Workshop – Expressive Drawing at West Dean

I chose this workshop because the tutor is Emily Ball, the author of ‘Drawing and Painting People: A fresh Approach’, which I have found very helpful in giving me new ways into life drawing, where I can easily get stuck in a rut. I find her approach to mark making and viewpoint very interesting and different. The course was offered by West Dean and its wonderful gardens were to be our inspiration.

trees (3 of 14)trees (1 of 14) trees (2 of 14)

trees (4 of 14)

Painted glass in the house, inspired by the gardens.

The workshop was over four days (an evening introduction, two and half days drawing in the West Dean Gardens and a critical review to wind up). The trees in the gardens were our subjects and, in addition to framing the class around mark making, composition etc., a lot of guidance was given around how you prepared yourself to draw, how to work outside and then develop work in the studio and into final pieces. This was an excellent and, for me, unexpected aspect to the course, not just technical or creative but also about personal or professional development and practice. All the drawing was monotone which was a disappointment to some, but I found concentrating on mark, mass and tone quite complex enough without considering colour, especially green.

Materials used included:

  • charcoal
  • black and white pastels
  • black and white acrylic paint
  • shellac based indian ink
  • white acrylic ink
  • white and black oils sticks
  • black and white paint markers
  • large round brushes
  • graphite pencils, sticks and dust
  • rags, hands, erasers
  • water
  • cartridge paper, Fabriano Artistico paper

Emily has devised a series of exercises which allow you to connect to yourself, your materials, your subject and the environment in which your subject exists. The course was packed with practical information and for my own use I have structured these into:

  • getting ready to work
  • feeling your subject
  • process
  • professional practice and study

Getting ready to work:

  • prepare physically, breathe, relax, stretch, rotate neck and shoulders
  • warm up/loosen up with the materials, doodle, make marks with your eyes shut
  • immerse yourself in the place, walk, look, listen, sit with closed eyes

Feeling the subject

  • talk ‘paintish’ – that is don’t think ‘tree’, ‘leaves’, ‘green’ but think ‘sparkling’, ‘thrusting’, ‘dripping’, ‘cool’, ‘pivot’, ‘press’ etc
  • feel the shape, feel how it goes around, over, bulges etc
  • use your hands or body to describe the shapes
  • look all around it
  • listen to it


  • drawing from your drawing
  • editing, add, remove, paint over, built up
  • working over
  • cutting/tearing out a bit the works, sticking it onto a bigger paper and working out from it
  • small sketches
  • the difference between sketches and studies
  • consider the edge of the paper – do the marks go out of it, are they contained within it, avoid unwanted marks produced by tape or clips, use tape to constrain edge for mall sketches and remove, possibly then work out from the sketch, etc.
  • make marks in response to ideas not things (‘paintish’ again)
  • use stick, leaves, grass etc as collage tools to think around the design
  • draw something by drawing the space around it
  • if you have made regular marks , think how to make them irregular
  • consider the direction of marks, where are they going and why, maybe change direction
  • consider weight of line
  • consider black on black, grey on grey…
  • consider large shapes to lead the eye around
  • consider pushing space into shapes
  • find positive and negative spaces
  • push things back, pull things forward with tone, weight of mark
  • if you are struggling and getting dissatisfied, leve that drawing and start another, come back to it later
  • no ‘windscreen wiper’ marks
  • combine different viewpoints and scales
  • take previous days sketch and use as underpainting for today’s
  • borrow shapes from one drawing for the next
  • ‘white is your friend’

Professional Practice and Study

  • “always work outside your comfort zone”, David Bowie
  • develop a body of work  through sketching, studies, final pieces
  • studies are different to sketches. Making many sketches prepares you for studies and studies should so thoroughly acquaint you with the subject that you have enough material to take back to the studio to use to produce a painting
  • draw from a drawing without copying it, develop the idea
  • don’t preconceive what the outcome will be, allow yourself to be surprised by final result
  • decide what you want to achieve out of your studies (or in my case, my parallel project), what you want your studies to give you

Emily brought along a drawing which she has done of a relative’s garden and the painting which she  is in the process of developing from it.

trees (7 of 14)

Emily Ball, apologies for bluish reflections on gals

Emily Ball, work in progress, oils, 6' by 4' approx

Emily Ball, work in progress, oils, 6′ by 4′ approx

You can see the history of the drawing in the painting, but the painting isn’t ‘of’ the drawing.

I have noted some of the exercises which I want to use again as preparation for work.


Draw on A1 paper on the wall with charcoal on stick, rag bundle on end of stick with paint or ink, make marks with closed eyes

Draw on A4 sheet with eyes closed listening to the different drawing materials, feel the physicality of your muscles making the mark.

Draw on A4 sheet listening with eyes closed, listening and responding to the sounds around you.


We took a stick, a  leaf and a bean pod and arranged them on an A4 sheet with the only constraint being that they should all touch in some way. We then made six drawings very quickly using a different media for each with just a few strokes, paying particular attention to how the objects touched each other and to the space between the objects. We then arranged these in order of most to least favourite and analysed our choice. We the took the least favourite and redrew our three objects on top, editing the original marks in response to the new ones.

trees (6 of 14)trees (9 of 14)

I extended this to large scale works outside, working on three A1 pieces in rotation adding just a few marks at a time.

Here is a selection of the many pieces I produced during the workshop:

trees and bods (8 of 26) trees and bods (9 of 26) trees and bods (12 of 26) trees and bods (11 of 26)trees and bods (4 of 26)trees and bods (10 of 26)trees and bods (15 of 26)  trees and bods (1 of 26)  trees and bods (3 of 26)

Emily got me to turn this drawing by 90 degrees and use it as a starting point for the next, but I ended up very, very dark.

trees (10 of 14)trees and bods (5 of 26)

Towards the end of the workshop, Emily challenged me to work with space, and to realise my subject in terms of its space by using a few marks and large shapes. These two works turned out to be my favourites.

trees and bods (6 of 26) trees and bods (2 of 26)

At the end of the course, we all set up a selection of out work on the studio walls and talked briefly about what we had got from the course, how we had progressed and what we could take away for our future practice. Emily had considered all of our work and progress carefully and offered each of us advice on future directions. She asked me to keep working on using a few, big marks and getting large shapes and space into my work.

My favourite pieces by other artists, with their kind permission.

Liz ?surname?

Liz Shard

Artists who we looked at during the course:

  • Jim Dine
  • John Virtue
  • Per Kirkeby
  • John Skinner
  • Hughie O’Donoghue
  • Modrian

In the context of trees, consider also:

  • Kurt Jackson
  • David Hockney

This was a wonderful course, full of practical tools and insight into the creative process. I have written up as much detail as I can remember because I know I will return to this again and again.

Ideas to take forward:

  • few, significant marks – consider working on translucent Japanese paper and layer the marks, using both sides of the paper and layering up the sheets – artist’s book?
  • drawing space and air
  • consider doing layers of drawings, tearing through to the drawings beneath – mark selection
  • take this into monoprinting
  • consider my garden as a subject for my parallel project
  • think about format in relation to subject
  • apply these mark making ideas to life drawing
  • experiment making expressive marks with etching/relief ink for printmaking, in addition to negative marks, removing ink
  • experiment with carborundum and pva for mark making for printing, expressive line and mass tone
  • maintain excitement, get stuck in, graft.

2 thoughts on “Workshop – Expressive Drawing at West Dean

  1. Pingback: Parallel Project – Thoughts | investigatingdrawing

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