“Sketching Makes Me Glad I’m Alive”

One of my sketchers sent me this article, by Andrew Marr, a life-long sketcher, who is exhibiting in London, and responds to the deafening disapproval by ‘Real Artists’ that we sketchers would dare to call what we do Art. Fascinating.

“Art snobs sneer at amateurs like me – but painting makes me glad I’m alive” 

Survivor ANDREW MARR on a life-changing passion.



‘One of the most southerly town in Chile, en route to Tierra del Fuego’


Look around, and you will find us everywhere. Furtive sketchers working away at the back of the pub; outdoor painters at the beach, struggling with the wind and over-curious dogs; caricaturists; people with chalk in life-drawing classes in school halls: drawers and painters are everywhere, of all ages and from all backgrounds.

I have been doing some drawing every week since I was a schoolboy. What started in the corners of jotters, and even on the white-painted walls of my parents’ house, moved on to watercolour paper, those cheap canvases you buy in art shops, and iPad screens.

I sketch in my diary because it’s small and handy to carry. Most pockets of most jackets are grubby with pencils and wet brushes of some kind. So, after nearly half a century of doing this, I began to ask myself, why? In particular, why does sketching give me, and millions of other people, so much pleasure? It costs almost nothing. It’s the ultimate democratic art.

Books and TV programmes endlessly celebrate cooking, baking, gardening and collecting. But hardly anyone seems to write about this very basic, primal instinct and pleasure.

People have been sketching since the Neolithic age at least. People draw in every culture on Earth.


‘Hedge and field in Devon’

So what’s going on in our heads, and why does it matter so much?

For me, whether the sketch I make is a failure or success, I get a surge of anticipation starting out and a huge buzz from the sheer doing of it.

I sketch everything from landscapes to people, including the most banal domestic objects. You can find beauty everywhere. When I’m filming, I use sketching to fill in the frustrating gaps when we have to hang around waiting for the weather to change or whatever.

One of the privileges of working around the world is that I’ve been able to sketch in some extraordinary places — squatting on a spit of land in the Tierra del Fuego off the southern tip of South America, surrounded by ice floes; in eerie caves in South Africa, and in the slums of Bangladesh.

You quickly learn to draw fast when the temperatures are extreme, or when you’re surrounded by clouds of inquisitive, cheerful children.

I remember with special affection doing some sketches in Mongolia, far out on the steppe, of a settlement of traditional felt tents.

It was a cold morning and we’d been subsisting on a mix of fermented mares’ milk and glutinous lamb fat stew, and I wasn’t feeling great; but the morning felt pristine and the people looked as they must have done 1,000 years ago. It felt like the dawn of time. I drew fast, almost in a frenzy, and was entirely happy.

But I had as much fun sketching in one of the favelas — the urban slum townships — of Rio. I had to squat in a tiny tea shop, brushing away flies, but by stopping to watch the street for a quiet hour, I got a much better sense of what life there was like.

I watched men queueing up for their morning shower from a hose pipe in the middle of the road; heavily armed police smiling and handing out sweets to the children. I sketched the washing hanging on electricity lines, and queues outside shops.

What I was observing was a once-dangerous place slowly becoming a normal and relatively peaceable part of the city. We filmed all of this; but to see it fully, and think about it while I was being quiet and attentive while sketching, really helped me.

But whatever we amateurs are sketching and wherever we are, it’s about watching, noticing, paying attention more closely to what’s around us. It’s difficult and it needs practice but it’s about being more aware. So it’s about being more conscious of being alive.

Ever more so since I had a stroke last year, I’ve pondered on how, so little of the time, we really think about the glorious luck of being alive.

We go through our daily routines, from flossing to paying bills. We drive off to work and then later drive home again, and we slump down in front of the magic box. But how often do we stop, look around, and feel an intense prickle of awe and joy? Yes, sketching and drawing are about composition, mixing colours, searching for lines — all that. But more than this, they are about submerging ourselves in the world around us.


I’m not talented enough to make abstract pictures, mine are simply messes, but in this chalk sketch, I fancy myself that you can glimpse how abstract painting emerges, slouching, to be born out of mundane representational sketching’

So I’ve come to the conclusion that sketching does for me at least some of what praying, meditation and making music do for other people.

And there are legions of others who feel the same. Otherwise they wouldn’t spend so much time and energy getting sunburned and bitten by midges or shivering on a winter evening as they work away.

It’s calming — but absolutely not in the same way as lying on the beach or vegging out in front of Downton Abbey. It is hard work, in a good way.

You may have noticed that, so far, I have chosen to use the words sketching, drawing and painting not art or artist. There’s a good reason for that.

The art world has become increasingly divorced from the practice of sketching, drawing and painting. First of all, it’s corrupted by money — art has become an investment opportunity, part of the portfolio. Rising artists are treated with the same close, greedy attention as undervalued shares.

This cannot be good for them; so many conclude that the way ahead is simply to produce endless instantly recognisable objects for international collectors. They stop pushing themselves. Changing, going in a new direction, would undermine their market power.

‘Corrupted’ is an easy word to bandy about, but too much money spent too fast encourages a spurious ‘super league’ of artists whose work is absurdly overpriced, leaving thousands of other artists starved of money and support.

Damien Hirst has made some good work, but he is not thousands of times better than his contemporaries, who struggle to survive. Worse, for him, is the temptation to give the market what it wants — lots of instantly recognisable ‘Hirsts’, the spot paintings made by rows of assistants, for instance.

So the energy that might have gone into refreshing new works goes into reproduction — following where the money leads. You end up in a world where Grayson Perry pronounces that most contemporary art is rubbish.

I haven’t seen enough to use words like ‘most’. But a lot is; and in an art market that was more driven by scores of knowledgeable collectors with a bit less money, I think less of it would be.

Yes, art has always relied on wealthy collectors, from the Medici family in Renaissance Florence to the American businessmen hoovering up Impressionist painters in 1890s Paris.

But there is no longer any agreed measurement of taste or aesthetic value, and that means the big-money players of today are putty in the hands of PR go-betweens . . . the fine old firm of Puff and Pimp.

And the art world is also fatally corrupted by snobbery. The legions of people with some talent for drawing or painting, who would like to show their work to others, are warned off.

I had a telling experience of this recently when Brian Sewell, who writes about art, attacked me for the ‘impertinence’ of writing a book about drawing and dismissed me as a ‘crass amateur’.

Impertinence is a telling word. What it means is: how dare the lower orders jostle their way into our exquisite, moneyed, airless little world?

The art snobs, of whom Sewell is only one absurd example, hedge themselves around with jargon designed to keep out the vulgar masses. There’s nothing they despise more than amateur artists; the Royal Academy summer exhibition — made up of the work of the masses — is their nightmare. Art is for the elect and the select, not for humanity in general. They are the sneering bouncers at the door of the private club.

Luckily for the rest of us, because the international art world has become so corrupted by money and vanity, it isn’t actually a club worth joining in the first place. This doesn’t mean, of course, that there aren’t wonderful famous and professional artists.

We are going through an interesting time in painting, and in sculpture: think of Peter Doig, Chris Ofili, Barbara Hepworth, Gillian Ayres, Anish Kapoor, Antony Gormley and, of course, David Hockney.

My absolute rule is to try to see any art work with your own eyes, and use your own judgment, rather than relying on critics. Remember the rule. Those who can’t, teach; those who can’t teach either, sit at the back throwing bottles. The barriers erected by the snobs and the hedge fund collectors, however, can safely be ignored by the rest of us. Drawing and painting are, as I have discovered, both a difficult discipline: a little gateway to a better sense of being alive. Isn’t that enough?

If you don’t have to make your living out of sketching, you are incredibly lucky. You can do it on your own terms, for yourself, and for anyone who wants to look at what you do. There are good and bad sketches, of course. The job of a proper critic is to explain and help us discriminate between them, to make judgments based not on snobbery but on thoughtful, close looking. And there are many such critics.

But not a minute, not a second, of the time I have ever spent sketching has been wasted time. I’ve always emerged freshened and happier.

Perhaps Brian Sewell might try it one day.


Andrew Marr’s A Short Book On Drawing is published by Quadrille at £15. An exhibition of his pictures is at Foyle’s bookshop, London WC2H. He is a patron of the Campaign for Drawing.

From the original article on DailyMail online. Nov 7 2013






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