Beginners art classes in Bristol/Formative experiences/Relax!It’s just a piece of paper.


Confidence, or simply being relaxed or not too anxious is very important when learning to draw.  Drawing is a process just like anything else.  Some people are naturally good at it and some people need to work at it but there’s no reason why, if you really want to draw or paint, that you shouldn’t be able to.  It’s very easy, however, to grind to a halt if you’re not feeling confident.  Halfway through a drawing you can just run out of steam.  The fact is that when learning something new you probably won’t have great faith in your abilities but if you let those feelings run out of control then you really won’t be able to do it. 

I can still remember the first driving lessons that I took a few years ago in Bristol. (I was a late starter!)  We used to drive up to Frenchay, in the North West of Bristol, and drive around in a little circuit around the hospital.   The car must have had power steering but all I can say is that to me the wheel felt as it if it was made out of stone.  Turning a corner felt really hard.  I can still hear the driving instructor saying “No, No, No It’s just you!!!  Look at you, your shoulders are too stiff!”

The thing is, it really felt like it was the wheel, but at the same time I now see that it was also really my shoulders.   I’m sure it probably helps that it’s my car and I don’t have a driving instructor yelling at me but nonetheless it all seems to flow reasonably well.  I often think of this when I see people picking up a pencil to draw for the first time. If you’re nervous the chances are you’ll grip your pencil far too tightly and if you do that you’ll feel yourself battling with the pencil.  At certain points, for example when adding fine detail you may want to grip the pencil  closer to the tip for extra control but in the early stages it makes much more sense to hold the pencil a little further back much as you might hold a brush so you can make more fluid movements and shade in larger masses more quickly  As you relax the movement starts to come from your wrist and then from your elbow and curves and contours become much easier. 

When you go to a life drawing or figure drawing class a popular way to begin is with what are called warm up drawings. They usually last about five minutes. Although there are many people who attend my life drawing class in Bristol who do quick drawings because they enjoy them and are good at them when I was a student they weren’t really supposed to be anything.  Often they would be chucked out.  The  point was it got things moving.  Any awkwardness would disappear but you just wouldn’t have any time to worry.  After that it was possible to draw much more quickly

When I was little I had a really terrible woodwork teacher.   I won’t go into too much detail but rumour had it that he’d grown the beard to cover a scar from time spent teaching woodwork in a Borstal.( A type of prison for young offenders.)  He was the sort of woodwork teacher who felt that if everything wasn’t perfect there was no point in doing it. He communicated no love or enthusiasm for his subject beyond a bit of gruff admiration if somebody had “got it right”.  He would also the sort who would send clueless boys out to the next room to ask the metal work teacher for a tin of elbow grease. (If you below the age of 30, or American you wouldn’t know that elbow grease doesn’t exist.  It’s just an old slang term meaning to just put some effort into something.  Another old one was to be sent out to buy “sky hooks.” )   You either did it properly or not at all, and my dovetail joint was not good.  It may’be that I would never have had it in me to be a wordworker anyway but the fact was I was too scared to hold the tools, so instead of confidently cutting and sanding away the joints to make a nice smooth joint mine ended up looking bumpy.  So that was my woodwork experience.

Now a few years later when I was at art college I had a teacher called Trevor.  Trevor was a distracted looking man with a millitary looking moustache who could probably be quite authoritarian if he wanted to be but was having a lot of personal problems at the time and didn’t really have a very strong idea of what the group should be doing.  He taught me ceramics in the first year of my Foundation course and the project he gave us to do was to make an arch.  We had to extrude these shapes out of clay and the merge them together and fire them.  It was quite good fun actually.  When I finished my arch I asked Trevor what I should do then.

“Go and get some bits of wood from the scrap bin and make an arch out of wood”.  So I did just that.  The difference to this project and my earlier dovetail joint adventure was that it could look like anything.  It didn’t have to be carefully designed.  It just had to be three bits of wood.  Because Trevor didn’t really care anyway, the poor guy had far bigger things on his mind probably, there was no pressure whatsoever. It was so relaxing by contrast that I actually  learnt something that I’d failed to learn in a year with my other woodwork teacher…. how to bang a nail into a bit of wood. 

Now of course you need to be accurate when you hammer a nail into a piece of wood but you also have to be confident and go for it.  If you hold the hammer a bit further down the shaft you get much more force and bang the nail in more accurately than if you have to bang it in two or three times by gripping it timidly at the other end.  The more you think about it, the harder it is.

From little acorns great Oak Trees will grow……………… and sometimes they don’t.  In my case it was the later, at least as far as woodwork is concerned but I have learnt that to draw, not matter how bad you believe you are if you’re not relaxed instead of being in synch with your materials, whether it’s a steering wheel or a hammer or a pencil you may as well be wrestling with an octopus.  I can reassure you that, unlike driving or banging a nail into a piece of wood noone was every killed by a bad drawing. It’s just a piece of paper, relax!  But don’t ask me to put up any shelves……



The innards of a pencil were never actually made from lead.  When it was first discovered graphite was called plumbago and was thought to be a form of lead. Solid graphite was discovered in Borrowdale, Cumbria, in 1500.  Initially it was used for lining cannonball molds. (It’s softness is unaffected by heat.)  During the Napoleonic war when France was unable to get hold of graphite the French Chemist Nicolas-Jacques Conte developed a process whereby the existing supplies of graphite could be eked out by being mixed with clay.  Unlike graphite, clay will harden if you put it in an oven so by varying the proportion of clay to graphite various grades and softnesses of pencil are possible.


The first wood encased pencil was developed in 1600.  Prior to this people had used lumps of graphite to draw with wrapped in sheepskin or string.  Apparently one of it’s uses was for marking sheep.  Pencils were made from graphite  sawn into thin sheets.  A sheet would be wedged into a groove on a piece of timber.  The graphite would then be scored along the top edge of the groove and broken off.  Another piece of wood is then glued onto the other side and the square pencil is then sanded down.