Drawing characters – and two kinds of eye-openers

I’ve had a couple of eye-openers this week – one artistic and the other cultural. Let me try to explain…

birdkid by Myfanwy Tristram

Eye-opener one: mess

So, it’s time to think about the protaganist in my picturebook – the one who’ll be telling the story. Here’s what I know about her so far: she’s very, very sad because her mum’s gone away on business, not just for a day, but for LOTS of days, AND THE NIGHTS too.

And that sadness is manifesting itself in a wild, uncontrollable rage. It is ALL NOT FAIR.

Well, that unfettered emotion fits in rather well with this week’s class, which was all about mess and letting your water-based materials go with the flow – literally. The tutor showed us various methods of creating textures and backgrounds that might kickstart creativity.

Sure enough, when he painted over an old painting with black ink, then rubbed a little away, it was – shall we say? – miraculous.

In portait orientation, I could see a cartoon cowboy’s head. In landscape, I saw a spooky marsh, lit by a single light. Either way, I could have grabbed that paper and started drawing. That was eye-opener number one.

The tutor went on to show us things we could do with window-cleaning squeegees, edges of cardboard boxes, emulsion paint, acrylics, squirty water bottles, bleach, and more.

Ideally, I’d have come home, taped tarpaulin on every surface, and gone wild. But I use the same desk for my day job as I do for painting, and I haven’t yet found the time to prepare that thoroughly for a painting session.

All the same, I would definitely say that I was inspired to let myself go a bit, to unfurl plumes of ink into water-sodden patches of paper – and that suits the wildness of this particular kid very well. I will be pushing it further, and I’ll report back.

birdkid studies by Myfanwy Tristram

Eye-opener two: feathers

I posted an Instagram snap of the page these two sketches come from, and a friend, who is from the US, asked me about the feather headdress. My first response was, well, the book is about birds, and I want to weave in as many visual references to birds as I can in every image, plus, in this picture, she’s meant to be wild, and being dressed up in warpaint and feathers is kind of a visual shorthand for that.

But then I took a couple of moments to contemplate why she had asked. And I understood why. Because in the US, there is far more sensitivity, and indeed understanding, around the whole issue of the Native Americans’ culture, traditions and ceremonies being appropriated for children’s play.

When I was a kid, in sunny Devon (where, funnily enough, my American friend has settled now), we were untroubled by such issues. I suspect most of the UK was, actually. I’m pretty sure you could buy ‘cowboys and indians’ costumes in Woolworth; I know I had a Ladybird book with an exquisite painting of some lovely middle class children playing ‘Indians’ in a toy teepee. The phrase ‘Native Americans’ had not percolated to our corner of the universe, and indeed I don’t think I heard it until well into my 20s.

But when I thought about it, well, I realised that I probably should steer away from using a feathered headdress in the final images. Not just for reasons of self-interest, though goodness knows, no-one would want to draw a book that would be reviled in the States. And perhaps avoiding what was, to me when I sat down in class and started doodling this picture, the ‘obvious’, I will find myself driven to greater creativity.

You never know.

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