Oliver Macdonald Oulds paints musicians on video calls creating a moment when they can both “pause”

Oliver has been using the time, not only to document others practising, but to practise his own skills.

5 May 2020


If, like us, you’ve spent one too many an hour doing a quiz with friends over Zoom, and you’re slightly sick of the stunted, inevitably corona-related chat that comes with video calling, then you too will be a big fan of Oliver Macdonald Oulds’ latest work. A series of drawings depicting musicians practising over a video call, it “began pretty naturally due to my fatigue from all the video chats,” Ollie tells us, “but I still wanted to see family and friends even if I didn’t want to chat about corona.”

Produced in a variety of media, but mostly in watercolour, and in Ollie’s signature experimental style, the drawings are comforting in their depiction of those absorbed in an activity they love. Ollie’s first sitter was his cousin Angus, who he asked if he wanted to play some guitar while Ollie drew him as a break from his school work and the series grew from there. “It began with friends and family, then moved to a friend of a friend, and then it was a digital word of mouth from thereon, helped on by Instagram,” he explains.

Ollie chose watercolours to work in primarily as it’s a medium he’s not as confident in so it was a chance to practice. It also helped that is was his birthday during lockdown and his younger brother Leo, a fellow talented illustrator, bought him “a boss set of Japanese watercolours, which immediately switched up the game. I hadn’t realised how limiting my previous set had begun to be…”

On why he chose to specifically focus on musicians, Ollie explains it is “because there is a momentum that changes pace, which can be really useful when making a drawing to snap you out of a lull.” For example, he will draw quicker as the tempo of a song speeds up, or vice versa. However, reflecting on the project as it now stands, the notion that everyone in the series is practicing – not just the musicians, but also Ollie – serves to heighten its intimacy, creating true connections between strangers and strengthening those between friends and family.

At a certain point, he widened the scope to also include DJs, as not everyone who was reaching out, or who Ollie reached out to, played an instrument, but they still wanted to be involved. One such person was Errol from Touching Bass. “Not previously knowing each other, he seemed the most intrigued by the drawing process out of the people that had been in touch,” Ollie tells us. “He was keen to know how ‘you counter-act the constant movement of your subjects, how do you capture a snapshot of that?’. I could only explain it as mapping out the scene in front of me is helped by the framing of the video chat, so the area I am looking at is much more reduced than the distractions I would have in ‘real-life’.”


Oliver Macdonald Oulds: Errol, London

In terms of how this actually manifests when Ollie is creating an image, he begins by quickly blocking in the scenery and the structure of the room with “broad watercolour brush marks in a light wash and then build up from that in layers.” He’ll have a vague idea quite quickly of the places the musician is likely to move between and so those remain blank, to be filled in later on. Interestingly, Ollie describes the majority of the process as “self destructive of the piece” he’s working on, as lines are constantly going over one another, erasing what came before them as the musician or DJ moves. He therefore relies on a certain faith in the process; a belief he will will instinctively put down a mark which emphasises some posture or positioning which can be used later on “if clarity to the image is needed.”

Very much a process-led project both in terms of technique but also intent, at times Ollie found himself wondering what the point of it was. But as he pushed on, meeting and drawing yet another musician, he realised how beneficial it was to his mental health and maybe also to theirs – each sitting provided a moment in which they could both “pause”. Beginning with “a brief chat about where they are at, both geographically and mentally,” Ollie explains, the calls are not overcome by conversation: “I’m not huge on small talk, so it moves on to the process fairly quickly. It has been interesting how little of it has involved talk of corona, but more just as a result of it.” Very quickly, if even for a moment, Ollie and his sitter become friends and so the project provides a way for him to “maintain a sense of feeling connected.” He adds: “When the sessions are at their best, it feels like we are almost in the same room, hanging out. The walls dissolve and both the music and the drawing sort of slot into place.”

Having gathered testimonies from each musician, it’s a sentiment shared by many of the people Ollie has painted, with Arnaud Lin, based in Paris, expressing: “The words shared were few, but the energy flowing and the moment was relaxing, hope it was for him to.” Errol’s words echo this experience, explaining “it was such a rewarding experience after the initial feeling of being watched ebbed away. I think it was made easier by the fact that Ollie was so chill and we just ended up exchanging thoughts about creative approach, music and other bits.” What stands out from the experiences of all those who were painted, is that the very act of practicing something – a time when you let down your guard and dare to try something new – is a vulnerable time and that allowing someone to view that, let alone document it is an instantly bonding experience, in a way that simply having a chat couldn’t be.

What’s more, it means the series retains a certain sense of collaboration which in turn removes the power dynamics that exist between artist and sitter. As, in this instance, both parties are practicing, there’s a sense of give and take in which neither the musician or Ollie are in control of the other.

Finally, with plans to continue the project, which you can keep up to date with on Ollie’s Instagram, he concludes: “It has felt like a real privilege to be able to meet so many new people and have the hour to practice together. I just want to say thank you to everyone along the way so far.”


Arnaud, Paris






Fras outside


Sonny, London


Edwin, Paris


Baptist and Val


David and Hayley, Manchester


Faye, Manchester



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Oliver Macdonald Oulds: Faye, Manchester

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About the Author

Ruby Boddington

Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor. Get in contact with Ruby about ideas you may have for long-form stories on the site.


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