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Yestival 2024 - Portrait sketching!

Updated: Jul 2

Each Summer a group of outgoing, positive and generally all round wonderful people meet in a field in Lincolnshire. We all insist it's not a cult as we wear branded "Say Yes More" T-shirts and run around giving each other hugs. (It's not a cult, promise!)

It's time for Yestival. A small, intimate festival of like-minded people sharing their dreams, fears and adventure stories. There's bread baking. Nature sketching. Enthusiastic morning exercise and if you're lucky, you'll get cuddles with the alpacas.

A group drone photo from Yestival 2024. Let's of happy waving people.

I've been going since 2018 and it's the perfect environment to be vulnerable and experiment with new ideas. Stepping outside of your comfort zone in a space where you'll receive nothing but positivity and support.

In previous years I've tackled a dread of public speaking, cried in front of 150 people and turned up having forgotten all my clothes. I've even designed all their merch. So what would it be this year? How would I stick my neck out in the name of self growth?

For the last two years I've been sketching all the guest speakers. Developing my skills in drawing people which has led to covering events at the Royal Geographical Society! I've also painted landscapes for years at this point. I can paint mountains in my sleep! But there's a blind spot that I have conveniently been avoiding…

Portraits! Sitting in front of another human and staring them straight in the face for an extended period of time!? No thank you. Social anxiety would like a hard pass on that, thank you very much.

But sometimes (often) my brain has daft ideas that I can't shake. Way back in 2018 I met a photographer challenging himself to capture all 400+ guests and the resulting poster was beautiful. Hmm. I wonder if I should do the same but with sketches. Did I really want to sketch an entire festival!? 

Oh lord. Here we go. The 60 second open mics have started…

The timing wasn't great. I'd arrived at this year's Yestival feeling fragile. Adjusting to putting my nomadic ways behind me, navigating a new relationship and processing a smattering of fresh trauma. (more on that later) The idea of subjecting myself to 150+ bite size moments of anxiety didn't feel like the right move and it wouldn't blatantly lead to burn-out. It was also Christina's first introduction to the YesTribe and I wanted to remain available for her.

Perhaps I can at least get the ball rolling...

Three years in, 60 second open mics are nowhere near as scary as they used to be! I pitched my idea but explained that I just wanted to dip my toes and see how it felt sketching portraits. Even if I only managed a few it would still be a brave step in the right direction. I knew the hardest part for me would be approaching strangers all weekend, feeling like I was interrupting them, so I decided to open myself up to some chaos. "I've got enough paper for every single one of you. Come at me! Just shout 'DRAW ME! And I'll stop whatever I'm doing and draw you. Simple'

Tom Napper stood on stage speaking at a 60 second open mic.

It was done. There was no avoiding it now.

Uptake was slow at first. The following morning I'd only been asked by one person and it was 10am already. So I stuck my neck out again and shouted a reminder during the talk pitches. Dave Cornthwaite (founder) took the lead and declared I should aim for 40 drawings over the weekend! Then promptly sitting in front of me and receiving my TERRIBLE second sketch of the weekend. The gauntlet had been thrown down and I was up for the challenge.

This first thing I noticed was that my self imposed time limit of 60 seconds per sketch was bonkers. My reasoning was sound. It meant I wouldn't spend all weekend glued to my sketch book, put a boundary on how long I would have to sit there squirming with awkwardness and made the experience more approachable for everyone else. But good lord! Have you ever tried to draw ANYTHING in 60 seconds!? Let alone an accurate representation of a face!? It was hilarious. My pen whizzed around the page frantically as I entered a state of blind panic. Often creating unrecognisable messes that looked nothing like the poor models.

I found it impossible to contain my inner dialogue. Perhaps a response to the nerves. "Oh bugger… that's not meant to be there… wait… ohhhh no… what have I done!? Oh shit, your NOSE! You don't look like that!". I felt terrible for the person on the receiving end as they tried their best to stay still and not react to the unfolding disaster.

There was no rhyme or reason to the consistency either. Sometime's a few sketches would go really well. They would "just work". Then, for no reason at all, the next one would look horrendous. I made my friend Michelle look like a demon! This combined with the impractical time limit meant I had to give in to the process and accept failure. I quite quickly stopped caring whether or not the drawings were "good" and embraced an attitude of "well, clearly I have very little control over this so I may as well just crack on". It was quite freeing!

People's reactions were just as unpredictable. More often than not, the ones I didn't think went well were met with sheer glee. More confusingly, sometimes the ones I thought were great were met with confusion and discomfort. I couldn't win!

I cruised past 40 sketches by Saturday afternoon so figured I should probably just keep going. By this point people were queuing up to be sketched without even asking! That night I downed tools and had sketched 64 people.

60 small black and white portrait sketches in a grid

"Hmm" I thought. "I wonder if I could draw 100 people by the end of the Festival!?" It would be tight. I only had until Sunday lunch time. But I felt a fire in my belly and I had a new challenge to get my teeth stuck into. The following morning I dragged myself out of my tent and got back to it.

Many sketches and laughs later, the festival was winding down and I stepped back onto the stage to report how it went.

"Well. I recognise a heck of a lot of you now! Dave set me the challenge to draw 40 people… Safe to say it went pretty well… I SKETCHED 106 OF YOU!!" That's two thirds of Yestival 2024!

The crowd went bananas and I felt so proud to have stuck my neck out.

Five black and white portrait sketches in a strip

So what were the main takeaways?

Firstly, I was blown away at just how quickly the anxiety I had been avoiding for five years dissipated within THREE drawings! I guess I shouldn't have been too surprised because when I attend life drawing classes I don't consciously think "oo err, I'm sat in front of a naked person. When you're sketching you're just taking measurements and recording whatever shapes are in front of you. You stop seeing the "thing" as a "thing" and exactly the same happened with faces.

In this case the fear wasn't a one way street. Ironically, it turned out that while I busied myself with drawing, the model was having to do the very thing I was so anxious about; staring at someone's face and making eye contact for a prolonged amount of time. This shared experience of discomfort has been a great reminder that I'm not the only one out there with nerves, awkwardness and other perfectly normal feelings. One girl uncontrollable laughed for 60 seconds straight! I'm choosing to assume this was down to nerves. Not me being funny looking!

Dale "Greybeard" the Adventurer

And sometimes, if you're scared of doing something, the scale of the challenge in your head can be the very thing that gets in the way of it ever happening. I could have waited years until I "felt right" or "felt brave enough" to try and sketch an entire festival. I certainly wasn't in the right place for it this year. It was better to let myself off the hook and aim for something smaller. Even just sharing the fear and saying the dream out loud ended up being a huge step in the right direction and I certainly haven't left feeling like I've failed. Quite the opposite! I sketched 106 bloomin' people!

The experience was pretty magical. I'll never forget the time I spontaneously sketched two thirds of a festival. The laughs. The giggles. Constantly forgetting to draw eyebrows for no reason...

Dare I say it. I think I might have even had fun!

Five black and white portrait sketches in a strip

Thanks for reading!

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