A magpie. The first of many, no doubt. Good thing too, ‘cos it’s “one for sorrow, two for joy”. I intend to work right up to the lesser-known “47 for a successful children’s picturebook”.
I’ve had a couple of eye-openers this week – one artistic and the other cultural. Let me try to explain…
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.
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.
I am having *SO MUCH FUN* drawing birds’ eye view landscapes and playing about with ideas. Above (click to see larger) is as far as I’ve got with the latest one, actually physically on paper.
The plan is to collage some stamps onto it – the insomniac eBay shopping I mentioned in my last post – but although I’ve done this digitally, I haven’t yet taken the plunge and stuck them on for good, because I really like how it looks now. Eep. I might stick them on a transparent layer and take it from there.
Here are a couple of blurry phone shots of the work in progress:
EDITED TO ADD: Here’s the ‘final’ piece – as it’s only an exploratory drawing it’s not exactly final as such, but it’s as far as I’ve taken it. I decided not to wimp out with a layer of acetate and stuck the stamps (ie stamp scans) down on the page. I experimented a bit with trying to bring out the perforations on the scanned stamp images: I tried a threadless sewing machine, and in the end settled for a not-very-realistic but symbolic frilled pair of scissors.
I dithered about that final piece of map leading off to the horizon, because I liked the image just as much without it, but in the end I liked the vision it gave of endless worlds to be explored.
I also cut round the various trees and bushes where the stamps overlap; perhaps I should have just painted them over for a neater finish.
I’m quite pleased.
After the first week of the course, I went away and started thinking and drawing and thinking some more. I’ve had this one idea for a children’s picture book for ages (along with many others), and now seems like a really good time to explore it.
It’s a funny thing: the course itself? It’s just three of us in the room with the tutor (one of the women who was there for the first week didn’t turn up this second week). That’s all.
But I know that I am going to get more done, and with more freedom and a better chance of success than if, say, I’d decided I was going to draw at home for three hours every Tuesday night until I’d made a book.
Plus, there’s something about speaking an idea that shows it up for what it is – naked, shivering against the wall, nowhere to hide. And there’s something about people answering back to your idea that catapults it off into new directions.
The book I want to make is about a bird.
So after that first week, I went home and I drew these:
Well ok, so far so good, but, y’know, I’ve drawn something like this before.
And I doodled a lot – I had to work in London on one day, so on the train up there and back I could draw.
And at the weekend, I sat down and I drew this:
(You can click on all the images in this blog to see them bigger – or, in this case, to see how poorly I have stitched together the various scans it took to get this large image in.)
And, while they were fun to do, I didn’t feel happy, or like I’d discovered anything new, or happened upon a style I wanted to use for the book.
I felt, I dunno, like they were really constrained, and flat. I wanted to scale them up six times bigger and work with a paintbrush the size of my arm.
The night before the next class, I started thinking, well, kites are made of paper, right? And I started piecing together this:
That, that has lit a firecracker under me. A slow-burning one, sure, but put that together with some ill-advised insomniac eBay purchasing, and I have thought of a route that I find really, really exciting. All will be revealed, at some point…
Meanwhile, a couple of us actually cracked open the paints at the class this week. I started drawing without much thought, but I like what came out.
Oddly enough, it is the opposite of the huge, splashy, free painting I thought I wanted to do.
Someone saw it on my Instagram feed and said that at first glance, they’d thought it was a rug. Wouldn’t that be nice?
Having slagged off motivational Pinterest aphorisms in my last post, hey, what better than to feature one in this post?
But at least it’s from a children’s book illustrator – some might say the children’s book illustrator, Dr Seuss.
And it’s very nicely done, isn’t it? It’s by Emily Ruth on Etsy and I know nothing more about it than that it popped up on my Pinterest stream, a rather gorgeous presentation of a quote that is much bandied about over there:
You are you, this is truer than true. There is no-one alive who is youer than you.
And – let’s get to the point here – this was my main learning from (as the tutor likes to style it at the beginning of each class):
*swoosh* *swoosh* *swoosh* (cinematic voice ahoy:) “Children’s Book Illustration…. week TWO“.
See now, last week, we were talking about style a bit. This week, I happened to mention that I never know if it is good for me to see so much excellent illustration.
Again I referred to Pinterest. I follow some fine illustrators on there, not to mention some fine connoisseurs of illustration, and the net result is that every morning when I bring up my browser, if I wish to, I can gorge myself on a smörgåsbord of amazing work. That other people have done.
And if you’re not feeling that resolute, it’s all too easy to think one of three things:
First (if you’re me):
I’ll never be that good.
Ooh, maybe I need to be looser/use more ink/channel my inner child more/**insert other trends here ad infinitum**
Then lastly: (I haven’t got there quite yet, but I can see the beguiling path of logic that leads there):
Well why bother, when there’s already so much good stuff out there?
The tutor gave me an excellent new spin on this, and one which I will be endeavouring to live by. “Admire the work. Be glad that it exists. Because now, you don’t have to do that.”
You know what, the course might be worth the money for that little insight alone.
Looking back on Tuesday night, I’m amazed at how many insights were packed in to the 2.5 hours – AND there was still time for tea and Tunnock’s cakes.
Here are some more points the tutor made that really gave me food for thought.
1. What age group is your book for?
This isn’t just a nebulous question that you can answer lightly.
It’s not just about the vocabulary you use in the text, and whether kids of a certain age would understand certain words or concepts*.
It’s not just about how it would be marketed, and what age-group publishers are selling most to at the moment**.
The thing is that kids go through certain stages of development at certain ages, and you can key right into that. If you write a book about a kid that only says ‘NO’, it’s ideal for children who have just discovered wilfulness – they’ll see themselves and their own concerns in that character.
The reason so many picture books start with the protagonist losing both their parents is that – bam – you’ve tapped right into the deepest fears of the under-fives. They’ll be riveted to see how that character resolves the situation. They’ll empathise with them too.
2. The best children’s books (and the best art in any form) speak a truth. Not a blithe motivational truth that you read on Pinterest. One that is your truth, and yours alone. Your view of the world. You explaining that in pictures and words that a kid can understand.
3. Relatedly, we talked about style, something that has continued to confound me through my whole adult life. What *is* style? Can we change it?
The tutor said this: the pictures you are drawing today will have something in common with the first picture you ever drew, when you were a kid, and every picture since. That might be the subject matter, the colours, or the line.
If you draw in a way that is true to yourself, your work will cohere, and will always be recognisable as your own, even as you develop and change.
I’ll have to think about this, but here’s the bit I know that I do totally agree with: you find your style and your subject matter by concentrating really hard on who you are, what catches your eye, what interests you. Heighten those thoughts that are constantly playing at the back of your mind. Deliberately notice colour combinations, pleasing arrangements of objects, and make a sketch of them. But these will be the things YOU appreciate, not the things you have been told you should.
4. Would a child want to read this book?
Throwaway question directed at me when I was talking through a few ideas I have for a book. My god, what a fundamental question. You may be surprised to know that it knocked me for six.
Time to put myself in the very small shoes of my potential reader.
*And actually, thinking about this point, as a mum I know that in a really good book, you will often come across a word or a concept that you know your child won’t understand. And then you explain it. And there you are, the book has taught them something.
**Although, you might find it harder to pitch a picture book for 15 year olds. Sadly. Because actually, wouldn’t that be great?
Last night, I left the house, walked over the big hill, and didn’t come back until after bedtime. AND I had charcoal under my fingernails.
It was week one of an evening class on Children’s Book illustration, taught by the self-styled Baron Gilvan.
When we were asked to draw enormous body segments, as part of a giant game of ‘Picture Consequences’ (also known as ‘Exquisite Corpse‘), the first one I drew was this yawning girl. She’s symbolic of the tiredness I was already feeling, at being out of the house when I’m normally winding down ready for bed. Yes, I am a lightweight.
Here are the finished works. There are only four of us – it’s a really small group, which’ll be great in all sorts of ways I think.
Out tutor gave us some questions to think about – what were these people’s names, jobs, favourite foods? It seems like a very good way to generate some totally offbeat characters, if you’re stuck in a rut. Even if I never use this technique for generating book characters, it’ll sure come in useful for children’s parties.
Another useful question: what does your character look like from the top, from behind, and the sides? This might in fact be more interesting than what is apparent from the front.
Talking of consequences, I’m looking forward to seeing what the consequences are of taking an illustration class for the first time in years.
Remember that film where George Clooney grabs an unexpected eBay bargain, finds a sketchbook with unusual dimensions, and follows an Instagram account that suddenly gives him an idea for an art project? It’s called ‘The Perfect Storm’.
Oh, wait. That wasn’t a film, it was real life. And it wasn’t George Clooney, it was me. However, I’m sticking with the title: a ‘perfect storm’ is when a combination of events create the ideal environment for something to happen.
In George’s case, that saw him looking noble in a slicker, square-jawed and pushing against adversity while sprackled with a light sea spray (I’m guessing; I haven’t seen it). In mine, it sees me happily noodling around with inks and watercolour paper.
To explain, my perfect storm came together like this:
EVENT 1: I’m looking for something on eBay. I can’t remember what now; we’ve just moved house, so there’s been a lot of eBaying for furniture and random stuff.
I come across a job lot of tights in my size – 14 or so pairs of them. Tights in my size are quite rare, as I’m far too tall for a lady, apparently. They’re going for something silly like £2.99. I put in a low bid and forget about them. A few days later, ta-da! I’m now the owner of a ridiculous number of colourful tights, some with fancy designer names and packaging.
EVENT 2: In said move, I’m unpacking my sketchbooks when I find the landscape watercolour sketchbook I bought at the Tate while we were on holiday in St Ives. Coals to Newcastle, incidentally, as it turns out it was made by Seawhite of Brighton.
This sketchbook is 29cm x 15cm. Long and thin. Ideal for landscapes, seascapes and… do you see where I’m going?
EVENT 3: I can’t pretend I wasn’t partly inspired – even if subliminally – by an Instagram account I’ve been following with fascination: Stace-a-lace photographs women on the streets of New York – but only from the waist downwards. The results are intriguing.
And KABOOM! Perfect storm all up in yo face. New art project: I’m drawing my legs every time I wear a pair of these tights.
Oh, is that all? Why didn’t you say so at the start?
More of these as they happen.
Last night, I went to see children’s picturebook illustrators Oliver Jeffers and David Mackintosh in conversation, here in Brighton. It was a fun event – there seemed to be real rapport between the two writers and their Editor (whose name I can’t find online, sorry, Editor!).
You could buy all their books, of course. Here’s the bookstall – a good opportunity for me to loosen up my drawing before the main event.
One reassuring thing that David Mackintosh said was that he draws many many pictures before selecting the ones he uses. So that’s how you get that ‘every one’s a winner’ carefree drawing style…
I hope this doesn’t make the Editor look too awful – more of a cariacture than a likeness. She was very attractive, as it goes.
Red Roaster is one of Brighton’s good coffee shops. It’s especailly suitable for artists because you can sink into a chair and draw all the people around you. if you’re particularly shy, you can look up into the mirrors hanging from the ceiling – no-one will ever guess that you’re drawing them from that angle.
In those days it cost good money if your shot went awry. Loading the film wrongly, not winding on between shots so you got double exposures, putting your thumb over the lens…these things were all disasters. Nowadays we just take ten shots of the same thing.
At first, I thought they must come from families where they aren’t allowed as much TV time as our daughter is (against my better judgement, I might say).
But apprently not – it’s just that the screen makes them go like rabbits in headlights. Anyway, the good thing is, they sit so still and you can get some real drawing time in.
Poor Booner. She’s our oldest cat, and has never got over her own nervousness. She was a rescue cat, and we think she must have been badly treated in her previous life. No amount of love and cuddles (slightly too enthusiastic cuddles sometimes, from our daughter, I’m afraid) have allowed her to relax completely.
This week she’s been diagnosed with a hyperactive thyroid. What with £107 worth of blood tests, and medication for the rest of her life, it’s a good job we love her.
In November 2012, I decided to draw the clothes I wore, every day, for a month.
And as if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, I also drew my daughter’s clothes. At the end of the month, a good friend commented that the illustrations would make a great comic.
She said one thing that really struck me: that these clothes may seem pretty ordinary now, but in a few years’ time, the picutres could stand as a historic document.
So I cleaned all the sketches up and started putting them into a printable format. What you see here is me playing about with ideas for the cover.
In my day job, my boss has a penchant for extarordinarily long blog titles – I think that’s influenced my choice of title here.
All right, so this lovely thing happened.
Something about the pattern and the colours really appealed to me, and the cut is one of the few that actually suits my frame.
It had become a benchmark in my mind – I’d see a cheaper dress that I liked, in a shop, and think, ‘yeah, but if I buy two like that, I might as well buy the Cirkus dress, and the Cirkus dress is definitely twice as nice as that, so..’
As we know, it’s quite easy to justify any purchase with this sort of logic eventually. ‘Ooh, I’m so good, I didn’t buy these fourteen things I briefly liked the look of, so now I can definitely reward myself with the thing I really want’.
And that’s the stage I’d reached last week. The Gudrun sale was on, my resolve had weakened, and I was going to buy the dress.
Oh, I’m q sad I missed my chance to get the @GudrunSjodenUK Cirkus dress. I was too strict with myself and now it’s gone :(
— Myf Nixon (@mockduck) July 19, 2013
The tweet says it all. The leggings were still available, the tunic was there, but there was no dress to be had. And that’s when the amazing thing happened. Gudrun Sjoden tweeted me to say they’d look out for a dress and send it to me, if I’d draw it here.
Talk about an offer you can’t refuse – why, even if I’d bought it with my own money, you know I’d be sitting down to draw that thing.
Now in the end, they couldn’t actually locate a dress in my size, and they sent me the tunic. I have to say, I wouldn’t have chosen the tunic myself, BUT, now I’ve tried it, I’m sold. It comes with a belt, and you can wear the tunic Robin Hood style, a little bit pulled over the belt, which – rather than emphasise voluminous post-baby tummy, which I suppose was my fear – actually looks rather nice. This tunic is going to be paired with black skinny jeans and boots all autumn long.
It *was* fun to draw – though you’ll note that I didn’t draw the whole pattern. Artistic licence!
To make the whole thing even more special, it came in not only a floral-patterned envelope, but a polka dot tote bag. It’s as if they knew about me and polka dots.
And there you are, my first ever ‘sponsored post’. Almost certainly my last, though, y’know, if Fat Face, Bravissimo, Boden, or *breathes* Marimekko would like me to draw myself in any of these, I am right here, and, evidence shows, fully amenable. :)
We went on a family holiday to St Ives for a week, and I kept a little sketch diary of everything we did. Not having a scanner handy, I was photographing the pages on my phone every night and uploading those images – but you can see a completely cleaned up and much more readable version here.
It’s always very interesting to see how a period of intensive drawing always begins wobbly, and becomes much more assured as the time goes on.