breezing through brussels

Brussels Grand Place
It has been a dream of mine to sit and sketch the whole Grand Place in long panoramic form, to spend about three hours sat drawing all the details, but I think it may be a detailed panorama too far. It is so ornate, so mind-bogglingly overwhelming, I may need to carve out time on another trip. the main reason though is that I keep just wanting to wander off and eat frites, drink beer, explore. This is Brussels, where exactly twenty years ago I would come and walk about exploring on the weekends when I wasn’t in Charleroi. This wasn’t my first trip back since then – maybe my third? – but certainly my first time back in Brussels in over a decade. Brussels is still Brussels, maybe a few more beer-crawl weekenders dressed in matching silly costumes, but the busy wide Boulevard Anspach that cuts through the heart of the city is now pedestrianized, which was a big shock to the system. It took me a few minutes to remember where all the winding roads lead, it’s easy to get lost in Brussels, but finding my way to the tall spires of the Grand Place is easy, and from there, Brussels is my oyster, or perhaps my mussel.

La Grand Place, Brussels
It was evening by the time my Thalys rolled into town, and rather than jump on the metro I foolishly decided to walk from Midi to downtown, a walk I used to know well. This time there was a huge funfair in the way, and I was thrown off by how the exits look different now; I have never really liked Bruxelles Midi station much (known in Flemish as Brussel Zuid), and I’d get to spend even more time there later in the trip, but I was so excited to be back in Brussels I didn’t care. My hotel was not far from Grand Place, and I had enough evening light left to do the sketch at the start of this post, which despite all the details was done really quickly. I then popped into the old fast-fooderie Quick, which wasn’t as good as I remember, and sauntered up the Rue Montagne aux Herbes Potageres to one of my favourite cafes in the world – A La Mort Subite.
Brussels A La Mort Subite

“Sudden Death”, that’s what it means. You may have heard of the beer, especially their slightly sweet gueuze or their very cherry kriek.I was so excited to find my old favourite seat, right by the door and the window, was open for me to sit and sketch when I got there. I used to sit in that seat when I would come here 20 years ago, Saturday afternoon, frosty or wet outside. I remember coming here to meet another English teacher in Belgium, Barry, and playing chess on a little wooden set I bought at Grasshopper, a toy shop nearby, which I still have. I remember coming here in 2008 with my mate Roshan and sitting in the same spot, remembering times when I had come back before and remembered other times. Some people drink to forget, I drink to remember. I had the gueuze of course, followed by a Ciney, and sketched the old interior. When I first came here, people still smoked inside bars and so there was a foggy air which yellowed the walls. These days the air is so much nicer. The cafe was opened in 1928  by Theophile Vossen, and 91 years later the Vossen family still run this cafe. I remember when it was only 71 years old. I am so happy to finally come back and sketch this old place again.
A La Mort Subite, Brussels
A La Mort Subite, BrusselsBrussels

I walked about the streets on the way back to the hotel, tracking the changes that two decades had brought. I came across another place which was significantly less old than A La Mort Subite but where I used to go quite a lot back in 1999, the Irish bar Celtica. I popped in to see if that had changed over the years, and passing the security staff throwing out an extremely drunken sod on the way in, indeed it had not. Live music was being played by Father Jack from Father Ted, and it was full of people young and old, locals and others, it really wasn’t any different. It brought back more memories – this place, as with many others, tended to never close during the night, so you could go there on a Saturday night and leave in the early daylight hours, it would still be packed. Celtica was a useful place to hang out and wait for the first Sunday morning train back to Charleroi on a night out in the capital. I remember arriving in Brussels once or twice by Eurolines coach, at the Nord station, and getting in too late for the train home, so I would come here, sometimes with all my bags (one time I was bringing my guitar), chat to people (I remember meeting staff from NATO once, I asked them if they could let me know where was being bombed the summer after because I was making travel plans; it was 1999), drink very slowly, listen to an old soak bellowing out Whiskey In The Jar on the little stage. I didn’t stay long this time, I was getting jet-lagged (I had arrived on a first-class flight from LA that morning in Paris; 1999 me would probably not believe that, 2019 me barely does), so I walked back to my comfy hotel bed, and I was up early and refreshed for a nice morning run around empty streets the next day before leaving to go to Ghent and then Liege, a whistle-stop tour of my favourite small country.

Sketching Sudwerk

Let's Sketch Sudwerk p2
Last week I was invited to lead a sketching event at the Sudwerk Taproom in Davis. Now I used to go to Sudwerk in its previous incarnation, as a restaurant and beer garden, and I sketched it a few times. The restaurant is closed now, and the current owners operate a popular tap room  with am interesting rotation of beers, but still keeping the old Sudwerk classics like the Marzen, which I always liked. No longer sold in big litre glasses though, but my diet (see previous sketch) probably means I should lay off those anyway. We had a number of other sketchers there with us, it was a nice relaxing evening, I gave some tips on sketching places like this, and I drew a few of the things that I saw about there. It was a nice evening!
Let's Sketch Sudwerk p1

back at three mile

Three Mile Brewing, Davis
I’ve sketched this place before, it’s Three Mile Brewing in downtown Davis, a small brewery that does some very nice beers. Such as ‘Burnt Reynolds’. There always seems to be dogs in here. There was another one unseen in this sketch, as well as the one that is there. Last time I sketched in here there was a dog in the sketch. Am I now a dog sketcher? I have drawn a few dogs over the years, but I don’t really go for drawing animals much. So, Three Mile Brewing in Davis is named for the old three mile no-alcohol exclusion zone from campus that existed years ago (until 1979!). I like the colour scheme in this room, and it was handy that man wore that jacket providing a balance between the Burnt Reynolds beer and that wall on the left.

I sketched you in a bar down in old Soho

Old Coffee House pub

And so to the last night in England. It was an emotional trip, quick and busy, spent time with family, and friends, and places that I love. The last night there was just mine, all mine. I got back to Burnt Oak and watched old Alan Partridge shows on Netflix while packing my bag, never an easy task after even a short trip, what with all the various books (so many books) and new football shirts (more than one) and Cadbury’s cake bars and packs of Bisto gravy and Topic bars and whatever else I had to get. there was a lot I didn’t pick up. I didn’t get any Daddy’s Sauce, which I adore and am currently out of. For those who don’t know, Daddy’s is a brown sauce very similar to HP but less spicy and just tastes like home. I ate a Pot Noodle for dinner. I have not had a Pot Noodle for quite a long time. They seem a little less satisfying than I remember. I loved them when I was 14. I didn’t intend on ti being for dinner this time, but I left it a bit late to get much else when I finally finished packing my bag and venture back out into London one last time. I had a very early start the next morning and didn’t want to do any last-minute packing. So, I was along in London. I thought I might get some food and sketch an old pub. I wasn’t sure where I would go. London is vast and full of possibilities. I got off the train at Camden Town thinking, I could grab a curry at Masala Zone and then go up to sketch the Steele’s at Chalk Farm. But then at the last second I decided to jump back on the same tube because my head said, “you always go to Camden! Do that another time. London is yours!” So in the spirit of revisiting my youth, I got out at Tottenham Court Road instead. That was always my destination station whenever I would go into London as a teenager. It was right next to the Virgin Megastore – now long gone. It was also right next to the Hellfire Club, where as a 19-20 year old I would jump up and down to loud music with a group of international friends – also now long gone. In fact the station is completely different to the one from the 90s, having undergone a total transformation and rebuild in the past few years. All the old shortcuts are gone, and it’s a large, modern and open station now, not the cramped yellowing ticket hall of the past. I ended up not eating dinner, because I could not find somewhere that I fancied, and I wandered about Soho remembering all the old shortcuts that are thankfully still there. I passed by the Old Coffee House, a pub I have enjoyed a few fun evenings in with friends, one that I have tried to sketch before but at a time without pub-sketching confidence, and I saw through the window that there was a nice seat at the corner of the bar with a perfect panorama sketching view. That seat was mine. I would eat Dry Roasted Peanuts for dinner, hunger be damned.

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You’ll need to click on the sketch at the top of this post to see it in closer detail (it’ll take you to the Flickr site). As I sketched, I tried a couple of different beers, supplied by a local brewer, Brodies. The first was the Piccadilly Pale Ale, the second and third were the Old Street Pale Ale. I did all the ink at the bar, but added the watercolour paint on the plane next morning (my Stillman & Birn ‘Alpha’ sketchbook being exactly the same width as my Virgin Atlantic economy seat). The bar staff were friendly, and the pub was chilled out. Oh except for the bar fight which broke out behind me. I have discovered that I can apparently sketch undisturbed while a bar fight happens around me, looking up occasionally before getting back to work. Now don’t imagine a long Wild-West style mass brawl, it was more of a few seconds of pushing before a quick “break it up, boys”. There was a group of lads out on a jolly, very drunk and celebrating some birthday or other. I say ‘very drunk’ but it was varying degrees of drunkenness, ranging from ‘friendly and convivial’ to ‘barely able to speak or stand’, with a range of performative drunkenness in between. Two of them for example were enacting a bullfight in the bar, another was sat down loudly singing to a couple of ladies (he was one of the louder ones, but actually he had a very good singing voice), and then one lad who would drunkenly go and sit with random people who would grin and nod a lot back before he sat down with the wrong group of people, one of whom got angry at something or other and they started scuffling, a glass broke, the drunken guy was whisked away and I turned to see one offended young man displaying the classic pose of “hold me back, hold me back”. I didn’t see much more because I was zen-posed with my sketchbook, working to a tight schedule, I had a plane to catch in the morning. The kerfuffles were quickly dealt with by the, I must say, very capable and calming pub staff, who’ve seen it all before I am sure. There was none of that macho make-it-all-worse strutting. The large partying group departed, the broken glass cleaned up, the “hold me back” guy went calmly back to his fresh pint, and the evening went on. I’ve always quite enjoyed this pub, in a little corner of Soho near Carnaby Street, and have been here many times with friends, going back to the 1990s, so I was glad to finally get a sketch of the place. Drawing a pub with lots of details inevitably means you get some wrong, and in this case I drew one too many frames on the wall above the main bar area. You won’t notice, of course. I also drew one person twice. He was standing at the bar waiting for a drink, and then afterwards he had his jacket off and was sat with a woman enjoying conversation. His hair somehow went from black to brown as well but I blame the lighting, not my urban sketching skills. The world is as you see it at that moment (and that of course can change by the third pint).

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Seen through the window of a barbers in Soho. A popular night-time photo opportunity.

As it turns out it, I witnessed two bar fights that night. Typical London, you don’t see one for years and years and then two show up at once. On my way back to the station I popped into another old favourite, The Ship, for a quick pint of London Pride. As I was leaving, it seemed a ruck had broken out just outside between two people who had been in the pub, which was being broken apart by excited pub staff, and people were being directed away from it (so that they could stop and watch, as of course you would do). One rutting stag showed us the true meaning of “hold me back, hold me back”, and did some of the best “hold me back” moves I have ever seen, getting absolutely no fighting done whatsoever, while the main belligerent was drunkenly trying to pick up those metal poles that hold up barriers and swing it around like a broadsword. Maybe someone had asked if he wanted to go clubbing and his Google Translate had mis-google-translated. Security staff did that thing where they multiply, and both men were held back, and the audience started ambling off, as did I, because I had a plane to catch. An entertaining last night in London.

a festive friday

de vere's davis

It’s almost Christmas! I haven’t had much energy for sketching lately, but I really needed to get some drawing in. I went to see Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse (by the way, an awesome film, incredibly creative animation) and then popped into De Vere’s (not Into the Spi-De Vere’s), our local Irish Pub, for some Smithwicks and sketching. It was pretty busy with festive end-of-year partygoers. I sketched in dark green pen. It was really nice to get this sketch done, to get anything done. I’ve been finding it hard to be productive lately, everything seems to take me forever. Actually I have made a lot of things out of Perler Beads. This year I made my son’s advent calendar out of 14,000 of those beads; that was a lot of work. Anyway Christmas is almost here, so I wish you all the very best for the festive season, and hope you go and watch Spider-Verse, because it was pretty great.

porto party

Symposium people
And so here are some sketches from the final evening of the Porto Symposium. On these final get-togethers we usually spend a lot of time chatting and sketching, often speaking to people we may have not had a chance to see yet (easily done in this 800-large event), before going to dinner very late and generally feeling exhausted. Some wine was also drunk. Above, I sketched Marina Grechanik, from Israel, who this year was one of the symposium correspondents and another old urban sketchers friend whose work I’ve admired for years. She has a very creative and playful style (she appeared in my last book, on people sketching) so we drew each other in a portrait duel. I do love portrait duels and wish I could do more of them, I didn’t do enough of them in Porto.  Also on this page are Paul Heaston (who of course I know and have followed for years, but didn’t meet until 2016) and Hugo Costa, from Porto, who I’d not met before but whose work is awesome.

Below are Arnaud De Meyer, from Luxembourg, who I met in Manchester 2016. I really like his sketching work (especially his two page spreads), and really hope to sketch with the Luxembourg group some day; two sketchers I do not know but were from Germany, Jonatan and Alexandra; and Joe Bean, who I had the pleasure of meeting at a London sketchcrawl in 2016 and whose work I also really admire (in particular his in-construction sketches of Headingley Stadium in Leeds).
Symposium People
Below are a couple of sketchers I also met in Manchester 2016, Peter Dutka (UK) and Tine Klein (Switzerland), and though they both had colourful outfits I had didn’t have time to add paint while I stood with them. They both had amazing sketchbooks though, I spent some time looking through them, very productive and creative.
Symposium people
And below, the only other sketch I did, of a very tried and hungry group of urban sketchers – Liz Steel (Australia), Elizabeth Alley (USA), Fernanda Vaz de Campo (Brazil), and once more Paul Heaston (USA). Behind us were several more who I did not sketch. We had tried in vain to get dinner but it was late – late night dinner is less of a thing in Porto, this isn’t Madrid – but we found one place willing to serve us cheese pizza. The waitresses were for some reason very interested in my sketchbook. It was a fun evening, and I can’t wait to see evertyone again in Amsterdam! (Though I did see both Liz and Genine (unseen, at the table behind) in Lisbon a couple of days later).
Dinner after the Symposium
Oh yes, Amsterdam – I didn’t mention, but that is the location of the next Urban Sketching Symposium. Far fewer hilly streets there than Porto! I really hope to go to that one. Next time, I will actually tell people I am going, make connections ahead of time, and I’d also like to spend a bit of time in Belgium first, catching up with old places, meeting sketching friends, before the craziness of the Symposium.
Super Bock
Oh, and one last thing – this is Super Bock. It’s one of two beers you see everywhere in Portugal (the other being Sagres). This is one of the most Portuguese things to sketch. I hope you have enjoyed this trip through Porto with me, I hope I have managed to show some of my enjoyment of this city, but I didn’t see it all and would love to come back some day. I know some friends in England who would love it there. Adeus, Porto!

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le kwak sportif

le kwak
Kwak! A beer I very much enjoyed when I lived in Belgium all those years ago (can I go back there again please, just for a few days, please? I miss Belgium, and have several good sketching friends there). It’s the beer in the funny glass. I still have all the Belgian beer glasses I was given by my amis Belges back in the year 2000, though I actually got this one in England a couple of years later. The big bottle of Kwak was given to me at Christmas, but took me a while to open – that’s a lot of Kwak for one sitting. Kwak will always be associated with a funny story about my friend Tel who visited me in Charleroi one weekend, which I recounted in this blog post from 2008, “The night Tel drank the Kwak“.  That was funny. We were at my local, La Cuve a Biere, where we ordered a couple of Kwaks, but he drank his too quickly, and then the room started spinning, and everything went foggy (for him, not me, I was alright) and then he spent the best part of an hour in the small toilet of the pub, and it was not pretty. The “Kwak Incident” we called it. I miss Tel, he lives in Japan now. I miss a lot of things, places, people. Memories. That’s life I suppose. I miss recent things such as watching the Thor Ragnarok trailer a few minutes ago, that was so much fun, I miss it already. Difference is I can watch it again in a minute. And lets face it, I’m gonna. That’s gonna be a film I will need to watch with a much bigger glass of beer, Thor style. “Ragnakwak!” One glass I was given in Belgium was one such massive glass, with the words “Tres Grand Soif” on it, and a bell on it for when you need a refill. Santé!