Hastings & St. Leonards on-line community newspaper

Maria O’Neill, artist-in-residence at the Bavard Bar

The Art of Observation

Joan Taylor-Rowan takes a break from her tree articles, and discusses  the art of sketching people with Maria O’Neill, artist-in-residence at the Bavard Bar.

There is something magical about being able to capture a person’s face with just a pencil. Artist Maria O’Neill creates magic every month at the Bavard Bar in St Leonards-on-Sea. This event takes place at the Kino cinema on Norman Road, and if you’ve never been, I urge you to buy a ticket – and see Maria at work. Along with a bit of fun and games, three fearless individuals speak for twenty minutes each, about a personal passion (magicians, maths, music), and while they are speaking, Maria gets to work with pencils, pens and watercolour.

watercolour/pencil portrait

So accurate are her sketches that speakers have asked to buy them. I asked her what skills were required. ‘It’s all about observation,’ she said. ‘I spend more time looking than drawing.’ I could imagine myself spending more time rubbing out and scribbling in frustration each time a speaker moved. ‘Yes, that can be tricky,’ she agreed, ‘but that’s where the practice comes in. Drawing is like a muscle that needs regular exercise.’

Maria has been exercising those drawing muscles all her life. At just five years old, she remembers watching her teacher drawing a cat on the blackboard and thinking, rather indignantly, that it did not look like a cat at all. She itched to go up and re-draw it.  Aged eight years old, she won a prize in a national competition, and went on to win many more throughout her school life. She knew that drawing and art would be her future.

Guest speaker – Claudine Ecclestone

She missed out on art school for family reasons, and instead worked in a ceramic studio, as a painter, but never stopped drawing and learning. Her married life took her first to Malawi and then to Bahrain – where she was able to work full time, painting and selling her work. On returning to the UK, she continued to sell in galleries and also began teaching from her home – an activity she continued to pursue after moving to St Leonards six years ago.

I asked her how she began at the Bavard. ‘I’ve always been curious about people,’ she told me. ‘When I see a face that interests me, I will sneak out my pencil and try and capture it. Airports, trains, cafes, anywhere really.’  It was one of these sketching episodes during a Bavard night that got her noticed by Bavarder-in-chief, Tim Crook.  She was taken on as the artist-in-residence.

I thought it must be nerve-wracking, but Maria disagreed. ‘It’s an adrenaline rush. Even if it doesn’t go well, the sketches still have to go up on the screen for the audience to see, which means laying yourself open to criticism, but if people are prepared to get up there and speak, then I should be prepared to draw and take the consequences, and it’s a terrific feeling when I really capture a likeness.’

Bavard Bar – audience member

I was fascinated to know how she started a sketch – what did she focus on?  ‘It varies, from person to person,’ she told me, ‘but generally I tackle the eyes, nose and the shape of the mouth first, as they are the most defining features. The hair and hairline follow and then the shape of the head and shoulders.’

Only twice has she felt stumped by a speaker. ‘Some people seem to be easy to capture, others have elusive characters that are harder to pin down. Strangely, if they engage me with their talk, or I get a good feeling of connection, I can make a better drawing,’ she explained.

Maria takes commissions for portraits and can work from photos, although she says she prefers to work from life – ‘there is more spark in working from life.’ But she is not just a painter of portraits, her subject matter is wide-ranging, from buildings to beaches, from boats to blossoms. She uses  watercolours that create a jewel-like richness, especially in her paintings of flowers and landscapes.

Honfleur, Normandy

‘Is it possible to teach portrait sketching?’ I asked hopefully. ‘Teaching someone to really look and observe, and relate one object to the another, is the secret of learning to draw accurately and is possible for most people. Once people understand how to really look, then with practice, they should be able to draw anything.’

Maria is running a six-week watercolour course for beginners, starting on Monday 28 Feb, 2–4pm. £20 per session.
To book, or to talk to her about commissions, email her on:
You can find more of Maria’s art on Instagram, @mariaoneillart.

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Posted 09:16 Saturday, Feb 12, 2022 In: Hastings People

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