Sketching a sense of place

The charming and sedate village of Beaconsfield. Picture: Wendy Barrett

Trafalgar Square lay before me in all its glory, and I was excited to realise there was just enough time to squeeze in a sketch before meeting up with friends at the National Gallery.

A good vantage point was to be had from steps overlooking the square, and with Big Ben standing stately in the distance it made for a great composition. I'd been to London several times over the years but my understanding of where one icon stood in relation to another was a little vague. This was probably due to traversing the city by Tube and simply popping up for air at each destination without seeing the scenery in-between.

Taking the time to study my surroundings in detail for the purposes of my sketch was enormously enriching as it allowed me to feel more connected and immersed into the landscape. By its very nature, the act of creating a work of art forces the artist to observe their subject matter more closely than even the most observant tourist is likely to do.

As I wielded my pen, an indelible spatial awareness of where the famous timepiece stood in relation to Nelson's gaze became ingrained into my psyche that will remain with me forever. I'd been to Trafalgar Square several times before over the years yet had no memory of spotting Big Ben on those non-sketching occasions.

Usually when on holidays I take copious amounts of photos, not just to record the moment, but for the purpose of using as art-reference upon my return. This time I had vowed to cut out the "middle-man" and do the art right there and then: the Holy Grail for many artists is to paint from life.

It is more difficult to paint from a three-dimensional scene than a two-dimensional photo but the reward for attempting a translation of the real thing is profound. The full blast of reality isn't compressed and distorted as it is when relying on an automatic camera.

There is nothing more dispiriting than feeling the need to capture a jaw-dropping scene on film only to find the epic, all- encompassing view reduced to a flat and distant smear the minute we look in our viewfinder.

Sketching materials were a more practical option to travel with rather than attempting to lug along my acrylic paints, which was my regular medium. Art was an added extra rather than the reason for the trip itself, and having my sister along as a travelling companion meant that I had to be mindful of when and where I did my sketching.

I know blood is thicker than water but I didn't want to test its viscosity. I managed to find perfectly positioned benches in village greens and seats in museums and sallied forth alone at other times.

Most days I packed my small sketchbook and pencil case in my handbag should the perfect arty opportunity present itself.

The fascinating town of Glastonbury was rife with subject matter.

It's a town famous for pagan spirituality and all things pertaining to Arthurian legend. Some locals lament that it's impossible to buy a pot or pan but extremely possible to buy a cauldron should you be in the market for one.

The town has such an alternative scene that it makes Fremantle look buttoned-up and pin-striped. We were there to attend a spiritual retreat run by Tim Freke at a grand old house overlooking the Abbey ruins.

I was itching to sketch those crumbling walls from the moment we arrived. Finally an opportunity arose and after jostling with the ghosts of the past and stray maidens from the Goddess conference, I found the perfect vantage point.

To avoid the wet grass, I did my first ever standing-up sketch which was much easier to endure than anticipated. While sketching the Abbey ruins I was approached by a quintessentially Glastonburyian character - a shaman - who regaled me with the ins and outs of shamanism while I continued to sketch, proving that sketching can also be a good way to meet the locals.

I had been keen to include an indulgent high tea at The Ritz at some point on our holiday and I suspect my sister was secretly pleased when we realised we'd run out of time to accommodate it. I'd joked before leaving that I might well find the courage (or crassness) to whip out my sketch pad while in that esteemed establishment to immortalise forever my clotted cream tea. It was probably better for both of us that we didn't get to find out if I would actually go ahead with my threat.

We did, however, have our fill of clotted cream teas, only at more prosaic establishments. After polishing off our scones at a cafe near Kew Gardens I began sketching the cafe's interior and, with it practically deserted, it didn't seem such an untoward thing to do at all.

My sister enjoyed soaking up the ambience while I finished my scratchings.

I never felt at all self-conscious about exposing myself to onlookers when sketching as I was able to enter my own hyper- present world - it was just me and my subject.

One of the greatest things about travel is that it forces us into the present moment. All our senses are fully engaged when in unfamiliar climes and we experience a sharper version of reality.

It is a welcome contrast to our everyday landscape which we tend to navigate in a zombie-like daze, having "been there, done that" a million times before.