I arrived in Lille by Eurostar and was immediately overcome with a pretty happy feeling, the one I always used to get when arriving in a foreign country. I had all the time in the world. I was in Lille to attend the Urban Sketchers France Rencontre Nationale, a huge gathering of sketchers from all over France and neighbouring countries, just to sketch everything, not a bunch of workshops like the Symposium, it’s just all about sketching and gathering. I last went to one in 2015 in Strasbourg, one of my favourite cities: https://petescully.com/tag/usk-rencontre-nationale-2015/, and have always wanted to come back to France and sketch again. I usually know a lot of the people that come to these ones, and I have to work on French; this time I didn’t really tell many of my francophone sketching friends I’d be coming, mostly because I wasn’t 100% sure myself that I would make it. After the past three years, along with the family events happening in London (the day before was my dad’s birthday), I had low expectations of this trip actually happening, so I didn’t want to go making plans. So it was really funny when I first arrived in Lille just after lunchtime on the Saturday and was looking for my hotel, when I bumped into sketching friends Fabien DeNoel (from Belgium) and Vincent Desplanche (from southern France), drawing a complicated building across the street. That was a nice surprise! Fabien told me that Gerard Michel (his uncle and one of the urban sketchers I’ve known since the very start, I stayed at his house a few years ago before the Amsterdam Symposium) was sketching in the main square, but I could not find him. My hotel was very close to the square, which is pretty big, and so after putting my things away I went outside and drew the scene above, from right across the street. That is a very similar view to the one I did in my Virtual Tour de France last year (a virtual sketching project I am still working on, very slowly – I have had two real visits to France since starting the virtual one). The huge Beffroi of the Chamber of Commerce is impressive. Lille is an impressive place, and I can’t believe I’d never visited before, given how close it is to London. The station where the Eurostar stops was only a short walk away from the centre-ville, and the city had a nice buzz about it, a ‘first weekend in June’ kind of feel. I could see sketchers dotted about all over the place, I didn’t see many other faces I recognized yet, but I could walk past Godzilla and not notice. I passed through the Place du Theatre past the opera – there was a big musical performance happening outside. There was a pretty lavish looking building opposite – the Vieille Bourse – that I passed through, there was a courtyard in the middle with booksellers and a bunch of sketchers, and on the other side was the Grand Place du General de Gaulle, a big busy square. There were people with sketchbooks everywhere. I found a shaded spot under a tree directly facing the Bourse, and took to sketching all those windows. Other sketchers I spoke to in the following couple of days had also been sketching all those windows, so many windows. Every window counts! But they really do seem to multiply as you start drawing. As I was sketching, the Grand Place became more and more colourful, as this was the weekend of Lille Pride. They came through at just the right moment, a way to break up the monotony of drawing so many windows.
It’s hard to draw so many people moving past but I gave it a go! It was a very musical and entertaining parade, so colourful (using the waterbrush you have to be quick doing the colour changes) but thnakfully some people did stop for a bit so I was able to sketch them for longer. There is one sketcher on the edge of the picture, she was stood to my left, I think she was from Paris. My favourite sign was the one that read “Mieux Vaut 1 Paire de Mères qu’un Père de Merde” (“Better to have one pair of mothers than one shit father”; the pun works better in French). There was also one guy I sketched who kind of reminded me of Timmy Mallet. I wanted to draw the large elephant that was passing by as well (not a real elephant, just a massive painted model) but it went by so fast all I could get was a brief sketch of it from behind. Once the parade had all passed through, I got back to sketching the windows of the Bourse. I do enjoy drawing parades and marches, because it’s an intense quick piece of work and you have no idea how it will go, or what is most important to draw bigger or smaller, so all you can do is draw reactively and see how it ends up, and however it ends up, that is the experience. That said, I’d not been around so many people in a while – well, at least two days, since the Jubilee, a different crowd with more blues and reds and royalism – so my crowd panic was in there, and at those times I need to be drawing something to stay relaxed. The colours and music and festive atmosphere helped though.
It was a pretty warm afternoon, and so I wandered off for a cold drink, and found one of very few places that sold Pepsi Max, and sat outside to draw the view below, looking towards the thin tower of the Hotel de Ville. I like the distinct style of the towers on buildings in the far north of France, it reminds me of passing by places like Calais on the coach when I was young, along with the unusual water towers dotted around the countryside. I used to say I would love to write a book about those water-towers, and draw them all, but actually when I think about it, no I wouldn’t, I’d rather do something else with my time. I do like this particualr tower in Lille though, it’s comically thin, like a belfry that’s been on a diet. I enjoy drawing these streets, and if you look closely, some of the buildings look like the French flag.
I looked up where the early evening pre-dinner meeting of sketchers was going to be, and I walked over there but most of the people had left. I did see another sketcher who recognized me from one of the London sketchcrawls a few years ago, and a few other faces I wasn’t sure if I remembered. I didn’t have a ticket to the main dinner event and planned to meet up with my French sketching amis the next evening, so I just went back to the hotel, and rested my legs before heading out for dinner. The sky was grey by this point – rain was coming in – but the early summer evening light meant i had to grab one last outside sketch, so I drew the distinctive dome of the Hotel Carlton. I would have liked to have stayed here, but I saved a few Euros and stayed at the Ibis instead. The sunset was not so dramatic, but the light had a dramatic effect on me so I interpreted it like this – it may have been shades of sunlit grey but this is how it felt. There’s a lot you can do with a grey sky. I only needed the outline and a column of details down the middle and the sketch was done, this is all you need for the mind to fill in the rest, but this also makes the main focus stand out. I was quite proud of this sketch. The day being done, I went off to find some food.