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Manchester Urban Sketchers Symposium : Painting the town (brick) red!

August 31, 2016

16Aug20_Manchester_USK symposium 06_Manchester School of Art_Pics (1)

The Urban Sketchers symposium is always a highlight of my year. This past July we gathered in Manchester, UK for three days of watching demos, taking classes and sketching in the streets.  You can just see Pete Scully in the back there, and I’m sitting next to Paul Heaston – and chatting with Stephanie Bower as we all show up for the day of teaching.

16Aug20_Manchester_USK symposium 06_Manchester School of Art

It was a shock to the system having just spent a week in Ireland (Tease: those paintings coming up soon!). The sudden change from rolling green hills to this magnificent brick architecture was challenging for sure.

16Aug20_Manchester_USK symposium 03_Learnign Scale16Aug20_Manchester_USK symposium 11_Secret Cafe from cafe across the street in the rain

It took three or four of these quick sketches for me to feel like I was capturing the rich rust-red of the brick, and the big scale of the structures.

Recently I’ve been starting a painting directly on white paper – fusing stroke-into-stoke to create solid shapes. What I call “growing a wash“.  But the deep tone of these brick buildings requires combining a strong silhouette underneath, and darker shadow-tones over top. The color would simply be too pale without two or three layers.

I pulled out my old strategy, Tea, Milk, Honey for these. I always say, the first color pass should be the Lightest Local Color (which will then show through gaps you leave in the shadow tone to follow). It’s just that sometimes the lightest color is fairly dark – especially with wet brick on an overcast day.

16Aug20_Manchester_USK symposium 01_First Decent Brick Building 16Aug20_Manchester_USK symposium 04_Palace Hotel

Can you see how these sketches are each a single wet shape, left to dry, then detailed over top with the darks of windows, doors and moldings?

16Aug20_Manchester_USK symposium 04_Palace Hotel (2)

Sometimes if I run out of time or get rained out (Hello Manchester!) I can finish those second layers later. As long as I get the color ‘concept’ on the spot, I can probably put the shadows on from memory. Especially if there’s a pencil drawing underneath. Though in these I was only drawing the simplest silhouette before diving in.

16Aug20_Manchester_USK symposium 05_Palace Hotel, Roof

16Aug20_Manchester_USK symposium 05_Palace Hotel, Roof_Pics

Because some of us are teaching all day, a few of the instructors like to do an early morning sketch.

Here’s some of us looking homeless and blocking the entrance to the Tescos. This was not a comfortable spot. Heavy foot traffic of people desperate for morning coffee, and full-on road work to our immediate right. But that does mean you can use the construction barriers as a temporary easel. I’ll often look for something like this. A trash bin also works well – and keeps you out of the flow of pedestrian traffic at the same time.

These morning sessions might be the only time some of us manage to draw together at the event. I always learn a lot from this time. It’s great to be able to watch the others work. But as well, we have to work fast! And the pressure is on. To do a painting between breakfast and the first workshop – and to not embarrass yourself next to your fellow teachers :) What a great training ground. Especially doing this three or four days in a row. Something I *should* do at home, but rarely find the time. By the very last day you’re fully tuned up.

That’s both the fun, and the curse of travel sketching. The whole trip comes down to those last few sketches, when everything falls into place.

16Aug20_Manchester_USK symposium 12_Last Day_Knott Mill Station Deansgate

16Aug20_Manchester_USK symposium 12_Last Day_Knott Mill Station Deansgate_Pic

I freely admit my sketch (above) of the Knott Mill Station isn’t particularly accurate. But it’s one of my favorite. I would stand by the changes I made. Mostly removing clutter so you can see the arc of the train bridge and making a more interesting roof-line.

One thing I love about this painting is the fact my mechanical pencil jammed in the middle of the drawing. We only had so many minutes before Anne-Laure had to catch the train, so I had to just keep going! In the end, I like how there’s more accuracy on the station entrance, and a more expressive painting on the shops to the right. This follows along with my theory of ‘paint the best part first’. As long as you get the main subject down, it doesn’t matter if you lose control at the edges.

This one is also proof that the secret of expressive brushwork is: Tight Time Limits.

16Aug20_Manchester_USK symposium 05_Palace Hotel, Roof_Pics (2) 16Aug20_Manchester_USK symposium 07_Mancheester Cathedral_Pic (3)

Here’s a better look at Anne-Laure’s painting kit, and my new bag, which I copied from what she showed me in Portugal.

All the cool kids are painting standing up these days.

I have adopted the idea of her art-bag.  This an incredibly useful tip. She has a jar of water open in a small pocket on the front of the bag. Also, her brushes stick out of the open main body, ready to hand. Carrying an open water container in your bag like this keeps both hands free for board and brushes.

Here’s a video she made showing her bag of tricks.

My painting water is actually inside the bag sitting on the bottom. I just reach into the bag to wet my brush. It doesn’t spill as there are three 125ml bottles wedged in there. There are some pen pockets inside this particular bag that are perfect brush holders. Extra (rarely used) brushes go in that case caribiner’d on the strap. The small palette you see clipped on the boards, goes in the very bottom of this square bag and stays reasonably flat while walking around. It’s the perfect fit.

This bag is a Think Tank Speed Changer* that I’ve hung on a shoulder strap. (*affiliate link, mainly for product info, thank you for your support).

It’s just a cube with two pockets and some webbing on the front, where you see a bit of paper towel and my water misting spritzer.

I wouldn’t have bought this bag *just* for this – even though it’s the exact perfect wonderfullest size for this painting kit. It’s a bit pricey. But my wife already had it as part of a fancy-schmancy lens holding harness.

I ‘borrowed’ it permanently as she calls that rig her ‘please rob me suit‘ and doesn’t take it travelling.

16Aug20_Manchester_USK symposium 07_Mancheester Cathedral

The last day of painting, after the workshop was formally over, I was lucky to end up at the Manchester cathedral at the same time as the famous sketcher from Penang, Kiah Kiean. It was a real treat make a drawing side by side with one of my urban sketching heroes. Definitely check out his work!

16Aug20_Manchester_USK symposium 07_Mancheester Cathedral_Cafe out Back

So! That’s all from Manchester. Thanks so much to everyone who worked so hard on the USK symposium, and everyone who came out to support the event! Without you guys, I’d never have been introduced to the marvelous brickwork of Manchester.



24 Comments leave one →
  1. August 31, 2016 10:58 AM

    Marc. I’ve been following you for quite a while, videos, your book, and your online classes.
    Right from the beginning I knew you had something special in your art sketches.
    I was right ! Your work has gotten so good that I’m looking forward to a book of all your finished sketches and paintings… I’m a very traditional watercolorist from Florida and became interested in pen/ink wc after seeing the Urban Sketchers. Not giving up my kind of painting , but adding these newer (for me) techniques .
    Thanks for the sharing.. .
    Barbra Joan

    • August 31, 2016 12:12 PM

      Thanks for saying Barbra! I do enjoy showing my progress – as an example or encouragement to anyone who on a similar trajectory. But I enjoy the feedback too :) :) Blogging has been an excellent self fufilling loop :)

  2. August 31, 2016 11:28 AM

    What a great post..Your art..seeing Anne-Laure ..I follow her are all so talented.Great gifts to be able to see your works..all of yours.Shari..Liz S..Parka Blogs..Paul..etc etc many..You must have had a ball..albeit a lot of work too..jet lag etc..kudos to everyone.

  3. August 31, 2016 11:36 AM

    Fascinating post. Loved every piece of it and am now inspired to go right in with paint. Standing up of course. Lol

  4. Margaret Horak permalink
    August 31, 2016 1:14 PM

    I followed you, Annelaure, Liz Steel and many others throughout Manchester. So many good ideas, sketches and artists! Yours are always a treat to see!

  5. August 31, 2016 2:03 PM

    Thanks for all the Manchester posts, wonderful for those of us who were not there. I always admire your great drawings/ art!

  6. August 31, 2016 4:11 PM

    This is an amazing series of paintings. It is fascinating to see how you progress as you paint a scene. How large are these paintings? I envy you for your travels. And thank you for sending this post.

    • August 31, 2016 8:43 PM

      Hey Judy! These are all 1/4 sheets (so 11×15″). It’s a great size for an on-location sketch. And convenient to just cut a full sheet in four. I’m amazed at the chances to travel too! We’ve been lucky with sketching as a ‘lifestyle’ :) It’s one of those great things about the web connecting people these days! But we are going to have to slow down on travel next year I think! I’m getting too old for it :)

      • September 1, 2016 10:18 AM

        We’ve been too old for a long time. However, my husband and I are finally getting our passports with the hope of driving to Montreal next year. Hopefully we can time it with one of the sketching groups.

  7. FIONA HAYES permalink
    August 31, 2016 11:08 PM

    Fabulous blog about USK Manchester, Marc. Thanks so much for telling us all about your experience! You are such a talented and clever artist, who I admire so much. Thanks for being such an inspiration to all of us who follow you on your sketching travels ☺☺

  8. September 1, 2016 12:46 AM

    Awesome sketches as usual Marc, those red brick Victorian buildings were obviously designed with your painting style in mind!

  9. September 1, 2016 10:17 AM

    Great post. Thanks!

  10. September 1, 2016 11:04 AM

    I loved revisiting Manchester with you in this post. You really hit the nail on the head about the need for layers when trying to capture those dark brick buildings. Somehow you brought light into them that wasn’t visible on those rainy days.
    Also the water bag idea, which I love, reminded me of this Water Well system I used years ago when travel sketching. Might be a good alternative for folks who want to try out the “hip water system”. I’m going to try it out again. It came with a handy bag on a strap, which I can’t find online any more. I’ll send you a picture though.

  11. Richard permalink
    September 1, 2016 12:14 PM

    I aspire to one day be among the Urban Sketchers. Here’s my question what size, type and brand of paper do you use? And do you use it for all you drawings>

    • September 1, 2016 8:50 PM

      Hey Richard. For watercolors I tend to like Fabriano Artistico Cold Press, Bright White 140lb. (Though I just ran across their 200lb, so I bought a stack of that). for quick drawing I like Canson Montval sketching pads, (for mixed media) or Strathmore Plate Bristol (for ink).

  12. Erik Madsen permalink
    September 1, 2016 8:05 PM

    Hi Marc, absolutely love your Manchester sketches/paintings. I followed the symposium and the work coming from there. From everything I saw, your work captured the color and feelings of the buildings better than anything I saw. When I opened your post this morning, my wife and I loved the treat. What a way to start our 8 am sketch group on Santa Fe plaza today!
    Say, when you start your first pass, tea, are you carrying this wash all the way out through your shadows?
    Best regards, Erik Madsen

  13. Erik Madsen permalink
    September 3, 2016 2:44 PM

    Hi Marc, thank you for the very detailed reply. I understand much more clearly now what you are doing and how your process has evolved. I continue to be influenced by your techniques and thought process.
    Also, I agree, there is some fine work coming out of every symposium. What distinguishes your painting from most others are the feelings they provoke. Your sense of subject, style of sketching and wonderful use of color harmonies distinguish the painting quite clearly from others. I am also very fascinated by the art of LK Bing and Ch’ng Kiean, artists on the edges of adventure!
    I am perhaps more tuned into how art makes us feel coming from an abstract painting background. Lately, I’ve been trying to incorporate color in my sketches based more on how a scene makes me feel, getting away from how it may really look.
    I’ve been following your art for nearly three years, you’ve continued to change and grow your boundaries in exciting ways. Your “zone”is sure expansive!
    Anyway, thanks again for your generous help. Someday, I hope we can meet, until then…
    Best regards, Erik Madsen


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