“Pick up a pencil and drown out the world”

Students drawing in YMCA Art Class run by Niall Deegan

Want to get more creative in 2019? Then why not learn how to draw under the expert eye of qualified Art Teacher, Niall Deegan? Following his successful first stint at the YMCA Club last year, Niall will be back by popular demand from Tuesday 5th February to help turn your blank canvases into beautiful works of art. All abilities welcome.

Q&A with Art Teacher, Niall

What are your credentials?

I graduated from Dublin’s National College of Art and Design in 2005 with a degree in ‘Art and Design Education.’ I currently teach Art to students with profound and multiple learning difficulties at Tuke School in Peckham. I’m also an Art and Design Moderator at examination body, Edexcel and I used to be a Prison Arts Coordinator. 

Why teach at the YMCA?

I’ve been a member of the YMCA since I moved to London six years ago. I’ve made a lot of friends here and there’s that sense of community. This isn’t a place where you do a work-out and leave, there’s scope to build friendships. I attended a YMCA Eudaimonia event a couple of years ago which was all about well-being and looking after yourself. There’s different ways of improving your emotional wellbeing like drawing. It’s a form of mindfulness and meditation – it quietens your mind.

Explain how you feel when you draw

I pick up a pencil and drown out the world. I drown out the hustle and bustle of London which can be a hostile city. It’s very crowded, everyone’s in a hurry and in everyone’s way. You’re often on the receiving end of that frustration and you too can fall into that trap very easily. It’s very contagious so I give myself downtime to quieten myself and not to become that pushy, shove-y person. If I’m having a really busy day, or I’m not making time for myself and I’m thinking 10 different things at once, I become flustered. I get caught up in everything and lose myself, but when I draw, I’m able to centre myself. I get myself back again. When I draw, I’m not thinking about deadlines or people, instead I’ll focus on the objects in front of me and on the processes to make my drawing look like those objects. When I do that, everything else fades away and I’m able to drown out the noise.

What are the benefits of drawing?

It develops concentration and helps you focus. If you can sit down and draw for two-and-a-half-hours in a quiet space, that’s a real credit to your ability to do something consistently over a sustained period of time. Every time you draw, it’s a bit like going to the gym - you see an improvement. Every time you exercise, you lose a bit of weight or develop your muscles and get healthier. You start to achieve on paper in front of you, only faster than the gym! For people who like ‘end results’, they’ve managed to create something which they can keep. Art is a different kind of ‘work out’ that encourages you to think, create, reflect and ask questions. This is not encouraged enough. Art makes you freer.

Who is this course for?

It’s an opportunity for people who don’t feel very confident in their drawing ability or didn’t have a good experience with Art when they were younger. Maybe they asked for help and were brushed off or made to feel like a lost cause. I want people to learn in a supportive environment. Many children aren’t given supportive feedback in Art, so by the time they’ve reached secondary school, they’ve totally lost interest. As an adult, many people realise that their ‘inner child’ used to enjoy Art but they just didn’t have the right support to develop that skill when they were younger. I want to offer that support to adults now.

How do you cope with a class full of different abilities?

It’s knowing who to leave alone and knowing who to sit with. I will often move around and talk to everyone about how they’re getting on. I sit where they sit and see what they see. Sometimes they don’t need advice and I just tell them they’re doing really well. Often when someone doubts themselves, they just need to carry on and see what it looks like - it all comes together in the end. Over a decade of teaching people, I’ve developed a teaching approach that isn’t intimidating. I move people forward without them feeling judged.

What’s your response to people who say: “I can’t draw”?

Absolutely everyone can draw! Even people who are completely blind can draw through touch. I’ll sit with that person and find out about their experience. I’ll give them an imperfect object so that when they draw it, it’ll be an imperfect drawing. Then they’ll become less precious. It took me a long time to pass my driving test - some people need 40 lessons, others 80. Everything is possible! A lot of people give it a try once, think they’ve failed and then give up. It’s a shame when someone shows up for one lesson and feels like they haven’t made any progress. I don’t think you can judge progress over just one lesson. Try showing up for the second lesson and see what you can apply from the first lesson and then ask, “Have I improved?”

What will they learn?

We always start with ‘whisper lines’ – very light lines which are used as a map to check your shape, proportions and perspective. Freehand drawing is a beautiful technique to learn - it develops a looseness of the arm to achieve certain shapes. The lines are so light that, if you make a mistake, you can just rub them out. It’s not permanent - you can fix it. You’re learning to identify what’s not right, but it’s ok, because you can change it. It’s actually ok to get something wrong first time around.

After the whisper line, we move on to ‘line quality’ (a more defined line), then shading, then texture and then we combine everything. The lightest shades are worked into the darkest shades. With most objects in the real world, shadows are darkest in the middle and get lighter towards the edges, so I’m teaching that fading technique. We’ve been assembling different objects like keys, flowers, organic food and processed foods. Cookies have a variety of textures, especially when they crumble.

What would you say to someone who’s on the fence about learning how to draw?

Carpe Diem! Seize the day! Come and see what you can do! You will surprise yourself. Give yourself the gift of developing that talent. It’s something that you can take away and never forget. It’s like riding a bike - even though you haven’t done it for a few years, you get back on and kind of know what to do. It’s that muscle memory.


Morgan, a retiree living in Soho. Used to work in Arts Administration. YMCA Club member for six years.

“I got into drawing was because of my sight problem. I loved reading, but it became impossible to read anything. My sight problem curtailed that and I also had to stop work. Prior to this art course, I was doing creative writing, but yet again I had to stop that because I couldn't read very well and writing at a computer was tiring on my eyes. I was doing yoga at the YMCA, but I needed another activity for my creative side. I felt isolated and wanted to try something different. Drawing is a challenge, but I have an artist friend who went blind and he started oil painting which is very impressive. I’ve had patchy vision for about 15 years. With the holes in my retinas, it's like looking through a ripped teabag. When I draw, I have to go up close to look at the detail. If it's a small object, I use a magnifying glass.”

“Although I've been around art in my job, I didn't practise any art at all! My job was mostly fundraising, sorting out venues and writing marketing materials. I did art when I was younger, but I stopped at high school and haven't done any since. It's been a long time since I’ve done any drawing - the basics of art. I wanted to concentrate on my drawing technique.”

“The course is very good because Niall has structured it really well and there’s progression each week - you learn a new technique, which you build upon the previous week. The first lesson was about whisper drawing, which is a very light outline you can erase. His method of teaching is good, there's no pressure.”

“The first thing he got us to draw was an assortment of things attached to a string - buttons, collages, paper clips and pen nibs, etc. The composition made it interesting. It's not really the object that’s important, it's more about how you use the object to explore different techniques.”

“Niall is great. It's a casual, friendly and fun course. If you want to learn, it's a great place to start. Just give it a try. Let Niall know of any impairments so he can accommodate you.”


Yeny, 38 year old YMCA Club Administrator from Hammersmith.

“I used to draw in my free time at university about 12 years ago. I also used to paint with oils - landscapes, my street where I used to live, some fruit and flowers, but I always wanted to do a proper drawing course. When I heard about this course I thought, 'Brilliant, I’m going to do it!'"

“With drawing, I can forget everything and concentrate on the little details of what’s in front of me. It’s an escape from my job and what I have to do at home. This course makes me happy and time goes really fast.”

“It’s important to observe properly, rather than draw what you think you see. I’ve drawn a sandal which was quite difficult – it has lots of details which I didn’t realise it had. I’ve drawn a glass which had interesting reflections, my necklace with nice shadows and some apples and bananas. I’ve learnt to be patient and admire what I have been able to do. I’ve enjoyed seeing what I have produced and how I’ve improved. I’m proud of myself. I’m happy with the results.”

“I’m going to frame my pieces and keep drawing. I might end up selling my work – who knows? I would recommend this course. It’s good to try something a bit different. It’s affordable and runs after work. Our Teacher, Niall, has got a lot of experience – it’s been nice learning from him. It’s very satisfying when you see you are able to create something. Just start from the beginning and you will see your progress. Just try it!”


Margaret, Filmmaker in her sixties from Camden.
YMCA Club member for four years.

“I've been thinking about joining a drawing class for a while and then I saw this and thought, ‘Let's do this!’ I love the idea of interpreting things and giving myself a focus that isn't connected to my day job. I just want to be led and not make decisions.”

“I wanted to be a Painter and go to Art school. I completed a two year pre-diploma in Art before starting my diploma elsewhere, but I left because I didn't like the people. They were not inspiring, amazing Teachers at the diploma college like they were at the pre-diploma school. When I told the Head Teacher I was leaving, he leant over his desk and asked, ‘Are you pregnant?’ That attitude didn't really fit with me. I also thought, ‘how am I going to make money painting?’ So I decided to explore the film world instead. I haven't done any drawing for about 15 years and I wanted to start again. I would love to draw every day.”

“I love the class. I really like Niall - he's so easy with everyone. I love the ‘blind drawings’ (drawing an object from memory without looking at it or lifting your pencil off the page). These types of drawings are all the same – nobody’s like, ‘I’m better than you, aren't I clever?’ We’re just a group of people who have this same interest. Drawing is amazing - I just love the process. I try to represent a beautiful object whether it’s a peanut or a flower or a pen nib - I'm trying to make it real and that's a challenge.”

“I would definitely recommend this course especially to those who say, ‘I can't draw!’ Anyone can draw! Give it a go - you'll enjoy it. Don't think that the person next to you is better than you. On this course, nobody feels intimidated by anyone, which I think is lovely. Give yourself a chance - it's fantastic what you can do.”

Paul, 43 year old IT Manager from Ealing.
YMCA Club member for 8 months.

“I used to consider myself as someone with little artistic ability. I was a dunce at school when it came to Art, but this course has taught me a great lesson - it’s not that you can’t do it, it’s more about learning in a different way. It’s been really enjoyable to pick up a skill later on in life, when you didn’t think you had that ability before.”

I actually enjoy the social side - nice nattering with new people. You tend to mix with the same people at work, so it’s nice to meet random people with different backgrounds. I did wonder if everyone was going to be better than me and what they would be like but, there’s nothing to worry about. Everyone’s really nice, at a similar standard and it’s non-judgemental. You actually judge your own work more harshly - other people are less critical.”

“We’ve been drawing different paraphernalia like buttons, flowers, food. I even brought in a model car which was quite difficult to draw. Sometimes it’s just nice to draw bits and pieces and get stuck into that. At the start of a class I’m like, ‘What am I going to do?’ but by the end with a bit of help, I look at my work and think, ‘Ah, it’s not that bad.’ You’re capable of doing a lot more than you think. Niall’s a patient Teacher who’s used to teaching people at different levels. Each week, I feel like I’m improving – I’ve never felt stuck in a rut. I’m not at the point yet where I’m going to give my drawings away or put them up in my house, but hopefully I’ll get to the stage where I can produce something I’m really proud of.”

“This course has made me feel more part of the YMCA. I saw Niall down the YMCA gym and we started chatting. I’m part of the YMCA community instead of just coming here to do exercise.”

"Give it a go - there’s nothing to lose. I’m pretty sure if you came and saw what we do, you’d really enjoy it and be keen to learn.”

When?            8 x week course starting on Tuesday 5th February - 6.15pm to 8.45pm

Where?           Keith Clarke Room 2

How much?    £120 upfront for whole course or £17.50 pay-as-you-go for each drop-in session (same price for members and non-members). All materials included. 

                         N.B. Only 15 places available


Claire.Gilderson | 19 December 2018