This is another very early morning sketch from back home in Burnt Oak. It was Father’s Day, and I was up super early so went out for a walk in the early morning June sunlight, when hardly anyone was around. The light was golden and heavy, rising beyond the Mill Hill end of Abbots Road, while I stopped at the Orange Hill end and drew one of the more impressive local buildings, the old Orange Hill Convent. Look at that chimney! That is a serious chimney. I remember the nuns, coming up and down to Burnt Oak, and I was told I had to greet them with a “Hello Sister” (not “Hello Nun” as I had been doing up to that point). Many years ago this was next to St.James’s School, the local Catholic school that I never went to (what with not being a Catholic), but would have been handy (being only two minutes from home; my actual school Edgware was a much further walk, and I did it daily – and slowly, as my old teachers will attest). My younger sister did go there, but only after it had relocated to Grahame Park. I remember friends of my older sister though who did go the St. James’s (my older sister by the way went to Orange Hill, just around the corner, which is also no longer there), they used to talk about St.James’s purely in terms of their terror at the nuns next door, Oh the nuns, so strict, the nuns! Which I never believed, having only met the nice sweet nuns going up and down the street, and saying “Hello Sister” to them, and they would say “oh hello young man” back. But then, I wasn’t a Catholic. Pupils at St. James’s wore uniforms of two different colours – black and grey for the boys, green and yellow for the girls. It’s funny living in the US now and high school kids not wearing uniforms. We could always tell where kids were from by their uniforms (which was exactly the point, I think, for when kids from different schools got into trouble, as was not uncommon – trashing a McDonalds, running rampage on a bus, throwing things (or people) into people’s gardens – then the head of that school could be contacted and the boys or girls would get into trouble and very pointed words would be had at the school assembly next day. Yeah this happened a lot at Edgware (not by me of course). Our uniforms were blue, white and maroon. Our rivals at Mill Hill Country High had similar uniforms but had cherry red instead of maroon. There was one Catholic girls school who were kitted out all in purple, in Finchley if I recall, and were nicknamed locally “the Purple Virgins”. Not by me, of course. I always loved how tall and imposing this building was, on those dark early evenings when the rain was lashing down it would appear like a haunted mansion out of the gloom. I do remember as a kid though, my friends and I would go to the field behind it, next to the Watling Community Centre, to get conkers from the big horse chestnut tree. We’d look around for those big green spiky balls, peeling them open to find a huge shiny conker inside. Now I know this sounds like something that mawkish sentimentalists will post on groups on Facebook, oh remember when all we had was conkers, not like now where it’s all video games and obesity and violent crime (you know, the sort of Facebook post with a comment thread that quickly turns xenophobic, regardless of the original subject), but this is in fact true, we did go and get conkers from a big tree just behind the convent. I was a pretty innocent kid, it has to be said. It was all football stickers and conkers. And video games to be fair, my brother and I spent a lot of time playing Donkey Kong. I did go to karate class a couple of times in the building next to this, but I gave it up because there was another boy from my school, who I think fancied himself as a bully, in the karate class one time when I was 11 or 12 and he just spent the entire time laughing at me from behind and making disparaging comments. He then followed me down Orange Hill trying to talk to me, not in a particularly menacing way, but I didn’t want to talk to him, and I knew that next day at school he would basically have all his cronies humiliate me for attempting to do karate. So I never went back, which was a bit of a shame. Kids eh. I would probably have been rubbish at karate anyway, but I do think of that when I see that wall in front of the convent. Here I go again, memory lane. Well the school building is gone, replaced by houses and flats, I don’t know if the chestnut tree is still there but I doubt kids are picking its conkers, in these days of violent obese video crime games, and it’s probably too late for me to go back and try my luck at karate now, but the outline of this old Convent still stands out at the top of the hill like always. And finally, I sketched it!
Travelling through hyperspace ain’t like dusting crops. Nor is travelling across the Atlantic. So no matter how late I stay up on the arrival day, when I am a little delirious and over-exhausted from the long overnight flight, especially one delayed by over 3 hours sat on the runway at Oakland, no matter how tired I am, I’ll still wake up at like 2am and find it impossible to return to the land of the sleeping. Also the sun comes up super early in Britain in the summer, and those birds in the Norwich Walk trees do love an early morning sing-song. When I was a kid I’d stay up all night and wait for that early dawn light, those early songbirds, and sometimes I would go for a run, enjoying the world when no people were about. Well these days I’m more likely to draw the world at that time, and so I sat in my mum’s kitchen and drew the back yard. The sky’s a funny colour but it really was a bit like that. I listened to podcasts about football, language, British history and Thor (“The Lightning and the Storm”, all about Walt Simonson’s epic run on the Thor comic, look it up, it’s a great podcast) until it was time for people to wake up and have breakfast. I always love that first morning back home. I’ve lived a quarter of my life in America now, but this to me will always be home. Click on the image for a closer view. When I showed my mum the first thing she said, “oh no you drew my washing line, I should have taken it down!” Whereas I as the urban sketcher, that is the first thing I drew, it’s to me the most interesting thing to draw. “At least you didn’t draw that old bucket,” she said. “Whaaa? I forgot the old bucket! No!!!” I totally would have drawn the bucket too, if I had space on the page, but it was just “off-screen”. I did draw the gnomes though, and I don’t really like those.
Here are a couple of other early-morning sketches of my mum’s back garden from previous visits back home, the top one being in 2011, the bottom one being 2007. Both feature the washing line. The bottom one (from ten years ago!) is a little sad to me now, as it shows my old tortoise, Tatty, who we had since I was about 6 or 7, but sadly died since that sketch.
Well the New Year is here and I am still posting sketches from November. I know you just can’t get enough of 2016. These are the sketches I did on our brief sojourn back to London over Thanksgiving. It was a week of family fun more than sketching outings (I did most of my UK sketching in the summer) but I managed a few. Above is a sketch from the Natural History Museum. My son really wanted to go there to see the geology exhibits (he loves rocks and minerals) and we wanted to see our beloved Dippy one last time before he is removed from the main hall and replaced with a whale skeleton. Dippy, for those who don’t know, is the giant Diplodocus skeleton in the Hintze Hall. Dippy’s been in the NHM for over a century and has been in that hall since I was a little kid, when I would go there all the time with school or my big sister; I do love the Natural History Museum. Well Dippy is leaving! This very week in fact. They are replacing Dippy with a large blue whale skeleton that will hang from the ceiling. Dippy will go on a tour of the UK (see here for details). My son and I found a seat in an alcove to sketch, but we couldn’t see the whole Dippy so sketched what we could see.
We also visited the Harry Potter tour at the Warner Bros Studios, at Leavesden, just outside London. We are big Harry Potter fans, and my son read the books and saw the movies this year for the first time so it was an exciting visit to go and see the real sets where they were filmed. We only had time for one sketch (so much to see! We could have been there all day) so I sketched the entrance to Dumbledore’s office while he drew the big pendulum thing. I got a Gryffindor scarf. According to the Pottermore website, my son and I would both be in Gryffindor (my wife got sorted into Slytherin!). We went there with my mum, sister and nephew, and it was a really fun family day, I do recommend it.
One other place I was eager to visit was the new Switch House at the Tate Modern, the new tall extension to the gallery on the South Bank. It only opened last summer. My son kinda enjoyed the gallery (we saw both my books in the shop! But he was more excited about the tiny Slinky he bought) but was nervous about going to the tenth floor observation deck. When we were up there though he loved it, and again we sat and sketched the view. This is now my favourite spot in London and I will definitely come back with a few hours on hand to do a big detailed panorama. It was amazing there. Here is what I did sketch, of the view across the Thames to St. Paul’s Cathedral:
The scene below is of drinkers at the very intimate pub off Trafalgar Square, The Harp. I came here with my friend Roshan, as they do good beer; one day I’d like to sketch the whole bar. As it was, I sketched these happydrikers while Roshan popped to the loo. Less-than-five-minute people sketching!
And here is Burnt Oak tube station, in the area my family live (and I am from. Looking as it has ever done. I was going to finish this, but I wanted to get back and have a cup of tea, and never finished it at home.
One last sketch, which is of course the in-flight drawing on the Virgin flight coming home. It was one of the newer planes, and unlike in the summer, this time I didn’t get completely squashed up and have a bad back for several weeks afterwards. Which was handy. Farewell again then my London, until next time!
Happy New Year! I’ve been away these past couple of weeks or so, not blogging over the Christmas period, instead gorging on Quality Street and mince pies. I was in London for Christmas, flying back on New Year’s Eve, and am still getting through the jetlag even now. Our decorations are staying up for a couple more days yet, and there is still festive seasonal beer in the fridge. 2016 is going to be busy, very busy. To bring you right back into the spirit of Christmas however here are the first three sketches from the new Watercolour Moleskine (#14), all of a certain festive theme. Above, our living room here in Davis. We dragged out the fake tree this year, sketched a few times before (years ago). On the TV, Stewart Lee on DVD. On the shelves to the right you can make out my son’s advent calendar, made by me – I make him one every year. This year was pirate-ship themed. I tried to sketch this same scene last Christmas, on Christmas Eve, but not long into sketching it our electric went out, not to return for almost a week, which was an adventure. This year at least I finished my sketch!
Second up, this is my mother-in-law’s living room in Santa Rosa. Click on the image for a closer view. We had an early Christmas with our U.S. family before our trip to London, and I sketched this while my two-year-old nephew was napping and the house was still relatively quiet, before all the presents were unwrapped. Everybody’s stockings were nicely placed above the fireplace, and dogs were asleep on their blankets. They are in this image, but you can barely see them, and they don’t look as much like dogs as they might (I don’t really draw dogs too well). This was a nice day, but we had to go home in the evening to pack for London…
Finally, across the ocean to England! This is my Mum’s living room in Burnt Oak, north London, (again click on the image for a closer view) which I started sketching on the first jetlagged morning there, up early with my son, but finished off over a couple more night-time sessions on the trip. This is the living room that I had all of my childhood Christmases in, beside that very fireplace. The Christmas parties my family had in this room, many years of memories. This year as in many others we had all the family over for Christmas dinner, with two long tables going the length of the room. On the TV there, we were watching Return of the Jedi, because this was December the 18th and we had tickets for the morning show of a film called The Force Awakens (which you might have heard about). We had a lovely Christmas in London, and the weather was warmer than in Davis. I hope you had a lovely merry time too.
Happy new 2016!
Here is the last drawing done during my London trip this past summer; click on the image to see it in larger format. Well the last one I’m posting; chronologically this was the first one I did, but I only just recently remembered to go back and finish it (add colour, finish all the bricks). This is Norwich Walk, the street where I grew up and where my mum still lives, as drawn from my old bedroom window on my first early morning back in the UK. I was jetlagged of course so awake at ridiculous o’clock, with the window open wide and the bright dewy air softening the world. Of course our house isn’t one of the ones in this row because I was inside it when I was drawing, perhaps on the next trip I’ll draw the panorama from the other side of the road (but maybe not at 5:00am in the morning). This was my view every day for a few decades. I’ve drawn it before, in fact I recall drawing several felt-tip pen versions for my art homework back at high school. It hasn’t changed that much, but I remember when those driveways were all gardens; I think it was the Daniels family’s house to the right who made the first one, followed by ours, then everyone else followed suit. There are still a couple of front gardens left but not many, however there are no cars parked on the street any more. In my youth they were all parked on the other side of the already very narrow road. I spent a lot of time in that house in the middle as a kid, first when the Glennon family lived there, then when the Edwards family lived there. I remember when it got pebble-dashed, that was popular in the 1980s wasn’t it. One of my memories was just outside there when I got run over by a white van one Saturday afternoon. I was seven years old, playing with my friends Natasha and Simon, my Star Wars figures all over the front doorstep. This street was our playground, as were all narrow Watling Estate streets to the kids who lived in them. We ran over the road to knock for our friends Robert and Victoria. He couldn’t come out though so we went back across the street. I was going first, didn’t look where I was going, and then BAM, all I saw was white. Then I woke up on a couch with everyone screaming and crying around me, so I passed out again and woke up in hospital. They kept me in overnight; I was alright, had a big scar on my head for a while but I got some new Star Wars toys when I got back home which was wicked. I remember getting the AT-ST ‘scout walker’ and my big sister helping me create a landscape on the carpet with a blanket for all the Star Wars toys. I also got a card form everyone in my class, everyone except my friend Wayne who I sat next to, because as weird coincidence would have it, on that very same day he also got run over, but he injured his legs and was out of school for a lot longer. I was a lot more careful crossing the street after that, but these days it is much easier for kids to see oncoming traffic now that everyone parks on their driveways!
I sketched this in the panoramic ‘Alpha’ Stillman and Birn sketchbook (a great sketchbook that), before having a proper English breakfast with my Mum, and getting on the early tube to go and sketch Piccadilly Circus. I love that ‘first morning back home in Burnt Oak’ feeling. I wish I could get back there more often!
I always intend to sketch more Burnt Oak whenever I’m back home but I never quite get around to it. And I should – the old place keeps changing in small, and sometimes pretty big, ways. Since my last trip, at least one of the historic focal points of the area has closed down, probably for good: the Bald Faced Stag, the old pub on Burnt Oak Broadway. Love it or loathe it (and it was often pretty loathed), the Stag played a big part in many of our lives as Burnt Oakers, and it just doesn’t feel right that it’s no longer there. What then is left of old Burnt Oak? Rather a lot, B.O. fans, rather a lot. I did a quick solo-sketchcrawl one afternoon, starting with the distinctive buildings of Silkstream Parade, above. This is between the Library and the Station, and to many of us these were the shops you went to when you went Up The Road. The old newsagents on the corner, at one time called Magson’s but I don’t recall its previous name, was replaced by Costcutter’s many years ago, but you can still see the long-disused cigarette vending machine on the side of the building. Heron Pharmacy is still there, unchanged in decades. Zam’s chicken is where Toni’s used to be, an old ice cream and sweetshop, I remember showing my Mexico 86 sticker album the Italian guy Toni who ran the place and him telling me all about the Italy players. Whenever I think of Paolo Rossi I think of Very Cherry Slush Puppies (remember them? You remember them). The kebab shop is also long gone, that had one of the most often broken windows in the whole of England I recall. There used to be a butchers shop here too, and was there a greengrocer’s? Was that the whole set? Tanning salon now. Anyway that’s enough “How We Used To Live”, any more of that and I may as well start every blog post with “Who remembers Penny Sweets, remember them eh, Kola Kubes eh, not like that any more eh”).
I moved up Watling Avenue to Hassan, which has been there since before I was a kid, unchanged. They don’t make shop signs like that any more, it’s all primary colour plastics now, but Hassan has class, gilded edges which of course my sketch doesn’t really show. Not being much of a clothes shopper, and this being a clothes shop for Men (my Mum, not being a Man, never dragged me through this shop as a kid, unlike John Ford and other Burnt Oak shops), I’ve never ever been inside Hassan’s. I know people who do, people who live far from Burnt Oak and come out of their way to go there. Personally I just love that it is there, still there. So now I’ve finally sketched it. I stood opposite outside a closed-down cafe on the corner of Gaskarth Road. Cafes, eh, remember cafes? Don’t get cafes any more, it’s all Starbucks these days, etc.
Sketching across Watling Avenue wasn’t too difficult. As busy a street as it is, it’s pretty narrow. Burnt Oak Broadway on the other hand is much wider, so when I sketched the old fish and chip shop the Captain’s Cabin I had to squint a lot more. Burnt Oak Broadway is what we call this part of Edgware Road, itself part of the ancient (and I mean ancient) Watling Street, the long straight road built by the Romans linking Londinium with the north-western reaches of Britannia. It’s from Watling Street that Watling Avenue gets its name, and in fact the name Burnt Oak is a reference to the old Roman custom of burning an oak tree to mark the boundaries between places, or so we were told at school. See, my town got some history, bro. This chip shop is pretty much the only one in ‘downtown’ Burnt Oak (to use an Americanism) left from the Olden Days (“who remembers fish’n’chips, eh, vinegar, chip butties, eh, it’s all piri-piri cappuccinos now”). I do remember there was a Kentucky Fried Chicken next door when I was a kid (remember those? No seriously, you don’t get them any more, all KFC now) and a Barclay’s Bank on the corner which got turned into an amusement arcade, not sure how amusing it really is though, maybe it amused NatWest across the street. The Captain’s Cabin is still there, the sign is different from when I was a kid, so I sketched it. Personally I used to get my chips from the Golden Fry down the Watling, where they had the Space Invaders games my brother used to play (“Who remembers Space Invaders, eh? Don’t get that any more, it’s all Minecraft and Halo and Words With Friends now”). Captain’s Cabin for me was always that bit further to walk for the same thing, but I still always liked their chips.
And here is a map of Burnt Oak, you don’t get maps like this any more, it’s all iPhones now, but it was with maps just like this that I managed to navigate my way around town when I was a kid. No not really. I just wanted to draw a bit more of a fun treasure-island-style map (and yes I know north is in the wrong direction, I’m not working for the Ordnance Survey or nothing) for my home town (and yes Burnt Oak is not an actual ‘town’, just a small nook in the expanse of London, an offshoot of Edgware really, but Burnt Oakers everywhere, even those who have long since emigrated to the far-flung corners of the world, we know that it is its own place, our home town, but once you start getting too sentimental it’s only one step away from “Who remembers bus passes, remember bus passes eh, get on a bus and go somewhere yeah, can’t do that now eh”). I do love to sketch the place though, to capture it for old time’s sake, because by golly it changes fast. But…not that fast.
I have a piece currently on display at the Pence Gallery as part of their “Tiny” show. Each artist submitted a piece no bigger than 5″x7″ (about my usual drawing size!) and were given a piece of canvas board on which to create their masterpiece. I usually draw on paper, but wanted to give it a go on this different material, and it was fun. As you can see below in the step-by-step I actually put the paint on first, and then added the ink details. Normally I draw ink first (colouring-in is an afterthought) but the ink stayed wet on this canvas board so that wasn’t possible, but this way worked really nicely. The ink didn’t get glazed over by the wash, and really popped. Because of the rough nature of this canvas board, scanning was a bit difficult, so hopefully you can get a good idea from these photos.
Pennywise…that is – or was, I am now told – a shop in Burnt Oak (where I was born and grew up) that was there my entire life, unchanged. I didn’t exactly need to go there often (great place for plastic buckets and sponges) but it was just one of those shops, always there, with that funny little orange symbol. I’d always intended to draw it. I didn’t have time while in London so took a photo. I am glad I did – shortly after drawing this I learnt that Pennywise has now closed and become something else. “The curse strikes again” I thought. Several things I have drawn have subsequently closed down. I’m not going to list them now but this is why it is important for the urban sketcher to record the world while it is here. This of course is not an on-location urban sketch, being drawn from a photo, but it’s for the same purpose. I wish I could go back and draw all the other landmark Burnt Oak places from my past.