Hard graft at the drawing board!

Graphite Workshop at Diss Cornhall

Drawing with Georgie
I'm not a total stranger to a bit of 'teaching', having done community arts work in the past. Even so, I felt like a complete beginner all over again on Saturday, when I delivered a Graphite Drawing workshop as part of the IBA exhibition 'Spring into Summer' at Diss Cornhall. Despite my nerves, the combination of a fair bit of planning, help from the wonderful Jessica and all the other friendly and supportive staff at the Cornhall, and of course my very lovely group of students, a good day was had by all.

Drawing in graphite is a subtle and complex skill, and perhaps not so immediately fun as getting to paint with a jewel-like palette of watercolours. However, there can be no doubt that for the aspiring botanical artist learning to draw accurately and well will pay dividends.

It was certainly a beautiful day, the hottest so far this year, so it was perhaps a shame to be indoors when outside was so glorious. But I had enjoyed the 'chore' of selecting subjects to draw the the previous day, picking up some beautiful plants, and a selection of interesting fruit and vegetable subjects. The foxgloves and sunflowers in particular helped somewhat bring a little bit of summer into the workshop space. In fact, those foxgloves were so popular with the bees in my garden that I had to be really careful to make sure there were none hidden inside the flowers as I loaded them into the car!  

After a short introduction, we started with a quick look at the incredibly useful and concise 5Ps list from Sue Vize,distilling the whole discipline of drawing with graphite into five simple and easy to remember points of 'Paper, Pencil, Pressure, Patience and Perseverance'. So far so simple! But - and isn't there always a but? - like any applied skill or craft, there is no substitute for actually 'doing'. We started with some 'warming up' by getting familiar with the feeling of pencil on paper through some non-pictorial exercises on contrasting texture papers, using a range of pencils from hard 'H's to softer 'B's.

These very simple 'materials and techniques' exercises are a great idea at the beginning of any drawing session, particularly if you are a beginner, but they also really help if you're a bit out of practise, or are using new and unfamiliar materials. Even the most experienced artist benefits from re-visiting these basic exercises, just to flex the artistic muscles without the pressure of attempting to produce a 'good' drawing.

The morning was quite intense, covering a range of approaches in fairly short order - looking at tone and pencil technique, experimenting with preliminary sketching and reducing subjects to basic shapes, using lines to help express volume, using tracing paper to lay out composition, how to draw to scale and size up and down. The group were amazing, and managed to take all of this in without complaint. A substantial task indeed, but helped greatly by the supply of tea and delicious scones from the cafe downstairs.

botwshop 4

Even so, by lunchtime we were all ready for a break, and some sun and fresh air. I brought some sample books along, but we were in the end too busy to look at them during the session. This is a small selection all borrowed from the Norfolk Library service - well worth checking out their large collection of botanical and other art books, particularly if you have a tight budget for your art materials and resources.

bot wshop books

After lunch we took a break from our desks, to look around the exhibition, considering different compositional approaches and what we noticed about them. This was an opportunity to talk about what makes botanical art 'botanical' and to consider how different artistic aims might influence stylistic and compositional decisions.

After that, it was back to the drawing boards, to put some of those ideas and techniques into action. This was a quieter period, concentrating on make a drawing of a selected subject, and rounded off with a brief 'show and share' of work. Not everybody likes doing this type of thing, but using a respectful group format to give and receive constructive and supportive feedback is a really useful process – genuinely fresh eyes will always see things in ways that invariably surprise and encourage emerging artists to reflect positively on their efforts.

By three o'clock, the warmth of the day and the earlier intense effort was causing everybody's energy to flag. So, that the last hour fell naturally to a more relaxed exchange of thoughts about the day's work, other ideas and suggestions, and recommendations of other artists and disciplines to look at for further learning, inspiration, and importantly, for the sheer pleasure of viewing as much wonderful botanical art as possible!

Everybody went home with a 7page handout, and I hope, a renewed sense of their ability to tackle any kind of drawing successfully.