Everyday Sketchbooks: Life in Armchair Time

Even from my comfortable armchair my personal and psychological life seems constantly ‘on the edge’. There are always so many things to keep me sitting to avoid doing. Reflecting on guilt, inertia and life moments not grasped. With access to the large TV screen to the world, if I am not already personally stressed, I find stresses either responding to everyday events bombarding me in the news and advertising – donkeys, cats, young girls all over the world needing my help – then wars and climate disasters not to speak of Novak Jokovich’s all-important visa.

At the same time, I feel compelled to somehow remember and record this time, to slow life down as it flashes past one day merging into the next. Something to remind me in case a time comes when all I have energy left for is memory. I want to remember it as it was at the time, not just after my brain has sloshed them around to try and clean them and hung them out to dry.

!!Ref to Susan Sontag ‘On Photography’ about memories and snapshots

‘Life in Armchair Time’ is a body of work about ‘Everyday Edges’ that looks at necessity, potential and attempts to create ‘new normals’ in my personal everyday life at home. But there is a reason why I have always had difficulty keeping a regular diary – life has always been so busy being lived. Like the quantum uncertainty principle (proper ref here) measuring and recording thoughts alters and changes them. Even in quiet periods it is difficult to reflect and live at the same time. Every ‘now thought’ flashes to the past and a new thought comes before the last one was fully grasped. Never mind recorded and put on paper.

Particularly during Lockdown life seemed much too short to waste getting bored. This project evolved from assignments for a personal development Sketchbook course to start to develops habits and manageable ways in which I can keep better creative track of my evolving thoughts and daily news around me to generate ongoing and well-informed inspiration for future work. Diaries and sketchbooks can provide a ‘safe creative fun space’ explore my own ‘personal edges’ – philosophical and political views that characterise my ‘voice’ so that these can be explicitly and strategically integrated into my more ‘objective’ observational as well as subjective creative practice.

  • ‘Everyday is a Life Experiment’: a daily sketchbook diary April-May 2021 and revisited April-May 2022. overlaying ‘old normal’ memories, daily reflections and serendipitous responses against a backdrop of news events and daily changes. Visual recording of news items in spontaneous ‘kneejerk rages and rants’ helped calm down my thoughts for more objective analysis. But I found it was only manageable to keep up this momentum of response for short periods.
  • Edges of Subconscious: Creative Cuts: emerging narratives from cutting up A4 sheets of quick sketches in my front room. An extension of earlier surrealist experiments in randomisation, the images seen in random lines often reveal ones underlying subconscious thought processes and preoccupations.

Sketchbook 1:
‘Every Day is a Life Experiment’ April-May 2021/2022

‘Everyday is a Life Experiment’ is a daily record of everyday experiences over the month April- May 2021 leading up to my 67th birthday on 9th May 2021. Pages covered both personal reflections as I reach yet another age milestone, and everyday tumultuous events in the daily news on my TV screen under lockdown.

It started with personal development work for Assignment 1 of Illustration Sketchbooks. I looked through all the empty sketchbooks I had at home. I found an A5 hardbound sketchbook/diary that I bought many years ago at a museum in London waiting for a good use. It has three sections of lined paper, small square graph paper and blank sheets and quirky photographs of daily life, people and places by Elliott Erwitt on each spread. I thought this would be an ideal balance of blank space to fill and daily prompts to respond to if I got stuck.

I started by pencilling in the dates on a corner of every other page to map out two spreads a day each day between April 10th 2021and my 67th birthday on May 9th. Then each day I pencilled in and sketched my thoughts, moods, events and discussion in the news and/or responses to the Erwitt photos. If I had time I finished the spreads that day. Other days when I had a lot of work, I just jotted notes and came back to them later. Sometimes my mood, the event or the Erwitt image reminded me of something I had done in an earlier sketchbook or a photo I had taken, so I cut and paste that.

I also periodically reflected on my concept on ‘everyday normal’. I started off with a Zen approach, that every day is a potential for choice and creativity. Life is much too short to be boring, even in Lockdown. And I was always cheered up by the Erwitt photos. On a personal level the very process of keeping a daily diary routine is to intensify that experience of living – potential for getting lost down depressive rabbit-holes and mood swings as well as creative appreciation of seasonal changes in my garden and daily walks – in the this case Spring. Then the everyday bombardment of information and news – sometimes really interesting, sometimes upsetting and making me very angry, often repetitive and cyclical as not everyone is a news junkie watching several times a day.

I also became very interested in the effect on my sense of time, the merging and interlinkages between the present with flashbacks to the past, and also thoughts about ‘future normals’. Sometimes fearful of climate change and further waves of COVID affecting other countries I have worked in even if things are OK here. Sometimes hopeful and inspired at the thought that the disruptions of COVID may force a more fundamental rethink of ‘normal’ and our everyday activities and responsibilities to the planet and to each other.

The Sketchbook so far is still very much a work in progress. This will be revisited and updated, with additional spreads, over the same dates April-May 2022 to consider everyday changes on personal and global levels. Although it was very useful and I learned a lot through the discipline of making contributions every day – enriching the way that I lived them, I found that it is difficult to maintain that pace of experience for longer than about a month at a time without it becoming a chore and losing freshness. Many pages from very busy days are still in pencil draft.

The 2021 Sketchbook will be revisited in April/May 2022. Possible things to explore further in representations of time:

  • to do different perspectives of the same object
  • layering of thoughts over time eg using tracing paper or just gouache
  • experiment with transfers and gelliplate printing

I would need to consider copyright issues on the Erwit photos, or work over these, if I develop the diary as a publication. Still to be decided.

Edges of Subconscious: Creative Cuts

One of my first sketchbook exercises was a series of ‘creative cuts’ – emerging narratives from cutting up A4 sheets of quick sketches in my front room. An extension of earlier surrealist experiments in randomisation, the images seen in random lines often reveal ones underlying subconscious thought processes and preoccupations.

The actual stories themselves need a lot more thought about relationship between text and image, and making the text more powerful and less cliche. But I was interested in how my subconscious made connections between the drawings and the potential to create spontaneous narratives that could then be further worked on. Although any horizontal and vertical lines can become a landscape and the eye automatically searches out faces, some of the other associations were not so obvious. The process certainly has a lot of potential for work on location.

!! To do more of this and look for more exercises of this type.

Emerging Narrative 1: Landscapes in Red

The original A4 vertical rapid sketch was done in red oil pastel of a corner of our gas fire, a small table and looking just round the corner into the dining room. Because of the texture that would block pens and brushes, I worked into it in pencil.

The images that emerged after cutting turned into red and grey landscapes of some sort of flood apocalypse – influenced probably subconsciously by the news about the climate change discussions and my work on the Norfolk Marshes for SYP ‘Moving Edges’ projects.

Emerging Narrative 2: CAGED

The original A4 horizontal rapid sketch was done in somewhat dry black marker pen of our leaded bay window looking onto the garden. I went over some of the weaker lines and shapes in black oil pastel to make them more dramatic, though not always obscuring the marker texture. Again to avoid clogging pens, I went over some portions of the oil pastel with pencil, particularly the title page.

The images that emerged here were of rats and feeling locked in – influenced by continuing lockdown and all my sketchbook drawings of the rats, particularly a young one that appeared each morning scratching at the window to come in. Quite sweet really – if it had been the only one in its family.

Emerging Narrative 3: Spirits

The original A4 sketch cut into a spiral was in Cretacolour graphite pencil of a corner of the settee, a cushion and the corner of a ‘Fine Whisky’ mirror – hence the rather unoriginal idea of Spirits. Though that also reflected the very rapid, smoke and flame-like marks. I did not develop this one yet into a narrative.