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Giggles, wriggles and a hairy interloper

I know that actors say “Never work with children and animals” but I never thought it would apply to my profession, that was, til now.

This blog post is going to be a long one, cos there’s so much to tell you about. I have been exhibiting my paintings at Dame Catherine Harpur School in Ticknall, South Derbyshire for eleven or twelve years now and love it as it is run how an art exhibition should be run – lots of art (both good and bad!) at differing prices from £5 to £1,300 this year, totally diverse subject matter, in different styles, by almost 200 different artists – including me. Sometimes I sell well there, sometimes I don’t. But that is the way of exhibitions, and I love to be part of this one for the inspirational art that is always there, the fact that I always see my arty friends there, both artists, and art buyers, and the exhibition runs loads of money for the worthy cause of the  school charity. So, as far as I’m concerned, it doesn’t get any better than that in my arty calendar.

But this year, there was a difference. For the first time ever, they had asked an artist to do *ten minute portraits* for the many visitors they have there over the August bank holiday weekend. The proviso being that it would raise more money for the school.  The artist who was asked, of all the artists who exhibited there, was me.  And I’ll admit when I was first asked, my immediate reaction was “Noooooo, its far too difficult!” – to capture that essence of someone in ten minutes, from life, in a drawing, is incredibly difficult, most artists will tell you. But, then, I thought about it, and within half an hour of saying no, I thought, well, why not? I might be out of practice of drawing faces, but I can do it, with enough practice, and I’d got two months time infront of me, to fine tune it.  I could choose the medium, and the size, and the most beneficial way to do it, so it was all my choice. Ok, then, I’ve never done this before, but it doesn’t mean I can’t do it. I feel that if you’re an artist you can paint anything. Even the most difficult one of all, which was this one.

I practiced with various mediums – graphite pencil, conte pencil, pastels, charcoal, and decided quite quickly that the best one for me was conte pencil, since it has a lovely softness about it, that can be used for very subtle effects, and also can do strong tones where needed as well. That meant that I could do a whole picture in the ten minutes only using one implement but could still get the whole range of textures and tones that I would need.  I also, after a long consideration, opted for plain white cartridge paper at 150gsm as that gave me a plain white base that hadn’t got any tooth or texture in the paper that would alter the effects the conte pencil would produce. Cos I knew the effects would be subtle, they would have to be for the fine details in the faces. Now, to practice, but where would I find a whole load of different faces of people who would sit for me whilst I drew them, again, and again, and again, without them getting bored and wandering off? I chose a selection of magazine pictures, men, women, and children, to practice, and keep practicing with. The easiest of course were the older faces, with character that enabled me to draw quickly, men’s faces being a lot easier for their squareness compared to the delicate lines of a womans face, and the even more delicate one of small children. But, I reasoned, not many children would be at the art exhibition, so I’d mostly be drawing adults, and probably more men than women…… but  there was something I hadn’t for one moment considered, I found out later on……

The last few days before the exhibition, I was able to fine tune what it was I needed to get down on the paper that was more important than anything, and that was the eyes, and the mouth, of the person. The nose was important, as was the hair, since they made the personal details more specific – but if I could get the eyes and mouth right, then I’d got it. Ok, not much pressure, then!  On the last day before the big day, I asked my fella to sit for me, properly, so that I could draw him. And immediately found a problem again – since he took great delight in pulling faces and gurning at me for the first two minutes, trying to make me laugh whilst I was attempting to be serious and professional, the bugger! Eventually, I got him to sit still, and realised the thing that I hadn’t taken into consideration with my magazine people drawings. They all sat still, and real people don’t. Their heads move, their eyes wander, their mouths twitch, and their chins fall down. Ok, well, I’ll do the best I can, and see how it goes. I can’t be any more prepared than I am……

The big day arrived, and we went to set up where I had been designated – in a small marquee in the exhibition grounds. I could have as many chairs as I wanted, and tables, but basically I was on damp grass from the torrential rainstorm from the night before, and every chair that I placed in my marquee sank into two inches of wet soil every time I sat on it! My easel set up, advertising boards, signs, and promotional faces on display, and I was ready….

For visitors…. anyone?  Anyone at all? But, having envisaged that I would be having visitors queuing at my tent, ready to watch me draw, I found, that that was not going to be the case,  since adults don’t seem to like their own faces. Now, why would that be? Eye contact was avoided, even when I smiled encouragingly at them as they passed near to my tent.

I did have visitors, but they were people I knew – artist friends who popped in to see me, and have a chat about the exhibition.  One artist whose talented artwork I admire greatly shuddered when I said how much I love doing commissions, since she doesn’t, and told me “You’re brave!” about me doing the ten minute portraits. Another artist friend said that she had lost all inspiration, and wasn’t exhibiting there this year since she couldn’t find anything she wanted to paint.

But the next day, when I’d had such a quiet day the day before, was a lot busier. I know that was partly down to the day, but I had also slightly adjusted the layout of my promotional stuff, and my attitude. I called out to two women in their late thirties to see if they wanted their portraits done, and one said that she felt the painting would be too harsh of her, I explained that it was my job to make her look good and enhance the picture, but she still wasn’t happy with her face that she wanted it drawn it seemed from her reaction as she turned away.

But then, a father and son came back to me, from me smiling at them earlier and inviting the boy to be drawn.  The boy was 8 and a charmer, full of character as he told me about his life, the school he went to, and his troublesome younger sister. He was interested in art, and happy to be drawn by me, as his father left him to it for more than five minutes whilst I drew the son. As I happily chatted with the boy, and got involved in capturing him, a young voice in my ear said “That’s good, I want to be drawn!” and I turned to find the younger afore-mentioned sister standing there watching me drawing. As I finished her brothers drawing, she watched me, and sat down in the same chair to have hers done after he’d vacated it. He and his father disappeared again whilst I set up the new sheet of paper for the six year old, who had developed an incurable case of the giggles, and couldn’t stop, she told me gleefully, as she started again, giggling! I let her get on with it, and decided it was probably nerves, and grinned at her mirth, and said that she’d have to be serious else I couldn’t draw her. She eventually pulled herself together, but kept corpsing, as I tried to draw her around the giggles, she, like her elder brother, was a lively character, and a chatterer, as she told me how he tormented her as older brothers do, then started the giggles again, as she said “I thought you said it would be ten minutes, this is longer than that!” and I said with mock seriousness “Well, if you kept still, it would be ten minutes, but since you keep jiggling about, I can’t draw you, and its taking twice as long” which caused gales of laughter in her again, and a huge cheesy grin from me!

The next little girl a few minutes later was also six, and I said to her “The last six year old girl I drew sat giggling so much, I could hardly draw her, do you think you could sit still for me?” she nodded, in quiet acknowledgment, and to my astonishment, did exactly that, looking up at me with her huge blue eyes, her face set in a perfect gentle smiling, the most wonderful model of stillness.  I told her how good she was at posing, and then drew her older brother as their mother, father, and grandparents stood behind me, watching me draw.  The mother said a couple of times “You’re a very good artist, Jackie!” which I was very gratified to hear.

Later on I did another brother and sister, even younger, four and three years old, and was asked to put them both on the same piece of paper, which again, was another difficult thing to do, not that anyone else would have realised it. Because, you’ve got to leave enough paper to put another head on it, and if you get the second one wrong, then it’ll mess up the head of the first one. But, I just got on with it, as the two little faces peered up at me, with their dad looking on over my shoulder prompting them to sit and look at me whilst their eyes darted about as they looked at everything happening outside the tent that was far more interesting, obviously.

I presumed that that would be it for the day, but then, a harassed mother came over and asked me if I could draw her daughter, although she warned me that the child would not sit still, not at all. Ok, I’ll do my best, I said with a smile, as the next three year old was put in the chair, but wanted to see what I was doing behind the easel – trying to draw you, I explained, but  I can’t do it, if you don’t sit still for me. She returned to her seat, but every few minutes climbed out of it to take a look at how the picture was progressing! Her father had decided the best thing was Mickey Mouse, to entertain her, so he played a video on his phone, whilst she looked at it, and kept a reasonably rapt look upon her face as he tried to turn the screen this way and that, as she kept chattering about the images, kept kicking me (which I didn’t mind) until her dad came up with the idea of putting one strong locking arm around her to keep her in place whilst she watched Mickey, but wouldn’t hold her head up for me, whilst wriggling this way and that, on the chair. I got her in the end though, and smiled at the challenge of it as the last drawing of the day.  But, the session wasn’t over….not yet……

Giggling six year olds, chattering eight year olds and wriggling three year olds, were nothing compared to the next sitting. He was called Sammy, and was black, and somewhat hairy, and had four paws and a long pink tongue, and his owner wanted me to draw him. Ok, I know I like a challenge, but this one’s gonna be really difficult! As he was looking all over the place, making the children look like sloths by comparison. In the end, his owner took photo’s with his camera as Sammy sat there, and I was able to use one of those pictures as the basis of the image, get the main details in, and then look at the dog sitting next to me, and add the tiny details of hair, and expression, from real life. Phew!

So, I don’t care what anyone says now, I’ve done artwork that is the stuff of nightmares for most artists! I’ve drawn from real life, I’ve done portraits, I’ve done them in ten minutes, I’ve got a good likeness, I’ve drawn children, I’d drawn children whislt their doting parents have looked on, I’ve drawn giggling hysterical six year olds, chattering eight year olds, wriggling three year olds, and a hyper-active dog. If I can do that, I can do anything!