Just serotonin?

Silver white light (42 cms x 59 cms charcoal and pastel on Hahnemuehle Nostalgie paper 2017)

Recently, during a difficult period, I took enormous comfort in drawing. In Peter Steinhart’s book, The Undressed Art, I found the following passage:

Artists frequently compare the way they feel when they’re drawing to the sense of heightened awareness reported by practitioners of meditation….Jim Smyth, who has taught drawing for twenty years, says, “I believe the drawing process produces serotonin and endorphins in certain individuals. I see people who are not aware of their arthritis pain when they’re drawing. When they stop drawing, it comes back. Smyth once let someone monitor his brain-wave activity while he drew. “When I was drawing I would get alpha waves,” he said.

Alpha waves are electrical impulses in the brain that are associated with calm and focussed attention, Steinhart reminds us. Similar studies of meditation practitioners have revealed increased alpha, theta (these are associated with imagination and creativity) and beta waves (highly focussed attention).

Smyth believes the chemically induced sensation of pleasure is what keeps many people drawing. “There must be some physical reward for some people,” he says. “Otherwise, they wouldn’t do it.”

Well, it might have been a need for serotonin that urged me to draw when I was feeling low – certainly lack of it can result in depression and insomnia – but I like to feel it’s more than just a neurotransmitter ‘fix’. Isn’t any creative act – whether making lines on paper or following notes on a musical stave – a way of imposing order on the world by creating another world where you are in control (however much it might sometimes feel that the line is controlling you!). The end result, a unique piece made by your own hand, is a bonus: something to remind you of that time when you had your hand on the wheel.

The above drawing is one of the ones I completed during this time. Based on a rough sketch of the excellent model in the life drawing class I attend, I drew the figure in charcoal and dissolved some of the edges into the pastel background. I’m trying to get away from enclosing everything in a black line and this approach, I think, worked well. The addition of white pastel produces – I hope – a mystical feel, as if the figure is conducting some sort of energy. And not just serotonin!



Suffer the children

Refugees (20 cms x 40 cms charcoal and pastel 2016)

It’s always the children, isn’t it? It’s always the kids who get it.

When the strutting despot, Putin, decides to help out his old pal, genocidal tyrant Bashar Al-Assad, before too long hospitals and schools and aid convoys are bombed; the UN Security Council gets angry and the usual suspects play their veto cards like this is some bizarre game where the person who wins is the one who does the least. Before you know it, Iran is implicated. The EU discusses sanctions but somehow nothing happens. The British government says it’s OK to sell fighter planes to countries where human rights mean even less than women’s rights. Refugees pour over borders and citizens panic: far right-wingers make a play for government by stoking up fear and dread in the electorate. Desperate people cram boats made of scrap metal and hope and drown in the Mediterranean, their bodies washed ashore in Greece and Italy. For some reason we cannot remember the lessons of Auschwitz, Hiroshima, or the killing fields of Cambodia.

Then, in a town called Khan Sheikhoun, government aircraft drop bombs one Tuesday morning while everyone sleeps. Mohammed Rasoul, the head of a charity ambulance service, tells the BBC that his medics had found people, many of them children, choking in the street. Blue lips, foaming from the mouth, eyes reddened and sore: it seemed certain this was a chemical attack. Putin condemns the ‘groundless accusations’ of Syrian government responsibility. Trump slams the stable door knowing the horse left long ago.

Once again, there they are, wrapped up in blankets torn from someone’s unmade bed or held in a weeping father’s arms – the children. The collateral damage. Twenty-seven short lives lived in fear snuffed out, just like that.

Some time later, Bashar Al-Assad wakes up with a start in the middle of the night; all around his bed are the pale, ghostly faces of all the children he caused to be murdered in order to cling on to power. They do nothing but stare, the room feels airless with pity.



In praise of celeriac soup


Celeriac (42 cms x 59 cms pastel and ink on Hahnemuehle Nostalgie paper 2017)

Last week I bought a celeriac. Supermarket celeriacs are washed, topped and tailed and shrink-wrapped in enough plastic to kill a dolphin. I bought mine from a greengrocer: it was a knobbly, earth-encrusted thing with rather unpleasant roots dangling like dead tentacles. Ideal for drawing, in fact.

I find myself buying things to draw which I either don’t know what to do with after the event or don’t have the time to make into jam or chutney. Happily, I always know what to do with a celeriac. It can be made into a very tasty remoulade which really needs to be eaten almost immediately as it absorbs the mayonnaise and becomes a claggy mess. Or it can be made into a wonderful soup – ideal for this time of year – as in this recipe from Thomasina Miers.

Finely chop an onion and sweat it in butter on a low heat for a few minutes, along with a bay leaf, fresh thyme leaves and a pinch of salt. Peel and chop a large potato and the celeriac into chunks, stir into the buttery onions and add one litre of good quality – home made preferably – vegetable stock, bring to the boil and then turn down to a simmer.

Allow the vegetables to cook in the stock for about 45 minutes until tender and then blitz with a hand blender until smooth. Season to taste.

Add 100g of crème fraiche, the juice of half a lemon and about a tablespoon of Dijon or wholegrain mustard. Stir to combine and add water if you prefer a looser consistency. The soup should be served with a few more fresh thyme leaves scattered on top and grilled cheese toasts on the side (smoked cheddar cheese is especially tasty).

You can’t say you don’t learn things on this blog.



Draw 16


A few weeks ago I received an email which began “We had an unprecedented number of entries…and the competition for space was fierce”. What usually follows, in my rather limited experience of entering curated exhibitions, is disappointment. I was therefore delighted to see that the next sentence started with, “However…”

It’s a real thrill that two drawings I entered for the Society of Graphic Fine Arts exhibition in London next month have been accepted. Founded in the early years of the last century, the SGFA is the only society in the UK dedicated to drawing and encourages new media and contemporary practice as well as traditional drawing skills.

The two pictures are my paint sample chart drawings, Dimity and Other Stories, above, and a pastel drawing of swedes (rutabagas) – below – which marked the end of a rather frustrating period when every new project seemed to run into the rough.

Swedes blog

The Draw 16 exhibition runs from October 3-15 (closed Sunday 9 October) at the Menier Gallery, 51 Southwark Street, London SE1 1RU.

See you there!



Brown bear wearing cool shoes

Brown Bear blog

Brown Bear Wearing Cool Shoes (30cms x 40 cms pastel 2016)

There’s no real story to tell about this week’s drawing. It was inspired by a review that I read of A Beginner’s Guide to Bear-Spotting illustrated by David Roberts; a demonstration by Lynne Chapman on how to illustrate a children’s book in pastels; and this photograph of shoes in a designer shop that I saw on Easter Saturday in London’s Burlington Arcade:


Put them all together and you have a brown bear in cool shoes.

PS When I win the lottery, and I can enter shops that don’t have prices on items in the window display without fear of humiliation, I’m going to treat myself to those lime green suede brogues third from the left. They represent the height of frivolous materialism to me and the exactly the sort of thing you should wear when you’re eight million pounds richer overnight (after that you can start doing good deeds). A colleague of mine once sent me an SMS to say that he’d seen Simon Schama in the Nordic Cafe in London in something like the ones pictured fifth from the left, so I’ll be in good company.

Mao’s Mango (and Fidel’s Fig)

Mango blog

Mango (A5 pastel on Winsor & Newton pastel paper 2016)

Recently I heard a radio programme about the cult of the mango during China’s Cultural Revolution. In 1968, student Red Guards had brought the country to the verge of chaos. The BBC website explains what happened next:

Mao Zedong sent thousands of workers to occupy [Beijing’s Quinhua] campus and quell the violence, declaring that the working class, rather than the students, would direct the next stage of the revolution. A week later, the Pakistani foreign minister visited Beijing and presented Chairman Mao with a basket of mangoes.

For some reason, Mao didn’t eat the mangoes himself but sent them on to the workers at Qinghua, sparking a nationwide passion for the fruit. The gift was interpreted as an act of selflessness and mangoes became synonymous with the Chairman and a symbol of his love for the People. The BBC site continues:

The Communist Party’s propaganda department quickly set to work creating thousands of mango-themed cotton fabrics and domestic goods. Floats with giant papier-mâché mangoes dominated the National Day Parade in 1968. Armed peasants even fought over a black and white copy of a photograph of a mango.

I can’t claim that my pastel drawing of this wonderful fruit has any totemic value. Its colours made it a natural subject. As with these figs:

Figs blog

Figs (A5 pastel on Winsor & Newton pastel paper 2016)

Unfortunately there’s no evidence that Fidel Castro did anything with figs other than, perhaps, eat them (I confess, it just made a good title for this post). It’s an intriguing thought, however, that regimes of all political persuasions might find a fruit that everyone could rally round, one that could quell violence and restore harmony. The noble quince springs to mind, for example.

I fear it’ll take more than fruit to stop the madness that surrounds us in some parts of the world at the moment, however.



Swedes blog

Swedes (30 cms x 40 cms, pastel on Hahnemühle Ingres paper 2016)

I’ve recycled an awful lot of watercolour and pastel paper these past couple of weeks.

Perhaps it’s the weather or the time of year, but inspiration has been thin on the ground. Last week I tried a pastel drawing of a celeriac on a pale background, thinking the combination of whites, off whites, pale yellows and pale greys might produce something interesting. It didn’t. That might work if you’re Basil Blackshaw or Aubrey Levinthal , but not for me. At least not now.

Then on Friday I found Ronell van Wyk’s tremendously inspiring paintings of swedes (rutabagas) and other root vegetables. On Sunday I read Rebecca Art Tutor’s post on the dangers of perfectionism and the need to let go.

With one mighty bound I was free!

Swede blog

Swede (11 cms x 18 cms acrylic on paper with collaged book page frame 2016) I tried to make the paint on the swede look as if it had itself been collaged.