19 July 2021

Dispatches from a Small World

Written by Published in Art & Culture

In times of restriction, what can a garden teach us? Born in the stillness of lockdown, an illustration project has been documenting the growing season in over 200 sketches.

I’m a designer, creative director, reportage illustrator – and a prolific filler of sketchbooks. Before the pandemic, I would draw on commutes and travels. But in the Lydia Thornley head shot garden cropfirst lockdown, my local park full of ‘keep moving’ notices, hurried exercise walks left no time to stand and stare. So, I started Dispatches from a Small World, reporting from my urban garden in sketches.

My pocket handkerchief plot is packed with plants, wild and cultivated, food rubbing along with flowers, some for me, some for the birds and the bees. It’s my bit of countryside in the city. I thought I knew it well – until I spent time with it through drawing. Here’s what my garden has taught me so far.

bees on poppies crop

There is no growing season. Or rather, there isn’t one growing season. The plants here are in perpetual motion, seedlings sprouting, flowers unfurling, petals dropping, food fruiting, seeds setting, all at the same time. The hollyhocks multitask, throwing new buds skywards as they bloom and seed.

Irregular is regular. If you draw a flower from memory, the chances are that it will be tidy and more or less symmetrical. But spend time with plants and they serve up oddness in all its glorious variety –leaves of assorted size and shape, flower heads with different numbers of petals, some at jaunty angles, fruits of wildly-different form. They’re no less beautiful for that, a cheering thing in our human world, where there is so much pressure to fit in.

chard crop

In nature, colour is complicated. I first learned that drawing Cerinthe major, every bract a different blend of pink-mauve-blue-green. But it’s the apparently-simple flowers that often need a rethink as I mix and layer watercolours and inks … The purple iris with red in it. The lavender, grey-green with a dusting of mauve. Nasturtiums so bright that I had to grab a highlighter. Hydrangea, each flower head in its own place on a journey from green to pink. And wild sweet peas with their multiple costume changes, from vintage silk buds to Schiaparelli pink in full flower, fading to a delicate blue.

There’s engineering in plants, and animation. The more I look, the more I see. I’ve noticed allium flowers pinging open like umbrellas and over time, making seeds like a mid-century lamp. Leaves and stems join with astonishing complexity, hinging and wrapping their way upwards. Climbers find their own supports, whether I put them there or they cling on to a neighbour. And then there are flowers that open and close with the light.

Nasturtium flowers crop

Nature doesn’t wait. Poppies are there for the day, showing off first thing and shrugging off their petals by cocktail hour. Bees wallowing in big blooms, day-flying moths in the sunshine, hoverflies, damselflies, tiny caterpillars and surprisingly-nippy ladybirds: all have to be drawn at lightning speed, taking in a lot of visual information very quickly so that if they’ve headed off to their next job, I can finish mine from memory. Many’s the time when I wander outside, coffee in hand, spot something and finish a sketch before the start of the studio day.

The project taught me to improvise. At its start, art shops shut, work cancelled and my space at home cluttered with things moved hastily from a desk space that had to close at short notice, I used what I had. Ballpens, always a favourite drawing tool, made line. Inherited inks were brought into service for colour. Using up paper from samples and dummies, the unpredictability of painting on a surface made for print became part of the character of the drawings. For special effects, I raided the kitchen cupboards. Household candles created variegation and a kitchen scourer made excellent mud.

Made in isolation and posted initially on Instagram, the drawings have created connection. Early in the first lockdown I saw that colouring-in was giving comfort, so I put some of the line drawings together as a colouring book, free to download.

People saw respite in what I was doing and asked me to run drawing sessions, live and on video. One of those started a conversation with Cordwainers Dye that’s been teaching me about natural inks. I got interested in the democracy and fun of household materials as a way of inviting people in to drawing. (Kebab sticks – who knew that they made such good dip pens?) I found community with others drawing nature.

sweet peas crop

I’m striding out with a sketchbook again – but the garden is still part of my drawing week and Dispatches from a Small World has sprouted a blog. That’s made me notice things afresh. If I sit still with nature, or wander gently, themes and stories will show themselves.

And now, garments. How do you wear a drawing? After decades designing for paper and screen, I’ve been learning that too, putting watercolour and line drawings on organic cotton t-shirts, and listening to the people who buy them.

When I started this project, fortunate though I felt to have my own patch of green, a small world felt like a limiting thing. But my urban garden has set me on a brand-new voyage of discovery.

Visit Dispatches from a Small World and click to shop Lydia Thornley t-shop.  Instagram: @lydiathornley



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