Was the Matthew Harris course good?

Was the Matthew Harris course good? Well, ‘good’ doesn’t seem to quite sum it up: maybe excellent, amazing, inspiring would be better descriptions. I felt exhausted by the end of the two days, because I’d been concentrating and thinking so hard. Reflecting on it since, I think it’s fair to say that the fundamental idea underpinning the course was about the importance of establishing constraints in design from the endless array of choices available. Matthew pointed out that, faced with choices, we tend to make the same ones, going in the same direction each time and that this can get rather predictable. He encouraged us to look in unexpected places for inspiration, and to use chance in determining the shapes, lines, colours, textures and forms that we developed. Now this really appealed to me because I’m very interested in numbers, probability and chance and I was ready and willing to seize the concept.

I won’t tell you any more about the mechanism of how we arrived at our random choices. As I said in my post the other day before I went on the course, I think it’s unfair to spill the beans about the detailed content when somebody has gone to the trouble of designing a course. But I will tell you a bit about the outcomes. Matthew emphasised from the beginning of the course that we should not expect to go away with a finished piece of work, and it’s true that hardly any of us did. What I think we all went away with, though, was a set of new ideas about constraints, and some specific design ideas, unique to each of us. Here are some photos of the work I came away with. During the end of the first day and the morning of the second day I developed some drawings that focused upon one of the shapes I’d selected, at random, for further work: Matthew Harris course

And below is a detail of the same drawing.Matthew Harris course

I did most of my drawings on Khadi rag paper using Derwent Inktense pencils. I bought half a dozen of these in an art shop in Corbridge a few months ago but haven’t really got the hang of using them until now. They are just lovely, and they work beautifully with the Khadi paper. I borrowed an Inktense block or two from the person sitting next to me (thank you Kit) just to experiment, and both pencils and blocks are excellent. I’ve asked for some of the blocks for a birthday present.

The next stage for me, was to keep the drawing media, but change the surface to lightweight calico. Here’s a photo of my design using red Inktense on calico. I was all for cutting up my first piece for samples, but Matthew advised me to produce three, and then decide which one I wanted to cut up. I produce three in different colours, and this all-red one is the one I decided to cut up.1-IMG_0685

And finally, I got into stitch right for the last hour or so of the course – see the fourth photo below. This was just doodling, really. I have other ideas to develop and several bits of calico to work on.

Matthew Harris course


Matthew is an excellent teacher and Bobby Britnell‘s studio is a beautiful location for a course. If he does another course there – and he seemed amendable to Bobby’s suggestion that he should do another one – I will hope to be one of the lucky ones who gets to go.

A bonus was the opportunity to see some of Matthew’s work close up, and to hear him talking about them, as he brought a few of his smaller pieces with him. These were lovely, and I almost bought one, but the one I really wanted went to someone else. He’s got an open studios event coming up, but it’s in Stroud which is some distance away and I won’t be able to make it. However, I shall keep this in mind and hope to acquire one of his pieces before too long.

Any downsides? Not really. The weather was rather vile, as expected. Bobby’s house and studio has lovely gardens but mostly we had to stay in and listen to the rain lashing down on the studio roof. But that’s a minor niggle. I can highly recommend the location, and Bobby runs a very full and interesting programme of courses. Do have a look at her programme if you’ve not seen it before.

More on learning to draw

Last month I wrote about learning to draw using Betty Edwards’ book on the subject. This post is about what I’ve done since I worked my way through that book.

It’s a bit lonely working away on your own, and my next move was to try to find a class. Blackburn College, not far from here, had at the time a good range of part-time courses (these days there’s not so much available). I started on a life-drawing course; three hours every Thursday evening of drawing and sometimes painting from a real live model. It was fabulous. I did the same course two or three times, interspersed with something called ‘Open College of the North West’ which is a kind of A Level equivalent, but for adults, and then moved on to City & Guilds Level 2 painting. The formal titles of the courses didn’t matter too much to me; I went for the experience and the outstanding tuition. Blackburn College is an old-fashioned place, and I mean this in a very good way, in that it never abandoned life drawing, even when almost every other college ditched it. So they have a long tradition of teaching drawing. The tutors are excellent: take a bow, Mark Edmundson and Richard Cross. I learned lots from them both. The painting below is one of Richard’s.Richard Cross - Two Mirrors

My other main experience of going on courses has been taking life-drawing classes in London with Rachel Clark. She is another brilliant teacher: critical, encouraging, rigorous and dedicated. She has been running courses for many long years, and I went to several. I’ve not been for a while, although Rachel assiduously keeps me up to date with the details. The courses are relatively expensive (although definitely worth it) but the problem if you live outside London is that you have to add in the cost of staying in London for up to four days, plus the cost of travel, in my case from the North-West of England to London. (Note to readers outside the UK who haven’t visited: the inter-city train fares here are larcenous). So it all adds up.

The other thing I’ve done that everyone should do, if they want to draw and improve their drawing, is to, well, just draw. But I know that I haven’t done enough of it. Life and, especially, work just keep getting in the way. A daily commitment to drawing would be the way forward, if I could just bump it up my list of priorities. Ah, well, tomorrow is another day.

Favourite textile and stitching books: Drawn to Stitch

I’ve bought quite a few books on textiles and stitch in recent years, because of doing the City & Guilds courses. There are a few that I keep going back to because I like them so much, and one of my favourites is Gwen Hedley’s ‘Drawn to Stitch’. This is a  Batsford publication, although at 144 pages, it’s a little bit longer than the more usual Batsford book. Drawn to Stitch - Gwen HedleyIt’s perhaps these extra pages (I think Batsfords are more usually 128 pp) that gives the book its feeling of substance and solidity. Sometimes, with this format of book, even if I like the author’s work and the photographs I feel slightly disappointed because there just doesn’t seem to be enough….well… content. Not so with this one; it’s a bit of a Tardis in that there’s even more once you get into it than you thought there would be.

As the title implies, the book aims to demonstrate how you can use observational drawing as a basis for the creative process. The first couple of chapters discuss tools and methods of mark making, including suggestions for some more unusual materials, altering backgrounds, dyeing, printing, paper weaving and so on. The largest section of the book is in the third chapter which includes many demonstrations of Gwen Hedley’s own creative process, working from a source of inspiration, through drawings and samples, to a finished stitched piece of work. These are mostly pieces abstracted from a natural or man-made source, such as weathered wood, crumbling masonry and even graffiti. You don’t often get to see an artist’s creative process illustrated so comprehensively.

At intervals there are inserts of a page or two on other artists, some of whom were new to me, often illustrating their use of drawing in their work. This feature makes the book even richer as it provides a contrast with Gwen Hedley’s own work and helps to illustrate the vast potential of drawing in creativity.

Every time I dip into this book I seem to find something new. If you haven’t seen it, do have a look. If you’re doing a course such as City & Guilds you may find it really useful in helping you develop your own work.

Learning to draw

On my ‘about me’ page on this website I list four things I’m interested in, one of which is learning to draw. I’ve not said anything so far in this blog on the subject so I thought perhaps it was time I did. I was keen on drawing at school but not very good at it, and there was never the slightest indication that it was possible to learn to draw. The art teacher certainly never attempted to teach us how to draw, and I wonder now whether she could draw herself. Many years later I cottoned on to the existence of a book about drawing that took a radical approach: Betty Edwards’ ‘Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain’ . Betty Edwards - Drawing on the Right Side of the BrainThe book was first published in 1979, but has been updated since and I see that the 4th edition has been published recently.

Betty Edwards’ view of drawing is that it is a ‘teachable, learnable skill’, which is excellent news for anyone who may have felt that it was a natural ability that you’re either born with.. or not. The book includes a lot about research on the workings of the brain (hence the title), but more significantly for anyone who wants to learn to draw it contains what is effectively a course in learning to see and to draw. There are plenty of accolades around for this book (have a look at the relevant pages on Amazon for some rave reviews), and I’m happy to confirm that it really is effective. I conscientiously worked my way through the book and by the end of it I could draw pretty much anything more or less accurately. Of course, I can’t draw like Picasso or David Hockney, and learning to draw doesn’t make you an artist (as Betty Edwards points out). However, learning to see is a pretty important skill in the visual arts, so this book could just help to set people on the road to becoming an artist.

I’ll write another post sometime about drawing and what I’ve done since I finished working through the Betty Edwards book.