you say you want an evolution

Robbins Hall UC Davis

This is Robbins Hall, UC Davis, drawn a few weeks ago. I like the way the tree spreads out into all those branches. Like branches of evolution (linking the picture thematically to the fact the word ‘evolution’ appears on the building), if evolution meant all evolving into the same thing, which is not generally how evolution works. I’m not sure a tree is the best model for describing the process of evolution of species, just as it’s not that great at describing the evolution of languages),  Campus was still quieter with most people working remotely; that changes today, as our temporary from-home status comes back to our (temporary?) not-from-home status. I’m here anyway, but I think the fluidity between home/not-home are here to stay. We will see what the rest of this year brings. As January closes and February begins, the longest month replaced by the shortest month, things are busy. I had been considering a trip back to England to see the family during this period, but I decided against it when the new Covid strain hit the charts, the Omicron, that difficult third album. It’s so exhausting just thinking about everything, so I’m putting that trip off. I am sure I’d be on edge. As it turns out this week will probably be the busiest week of the year work-wise and the thought of trying to interview people remotely from my mum’s kitchen in London late at night didn’t appeal, so the trip back to London is delayed a bit longer. This is the longest time I’ve not visited London. I’ve been drawing Davis a lot this month, taking a break from the soccer, and re-obsessing over the Beatles since the release of Get Back, and Paul McCartney’s book ‘The Lyrics’, which I got for Christmas. I’ve re-watched Get Back so many times now, and spent hours poring over that book, I want to write a proper post with my thoughts about it all (and some Beatles-related drawings?), but that may take a while. I’ve even dug my old electric guitar out from its stasis pod under my bed to try and get back to playing a little, it’s time to branch out again musically. I might even buy a bass, if I can figure out where I would put the thing.

greenbelt moments

northstar park, davis

Here are a couple of sketches from the North Davis Greenbelt, nearby to where I live. The top one was drawn one lunchtime at Northstar Park, on a day while working from home. It’s of the view towards one of the ponds, hidden by the rushes and the shuffling palm trees. They really do look like they are doing some sort of dance. The one below was drawn close to where I live, it was a Saturday and I needed to get some fresh air, but didn’t want to go too far from the house as I was quite enjoying some being-at-home-on-the-weekend time. I like shadows of bare trees against buildings, something you get a lot of in Davis in January. I like that we have the Greenbelt so close to us; unlike the Green Belt I knew from going to school in Edgware on the top edge of London (the London Green Belt is an area of land surrounding the city and stopping it from growing ever further into a massive sprawl, or that was the idea), our Greenbelt is a long series of park-like paths that connect all over the edge of north Davis. There’s another in south Davis. It’s great to take long walks or runs along them, and we really took advantage during the pandemic.

012222 greenbelt north davis

Though I must say, I’m getting very antsy for some sketching travel now. I don’t mean a regular vacation, I mean a sketching trip, where I go away to somewhere like a city on Europe and sketch for a couple of days solidly, before moving on to the next place. I’m getting the wanderlust again after too long being away from international travel; Davis is nice but I’d like to wander through Europe again. And Japan, we have twice cancelled our trip to Japan due to the pandemic, hopefully we can make it some time in the next couple of years. There’s all sorts of places I want to go. Still, the US is pretty great, and I’m glad we’ve seen a bit more of it over the past year. I really need a sketching trip though.

the continuing story

B St Davis

Another ‘building from across the street’ sketch, this time on B Street, a little house I’ve wanted to draw for ages. A bungalow, really, that’s what we always called one-story houses. There’s a big building next to it that they put up a few years ago that makes it look much smaller. I like all the old houses you see in this part of town between campus and downtown. I stood outside ‘Pizzas and Pints’ (I’ve still never eaten there) and drew this. Sometimes I draw bare trees and savour every branch, sometimes I just want the general shape and leave the other branches to the imagination. I like those dark trees that are just scribbles with some reddish purple paint over the top, like Mr. Messy. Mr. Messy was one of the Mr. Men. The Mr. Men were of course a huge influence over my early life. Roger Hargreaves was my art hero when I was four. I drew so many Mr. Men characters. At school, kids would ask me to draw characters for them to keep, I would sometimes spend all lunchtime drawing pictures of Mr. Rush or Mr. Strong for kids at school who probably saw themselves in those little geometry-based figures. I was probably Mr. Daydream. Or Mr. Lazy. Or Mr. Jelly. Yes, I was probably a mixture of all of those, with a splash of Mr. Silly, and a touch of Mr. Grumpy. I had a great idea, you know all those DNA ancestry services you get, well instead of submitting a blood sample and being told you are 14% Viking and 8.5% Visigoth, with my service you get told you are 19% Little Miss Bossy, 17% Mr. Chatterbox, 8% Little Miss Tidy, and 56% Mr. Topsy-Turvy. Make of that ancestry what you will. Instead of people going around proudly declaring that 4% of their ancestors were Scottish Robbers and wearing tartan trousers and domino masks at parties, they will start wearing a little green cowboy hat and eating eggs by the sackful. You’ll have to guess which Mr. Man I’m referring to there.

not all those who wander are lost (except me)

C St Davis

A big building across the street with a tree in the foreground? Oh go on then. C Street to be precise, right by 4th St, across from the park – I’ve drawn this spot before. I’ve said that before too, “I’ve drawn this spot before”, many times. I drew this on January 6th, on the one year anniversary of January 6th. The day the decorations come down. This is a frat house, Phi Delta Theta. A big old fancy house that isn’t that old; there was a similar looking building here before, but it was knocked down several years ago and then they built this one. I remember that I hadn’t sketched the previous one (surprisingly) and regretted it – people would tell me stories about their student days going to parties in the old one. Well, not many stories. I remember my own student party days. Well, I say ‘remember’, I mean I know they happened. They were a long time ago. Some fun times, going all over London because someone at uni was having a party, there were plenty of long journeys home on the night bus. Well, I lived in north west London out at the end of the Northern Line, but I went to university in east London, and people tended to spread out further eastwards from there. I vaguely remember one party at someone’s house in the Docklands, and afterwards getting totally lost on the Isle of Dogs trying to find my way back to the Mile End Road. No smart phones or Ubers back then, I just used the massive skyscraper of Canary Wharf as my compass – if I was moving away from it, it was probably the right direction. I just followed my nose. I obviously made it home ok. Another random party I remember, I was invited by a good friend to come to a house party in Leytonstone or somewhere, bloody miles away. I had been at my mate’s birthday in Burnt Oak (at his nan’s house) all evening, but I’d said I’d go to this party so it was pretty late by the time I got there, after an hour on the rube and a long walk through streets I did not know at all, not at night anyway (though I remember passing the cemetery where my Scully grandparents are buried; they died before I was born) – I was a bit nervous I might get put in the cemetery myself, some of the lads hanging around. I eventually made it to the party (how on earth did I find the place? Oh right I looked at the address on a map and just remembered the way, 90s style), and my friends there were all massively drunk already, it was definitely a party that was winding down. I think I stayed for about half an hour and had one drink before it was time to go, the long trek back across London. Another time, I went to a new years eve party in Gants Hill, which is like out in Scandinavia or somewhere, it’s that far away, and I didn’t even know the guy who invited me all that well, we’d just met in the student union a few times, as you do in the first year at college. I do remember that one of his friends gave me a lift down to the tube station at least, which was nice, because I’d definitely have gotten lost out there. I spent a lot of time travelling across the city at night in those days, usually on the way to or from somewhere. Formative years. Some things I don’t miss about being younger and being in the big city, but then again, I think I do miss it, sitting on a bus at night with the headphones on, not exactly sure what part of London I’m in. I don’t miss the wandering about at night being lost much, but I always find my way home in the end.

on song in the new year

C St Davis

First drawing of 2022, a usual north Davis scene, a big old house I’ve admired for years while cycling past, one of many historic buildings. It’s on D Street; I wrote it down as D street, and then for some reason I thought it was on C Street and kept saying as such, joking that I’m out of key by one note, maybe I had a capo on my sketchbook, etc. I thought that was a pretty good joke as well, but it turns out it really is on D Street, so I will have to draw something else and get the street wrong so I can use that gag again. I did write 2021 in the corner and changed it to 2022, but then put 2021 into the wordmark. Start of a new year, I’m all over the gaff.

It’s nice to fall into a trusty subject for me though, drawing houses. One of my favourite local books is John Lofland’s “Old North Davis: Guide to Walking a Traditional Neighborhood”, which details each house street by street in the Old North Davis neighbourhood, generally between 5th and 8th, B and F.  I looked up the building in that book – it’s called the “Warner Home” after its original inhabitants, William and Fern Warner, and was built in 1929 as a gift for their wedding; that’s a very nice wedding gift, nicer than a toaster. The style of the house is ‘Colonial Revival’. I particularly like the differently angled slants of the roof, like two houses have somehow merged into the same spot. I love the lamp-post, and the arched gateway into the yard. That chimneystack is so prominent at the front like it holds it all together like an orchestra’s conductor, with the antenna on the roof (something you don’t see as often these days) looking like the baton. This is a very musical looking building – the metal ‘S’ shape on the chimneystack looks like the shape you’d see on a cello. I can hear my voice sounding like the guy from Through The Keyhole, Lloyd Grossman: “the arched gateway, the lamp-post, the cello symbol on the chimneystack – who lives in a house like this? David, it’s over to you.” I used to love that show, always makes me think of the guests they used to have, people like Willie Rushton,  Kenneth Williams, Clare Rayner, the usual late 80s/early 90s crowd.

I met Clare Rayner once, she was giving out the prizes at our school’s annual Prizegiving ceremony. I won the German Prize , and she presented me with the book I requested as a prize, which was ‘Teach Yourself Italian’. I won the German Prize twice at school (or it may have been three times; I think it was because I was the only person in the school who got excited about the subject), I recall one year I got the Terry Pratchett book ‘Lords and Ladies’ as my prize, still one of my favourite of his books. I still have that copy, with the little thing stuck in the front saying I won the German Prize. It sounds like it should be a prize for something more distinguished rather than something my school gave me when I was 15, maybe I should start describing myself as a ‘multiple German-Prize winning artist’, in a kind of ‘Arnold Rimmer’ way. I don’t win many prizes. I don’t enter any competitions.

…and THAT was 2021.


2020 : The Sequel. The Empire Strikes Back of years. Actually, it’s the Godfather Part II of years. And now we ae in 2022, which will hopefully be more Return of the Jedi than Godfather Part III. Hmmm, all of these make it sound like 2020 was somehow the Star Wars or Godfather of years, and it totally wasn’t. It was the Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice of years. Which means that 2021 was the Justice League of years. Maybe 2022 will be the Rocky III of years?

2021 was a long bloody year, some big ups and big downs. We lost some family and friends, but also my new niece was born. We travelled more than 2020, but all in the US – Hawaii (twice), Utah, Yosemite, San Diego, Laguna Beach, among others. Really got into those National Parks. There was a lot of soccer, both watching and coaching, too much maybe, it feels like there hasn’t been a break, with the big drama of England at the Euros, and Spurs having four different coaches. I’ve been more excited by Formula 1, having seen one of the best seasons I’ve ever seen, although the bloody ridiculous ending still gobsmacks me. The world of news, well we started with that awful event at the Capitol, but now that other fella is out of office it’s been really nice not waking up every day to “what the bloody hell has he said now?” But the big Covid keeps moving about and mutating into new Greek letters faster even than Apple brings out iPhones. But 2021 did give us Get Back, the amazing Peter Jackson epic of the Beatles, which I think has changed my life. And I have done a lot of drawing. There they all are above. More sketching than I did in 2020, thankfully, but still way short of 2019 (the year of the big summer sketching trip to Amsterdam, Belgium, France, and three times to London). Funny enough though, I did pretty much the same amount of sketching in 2021 as I did in 2018, when I went to the Urban Sketching Symposium in Porto. Here is the annual side-by-side comparisons of sketching output going back to 2013.

2013-2021 sketches

Here’s to 2022, which so far I’ve done my best not to feel like has actually started yet, and a year that already it seems you cannot really plan for. Keep on sketching.

hawaiian rain

OAK-HNL on Southwest

The day after Christmas we took another short trip away to Hawaii. It was the second time we’d been there in 2021, amazingly, as we decided to take advantage of a good deal and a window between variant surges. My Mum was visiting us from England and had never been to Hawaii, so it was a nice treat for her, a special trip. Hawaii is really, really far away from Burnt Oak, certainly the furthest I’ve ever been away from home. My wife’s mother came too. We stayed in Waikiki, we had a nice sunny first day, but the other days were a bit more changeable – that tropical climate bringing a bit of rain here and there, and we did get a massive downpour on the last day. But it was beautiful, it was Hawaii, I had my Hula Pie at Duke’s, splashed about in the ocean, explored the other side of the island, and played the ukulele a lot – I really have ‘Mele Kalikimaka’ down now. I did go stand-up paddle-boarding again, but this time in the actual ocean itself rather than the lagoon like last time, when I thought I was good at it. This time, I fell into the water a lot. There wasn’t much stand-up in the stand-up paddleboarding. I kept getting heckled by the fish. I didn’t do that much drawing, but I did sketch the scene on the plane over (yet another), and also by the Ala Wai Canal in the early evening, getting rained on.

Waikiki Ala Wai Canal

I did draw a couple of panoramas in my sketchbook, the next one being on the beach at Lanikai. I did splash about in the ocean for a bit, but mostly sat playing the ukulele or drawing. This was a beautiful beach, quite popular, not very big. The clouds rolled in and out, giving us a few sprinkles.

Lanikai Beach, O'ahu Finally, the view from our hotel room at the Sheraton. That was a really nice hotel. We didn’t get a view of the ocean this time, but a lot of Waikiki skyline. For this one I drew the outlines of all the buildings while the rain poured down, but I drew the rest of the details on the plane home.

view from Sheraton Waikiki

Next time, we want to go to Kaua’i, we’ve never been there. Aloha!

skill and stamina and luck

warlock of firetop mountain

A couple of older digital drawings I did back in the summer time that I don’t think I ever posted, but now’s as good a time as ever. The drawing above is of ‘The Warlock of Firetop Mountain‘ by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. I got this book for my eighth birthday as a present from my big sister, and not only do I still have it but I still have all of my old Fighting Fantasy gamebooks from when I was a kid (see below). 2021 was the fortieth anniversary of its publication, and my one is one of the great editions with the famous green spine. If you have never played an adventure gamebook, “you are the hero”/”choose your own adventure” style, these ones were very cleverly formatted – almost always 400 entries – with a simple but effective gaming system. You don’t have overly complicated D&D style numbers, this is single player, two six-sided dice like everyone could get from their Monopoly set, you roll for a score for Skill, another for Stamina, another for Luck, and then you just get on with the story. You have provisions, you have some gold, and you have an ‘Adventure Sheet’ where you can list equipment that you pick up along the way – your sword, a few potions, the odd jewel, maybe the occasional scroll with important clues. As you go through the story you have to make decisions – go left or go right, stay at the inn or sleep in the woods, sneak past the orc guards or steal their keys, turn to 239, that sort of thing – but you also have to fight. It’s called ‘Fighting Fantasy’ after all, though running away is sometimes an option. Fighting is done on the roll of the dice and you might lose ‘stamina’ if your opponent gets hits on you. That opponent might be a Goblin, a Dragon, a a Giant Bat, anything really. In this book you have to go on an adventure to go and beat up a wizard – the Warlock of Firetop Mountain – there’s a fantastic colour hand-drawn map in my edition which very much informed how I like to draw maps later in life. The illustrations in these books was one of the things I liked the most, especially the heavy-lined drawings found in Caverns of the Snow Witch, which was always my favourite (along with Creature of Havoc), although I left my original copy of that back in London with my nephew (I’d like to get it back to go with the set some day). I drew this on the iPad with ProCreate, and posted it online, and to my amazement I was then sent a message by none other than the author himself, Ian Livingstone! And he said he liked it. I was fairly gobsmacked.

Or I should say ‘Sir Ian Livingstone’ – he was knighted in the New Years Honours list earlier this month! That is a great achievement and recognition for all his many years of pioneering work in the British gaming industry. He co-founded Games Workshop along with Steve Jackson and has done enormous work in the video gaming world. He did ask if I’d be drawing Forest of Doom next (that one has a great cover of a shape-shifter), but instead I showed him my bookshelf drawing from the previous month. There you can see what remains of my collection of Fighting Fantasy books (I don’t have a complete set, and two or three of mine are missing such as Caverns of the Snow Witch and Citadel of Chaos) (though I do have a copy of Caverns of the Snow Witch in French). After getting that first book from my sister, I would usually seek out these books in the local library, but then I would find them in the bookshops, but if I couldn’t afford to buy many books I would go to second hand bookshops all over the area to scour for copies of them. I displayed them proudly on my shelf at home, and on my windowsill, which didn’t help with the spines getting a bit discoloured. Although that is now a funny story, I assumed that the slightly different shades of green on all these books was due to some being in boxes in old shops, or left in the sun on my windowsill, but it turns out that it was an issue with the publishers; Sir Ian actually told me that himself, it used to annoy him that they’d be inconsistent with the green, and he appreciated that I’d captured that in my drawing! I would share the books with my friends at school, and we would get together and create our own games, using the same Fighting Fantasy gaming system. I would typically come up with the story and the setting (because I loved to draw maps and create worlds) rather than use anything pre-designed, and I created an entire world to set the stories in (it was called ‘Landica’; the name actually came from an attempt when I was 12 to create a new language called ‘Landic’ – this is what I was like at 12 – though I didn’t use the language in the games). Some of them were fun, we would use the big multi-coloured dice I would find at gaming shops, I still have many of the ones I got back then, kept like coloured plastic gems. We never did play more complicated games like Dungeons and Dragons or Warhammer, and I regret that a little, but I always liked to keep it simple. I was always a bit intimidated by Dungeons and Dragons if I’m honest, but I obsessed over the world of Fighting Fantasy, spending ages drawing swords and orcs and maps. I did write two full (though not super long) single-player gamebooks, hand-written and long enough to fit into a classic school exercise book: ‘The Sorceror of the Swamp‘ and ‘Trek to Terror Tower‘. I filled my world with places named after obscure languages (my other obsession, looking up all of the languages of the world), or constellations, or even interesting foreign surnames I’d heard. It was a fun creative time, but I was always frustrated with myself for rarely completing ideas. I tried many times to write longer, more complicated and intelligent stories, but that’s me all over, a million ideas, only so much time. But a lot of reading, a lot of imagination and inspiration, and a lot of fantastic memories.

Bedroom iPad 073021

And yet, as you can see right above this collection of gamebooks, on the top shelf are my sketchbooks. These are The Sketchbooks, the main landscape format ones I use, a collection of Moleskine or Stillman & Birn or Seawhite of Brighton, going from number 1 – 40 (some of them are facing a different direction). You can see all the contents of those on my sketchbooks page. Those books go back to 2007 and represent quite a lot of creative output, so I guess I do occasionally complete artistic projects huh. Though my life’s sketching work is never really finished. That quest does not end here…

in the hands of engineers

bainer uc davis

One last sketch from Fall that I forgot to post, this is a view of Bainer Hall, UC Davis, with those yellow-leaved trees in the foreground, another lunchtime sketch. You have to draw the world as it goes along. Those leaves are gone now. There are people in this sketch, three of them in fact, you just have to look for them. This is the place for Engineering on campus. I never thought of Engineering as a thing to do in my life, I didn’t realize the massive scope of what it could be, probably. To me, engineering was being stuck under a rusty old car with a wrench wearing overalls covered in oil, taking a break occasionally to read the Sun and swear about the football, and I figured, no I wouldn’t be any good at that, except the last bit of which I am really good at. I think Engineering may be a bit more than that, and it’s one of those areas where you have to be really really clever and know lots of very technical science, but also probably get your hands a bit dirty. Honestly I have no idea, like with most things. I draw little pictures of streets and things, slightly less complicated. I wonder if I’d have been a good engineer though? I wasn’t all that good in CDT class at school. CDT was ‘Craft Design Technology’, what Americans would call ‘Shop’. With all the big mechanical tools, gadgets, circuits, plastic moulding machines, and I remember being enthusiastic about it, except it was in a school setting where the politics of the classroom meant very little got actually learned. Lining up outside the class was the worst bit I think, there were always a couple of would-be bully lads trying to show off. It’s a shame, I remember I liked my CDT teacher, though for some reason I can’t remember his name, but really I wasn’t all that good at CDT, unless drawing was involved. I remember we learned about Ohms and Capacitors. Thinking back, I wish I’d been good at that class, I just wasn’t. Though I remember one occasion, a competition where we all had to design, make and then race cars out of a couple of bits of cardboard, some elastic bands, a couple of pencils and some plastic kinder egg shells. At least, that’s what I used. And my one actually won! I think my drawings of the design helped, but my actual little vehicle – like a paper airplane with elasticated wheels – won the race as well. One of very few things I actually won at school. I basically retired as an engineer after that, my career in the Formula 1 paddock was never going to burgeon.

grass valley

Grass Valley CA

Early December, we drove up to Grass Valley for our final soccer game of the NorCal Premier Fall season, for a game in which we lost, though it was a pretty close game for much of it. The other coaches were nice, and after the game the team all had pizza together. Afterwards I got to look around the town of Grass Valley for a bit, we had never been up that way before and the downtown area was quite historic looking. We went to a great little chocolate shop, and there was a lovely little music shop selling guitars and ukuleles. I have been getting much more into playing the ukulele lately, and been practicing on it much more, and I really wouldn’t mind getting back into the guitar again, though I put that instrument down a long time ago now. I also got to do a sketch (the music shop is the second one along, that flowery store on the furthest right was pretty cool as well and had a large Christmas tree inside that went up a couple of storeys. The shops snaking up the hill reminded me a little of Sonora, the place we visited before going to Yosemite. This was old gold mining country, so lots of these little old gold country towns looks a bit like this, quite sketchable. It was bright and sunny; down in the central valley where we live everything had been blanketed in a dense fog, but here in the foothills they were above the fog belt. Anyway that was Grass Valley.