Monthly Archives: October 2011

Medieval Times: Every Day is Halloween

sketch of grotesqhe faces

"Grotesques", by Kerry McFall

If you’ve ever worried about Halloween being too scary, just picture living in medival times. These two ghouls would have greeted you and your little darlings every Sunday as you entered and left the church, leering down from above; in the case of the fellow on the left, even spitting cold water at you on rainy days.  He’s actuallly even scarier now, because they’ve recently added a row of needle-like pigeon-prevention-spikes inside his mouth.  Eew.  And you thought that those scary faces were inventions of Marvel Comics!

I’ve been making a point of photographing “grotesques” and gargoyles when I get close enough to really see one.  (A gargoyle is a grotesque that incorporates a gutter  downspout –  we learned that on our tour of Oxford!)  They have fascinated me ever since Koln, when I suspected that I was seeing faces in the decor on the cathedral.  And it turns out I was right.  Especially in Oxford and Canterbury, those sculptors and artists really got carried away, not just with scary faces but with mocking actual individuals.  Risky business, that.

And if you ever worry about violent video games, just be glad that we no longer sanction witch burning, wife dunking, beheading, or drawing and quartering.  I question whether or not video games represent progress, but at least the blood and gore is digital… until you make guns easily available at random of course.  So if you’re not scared on that note… BOoOOo!

The Rules… Which Must Be Obeyed

Beginning of Week 9 on the road… can this be real?  It must be – I have shipped home one sketchbook already and another is almost full.  That is my only anchor to reality, because the rest seems such fantasy, to be here, to be experiencing all of this.  Until I run up against The Rules, that is.  These British have Rules, which Must Be Obeyed.  For instance, afternoon tea is to be served in the afternoon, between 3:00 p.m. and 4:30 p.m.  No earlier, no later.  No scones until then.  Don’t even think of asking.  End of discussion. Dang.

But that wasn’t nearly as bad as:  if the Royal Academy of Arts advertises a special exhibition by Degas with a one-day workshop on drawing movement, and the web page says the class is full, it’s full.  Going to the academy and inquiring politely if there have been cancellations will earn you a scathing look from the information desk and a very cold invitation to come back 15 minutes before class.  And if you are so thick as to do so, you will receive an even colder eyebrows-up explanation from the young woman at the education desk (who is young enough to be your granddaughter no matter how she tries to hide her youth behind those tortoise shell glass frames) that – Soooory –  they Do NOT sell tickets on the day of the event, and they ARE overbooked, and you MAY be on your merry way thank you very much indeed next person in the queue please.   Dang.   Rules where I come from are made to be broken, especially in the art world.

So in the absence of the opportunity to sketch live prima ballerinas under the tutelage of a master artist, I am posting, with raspberries spit in the general direction of the Academy:

  • one sketch of St. Catherine, who, being a statue in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford University, was very obliging and held still for over an hour;
  • and one sketch of the skyline in Canterbury, where old priorities (the cross) meet relatively new priorities (TV antennas) on the rooftops.


"Don't Mess with St. Catherine", by Kerry McFall

 According to the description of the sculpture, (made in the workshops of Niklaus Wedemann the Elder of limewood sometime around 1500), she is holding in her hand the hilt of a sword she just demolished and standing on a broken wheel, some kind of torture device she just  trashed… whoa.  Looking pretty serene, isn’t she?

"Dueling Priorities", by Kerry McFall

 This sketch was made from inside the new Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury, looking toward the Canterbury Cathedral.  Canterbury was marvelous, especially the guided boat tour of the River Stour, and the local museum.  Worth a trip across the world just for that day alone.  And Oxford was even more marvelous if that’s possible.  In the space of one hour we pressed our noses against the glass case containing one of 14 surviving hand-lettered copies of the Magna Carta – THE Magna Carta, the one to which our culture owes pretty much its existence – and the first folio of Shakespear’s complete works, and an original edition of the Gutenberg Bible, and the first page (handwritten) of Jane Austen’s first novel, and a 1550 copy of the Koran…  And if that’s not enough, about 15 minutes later we were having lunch in one of the pubs where Inspector Morse solved so many PBS mysteries!


White Cliffs of Dover: “Chalk of the Town”

Dover Cliffs sketch
“Chalk of the Town”, by Kerry McFall

 Every craftsperson knows you need the right tool for the right job.  In this case, I had the wrong tool (one pencil) handy for the wrong sketchbook (this Moleskine paper doesn’t like watercolor and I knew I would want to add color later), but I had 20 minutes in a sheltered bus stop and an oppurtunity to sketch for 15 minutes.  So you have to take my word that the dazzling white chalk cliffs, as seen between the bus shelter wall and the freeway sign, are reallly iceberg white, just like in the postcards!  I added a bit of colored pencil to highlight the blue skies, but it’s not quite right…  The real reason for the sketch, however, was the name of the pub I could just barely see down in the town, “The Chalk of the Town” – I wonder how old that pub was?

And speaking of pubs, I finally did manage to finish the sketch of the O’Neill Pub in Muswell Hill.  Also done on the wrong paper, I just kept at this one and finally, after a lot of “scrubbing” with the paint brushes, it took the paint.  And just so you don’t think I’m nuts having used those unlikely colors, I’m posting photos below as well:


"O'Neill Pub, Musewell Hill", mixed media, by Kerry McFall

 The building, according to the waitress who wasn’t sure why anyone would care, thought it had been built around the mid-1800;s as a Presbyterian Church. She did say that the accoustics were incredible, though, and that we should come back on Friday night for some live music.  Dang, we were on our way elsewhere by then…

 pub interior

"It Doesn't Get Any Better", by Kerry McFall


I’ll Have the Lumpy Bumpy if You Please

"I'll Have the Lumpy Bumpy", by Kerry McFall

Ramsgate Harbour is a small town that will go down in my personal history as the place where menus offer Bubble and Squeak (steamed cabbage mixed with mashed potatoes, then fried – in other words, leftovers), Lumpy Bumpy (Griff says it’s like Chocolate Banana Pudding on Oreo crust without the bananas and with lots of whipped cream), and yes, even Spotted Dick (still working up the nerve to order that one, but we are told it’s another pudding dessert that has something to do with raisins)!  My theory is that these titles were made up while Mummies were trying to figure out how to persuade their little Verucha Salts to stop screaming and beating Mummy over the head and put their school uniforms on, “What about a nice bit of lumpy bumpy, Darling?”

The first time I ever heard of Bubble and Squeak was in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, the Disney movie.  I thought it must be macaroni and cheese, but no, in this case it must have been Mummy trying to come up with a fun name for some pretty yucky leftovers…

Ramsgate also has a beautiful harbor promenade with really good restaurants, a beach, and berths for lots of yachts.  Their claim to fame is the “Miracle of Dunkirk“, where local fishing boats were used to rescue stranded soldiers in WWII. The “Providence”, which brought 2800 soldiers to safety in 30 straight hours, is shown in my sketch at the edge of the harbour wall.  It’s a little boat, it’s a big ocean:

"Ramsgate Harbour" by Kerry McFall

 Such stories are common here, each region having more than one example of how the human spirit and body can stretch and clinch and persist in trauma, most from one of the World Wars, but those are just the newest stories, here the history goes back for eons.  We can never be reminded often enough that we are all immigrants, or migrants, and that the “wars to end all wars” didn’t actually end the gluttony and greed…

& Now for Something Completely Different!

…with apologies to Monty Python.  We spent the last little while in Paris with our grandchildren, celebrating birthdays and childhood and the beginnings of art.  Daniel, just turning three, takes a marker in either hand and makes the most intensely focused spirals I have ever seen.  Aimee, soon to be six, ponders for 10 seconds, then digs right in and voila – what was in her head is now on paper.  Here is one of our collaborations:

childs drawing of duck

The Queen of Ducks Leads the Tour Group

 We had fun playing drawing games, hide and seek, and telling stories.  We did an abbreviated tour of Paris icons, riding the carousel under the Eiffel Tower, marveling at the Notre Dame gargoyle rainspouts, and, yes, we went to EuroDisney!  The French, who used to (say this with a very thick French R) “…fahrt in the general direction…” of Disney, have evidently decided it’s a fun way to spend a sunny Sunday in October.  It was just as festive (i.e. packed) as any other Disney property we’ve ever enjoyed.  The Small World is just as small, but nicely updated graphically; Space Mountain is so fast and outrageous that I had to check to make sure my earrings were still on afterwards and even Aaron the BadAss Old Skater Dude didn’t want to ride it twice; however the train that goes around the park pales in comparison to the real Metro Train that gets you from downtown Paris all the way out there… 40 minutes, two wiggly children, and no bathroom, oh dear!

Needless to say, not much time for my sketching, and no reliable internet for over a week, so I have a couple of sketchbooks with pages of unfinished sketches going clear back to the Tower of London… but scattered in there are a few that I can share now:

sketch of building

"No Refrigeration Necessary" by Kerry McFall

 This was our view out the apartment window in Paris, where evidently folks put their drinks and juices on the balcony when the fridge overflows (3rd window down on the left)… and it was lovely, crisp autumn weather, so their Oranginas were probably quite frosty!


London Pub sketch

"The King's Head Pub, Hornsey, England" by Kerry McFall

 We had dinner at the cafe across the street from this pub one evening before we left for Paris.  Hornsey is one of those old villages that has been gobbled up into London. So now, after a fascinating/exhausting trip from Paris to Calais via train, Calais to Dover via ferry, then bus to Canterbury and eventually to Ramsgate, we are now staying a block from the royal harbour for a few days with a lovely lady named Sarah who has not only functional internet but (gasp!) HOT water!

Meanwhile, Back at the Palace…

sketch of palace

"Ally Pally", by Kerry McFall

Post-Tower has been insane: in the last six days, we’ve moved to our new Pied-a-Terre apartment (that’s apparently French for Really Tiny) in the Crouch End part of London, where getting internet coverage involves standing in one specific corner of the room and holding the laptop above your head; we’ve discovered that just up the road is Alexandra Palace and the most incredible pub on the planet (architecturally speaking, it’s a cathedral – haven’t tried the beer yet!) ; we were surprised to see that the national Stitch and Knit exhibit was at the Palace over the weekend (quilters, picture just stumbling in to the National  Quilt Expo on a Sunday afternoon  stroll);  and Griff’s computer died and he learned the joys and terrors of buying a new computer overseas.  So given that I’m already tired of holding the laptop above my head, here is a quick sketch from the Palace, with Tower sketches to come when we have better wifi coverage.

As it is affectionately known locally, the “Ally Pally” palace was built in 1873 and burned to the ground three weeks later.  It was never meant for royalty, it was meant to be a “People’s Palace” for exhibitions, fairs, and so on.  But even so, those plucky Victorians rebuilt it immediately, and it had a very colorful if weird past, including being used as a refugee camp and internment camp in the wars, until it burned again in the 1980’s. The BBC radio tower on the right figures prominently in BBC history, and was used to block German radio signals and disrupt many bombing runs.  But my favorite part of the palace is that Rose Window, and I’ve included  the pattern that appears in its outer borders to look like it’s coming from the radio tower.  And if you watch the 2012 Olympics, you may see it on TV because the Dutch Olympic team is going to be living there during the Games!

Locked In at the Tower of London

Most prisoners tried to bribe their way out, but we tried to bribe our way in…  Friday night was the “Great Tower Lock-In”, an event associated with the worldwide “Big Draw” that is happening this month.  A local art group had arranged with Her Majesty to allow 40 – 50 artists to come in to the Tower after it was closed to the public and spend the evening drawing.  We registered online while in Germany, thinking we could pick up tickets at “will call”… long story short, that didn’t work as planned but we got in via the irresistible combination of guile and old age.   And it was SO worth it!

The Tower is actually a vast fortress, some of the walls and arches built more than 1000 years ago.  Talk about a cool place to play Robin Hood!  Of course, there is a tower – well, no, there are a bunch of towers – but there are also vistas along the river, against the castles, down into the moat – all of which were illuminated first by a gorgeous soft golden sunset then a clear cold moon.  The cold was the reason why you will see no sketches of any of that – brr – until I get a chance to hopefully work from a few photos.    

Griff the Navigator came along just to experience the Tower environment, and we were so glad he did.  We were able to go into the chapel, sit next to the crypt where Ann Boleyn and her Beheaded Companions were laid to rest, listen to eerie monastic medieval chants, and sketch a man dressed a la King Henry. Or to climb to the King’s Bedchamber (oh, my aching knees) and sketch him in his nightshirt (the actor looked very much like Winston Churchill).  All in all there were five different rooms available to us.  The combination of being in The Real Tower of London, with the costumed actors and actresses,  in the eerie quiet, and in the “true castle light” (i.e. not much of it) was so overwhelming that my sketches are really in need of further work.  Some of the artists did amazing ‘drawrings’ though, in spite of it all.  I told the organizers that now we just need to go back tonight and do it all again, since we are now mentally prepared for the impact of being there… they gave me one of those eye-brow-up British looks and smiled wanly.  Oh, well, I tried.

When the sketching was over, the Captain of the Yeoman Guard allowed us to watch the Ceremony of the Keys.  Locking up the crown jewels at night has been done exactly this way for centuries, although without the automatic rifles I imagine.  It involved a good deal of clicking heels and manly shouts of “Who comes there?!”  by young soldiers in bearskin headdresses and red uniforms, and a trumpet solo at the end, all illuminated by a single candle in a single lantern… but even anti-military anti-Imperialism me couldn’t help being slightly awed.  Then as he led us to the “wicket gate” to let us out of the now-locked tower, the Captain told us ghost stories and love stories about the Tower. .. sigh.

We stepped outside of the tiny gate, and the bubble burst.  Suddenly we were up against finding a bus home in the windy reality of being near the Thames late at night.  But wow, what a night.


Busy, Busy…

sketch of St. Francis

'I've Got This Skull..." by Kerry McFall

 Museums tend to have a lot of big, dark paintings about redundant topics… you could easily believe that for about 600 years nobody in the “Western World” ever painted anything that didn’t revolve around religion (which they probably didn’t because only the churches had any money to pay artists…)  The plus to this is that you get to see different versions of the same stories, which can be fascinating.  The down side is that you begin to feel like if you see another chubby cherub hovering above a concerned crowd, you’re going to stick your finger down your throat… but I digress.  I wore black to the British National Gallery “Big Draw” event on Tuesday, which made it possible to try that messy technique where you color your whole page black (very popular with the kindergarten crowd) then use your “rubbah” aka eraser to lift off the spots where the highlights should be.  And danged if it didn’t work.  Kind of.  Above you see the results of my attempt to “drawr” St. Francis Meditating by  Francisco de Zurbarán in 1639.. 

Later that day I tried a new life drawing venue, one we saw advertised at the “Crown and Greyhound” pub in Dulwich Village when Helen and Gary took us there a couple of weeks ago for a traditional Sunday pub lunch.  So, first, here is “The Dog” as they call it, from the corner booth looking out to the village:

sketch of pub from interior

"Crown and Greyhound Pub", by Kerry McFall

We got there early enough to have supper and for me to sketch a bit before the class.  Once again, I hit it lucky with finding really excellent instruction and models provided by a group called “Alive and Drawing”, this time with two young women wearing body suits painted with a colorful diamond pattern.  This is one of my two favorite sketches from the session, the other one I’m saving because I think I might use it in my “Call and Response” exhibit coming up next spring:

sketch of two harlequins

"Harlequins at the Pub", by Kerry McFall

 So Tuesday was a very full day, followed by an “off” day when I didn’t take any classes but instead stayed in to finish a few things I’ve been meaning to try, such as Helen’s 1980 photo (which doesn’t quite do her justice), and a still life of silver goblets:

photo and sketch

"Helen, 1980", by Kerry McFall


sketch of 3 goblets

"Silver Trophies", by Kerry McFall

The goblets were engraved with prizes for running and track events from the 1890’s, the egg shapes were turquoise marbles… Helen thinks the silver needs polishing, I think it’s got a lovely patina! 

So there are five very different sketches, each representing just one facet of what I am now thinking of as my Sketch Pilgrimage to Europe… and I’ll be shipping one full sketchbook home tomorrow!

Muggle Moments

sketch of rocking horse

"Muggle Rocking Horse" by Kerry McFall

I am only beginning to realize the depth of J.K. Rowling’s genius.  Almost every day I have at least one flashback to Harry Potter, like when I turn a corner and realize that I am surely in Diagon Alley, or what must have been the inspiration for it.  Or like last week when Griff and I rode the “Night Bus”, an articulated nightmare driven by a cockney cowboy of questionable sanity…  Rowling captured muggle London in perfect detail.

But the icing on the cake was last Friday when my sketch class visited the Pollock Toy Museum, aka Olivander’s Magic Wand Shop.  It is a narrow, sagging brick building snugged into a bustling business area.  The displays in the hazy windows are faded puppet theatres.  There is barely enough room for two people in the entry, so you begin climbing stairs almost immediately as you enter.  I hate stairs – they make my knees scream.  But there is no choice, so you creak up and around in a dizzying circle, with the walls pressing in on you on either side, and you know there is something more weird and wonderful in every box and frame and glass case so you just keep going, wondering if the staircases are moving or if it’s just you…

It’s definitely magic, but it’s dusty magic, just this side of creepy as doll eyes follow you, and toy soldiers keep you in their rifle sights.  I expected Rex Harrison/Olivander to pop out at me any second, waving just the right magic wand.  The closer you look, the more uneasy you become as you realize just how uneven the floors are, just how much the ceiling sags…

I sketched a life-sized rocking horse, using a technique that I really liked: dark pencil and white pastel chalk on a mid-range gray background.  The rocking horse was made in about 1840, according to the sign, and was literally the size of a real pony.  It was way up on a high shelf, I suppose to keep Muggle children from trying to ride it.  I needed about another hour to finish, but class was over, my knees were killing me, and I had the impression that I needed to leave before the building itself vanished back into the recesses of imagination…

Brockwell Park

sketch of oak

"Brockwell Park Oak", mixed media by Kerry McFall

 We’re getting to know the neighborhood here in Lambeth quite well, and we’ve been to Brockwell Park several times.  Once upon a time it was an estate, quite grand I’m sure.  Now the slightly crumbling estate house provides a lovely shabby-chic cafe, and the grounds include a 1930’s public swimming pool with another cafe, a BMX bike track, a hidden garden, playground, soccer fields, bocci ball pitch, tennis courts, and acres and acres of lawns and trees.  This is about a 10-minute walk from Helen and Gary’s, and given the record-breaking lovely weather they’ve arranged for us, it’s the perfect choice for Sunday afternoons.  You can see by the golden glow in the leaves that the seasons are changing, however…