Friday, 25 March 2016

It’s Grim Oop North

It’s grim oop North.Except that it isn’t. This morning was spectacularly sunny in Bishop Auckland, so I thought I’d pop down to the bank and maybe go for a little wander. Bank? On Good Friday? Yes, it was shut. Thing is, I’m not exactly an observer of these sorts of things. I knew I had a violin pupil coming later today, but she’s a Buddhist, so I doubted she’d notice it was Good Friday either.

I stood in front of the automatic bank door for a few moments wondering why it wouldn’t open, then twigged and moved on, at which point I was accosted by a multitude of immaculately turned out young men in suits who one by one greeted me with ‘Hello darling,’ or ‘Hello love,’ followed by an eager enquiry as to who supplied my gas and electricity. They were cheery and it was a sunny day so I didn’t tell them where they could put their gas and electricity, merely hoped they’d have a nice day, and moved on.

It’s late March. It’s spring. It hasn’t felt like spring up to this point despite the mini-daffs in the back yard, but this morning it felt like the sun had remembered the clocks change this weekend to British Summer Time and was hurriedly making spring happen all in one day. I remembered I had my shiny new mobile phone with me and determined to take springy pictures with it. First port of call would be the town hall – which was looking bright and shiny, but the trees in front of it were still convinced it was the dead of winter, so it all looked a bit bare. I left the camera in my bag.

I proceeded in an orderly fashion through the market-free market place and towards the Bishop’s gaffe. His (former) abode was also looking great in the sunshine, so I snapped a pic, but it wasn’t shouting out SPRING! Not to worry. There was the park beyond, and there would have to be something flowering there. I’d make for the deer house, because that’s photogenic, irrespective of the seasons, and along the way I started thinking about stories, poems, and the whole place was a poem. I would absorb it, use it later.

One forgets quite how intensely blue the sky can be at this time of the year and in this part of the world. We’re relatively smog-free here in Bishop Auckland; far enough away from the pall that hangs over Teesside except when the wind is in a mean direction, which is very rare. The air is good, and it wasn’t yet too heavy with daffodil pollen, something which is guaranteed to give me cheese-grater throat.

I climbed the slight rise to the deer house and surveyed the view. Across the River Wear there’s a building site at the moment as they construct the arena and stadium for ‘Kynren’, the vast open air show that is coming our way in under 100 days. People have booked tickets for it from as far away as China apparently. At the moment, it’s a mass of metal and wood on a flood plain which used to be the soggy golf links beside the Wear. The mind boggles at the transformation that’s going on. I worry what will happen to the show if we get a rainy summer, but we always get rainy summers here so I’m sure they’ve thought of that and will be able to cope. Hundreds of people are involved. There will be horses. Everyone loves horses, so it can’t fail.

The deer house is spectacular in a much smaller and more intimate way, and in the past they’ve had little theatrical performances up here, and folk singers, stuff like that, rather than the extravagant picnics for hunting parties that used to happen. The deer are long gone, but sheep wander up here sometimes. Today it was looking very beautiful, but still a bit wintery despite the deep blue of the sky. I continued down, off the mound, and crossed the foolish River Gaunless. ‘foolish’ because ‘Gaunless’ is apparently the Viking word for ‘gormless’, so they clearly didn’t think much of it either. The poor old river always looks to be nastily polluted by old mine workings so it’s a bit dead, but there were people playing Pooh sticks on one of the medieval bridges, which was cheering.

Across the bridge, the parkland becomes less formal, and at last I started seeing signs of spring. Alongside a stream there was a clump of coltsfoot, and much of the grassland near the trees was sprinkled with celandines – in the distance I could see gorse bushes in flower, so I snapped away, each vista looking more delightful than the last.

I hadn’t intended to come this far, but now that I had I thought I might as well continue to the obelisk, a mini-pyramid that caps a well connected to some old underground cisterns. It stands in the middle of a field, and normally I would have photographed it, but I didn’t today because the field was full of ponies and sheep, and more importantly, lambs! Yes! Spring! Evidence at last. I kept well clear. Didn’t want to disturb them. They would get enough of that from the families with young kids that were following me up the footpath and clearly intending to cross the field. 

I turned and went back down the hill, feeling fitter and stronger than I have for a long, long, time, but that’s what spring can do to you. I love winter, I love its snugness, its curling under the duvetness; I love long dark nights, hot baths, woolly hats. I love the sharpness of autumn, the frosts, the bonfire smell of November. I’ve never thought much of spring in the past. It’s been late coming, but there’s something in the air that’s different this year. Not sure what it is. When I was walking back along one of the soft green lanes, I imagined horses cantering up behind me, and it wasn’t the horses from Kynren across the river; it was a memory, though clearly not my own, of one of the hunting parties from centuries ago. They weren’t there, and I didn’t really hear them, but they were damned close, and I almost did.

Arriving back at the Bishop’s Castle, and not feeling quite ready to go home yet, I popped into the old library café and had a pot of real tea served with a proper tea strainer and slop basin, and one of their homemade cheese and spring onion scones, which was meltingly delicious, as expected. They’re going to close the place to visitors for eighteen months or so from September in order to carry out major conservation work – and anyway, the famed Zurburan paintings are going to be off on their hols round the world, so the main draw of the place won’t be there – so I’m making the most of my season ticket, and visiting as often as I can. After my tea I went into the quiet of the chapel. I am emphatically not a religious person, but the chapel, which used to be the banqueting hall and is possibly the largest private chapel in the land – is very, very beautiful, and it’s good to sit there in the coloured light for a while and get stuff sorted out in your head.

After my twenty minutes’ or so recovery time, I left via the shop where I saw they had some greetings cards by local artist Bob McManners, and jolly nice they were too, so I bought one. Dr Bob can’t half paint. On the way back home through Newgate Street I cheerfully told the immaculately dressed young men that no, I still didn’t want to change my gas or electricity suppliers. They seemed delighted. They certainly smiled a lot.

Spring! What a season. I could get to like it after all.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

The Return of the Charity Shop LP

I walked into town this morning intending to buy some milk and go and sit in the library and do some writing. I’d armed myself with notebook, pen, and a list of writing prompts. All set. Only problem was the ‘quiet’ area of the library that has tables and chairs was occupied by a loud and patronising lady who was being slightly horrible to a lad of about eleven as she tutored him in something or other. I left. Went upstairs to the café, because after all, how hard can it be to find a quiet table at ten in the morning and sit with a cup of tea and write something? They had sandwiches, which wasn’t fair, so I had to have one (roast beef and spinach). Once I’d eaten that, and looked around at the other café folk – mostly gents of a certain age reading the complimentary copies of the Daily Mail – I realised it just wasn’t going to happen. I would buy my milk and go back home to write. I hate writing by hand anyway. Be much easier at home on the computer.

Still had to buy the milk, so I wandered down Newgate Street towards Heron, picked up a couple of pints, and thought I might as well pop into some charity shops on the way back. I usually do themed shopping – one week I might look for books, another for oddments of china. This week I noticed they had started doing LPs again. It’s been a good few years. These shops always used to have piles of them, mostly Jim Reeves and Barry Manilow, but then CDs came in and pretty much took over; we were told the sound was better and they’d last forever (ha!). Charity shops, certainly round here, stopped collecting and selling them, and most of us stopped listening to them.

Fast forward a few years and us diehard LP fans have been joined by a load of people from a much younger generation who for one reason or another love their turntables and want to be able to buy records to play on them. I invested in a turntable a few years ago when they just started becoming available again, mostly because I have an extensive collection of LPs and 78s and wanted to have the option of listening to them, but oddly I never did, so the turntable has been gathering dust.

One of the first charity shops I went in this morning had a mountain of LPs and they were only a pound each and so I thought, okay, have a look, there won’t be anything, but why not. It was curiously nostalgic to bump into Gentleman Jim Reeves again. I must admit, I’ve never heard anything by him. He might be quite good – but then again, the fact that he is always, without fail, in charity shops suggests that maybe he isn’t if so many people have been so keen to get rid of his records. I have no problem with Barry Manilow, and am surprised that he turns up so often. Apart from that, all the usual suspects were there, everyone from Liberace to Herb Alpert, who actually isn’t too bad, but still not really my cup of tea. This shop had a lot more, however. It had rude rugby songs. It had Johann Strauss waltzes. It had something I couldn’t read because it was in Hebrew. It had Frank Ifield. Definitely an eclectic mix, so I had a good look through and came away with a number of records: Ralph Vaughan Williams’ ‘London’ Symphony in a classic recording by Vernon Handley; the Schumann and Grieg piano concertos played by Radu Lupu; and a couple of records of masses by William Byrd and Josquin, sung by the Tallis Scholars. I looked at them all carefully and all appeared unmarked. The Josquin was still in a sealed package so had never been played.

Back home, I tried to play the Vaughan Williams. Nothing happened. Looked round the back, realised the turntable wasn’t plugged in. Felt slightly silly. Plugged it in, tried again, and it worked – the sound was crystal clear. Utterly beautiful. While it was playing I wrote a half decent poem with almost no effort at all. Then I put the Grieg on, then the Schumann. I’m listening to that one now. The Byrd comes next. I’ll quite likely write a short story while that’s playing, and will soon reach the thousand words a day I’ve been aiming at as a minimum since the start of December.  

We all write differently. Some writers can go into cafés and coffee shops and libraries and find endless inspiration by observing the characters who come and go; some people do the same thing on trains. I write to music. Not always – sometimes I write to a rugby match on the telly. But music, I think, works best. I’m not sure why it isn’t a distraction. When I was doing A level music at school and had to write a piece of music for homework, I would often annoy my mother by doing it with the radio on. It did genuinely help my concentration, bizarre as it may seem. Of course it’s different if you’re writing words rather than music, but I’m still not quite sure why it works. It’s not that it provides a sort of white noise that can be tuned out, because I’m well aware of what I’m hearing while I write. A neurologist might be able to tell me what’s going on, but I certainly don’t know.

All I know is I’ve bought some records, and that’s something I haven’t done in years, and I’m getting a terrific buzz from listening to them. They might well give my writing a spur, give it more depth – make it better simply because I’ll be in a better ‘zone’ (horrible word) at the moment.

The Josquin, however, is special. That’s being reserved for when I’m painting. It would be wasted on writing.

Friday, 18 March 2016

Keyboards and Tea

The portrait of Hemingway is now framed and hanging over my workspace. If I’m struggling with whatever I’m writing, I can look up, see him busy at work, and get back to my own magnus opus. He’s using pen and paper, and will no doubt type it all up later. If by any mischance he should happen to spill his drink on his typewriter, the machine will still work. The paper might be spoilt, but he can put in a clean sheet and carry on almost as if nothing untoward has happened.

Computers, though...

Yesterday evening I realised I was behind with my writing, so made myself a mug of tea and sat down at the pc to write. I had an idea formulated already, just had put it into words and type it up. I started, reached for my tea, and spilt the whole scalding mugful all over the pc’s keyboard. I have never done such a thing before, so I suppose I assumed it would never happen. I unplugged the keyboard, tipped it over, and half a pint of boiling hot tea came out and all over me and the carpet (goodness knows where I thought it was going to go).

Not the end of the world. I might not be able to write by hand due to illegibility problems, and I might not own a typewriter, but I do have a laptop, so after a modicum of quiet swearing, I booted it up and started again. Trouble is, I don’t write well on my laptop. It’s not comfortable. The keyboard is horribly sensitive and it jumps about if I accidentally lean my arm on the edge. After a few sentences I knew this was never going to work. I thought I’d try the pc again, see how bad it was. I’d left the keyboard sitting on a radiator, so I now got a roll of kitchen paper blotted as much tea out as I could and then plugged it back in. At first, all seemed fine, though the numbers were a bit haywire. Then I pressed ‘shift’ and the computer promptly shut down.

I took the keyboard upstairs and gave it a good blast with the hair dryer on high setting until it was definitely absolutely bone dry. Brought it back down, plugged it in again. The shift key still shut down the pc. It must have short-circuited somehow because of the heat of the tea, which had been barely off boiling point. This was at about seven fifteen in the evening, and I was exhausted – I’d been out earlier and bought a smart phone. This is something I have never owned before, always thinking I didn’t really need one, but that morning my ISP had gone down for hours, and it had absolutely done my head in. I rely very heavily on email and had no way of accessing it. I occasionally get publishers emailing and asking for an immediate response as to whether a piece is still available for publication – I didn’t want to miss anything of this type, so connectivity had to be found somehow. I suppose taking the laptop to an internet café would have been a possibility, but that’s one hell of a palaver, so it had to be a smart phone. I’m sure anyone reading this has one already and knows exactly how to use it, but I’ve only ever had the sort of basic phone that costs £4.50 from Carphone Warehouse and does nothing whatsoever other than make phone calls and texts using a prohibitively expensive pay as you go scheme that discourages you from using at all except in emergencies. This means I can barely operate one of those, let alone an all bells and whistles modern machine. But I went out and I bought one, and a nice gentleman demonstrated all its functions and I nodded as if I was following, brought it home and switched it on and thought; so how do I make a phone call? And couldn’t work it out, though I did manage to set up various email accounts and facebook and stuff like that, which had been the point of the machine in the first place. But this had all taken time. I’d been busy drawing Hemingway all morning, and had spent too much time in the afternoon trying to work out how to make a phone call, so I hadn’t even begun to write – and that’s why I’d sat down with my mug of tea later on, and thrown it all over the keyboard.

Seven fifteen, and I really was tired, but I jumped in the car and hurtled down to Tesco’s which luckily is a 24 hour one, and bought a £6 keyboard, hurtled back, plugged it in, and wrote over 2000 words of a short story. I haven’t dared read it back. It possibly is one of the worst things I’ve ever written, but at least I wrote it. I’m trying for a minimum of 1000 words a day at the moment, and have managed it for several months, so it was a relief to have got something down.

I have Ernest Hemingway staring down at me at the moment, telling me to stop doing blog posts and write something publishable – a decent short story or a poem. Quite right too. I’ll get to it, just as soon as I’ve made myself another cup of tea – which for safety’s sake will NOT be placed next to the computer keyboard.  

Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Dark Pictures and Pretty Birdies

After the near debacle where I almost painted over a large oil painting of Gordale Scar which turned out to have been sold on the Saatchi site, I have decided I need to be far more organised about this arty stuff that I do. It is, after all, in part how I earn my living. So in the last couple of days I’ve been rummaging in my ‘studio’ (ie the small bedroom that’s been knee-deep in paintings, art materials and cardboard boxes since my daughter moved out) and finding what I have that’s in good nick and has not been painted over. The idea is to sort out saleable pictures and put them online, and then, more importantly, remember that they’re there so that I’m not taken by surprise when one sells out of the blue.

What I have discovered in my rummaging is a series of very sweet pictures. I had quite forgotten that I used to do detailed watercolours of birds. They’re pretty little things, but I don’t really do ‘pretty’ in my art these days. Art output reflects state of mind, so it makes me wonder what weird place I was in when I did them – I suspect they were straight escapism, and I must have been having problems to have painted in such a twee manner. Nowadays if I paint very dark it’s not because I’m depressed; it’s because I’m relishing facing my demons. I have had plenty. There’s the whole health thing, for starters. I’ve now had ME/CFS for more than sixteen years, so I’m used to it and I have recovered to a certain extent. The early years were grotesquely awful, and included a spell in hospital that was the stuff of nightmares – everyone on the ward apart from me was going down with one of those vomiting and diarrhoea bugs so the stench was appalling. They would rinse out their soiled knickers in the hand wash basins and then put them on radiators round the ward to dry. Then they’d come and sit on my bed as it was the nearest to the toilets. I was unable to get out of bed, being too sick – had to wait for a nurse to wheel me to the loo, where I’d get left, forgotten, for long periods of time. No wonder I wasn’t in the happiest of places in the years that immediately followed; no wonder I painted pretty little birds in watercolours.

I’ve probably grossed out everyone reading this by now, but I’ll continue anyway. No more vomiting, I promise.

So what was I saying? Oh yes. Apart from the ME/CFS, there was the fact that I’d gone through a long period of bringing up three children on my own, the eldest of whom was severely disabled, and that had been tough – it was when the eldest finally went into full time respite care because I could no longer cope that my whole system collapsed and I went down with ME. My worst spell coincided with my daughter doing her GCSEs, which can’t have been any fun for her.

There are some landscapes from that period too – even a little country cottage, as twee as twee can be.

Some of the little birds are now up on the Saatchi site. There are a few more to go, but I ran out of strength for looking at such loveliness. It made me feel weird to see them, but other people will probably like them, so it doesn’t feel right to leave them at the bottom of a box.

As the ME gradually eased off, and my eldest daughter settled well into her new home, and my younger daughter got super GCSE results – and my boyfriend was still managing to stick with me despite everything – things started to look up. That was when my paintings started getting darker, culminating in the fierce and ferocious painting of Gordale Scar, that was even too dark for me, which is why I was going to paint over at least part of it. The sky was simply too threatening – but someone saw it, liked it, and bought it. Maybe that someone found something exhilarating in the darkness and the brooding atmosphere. Any artist who goes there feels the same thing, though we all have different ways of expressing it. I was staying in Malhamdale last summer, which was why I was able to visit and do sketches and take loads of photos. My photos show blue skies, so I’m not sure why I felt moved to paint the sky in a shade of mud, but there’s something about the place; the way the dark brown rocks overhang, the way you feel as if you’re in a huge subterranean cavern even when you can see the sky, the unique flora, the mad rock climbers who actually think the sides are climbable, and regularly fall off and swing helplessly at the end of ropes. It’s one hell of a place. It’s also very close to Malham Cove, with its otherworldly limestone pavement, and its subterranean river, which last year, due to excessive amounts of rain, suddenly for a few brief days turned into a spectacular waterfall before creeping back underground, embarrassed.

It’s a place that is gloriously alive, and when you’ve had ME, still have it but are significantly better, you DO feel gloriously alive. I still can’t walk very far or very reliably, and am often in a lot of pain, but I was lucky that I was in sufficiently robust health for a few days to walk from the car park up to Gordale Scar and also to Malham Cove, because if you’re going to paint those places you need to be there; you have absolutely no way of doing it purely from photos, and if you’re going to use photos, you have to have taken them yourself (which obviously means you’ve been there). It is dramatic, it is life affirming. It is very, very dark, even when the sun is shining and the Malham Cove’s limestone pavement is gleaming white, it has a glorious darkness to it that cries out to be painted, and Gordale Scar itself, even in the brightest sunshine has deep, deep shadows.

So I painted what I felt, and I went darker and darker trying to get what I could see down on the canvas, trying to get underneath the surface of this place and paint what it was doing to me, its fantastic, dark energy – and I think either I overdid it, or I’m simply not skilled enough to be able to paint the way I want when I do landscapes. I’m more at home with portraits, and although a landscape is a portrait of sorts, the more obvious kind is easier for me. Having painted what to me was an unsatisfactory picture, I put it away, it got covered with other bits of detritus, but I knew it was there, and because materials to paint on are expensive, I knew I would paint over it one day and try to get closer to what I meant in the first place – but somebody bought it! Who knows what I might have painted, given the chance. I have another canvas that has undergone a major transformation. It started off on one of my exceedingly rare TV appearances – I was in the Glasgow heats of the Sky Arts Portrait Artist of the Year competition, and had to paint actress Sophie Turner. I had a great time, enjoyed myself, but when I got the painting home I realised it really wasn’t very good, so I turned it on its side and painted a view of St Paul’s Cathedral over the top of it. I’m now tired of the view of St Paul’s, so will paint something else over that.

What it will be, I have no idea. Probably another portrait. I like doing those. Or perhaps I’ll have another go at Gordale Scar. Who knows.

Tuesday, 15 March 2016

How to Write Poetry

I’m currently the person in charge of running Wear Valley Writers. I’m not sure how this happened, and it may be simply because I’m the only person who is prepared to send out the mass emails necessary to inform members of who’s doing what when, and all that sort of stuff. Be that as it may, I’m not only in charge of the admin, I’ve come to be seen as some sort of poetry guru. This is mostly because I write the stuff, and even get it published, so fair enough – but I do sometimes feel a bit of a fraud. When I was at school, ‘creative writing’ as such didn’t really exist, but I do have an ‘O’ level in English Language, which was about as close as you could get, and because I did English Literature ‘A’ Level, I did get a thorough grounding in Milton (hated his stuff), as well as the Metaphysical Poets (loved them) and there must have been something more contemporary, but I’m damned if I can remember who it was, so it can’t have made much of an impression. This is the sum total of my ‘training’ in writing the poetry. However, many years later for various reasons I decided to have a go at versifying. Once you start, it’s hard to stop – or it was for me – so here I am, many flukish publications later, a bona fide expert in how to bluff your way as a poet. This is going to be useful, because the Wear Valley Writers have asked me to do a workshop on how to write poetry. This means I have roughly forty minutes to tell them absolutely everything about poetry, though at least they’ve narrowed it down a bit and have asked me to concentrate on how to handle metre. I suspect if you do creative writing at university level, you may well get a whole term on metre. I have forty minutes, and a group of people who are mostly hobby writers who prefer prose anyway. 


So how did this situation come about, because Bridport shortlistings and Pushcart Prize nominations, I still feel a bit of a fraud? I suppose I only have myself to blame. Some months ago I was browsing around, looking for possible markets, when I came across the Rattle ekphrastic challenge. This is a monthly competition run by the Rattle, an immensely important and respected literary journal – but they also know how to have fun, so they run this little contest, which is free to enter. They provide an image, and you use it as a prompt to write a poem. Simple enough. I tried several months running and got absolutely nowhere with it, but then they put out a call for submissions to provide the actual artwork. I had an ‘Aha!’ moment, and sent in some drawings and paintings, and they actually liked one of them – so my artwork will be the one that hopefully will inspire some super poems in a couple of months’ time. Not only do I get paid for having provided the picture, I also get to be one of the judges of the contest, because there are always two $25 prizes: one awarded by the magazine editor, and one by whoever did the artwork.

I told the writing group all about this, and they said, Ooh! We must enter! And I said, Yes! Do! And they said, So how do you write a poem? And I said. Oh. Hmm... And that was why they want me to do the workshop. I think I must have banged on about scansion and metre a fair bit in the past, and I’ve certainly suggested to those who attempt to write poetry in the group that if they’re dead set on doing end line rhymes, then they really HAVE to get to grips with metre, because without it you’ll end up with doggerel unless you’re very, very clever. 

As I say, it’s all my own fault. Working out how to teach metre in just forty minutes has been challenging, but I think I’ve done it. I’ve prepared handouts so that if I talk too quickly, as is my wont, at least they’ll have something to refer back to. I have given examples. I am going to concentrate on iambic pentameter and tetrameter because for a beginner I reckon they have to be the easiest to grasp. I’ve looked up examples. I’ve done all the stuff that my teachers should have done for me years ago, and maybe did, but I’ve forgotten. I don’t have a single poetry text book that tells you all this stuff, so thank God for Wikipedia.

Tomorrow is the day I deliver my amazing talk on how to write poetry. I know for a fact that some of the writers don’t know what a syllable is, and are pretty vague on parts of speech. They don’t know their alliteration from their assonance – and why should they? A few of them are decent novelists, so they consider they don’t actually need to know how to write poetry.

I think they’re wrong. I came to novels from poetry, and I think it’s made my prose much stronger as a result. Writing prose requires rhythm as much as writing poetry, though in a less formal manner – but surely it must be the case that if you know the poetic techniques, it will inform your prose? It has to make it better, whether you go for the deceptively simple rhythms of Hemingway, or the much more complex meter of someone like DH Lawrence. It should help us all, whatever we write. We do a lot of flash fiction in the group because there isn’t much time to do anything else, but a flash can be virtually a prose poem, and in fact if it’s going to be at all literary, then that is the direction it needs to go; it needs that concentrated rhythmic and sonic beauty that you expect as a matter of course in poetry; it needs that feel for the music.

I’m amazed I managed to get this far through this post without mentioning music, but of course that’s what underpins it all. Music!

I will now go back and dot some random pictures through this post, because blog posts always look better with pics, and perhaps anyone reading this would like to use one of my images to attempt an ekphrastic poem. I will absolutely NOT be posting the picture that the Rattle are going to use though – no head starts allowed. Have fun! And do pop along and look at the Rattle ekphrastic challenge. There are few enough free-to-enter poetry competitions these days that have that sort of prestige, so it’s well worth doing.

Monday, 14 March 2016

Low Barns

Yesterday I woke up to thick mist, and thought, yes! Spring! First properly misty morning we’ve had for ages, and there was something about the quality of the light that made it clear it was going ‘get out’ as they say round here; the sun would shine and we would have springtime at last.

I have got so fed up with being cold this winter. It was a slow starter. Autumn was mild, but then after Christmas it rapidly got colder and it’s been damp and cold ever since. Yesterday though! Fantastic. So I took myself off to Low Barns Nature Reserve, which I like to do regularly whatever the weather. It’s only a three mile drive, and it’s open every day; it has a café, and as I’m a member of Durham Wildlife Trusts I get free parking. What’s not to love? And of course it has wildlife. That’s the whole point.

For those who don’t know this lovely reserve, the River Wear run through it and we’re high enough upstream for it to be a lively and boisterous river rather than the sluggish thing it becomes downstream. There’s a decent sized lake with islands, and a series of huge reedbeds – all made from reclaimed land that used to be gravel pits, I believe. There are plenty of hides, decent footpaths, hidden corners, and huge numbers of birds. Don’t ask me what they are – I used to be good on birds, but seem to have forgotten all of them other than the usual suspects – chaffinches, blue tits, etc. The great thing about Low Barns is you’ll also see the ones you don’t see in your garden, so you’re highly likely to see swans, cormorants (unless they’re shags – sorry, don’t know the difference), geese, herons, woodpeckers and nuthatches. I’ve seen huge flocks of peewits occasionally, and one brilliant time I actually saw a kingfisher.

Yesterday, however, was more about the flowers than the birds as far as I was concerned. There were still plenty of clumps of snowdrops about, though they were just starting to go over. The miniature daffodils were still blooming too, but the exciting yellow was the first dandelion of the year, the first coltsfoot, and the early flush of gorse flowers. By the time I got there, which was about two o’clock, the mist had pretty much burnt off in the sun though it was still hazy; warmish, but you wouldn’t want to be without your jacket.

I walked round the lake, and a little along the path by the river, where, because of the recent flooding, the snowdrops were poking up through sand rather than the more normal soil, and there was driftwood and detritus all over the place. A fair number of trees have been cut back to open up vistas and let in more light and the catkins were starting, as well as the first, bright green leaves. There was even some blossom in a sheltered spot.

The café provided a decent scone and pot of tea, as ever, and the car park was full, but I still hardly met anyone. They were probably all in the hides, peering out with improbably long camera lenses.

I love this place. Been coming here for years. When my kids were little, I brought them, of course – more recently I’ve brought my granddaughter. I’ve taken school trips round, I’ve been round with both husbands, and if I have anyone staying with me I always try to include a trip to Low Barns. I saw a field vole one time – a ferret another. I live in hope of an otter, and I would absolutely love to see the kingfisher again. 

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Painting Dark Against Dark

I’m working on a commissioned portrait at the moment that is proving tricky. The sitter is dressed in a black suit and Masonic regalia. This is to be a formal and traditional portrait, so I’ve been looking at hundreds of the things for ideas, and have decided I definitely want a dark background. I’ve reached the stage where I’ve done all the under-painting and have had some success in that it certainly looks like the sitter, the pose is good, and the regalia is taking shape. The problem is the black suit. The colour I’ve chosen for the background is a very dark green, and whilst in daylight you can see the change from black to green, by electric light the distinction disappears completely. I’ve tried lightening the background a little by adding a yellow glaze, but that still gets swallowed up in electric light and is in danger of looking garish in daylight. The suit itself is matt black, so I can’t use the tricks I might use if it were black satin with all the light reflections. I haven’t fallen into the trap of using black paint at least, though I’ve come perilously close with a bit of Payne’s Grey, a colour I rarely use.

To try to sort this problem out, I took myself yesterday to the Bowes Museum, which is the nearest art gallery to my location likely to contain portraits that might help. There are formal paintings closer to home – Bishop Auckland Castle has plenty of paintings of past Bishops – but the problem there is the really good portraits look in desperate need of a clean so it’s hard to see what the artists did to solve the problem, and the more modern ones that don’t need cleaning tend to have light backgrounds, which is not the effect I’m after.

There are some fantastic portraits in the Bowes. My favourite is an 1874 self portrait by French realist François Bonvin. He’s wearing very dark clothes – so dark you can barely make out whether it’s an overcoat or monk’s habit or what – has dark hair, and has painted himself against a very dark background. This means you see the face and only the face because the rest virtually merges together. This ought to matter, but in this particular painting it absolutely doesn’t, so it shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that in certain circumstances a background/clothing merge can be made to work. It still makes me nervous of attempting such a thing. I am no Bonvin. 

Another painting that does something similar, though has more light in it generally is a fabulous portrait of Lord Harry Vane by George Frederick Watts. Unfortunately I can’t find that one on the internet so can’t show it. He is wearing a dark suit and one of his shoulders almost merges into the background, but he has a shock of white hair and there is other brightness in the picture (a medal, his white shirt) so there’s more of a sense of balance, if less drama, than the Bonvin. The suit itself, though clearly black, is painted in shades of grey, but where it meets the background there is still virtually no distinction. It works because the viewer knows where his shoulder must be, so sees it anyway. It’s not a trick of the eye so much as the use of logic and seeing what you know must be there.

The Bowes is also currently hosting a selection of photographs by Robert Mapplethorpe, and some of these do exactly the same thing – the tonal difference between a shoulder in a dark shirt and a dark background can be incredibly slight, but the eye still sees it and knows exactly what it’s seeing.

So maybe the answer is not so much in the tonal values as in the draftsmanship. If the suit is well enough painted and clearly shows how the fabric forms around the body underneath, then a major distinction in tonal values is not required. The viewer’s brain will work it out. This puts the onus on me as the artist to get the suit right. I must stop worrying so much about the distinction between the edge of the suit and the dark of the background and work more on suggesting that there really is a solid body underneath that thick black fabric. If I can do that, the rest will take care of itself.

That’s the theory, anyway. The next few months of painting will see whether I can pull it off. There is no hurry for this one to be finished, luckily, so I have the luxury of working in oils rather than acrylics and being able to let glazes dry completely – also I have ready access to the sitter whenever required, so I don’t have to rely on guesswork.

The next problem will be the regalia. The trick there is going to be how to suggest or the detail without actually painting it in, because I’m no miniaturist so am absolutely not going to start working in a brush with one squirrel hair. The trick here is to see how the light catches the braid, and for that there are plenty of artists to show me the way from Gainsborough to Manet – but that’s a problem for another day.   

Friday, 11 March 2016

Writing a poem when you have not an idea in your head

Since December last year I’ve been writing an average of 1000 words a day, the point being if you’re not writing you’re not a writer, and 1000 feels like a sensible and achievable total. The words comprise a mix of short stories, flashes, poems, and blog posts. I haven’t written a poem for about a week, so I’d like to do one, but I don’t have a single idea in my head at this moment, so I thought it might be an interesting exercise to write down the process, and see if a poem comes out of it at the end.

Facebook has already proved helpful. I have a possible title. Someone has noted that today is the anniversary of Mary Shelley’s ‘Frankenstein’, and they’ve helpfully included a quote: “the world to me was a secret which I desired to divine”. I like that, and I think I’ll use it.

Sometimes there will be a word or phrase that strikes me from one of the many prompts lists that appear on various workshops and forums on the internet, but today nothing is working, so I’m going to go to my alternate source – images. Street photography is invaluable for story and poetry ideas, and one of the best street photographers around is ‘SUDOR’ on deviantART, so that’s where I’m going. My notifications are usually packed with a good selection of his photos, and today is no exception. Having had a quick browse, I see there are several that include a little girl. I could use her as the character who sees the world as a secret which she desires to divine. I’ll go through the photos one by one and jot down descriptions of what I can see, and perhaps something will grow out of my observations. I’m a great believer in ‘things’, ie concrete objects. I don’t want to note if the girl is smiling – I want to describe what she is looking at that is making her smile.

First photo. I don’t know if she’s smiling or not as it happens, as it’s a back view. She’s on the Paris Métro, and she’s small, maybe about five years old, dressed in a tartan raincoat, white ankle socks, smart little shoes. She’s right at the front of the train, and has climbed the ladder that’s attached to the end of the compartment so that she can lean across and see through the window that gives her a view of the driver’s cabin. She’s holding on tight. She can’t get through the door into this other world. Her side has a carpet, shiny poles, posters – the driver’s side has a huge window, daylight, windscreen wipers – it’s raining, so we’re not in a tunnel. Most children would be pulled straight back down by whoever’s in charge of her, but she looks relaxed and comfortable. I think she’s been up there a while, holding on securely while the train rocks and buffets.

Second. In the Quartier de la Défense, a wide paved path that curls like a snake, she’s running along it, and she could run in a straight line but she’s choosing to follow the curves, so although she’s running, she’s not in a hurry, she has time to enjoy the architect’s design.

Third. She’s not in this photo at all, but it doesn’t matter. I’ll imagine her standing at the photographer’s side and looking in. The scene is a hairdresser’s shop. The hairdresser has short cropped dark hair and big earrings, she’s wearing a dark jumper, a suede mini-skirt and suede platfrom boots, she’s perched on a stool on casters. The lady having her hair done has turned to look at the camera – at the girl – with a ‘what do you think you’re doing here?’ kind of a look. She has an unpleasant long, horsey face. I’ve taken an instant dislike to her; she is supercilious – but I mustn’t think in such terms. I’m not interpreting at this point, I’m trying simply to observe, note down as if I were going to draw the scene. Okay then. She has one hand up to her face, and has her long thumb pressed against the side of her mouth, the fingers of the hand are curled over. Eyebrows are raised. There’s a chair in the way so I can’t see her body, but I can see her feet, in patent leather slingback shoes, lowish heels. The hairdresser has a small smile on her face as if she’s thinking about something good that’s going to happen when she leaves work tonight. I don’t think anything good is going to happen to the lady in the chair.  

Fourth. This one’s odd. It’s a Paris street. There’s a man, sixtyish, business suit. He has a small attaché case, an old fashioned leather one – and he’s balanced it on his head. He is standing perfectly motionless with a case on his head! No, I don’t know either.

Fifth. A dark alleyway. All old cities have these. It has high walls either side, stone built, repointed so many times you can hardly see the stones any more except where the pointing has fallen away. Dark mossy steps, well worn. Granite setts, or similar. Very damp. Four or five steps, every four or five yards. It alleyway bends slightly so that you can never see very far ahead. Nobody else there. Splashes of graffiti, but old, scrubbed away, so they just look like coloured mosses. Brown leaves in the corners where the wind has dropped them.

Sixth. This is the first photo where we see her properly – and incidentally, it’s not the same child, but for the purposes of my narrative it can be. There is more tartan after all – she’s wearing a tartan skirt that’s too small for her and a vest top. Her hair’s cut in a bob, her legs are long and very skinny. She’s leaning against a wall, concrete render, the side of a house. There’s a ventilation grill low down. The window is above her head, painted wooden frame, net curtains, iron bars across the front. One casement is open, and there’s a tabby cat that’s come out onto the ledge, it’s reaching down one paw towards the girl’s head, and I think she knows it’s there. She’s keeping very still, it reaches further and just pats the top of her head.

Seventh. The Parc de Sceaux, a wide, wide, grassy avenue covered in autumn leaves, trees either side. She’s riding her bicycle pell-mell, nobody else is anywhere near.

Eight. Her parents’ car. They are moving furniture. There’s a roof rack, a mattress on top of the roof rack, and then an unidentifiable piece of wooden furniture – it’s covered with a tarpaulin which is tied to the roof rack but also secured to other parts of the car, like the wing mirrors and the boot, by long ropes. The bonnet is up and father’s looking into it, mother’s got her hand on one hip and the end of one of the ropes in her other hand. The car door is open. It’s looking seriously unsafe.

Nine. She’s in a library, standing in a quiet corner surrounded by hundreds upon hundreds of books, some of the lower shelves have had books pulled out and their higgledy-piggledy on the floor. She has her hands behind her back and is scowling at anyone who comes past. The shelves are very close together.

Ten. Back outside, the Rue Mouffetard, an ancient lady carrying a capacious wicker basket and a black cane, bent double, walking past scaffolding that’s protected by a fence of what looks like bamboo. Behind the fence, peeling posters. I’ve seen this one before – I recognise the ‘Emerson, Lake and P...’ poster. I wrote a poem about it ages ago. Must be the same photo. Doesn’t matter. The impression of the scene is that this grimy street has been like this for ages.

Eleven – I’m in two minds whether to use this picture or not, as it’s London and all the others have been Paris. It shows a woman with a huge dog. Massive. It’s standing its ground and she can’t move it. There are skid marks on the paving, and it’s almost as if the dog has caused these. I can’t get over how big this dog is. Maybe it’ll have to be in the poem anyway. I saw two Bernese mountain dogs outside the supermarket yesterday and they were just as big – everyone was looking and commenting. I think you never outgrow the joy of seeing an absolutely huge dog.

Twelve. Here she is with her two friends. She’s in her tartan skirt again, and all three of them are wearing clothes that look like hand-me-downs. It’s the Boulevard de Ménilmontant. Scruffy kids, one’s barefooted, but they look very very happy.

That’s enough pictures. I’ve now closed the window on the computer where I was bringing them up, and I’m going to read through what I’ve written so far and see if anything is gelling. I’m still thinking the idea of tying these images together with the little girl is a possible, but I’m wondering if her age needs to be less specific, if they need to be snapshots of different times with her looking back on her childhood. Maybe she’s the woman in London with the huge dog, remembering her Parisian childhood. Perhaps she was very poor – but now she isn’t, hence the dog.

The next stage will be to copy all of this into a fresh document, delete all the words that won’t be included in the poem, and see what’s left; it should be a reasonable set of snapshots. Then I’ll go away and do something else for a while, letting the images gel in my mind. At some point a story will emerge, but I don’t yet know what it is. Some items will go. I’m not sure about the colour – I think this needs to be in black and white, so to speak, it needs to be looking back; childhood through the adult’s eyes. Possibly she is very old now, and these memories are fragmented. Perhaps she’s the old lady with the wicker basket rather than the child seeing her – or perhaps she’s both. Now that’s an angle I like. May well use that one.

I now have to stop writing and start thinking. I think a poem will emerge. It may only end up eight or nine lines long, but that’s fine. Distilling the essence of what I’ve seen and finding a narrative thread is all that’s required, and if that turns out to be very short, it’s no problem. The process is the thing, and the process can be a joy; the teasing out of images, finding exactly the right words to express something, getting into the mind of the protagonist. I write lots of poems, but I’m essentially a story-teller. They have to have character, voice, theme – all the elements of a story. They are no more ‘pretty pictures’ than my artwork. They get under the skin, and the deeper the better. As Mary Shelley said: “the world to me was a secret which I desired to divine”.

Thursday, 10 March 2016

Hairy Arms and Icebergs

I’ve never much wanted to read Hemingway, having always been put off by the macho image and the bullfighting and hunting, etc. Didn’t think someone like that would have anything to say to someone like me. Then on one of my regular charity shop browses for bundles of books to keep me going, I came across ‘A Farewell to Arms’ and thought at 75p I might as well give it a go. It was entirely opposite to my expectations. I warmed to the central character, I found much of it tender and touching and the violence was never glorified in any way – quite the reverse. I had a few weeks of wishing I’d discovered him earlier, wishing he turned up in charity shops more frequently (I have difficulty affording new books at the moment) but then I had a brainwave – birthday coming up: ask Mother for some Hemingway. So I did, and she duly obliged with three more novels. I’ve just finished ‘Fiesta’ and absolutely loved it, even though a good proportion of the book is in Pamplona, there are bulls, they die – though one manages to gore a man to death in passing. And you know what? I get it. I get what Hemingway was saying about bullfighting, why it’s there, what it means. I get it in the spirit of the literature. I am not someone who would ever go to a bullfight, and I would happily sign petitions and demonstrate against the vile ‘sport’ – but in terms of the book, I absolutely get it.

A similar thing happened to me in my teens when I was going through a John Masters phase. I’d read a lot of the Indian novels, but then came across the Spanish one: ‘Fandango Rock’ which is very much a bullfighting novel. I hated the idea of bullfighting, but Masters really understood what it was all about and took it to the heart of his novel and made it work. It’s years and years since I read that book, and I possibly won’t read it again ever because I think one outgrows Masters at some point. He is very much an author to be read in one’s teens; fabulous storytelling, great characters, authentic settings, and sex scenes that are erotic rather than cringe-making, so he’s perfect when you’re fifteen or sixteen. He is also very full on with his prose – it’s rich and gorgeous. Very different to Hemingway, with his iceberg style – and that doesn’t mean he’s cold. Far from it. It’s referring to the fact that most of what is really happening is under the surface. Hemingway was a journalist first, so he reports what happens in a clipped and clear way. It’s left to the reader to work out what the real story is, and there will be much, much more beneath the surface than above, hence the iceberg analogy. He’s supposed to have pretty much invented this, apparently. I disagree. I reckon if anyone invented it, it was Jane Austen, because she does exactly the same thing. She tells you what people said and what happened. She doesn’t do a Bronte and delve deep into their emotions and pour them out gushingly in purple prose. Now, I love Charlotte Bronte in particular, but I sometimes find her completely unreadable because she will explain every last feeling in as much detail as she possibly can. Austen and Hemingway don’t do that, and the result is you are more likely to choking back the tears at the end of ‘Persuasion’ or ‘Fiesta’ than you are at the end of the infuriating ‘Villette’, and that’s because there is SO much going on underneath, you are left exhausted, whereas you feel with Charlotte Bronte, she’s the one who’s left exhausted at the end of the novel rather than the reader.

I have a thing I do with authors I love – unless they are hideously ugly, and I can’t bear to look at photos of them, I like to draw their portraits. It’s partly a sort of ‘thank you’ letter to them for the books, and partly self-indulgence, and that irresistible strange alchemy that happens when you study someone’s face and draw them. By happy coincidence, we were doing portraits in my art class this morning. (By ‘my’ I mean the one I attend. I don’t teach it. Wouldn’t know where to begin.) So I thought, yes! Hemingway! Today’s the day. Ideally when I draw someone who I haven’t met, I watch film of them on YouTube and make a composite drawing from various images I find online, but I was short of time so thought I would simply pick a photo I liked and work from that. There’s a great one of him actually engaged in writing. I thought I’d get the basic outline in before I went to my class so that I wouldn’t waste time there trying to get it right. Glad I did, because the method we were being taught this morning would have been incredibly difficult to get right for me – it involved careful measurement and ratios and all that stuff. Now, for me, there are three ways to get a likeness. Best – you trace it. Next best – grid it. Third best – entirely freehand. I wouldn’t even consider doing the careful measurement of, say, an eye, and then seeing how many eyes fit into the distance between the right nostril and the Adam’s apple. So I listened to the teacher giving the explanation and demonstration of this method, and her encouragement to follow it, and as usual, I went my own way, and was thoroughly relieved I’d thought to trace the outline first so I knew my proportions were broadly correct. Then it was simply a question of sitting down with my favourite Conté pencil and getting on with it. This sort of thing takes far longer than you expect, and men with hairy arms – well, you can get locked into those hairs. I have a thing about men with hairy arms. I am very fond of such things. I spent far too long enjoying his arms – but I did also get his eyes, glasses, head, nose, mouth, bit of beard, etc, broadly shaded. Still a long, long way to go. The question is, will I be able to resist finishing this one off until next Thursday? We have another portrait session then to carry on with what we started this week. If I succumb to temptation, which is highly likely, I’ll finish him on Sunday if not before, and then I will have to think of someone else to draw. Actually, that’s probably not too much of a hardship. I could always do him again.

I have become ridiculously fond of Ernest Hemingway. 

Friday, 4 March 2016

The Ritual of Cleaning

I have just spent a couple of hours cleaning and tidying the house because my eldest daughter is coming to visit. We all do this. We all forget that the person who is visiting was the messiest person in the world when they lived here, and therefore to tidy up mess for them is downright silly. They wouldn’t notice anyway, plus the mess is nowhere near as bad as it was when they lived here.

The specifics put a slightly different complexion on the matter. My daughter, Sarah, is autistic with profound learning difficulties. This means even if she objected to the mess, she would have no way of telling me as she has no speech and virtually no signing ability. The carers who will be delivering her to my door probably won’t come into the house, so I’m not cleaning the place up to impress them. I’m doing it because... it’s what you do. It’s an excuse to get the place into some sort of order for one thing. I am BAD at household chores. I do have a vacuum cleaner, but it’s in the understairs cupboard and there’s a heavy artist’s easel in front of it which I feel curiously disinclined to move, so the pine needles from the Christmas tree (and yes, I’m writing this in March) will have to stay until the painting is finished, and this is a HUGE painting which I expect to take several more months. I’m very good at making excuses. As for dust, I had years of old cobwebs accumulating on the ceiling until a few days ago, which I could have dealt with using a feather duster, but when, a few months ago, I located my feather duster I found the feathers had been eaten away by mites so I chucked it out. I finally replaced it with one that cost all of a pound and is telescopic so will reach into the corners easily, and I have actually cleaned away the cobwebs. They must have been there for years. I have lived in this house for twenty-six years, and am not sure I’ve dusted the ceilings before, because ceilings shouldn’t really get dusty. I also did the hallway for the first time ever – in most households, the hall would have been redecorated within twenty-six years, which would have spruced it up, but my hall has wood panelling which you don’t decorate as it’s a nice original Edwardian feature, so the dust has been clinging to it for a long, long time. It’s amazing how nice it looks now. I must dust it again in ten years or so.

My daughter is visiting because the carers will have realised it’s Mother’s Day this Sunday, so she needs to make her duty visit. That’s fine with me, and it’ll be fine with her. She likes coming here. She has a ritual – she goes into the kitchen for a piece of bread and marmite, then she goes to the toilet to have her pad changed, then she settles down in her favourite armchair and does nothing for an hour or so. I put on some music, which she enjoys, and she plays quietly with a few old toys and usually tries on one of my hats, an orange felt one that’s too big for me so I never wear, but she likes it.

None of this activity requires the house to be cleaned.

I know if I decided to call on my own mother, she would do exactly the same thing. She would go round the whole house tidying and dusting. She would wash the doors to get rid of any grubby bits round the handles. She wouldn’t do any of it very efficiently because she’s elderly and only partially sighted, so tends not to see dirt, but she’d still do it, and I’d only know she’d done it because it’s what she always used to do when visitors were expected. I suppose it’s a ritualistic thing. We want a sense of occasion. I’m aware that there are other women who are obsessive cleaners, and whose houses are pristine at all times, but I can’t get into that mindset. The hours they must spend! I would sooner be writing or painting or just about anything else.


My daughter has arrived, and has come in bearing a most acceptable gift of a bottle of Rosé (I must remember to thank the carers). As predicted, she’s now sitting quietly in her favourite chair, moving in time to the music. She’s enjoyed a long glass of water, but unusually, hasn’t wanted anything to eat. There are birthday cards on the mantelpiece, so she had a good look at those, but otherwise made no ‘comment’ on any changes, despite me having picked up piles of old newspapers and cleared my workspace so that you can actually see the table – but why would she? I’ve been clearing for her home visit for years now, so it’s how she expects it to be and it’s not worthy of comment. One day I must have the courage to leave it exactly how I like it to be, and see how she reacts. One of the qualities of autistic people is their ability to see even the minutest change. She has never objected to change as such, so I don’t think she’d be upset – but I’d love to know if she’d be pleased, if perhaps she’d be thinking ‘Yes! This is how it used to be. I like this!’

Thursday, 3 March 2016

Drawing Christine

I’ve recently been working on a set of portraits of Christine Keeler. I wouldn’t normally do more than one picture of somebody I don’t know, but I did the first, and Fionn Wilson, the artist who is masterminding the Christine Keeler project, suggested that a set of three or four might be a good idea, so I though, yeah, okay. She didn’t want copies of photos, which is absolutely fair enough. Anyone with rudimentary drawing skills can copy a photograph, but think of your own passport photos. Do they actually look like you? Highly unlikely. Sometimes there’s no choice but to work from a photo, but even if you can’t get a sitting with the person you’re drawing, there are other ways, especially if they’re someone in the public eye like Keeler. I went to that font of all moving images: Youtube, found a documentary with plenty of video, and watched until I got more of a feeling of what she really looks like, until I started to feel that any image I produced might be in with a chance of getting under the skin and showing something of the real person rather than the superficiality of the outer features. The first portrait I did had her resting her chin on her hand, looking downwards, serious, the next also had a serious expression, so in the third I wanted to capture, if not exactly laughter, something akin to amusement/bemusement. In that one she looks as if she’s saying, ‘I can’t believe you really just asked me that question’ which must have been something she often thought as she was being interviewed.  I think I managed it okay, because each time I drew her I felt I got closer to the real person, and each portrait looked more like her in some inexplicable way. She is someone I am unlikely ever to meet, but the more I draw her, the more I want to meet her, and this is often the case with portraiture, because there is something weirdly intimate about staring intensely at someone’s features when they can’t look back. 

I like to work relatively quickly, so these drawings took no more than an hour or two to complete. I’m going to make a note of the specific technique here, because the way I draw changes every few months and I’ll want to look back and check how these ones were done.

First of all I do a very careful line drawing using a sharp Derwent Onyx pencil. This is just outline to make sure the proportions are spot on, concentrating on eyes (easy), nose (okay) and mouth (often surprisingly difficult). I also indicate dark areas, not with shading, but simply by encircling them. It means the drawing looks like the plan for ‘painting-by-numbers’ at this point, but that’s fine. The guidelines are vital, and once they’re there I can continue with some confidence. Then I change medium – I have a fat and chunky Faber Castell 2B graphite stick, and I use the flat end to block in the tones. This is still very pale – it calls itself 2B but it feels far harder. Once I’ve done the blocking in, I have a ghost image, but it already looks recognisably like the person. The final medium change is to Conté, specifically a well-sharpened Pierre Noir 2B conté pencil. I love this type of pencil because it is intensely matt black, something you can never achieve with graphite however soft because of the sheen you inevitably get which makes it so hard to scan or photograph, or even see in some lights.

While the pencil is still very sharp (and I use a professional mechanical sharpener to ensure this) I draw the eyes in as much detail as I can manage, though as conté is by its nature thick and crumbly, this is always going to be an approximation. I work lightly at first. The real darks will come later. Once the eyes and eyebrows are accurate, I work on the nose, then with extreme care, tackle the mouth. I avoid erasing if at all possible, and the rubber only comes out if I make an accidental fingerprint on a bit I want to remain white – because the whites are vitally important. Highlights on cheeks and nose stay as pristine white paper, which incidentally is ordinary photocopier paper as often as not. I like its smoothness, and it takes the various pencils extremely well. By this time the pencil is blunted, and I can start working on the tones of the cheeks, under the chin, bags round the eyes, and so on. Once they’re roughed in, I set to work on the hair, because if the hair is very dark, for example, it’s going to have a major effect on the balance of the tones overall so I need to get that in as soon as possible. From this point, it’s a question of gradually building up the darks so that the underlying skeletal structure is there – and of course the personality, because this shows in the precise angle of the mouth (which is why the mouth is so difficult) as well as any hollowness in cheeks, and in older people, the precise way in which wrinkles and laughter lines have formed.

Conté is imprecise, which is why I love it. I’m not going for photo-realism, ever, or I would use all the grades of graphite available and end up with something incredibly smooth. However, if it’s too rough, then the subtlety is invisible, and faces are nothing if not subtle, so the very last thing I do is the blending. Some people swear by paper stumps and suchlike, but I find with conté, to get absolute control, the tip of my little finger is best. And I use it vigorously, picking up black dust from the darkest areas to rub into the mid-tones, and I rub and rub away (conté is very forgiving) until the gradations of tone are to my satisfaction but it’s still looking lively because of the extreme contrasts between the darkest and lightest tones, and my earlier rough and scribbly drawing. I end up filthy, and I’ll have sharpened away half the conté pencil, but with any luck, the whites on the paper are still bright and clean. I scan it as quickly as possible at this point, as the chances of damage are high. For preservation, I tend to put it straight into a pound shop frame, which I find is much safer than a plastic wallet, where it might move about and smudge. If it’s any good, I can always re-frame it at a later date.

So that’s what I’ve been doing in the last few days. Three down, one to go. Today, however, I’m giving myself a self-indulgent break and intend to draw Jeremy Brett as Sherlock Holmes, because I’m a huge fan, and his is a face I’ve never tackled. Then I’ll go back to Christine afresh, and complete the final portrait.