During my week in France I wanted to complete my challenge of a sketchbook in a day. I failed.

Talking with a friend on my return, she said “I’m not surprised you didn’t have much time to sketch on a family holiday; don’t be too harsh!”

And she’s right – finding time was hard. We were busy cooking, sleeping, reading, teaching small child to beat Grandpa at Bridge and teaching Grandpa how to make loom bands. Not to mention cave paintings, fortified houses, guillotines and a high rope adventure amid an electric storm.

I found it hard to settle into the right mindset to try something new and the new sketchbook made only one outing.

One morning I did set off with some painting equipment packed up and settled, only to realise I’d forgotten my jar of water. Best laid plans or the universe trying to thwart me? 10 minutes later my daughter came running along the track to find me and budged me along the rug. The house we were staying in is on a hillside in a small valley. The other side of the valley is just 300m away and heavily wooded with no view beyond. There is no ‘larger landscape’ to see and I didn’t have access to car or the time for long walks to find new vistas. So my rug was laid just at the top of the hill. With no ‘view’ I looked instead at finding forms within some closer details. The field was just a sea of mid green until you looked and saw the waving cow parsley and dots of yellow buttercups. Even closer, I drew the delicacy of the fine strands of wild flowers – one to each page. Some miniature yellow orchid shapes, and soft overlaps of purple clover. Not just green then! At the moment the colours are just in my head but I will return to add to these drawings.

What I found easier was finding the odd moment. I always had a small sketchbook in my bag and looking back I’m surprised to discover I did actually do a fair amount! From passengers waiting at Liverpool Street station for a delayed train, fields mapped out from the aeroplane window, views across the lake or just the overlapping layers of horse chestnut leaves. None of these drawings took longer than a few minutes.

France sketches

I did find that I reverted to type – simply using pencil but I tried to be conscious about the marks I was making – how my hand was moving and to consider tone rather than just line.  Even in some of these tiny thumbnails there may be enough to spark something when I get back to the studio. Perhaps these lines and remembered colours will inspire a painting in the future. Perhaps not.  If nothing else it will spark my memory as a drawing always does.

And something exists that wasn’t there before. That is the magic of creation.

It doesn’t matter where you begin. I haven’t (yet!) completed my challenge but by drawing where I can, I have commited things to memory in a certain way. I have also created a record which I can return to and use as new starting points. I’m sure it is possible to create a sketchbook in a day. But I know it’s possible to fill a sketchbook just one page at a time. One page, and repeat.



sketchbooksI seem to be surrounded by articles and courses that all encourage you to do something everyday for 30 days. There’s no denying that drawing everyday is a good habit to get into. Some of us manage it. Some of us don’t. I’m not telling you which group I fall into! Although you can probably guess if I say that sometimes life gets in the way. oops.

And if you just breathed a sigh of relief – welcome aboard!

Does this mean I’m any less committed? Possibly, but I’m doing what I can within the time confines I have. I admit it doesn’t always work out well. I can have a whole day planned in for studio work and find myself faffing about all day, only for the real magic to start happening just 30 minutes before I have to go and do the school run. Over time I have learnt to recognise this as part of my creative cycle. I have to indulge it and have learnt that you can’t just switch creative results on and off like a switch.

Of course there are many ways you can get your creative mode flowing and certainly drawing everyday is one of them. The more you do anything the easier it will get (as I repeatedly encourage my son with his guitar…) But it is just one way of giving yourself some boundaries and may not be the one that works best for you. Personally I find it too dictatorial. The point of boundaries and routines is to get yourself going without too much initial inhibition. The more blocks you put in your way, the more you are likely to procrastinate…

One drawing a day? Well, it had better be a good one then!

Ok, three drawings a day. But that will take too long, my life is too busy.
We’ll come back to this (be warned!)

Ok, then just 10 minutes. What can you do in ten minutes? It takes me 10 minutes to get ‘in the zone’.

The end result is that you skip a day, feel bad about it and set up a cycle of recrimination. This isn’t Alcoholics Anonymous. One day off the wagon isn’t going to be the end. So I’d like to present you with an alternative:

Not a sketchbook drawing every day…
…but a sketchbook in a day.

Yes, that’s right, a whole sketchbook. In one day.

WARNING: This may be a big disaster. I haven’t attempted it yet. In fact I am writing this before I leave for some time in France with my parents and two children. There won’t be a huge amount of time spare so this won’t be a book full of detailed and intricate French scenes. By writing this and setting it to post on the day I leave I’m promising myself that this will be something I attempt.

So what’s my plan? I have a few cheats:

  • I haven’t chosen a sketchbook with 120 pages; I have a stapled book with just 20 pages
  • I will choose materials I can work quickly with: oil pastels and baby oil for colour, water soluble pencils, ink
  • I will keep a focus for each book so that a theme emerges (each book? – yes, I plan to try this more than once…)
  • I will try to keep it loose and simple. That isn’t an excuse for lazy looking. The final images on each page may appear loose and gestural (actually I have no idea what the pages will look like yet!) but I promise I will be thinking sharp!
  • most importantly I give myself authority to muck it up – a sketchbook is a collection of ideas, not a finished piece. If just one page gives me an idea to progress then that will be worthwhile.

I know there is no wi-fi where I’m going. Just a lot of trees. If you read my last post, you’ll know that trees in the summer are not top of my inspiration list, so don’t expect miracles. But phone reception allowing I shall post progress pictures on the Facebook page. If you’d like to set your own mini-brief to make sure you take some action, then let me know!

This exercise should help you simplify your seeing into drawing. I found this pasted into a sketchbook of mine and wanted to share it with you.

The aim is to try to encourage you to think in tonal areas. My natural habit is to draw in a linear way; I think most of us do – we use line to follow form and contours, making outlines. Even if I’m drawing tonal areas I often use line to make the delineation.

Here’s the page in my sketchbook:

tonal exercise in sketchbook of Alice Sheridan

tonal exercise in sketchbook of Alice Sheridan

I used an image from a newspaper and I would recommend you try this first. Using an image that is already two dimensional will be easier to start off with. The image is already contained and you will find it simpler than trying to interpret from a real scene. You will need paper, or a sketchbook, and a soft pencil I used a 3B.

Look at the image carefully: you are looking to divide what you see into 4 tonal areas: a very dark (almost black), white, and 2 mid tone greys. Look for at least 30 seconds. Not just a passing glance but try to capture and hold the image in your mind.

Once you think you have the image in your mind, look to your page and draw as much as you can you can in just 30 seconds maximum. You can see my first image was linear in form. This is fine – it helps you adjust to the overall composition.

Next make 4 small boxes and create your 4 tones with pencil as you can see in the bottom left.

Now you have made the 4 tonal areas look back towards the image with these in mind and decide which areas are which. Where are the real darkest areas? Which parts are going to be the highlights you leave white? How will you make the distinction between the mid tones? If you find it hard to decide then screwing up your eyes and squinting can help simplify what you are looking at.

Then look back to your page and from memory try to draw the image again, just using tones. You will see from my note that this took me one minute to draw. Spend up to 2 minutes but aim to work quickly – remember you are not looking for detail but a way to capture the overall tonal pattern of the image.

Improving your visual memory is a key skill in drawing; spend at least as long looking as drawing!

Have a go with a newspaper image first. Then try from real life. Good luck!

Dartmoor weekendI’ve just come home from a glorious weekend in Dartmoor; blue skies, fresh grass, the English countryside at its best. Great for an afternoon relaxing with a book, but not so good for me looking for new inspiration for paintings.

It can feel wonderfully restorative being in such beautiful natural surroundings but a pictorial representation would appear too perfect. Like the sickly image on the box of Devon fudge or photographs of sunsets that look as though they are taken with a filter, such images leave me with sense of smug perfection. The greens appear too clean, the sky too blue, the shapes and contours so round and lush. I’m more inspired by bleak landscapes, Autumn skies, the sharp bracken of winter twigs…

Dorset Heath by Alice Sheridan

Dorset Heath by Alice Sheridan

So I’m stuck with a conundrum:

How do I take what is around me and turn it into a new source of inspiration?

This is an eternal struggle of the artist. We all look at the same world but through our own eyes. It is the filtering process of each artist that takes what we all see and reinterprets it on a unique and personal way. In a class all drawing the same still life, you will still end up with as many different versions as there are students. So we all need to find a way to work out our own interpretation.

Remote a Place to Ponder by Charlie O'Sullivan

Remote a Place to Ponder by Charlie O’Sullivan

I’ve long appreciated the work of Devon artist Charlie O’Sullivan . She finds her way through landscape using a narrative often using stories or conversations as starting points. However the paintings are still about our place in the world and her figures are fairly set within their landscape surrounds.

So with a summer ahead of me, I have a new challenge; to use what I have available to create what I want. (Without knowing what I want at the beginning of the process!)

My art training always taught me to draw from life. Draw what you see not what you think you can see is the first lesson at art school. And it serves you well – don’t make assumptions about what is in front of you. Learning to trust your eyes and listen to the commands they give you means that sometimes you have to over-power your literal brain.

So I will have to over-power the part of my brain that tells me that summer countryside is boring! I will have to find something that intrigues me enough to make a drawing about it.

At this stage I have no idea what it will be;

  • the contrast between sun and shadow
  • simply a collection of colours (I quite like the idea of collecting colours…)
  • resolving everything to black and white marks as a distinct retaliation to the colours all around

It’s so easy to get distracted while you are drawing and put in far more information than you need. Often it can be beneficial to draw the same thing twice: once to gather your information and then again to focus on what you really want to distill from the subject. Last week I wrote a post about Matisse who was the master of keeping things simplified so as I draw I try keep one thing in mind:

What inspired me to do this drawing?



This project is 98% logistics and 2% creativity

said artist Joshua Sofaer on Radio 4 this morning.

He was talking about his current project ‘The Rubbish Collection’ which is one entire month’s worth of the museum’s rubbish laid out to demonstrate its inherent beauty. It is estimated to be over 28 tonnes of material.

The first phase is just documenting; scientific equipment, oil from the deep fat fryers, cardboard from the gift shop, edible food waste… even the sewage is being measured and will return as inert earth in phase two which “invites the materials back”….

Artistic intent and merit aside, it was the comment above that caught my attention. Admittedly 28 tonnes of rubbish is a big logistical nightmare – it makes my weekly recycling and debate over what goes to the dump look like chicken feed. But there is no doubt that a great deal of art is about the logistics.

Possibly not viewing it, although you still have to be aware of what exhibitions are on, see if you can schedule them into your busy diary, queue, jostle for viewing position.. you get my point.

Actually making any form of art is also much about logistics.

This isn’t something we often think about. We have a vague idea that art is instrinsic genius; that it just ‘happens’. The reality is that without the correct logistic support you are limited in what you can make. You need working space, brushes, paper, cleaning rags, canvas and stretchers, panels to be cut and primed, purchasing of materials online to source sensible prices, visits to specialist suppliers and then finished works to be presented; mounted, framed, hung. The list is endless. If I kept a list of how long all this takes it would possibly be quite depressing!

Realising that the actual creation is only part of creating is liberating too.

If I expect 100% of my working time to be creatively productive I am only going to be disappointed. Often we tell ourselves that we just need to ‘get on with it’. But you also need to create a framework for yourself to begin:

Set up your own logistics; sort out your materials, consider if you need to buy anything, how can you work within the space you have? Do you really need more kit or just have a better system of working?

Don’t be frustrated if every moment you spend towards creative output isn’t actually productive.

Make allowances and build in some time for the ‘artistic housework’.

98 logistics 2 creativity

The display will be on show at The Science Museum in London between 25 July and 14 September and you can read more about the exhibition on their website.

The full interview is available as part of this Radio 4 replay (until 2 July 2015)

PS. “One thing I’ve learnt is don’t give your children lunch” on a school trip – there are a lot of sandwiches and apples with just one bite. Maybe that will help your fridge logistics!