london’s ancient highway

The River Thames sm
For the first sketch back in London I wanted to draw this stretch of the River Thames again, looking out towards Waterloo Bridge. Last time I sat on Hungerford Bridge (a little bit further toward the middle, drawn to include the then-brand-new Shard) the skyline looked different. New skyscrapers keep popping up, all in fun zany shapes like some ten-year-old invented a futuristic robotopolis. They all have funny names too, the Gherkin, the Cheesegrater, the Walkie-Talkie, the Spaghetti Western, the Cordless Kettle, the Balrog, the Gelfling’s Prophecy, all very silly names. Ok some of those may not exist yet. The oldest structure in this sketch is actually Cleopatra’s Needle, on the left there, at about 3500 years old (placed here in the 19th century). Its twin is in New York, you can apparently use it to teleport between the two cities but they don’t like to tell anyone (see previous posts for feelings about Translatlantic travel). Ancient Egyptians used to smirk at the silly nickname too, also making fun of Thoth’s Sewing Machine, Rameses’s Hat-Stand and Mark Antony’s Hypodermic Syringe, and so on. Anyway, I sat on my uncomfortable little stool (now retired) and sketched for two hours straight, as London in the Summertime started up around me, tourists, day-outers, amblers all looked around and marveled at the view. Now if the proposed mess of a project the Garden Bridge gets built this view will be spoiled. I believe the Bridge would go just beyond Waterloo bridge, but with trees poking out of the top of it the views down river would be compromised somewhat. Not a fan. Might be useful elsewhere, but not there. It’s a folly of Boris and Lumley. We’ll see if it actually gets built. If it does, expect more cranes, more changing views, and more sketches along the ever-changing, ever-constant river. I do love this river.


Here’s the sketch I did on the same bridge in 2012:
Waterloo panorama

a little petite

Petite France, StrasbourgMore sketches from Petite France, the old picturesque part of Strasbourg, famous for being where they put diseased soldiers centuries ago. The scene above is one of the most beautiful views in the city, where one of the canals of the river Ill twists past the narrow medieval lanes surrounding the Place Benjamin Zix (“Zixplätzel” in Alsacien). Benjamin Zix was a painter and sculptor in the Napoleonic era, born here (well, on rue des Moulins) in 1772. The building in the middle is the Maison des Tanneurs, dating from 1572, which is now a restaurant. I sat here by the narrow lock for a couple of hours, as tourists walked by, and other tourists in groups whirred by on those Segway things. I don’t know how you can go around Petite France on those Segways (which remind me of the STAP flying platforms ridden by battle droids in the Phantom Menace while attacking Gungans on Naboo), but a lot of people did manage it. Sketching in Petite France

Below is the rue des Dentelles (Spitzegass), which I sketched on the first day. There is a really interesting shop there called ‘Un Noel en Alsace’, which sells Christmas ornaments, mostly Alsatian. The most recent visit to Strasbourg I had made was in December 2004 with my wife, when we came to visit the Christmas market, or “Christkindelsmärik”. Strasbourg, if you don’t know, is the home of the traditional Christmas market. It is the oldest one in Europe, dating back to 1570, and is a lovely experience (albeit rather crowded). Strasbourg calls itself the ‘Capital of Christmas‘. It seemed to cover most of the centre-ville, and there was mulled wine (or maybe gluhwein, both of which I’m not keen on) being passed around. I do love Christmas time though, and Alsace does it pretty well.

Spitzegasse, Strasbourg

On the final day in Strasbourg I decided I would do more exploring than sketching (I spent a lot of time in bookshops), but I just had to go back and sketch more Petite France. I wasn’t done with Petite France yet. There was one scene which again is picturesque, tourist-photogenic, detail-heavy timber-framedness. The view from the Pont St. Martin towards the back end of the rue des Moulins (below). I spent an hour and a half sketching all the ink, and added most of the colour later. Below me, the water was gushing down from the locks. Behind me, the sound of children playing at a nearby school. Around me, tourists from all over the world lining up to take pictures of each other. I did consider making this a two-page panorama (and even plotted out the left hand page) but knew I wouldn’t have the time to draw it. Still, I’m well happy I took the time to come and draw this.

Petite France Pont St Martin

Still more to come!

over the ill and far away

Eglise St Paul, StrasbourgI don’t think I’ll be putting these Strasbourg sketches on my sketchblog in chronological order necessarily, but perhaps thematically. ‘Down by the River Ill’, which is the theme for this post, will overlap with at least a couple of other posts, but c’est comme ça. There’s a lot of river in Strasbourg (unlike Aix, which doesn’t have one). The centre of Strasbourg is built around the river Ill, primarily on a big island in the river (the ‘Grande-Île’, or ‘Big island’). The Ill meanders into the great Rhine river, which flows by many of Strasbourg’s western suburbs and provides the border with Germany. Strasbourg by the river Ill is very pretty, and a popular place for people to sit on the embankments and just relax, and read. Or sketch! The church above, however, I sketched from a tram stop located on one of the bridges. This is the Eglise St. Paul, which dominates the spot where the river Ill is joined by the short river Aar. The Eglise St. Paul was built in the 1890s, when Strasbourg was part of the German Reich (in the territory of Elsass-Lothringen, or Alsace-Lorraine). The bridge is the Pont d’Auvergne.

Pont St Thomas, StrasbourgSketching by the Ill river, Strasbourg

This second sketch was done earlier in the day, while sat on Quai Finkwiller next to the Pont St. Thomas, on rue Martin Luther. I had just spent a couple of hours sketching a wildly detailed scene in Petite France, and was on my way to sketch the Cathedral. The pink flowers were beautiful against the green railings of the bridge. Below me, a man fished with his long line. I met one other urban sketcher while drawing this, Rene Fijten from the Netherlands. I had met him the evening before at the Urban Sketchers France meetup, having followed his amazing work for years, and it was an absolute pleasure to finally meet him in person. I found him sketching nearby a little while later. If you don’t know his work, you really should check out his sketchblog.

Pont du Corbeau

This final sketch was made down by the Pont du Corbeau, at the end of a long first day sketching Strasbourg. I was on my way to meet up with the French urban sketchers at the Cafe Atlantico, further up the river, and found this stretch of the Ill too sketchable to resist. I could spend days just sketching along the river. I never did do my two-page river panorama (I did give it a go), but I might save that for a future trip.


Petite France, StrasbourgThe first time I came to Strasbourg was twenty years ago, and I arrived on a coach some time after midnight. It was part of an exchange program between sixth-form colleges in England and the Lycee Jean Monnet in Strasbourg, and from that trip in 1995 I fell in love with the city. I was learning both French and German at the time, so naturally Strasbourg was perfect. I went back a few times since, but the most recent was over ten years ago, and so when the opportunity (let’s call it the excuse) came up to visit Strasbourg again, to meet up with the French Urban Sketchers at the 3rd National ‘Rencontre’, I couldn’t resist. It was the twentieth anniversary of that pretty formative trip and Strasbourg was fading from my memory, so I simply had to come back and draw it, and draw it A LOT. Just as twenty years ago, I arrived after midnight, on a TGV from the south of France. I arrived to discover that the whole train station was now covered in a massive futuristic glass bubble. I walked to my hotel right by the cathedral, using the massive, towering steeple as a compass.

I met a group of French urban sketchers the next morning down at Petite France, where I stood on a bridge near the Ponts Couverts and sketched the scene above, the river Ill winding sleepily past timber-framed houses. You can see the sketchers gathered on the banks. I recognized a few from their sketches online; I’m a big fan of the French Urban Sketchers group, having met several of them in Barcelona, and I eagerly follow them on all the usual online places (the main site is It was a cloudy morning, and the occasional raindrop splashed down, but there were no more storms, and eventually the sun came out. The weather here in Alsace was perfect for being out sketching.

Petite France, Strasbourg
Petite France is an area of Strasbourg famous for its narrow cobbled streets and old timber-framed buildings, where the river splits off into canals criss-crossed by footbridges and the occasional lock. It is very peaceful, or would be if it weren’t for the groups of Segway tourists whirring along the cobbles. There was a lot to sketch down here, and I would come back every day. Petite France is not, as the name suggests, a model-village based on the whole of France, nor is it made of Lego, nor are the people really small like Lilliputians. It gets its name from a disease, specifically Syphilis, which was known as the ‘French Disease’. Actually (according to a tour guide on a Segway) it was also known as the ‘Italian Disease’, because French troops brought it back from Naples at the end of the fifteenth century. Actually it was probably first brought into Europe from the Americas, but nobody knows for sure. Anyway, those affected soldiers were often brought here to this part of Strasbourg to be treated (or at least kept out of the way), giving the area the name “Little France” after those afflicted with the French Disease. The city was part of the Holy Roman Empire at the time, not France – Strasbourg, or Strassburg, was for much of its history decidedly German, and its native language Alsacian is a form of Low Alemannic German.

Here I am in a France shirt (size Large, not Petite) sketching by the river Ill. Ironically people used to come here because they were ill. Anyway, all potential jokes and puns now exhausted, I decided to move along.
Sketching in Petite FranceSketching in Petite France
I stopped for lunch at a little place on Rue des Moulins, around the corner from the spot above, called ‘Le Baeckoffe d’Alsace’. I sketched the scene below while waiting for my food, and sipped a nice cold glass of ‘Fischer’ blonde beer (or Pecheur, depending on the glass), which was a real treat of a beer. Alsace knows its biere blonde. It also knows its food – I had the Cuisse de Poulet au Riesling (chicken leg in a Riesling-based sauce) with Spaetzle “Maison” (Spaetzle is a German side dish which my wife’s grandma used to make). This was superb, especially the Spaetzle, which was seasoned deliciously, and I could have eaten it all day long.

Rue des Moulins, Strasbourg

Strasbourg lunch

Best. Lunch. Ever.

To be continued…

On the banks of my own lovely Lea (or Lee)

Hertford, by the River Lea, UK
This is Hertford, which is (conveniently) in Hertfordshire, England. Despite being only up the road from where I grew up in north London, I had never been there, and it is very nice. It sits on the river Lea (or Lee, depending on the map you read; mine always called it ‘Lea (or Lee)’), and has an old brewery there called McMullen’s, whose name is everywhere (and whose beer is very nice). We were going up to visit Knebworth House, not too far away from here, but we got all the way there and discovered that it was closed during the week. So instead, we drove down to Hertford, and walked about a little while. there is a castle, but not a big one, with a nice little park. There were, we noticed, a lot of pubs and a lot of barber shops. I really liked the orange building below, and so I sketched it, its timber frames giving me an opportunity to practice for my upcoming trip to Strasbourg. The scene above though is of the River Lea (or Lee), with a row of lovely terraced houses on its banks and an old pub called the Old Barge. I just had to stop and sketch. I added the colour when I got home. It was very peaceful. I always forget about the River Lea (or Lee), which actually runs through north London before meeting up with the Thames at Bow Creek.
Hertford, UK
Here is a map of where it is. After this, we were going to drive to the village of Ware, but we decided to drive home and relax on the couch with a cup of tea, watching Countdown. So a pretty ideal day if you ask me!
map, Hertford

sunday in portland

food carts in portland
After an evening in the company of pirates, a lazy Sunday in downtown Portland. I didn’t go anywhere new or explore too much, just did what I enjoy – eating en plein air, going to Powell’s books, lining up for doughnuts and sketching a bridge. Many of the food carts weren’t open, including the delicious Thai one I ate from last year (“I Like Thai Food”, and I really do), but I grabbed a curry lunch from one (it was so-so, but really filling) before pottering off to Powell’s. I love Powell’s Books, you could get lost in there forever, and in fact you should. The bookstore covers an entire block. I love the smell of bookstores. After getting a t-shirt and a pint glass (I am such a tourist) I did another touristy thing and went to line up at Voodoo Doughnuts.
voodoo doughnuts, portland
Well, naturally I sketched it first – the linework anyhow, I added the colour later. I stood across the street and tried to guess how long it would take me to queue up for doughnuts by figuring out each person’s position, but after fifteen minutes I realised that line was actually two lines, doubling up on each other. Ah, so longer than I though. I lined up anyway (it too about twenty minutes or so; I had to endure the touristy family in front of me being all touristy, unlike me huh) and eventually got to choose my doughnuts. Despite all that time in line I still couldn’t quite make my mind up so just spent down what little cash I had left and carried away a big pink box to take back to Davis. As I got myself together outside a man passing beamed, “ooh did you get a dozen?” I was confused (stranger in street starting conversation, does not compute) and replied, “er, dunno, I just said words and they gave me a box of things,” which made a lot of sense I’m sure. I was tired. So I headed to the river, always a good place to start or finish a trip, and sketched a bridge.

P1130952I have been using a Seawhite of Brighton sketchbook I bought in London, it was cheap and the paper is smoother. But there has been something about it which is just not quite right, sure the watercolours don’t take the same way as with my watercolour Moleskines, but I don’t know, something’s been feeling a bit off. Anyway I brought with me a new sketchbook, a brand new landscape-size Alpha book from Stillman and Birn. I love the Alpha paper, but have been waiting for the right moment to start this one, so I used it to draw the Burnside Bridge (see below). It was a joy t use! Even though I didn’t add any paint to this one, it’s lovely paper to sketch on, though not smooth like the other book I was using it’s more to what I am used to.
burnside bridge, portland

And that’s it! Until the next time, Portland, until the next time.

“waterway to have a good time”

pdx broadway bridge
You may have noticed before that I like to sketch by the river. Apologies for the shameless Alan Partridge reference in the title there; nobody throw a dead cow at me. This was on my last day in Portland (though there are several more PDX posts to come, I still haven’t finished scanning, there’s a couple of bars, some food carts and a whole bunch of pirates yet…). The rain had stopped and the sunshine opened up my paintbox up. I was planning to wander the Pearl District, where the USk Symposium had been in 2010, but, oooh, that river. I found a quiet spot on the banks, amid the rocks, between Steel Bridge and Broadway Bridge, and drew the latter. Though it is very industrial down this stretch of river, there is an inherent beauty in such architecture – not for me the grand sweeps of baroque opulence, give me a factory and a couple of big metal bridges and I’m happy as a, er, um, insert ‘happy’ simile here.
pdx factory by river
Hey guess what, I have put together a Flickr set with all of my sketches of bridges and riverbanks in it, it is called “Bridges, Riverbanks…”