Monday, 19 January 2015

Snapshots of the morning commute

For many millions of Britons, the working day starts with a journey. It may be many miles or not so many; it may take hours or could be numbered in the minutes.

But whether on foot or by car, bus, train or tram, we travel to our places of work.

And while many people use that time to listen to music, read – or check up on social media and email – others have discovered that you happily use it as art time.

My morning journey usually takes around half an hour on two buses, so there’s not really time to sketch much, while I find that having nothing to rest on is awkward, particularly when you’re moving as well.

Then there’s always the question of whether people will be getting off at the next stop, leaving you with just the beginnings of a sketch.

But since I have, for the best part of the last year, adopted a routine of travelling early and then spending an hour over coffee in a cafĂ© near work, that’s the drawing time.

It makes a good and relaxing start to a day, but it’s also a discipline and a challenge – the former simply because it has now become a habit to sketch/draw every day, which is good practice, and the latter, simply because of subject matter.

There’s only so many times I can draw what’s on the table in front of me or my surroundings.

Sometimes, I’ve created a still life out of what’s in my bag or even something I’ve carried with me for the purpose.

But another way around this is provided by my fellow travellers.

If there isn’t time to actually get out the pens and sketchbook on the bus, there’s often time to snap off a surreptitious shot on my phone – and then draw from that when sitting down with a coffee.

Street photography taught me some years ago that people are often oblivious to a great big camera being pointed in their direction, so the smartphone version is no difficulty.

That having been said, though, it does mean that all of the pictures are particularly well lit – even more so at this time of year when my morning journey takes place well before it’s light – while focus can also sometimes be a bit askance as we jolt around Londons roads.

But that, I think, can also add to the challenge – not least because a lack of precise detail can help you remember to look for the spirit of the picture without fretting about it being photographic (a trap I can still fall into).

It’s particularly fascinating to see how people lock themselves into a personal bubble, often – but not always – with music and/or social media/email.

There’s a tendency to consider these things as the preserve mainly of the young – to an extent that, in Germany at least, it’s even entered the language.

In a look at some of the best new words or phrases of the past year, highlighted the delightful ‘Generation Kopf unten’ – or ‘generation head down’ to give it its literal translation – as being a description of the generation that is always looking down at assorted devices.

As a slight aside, I love the combination of wonderful German literalness of this – the nations language keepers did worry about whether a TV picture should be ‘on’ or ‘in’ the screen – and the sense of it representing a far wider idea.

Anyway, as some of the sketches here show, it’s far from being a generational rule in London.

People are, of course, fascinating. And catching them candidly offers a totally different result than having anyone pose for you.

One of the things that these illustrate is the sense of how people use the in-between time that bridges home and work, when our options are limited by the facts of the journey, but these days, increased by technology.

But perhaps that is also indicative of why I hear so very few actual conversations on the bus too. They reveal a sense of isolation that is also indicative of a big city.

In the winter, when people are bundled up against the inclement weather, that isolation – that creation of a personal bubble – seems even more complete.

I’m beginning to see this as a project. After all, it records a different London from the one so often recorded: this is an early-morning city of ordinary people going to work, getting themselves psyched for the working day ahead – the motor of the capital.

They range from administration staff to cleaners some of the thousands of construction workers that are changing the landscape of the city – and goodness knows how many more roles that the city rarely celebrates, but without which it could not survive.

The evening bus rides home are different: more crowded and more noisy – not least with young people heading home from school and college, plus shoppers with the same aim in mind.

I hope you enjoy the selection of pictures posted here: it’s probably fair to say that, since these have all been done in the last three months, I’m on the cusp of becoming expert at drawing huge, padded coats.

Some are very light sketches. Other, depending almost entirely on what I was able to snap and from what position, are closer to portraits. I think that both sorts have a value.

From the top, the first one was done this morning – and what a wonderful look of concentration she has.

In the second, the huge hood makes me think of a fantasy character: every time that I look at this I think that he could be a modern version of Aragorn from Lord of the Rings.

There’s no gadget component to the third, but again, what a characterful face – and that is worth its weight in gold.

In the fourth, her beautifully-done hairstyle made me think of Josephine Baker, while I found it amusing that she was ‘plugged’ in to two devices.

The fifth down was the first I did (and is the only one done in sepia ink) and again, the concentration is extraordinary.

The sixth has a lovely sense of dignity – it was the one time thus far I've been tempted to add colour, since her dainty umbrella was red: a massive contrast with the heavy clothing.

The seventh also shows great dignity – and great serenity; newspaper folded neatly on his lap as we approached his stop.

The eighth is one of the sketchier pieces, but gives a little more of a sense of physical context.

The ninth gives more context yet, but still conveys the sense in which, at that time of day, people are very much in their own bubbles and concentrating on the day ahead

All are in black India ink (apart from the one mentioned above), on light-weight 16.5x15.5cm paper that is slightly tinted. I have made sure that all scans are on the same basis.

• All drawings copyright.

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