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Pentimenti: Sketchbook Imperfections and Trusting Yourself

Hello, fellow art lovers - I'm just back from the Post Office! Having recently completed a commission for one of my most loyal customers, an ink drawing of three white doves is now winging its way (see what I did there?!) to a new home. Delicate Doves was a particularly interesting piece in terms of how it was created, and its journey from brain to frame leads me to reflect on the value of 'sketchy' scenarios we often throw away!

When listing one of my most recent drawings for purchase on Etsy, I decided to try something different. The website allows you to post up to ten photos, so alongside pictures of my artwork from different angles (very important when you're selling online!) I added an image that combined several of my preliminary sketches. 'People might find them interesting,' I thought, 'or at least they'll appreciate the time I take to get things right!' The sketches were raw, to say the least, with lots of miniature doves flying over coloured scraps of paper. Embarrassingly, I realised later that some were even annotated with rudimentary 'notes to self': wisdom such as 'lighter', 'darker' or even 'draw what you see' (Who did I think I was? The notoriously uptight Victorian art critic John Ruskin?!)

Yet it would be these simple sketches that inspired my client to get in touch. Combining the dove motif with my familiar Floating Feathers design, he asked me to create an illustration of three little doves soaring towards the sky. Funnily enough, a trio of birds was an idea I'd been playing around with for some time, but I couldn't quite settle on how to execute it. As it turns out, the commission led the way! The fact that my client not only returned to my work but found something worth looking at in my sketchy fragments gave me an extra boost of confidence when tackling this drawing. It encouraged me to trust myself, placing faith in my intuition rather than becoming anxious about 'getting it right'. It certainly helped me to ensure that my penmanship (or pen-woman-ship!) was original and explorative, just like it had been in the sketches.

I think there's a lesson here that extends beyond my work as an artist: recognising the value of something is not contained, or defined, by its finished results. The technical term for visible sketching in art is 'pentimenti' - commonly this refers to when X-ray analysis of a painting reveals more about the artist's process and 'changes of mind' than what would be visible to the naked eye (the word has its origins in the Italian 'pentirsi', which translates as 'repent'). Nevertheless, artists like the French Impressionist Edgar Degas famously made 'pentimenti' an unapologetic part of their completed work too.

Consider his c.1885 Three Women at the Races, held at Denver Art Museum, where we can still see the different arm positions Degas explored for the woman on the left. Or this 1872 study for Foyer de la danse à l'Opéra - the work is signed, yet the 'ghosts' of alternative arm and foot placements remain visible around the pastel ballerina (and for me, they add to the sense of vibrant, impressionistic movement!) In fact, the first short story I ever had published was titled 'Pentimenti' and focused on a young woman learning to embrace her 'imperfections' (click here for a link to New Writing Scotland, the anthology in which 'Pentimenti' was published back in 2015!)

If Delicate Doves (and the work of Degas!) have taught me anything, it is to approach every task - big or small - with sincerity and creativity. Imperfect as the results may be, one day they might mean more than you think!

In the Frame (my Painting of the Month!)

Edgar Degas, The Rehearsal, c. 1874. Oil on canvas, 58.4 x 83.8cm. The Burrell Collection, Glasgow.

A print of this painting is hanging above my desk while I write this blog - combining ballet and beautiful art, it's not hard to see why it is one of my favourites! The theme of movement in the modern world drew Degas towards dance, and here we can see several ways in which he commits to capturing a single moment in time. There are slippered feet descending the spiral staircase on the left: in just another second, they'll be in a different spot, as will the dappled strips of light that illuminate the rehearsal room floor. Despite the impression of free and naturalistic movement, however, X-ray research like I mentioned above shows that Degas actually worked on this composition extensively (moving the ballet master and even swapping a door for those gorgeous large windows). Was he an imperfect perfectionist, perhaps, or a perfector of imperfection?!

Technical Tricks (top tips from my own adventures in painting!)

Now I'm not the sort of girl to say size matters, and that's especially the case when it comes to my drawings! For this month's commission, it was vital to keep my ink linework as delicate as possible, and I tried to achieve this by using an almost microscopic pen nib of just 0.05mm (does anyone know if anything smaller exists?) I've found that keeping my technique consistent with my subject can be a great way to create a more convincing drawing. When it comes to my 'doves', this means taking the time to make lots of fine marks that mimic the texture of feathers. Deceptively simple, it seems to work for me. Up, up, up and away!

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