(64) Loch Ness, (65) Inverness, and (66) John O’Groats

GB 64-66 sm Our virtual journey is at an end. The traditional end-point for the island of Great Britain is John O’Groats (or the beginning point; end, begin, all the same), and so after all the cities and dramatic valleys we end at a tiny hamlet, well less hamlet and more medallion of bacon, or lardon, on the way to the Orkneys. People walk from Land’s End to John O’Groats for charity, or to see how far it is, or just to explore a route across the island of Great Britain. I can vouch, it’s a long way, with a lot in between. You have to miss a lot out; you can’t explore Great Britain and see everything. Doing this virtually means you miss out on meeting all the people, but on the plus side you don’t have to meet as many people. I don’t think that’d be a problem up here. In Edinburgh during the Festival maybe, or London while Camden Market is on, or Manchester on a Saturday night, or Bournemouth beach after lockdown is lifted (or even before), too many people for a crowd-avoider like me. The north of Scotland is significantly less populated, though I am sure it still gets a lot of tourists.

And why not, it’s spectacular. Loch Ness is a highlight, stretching up the Great Glen and slicing Scotland in two. I have started getting very interested in the geology of Great Britain, and I bought a book all about it, and have watched some shows on YouTube that talk about it, but I feel like I still have a way to go before I can really understand it – Britain has a very deep geological history. What is now Scotland in fact was once on a different continent to England, something which can never happen again in our lifetimes, at least not geologically, though maybe geopolitically. The area that is now the border between the English and the Scots is roughly where the geological border lies. But then you have the Great Glen, up in the Highlands of Scotland, a massive deep diagonal lobotomy through the head of Great Britain. The faultline is called the Great Glen Fault, where two tectonic plates meet and move slowly in different directions. In the Ice Age huge glaciers carved up this land, and glacial erosion in the Quaternary period formed the immensely deep freshwater lake called Loch Ness. The bit I drew was of Urquart Castle, from street View (but obviously on a boat, so Loch view) (incidentally, wen you use Google Street View here the little yellow person icon changes into a green Loch Ness Monster). You’ve all heard of the Loch Ness Monster, aka Nessie. It’s a monster that looks a bit like a plesiosaur or a dragon, and has to hide with his family of other Nessies whenever those damned scientists come along (I think they’ve had enough of ‘experts’), and there’s this family who helps them out, a couple of kids and a bloke with a big bushy red beard, he plays the bagpipes to warn them I think. I saw a documentary but it’s been a really long time. Actually I did watch a movie about it called “Loch Ness” with your man from Cheers in it, I actually saw that at the cinema in 1996. Bit of a story to go with that, I was on a date in central London, and we decided to watch Loch Ness at Leicester Square. I remembered it was a fairly boring film, but we heard this loudish bang during the film, thought nothing of it. Afterwards it was freezing outside but we walked down by the Thames talking about how Loch Ness wasn’t all that, until time to go home as I had college next morning (I was heading back to north London, she to south). But then the bridges across the Thames were closed, and I was stuck. The reason the bridges were closed was because the loud bang we had heard was actually a bomb going off on a bus on Aldwych, not that far away. It was an IRA bomb, but unannounced (often there would be a phone warning in those days) – this one was being carried by the bomber but went off accidentally while he sat on the bus. There were quite a few IRA incidents in the mid 90s. So, many of the bridges were closed, meaning I was stuck on the other side of the Thames. My date’s friend was picking her up by car and offered me to stay over if need be but I really needed to get home so I could be up for college next day (I was so responsible) so I said I’d be fine. I walked for ages down the Thames until I got to a bridge that was actually open; by the time I managed to walk back up to Trafalgar Square, absolutely freezing in the light snow, it was way too late for the tube (which I assumed would be closed anyway due to the bomb, that was a thing) and wondered if I’d need to walk home (which is about a four hour walk), there was thankfully a Night Bus. The good old N5. So, when I think of the Loch Ness, I think of that freezing cold night. 

At the top of the Great Glen is Inverness. I have to say, I found it hard to find something on Street View I wanted to draw. I think I imagined more than I got, I thought maybe there’d be a great whisky shop or statue of Nessie or Ted Danson, but in the end I found this nice bridge across the water. What I really liked about it was the couple in the foreground, sat by the river, the woman’s head resting on the man’s shoulder, it just seemed warm and touching. I’ve kept in the people were I can in these drawings, because I’ve learned that geography is not just about the inanimate objects, but the inanimate human beings as well. It’s a nice view of the bridge looking over at the church, but these people give it a warmer, happier feel. Inverness is often voted the happiest place in Scotland, which makes me want to visit it more now. Apparently the accent is quite different, with none of the usual rolled ‘r’s, but the accents change as you get further north up here and can be quite different to what English or other people expect to hear from a Scottish voice. I want to travel just to hear all these accents, as interesting as differences in geology. Inverness historically was a stronghold of Gaelic speakers too, though use of the native language has dwindled over the years. Scottish Gaelic is similar linguistically to Irish and Manx, and also related to Welsh, Cornish and Breton, the Celtic languages. I know a little Irish, just a few phrases really (nobody in my Irish family spoke it), but the only thing I ever learned in Scottish Gaelic was “Alba gu bràth” which means something like “Scotland forever”. 

We can’t stay in Inverness forever, so time for the sixty-sixth and final stop on this long journey, John O’Groats. As mentioned this is where charity walkers like to start or finish. The spot I chose to draw is right by the edge of the sea, at the little harbour where you catch the ferry to the Orkneys. The town is apparently named after an old Dutch ferryman. There’s not much here, but it’s the knowledge that you’re right at the tip of this big island with thousands of years of history and culture behind you. It’s been a fun journey, I hope to do it in person someday, but for now I’m at the desk in my house in California, the air quality from the wildfire smoke still making it hard to breath outside, a global pandemic making everything difficult, my son just started his first day of Junior High, all completely remote, and we had no big summer travels this year for the first time in ages. I suppose it’s good, we can sit at home and see the world in other ways, but we are looking through a keyhole, seeing only the bits we want to see, not hearing any real voices, or accents, not smelling the air or tasting the food, not getting a chill from a North Sea breeze or drenched in a Mancunian downpour or sun-burned on a Cornish beach, no exhaustion from climbing steep hills in Bristol or Edinburgh, no rushing to finish my sketch so I don’t miss the last bus out of Portmeirion. I should write a final page to close out the book, that I will keep to myself; I’ve left it blank. Anyway I hope you’ve enjoyed the journey, even the long rambly often nonsensical and sometimes made-up-ish posts that go with them. If I ever do exhibit shows again this will be a fun curio to look at, of a virtual journey in a year when were were told to stay home. What a bloody year. I hope next year is better than this.   

(59) Edinburgh, and (60) Forth Bridge

GB 59-60 sm And so on to another spread that I really enjoyed drawing; I really like the spreads that have a big bridge spanning across the pages. I won’t try to do a Scottish accent, though if I am around Scots for a little while I find myself picking up little bits here and there in a way that has never happened while living in America. I can’t do an American accent to save my life, no matter how hard I try I always sound like John Wayne, or one of those 1930s gangsters (“maaaaaah, he’s a wise guy, seeee”). But I remember hanging around with my Glaswegian friend when I was a kid and my vowels would start changing without me noticing, I would say “Scaw’land”, and put “see me” at the start of sentences. I’ve never spent any real time in Scotland to see if I would pick up an accent but if my wife had been Caledonia rather than Californian, born in Rutherglen rather than Riverside, I might have ended up owning more raincoats and rolling my “r”s by now. Who knows. My London friends probably do think I sound American now and I just don’t realize it, just because I’ll say “sidewalk” occasionally, or “yeehaw” or “quit the lollygaggin, sheee, shtick em up, you doity rat, sheeee”. 

And so to Edinburgh, capital of Scotland. I have been to Edinburgh in 1999 for the Festival, with my university’s theatre company. I wasn’t acting, no I was doing technical stuff, lighting (trying to figure out the complicated lighting deck which occasionally didn’t work for me) and sound (pressing play and pause on a minidisk player, significantly easier). It was a very drinky-stay-out-late time, as is not unusual during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, but I found the event a bit too overpopulated for my liking. My favourite bits were just going up that big hill and looking over the city in peace, as the sun went down. I remember going to see one comedian who was from South London or somewhere, who told a joke I still remember, he said that they have gangs in Edinburgh, but up here they have drive-by headbuttings. A few people laughed. Best show I saw was a crazy version of Ubu Roi (in English) at the theatre we were based in, I recall going on a pub crawl with most of the cast afterwards. Acting and performing friends love Edinburgh, it’s a big time for them, especially if trying out new shows. I would like to go back and see my friend Simon perform there some day when he gets back there, but I really don’t like being somewhere like that when it’s so crowded; this year of course coronavirus did for it, but I hope that the theatre industry can bounce back from all this. Edinburgh is an attractive place, lots of dramatic scenery, quite a diverse city, and one i’d like to go to at a more normal time. I think I applied there for university when I was doing A-Levels, but ended up going to Queen Mary in London. I didn’t get into Edinburgh, the only place I didn’t get an offer, but looking at my UCAS form afterwards it looks like I applied for the MA rather than the BA; the Scottish universities were a bit confusing. Scotland’s education system is a bit different from England and Wales – a little ahead, if the Scottish kids in our school were to be believed – and the legal system is also different. The money is different too – it’s pound sterling but the banknotes are issued by the Royal Bank of Scotland, not the Bank of England, and don’t have the Queen on them. I’d love to come and draw Edinburgh, but honestly, I’d be coming for this bridge.

The Forth Bridge, going over the massive Firth of Forth, is one of my favourite bridges. Even looking at the picture in Google Street View, I really had to study all the metal girders (pronounced “gar’dahs”, or however it was pronounced in the Irn Bru adverts) (similar to the way Taggart would pronounce ‘murder’, “Sir, there’s been anuthah mur’dah”). It’s a beauty of a bridge. You can’t really tell here but it’s red. It’s a railway bridge; there is aq different one for cars, which is more boring. I mean it’s ok, looks a bit like the older stretch of the Bay Bridge in San Francisco, but next to the rail bridge it’s very much the bass player nobody cares about, or Simon Le Bon. Or the less funny member of a comedy double act. I bet many comedy double acts came to Edinburgh over the years and came out here, and one of them knew they were the rail bridge, and the other knew they’d always be the road bridge. So, the Firth of Forth goes over to Fife. I’m not making that up. If you speak with a London accent as I do, switching your ‘th’ sounds to ‘f’ sounds, that’s a lot of ‘f’s all in one place, faffing about. “Fifty-five thieves in the Firth of Forth near Fife”. I need a glass of water. Speaking of girders though, I used to really like Irn Bru when I was a kid. You don’t see it over here, except on rare occasions like at the Scottish Games (they used to hold that in Woodland, all bagpipes and caber tossing), though I last had some at a Scottish food cart in Portland. It’s quite a sugary fizzy drink, some people call it Scotland’s national drink (after Whisky) (and Buckfast).

We move northwards through Scotland for two more spreads, before we will finally finish our virtual journey around Great Britain. I don’t really like whisky so I’ll need to find some virtual Irn Bru, shortbread, and deep-fried Mars bars for the last legs as we head into Dundee, home of the Beano, St Andrews, birthplace of golf, and the granite city, Aberdeen. 

(55) Sunderland, and (56) Newcastle-upon-Tyne

GB 55-56 sm

Howay man, wey aye pet, gannin reet op to NewCAStle noo! Apologies for my terrible attempt at a Newcastle “Geordie” accent, I definitely can’t do one in real life, though two of my best friends were born in the northeast, one in Sunderland and one in Newcastle (though they grew up in London so they have Tottenham and Harrow accents respectively). The Newcastle mate, Simon, can do a great Geordie accent though and comes back up here regularly, and I’d never be able to go there without him, this is very much his toon. I have never been to the north-east of England, not beyond Whitby, it really does feel like a different country to me, and the language spoken, it is English but the dialect sounds very different to mine from daahn saahf. It can be beautiful in its intonation, though growing up for me I associated it with two very specific TV programs – Byker Grove, and Auf Wiedersehen, Pet. There was Jossy’s Giants as well, but I only remember the theme tune now and not a lot else. I must say, I am very pleased with how this page turned out, it might be my favourite spread. I would love to stand beneath the real bridges and draw that angle. But I’d have to go with Simon, and I’d never attempt the accent in real life.

So first up on this North-Eastern leg, Sunderland. I liked this view of the Empire Theater and a pub with a big advert for Newcastle Ales on the side of it. Sunderland didn’t look like the prettiest city from my virtual tour view, I’ll be honest, but it had a charm about it that felt familiar to me. The name of the town reminds me of the Dark Crystal, “What was sundered and undone”, well that’s where the name came from, not the dark Crystal, but the word “sunder”. The land on the other side of the river Wear was separated or ‘sundered’ from the monastery on the other side at Monkwearmouth. That monastery was filled with Mystics, while Sunderland became filled with Skeksis who lived at Roker Park, and at first the Skeksis gave all the local Gelflings jobs, working in the palace as guards or looking after the coaches, until eventually they discovered that if you drain the essence from a Gelfling it makes you look a bit younger, so they just started draining all the Gelfling’s essence until all the Gelflings were dead, except two who were hidden away, only to come back and heal the Crystal reuniting the Skeksis with the Mystics to create a race of beings called the Mackems. Their new local football stadium was henceforth called the Stadium of Light. This is a true story, no need to look it up, definitely not made up. Speaking of football, the local team has been the subject of a Netflix series called “Sunderland ’til I die”, which I’ve seen some of, but I think they edited out all of the Skeksis but probably should have left the Podlings in, they might have done better on the pitch. Still, bit of a grim name, “Sunderland ’til I die”, perhaps they should call it “Sunderland ’til I get reunited with my evil other half and fly off into space to live forever”. Now, you may not know, but the town of Washington, which is within Sunderland, is the ancestral family home of one George Washington, the tall man that was in the musical Hamilton; he was Hamilton’s boss.

And so on to Newcastle-upon-Tyne. I like drawing bridges, and this place has bridges. Newcastle is a big port city, important for the coal industry historically, and a long tradition of ship-building on the Tyne. For those who don’t know, that is the river, the Tyne. There’s also a famous song by Lindisfarne called “Fog on the Tyne”, which famous Geordie son Gazza “Paul” Gascoigne re-released when asked to bring out a music video making sure people knew he was a Geordie in case they were not aware. Fellow North-Easter who played for Newcastle and Spurs, Chris Waddle, also tried his hand as a pop star alongside Glenn Hoddle in the mid 80s, with the most cringeworthy record of a cringeworthy time, “Diamond Lights”. I am still embarrassed to have ever watched the video for that. I’ve mentioned the word “Geordie” a few times as a descriptive name for people from Newcastle, that is like “Scouser” for Liverpool, “Cockney” for London, “Brummie” for Birmingham and “Someone from Bristol” for Bristol. The most famous Geordies in the world are Ant and/or Dec. They started out as PJ and/or Duncan, characters from Byker Byker Byker Byker Grove, with a hit song called “Let’s Get Ready To Rumble”, which was a good bit better than Fog on the Tyne, and light years better than Diamond Lights. They went on to become Britain’s most beloved TV presenters with their cheeky little faces and most famously presented the Jungle reality series “I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here!” which recreates the real situation of famous people being put in a tropical situation to talk behind each others backs, eat insects, and become more famous for that than anything they ever did. The other most famous Geordies in the world are Sting and Jimmy Nail, both named after things with sharp points. Mark Knopfler from Dire Straits is also a local Geordie and they play some of his music before Newcastle United games. That’s the big black and white striped football team from up here, with long suffering but very vocal fans. One of the best periods of football from them in my lifetime was the mid 90s when they came very close to winning the Premier League, under the great little North-East lad Kevin Keegan, a hero of mine. I met him in Charleroi when he was England manager, he signed my diary. But without doubt one of the best things to come out of Newcastle is the comic magazine Viz. Biffa Bacon, Billy the Fish, Finbarr Saunders, though I always liked the letters pages, and the Top Tips. It’s still going now, but I used to read it when my brother would buy it in the late 80s, and it’s from there that I learned all the Geordie words that I cannot say in real life.

Also coming out of Newcastle is Hadrian’s Wall, the Roman barrier between the Empire and the wild world beyond, and that is our next stop. I might take a break from posting while I catch up with some of my other sketches, though I’ve not been drawing that much lately. But the next spread will take us into the country of Scotland, the last leg of the virtual journey…

(29) Menai Bridge, and (30) Conwy

GB 29-30 sm
The last of the Welsh trilogy brings us right up to North Wales, although I wish I’d made space for the interior. I had to weigh up whether I needed to include Wrexham, but later on leave out Sunderland? It’s a weighty issue, and I’d only be including Wrexham because they knocked Arsenal out of the FA Cup that one time. I really enjoyed this spread though, I hope it shows. It was a very enjoyable virtual journey, very peaceful. It was still a couple of days or so before our flood, when I was still at the desk downstairs, and so it’s funny that two bridges ended up on these pages. Or not. But I imagined myself walking these areas, like Tony Robinson in that TV series I have watched a lot of lately. I’ve been thinking a lot about walking the UK, planning out hikes, right down to deciding which walking poles to bring. Of course I would need to factor in sketching time, so each walk would take a lot longer, but I draw pretty fast, and can always do half and finish the rest at the local pub in the evening, listening away for accents and dialects. I studied the history of the English language, and one of my popular-academic linguistic heroes lives up this way, David Crystal, on Anglesey. I have read many of his books, and I’ve always wanted to meet him and talk language and its history and future with him.

So, let’s have a butcher’s at the first drawing then, this is the mighty Menai Suspension Bridge, which crosses high above the Menai Strait that separates the mainland from the island of Anglesey (Ynys Môn in Welsh). The bridge was built by the great civil engineer and architect Thomas Telford and was opened in 1826, and the road that goes across it is actually the A5 – the very same road that links up what we call Watling Street, although that Roman road did not come out this far, although in that Watling Street book I started reading the author does continue past Wroxeter and up to Holyhead, but fails to talk about this amazing bridge. So technically this links it up with the first spread of the book. Now, this sketch was drawn on the Anglesey side of the Menai Strait, so technically it is not on the island of Great Britain – exception to the rule – but you can see the island of Great Britain in the drawing so no rules broken. The name “Anglesey” is likely of Viking origin, but the best place name on the island is unmistakably Welsh: Llanfairpwllgwyngyllgogerychwyrndrobwllllantysiliogogogoch. It means “Stmaryschurchinthehollowofthewhitehazelneartotherapidwhirlpoolofllantysiliooftheredcave”, which is easy for you to say. It’s where you go to take a picture of the train station sign using panoramic mode on your phone. I have to go there.

It’s North Wales, so another castle was needed, and I like the one in Conwy, mostly because Caernarfon would mean backtracking again, and I’d already done that, or putting the first sketch on the bottom of a spread, and I had done that already. I’m trying to make the book interesting to pick up and look through. Not that I have any interest in publishing, this is just a curio to bring to events in future, but it’s good to mix it up. I get it right a few more times, and less right on a couple, but mostly I’m very happy with the spreads from Wales onwards, and this one more than most. I love a bridge, I love a castle. So for Conwy I needed to find a good angle, and so I went across the River Conwy and found a nice spot next to a little cottage, I can imagine standing here sketching, maybe with the brolly sticking out my coat, saying hello to a local old fellow who passed me by, and nodding while I pretended to understand what he was saying to me, and complementing him on the beautiful countryside as if he was personally responsible for it, and him telling me something about how when he was a kid he’d catch cockles and cook them up for breakfast but that his grandkids just want to listen to records and go to London and work at desks, but they come back for Christmas and they always want cockles for breakfast, but I’m a bit old to get out there now with my back the way it is. Nice chap, this completely imaginary passer-by. Now the castle itself is another one built by Patrick McGoohan from Braveheart, and it is a World Heritage Site. It is a proper example of a proper castle, one that if you have kids and they like castles you should take them to this one.

There’s a lot more in North Wales to draw – coastal towns like Llandudno, which always reminds me of Neville Southall, the great Wales and Everton goalie (and a great follow on Twitter), the peaks and valleys of Snowdonia, and resort towns like Rhyl to draw caravan parks, chalets and chip shops. But as it is, we had to get back to England, to the Midlands, to draw yet another bridge – the very first one made of cast iron…

Amsterdam Afterwards

Amsterdam Herengracht bridge Sunday sm
The Symposium finished, people went there separate ways, some together, some sticking about in Amsterdam, and I decided to have a lie in and a late start for a day of wandering and sketching some of the parts of the city I hadn’t explored much yet. My family were arriving in town later that day so I had a lot of time for some more sketching before the full-on tourist part of the trip started. The temperatures had dropped, the skies started to cloud up a little, it was still busy out but I finally had a bit of headspace. I walked over to Herengracht and sat down by the canal to draw this bridge. I saw a few other sketchers here and there, nobody I knew, but we know we’re all in the sketching family so there’s usually a nod of respect.
Amsterdam Leliegracht and Keizersgracht sm
I really like this particular junction at the corner of Leliegracht and Keizersgracht. Amsterdam has a lot of charm. I think I didn’t love Amsterdam, overall, it felt a little stressful with the tight sidewalks and cyclists, the tourists and the partygoers, and the dirt, far too many cigarette butts on the ground, but there is no denying Amsterdam is still beautiful, and so unlike many other cities. The first time I came to Amsterdam in the summer of 1998 I had the same impression, though I had also spent all night on a train from Berlin. There is so much to search though, no shortage of places to explore. I mooched around bookshops, tried samples in cheese shops, got lost in alleys and small squares, or as lost as my map-enable apple watch would let me. This side of the city west of Damrak is full of postcard views and long canal vistas. I knew I’d come back so I wandered back toward the Centraal Station area (perhaps my least favourite station area), had a look around the football-themed store Copa (perhaps my most favourite store in Amsterdam), buying two pairs of socks, one which features Diego Maradona doing the ‘Hand of God’ in 1986, and Zidane headbutting Materazzi in the 2006 world cup final, and went to meet up with my family. The next couple of days here would be doing more of the tourist stuff – a boat trip around the canals, Anne Frank’s house, the Van Gogh Museum, and a change of hotel.
Amsterdam Graffiti Fish Stand sm
Here are a couple of sketches I did near the Centraal station. Teh lamp-post thing below looks like some kind of city warning against public drunkenness.
Amsterdam Lamp-post sm
Amsterdam Spui sm

I didn’t sketch as much once the family arrived, just a few here and there, I think I had earned the break. Above is a quick one I drew at Spui while eating Flemish Frites (see below, they were delicious). I can’t reiterate how much I love the frites over here, they do taste delicious.

I did try to do a quick sketch of the tall houses at Damrak one evening, just to mess about with some of the new materials we were given at the symposium.Not my usueal sketching but fun to mess about.
Amsterdam Buildings Damrak sm
Amsterdam Buildings in Blue sm
Below, I drank a beer called “Bastaard” by Hertog Jan while we had an Indonesian meal at Kantjil by Spui. Sketching with pencil can get messy as you can see by the filthy page.
Amsterdam Kantjil beer
And here is one of the little tiny toy cars they have here in Amsterdam to get around the super narrow streets. I never did sketch one; I asked Lapin who loves to sketch cars if he was going to add one to his collection, but even he said no, that’s no car. Look at it, it’s like something from Richard Scarry. I expected another one to come along looking like a big carved out apple , and a pencil and a banana.

IMG_4512

I did change hotels when my family arrived, moving from the Grand Amrâth to the Doubletree, which my wife had booked (she got a really good deal). It was a nice hotel for sure, very modern, with amazing views over the city, but zero of the character of the Grand Amrâth. But these views! I had to sketch it. I did go up to the rooftop lounge to look over the city, but I did not want to sketch up there, it wasn’t really my thing to hang out there. The Doubletree hotel is right across the canal from the Grand Amrâth so we could see the whole building in all its glory from across the water, and I would get up for a run past it, and some of that lovely fresh juice from a nearby supermarket. I miss all the nice juices and foods from Holland. I would like to come back and explore more of the Netherlands. The Dutch people I met at the symposium came from all over and there are so many places I know not that much about. Aaargh, the world is so big, there is so much I want to see before I’m done. I want to see it all, and sketch it all.
Amsterdam View from Doubletree sm
But I was done with Amsterdam, we all were. Time to move on, time to go back to Belgium and eat some more frites and waffles. But the heatwave wasn’t done with us yet. We went to get our Thalys but of course, there were cancellations and delays, hung over from the travel chaos a week before. We waited and waited, a few hours with hundreds of others, until in the end a Thalys came and everyone was lucky to get on. But we had first class reservations (a good call as it turns out, for very little more cost) and so I was given a couple of free Belgian beers (a couple of cans of Leffe Blonde) in our carriage for the journey. It was all a bit stressful at the time, but I’m usually travel lucky, it all works out in the end. When life gives you lemons, draw in your sketchbook and be patient, and life will eventually give you Leffe. Onwards to Brussels!
Amsterdam Waiting for Thalys sm

Alive Actually, Amsterdam

Amsterdam Shari Blaukopf Workshop sm
When I posted my sketches from Porto in 2018 every post had an alliterative “p” title, and I am doing something similar for Amsterdam, but making far less sense. I could put more thought into it, but that would not be indicative of how my mind was completely melted by the heat there. I was all over the place. Some people go to Amsterdam and do that on purpose of course, through other means, but for me it was just the heat making me feel continuously confused. Also the streets – I love bikes and am a cyclist myself, but wow they are everywhere in Amsterdam, and sidewalks are super narrow. When it is busy it feels stressful. On the second morning of the symposium though I felt quite good, raring to go, I had even got up and had a run around the emptier morning streets, before I marched along to the Zuiderkerk to meet up with my workshop group, chatting away to people I hadn’t seen in a year, today was going to be great. However I had mixed up which workshop I was supposed to be doing, thinking that I was in Ian Fennely’s class. When it came time for roll call though he made it very clear my name was not on the list for the workshop, “no, you are not on the list.” Ok, I’m not trying to sneak in, maybe I wrote it down wrong. Turns out I had got my days mixed up (first sign my mind was not functioning at capacity), and that I was going to Shari Blaukopf’s workshop. That cheered me up as I was really looking forward to her class on sketching boats, which is why I thought I had selected it to save for last. She is an exceptional watercolour painter and I of course am not a painter, though I use watercolours to colour in my drawings, I am all about the lines so I really wanted to learn from her, and while my results weren’t where I wanted them to be, I came away with lots of new knowledge and wanting to try some new things – such as drawing with brush pens.
Amsterdam Shari Blaukopf Workshop 2 smAmsterdam Shari Blaukopf Workshop Ship 1 sm

Shari encouraged us to bring along brush pens and do some quick sketches of the boats with those. Of course I also drew her talking about the boats. Drawing in brush pen is not something I do a lot of – I realized that drawing people is super fun, especially adding a little watercolour – but those dark shapes and thick lines of the black and white boat drawings really helped to focus in on the values.

Amsterdam Shari Blaukopf Workshop Ships 2 sm
Drawing boats is good practice for perspective, and really good for shading and value. I don’t get much opportunity to draw boats in Davis, only when I go down to the City. Amsterdam harbour is the perfect place for boat sketching. Oh, except when it is very sunny, pushing midday and there is little shade. I was getting thirsty, so I walked over to NEMO (a huge building, very easy to find), which is a big science museum, to get a drink. I had to go to a cafe on the actual roof, climbing up these huge steps, and when I got to the cafe I couldn’t decide in my overheated mind what to get, so I think I got two types of fresh juice, one might have been a smoothie, and some fruit, and some water as well, and it still didn’t feel like enough. I think I was getting a bit of heat exhaustion. I carried on with the workshop, drawing the scene below, first with the brush pen (which I liked) and then just with watercolours (which I liked less).

Amsterdam Shari Blaukopf Workshop Ship 4 sm
Amsterdam Shari Blaukopf Workshop Ship 3 sm
My colours seemed dull. Shari suggested that perhaps my paints were a bit too dry, and that dulls the colours I would get. I didn’t quite understand, because they were wet, I was using water (I’m so thick), but I learned that if I had ‘wet’ paints, that is, paints from a tube and not dry in the pan, my colours would be a lot brighter. I got to experience that later in the day when Donald Saluling let me use his paints, and I could instantly tell the difference. I don’t really try a lot of different paints out, so that got me thinking maybe now is the time to invest in a bunch of tubed paints, maybe some nice Daniel Smiths or something. I’m so scared of that, but I think now’s the time to start being a bit bolder. (Fast forward to March 2020, I still haven’t bought new paints but I am using an iPad now and I can get way bolder! In a funny way this class really helped me think about digital sketching). Shari also showed us some very interesting travel paintbrushes too, and I have since got some of those, but of course haven’t yet tried them out (because as I have said before I like to let paintbrushes sit there for half a year before I pluck up the courage to actually use them for anything).

Amsterdam Harbor sm

When the workshop was over, I decided I needed to draw a couple more boats before I had lunch. My hotel was only across the street, so I found some shade under a tree, and cooled off. This was a nice way to end the first part of the day. But it just kept getting hotter. After a rest, I grabbed some more nice juice and a sandwich from the Albert Hein supermarket, and headed out to the sketchwalk taking place at Spui. Clearly my forgetfulness was taking control because I totally forgot to attend Rita Sabler’s sketch demo. When I got to Spui I found the sketchers, and was meeting up with another Portland sketching friend Kalina. The heat was hitting me hard now, I was sweating and sluggish. And then I realized I had forgotten my paints. I wanted to spend the rest of the day painting watery scenes, putting into practice what I learned in the morning, but my watercolors were sitting on my bed at the hotel. Aargh! I saw Gerard Michel sketching on Herengracht and joined him for a bit. I then found a green Citroen and sat in a small gap next to a bike and tried to draw it. I spoke to a guy from Ohio and a woman from Germany who were also sketching it. There were so many sketchers everywhere. That’s how it should be. The heat was getting to everyone, but still we soldiered on, filling our sketchbooks. I added some colour later to this, if you are wondering.
Amsterdam Green Car sm

I also added the colour later to this, but this was a scene I was determined to sketch, but in no real state to do so. This was the moment in the Symposium when I think the heat battered me the most. I really should have just been doing something else, maybe sitting inside a dark cafe with a cold cold beer. Beer did not sound that good to me right then though, my head was already a barrel filled with porridge. This by the way is at Herengracht and Leidsegracht. I should like to come back here when it is cloudy. Again, I added in the wash later, to reflect some of my mood.

Amsterdam Herengracht bridge sm

This is what it looks like when you look through that bridge, and through a whole load of other bridges.

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But my head could not handle such views. The bridges could have gone on for ever and ever. I needed some water, but then I found a cafe called Joe and the Juice. It was cool inside, and I liked the names of the drinks. I decided I needed a refreshing smoothie called “Stress Down”, that name just stood out to me. It was made with Aardbei, Gember and Framboos, which I determined was Strawberry, Ginger and Raspberry.

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Honestly I have no idea why that combination worked so well, but it felt like a complete power-up. Like in a computer game when you find a floating heart and it restores your health. My sluggish mind and drained body suddenly felt much more energized, and I went outside, pulled out the brush pen, and immediately drew the sketch below, which I really enjoyed.
Amsterdam Keizersgracht street sm
Finally feeling a bit better about my sketching, I went back to Spui and was finally ready for a beer, I met up with Kalina and we met Donald Saluling (first time I had met him in person), and we sat outside a bar filling the early evening with chat and good times. Even on hot days like this, it’s good to all be alive.

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Long post this, could have been two. But it’s all one story. The next posts will be really much shorter. Or maybe longer. That day’s sketching was not over, and I did manage another brush pen sketch at a brown cafe, but I’ll save that for another day.

looking over liège

Liege hydrants
I took the train across the linguistic divide that cuts Belgium in two and landed in Liège, a city I had last visited in the final months of the twentieth century. I was going there for exactly 24 hours, to visit my long-time urban sketching friend and art hero, Gerard Michel, and also sketch with some other Belgian sketching friends. Liège is a fairly big city, larger than I remember, and the architecture is very Walloon, lots of brick houses and steep hills. Gerard and I went for a morning walk around his neighbourhood, up steep paths and down long stairs, overlooking rooftops and spires and trees and the great river Meuse. Liège is a lively city, with a lot of atmosphere, a university city, and a very sketchable one, but in a different way to Ghent. We met up with Fabien Denoel, who I’ve known and followed since Barcelona 2013, and Chris Damaskis, as well as Danni Hoedamkers whom I had sketched with in Ghent, and Martine Kervagoret, visiting from Paris on the way to the Symposium, whom I first met back in Lisbon 2011 I think. We sketched up at the Terrasses des Minimes, overlooking the city, and it was very peaceful. I have seen many of gerard’s skethces from up there, as well as Fabiens, but also Lapin’s Florian Afflerbach’s, Nina Johansson’s, all the great sketchers who have visited there before, so I knew this scene well already, and I’m glad to have sketched it myself.
Liege rooftops des Minimes
I liked this picture of an apple that I took too.

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We walked into town for lunch, going to an old Liègeois cafe called Chez Stockis / Cafe Lequet, near the banks of the Meuse. We sat and chatted in French (I am very rusty), looked through sketchbooks, had cold beer and ate very local food. Most people had these things called ‘boulots’, which are these large meatballs (I don’t eat the meat so I didn’t have those), but I had Tomates Crevettes, which were these little shrimp sat on a big tomato, with frites. The cafe is old and a local favourite, but I heard that it would be closing. In fact I think by now, M. Stockis has closed up for the last time, though the cafe may still be going on (there’s a FB page). The patron, Guillaume Stockis, is there in the background of the sketch below (which is of Fabien Denoel). On the ceiling is hanging the marionette of Tchantchès, a local Walloons character dating back to the 19th century, dressed in his traditional miners’ clothes. You can learn about him here, if you can speak Walloons. This here is the heart of Liège.

Liege Cafe Lequet sm

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After lunch we walked across the Meuse to the Outremeuse neighbourhood and sketched at the roundabout of the Rue Pont St Nicolas. It was getting hot, the heatwave was coming in, and regular cold drinks were necessary. I sat next to a Friterie – the Friterie Tchantches of course – and drew as best I could. I also wandered about a little, as I had learned (from one of Gerard’s sketches) that the best waffles in Liège were at a place just across the street. Sadly it was closed, so I had one from a chain nearby, which was not as good. The waffles of Liège are a bit different from the waffles of Brussels, usually smaller and rounder, and they remind me of that Belgian film Rosetta, which I saw back in 1999 when I was in Charleroi, a story about a young woman in Liège who at one point works in a waffle truck.

Liege Outremeuse

Going back a few hours, the sketch below was the view from the guest room at Gerard’s house, I had woken up early (jetlag), and needed to practice the sketching. The bells at the local church were playing Bob Dylan, Blowin’ in the Wind, which always reminds me of when I lived in Belgium, when I listened to Bob Dylan a lot, and that was the first song on the CD I had bought. I would listen to that when looking out over the rooftops from my 13th floor room, so perhaps this was the universe welcoming me back to Wallonia.
Liege view from window
And as you know, I like to draw fire hydrants, so I drew three of them in Liège. And here also is Gerard, on the steep Montagne de Beuren, showing me the spot where he had once drawn a spectacular 360 degree picture of the whole scene – he gave me a print of it a decade ago, I do love it. It was funny seeing the real place in real life.
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Here is Gerard’s sketchbook, and as you can see I show up in it twice! A huge honour. I’m wearing my 1984 classic Belgium shirt, crouching over my book as always.

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After sketching the roundabout, I walked down to the shade beneath the bridges crossing the Meuse. There was a smell of wee. The footbridge is the Passarelle Saucy, and I think I remember this bridge from that one time I came here twenty years ago, but I don’t remember it being called Saucy. What a brilliant name for a bridge. And no, I won’t be doing any sauce or saucy based jokes here.
Liege Passarelle Saucy
We crossed back over the river, walked about the city-centre a bit, before stopping off at the Place St Denis to draw the side of the church there. The weather was really getting hot by now. Gerard’s son Antoine joined us, I’ve met him a number of times. It was nice having dinner with Gerard’s family at his home the evening before, he made a really delicious chicken meal. I was delighted to take a look at his sketchbook room, his inventions, and we looked through a large map book of 17th or 18th century Belgium with Fabien, scouring it for every village; a small country with a big and detailed history. Belgium has only been the country of Belgium since 1830, but every area has a long hisroty, often of being ruled by some foreign power like the Habsburgs, or the French, or the Dutch, or the Spanish; Liège for many years was ruled by the Prince-Bishops of Liège, the princes-évêques, and the next time I am here I will draw the magnificent palace that still dominates the skyline. This is also, possibly, the city of Charlemagne’s birth, though nobody knows for sure. It might be Aachen, which isn’t far away, and was his capital. The city I was in the day before, Ghent, was the birthplace of another great Holy Roman Emperor called Charles, whose name lives on in one of my favourite beers, Charles Quint (Kaizer Karel).
Liege Sketchers
The Church of St.Denis dates back to the late 900s AD, founded by someone called Notker of Liège. I added the colour later on the train out of town. I spent exactly 24 hours in Liège. We all went for a cold beer in the city square, before Gerard took me to the station, the phenonemally futuristic cathedral of Guillemins, and I just made it onto a train to go back in time to Charleroi. A la prochaine fois, Liège!
Liege St Denis

skyscrapers and the golden gate bridge

Embarcadero and Mission SF
Perspective, detail. I like those things. I arrived early in San Francisco, and found a spot on the Embarcadero looking up Mission Street. I remember wanting to sketch this view years ago when I used to wait for the Amtrak bus here, the only that no longer stops there, but I am glad I waited a few years as there are way more buildings to sketch in the background now. I went to the Ferry Building, but the place which sells the nice bomboneri and cannoli I like so much was no longer there, sadly. So I got a travel book to read on the train at Book Passage. Reading doesn’t make me fat, though it weighs down my bag a bit. Actually the book I got that day, a collection of travel stories, I also took to Europe with me and read some while on the rails, but I left it on a bookshelf in a hotel in Brussels for someone else to enjoy. I was being weighed down, so had to get rid of some unneeded items. The stories I kept in my head, however I don’t really remember that many of them now, except for one, about a couple staying at a hotel in Tierra del Fuego or somewhere, and the electricity all went out, so they took that opportunity to engage in a little bit of what used to be called ‘how’s your father’ back in the 50s, only to be embarrassingly interrupted by another family coming into the wrong room. That’s all I remember. There was another story about a music writer travelling to Prague who got taken for a ride by a local who had an automatic gun, but let’s get back to my own less-interesting stories of travel shall we. I stood at this spot in San Francisco and drew this picture, and then went somewhere else. There, that’s the whole story.

SF Golden Gate Bridge

I ended up at Golden Gate Bridge. I haven’t been there in ages, not to sketch anyway. It was a nice day, a bit windy, much cooler than Davis. There is something about standing somewhere so iconic and impressive, you feel really lucky to have this within reach. I remember when Magneto used it to get his villainous brotherhood from the north bay over to Alcatraz, all because his friend Juggernaut said he couldn’t swim. I mean a boat would probably have been easier but the Master of Magnetism does like grand gestures. Shame he lost his powers before he could help rebuild. I do like X-Men: The Last Stand, despite the clumsy script. But “Charles always wanted to build bridges!” is a classic cheesy line, even for him. He just couldn’t think of a suitable line for a boat. “Charles would be ferry impressed!” Enough X-Men chat. Actually I am reminded of when, in the comics, Magneto (him again) used his powers to prevent an earthquake in the city, and also when he sat up on Mt Tamalpais nearby and went deep into his powers to project them into space and rescue Kitty Pryde from the big planet-bullet thing, oh comics. Anyway, the Golden Gate Bridge. I included Fort Point down below because that is where I was headed. I have never been to Fort Point before, a building that predates the bridge itself. It was built at the height of the Gold Rush, to protect the Bay and as a formidable naval defense for the young United States. I enjoyed it in there, I didn’t sketch any of the cannons but I liked wandering about and peering through the small windows in the thick brick walls, and catching glimpses of the bridge. It was a lovely day, lots of sunshine, but super windy. I sketched up on the roof there, before climbing down the steep narrow staircase that made me feel a bit nervous. I got down, and then took a nice long walk along Crissy Field. More to come…

SF GG Bridge from Fort Point

Afternoon in the Arboretum

Arboretum Redwoods

Last Sunday, we held a Let’s Draw Davis sketchcrawl in the UC Davis Arboretum. It was actually full of people out having photoshoots with family, either the ones with graduating students or maybe because they have lots of family visiting for Picnic Day, or maybe just the parents-and-small-kids photoshoots; all of them were there, mostly in front of me in the scene above. It’s a good spot for it. The Redwood Grove is quite beautiful. Those Redwoods were planted about seventy years ago or so. It was probably my favourite spot in Davis when I first moved here, though I don’t walk down here very often any more. You can almost imagine that you are deep in the Redwood forests, maybe an Ewok or two whistling in the branches. Plus picture-perfect photoshoots. I didn’t draw the people though.

I was photographed myself, in the Redwood Grove, when a couple came and said hello to me, who had met me before at my sketchbook exhibit event a couple of years ago, Brian and Susan Monchamp. Many thanks to them taking this pic of me in action.

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The Arboretum has had a lot of work done over the past few years. The section closest to downtown in particular has been completely renovated. Pathways newly paved, handrails along the creek in the narrowest sections, the Creek itself completely refurbished. I haven’t been here in ages. I drew the bridge that I have sketched several times before. As I sketched, a lady walking past made a big point of going and picking up a crisp-packet wrapper from somewhere up the verge. I mean, that’s good of course, but she did feel the need to announce it vocally to the world, as if the person who dropped it were still around. The day before was Picnic Day, so I’ve always felt that Sunday is ‘litter everywhere’ day. That said, it’s never really that bad, I always expect it to be worse. IT was a lovely Sunday afternoon, at the end of the sketchcrawl we went back to Wyatt Deck and looked at all our sketches. I’ve done a lot of foliage sketching lately, by the way, which I’ll show you in the next post.

Arboretum Bridge

Portland’s Autumn

pdx saturday market

In November I went up to Portland, Oregon, to teach one of the 10×10 Urban Sketchers workshops, on Interior Perspective. I was invited by my friend Rita Sabler (the excellent Portland reportage sketcher), and it was as always an enjoyable visit to one of my favourite cities. I only ever seem to go these days in dark November, but this time it was not rainy at all. It was very colourful in fact, with the autumn leaves out in full force. I tried to capture as much of that as possible in my out-and-about sketches. Above, Portland’s Saturday market, with the Skidmore Fountain in the foreground. I sketched this fountain in 2010 at the first USk Symposium, on a Saturday morning perspective sketching class with Frank Ching. That was the moment I always look back to when I really gave up my inhibitions about drawing in public; rather than find a place to hide and be invisible, better to sketch openly and not worry about being ‘in the way’, become part of the place. On this day, I was able to observe the market as some stalls were still setting up, and as people passed by I got a real feel for the character of this quarter of Portland.

steel bridge portland

I like the Steel Bridge, another one I drew on that first Portland symposium, that time at a workshop with Lapin, I sat between him and Gerard Michel discussing different approaches. I’ve always wanted to return to this riverbank in the Spring when the blossoms are all pink, but coming back in Fall with golden leaves floating down is almost as nice. I did get a bit cold though, and so streetcarred it back to the hotel for a rest before my workshop.

pdx food trucks alder square

This one was sketched at the food carts area at Alder Street, after I had spent a good long afternoon wandering about Powell’s. Powell’s is such a great big bookstore, I could spend forever in there. They had my books, too, which is always exciting to see. I have a tradition now of going to Powell’s and then wandering up here for a big hot dish of Thai food, and I was not disappointed. I sketched across the street, the sunlight starting to fade, the urban greys brightened up by the reddish orange of the trees.

star theater portland

Not too far away, a bit earlier in the day, the Star Theater, with yellowy leaves scattered about. A group of homeless people sat nearby talking and laughing, streetcars rattled past, a slight breeze blew leaves and thoughts past as I sketched. My legs were hurting; I had had a night out before, and a good lie-in, but as each year passes I always forget I need a bit more rest. I spent the rest of the afternoon in Powell’s. And below, of course, an orange Portland fire hydrant, weather-worn and pock-marked.

pdx hydrant