My great-aunt was an artist, and was fond of telling us that anyone can learn to draw. Not everyone is super-talented, she would hastily qualify – not everyone can be an artist. But given the right teaching, everyone can, at the very least, turn out a decent representation of a tree, or a flower, or a human being. It is like learning a language, she would say. You just have to put in a bit of work.
The success of recent books such as Johanna Basford’s Secret Garden colouring book and Emma Farrarons’ The Mindfulness Colouring Book certainly suggests there are millions of us nurturing a creative side, often one frustrated by our everyday lives. But these bestsellers are marketed more as therapy than creativity – simple exercises like dot-to-dot or colouring-in that help calm the mind and relieve stress. They are, for many, a lovely way to pass the time, but unlikely to end up framed on your bedroom door. So what if you want to create something a little more, well, creative?
I studied art at school to A-level, and loved it. But in the decades since, without guidance and structure, I have lost both my ability and my confidence. My drawing skills are rusty, and I buy sketchbooks that remain unfilled. I see potential inspiration everywhere, yet lack the ability to translate it into anything. In need of some help, I started searching online, and eventually found Jennie Maizels’ Sketchbook Club.
Maizels is an illustrator and artist whose designs are drenched in colour. You suspect her darkest nightmares play out in black and white, and involve paint shortages. But although she has talent in multicoloured spades, she also understands the fear of the intimidatingly blank sketchbook page. With this in mind, she has created a series of short projects that provide all your inspiration, in a non-scary, easy-to-follow format – yet where there is also plenty of room to inject your own style.
‘Drawing is the only creative pastime that we have left behind in childhood,’ she explains from her colourful studio near Winchester. ‘We knit, we sew, we bake and we play music – we even colour in – but somewhere along the line, we have been led to believe that drawing is a God-given talent and completely unachievable. My core belief is that if we treat art like all the other pastimes and follow recipes or instructions, we can ALL draw.’
Maizels had long noticed that people seemed to believe that she, as an illustrator, could conjure creative work out of nothing. ‘But I always have a brief – I am told what to paint and very often I will copy from photographs or even trace – there’s a reason we all have light boxes!’
This source material is what she has compiled for each of her modules: you download sheets with dozens of images, which you can then use, trace, doodle over or manipulate however you like to make up your finished page. This means that hundreds of people given the same sources will nevertheless all create unique images.
‘The copying and tracing element can be controversial,’ she says, ‘but if you tell people to “just draw from your imagination, don’t be afraid, there are no mistakes”, pen is put to paper nervously and the drawings, more often than not, look like children’s and the belief that “I cannot draw” is perpetuated and then the pen is put down indefinitely.
‘I’ve found that even the most nervous and reluctant attendee, after following my prescriptive instructions, has found enormous pride in their finished piece and immediately wants to do more. For me, that is exactly why I do it. To see that pride on people’s faces, it is immeasurably rewarding.’
Sketchbook Club now has participants from all over the world, including Canada, America, Australia and, recently, a group in Abu Dhabi. As well as the different themes, each module covers a different style, from typography to pen-and-ink doodles via collage. New modules are released fortnightly, with Maizels taking feedback from Instagram on which ones participants would next like to see. She is also keen to keep prices affordable so that as many people can take part as possible – each module is around Dh20, can be shared with a group and there is no subscription. She also does occasional workshops at her studio.
I have long suspected that a vast number of those bestselling colouring-in books languish uncoloured at the bottom of bookshelves. Who, after all, really has the time? Yet Maizels’ participants seem genuinely devoted. The fact that many projects can be used as cards certainly helps, but the main benefit is in feeling a real sense of a creative project achieved.
‘I get messages from all over the world saying how grateful people are for reigniting their long-lost creativity,’ says Maizels. ‘People who are bed-bound, recuperating, people who would love to attend classes but can’t get there, are creating these masterpieces which gives them so much pleasure. People who have NEVER drawn, people who are determined they just cannot are discovering not only that they can, but they are in fact rather good at it.’
Other ways to get drawing
365 Days of Art
Lorna Scobie’s superb book is one of the few that I have really stuck to – day in, day out. Each exercise is small, simple and varied enough to sustain your interest. Tasks range from doodling in shapes and colouring-in to drawing a skyline you can see from a window. Doing it all in small boxes within a portable book makes it feel very achievable. And Scobie’s own artwork is charming and inspiring.
Winsor & Newton
The name might evoke traditional artistic materials, but this YouTube channel has some great tutorials for beginners. Some of the most useful are the classes in how to get the most out of materials – for example, the fairly new (to anyone who hasn’t taken up a paintbrush in years) ranges of watercolour marker pens now on the market.
Much-loved children’s illustrator Nick Sharratt (Shark in the Park is a classic for young kids) has some great ‘how to draw’ videos on his website. Ideal for kids themselves, or for drawing for kids.
If the idea of going to a traditional art store is daunting, head to Muji. Its range of affordable sketchbooks, coloured pens and stationery with neutral colours might be less intimidating than the gorgeous, but scarily pristine, pages of a brand-new Moleskine sketchbook.