Mike Brownlow expresses his Love of Life - drawing that is!

When I started as a professional illustrator I used conventional media like everyone else, but for the last twenty years I’ve produced most of my artwork with Photoshop, Wacom tablet and iMac. Last year I realised it was all beginning to feel horribly stale. I needed to get in touch with real media again.


When a friend started a life drawing class in a small converted barn belonging to an art gallery on the edge of town, I nervously accepted her offer to be a part of the group. I’d done lots of life drawing in my Foundation year as an art student at Liverpool Art College. We’d had wonderful teachers, practising artists who valued realistic representation and could all draw like Raphael. I think I learnt more in that single year than any of the subsequent ones I spent as a student. That was many years ago though, and I’d done next to no life drawing since. 


It’s a 15-minute walk through fields to the gallery, so it felt like a calm, meditative start to the day. We were usually about a dozen, several of us professional artists, all aiming to improve our observational drawing skills. Illustration involves extrapolation from and exaggeration of reality in an attempt to create our own distinctive visual universe. Life drawing is simpler and more devotional - a ritual designed to hone draughtsmanship.


Our models were Lucy, Sarah, and latterly Robin, an actuarial accountant who modelled in his ‘fallow months’. The classes began with 5-minute sketches, building up to 10-, 20- and sometimes - if we’d been good girls and boys - 30-minute poses. 

5-minute sketch


We were encouraged to experiment with different media. Each week before she started, one of my fellow artists would unroll scruffy mats in order to catch the gritty charcoal debris she left as she rubbed and smudged her way through her drawings. I was a timid Mr Neat in comparison, and began to have charcoal envy as she scrunched another innocent stick of blackened wood into the paper with concentrated abandon. Another woman drew with a fine dip-pen, making spider’s webs of thin, scratchy lines. I discovered my old Karismacolor crayons were my favourite pencils. They have a creamy consistency and I enjoyed using coloured lines rather than black.


The classes always gently challenged us to question how we made marks on paper. Of course, I never came anywhere near to drawing as well as my heroes, Hockney, Klimt and Egon Schiele. Nonetheless the process would clear my mind, setting me up for the rest of the week. 

Then that pesky Covid-19 came along and put a sudden halt to everything. I miss the early morning treks through the fields and the cosy camaraderie of like-minded people engaged in a common task. I hope they’ll start again sometime soon. 


 Mike Brownlow is an illustrator and author of many books for children, including CBBC's Little Robots, and the Ten Little.... series with Simon Rickerty. A long standing volunteer with SCBWI's Illustration Committee, Mike lives in Somerset.

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