Portrait Party

This morning I went to a portrait party organised by Reading Urban Sketchers. Nine of us gathered together, sat in a circle, and took turns to pose for 10 minutes while everyone else sketched and painted.

10 minutes goes in the blink of an eye when you’re trying to capture some sort of likeness of a person on paper. 10 minutes stretches into hours when you’re sitting still and trying to ignore an itchy nose!

At the end of around two hours everyone had completed eight portraits and everyone had been drawn by eight other people. Furniture was moved and we managed to lay them all out on the floor so that each column was drawn by a single person and each row was all the portraits of a single person.

Some of us stuck to one technique or material throughout and some mixed it up a bit and tried out different approaches.

Everyone then took home the portraits of themselves. Here are all the lovely drawings of me curated in my high-tech gallery-quality display set up. I love them all!:

It’s interesting how no one image in particular looks perfectly like me but all of them together is definitely me. It’s as if my brain is taking features from each and piecing together a single representation. But it’s better than just one perfect image because here you have different angles and slightly different expressions. The result is more like a little animation than a still image.

And here are the eight portraits I completed today. I worked in pencil (0.9mm technical pencil and a giant graphite stick) and minimalist watercolour throughout:

I’d certainly be up for doing this again sometime and I think most people agreed. It was an intense morning but very rewarding and fun. Also, there were biscuits :)

Cartooning the Tory Leadership Contest

Contest background

Yesterday, Theresa May’s resignation as Conservative Party leader officially took effect. She’ll now remain in office as Prime Minister only until her successor is chosen. This will happen via party leadership elections from now until July.

on Monday at 5pm, those candidates who have been nominated and have enough official backers will go through to take part in rounds of voting where the contenders with the lowest percentages of votes are knocked out until only two remain. They will then go head to head and a new leader crowned in July.

Cartooning background

Until recently, my cartoon experience was limited to a few issues of the Beano and attempts to copy the celebrity caricatures from the radio times as a kid, followed by a fleeting obsession with The Far Side as a teenager. I never really ‘got’ political cartoons. It seemed like I either didn’t have a clue what they were about, or there were so many labels on everything that the drawing felt redundant. As I got older and developed some small interest in politics and what was going on in the world I realised two things:

* they are very specific to time and place

* they are not generally supposed to be “laugh out loud” funny

One good thing to come out of the craziness of Brexit and Trump is that I now have a huge appreciation for political cartooning. Done well they are little shining nuggets of perfect clarity and satire. They make me feel sane – someone else also sees the absurdity of everything!

I’m still not a fan of all the labelling you see in some though. I think that if you’re familiar with the topic then small visual cues should be enough to clue you in on what is happening to who and if you’re not familiar with the topic then labels don’t really help. This becomes very obvious if you look at some cartoons from other countries’ newspapers. No amount of labels will help me understand because I don’t know who those people are or why they might be slapping each other with dead fish. Or whatever. You get the idea.

One person I’ve recently started following is Stephen Collins. I love his ideas and his artwork.

Where are you going with all this?

Ok, so this is a long winded way to tell you about a book I recently bought and show you some little doodles. I recently saw someone recommending Cartooning the Head and Figure by Jack Hamm. It seemed interesting so I found a cheap second hand copy and gave it a go. It is a wonderful book! It reminds me of those museums created from private collections – floor to ceiling stuffed full of artefacts. I’m talking about the museums that have not one, not two, but 364 swords / hat pins / shrunken heads, all different sizes, shapes and styles, piled up together in a single glass cabinet. This book is like that, but for cartoons and individual cartoon features, postures and emotions.

5 stars. Highly recommended.

So, I’m browsing that and contemplating the thousands of different cartoon eye / nose / mouth combos you can make from a few lines and dots and at the same time I’m seeing an upsurge of people sketching politicians because of the crazy all encompassing nature of politics at the moment. I decided to join in. I would love to try some full blown caricatures at some point and there is a whole section of the book on that topic but I decided as a first step I would just see how much of a likeness I could achieve with simple shapes and lines.

The contenders

At this point (June 8th 2019 – Saturday afternoon), there are six candidates with the necessary number of backers to take part in the leadership contest. That seemed like a good number of sketches to start with and has an added advantage that if I display them together then they become more recognisable as part of the group than they would be individually. Here they are, in order of current popularity. I talk about each in turn below, but see if you can recognise them first:

It was so interesting drawing these guys! Some were super easy to get a likeness and others took a while and lots of redrawing with tiny changes. My eye was often not good enough to see exactly what was wrong but just that something looked a bit off, so there was a lot of trial and error. I realised that face shape was vital in all cases but after that it depended on the individual as to which feature was critical to bring the whole thing together.

Boris is out in front with 40 MPs supporting him. This sketch was super easy – round face, wide fat lips, mop of hair and no neck. The defining feature was his droopy eyes and they’re very different from any of the others. The nose is fairly generic.

Michael Gove is in second place with 27 MPs supporting him. This sketch is a bit of a cheat because he’s the only one with glasses so instantly recognisable in the group but perhaps less obvious on his own.

Jeremy Hunt is just behind Gove with 25 backers. He was really hard to draw! He has a fairly normal face so it was difficult to get a likeness. This was one where the face shape was very important. He has very defined cheekbones but trying to draw that from the front kept making him look chubby. I just kept trying slight variations until something worked. The other key was the mouth. The difference between what you see here and a version with the bottom lip as a closed shape is far greater than you’d expect.

My other half thought this was David Cameron when I showed him the finished collection 🙄 I didn’t think this was anything like Cameron, so of course I had to have a little go at him too…

Not perfect, but I think you can see he’s very different from Jeremy. Anyway, on with the contestants!

Dominic Raab has 21 backers, putting him in fourth place. Face shape, together with a thick neck seemed important in this one. The large slab forehead of course and the wide set eyes. I’m not sure though, how much the wide eyes were influenced by other drawings I’ve seen of Raab rather than my own analysis of his face. I drew Raab first, for no particular reason, but it was the version below. I redrew him as above after I’d completed a few of the others and decided they should all be full face views.

More than Dominic Raab this version reminds me of someone else, perhaps an actual cartoon character, but I can’t quite put my mind on who.

Sajid Javid is in fifth place with 16 backers. Head shape, nose and lips were the keys to this one I think. I drew his ears several times as I kept making them too big and pointy so he looked like either a leprechaun or Spock.

Finally, we have Matt Hancock with 11 supporters. This was extremely difficult because I’ve no idea who he is. Even though I used a photo as a reference I don’t really know if this is a good likeness. I realised that with all the others I’ve seen them speak on TV, I know their mannerisms, posture and tone of voice. Somehow this was a huge help when trying to get a likeness; I could sort of picture the sketch becoming animated and saying something typical of the person and if it didn’t feel right then I knew I needed to tweak some feature until it did. With Matt Hancock It’s like I’m groping in the dark for something. If he makes it through a few rounds then maybe I’ll see more of him and have another go.

11th June update

Yesterday, four more hopefuls got enough backers to join the contest so I drew the new ones and added them to the group – here they all are. 10 in total.

The four new hopefuls are Rory Stewart, Andrea Leadsom, Esther McVey, and Mark Harper. Having not drawn any women in the first set I thought it might be different, or difficult. It was actually lots of fun and I enjoyed the long hair and not always drawing the same tie and suit!

12th June: first vote

The first round of voting by MPs took place on Wednesday morning. Three contenders; Leadsom, Harper, and McVey failed to achieve 5% of the vote and were eliminated.

Here’s the current situation – they are reordered by the number of votes they received. A green vote tally means they got through and red means they’re out.

Farmer’s market

I spent this morning with the Reading urban sketchers at the Thames Valley Farmer’s Market, which takes over the Reading cattle market, on the outskirts of the town centre every third Saturday of the month. I came away with a few sketch, some cheese, butter and coffee beans :)

I’d planned on some ink and watercolour sketching but couldn’t find the bag I’d left my sketchbook in so ended up working on the iPad.

My favourite things were all the different patterned plastic tablecloths.


So it seems this MerMay hashtag thing is all month and people will be showing different mermaid sketches each day. I can’t promise that, but I did have to create this one – particularly on my mind I think with the local elections yesterday. I can’t be the first person to have thought of this but also I haven’t actually seen any other illustrations of Theresa with a tail. I was going to leave her with just a plain black tail to represent her leather trousers (plus the leopard “shoes” obvs) but then remembered that it’s Friday so incorporated the colour collective colour for this week (celadon) into the background and texture of her tail. I’m not 100% on the background but the texture is great.

Cheese fest

Today, for the first time, I took my iPad out to try digital urban sketching. It was a nice day and the annual cheese festival was on in the park in town so I found a bench and sketched away. It was good but a few differences to note compared to regular sketching:

In the sun the screen can be difficult to see – sometimes this was just colours not looking right but sometimes I couldn’t see much at all

The iPad is *heavy*. I did think about this when I decided to buy the large version and it is too heavy to hold out and sketch for a long time but I don’t regret getting the bigger version in the slightest.

The ability to undo and redo layers and endlessly tweak means that I took far longer over this one sketch than I usually would any regular pencil and watercolour urban sketch.

I’ll have another go sometime but I’m secretly glad that the paper is not being put out of business just yet :)


Today I joined the Reading Urban Sketchers at the Hexagon Theatre in Reading to draw and paint the musicians during a rehearsal of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. It was an amazing experience and a great privilege.

We spread ourselves out around the balcony and settled down to a solid hour and a half of sketching where we couldn’t move position in case we disturbed the rehearsal.

Since there’s a lot of moving around on stage and the light level was too low to be caught up in details my approach was to concentrate on the rhythm and feel of the room. I created many quick sketches, far more than shown here. At times I found myself drawing with the pace of the music – faster and faster!

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we then had a little congregation and comparison of what we’d been up to. I was very impressed with all the watercolour people had managed in the gloom we were working in.

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Then we headed back in and settled down in different positions for another round. This time I dug out my brush pen filled with black ink (plus shimmery gold stuff) but it was disappointingly blocked. Not to be beaten, I unscrewed the brush bit and blobbed ink onto the page to then draw and paint with starting from a block. This worked really well and the gold shimmer broke up the slab of black nicely. The second half of the rehearsal was really short – only maybe 20 minutes – so we all managed just a quick sketch or two before it was time to go. These were my favourite of the day though – I was in the swing of things now.

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This was a brilliant way to spend an afternoon and a wonderful opportunity to sketch people. Everyone seemed to leave in an uplifted frame of mind. There was mention of possible similar days in the future and I’m looking forward to them already :)

Thank you to The Hexagon, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and Reading Sketchers for arranging it.

only hope holds my heart

This is a plate from the Wallace Museum with an inscription of ‘Only hope holds my heart’. It shows a profile bust of a woman and was made by an unknown artist in Deruta, Italy, some time between 1515-1540. It was maybe made to mark a betrothal.

While drawing this I rediscovered the joy of drawing wavy banners. I loved drawing these as a kid! I think it was one of my first realisations that you could easily make flexible things look ultra 3D in just a line drawing. It was good for banners and flags and ribbons and that was about it so I drew those things a lot :)

Also I only noticed the secret hidden face in this plate as I was drawing it! pretty freaky. can you spot it? It’s in her giant pendant. Is it a photo of the guy who holds her heart? Is it a mirror and so a self portrait of the plate artist? I guess we’ll never know…

The drawing is all in coloured pencil – brown, orange and blue. Below you can see just the line drawing. Then the blocks of colour are watercolour -pretty much just ultramarine and yellow ochre.

Mrs Mounter

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This is my watercolour interpretation of an oil painting by Harold Gilman called Mrs Mounter at the Breakfast Table. This was set as a Thursday portrait challenge by @StudioTeaBreak on Twitter. I saw that the highlights of her hair were a very bright green/yellow which matches the Glow Worm colour for this week’s colour collective challenge so I thought let combine them!

I don’t normally copy other artists work and it felt a bit wrong somehow to be doing this to start with but after the first few layers of paint I was sucked in to the details and all the colours and really enjoyed the process. I found myself working with thick paint and mixing the transparent colours with white gouache to give them more body. Something I never normally do but I loved the results and really wanted to try get the same feeling of seeing each brushstroke on her face.

This took me about three hours with a break for dinner in the middle and is approx A5 size.

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Another Friday and another Colour Collective. Sepia this week and so I tried another statue portrait – I don’t know who this guy is either but my phone recognised the painting as a face when I took the final photo, so I’m calling that a win :)

Also, I’d forgotten how nice sepia is. This is just student grade (W&N Cotman) and it’s not in my palette at all but I used to have proper artist grade sepia and it was great – I must make a note to try it again.

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Alan Bean

I only learned of Alan Bean two days ago, when his death was announced. Alan was the last surviving member of the Apollo 12 mission and the fourth person to walk on the moon. After retiring, he pursued art and painted scenes of astronauts, space and the moon. You can see his paintings on his website – they have a texture of astronaut footprints and he often embedded small particles of the actual moon (brought back on his person from his visit) into the paint.

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This painting is from a photograph of Alan as he leaves the Lunar Module “Intrepid”, of which he was the pilot, to join his commander on the surface of the moon.

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Colours used:

Cerulean, burnt sienna, permanent rose, green gold, ultramarine, cadmium red.

White acrylic ink at the last step

selfie stamp

Over the weekend I came across rubber stamp portraits that people had carved and thought I would give it a go. First I took a photo and messed about in photoshop to create a pure black and white image. I then inverted it and printed.

black and white portrait invert

turns out that you can fairly easily transfer laser printed images to rubber but inkjet is more difficult. So I went with the old school route of drawing over it with a soft pencil then rubbing it onto the surface.


it worked really well! then I just started carving away all the grey bits…


keep going…


aaaaannnndd done!


try it out, touch it up a bit and hurray!


I look slightly grumpier / more serious than the original photo but I still love it! looks just like me :) I don’t really know what i’ll ever use it for. A friend suggested Christmas cards – I quite like that idea – draw or stick a Santa hat on :)

Nice hat Angelina! (drawing with thread)

Today I went to a freestyle machine embroidery workshop in Oxford, where we learnt to draw with thread and a sewing machine.

The first challenge was attaching the right foot to the machine! A cool little springy thing. and remember to put the feed dogs down. Then put the material in a hoop and we were away – some wiggly practice:




Then I got a bit carried away and ended up accidentally folding the corner of the material under, tangling all the threads and somehow sewing the hoop inside so I had to cut it out…


For my final practice I drew a little bird. Here we were trying out the technique we’d use to copy a photo – drawing a simplified version of the image onto pattern paper and then sewing straight through it:


on to the main event! choose a photo, draw a simplified version onto the pattern paper, tape to the material in the hoop and sew sew sew! Hi Angelina, nice hat :)


rip out some bits of the paper, leave others. Decide which loops and loose threads to trim or leave long


Then finishing off the eye and eyebrow details


There was a bit of time left at the end so most of us decided to have a go at some simple applique

Here’s me proudly holding my applique hot air balloon

When I got home later I added some hand stitched birds to finish the scene:



And finally here is a collection of all the creations from the day compiled by freestyletextiles (check out their Instagram through the link below for more photos)

My machine jammed and tangled a lot (I’ve had it about 15 years and I don’t think I really take care of it properly…) but to be honest all the wiggles and jumps and clumps just added to the effect. It was a really cool morning and I now feel confident enough to give it another try at home. Eleanor was a great teacher and let us take home a hoop and some other materials so we could have another try straight away.




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A bit of sketching on a Friday evening. I always think of this style of painting as “proper” painting, even though, of course, that doesn’t really mean anything. It’s building up layers in different colours across the whole image rather than colouring a drawing in sections. I wish I did more of this style but I do need to be in the right mood and have a suitable subject. Statues are perfect because they’re largely monochrome.

I was very happy that as I took the step by step photos my phone auto recognised the face in the final snap. :)

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colourful self portrait

When I did this I’d been reading about how the most important thing in a painting was the value relationship and that if you got that right then colour was secondary. I had seen many great examples of this and the portraits stood out the most I guess because we all tend to obsess over getting realistic looking skin tones at some point. This isn’t a great a likeness but it was fun.


three quarter self portrait

This one turned into a bit of a caricature – big eyes and scary teeth – but I think the shape of the nose is spot on and I really like the light and texture in the hair. A lesson that I don’t think I should try to smile in a self portrait – I’ll stick to the sullen look of concentration from now on :)


profile self portrait

Whenever I see profile drawings it always surprises me how tiny the amount of space the features take up compared to the expanse of the cheek and jaw. Look at the mouth in this drawing – such a seemingly inconsequential little smudge and yet it sets the mood (my sulky looking mood, haha!) for the whole portrait.


blind contour drawing – self portrait

If you’ve never tried blind contour drawing then I encourage you to give it a go. The contour part means that you draw in one continuous line without taking your pencil off the page. The blind part means that you only look at what you’re drawing, never at the page. This can be a challenge to start with and you might find yourself glancing down without thinking so it can be good to cover the drawing or do it under the table so you can’t “cheat”. These drawings don’t take very long and even though you never end up with anything brilliant they are good to warm up and often produce a much more confident line than you might normally achieve. It makes you really look at and see the subject rather than obsessing over your drawing which is a good skill to practice.



All around York (and certainly other towns and cities in the UK – but this is where I lived and noticed them) you will see small, brightly coloured metal plaques attached to old buildings. These are fire insurance marks and were there to show that the building had insurance against fire with a particular company. Many insurance companies had their own fire brigades and would only put out fires in buildings that were insured by them. This however, is a modern day and I think American Navy fireman.


7 minute self portrait

I renewed my passport online today. Trying to take a photo that conformed to their rules was infuriating! So here is a quick self portrait breaking quite a few of them – not facing straight on, can’t see my eyes, hair covers my face and I’m pretty much unrecognisable compared to the old passport photo. Saying that, I’ve got a fairly neutral expression and there are no shadows on or near me so it’s actually better than some of the photo attempts…


Wow! Like a spoilt child used to being the centre of attention fluorescent marker does not play nicely with anyone. It smudges pencil into a muddy mess, makes watercolour go crazy and then disappears without a trace when scanned. I had to take a picture instead.

It was the fluorescent jacket that drew me to this policewoman in the first place. Just a little snap on some news website. The guy she’s arrested was pixelated out. I wonder if anyone has ever drawn me and I’ve not known about it. Probably at the Manchester sketching symposium. That makes me happy.

Rising Sun tribute night

Last night was the 10 year anniversary party of tribute nights at the Rising Sun Arts Centre. This brought together acts from across all 40 of their tribute nights over the last decade. We heard from Prince, The Who, Kate Bush, The Pet Shop Boys, ABBA and many more. Standing room only but I managed to sit on the floor at the front and scribble these sketches. In terms of drawing I now know that I like drums, wires and microphones but hate guitars!

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sketching people workshop

My favourite workshop of the USk symposium last week was sketching people with Don Low. Here is the story of my attempts to draw people over the last 5 days.

My people before the workshop: sketching too fast and not thinking about what I’m actually seeing



In the workshop we did many exercises. The first set was to draw the outline of another person. Thinking about them as a whole being and a shape rather than component parts (head, neck, arm…). We were timed and had 4 minutes for the first sketch, 2 minutes for the next and then just 1 minute! We tried starting at the head, at the feet and at a random place.




We then did a similar set of drawings but blind! 2 minutes per sketch, the pen was not to leave the paper and we were not to look at the paper at all. We also started to add details inside the contour in different ways (looping around, scanning, looking for contrast) all still blind.




Finally we were allowed to look again (not too much though – focus should be on the person not the page) and put all the techniques into practice.


Much improvement! The next exercises were to draw groups of people and people in context with their surroundings. Still using a continuous line, dipping into and out of different elements in the scene



And that was our time up! Here are a few sketches I did on the days following the workshop. I can see much improvement here and I feel much more relaxed and confident. I just need to keep practicing and try to remember all the advice and feedback



self portrait

self portraitToday I bring you a self portrait in muted tones. I did this in the bathroom mirror and actually tried a bit of sight measuring rather than just doodling away as I usually do. Two things I noticed doing this:

  1. when closing one eye to sight measure I can’t help but screw half my face up which throws things off a bit
  2. the reflection of the pencil I’m using to measure is a bit confusing at first

As usual with self portraits I can’t say it’s an uncanny likeness but there is definitely something about the mouth – probably I just recognise the stern expression of concentration I must have whenever I’m drawing :)

This marks day three of world watercolour month

Hercules as Atlas

For the first day of world watercolour month I have painted two views of a statue of Hercules as Atlas by William Brodie from 1863. It now stands in the village of Portmeirion in Wales where I have been on holiday this past week. I would be very interested to know if you prefer one of these sketches over the other and why? Please let me know in a comment!

statue watercolour 2

statue watercolour 2So, why is Hercules posing as Atlas? Continue reading “Hercules as Atlas”