I know that it is hard to believe, but when I started watercolour sketching, I was too heavy-handed to use a round brush (on the left). Instead I used a very cheap short haired small flat brush (on the right) until I gained enough control to progress to a round one.
In other words, when I started painting, I was an absolute beginner! And yes, it is 10 years (almost to the day) since I started.
I did my first watercolour sketch, not from the comfort of my home, but instead I was on the top of Mt Kosciuszko – the highest point in Australia – being attacked by very nasty stinging flies at the time. I think it is highly symbolic that my first sketch was out on location in challenging circumstances.
I can’t find the sketch (sadly?), but I can tell you that it was terrible – done on the cheapest of cheap ‘watercolour paper’ (by Monte Marte) with the tiny Cotman paintbrush and it was a fairly challenging landscape for an architect to attempt as a first sketch. But here is a photo of the view, Esther and me (yes ,with long hair and a few extra kilos) and a photo of Esther sketching (I was sitting next to her). Note: This was before Urban Sketchers, social media, and the trend of taking hero shots of the sketch on location!
I think this is a good chance to go back a little further and tell you the full story of how I started sketching. When I do a talk (to an art society, group of architects etc) I normally start with this story, but I only recently realised that I have never shared it on my blog. So here goes…
I always wanted to sketch and keep a journal when I travelled but the only time I created a visual journal was when I was 19 years old. It was our last family holiday, and I feel as if it was the best holiday we ever went on because of the memories I recorded. You can see a little more about my sketch pages here.
As an architect I wanted to keep a sketchbook but the only time I attempted to do so was when I was travelling. I would normally only sketch (from memory) for the first day or so of a trip before abandoning it totally and just resorting to writing notes. It was all just too hard to sketch on location!
So instead I created elaborate (extremely elaborate) books when I came home. Some of these volumes took 1 year to complete and contained detailed research projects on the buildings I visited. Note: All this work has helped my architecture sketching enormously.
Then 10 years ago, my friend Esther Semmens came to Australia for a year and things changed…
Turning Point No. 1: Discovering watercolour in pans/field kit
My exposure to art was so limited that I had never come across watercolour in pans before, but at that moment I immediately knew that this was what I had been looking for all my life. Ok, that is a little over dramatic, but it was a huge lightbulb moment! So I rushed out and bought a Cotman Field Kit the next day just like Esther’s.
Turning Point No. 2: Dropping my camera during a road trip
I didn’t know how to use the watercolour kit, but I packed it for a road trip through NSW and Victoria, hoping to do a few paintings during our 2 week adventure. Esther gave me a brief demonstration of how to pick up paint the evening before our walk to Mt Kosi. Note: I didn’t know anything about painting!
The momentous nature of being on the top of Australia was the reason for our determination to sketch there. We hadn’t been sketching at all during the first half of our trip and were too busy taking photos. I wasn’t very satisfied with my first attempt at painting so I decided to put my kit away. But then disaster struck – I dropped my camera and it broke.
The next day, we were at a lookout that had been recently burnt by a bushfire. I was bored! I mean, what do you do if you don’t have a camera? And then I looked down on the ground and saw a burnt stick…”Charcoal!” I exclaimed!
As I drew the tree I experienced an incredible buzz, a special connection with place. As a result I was determined to sketch for the rest of the trip. I did a few sketches each day in a small cartridge visual diary but when I went back to work, my sketching stopped.
Turning Point No. 3: Starting my first watercolour sketchbook
One month later, I bought my first expensive sketchbook (Moleskine watercolour book) and started it over the Australia Day long weekend while I was away at Port Macquarie. My first sketches look very much like my 19-year-old cartoons and I have a number of classic beginner mistakes: drawing as if I was a bird in the air, flat bottom coffee cups with pointed ellipses, and horrible green straight from the pan.
But later that weekend I sketched this single image to describe a storm at Town Beach. I really didn’t know what I was doing, but was pleased with the result and discovered the power of a single image to record an event.
And the rest is history!
This is my collection as of yesterday – 10 years worth of sketching and teaching sketching workshops.
There is a lot more that I could expand on in this story, but I think that’s enough for today. It’s been really amazing to compare the start of my journey with my 2016 in Review article yesterday. There is no way I would have believed a word if someone had told me 10 years ago what I would be doing these days.
The last 10 years have been incredible – my life has changed in so many ways. But it all began with that lightbulb moment of wanting to start using watercolour. I have a lot of drawing background as an architect (this is worthy of a separate article), but when I started my first moleskine I had zero watercolour experience.
Over the last 10 years I have worked very hard at developing my drawing from observation and my painting skills. It has taken me a decade to get where I am today – it wasn’t an instant transformation. that many beginners expect it to be.
But it has been an amazing journey – and sharing my work with you online for the last 8.5 years has been a huge part of it. So thank you for all the support and encouragement.
There is no way to achieve instant success as an artist. Instead, it is a process of slowly developing your skills. But if you just do a little bit most days you WILL make progress.
You each have a unique creative journey to travel, different from everyone else. The path you end up going along might be quite different from what you expected it to be at the start, but just embrace the journey and enjoy every step!