Sketching Through the Pandemic With Mel Chadwick

Melanie “Mel” Chadwick (@melanie_chadwick) has never been one to sit at home and let the world pass her by. In fact, you can often find her roaming throughout Cornwall with a sketchbook and a small collection of pens and brushes.

In the past, we’ve spoken with Mel about her experience with mapmaking, her passion for workshops, and her steadfast determination to make a living from art (a skill that she didn’t learn at university).

In recent years, Mel’s profile in the art world has grown. We caught up with her late last year to see how she was handling the pandemic and what — if anything — had changed for her art and her business.

After the initial downturn, which left Mel with few clients and a limited capacity to teach, she managed to turn 2020 into another productive and interesting year.

But those changes didn’t happen overnight.

A shot of graphic designer and illustrator Melanie Chadwick in her living room.
The pandemic prevented much freelancing for Mel, but she found her way out by creating different income opportunities.

Pandemic Woes

As a seasoned artist, Mel is no stranger to the feast or famine lifecycle that can come with a freelancing career. But 2020 was something new. Though she had several illustration clients lined up at the start of the year, everything changed when the pandemic hit the UK in mid-March.

“Basically overnight, my clients just kind of stopped. They canceled their projects, and my client work just disappeared,” she said.

And the problems didn’t end there. Mel often hosted workshops in local coffee shops. Suddenly, those facilities were closed and her students were unable to attend.

In short order, Mel found herself in the lurch with limited income opportunities and bills to pay. That line of thinking pushed her quickly into the world of online teaching.

“I had to find income somewhere, and I thought that I had to go online. That’s where Zoom came in for me, and it’s been a lifesaver,” she said.

In the space of a few weeks, Mel used the popular video streaming service to establish an online classroom and get her workshops back on track, but it took several months before her clients started to return.

Melanie Chadwick on her desk, editing a video.
Mel quickly adapted to online teaching and it was better than the original in some ways.

Locking Down a New Experience

From March to June, Mel was able to teach online using Zoom. She was already using YouTube to teach art and interview artists, so she already had the equipment required to host a workshop.

Melanie Chadwick sketching some veggies.

In some ways, Mel said that the online class was better than the original because students could watch her draw live and sketch along with her.

“They could watch me drawing,” Mel explained, “but then I also had another camera set up where they could look at the object.”

Mel created variations on this theme. Sometimes, she hosted a “drink and draw.” Other times, it was a “sketch party,” where she brought a selection of items that students could draw from real life. She kept fees low and became a creative guide for families who were stuck at home during lockdown periods.

Those classes, said Mel, were always a unique experience because she would receive comments where students explained that they’d never sketched anything as a family or with kids. She also offered art sessions since kids were out of school.

Melanie Chadwick holding her postcard of Fat Apples Café, with the café itself in the background.
Fat Apples Café was a part of Mel's "Daily 2020 Postcard" project.

A Postcard a Day in Cornwall

While Mel was able to deliver new experiences to families and students, she was also working steadily on new experiences of her own.

In 2020, Mel set out to create a postcard a day by getting out of the house and wandering around Cornwall and the surrounding areas. While she’d been sketching and drawing around the county for several years, this was her first concerted effort to focus that into a collection that spanned a specific time and place.

This project provided a breath of fresh air during the pandemic by allowing Mel to get out and explore while still maintaining social distancing. She also shared her postcards on Instagram and currently sells the originals in her shop.

Melanie Chadwick holding her postcard of Polurrian cliffs, Mullion Cornwall on location.
Mel's postcard drawn in 15 minutes from Polurrian cliffs, Mullion Cornwall.

The project was a success — with some minor adjustments.

“The only time I had to adjust or change the project was with the lockdown rules,” she said. “I didn’t feel comfortable sketching outside on location and advertising that I was doing that to everyone.”

Overall, Mel explained that there was a certain fulfillment that came with completing such a complex project because she likes to set a challenge and work toward specific goals and tasks.

Melanie Chadwick holding her sketchbook with a sketch of boats at Cadgwith Cove on location.
Mel started drawing outside in 2017, and has been better and more confident ever since.

Drawing from Life — Since 2017

It’s worth mentioning that, even though she completed her postcard-a-day project last year, Mel has been sketching from life regularly and slowly building up her confidence and speed to the point where regular sketching was viable.

Back in 2017, when Mel first started sketching outdoors, it was a completely new — and uncomfortable — experience because she didn’t know how to handle being noticed. She would get out of the house early, when there were fewer people, just to get more comfortable with the idea.

Mel explained: “I soon realized that a lot of people, although they might look at you, aren’t really paying that much attention to you. They’re just kind of noticing that you’re there and then they just walk on.”

Mel pointed out that, on occasion, someone would loiter around and then approach her to find out more.

“That’s okay,” she said. “I like talking to people, especially people who are interested in what I’m doing.”

Melanie Chadwick's sketchwalk participants in Porthleven sketching boats.
Mel also became a local tour guide and created another form of income through "sketchwalks".

As a side benefit, being out and about on the town day in and day out also helps to raise her artistic profile and has made her something of a local tour guide.

Mel has since turned those conversational skills and her knowledge of the local area into another form of income by hosting “sketchwalks” throughout the city. She meets up with customers and they explore an area through sketching. During the walk, Mel acts as both teacher and guide by pointing out good sketching opportunities and explaining some of the history surrounding Cornwall’s history and architecture.

But, for Mel, it all comes back to sketching outside at the end of the day. Mel was quick to point out that drawing from life provides observational drawing skills that you just can’t get any other way.

“You just gain from being outside, which is a big thing, I think,” she said. “You can connect with the people, the area, and the buildings by seeing what’s outside your door.”

A closeup shot of Melanie Chadwick's Concertina sketchbook.
Mel thinks that when it comes to sketching, the most important skill is discipline.

Sketchwalking Tips From a Pro

So, how do you actually get outside and start sketching? According to Mel, the key thing to remember is that you don’t have to travel far, spend a ton of money, or even invest a lot of time.

For her postcard-a-day project, Mel spent roughly 15 minutes per postcard, not including the time it took to travel to or from a location. On weekends, when she had time to spare, she might spend half an hour to make a more detailed piece or even an hour to create something colorful.

Melanie Chadwick's sketchbook notes of St. Anthony.
"Serious sketchers need to just get out there and do it".

Mel said that the most important skill when it comes to sketching — both indoor and outdoor — has nothing to do with art at all.

“It’s really about discipline,” she said. “It’s about fitting it into your day somehow. You brush your teeth every day, you know? It’s almost like trying to fit it into your routine.”

Rather than waiting until you have just the right amount of time or just the right materials, Mel said that serious sketchers need to just get out there and do it rather than engaging in the start-and-stop process she sees with many amateur artists.

When sketching outside, it’s as simple as finding an interesting subject and devoting five or ten minutes to focus and draw. Mel advises picking out a sketchbook where you can’t tear out the pages and using a pen rather than a pencil so that you can’t erase or get caught up when something goes wrong.

All those, she said, are obstacles to the free expression that should accompany a sketchwalk.

All that and more is waiting just outside your door.

To learn more about Melanie Chadwick, be sure to check out her website. Mel also recently completed her first online course with Domestika. See Mel’s creative process step-by-step, and follow along as she shows you how to illustrate food using both analog and digital techniques.