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