La La Land


American Film Institute, Los Angeles, during my visit for the Storyboarding Workshop

Last night, Mary and I went to see the movie La La Land. I quite liked the movie, although I was disappointed that they seemed to lose the “LA feel” towards the end. I haven’t lived in LA, but I have visited many times in connection with my work, and there’s a definite “vibe” to the area that’s not at all the same as the ambience here in Northern California. The movie seemed to capture that vibe well at first, but then it fizzled out towards the end.

Coincidentally, I’m writing a technical blog article that discusses Storyboarding. During the 1990s, a storyboard artist called Marcie Begleiter presented weekend workshops on Storyboarding technique at the American Film Institute in LA. I attended one of the workshops, and it was a very interesting and informative event. Many of the AFI’s classes took place off-site, but the Storyboarding workshop was at the main site, where I took the photo at the top of this article.

The sample below shows part of a storyboard that I drew at that workshop. The script was a 1940s-era film noir story, hence the period costumes and transport. Everything was  drawn quickly “on the fly” in the class, without reference material. It was a case of “What You Imagine is What You Get”!

Excerpt from Storyboard strip, created at AFI

Excerpt from Storyboard strip, which I created at AFI

Perhaps that is the true “La La Land”: a world conjured up purely from your own imagination?

Life Drawing Practice

Life Drawing Sample. Cricklade College, 1985

Life Drawing Sample. Cricklade College, 1985

This article describes some of my experiences while learning to draw the human figure. I practiced my skills by attending “Life Drawing” classes in various locations.

As I mentioned in a previous post, while studying for my electronics degree at Imperial College, London, I also took time to continue practicing my artistic skills, attending a part-time class at St. Martins School of Art. I wonder whether I am the only ever Imperial College student to have done that (please comment if you know otherwise)?

After graduating, job transitions took me to various locations, but I tried to continue practicing my artistic skills wherever I went. Given that learning to draw the human figure is perhaps one of the most demanding tasks an artist can face, I frequently attended “Life Drawing” sessions, which typically involve drawing or painting a live human model.

I’ve always felt that the goal of being able to draw well (at least since the invention of photography) is to be able to conjure up convincing scenes that don’t exist in reality. However, in order to be able to do that for images that involve humans, you have to have a thorough understanding of the structure of the human body, which of course is a very complex shape. As far as I know, the only real way to obtain that understanding is to practice drawing actual humans, hence the benefit of life drawing classes.

Cricklade College

In 1985, I started working for Link Electronics, which was a company in Andover, Hampshire, that designed and manufactured television cameras for the BBC and other worldwide customers. I discovered that Life Drawing classes were being offered at Cricklade College nearby, so I began attending regularly.

During that time, we had a regular model (shown in the pencil drawing at the top of this article), who was in fact the wife of a local sheep farmer. While we were drawing her, she would sometimes regale us with tales of how she’d just been up all night, birthing lambs!

(Incidentally, the models at life drawing classes usually pose nude, and this was the case at Cricklade. Therefore, I’ve cropped the picture above so that it won’t be “NSFW”!)

Those life drawing sessions sometimes gave rise to some amusing situations. One evening, when it was almost dark, I was arriving at the college and getting out of my car when someone walked past me and said “hello”. In the dark, it took me some time to realize that she was our model, to which she responded, “Don’t tell me; you don’t recognize me with my clothes on!” If someone overheard that remark, I wonder what they made of it?

Pencil Technique

As a result of these practice sessions, I evolved a standard technique for pencil drawing. I preferred to draw in pencil because it was relatively fast, and required minimal preparation, while still allowing for some correction of errors. I mentioned in an earlier post that the idea of sketching in pencil was something I learned at school. My earliest drawings were typically laid straight down in pen, which left no chance for error correction.

Nonetheless, speed was of the essence in life drawing sessions, because live models cannot hold their poses indefinitely. Even in a very relaxing pose, most models would need a break after an hour, and most poses were held for only five to thirty minutes. Therefore, even if my technique allowed for the correction of errors, there was usually little time to do that.

My technique certainly did not follow “conventional wisdom”, and in fact I found some standard advice to be counter-productive. The details of my technique are:

  • Pencils. I found it best to use an HB “writing” pencil instead of the usually-recommended soft drawing pencil. I found that the softer pencils wore down too quickly, and that their marks had an annoying tendency to smudge. The Eagle writing pencils seemed to have smoother graphite composition than so-called “drawing” pencils, which provided a more uniform line.
  • Paper. I used thin marker paper rather than heavy Bristol board or watercolor paper. Again, the smooth surface of the marker paper allowed for more subtle shading effects, because the pencil line did not “catch” on irregularities in the paper surface.
  • Sharpening. I did not use a pencil sharpener. Instead, I sharpened my pencils by carving off the wood with a knife, leaving about 5mm of graphite projecting, then rubbing the tip to a point using sandpaper. This was a technique that I’d actually learned at school during Technical Drawing O-level classes (it was never mentioned in any art class). The benefits were that I didn’t have to sharpen the pencil so frequently, and could adjust the shape of the point to provide either a very fine line or a broader “side” stroke.

Improving with Age

Even as a child, I attempted to draw the human figure, but I was always embarrassed by the results. In fact, I would often contrive ways to tell stories without having to draw human figures, just to get around the painful limitations of my skill. I chose characters that were easier to draw, such as dinosaurs or “Daleks”, such as the page below, from a strip that I drew at the age of eight.

Part of a Daleks Adventure, drawn when I was 8 years old

Part of a Daleks Adventure, drawn with a blotchy ballpoint pen when I was 8 years old

It wasn’t until I was about 22 that I began to feel that I could draw the human figure sufficiently well that the results wouldn’t be an embarrassment. That turned out to be a useful skill, since I obtained “commissions” from fellow Imperial College students to produce posters for various university election campaigns. Typically, the student wanted to be shown in some fantastic situation that, for practical reasons, couldn’t be set up in reality, so it was necessary to synthesize a pose that did not actually exist.

Typical of this technique was the poster that I produced for Pallab Ghosh, a Physics student who was standing for the office of Student Newspaper Editor. Pallab wanted to be depicted as Superman (not my idea!), and of course it was important that the illustration would be recognizable as being Pallab. Apparently, my poster (shown below) did the job, because Pallab duly won his election! (For some of Pallab’s own recollections of his editorship, see

Pallab Ghosh as

Pallab Ghosh as “Super-Editor” (Superman)

The drawing of Pallab is not pencil, but was in fact done with a black ballpoint pen (many such pens, in fact. because, as I’d learned from earlier experience, the tips would eventually become clogged with ink!). This was another benefit of attending the part-time class at Saint Martins School of Art, because I could “look over the shoulders” of practicing full-time artists, and was able to copy that technique from one such artist.

I also had a technical reason for selecting that particular technique. Although it may not be obvious in the reduced-size image shown here, there are actually no shades of grey in the drawing. All “shading” is achieved via very fine black lines. At the time, the scanning equipment that we used to produce these posters didn’t cope well with continuous shading, so I felt that this technique would lead to a better scanning result.

Scarborough Railway Station: A Historical Mystery Tour

Scarborough Central Railway Station in 1977

Scarborough Central Railway Station in 1977

During my teenage years, for my A-level Art study of architecture, I did some original research on the history of Scarborough [Central] Railway Station (shown above), which led to a surprising conclusion about the building’s original appearance.

My conclusions were questioned at the time, but were verified decades later by someone else’s chance discovery.

It was always a well-known fact that Scarborough’s main railway station was built in 1845 (quite early in the history of railways), at a location that was then outside the town limits. It’s also well-known that, in 1882, a central tower was added to the frontage. Surprisingly, and despite the efforts of various developers over the decades, the station building has survived to this day in essentially its 1882 form, as shown in my 1977 photograph at the top of this article.

During my researches at Scarborough Reference Library, I discovered a copy of a catalog for an exhibition called “Marble Halls”, which had apparently taken place at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London in 1973.

Marble Halls

An 1844-dated illustration in the Marble Halls catalog showed a plan of “Scarborough Station” that, at first glance, looked nothing like the existing structure. The image below is the copy of the catalog illustration that I created for my study.

Copy of Plan of Scarborough Station, 1844

Copy of Plan of Scarborough Station, 1844

I hadn’t expected to see the central tower, of course, but where are the three small pavilions in the building’s frontage? The plan also shows a colonnaded central entrance, of which there’s no trace in the existing building.

My initial impression was that this plan did not represent the station as built, but I was puzzled that the accompanying commentary did not mention any discrepancy between the plan and the structure as-built.

I wrote to some local experts on the subject, who provided me with the limited historical references that were available. None of this provided any clear details regarding alterations to the building, except for the addition of the tower. The general opinion seemed to be that the entire frontage of Scarborough Station had probably been rebuilt in 1882 (rather than just the tower), but there was no evidence to prove that claim. One expert pointed out that the architect’s illustration in “Marble Halls” may have been nothing more than an “architect’s impression”, and that there was no guarantee that the station as-constructed had ever resembled that plan.

Some Detective Work

If in fact the building’s frontage had been substantially altered in 1882, it struck me that perhaps I could find some evidence of that (although it seemed odd that nobody would have previously noticed anything).

I walked around the outside of the building, examining its architectural details. I looked particularly at the locations that would be the junctions between the 1845 structure and what were potentially later alterations. Eventually, at the East end of the joint between the easternmost pavilion and the main trainshed (on the far left in the heading photo), I found a mismatch in the details of the pediment, as shown in my sketch below.

Scarborough Station. Detail of Trainshed Pediment stonecarving

Scarborough Station. Detail of Trainshed Pediment stonework

The mismatched joint shown above would have occurred where the new pavilion was added to the main wall of the original building, if my suspicions about the station’s original appearance were correct.

Given the immense precision of the building’s stone carving, it seemed impossible that such a noticeable mismatch would have occurred (or be allowed to remain) during the original construction. It seemed much more likely that this mismatch occurred because of some miscalculation when new stone was carved later, the intention having been to match the details of the original building.

Conclusion & Confirmation

In my study, I presented my conclusion that the 1844 architectural plan did indeed show the original appearance of Scarborough station, but that the building had been subject to greater subsequent alteration in the 1880s than most people had suspected. Not only was the central tower added, but most of the original frontage had been removed, and replaced with the three small pavilions that still exist.

At the time, I had no evidence to support my assertion, except for the architectural plan and my own illustrations of the architectural details of the actual building. Thus, my conclusion remained unproven, and nothing more than an “interesting speculation”.

In 1995, long after the completion of my Art A-level, and by which time I’d moved away from Scarborough, first to London and then to California, one of my expert correspondents from 1977, J R Lidster, published his own book on Scarborough Railway Station. In that book, he included a drawing of the station frontage from a letterhead that had recently been discovered in the attic of a property in Scarborough.

Sure enough, the letterhead showed a building that closely matched that depicted in the 1844 plan in the book “Marble Halls”, thus finally verifying the conclusion of my investigation.

A Sense of History

At the age of thirteen, I was forced to select a restricted range of subjects at school for continued study, as preparation for taking “O-level” examinations. One of the subjects that I dropped was history, because my naïve belief at that time was that history was “already written down”, and thus there was nothing new to add. Even at that age, I knew that, whatever I was going to devote my life to, I wanted it to be something innovative.

The experience that I described above, where I was able to provide original insight into a historical problem, showed me that my earlier view of history had been wrong. The events under consideration were, after all, relatively recent history, dating back only about one century, and yet many details were unrecorded, and there were new contributions to be made. I was able to offer new information without even “getting my hands dirty”!

Postscript: More Marble Halls

This incident was my first encounter with the contents of the “Marble Halls” catalog. The book also contains illustrations of other Victorian buildings that featured in my later life. For example, there’s an illustration of the Imperial Institute in London, the buildings of which were subsequently incorporated into Imperial College, from where I would graduate.

The book also includes an image of Highclere Castle, in Hampshire, which was close to my home in Andover in later years. Highclere Castle is now world-famous as the fictitious Downton Abbey.

A Voyage Round My Father’s Artwork

Barn Owl and chicks. Pencil sketch by my father

Barn Owl and chicks. Pencil sketch by my father

A Voyage Round My Father’s Artwork (with apologies to John Mortimer).

Recently, while scanning some items of my own childhood artwork, I realized that one of the books of drawings included a few sketches drawn by my father. The book was produced when I was about 8 years old.

When I was young, I took it for granted that my father could draw well, but there were some aspects of his skill that puzzle me now:

  • Why did he make so little use of that skill? (He had been an electrician, a wireless operator, and a teacher, but never an artist of any kind.)
  • What happened to all the other artwork that he must have produced? As far as I know, the only way to acquire skill in drawing is to practice it, but I don’t recall seeing any artwork produced by him during his early life. The only remaining examples that I have are these few in my own drawing books.
  • Did my father only draw subjects that were other drawings or photographs? Didn’t he ever draw “from life”? The examples I still have are all copies of drawings or paintings from other books. I also recall his doing some oil paintings later on, but those were copied from his own color transparencies.

Unfortunately, my father is long gone, so I doubt that I’ll ever learn the answers to those questions.

The pencil sketch above shows a barn owl feeding a mouse to its chicks. I know exactly the source of that sketch, because I still have the original book containing the illustration, a children’s book called “More Birds and their Eggs”. The relevant page is shown below:


Barn Owl and Chicks from More Birds and their Eggs

My father also added a couple of sketches to the cover of my drawing book, of which one is shown below. This sketch was done with a ballpoint pen rather than a pencil. I’m not sure of the source of these drawings, but they were probably based on illustrations in the “Observer’s Book of Common Fungi”, which was our source for such information at that time.


Pen sketch of fungi, by my father

I was clearly inspired by my father’s efforts, and produced sketches myself (in the same book of drawings) that were copies of other illustrations in the “More Birds and their Eggs” book. The example below shows a male Merlin:

My pen sketch of a male Merlin, copied from More Birds and their Eggs

My pen sketch of a male Merlin, copied from More Birds and their Eggs

As the example shows, my own technique at that time was to draw everything directly with a ballpoint pen. I allowed myself no opportunity for error correction: if it was wrong, then that was just too bad. It didn’t occur to me to draw an initial sketch in pencil, then correct that before inking in the final drawing, and I wasn’t taught that approach until much later, when I formally studied art at school.

As I said above, my father is long gone, so it’s unlikely that the questions I have about his artwork will ever be answered. It does seem a pity that he didn’t make more use of a skill that was presumably hard-won, so I must try not to repeat that mistake!

Our Yuletide Cards are On the Way

cropped-rooster1copyright.pngAll our Yuletide cards are on the way to their recipients, as of this morning.

I usually refer to these as “Christmas cards”, but, before there are any accusations of hypocrisy, let me point out that people were celebrating a Winter festival long before anyone had heard of Christianity. The Christians merely hijacked the existing festival because they had nothing similar to offer.

It doesn’t matter to me whether they are called “Christmas cards”, “Saturnalia cards”, “Yuletide cards” or anything else. We send them because it’s a great way of keeping in touch with family and friends whom we otherwise may rarely see.

(Insisting that the name “Christmas” can only be used by Christians seems just as ridiculous as insisting that the name “Wednesday” can only be used by those who worship Woden!)

This year, neither Mary nor I had produced any artwork for a card in time, so Mary found a suitable design by another artist on Zazzle. I must say that I’m impressed with the quality of the Zazzle card, and we will look into using Zazzle ourselves for future print-on-demand projects.

It has also become a tradition with us to create a return address label featuring the Asian (Lunar) New Year animal for the forthcoming year. This year, I produced the artwork above for 2017, which will be the “Year of the Rooster”. Again, there are no superstitious intentions; it’s just a decoration relating to the name and doesn’t imply any beliefs about the year.

I’m aware that the “Year of the Rooster” doesn’t start until January 28th, 2017, but I don’t see that as a problem. Even in Britain, “New Year’s Day” didn’t actually fall on January 1st until it was moved to that date, in 1752.

Digital Bayeux

ligatures_bayeux1I just completed some artwork to illustrate a forthcoming article for my professional blog, The article discusses the use of linguistic ligatures in English, which immediately put in me in mind of the impressive artwork of the Bayeux Tapestry.

The Bayeux Tapestry has once again been in the news recently, because the events that it depicts took place exactly 950 years ago, in 1066. I was first introduced to that remarkable work of art when I was six years old, in 1966, that being the 900th anniversary of the events.

My graphic is loosely based on the Bayeux style, but in a considerably simplified manner. Again inspired by details in the real tapestry, I took the opportunity to include in the border a representation of two cats fighting, just like our own Ignatz and Ginger Tom!

Having analyzed the design of the illustrations in the tapestry, I now have a much finer appreciation of the quality of the original work.

The typeface used for the copyright notice in my artwork is called “King Harold”, which was itself inspired by text that appears in the tapestry. The typeface can be downloaded free in TrueType format from:

How Radio Times Reintroduced Me to Art

pysch_gambling2My previous post explained “How I Became a London Student and (Almost) Went Astray”. As I mentioned, moving to London and taking up studies there led me to many experiences that I had never anticipated.

Imperial College in London is just across Exhibition Road from the Victoria & Albert Museum. In 1981, when I moved to the Student Halls of Residence in South Kensington, the “V&A” had just added a new exhibition building, which they named the “Henry Cole Wing”. Ironically, this building had been the original location of Imperial College, when it was known as the “Normal School of Science”.

One of the first exhibitions to be held in the Henry Cole Wing featured (mostly) monochrome artwork produced for one of Britain’s best-known publications: Radio Times.

Here’s the cover of the exhibition guide:


I visited the exhibition several times, and was intrigued by the inkwork techniques of the artists, which were very apparent in the original works displayed. Even the “whiting out” of mistakes in the artwork was obvious!

I hadn’t done any serious artwork myself for a few years, but, looking at these works, I must have begun to feel that “maybe I could do this”. At the same time, I had volunteered to be the Publicity Officer of Imperial College’s H G Wells Society. I decided that perhaps I could produce some monochrome artwork for use as posters for the H G Wells Society.

The H G Wells Society presented lectures on a wide variety of subjects. One of the first on the schedule was to be titled “The Psychology of Gambling”. Thus, I set to work with ink and brush to produce what I hoped would be an eye-catching illustration.

The result was the image at the head of this post, and thus it came about that, even though I’d moved to London to study Electrical Engineering, I found myself once again using my artistic skills.