In February 2016, we hosted our very first Sketch Club in The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery; a Friday lunchtime ‘drop-in and draw’ encouraging visitors to get creative whilst enjoying the artworks on display. Five years later and Sketch Club has become a permanent feature of the Gallery Events schedule, even moving online last year when the Galleries had to temporarily close. But what makes Sketch Club so special?

Gallery Assistant Lauren Hollowday caught up on Zoom with University of Leeds alumnus and Sketch Club regular, Peter McDonagh, to talk all things Sketch Club ahead of the five-year anniversary.

Lauren Hollowday (LH): Why did you start coming to Sketch Club?

Peter McDonagh (PD): It was advertised and somehow or other I saw the advert before it started. I was thinking it would be good to support the gallery; they’re starting a new activity and they’ll need more people to come rather than less, I’ll be one of those people. It was just as simple as that really.  

LH: Had you done a sketch club, or similar things at other galleries, before that? Or did it start something new?

PD: I’d visited The Stanley & Audrey Burton Gallery quite a few times before the Sketch Club and one thing we did was Arts and Minds had an afternoon event which was hosted at the Gallery and I attended that. But generally, what happens as a member of the public when you go into a gallery is you walk around and you look around, you look at the art and you browse, but it is quite hard really to engage with the art in a way that helps you to understand it historically for example. So, I was just like all those other people. I have done a couple of art-related classes with Workers Educational Association and with East Street Arts in Leeds. These organisations, they were running them through Leeds Mind at Inkwell in Chapel Allerton, and one of the day centres in Horsforth. So, I started to make my own art.

Pencil Sketch, of ‘Kitchen’ by John Bratby. Image credit: Peter McDonagh.

LH: Once you’d been to Sketch Club the first time, or first couple of times, what made you decide to keep coming? 

PD: When I’ve been in employment I’ve always lived out of a diary and I continue to live out of a diary. One of my problems is I’m a bit of a workaholic so I like to work to deadlines, and I don’t like to let people down. Sketch Club was in the diary every Friday, and it would become really something that was a need as well as a want. I would prioritise it, and I’d try and protect that time and space on a Friday afternoon to come to Sketch Club as much as I could. I just kept coming back I suppose because it was part of my nature really, and I do like routine. If you’ve not had a routine, if you can impose one, especially if it is a therapeutic routine, it’s very helpful for a person with a mental health problem. To have that stability is really great. So, another big reason for keeping coming.  

LH: Has continuing with Sketch Club via social media been helpful for maintaining that routine? How have you found the shift from in-person to online? 

PD: Well, I think I would always prefer to come into the Gallery. I enjoy the personal interaction in the Gallery with other members of the Sketch Club, so I miss not meeting up with other Sketch ‘Clubbers’. And I really miss not seeing the art in person, and that sort of unique experience of an artwork in the room. It’s not the same digital. A digital image can never replicate what is there; you lose the scale, and you lose texture obviously and the colour is not the same. Nothing is the same in a way, apart from ‘it’s an image of’ – so a good reproduction. Having said all of that, because we have been able to do Sketch Club online all those other things have been able to be replicated. So rather than it being a loss, it hasn’t been a loss; it’s been the same. Really a lot of the process is the same. But overall, having been put into lockdown, people were losing lots of things and to be able to recover something, and to keep it in the same timescale so your routine is the same, that was good.

Portraits sketched in pencil. Image credit: Peter McDonagh. 

LH: What would you say is your favourite thing about Sketch Club?  

PD: I think I’ve got to say my favourite thing is the concept of Sketch Club; it’s a free, open format. I like the idea that anyone can come in and can make a drawing and that’s why I always promote it to other groups wherever I go. I think it just seems so democratic. There’s paper and pencils provided if you need them or if you want to you can bring your own book and draw into that. There’s really no pressure. And to be offered a seat, and to be offered the hospitality really of the pencil and paper, it allows you to slow your process down. You change from being a viewer to being an artist. And that’s a huge transformation that you go through. This is the thing I always say: ‘you can only improve on a blank sheet of paper’. That’s been like my motto, because you could lose motivation and you could say ‘oh my art’s not very good now’ or ‘I feel a bit embarrassed about what I’ve made there’. But rather than see that I just think no, it can only improve on a blank sheet of paper. Celebrate what you can do rather than what you can’t do. But definitely it’s the format, which I think could be replicated into other galleries as well. I find that quite an exciting prospect: Sketch Club could go global. 

LH: Is there anything that we could do, that would make Sketch Club even better? 

PD: I think one of the good things about the Sketch Club is, when you’re there, there’s other people there drawing alongside you and sometimes we’ve had little arcs of people; two, three, four people sitting together and drawing together. And some of those conversations that we’ve been able to have, we’ve been able to support each other as friends more than just a Sketch Club. It has at times been important for people to feel safe and supported there, as they’re going through difficult things in their personal lives. I think it’s not always known, but I can say I’ve been party to conversations that have been quite painful, and it’s been good for me to hear those stories and to be able to try and support people who’ve been going through difficult times in their lives. They’ve used Sketch Club as something therapeutic or as a means of escape. That kind of respite time from caring for loved ones or going through a difficult life experience or change or things like that. So that’s one of the things I’ve noticed about Sketch Club; it has been a proper meeting of minds.  

But improving is very difficult, it’s hard to improve on perfection isn’t it. Because it’s so simple, and so well thought through in that you’ve got the Friday Focus; you’ve got that simple offering of a chair and pencils and paper; you’ve got a set time and it’s quite long enough. And I think the time is interesting as well in that it is a drop-in. That’s another brilliant thing about it; you can arrive on time or you can arrive three hours late and still be on time. It’s quite fun like that, and you always never know who you’re going to meet. I’ve met people from all over the world. So, I think it’s very hard to improve on it. People have asked me before ‘how could we improve the Gallery?’ and I just say well you could only make it bigger.

Pencil sketch, of ‘Limbo’ by Austin Wright. Image credit: Peter McDonagh.

LH: What would you say to someone if they were thinking about joining Sketch Club, or what benefits might you suggest they could get from joining in? 

PD: I think probably the best answer to this would be to say that they’ll go in with nothing, and they’ll come out with something. And that’s the biggest thing you’re going to gain from Sketch Club. You can take your picture home with you. And it’s going to be a surprise, whatever it is. The best thing is probably the actual art object that you create and no doubt the emotional and, I suppose the word is phenomenological, kind of experience of having made an artwork. I think it’s transformational for a human being to do that on a regular basis.  

Sketch Club takes place on Twitter and Instagram every week, with a different focus posted at 12:30pm each Friday. Everyone is welcome to join in, whether you’re looking to hone your sketching skills, chat with fellow art appreciators online, or simply indulge your creativity. Leeds University Library Galleries provide Sketch Club top tips and warm-up exercises to get you started, plus a whole selection of alternative ways you can get your cultural fix online.  

Peter McDonagh graduated from the University of Leeds in 2001 with a BA Hons. in Theology and Religious Studies. In summer 2020, he was involved in a collaborative project led by Dr Mani Sharpe from the School of Languages, Cultures and Societies and produced a short film, titled ‘Gallery’, in part influenced by his participation in Sketch Club.