Skills Course

Spending Tuesday night at the book club is not all it seems. Rather than squeezing around a friend’s coffee table to discuss the latest bestseller, I partake of a free glass of red and get settled to examine some naked bodies. The Book Club I am referring to is situated in the heart of Angel and is an exceedingly cool for cats drinking establishment, with original artworks for sale adorning the bare brick walls, Ping Pong tournaments and an ongoing series of workshops and talks. They claim to be “fusing boozing with brainpower”. Yes please.

The naked part is not compulsory (although a nudist bar in London could be quite fun, no?) and it is only the models who do actually strip down to their natural state. Life Drawing by Morris, which usually takes place twice a month, is held in the basement below the main venue. I had been to the Book Club only once, before I ventured here for this class. I arrived on a Friday night around 7pm for a catch up with some work colleagues. Mistake. The Book Club on a Friday night is not ‘catch up’ material. It is loud, heaving and buzzing. Great for a pre-weekend warm up and lovely and contemplative on a Monday or Tuesday when I arrive for the class. I had no idea it even had a downstairs.

But have a downstairs it certainly does. The basement space decor is a cross between luxurious burlesque and deserted house in the woods. The ceiling is covered with a carpet of light bulbs, giving it the essence of an amethyst-filled cave (or maybe that’s just me). Anyway, it’s a lovely space. All materials are included in the price, as is the large glass of wine, which succeeds in sweetening you up.


So, a few pieces of paper, some charcoal and pencils later and we’re ready to roll. The first time I came to this class my nerves were shaken by the initial 4 minute poses. 4 minutes!?? I’m more a ‘2 hours each night for a week to produce a drawing’ kinda gal. Which is exactly why this was so good for me. Short poses force you to work fast, concentrate harder, maybe even to choose different elements rather than the whole figure. It taught me to embrace simplicity. I learnt within the first 5 minutes to use strong lines and blocking to create the overall effect rather than small areas of tight shading as I would have at home. I thought it might be useful to detail the most important lessons I have discovered whilst doing these classes. The more experienced of you will be murmuring ‘pah, that’s obvious’, but even though I had taken art at A-Level and a subsequent art class, I had not before clarified in my own mind the basic, core techniques for drawing from life. This is as much for me as you!

1. Draw what you see. Sounds mind-numbingly obvious, I know, but honestly. Most people (including me) think they are drawing what they see, when in actual fact they are looking more at the paper in their lap and are drawing from the memory of what they have just seen. Once you become aware of this you can keep track of yourself. You shouldn’t look at the paper for more than, say,  2 seconds at a time. Brief glances are enough, you need to spend 99% of the time looking at what you are drawing.

Figure from Behind – charcoal on paper

2. Really look at what you are seeing. Most of us will be influenced by what we think is there, rather than what is actually there. If something looks strange and uneven our brain will automatically try and correct it and the representation will be wrong, because that is not what we are actually seeing. Everyone finds their own way of doing things, mine is just to pick a roughly central point in what I want to draw and to work outwards from there. Sometimes I have to really force myself to draw what I see, not what seems to look better on the paper. At this point you don’t know what will look better in the end, but I guarantee it will be when you focus on drawing what you see. Try it. Even just as an experiment one day.

Man in Mask – charcoal and pastel on paper

3. Use points at other parts of the body to get the right proportions. As you can see from my own drawings, I haven’t completely mastered this one yet. It’s a good way of doing things though. I often concentrate on drawing a leg, for example, then when I look at whether the line of the arm is parallel, or in line etc., it’s way off. I would recommend checking the lines of each part of the drawing in relation to the other elements every 5 minutes; and let’s not forget the old classic method of using your finger and a pencil to mark the size of something in front of you, by closing one eye and measuring the length on the body of the pencil. It is an invaluable tool.

Reclining Nude from Behind – charcoal on paper

4. Remember it doesn’t have to perfect. You are experimenting. Try different techniques, use materials you wouldn’t normally go near. Try some more detailed, and some just flowing lines; some just shading and some just line drawing. Climb out of your box and try something else.

Seated Figure – charcoal and pastel on paper

5. Any kind of meditation technique will help. Focus is your best friend here, especially as you are on a time limit for each pose. Every time I let my mind wander to tomorrow night’s plans, or dinner on Friday, I stop and realise I’ve begun to ignore rule number 1.

Reclining Nude – charcoal, pastel and pencil on paper

Standing Figure – charcoal, pastel and pencil on paper

Standing Figure#2 – charcoal, pastel and pencil on paper

Figure – charcoal and pencil on paper

I mentioned this class to a couple of friends and got the standard response of ‘nah, I can’t draw’. Aside from this irritatingly defeatist, and (usually incorrect!) attitude, there seems to be a definite pre-conception about life drawing. That you somehow have to audition to get in, or that you will be branded as crap and everyone will point and laugh. Not so. I have found that aside from some cheeky sideways glances (which are more out of curiosity than anything else), everyone is interested in their own work, not yours. The range of experience can sometimes be gauged; some people have clearly done this before and others not. It doesn’t matter. You pay your (very reasonable) £10, sit down, zen out and look at the body in ways you never would have done otherwise. I’m there.

Sitting in Vinegar Hill Pottery, a hundred miles away, are 12 pieces of traditional clay dinnerware ready to be fired, glazed, packed and posted to me, to add to the 6 Raku pots I already finished and brought home on Sunday. Each of these began as a lump of wet clay in my very own hands. If you had told me a week ago that this would be the case I would have thrown you my most deprecating look and thought you a fool at best.

Having never been given the opportunity at school to try pottery, I was a complete novice and had serious misgivings about my potential lack of ability. It’s the familiar fear, which most of us have felt at some point, that you will be unspeakably rubbish at your chosen subject, whilst everyone else seems to take to it so naturally that you look up to find them staring, with open-mouthed horror, at your grotesque pot/painting/nude figure before they retire to whisper in corners about your scandalous lack of talent. Thankfully my rather dramatic fears were unfounded.

Much of my success was a result of the literally hands-on teaching by David Rogers, the local Potter who owns the studio and the house attached. Part of the house has been converted into a separate B&B, with individually accessed rooms. We stayed in the Hayloft, a gorgeous room ascended to via an exterior wrought iron spiral staircase, in which we were presented with a fabulous cooked breakfast each morning. This was included in the price of the 3-day course, as was lunch, cooked fresh by a local caterer in the adjoining house and rapidly demolished by the five of us taking the course in the showroom above the studio.


The course began by teaching us the basic premise of how to work clay on the wheel. (Before a ‘Ghost’ joke even enters your mind, please take my word for it you are at least the 100th person to voice it, and it was crap the first time.) The closest we got to the erotic was whilst making the phallic shapes necessary to ‘centre’ the clay, during which my mature 30-something boyfriend peppered us with Beavis and Butthead sniggers as he watched me working the vertical cylinders. My subsequent disparaging stance was short-lived however, as he proceeded to then knock out creatively-shaped and carefully detailed bowls, cups, and plates at tremendous speeds, turning our romantic getaway into a brutal competition. I began to breathe smoke and got my head down.

We spent day one making cylinders, which are the base shape for all pieces except plates. This is most certainly harder than it looks, although easier to master than I expected after my first go; a fact which the deformity of my first pot is sure to demonstrate. The experience of having the wet clay in your hands and teasing it from a sticky, heavy, dollop into a smooth tall pot is inexplicably satisfying. It requires intense concentration and a certain amount of decent motor skills, but is undoubtedly achievable for almost any ability.

Once you have a basic cylinder, you can then lean on the clay to flare out the edges which creates a bowl, or manipulate the material to create other shapes for things such as vases or jugs. The main stumbling block is the co-ordination of spinning the wheel (with either a manual kick-wheel which you pump or an electric wheel which you gently accelerate), whilst focusing on lifting the clay. It’s a bit like learning to drive, albeit without the roads, or a car even. At points the clay becomes so thin it can easily collapse, which it did. Repeatedly. The boyfriend didn’t look quite so smug when his potential pieces ended up on ‘The Mountain’ of failed clay to be recycled. Ha.

Day two began with learning all about Raku; a traditional, rustic form of pottery from Japan. Raku clay is coarser, thicker and fired in an oil drum at 1200degrees. After firing the clay to harden it, the glaze is applied. The pots are then fired again, removed and covered in sawdust, which starves the glaze of oxygen and creates a cracking effect on the pot which many of you will recognise and is the trademark of the style. The process is manageable until the second firing, which took place on day 3. It then becomes random, as the finished effect depends entirely upon how the sawdust falls on the pot; which parts are hottest/coolest etc. When it emerges from the sawdust it is completely blackened and only a scouring process reveals exactly how it turned out.

So why should you go on this course? I can think of dozens of reasons why you most certainly should and not a single one as to why you shouldn’t. The accommodation is fantastic, the course is endlessly enjoyable (3 days wasn’t enough) and Milford-on-Sea is everything you would expect from a  seaside town on the edge of the New Forest; small, quiet, but full of quality restaurants and quaint charm – the fishmarket restaurant Verveine is an absolute must. David Rogers and his wife Lucy, who tirelessly keeps you stocked with tea and coffee, as well as looking after their 3 gorgeous children, literally cater for your every need. David even jump-started our car with a grin when the battery died on the last day. Think of it as going to holiday with your coolest hippy relatives in the countryside, add a bundle of clay and you’re almost there….