If you want to ruin a sketch of a person, draw short legs.
It's week seven of an eight-week travel sketching course and we're attempting "contour drawing" - rough, basic outlines of the human body in different poses, drawn within 30 seconds.
My art instructor, Tony McNeight, takes a whiteboard marker and draws a vertical line of eight equal-sized circles. One circle represents the head, two circles for the torso, one circle for the abdomen and four circles for the legs. In sketching, Tony tells the class, half a person's height is made up of their legs. The most common mistake sketchers make when drawing people, he says, is drawing short legs. I make a mental note to elongate all future pins on my sketchpad.
It's these little bits of instruction and information which help give a formula to sketching the objects, scenes and people around us. Tony runs travel sketching classes in Devonport, Auckland, as part of the Australian-based Erin Hill Sketching method. The aim is to learn how to capture an impression of a scene, rather than a total likeness, which allows for each budding artist to develop their own style. I'm signed up for a term of beginner classes.
I never realised what an emotional and psychological journey learning to sketch would be. I want neat lines that are perfectly straight and perfectly circular; Tony tells me to add more lines and work over what I've already drawn to give more character. I've had to let go of any perfectionist tendencies, to learn not to compare my work to that of others, and ultimately to see the good in my own work rather than a page full of mistakes.
You learn to see the world in a different way when you have a sketching pad and pen in hand. It's the same world I've always observed, but this time, broken down into simple shapes and colours. Boats are merely triangles. Buildings are oblongs. People and animals are made up of circles and ellipses.
"Practice makes progress," Tony tells us each week, reminding us that we are not seeking perfection, but to capture an impression. He estimates he's taught about 1100 students since 2016.
"The thing I love most about teaching sketching is giving people the opportunity to draw, who previously thought they could not, and for them to see the world in a different way, through the simplicity of sketching."
Impressions are impressive. Displayed on a table at each class are colourful travel diaries from advanced students of illustrations drawn with pen and watercolour. Beautifully handwritten notes and captions accompany the images to add context. Stories of travels told in pictures. Not photographs, but good old-fashioned sketches. An old method, to capture something new. The diaries are incredible to view and far more intriguing than browsing down a social media feed as is common these days. I can see that travel sketching has personality and flair. And I want to create them myself.
Our first lessons start with the basics - learning to hold our pens, how to draw ellipses and where to even start on the page. "Let it flowwwww" is scribbled on the whiteboard in front of us.
My travel sketching kit, which we all received on day one, is made up of an A5 sketchbook, two artist's pens, a box of watercolour pencils, a pencil sharpener, a chinagraph and cute little watercolour kit made up of 12 paints, mini trays and a tiny brush. The whole kit is designed to be portable so that wherever we go, we can take our sketching gear with us.
I used to sketch when I was younger, but I was always aiming for highly detailed artworks that required precision, time and perseverance. In this class I have let all of that go, to hold the pen further away from the point and learn to draw freely. It's a hard switch to make and it feels like I'm unlearning more than just childhood art tuition.
We begin to add colour to our drawings with aquarelles over our pen outlines and learn about layering the various colours to build depth and detail. We draw a hibiscus flower and a coffee cup and I learn that Ultramarine Blue is one of the greatest colours in history to create shadow and depth to a drawing.
We learn how to sketch and paint trees, and how to create texture with our tools. Three weeks in, I feel my drawings are starting coming to life, but I still get frustrated with my own work. We learn how to sketch a cityscape, study perspective and proportions, and discover tricks to drawing people and bodies with in-proportion legs.
Little bit by little bit we each gain more confidence and freedom. It's more of a battle of the mind rather than mastering the pen. Drawing with pen means you can't erase anything. And rubbers and Twink are not allowed in class. But over time I learn the re-drawn lines and wobbly imperfections add character and personality to my individual style. And actually, it's quite freeing not having to colour within the lines.
By the end of the course, art has become an exercise in mindfulness as much as anything artistic. It's a place where I can block out all other distractions and focus exactly on the task that's in front of me. Once I'm in the zone, it's a new happy place for me. As an artist, you get to escape into a scene and take in all the details you might have previously missed. The key difference now compared to the start of the course is that I can hold my art in front of me at arm's length and be proud of what I've achieved.
Creating a cover image
When asked to do the cover for this week's Sunday Travel magazine, I initially laughed. Eh? But I can't draw that well. Even after eight weeks of instruction, I had major reservations about being able to whip up something decent enough for a cover image of a magazine.
But my editors and art instructor had faith. And if it really went pear-shaped, then we could always use one of Tony's works instead.
We needed a recognisable Auckland landmark, so Tony and I agreed on the Auckland War Memorial Museum to work on the masterpiece under his watchful eye. A building, at its simplest form, is really a bunch of rectangles.
We met up in front of the museum and Tony did a quick tutorial of the little boxes and simple lines required to get the outline of the museum. Then he handed a blank page over to me.
Even that first line felt full of pressure - what if I fudge it up at the very beginning? We start with a sketch in blue pencil, trying to remember all the skills I'd learnt in the lesson about perspective regarding eyelines and vanishing points.
It should have been a quick sketch, but my nervousness and fear of mucking it up meant poor Tony spent about three times as long working with me than he'd probably initially planned. As the evening closed in, we popped down to a nearby pub to put the finishing pen touches on it and get the colour on.
Little bit by little bit the piece came to life and grew in depth and perspective by clever painting techniques. Once finished, Tony shook my hand. It's not half bad at all. It's not a replica image, it's an impression. And I can say with pride one of my own artworks is worthy of being a magazine cover.
Erin Hill Sketching NZ with Tony McNeight: erinhillsketching.co.nz
Beginner courses: $585 for 8 classes; includes full sketch kit