Monday, 24 August 2009

Sketchbook Keeping for Dads

...or Mums.

"There is no more sombre enemy of good art than the pram in the hallway." Or so said the critic Cyril Connolly. With the school holidays still stretching copiously ahead this quotation has been trundling about my mind lately. Not that there is a pram in my hallway – these days it's heaps of Lego, rubber swords and broken Spiderman merchandise – but the effect is the same. Or maybe worse.

When my first son was born, five years ago now, my sketchbook began to accumulate dust. I didn't notice because I was busy doing other things, things I had never had to think about before. Soon afterwards a very small digestive system began misfiring with very substantial consequences. Somehow 24 months slipped by and then, just as nappies, midnight screams and purée flinging began to recede it all started again and the dust on the sketchbook became so thick I could have drawn my portrait in it. If I'd had the time.

It is taboo to complain about having children. They are a gift and a privilege, and to display resentment at the time they take up and the limits they impose on their parents is considered shabby. It is shabby. Good parents are supposed to stretch and accommodate and keep smiling. But every parent knows, no matter what stance they take publicly, that they are slaves to their little ones. In the relay race of life, once that baton has been passed on it's time for the next generation to take priority while the oldies (that's us) wheeze to a stop and cheer them on.

But that being the case, why is my sketchbook no longer dusty? Did I wheeze it clean? Possibly, but the fact remains that I am back in the sketching business again, despite the steadily rising tide of scratched DVDs and nameless bits of plastic. So how have I managed it? And how am I able to write this with one child wriggling on my knee while the other bleats that he's 'hungry' and 'needs' chocolate?

Well, firstly it turns out that Mother Nature hands out extra supplies of patience when babies are born. Goodness (and my wife) knows that I've never had much of that, but somehow art manages to get out amidst the chaos. Whether or not it's good art is another question, but at least the flame splutters on. Of course, it also helps if – like me – you have lovely and incredibly generous parents-in-law.

Secondly, I sketch my children. They are the most challenging subjects, but they are also powerful antidotes to prissy drawing; get those sprightly forms down in three stokes, or don't get them down at all.

Thirdly, forget those A3, 100gm hot-pressed watercolour blocks. Leave behind those over-stuffed pencil cases with their pots of masking fluid, craft knives and bulldog-clips, and don't even think about charcoal. No, go to your nearest Muji and buy a few of their passport-sized sketchbooks (or get the Moleskine equivalent), then select a simple drawing implement, such as a Faber-Castell Pitt artist pen or a stubby pencil. Stick them in your pocket (with the baby wipes and sticky toys) and you're all set.

It seems to me that good art needs 'sombre enemies'. If your time is being devoured, you must put what remains to better use. If having children means you can't be creative and play computer games then be grateful – Mother Nature is helping you discover if you're a real artist or just a poser. Therefore don't despair, fellow sketchers, just downsize and keep going, and before you know it your children will want a sketchbook too. And besides, if that pram in the hallway looks too sombre, you can always come over all Bloomsbury and decorate it.

And now, if you'll excuse me, I have to go and be a dragon.


  1. How much better than a photograph to have supplied your memory with your children line by line. That's knowing them. Kids can drive you to the brink, but make you want to hang on all the more for them to do it to you all over again! What price for immortality?

  2. Been there, done that, hand printed several t-shirts. Rest assured, you'll be glad you hung on in there when they're all grown up! love Mum! xxx

  3. Ha, thanks Mum! I want chocolate! I need chocolate.

    Rachel, you're right that photos aren't in it. It takes seconds to take one and no observation is required. You don't know them until you can draw the set of their mouths even once they've turned their heads.

  4. Hi Thomas, I've tried to comment on here before but short of the right language! Your lovely M-i-law is helping me. I've watched Nathan and Aidan and would give my right arm to be able to get them down on paper. I look at their curvey cherubic (!) faces and would feel sooooo satisfied if my efforts reflected what I saw instead of the kids in 70 years time! Hope this works this time. Celia's Aunty Hil xxx

  5. Hi Hilary.

    Thanks for commenting! I didn't realise that my blog was so difficult to comment on until Rose gave me the heads up. I have changed some of the settings. It should be easy for you to comment now, especially when you are logged-in to your own blog. I must go and find your blog actually...

    How's life in Saudi?

  6. Brilliant,
    I was in your house in Rouen only a few days ago, and I remember Max finding this Carambar in the door of the car (nothing with sugar in it can get passed them!), and now it's still hasn't been eaten. Quelle surprise.

    Love the blog, love the drawings, well done. I'm very jealous of your blog's layout though, I never managed to get that same personal touch with mine.

    La belle-soeur

    PS: I went to Muji in Paris and I have alittle surprise for you. You'll have no excuse for not sketching.

  7. Hi, Julie.

    Thanks for commenting. It was lovely to see you recently and to catch up. I hope Philip is well.

    If you want a personalised banner for your blog you have only to ask.

    A surprise eh? Nothing to do with Carol I hope;-)

  8. Thomas, I just read your comment on 'Help I need a publisher....etc' and I cannot comprehend you struggling at all...I don't know what your plans for your Rouen characters are but I imagined, as I looked at them and read the posts you wrote along side them (which, by the way, flowed really effortlessly and were a joy to read), what a great book they would make - either as a book for children or adults (or, wonder of all wonders, a book adults would love to read to their children!), and I thought of a character of a child living in this place with all these characters and how this child would see these characters and what she would make of them and their appearances and strange working hours! My imagination ran wild. Anyway, there's a great book in there. (Delicatessen for kids?)I'd be happy to throw more ideas at you! Please keep going.

  9. Thanks very much for the encouragement, Rachel.

    I suppose I'm struggling because I came to writing ('serious' writing, that is) late, having spent years with an art school mentality. This is something I want to blog about later, but what I mean by that is this: visual art students tend to believe that writing is something that other people do. It's taken a long time for me to throw this off and brave a story the size of a novel. I'm only just getting to proper grips with the intense nature of picture book texts, so the kinds of plotting complexities that have mired my recent writing are very new to me. What I really need is a very long, metaphorical deep breath and then...

    My agent is very tough, very experienced and very good. As she once told me, 'I won't throw you to the lions.' I might complain, but I know I have strong allies.

    I don't have any concrete plans for my Rouen characters, except to post a few more. They are just an excuse to explore new techniques, although they're also an excuse to write. I have a few more planned, but despite the theme of my last post, I think I'll have to wait for the end of the school holidays to deal with Monsieur Petit-Pont, et al:)

    Anyway, thanks again for saying nice things about my writing, and always feel free to throw things at me, especially ideas.

  10. Hey, no probs - and I'm always happy to throw things! :)

  11. You've hit home hard with this one Tom. I am now resolute to head down to Muji at the earliest opportunity.

    I have hundreds, if not thousands, of blurred shots of my daughter, who despite being an angel, is trapped in the body of a two and a half year old Olympic tri-athlete. I'll see if I can succeed where the shutter speed failed, as it really would be nice to capture her journey on paper.

    Seriously Tom, thanks, I genuinely do feel inspired to dust of the old pencil case. It's been gathering dust for far too long.

    A newly enthused,

  12. Ha ha, Good for you, Darren. It's nice to be inspirational. And I know what you mean about angels in tri-athlete form -- all that energy, all that life, all that destruction...

  13. A slight delay, but now I'm finally on track and filling up some pages. I opted for the small Moleskine and a cheap and chearful Shaiaku DX for the scribbling.

    Now if only she would sit still for a minute...

  14. Hi, Darren. I've only just discovered this message.

    Good for you! Moleskines can't be beat (despite the pretentious marketing) and I hope you manage to capture your daughter on paper before she escapes...

    By the way, are you on Facebook? I tried to find you with no joy. perhaps Paul will know.

  15. I need to get quicker that's for sure. I've always been far too slow and far too controlled, so the hurdle is having the confidence and skill to be able to catch the line first time.

    So far the only sketches that demonstrate a full compliment of limbs are the ones of her mesmorised in front of Peppa Pig on the TV. Parenting at its finest. ;)

    Any tips not involving Superglue, and the awkward conversations with child protection as a result, gratefully received!

    No Facebook I'm afraid, to a few people's chagrin now. Nor MySpace, Bebo, et al. I have enough problems answering emails in the same calender month. [Paul has a couple of email addresses for me.]



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