Waiting for the Train
I started learning to draw back in September, but I have been pretty tentative with watercolour. The reason for this is that I didn’t want to try and learn too many skills at once. I’ve been focusing on drawing animals and people from lots of different angles, but I haven’t really attempted backgrounds.
For the past couple of weeks I’ve been trying to draw as many faces as possible, and I’ve seen a big improvement already. That’s the beauty of being an absolute beginner. Once you start practising with intention, you take lots of big strides in quick succession, only to plateau a bit once you’ve established the basics. I remember it was exactly the same when I taught myself photography eight years ago. To learn to draw from scratch I’ve been following the circles and lines method. This method has really helped me get my proportions right and to place eyes, noses, ears and lips in the correct place on a face.
To take a brief break from my pencil sketches of faces I decided to try my hand at an illustration idea I’d had for a little while. Back in 2011 and 2012 I spent a lot of time in Gdańsk in northern Poland, as it is where my PhD research was based. Gdańsk, Sopot and Gdynia make up an area known as the Tricity (Trójmiasto) region, and the local metropolitan train line is called the SKM. The trains which connect the three cities are pretty iconic; they’re bright yellow and blue and the classic carriages (they began to modernise them in 2014) are very blocky in shape. My idea was to make an illustration of Sopot station featuring one of the SKM carriages and 24 year old me stood waiting for the train. It’s a simplified memory of Sopot station as my drawing skills aren’t quite up to rendering ornate ceilings, columns and details.
I haven’t been back to Poland since I finished my PhD in 2014, and I really miss the area. The cities have three distinct characters. There’s industrial, port-like Gdynia, art-deco spa-town Sopot (where I always stayed) and Gdańsk, the birthplace of Solidarność. Gdańsk also has a really beautiful old town.
One of my favourite places on Earth is Sopot in the spring and early summer, before the holiday crowds descend. I used to love walking down the molo (wooden pier) and sitting at the far end watching the boats bob up and down in the harbour and would often take my notebook down to the beach to do some work. On quiet days where I didn’t have any interviews or anti-nuclear demonstrations to attend and document, I’d go for four hour walks along the beach and back to Òrłowò and Kępa Redłowska or head to Gdańsk for a walk around Park Oliwski.
In terms of tools, I kept things relatively simple. I use Cotman watercolour paints, made by Winsor and Newton. I have the smaller 12 colour set. I have supplemented this with a few watercolour inks made by Royal Talens in their Ecoline range. The colours I have are pastel red, grey, pink-beige and forest green. I wanted a grey so that I could paint urban scenes without having to mix separate colours, and my Cotman set doesn’t have a grey or a black. The pink-beige and pastel red are for making light skin tones (the Cotman set is pretty good for darker skin tones), and the forest green is because I like to draw and paint a lot of foliage and wanted a bit more variety in my greens.
I have two brushes, both are made by Pro Arte in their student range and they are a size 6 and a size 10. For a pencil I just use a mechanical 2B I got from Muji, and for ink I use a waterproof fine liner (0.2mm) and a Pentel brush pen. I’ve also got a simple porcelain palette, as the plastic lid of my paintbox beads rather than pools and it’s really hard to mix paint in. I painted on Strathmore 400 Series paper, in a 16:10 aspect ratio (just off A5) size. It was the cheapest gelatine free watercolour paper I could find as I didn’t want to spend lots on paper. I’m just a beginner, so I wouldn’t know how to make the most of it.
I found this graphic tutorial by Thomas Romain really helpful for explaining a little bit more about perspective and how to draw backgrounds.