture of a nativity scene, which had to be simple enough not to distract from the foreground text but still recognisable, and I needed it quickly (as in, within about half an hour). Searching online failed to turn up any particularly suitable images, let alone any which were public domain or released under a sufficiently non-restrictive license such as Creative Commons. In a fit of madness that turned out to be serendipity, I decided that the best solution was to make one of my own. I was going to try drawing one but on my way to dig out the felt pens, I came across a few scraps of black paper so it occurred to me to try making a collage instead. I found a nice sturdy bit of deep blue card, and some white for the star (which I could keep off to one side and out of the way of the text in my slides). Here is the result:
Stable Collage

That collage worked pretty well as the backdrop for my slides and also turned out to be just the catalyst I needed to dig out my art materials and get to work on some more drawings and paintings, despite December being pretty much the most hectic month of the year. I haven’t produced anything earth-shatteringly wonderful yet and I am unlikely to do so anytime soon (or, in fact, any time), but I am rediscovering both the joy of creating visual art and the satisfaction of seeing some new stuff on my walls and in my sketchbooks.

Hopefully now I’ve restarted I’ll be able to keep the creative juices flowing well into 2019 and beyond. In a way, I regret not having started painting again in time to show Dad some of my latest pictures and get his feedback on them, but I know that he would be delighted to know that my brushes are now back in action.

Here are a few more of my recent pictures. You can see bigger copies of these, and quite a lot more of my artwork (including some older stuff) on Flickr.

Red Shift (acrylic on paper)

Incense (line & wash)

Last year's advent candle (oil on paper)

Braid Theory triptych (various media)

The Pleasures of Pitta

I find myself torn between the Scylla of ending up with a blog that only updates once a year (though I suppose at least that would be nice and regular) and the Charybdis of turning into a monothematic food blog, since my last post was on that subject and the thing I’ve just thought about writing is too. Still, since it would seem a shame to put up such a short post just to say I was thinking about posting, I suppose it’s better to steer more towards the latter danger than the former one.

Recently I find myself eating quite a bit of pitta bread. It’s always been a bread product that I have enjoyed but in the last few months it seems to have become my go-to bread and I have discovered that it’s even more versatile than I thought.

A few months (or perhaps a year or two) back, I came up with an idea which is probably not entirely new in the grand scheme of things but I’m fairly sure I hadn’t (consciously, at least) borrowed it from anywhere. This is a tasty snack that I call a zapped cheese pitta and is essentially what happens when pitta bread meets cheese on toast (described by Bill Bailey as the National Dish of Wales). Or rather, what happens when I get a craving for cheese on toast but realise the only bread I have to hand is pitta and then decide that the microwave is quicker and easier than the grill.

Zapped cheese pittas are easy enough to make. First take one or two (or more, if you’re making for several people or feeling especially hungry) pitta breads, cut or tear them open and put in some thinly sliced cheese (as with regular cheese on toast, I usually use cheddar but a whole range of different cheeses work and give some quite pleasingly different results), stick them on a plate and microwave them for about a minute, leaving to stand for a short while and proceeding with caution as the cheese can get pretty hot. I quite often add a little bit of mustard, especially when I’m using cheddar. I’m sure other condiments could be used too. I suspect brie and cranberry would work nicely, and that reminds me of another pitta-related snack that I’ve enjoyed several times in the last few months…

Bacon butties (or sandwiches, if you prefer) are one of life’s great joys (and one of the reasons I don’t think I’d ever entirely convert to vegetarianism) and can be nicely enhanced by a slice or two of brie (and quite possibly some cranberry sauce, though I’m not sure I ever tried that). In recent months, most of the bacon butties I’ve consumed (pretty much all, sadly, without brie – although some have been enhanced by other delights such as maple syrup instead) have been put together with pitta breads. For these I might gently zap the pittas in the microwave to warm them through, and if I’m feeling decadent I may slide a bit of butter into them before piling in the bacon, but actually they work fine with cold pittas and no butter, just letting the heat from the bacon warm them through.

That last one was a bonus, as I didn’t actually have bacon butties in mind when I started writing this post. The thing that prompted it was in fact my discovery this evening of a perhaps surprising combination: a pitta noodle sandwich!

At the moment I am stuck in my office awaiting a meeting later on and don’t have access to my usual cooking facilities and ingredients, so I had a pot noodle for dinner. When I say “pot noodle” I mean one of the nice spicy ones from East Asia – this one from South Korea, I think – that are a bit cheaper and, IMHO, much tastier than the western version (which I pretty much never eat). To go with it, I had a couple of pittas and a chunk of slightly stale cornbread. I started with the cornbread, as that most needed using up, and it soaked up quite a lot of the liquid from my noodles so when I got on to the pittas I decided to try putting some of the noodles into the pitta rather than dipping it into the broth. It turned out to be very tasty (although I suspect not super healthy) and is probably an idea I’ll try again sometime.

Meanwhile it’s nearly time for my meeting, so I’d better publish this and go and wash up my fork.

Best Served Cold

I realised with some shock that it’s almost a year since I last wrote anything for my blog. In fact, when I went back this afternoon to see what was the last thing I wrote here I was confronted with a rather disturbing photo of me without a beard towards the end of last November. It’s strange to think that this time last year I was still waiting with baited breath to see if enough people would rise to the fundraising challenge I’d set to ensure that I would have to endure Movember.

Anyway, having finally been struck with sufficient inspiration to write another post, I should strike while the iron is hot…

They say that revenge is a dish best served cold.

It turns out that it isn’t the only one.

Yesterday I decided to cook myself a Spanish-style tortilla (i.e. basically an omelette with potato and onion) for dinner, and also to make my first apple crumble of the season with some apples that a friend has kindly given me (and also with custard). There was too much of both to eat them all at once and I knew that both can work successfully as cold dishes as well as hot ones, so I decided to have a bit of both for dinner and save the rest for lunch.

I came to the conclusion that although both were very tasty when they were freshly cooked, they were even better today as a cold lunch (including cold custard with the apple crumble). I’m not sure how much it was due to the different temperature and how much it was due to the flavours having had more chance to develop, or possibly even the fact that I was quite tired last night after a busy week and somewhat more refreshed this lunchtime after a nice relaxed morning.  Whatever the cause, the effect was one of the tastiest lunches I’ve had for a while.

Incidentally, I was pleased to see that while it’s probably been nearly as long since I last cooked an apple crumble as it has since I last updated this blog, I haven’t entirely lost my touch. Probably more through luck than judgement I managed to cook this one at just the right combination of time and temperature to get the apples nice and tender but with a bit of bite left in them, with about the right amount of sugar, cinnamon and lemon juice to complement the taste of the apples nicely, while the crumble topping (including my usual addition of a few oats for texture and a bit of mixed spice for flavour) retained just a hint of gooeyness, exactly the way I like it.

Doubtless I’ll be cooking up another crumble (possibly with one or two variations – maybe apple and raisin next time?) pretty soon as I still have a few more apples to use up. It may be a while longer before my next post, but hopefully not another 11 months.

And, in case you were wondering, I’m not planning revenge on anyone for anything. It was just a line (from an old Sherlock Holmes film, as I recall) that sprang to mind as I was thinking about the delights of cold apple crumble and custard.

 

 

Normal service will resume soon

Here we are, almost three weeks into Movember and I’m still not entirely used to the beardless version of myself. I no longer wince every time I look in the mirror but it still definitely feels like I’m looking at somebody else. Suffice it to say that I’m fully intending to put the razor well away as soon as we hit December. I may even get round to writing a blog post on a different subject sometime soon too!

In the meantime, since the official Movember thing is supposed to be about growing a moustache rather than about shaving I thought you might like to see how I’m doing. So here is a snapshot I took yesterday. At the rate my moustache seems to be growing at the moment, I fear I won’t have much scope for fancy styling before I reach the end of the month.

My facial hair suffers from the unfortunate combination of being quite dark but rather slow-growing and not all that dense, which means that I start to look unshaven fairly quickly after I shave but it takes a long time to get a useful amount of hair to work with (or to provide insulation from the cold etc.). Therefore, in the unlikely event that I should ever do Movember again, I’d probably start by just shaving the non-moustache bits of my beard and get straight to work on styling a more interesting ‘tache rather than having to wait the whole month to even begin to reach a point I can start thinking about that. In fact, if I start growing my hair (i.e. the stuff on top of my head) now, I may be able to pull off a Derek Smalls impression sometime in the next couple of years (he’s the bass player from Spinal Tap, in case your wondering, and sports a notable handlebar moustache).

Once again, thanks to everyone who has contributed to my Movember fundraising. The total currently stands at £900, not including Gift Aid (which is probably at least another £100 on top) so we’ve pretty much doubled the target I’d set.

Hair We Go

So, November (or as I’ll have to call it this year, Movember) is upon us, the world fulfilled its target of raising £500 for my Movember Challenge (and then some – £646 at present with at least a bit more still to come in, and that’s not counting any Gift Aid added to donations) and I too have upheld my end of the bargain.

Here’s the starting point, in a not particularly wonderful photo taken just before the shaving commenced:

The mechanics of shaving were accomplished relatively easily, after a first pass with hair clippers to reduce that lot to something more manageable. I was particularly impressed that, for my first shave in more than 20 years, I only needed one small application of a styptic pencil to stop a minor cut. As I recall, that’s significantly better than my average used to be when I shaved regularly. Perhaps the fact that tonight I was using a brand new razor (and a proper Gillette Mach 3 to boot) rather than a cheap disposable that I kept going for way longer than was sensible might have had something to do with that.

I did take the opportunity, while I was having the initial trim, to give myself a sneak preview of what I look like with just a moustache (not a style I’ve ever previously tried, and quite possibly not one I’ll ever try again after this month). Sadly, I’d forgotten to put my phone on the charger earlier in the day so it was busy charging in another room while I completed the shave and I didn’t get a chance to take any shots of the work in progress. Still, that gives you something to look forward to later this month.

Now, though, the moment you’ve all (or at least some of you) been waiting for… the first picture of me without a beard since the summer of 1995:

I don’t know what you make of that. My own reaction is that it’s not, I suppose, too gruesome but it definitely isn’t me.

Roll on December!

PS huge thanks once again to everyone who has contributed to the fundraising — which has been somewhat more successful than I had dared to hope — and to anyone else who is still going to donate a bit. As I mentioned before, the pot is still open. 🙂