An evening in Lewes

 

Lewes Children's Book Group by Myfanwy Tristram

[Click to see bigger]

An evening featuring five children’s book illustrators and writers in conversation lured me onto a train to our neighbouring town on a dark and cold evening last week.

I was already aware of Miriam Moss and Leigh Hodgkinson: the former has written some excellent children’s picturebooks, including Scritch Scratch, a book about headlice (illustrated by the fab Delphine Durand) while the latter has an enviable and eclectic track record that includes working on Tiger Aspect’s TV adaptation of Charlie and Lola, as well as writing and illustrating her own books. She also does laser cut pictures, one of which is on the wall right in front of me as I type.

The others were new to me: writers Julia Lee, Jon Walter, and Dawn Casey. Between them they spanned writing for a wide age range, from toddler picturebooks to almost young adult fiction.

No doubt many were there to gather pearls of wisdom about breaking into children’s books themselves. I did not keep comprehensive notes of everything said, but here are a couple of points that stood out for me:

Writing for children means being true to yourself. It’s not ‘pretending’ to be a child. We were all children once; some of us still are, to a greater or lesser extent; you need to find that part of yourself.

Write something that makes you feel excited and alive. But then the craft comes in containing that passion and pulling it into a coherent form that works as a book.

There were also some amusing differences in approach: while for a couple of the writers, characters’ names were the very first thing to emerge, with stories unfolding from there, Jon Walter said that he used his writers’ software to generate names, has been known to change them for the final draft, and would be hard pressed to tell you the surname of some of his central protagonists.

Casey, who has worked in a publishing house, gave a rather depressing view of the slush pile: ploughed through only by interns, and unlikely to yield the next big thing. Her advice was that you can get the competitive advantage by having won a competition or been previously published in some form or other: that way, you’ll be on the commissioning editor’s (smaller) pile rather than on the gargantuan slush mountain.

As always with these evenings, you felt there was good advice, but that they could really only explore the tip of the iceberg within the short time allowed. All the same, I’ll be keeping an eye on the Lewes Children’s Book Group: it was a really interesting evening.

 

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The secret thing about picture books is that they aren’t for children at all

Mini Grey, Chris Riddell, John Vernon Lord and Emily Gravett by Myfanwy Tristram

I’ve got rather a busy couple of weeks coming up, thanks to the flurry of booking I indulged in a few weeks ago when the Brighton Festival programme came out.

Tonight, I went to see a panel of children’s book illustrators: John Vernon Lord (revered illustrator, to quote the blurb on the back of his Nobrow book) led the conversation and Mini Grey (born in a mini, or so she claims), Chris Riddell (author/illustrator of Goth Girl) and Emily Gravett (Rather Good At Rabbits), all Brighton graduates, chimed in with their experiences.

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Mini Grey, Chris Riddell, John Vernon Lord and Emily Gravett by Myfanwy Tristram

 

Mini Grey, Chris Riddell, John Vernon Lord and Emily Gravett by Myfanwy Tristram

In case you can’t read my handwriting (who could blame you) here are my take-away snappy quotes:

Vernon-Lord (talking about whether he uses digital media): “I like the noise of the nib scratching across the page”.

(talking about how writers can sometimes interfere too much): “I like illustrating dead authors”.

(talking about inspiration): “It’s a lifetime of looking. Looking and listening should be on the school curriculum.”

Riddell: “I’m addicted to Tumblr”

“Kickstarter is a very 18th century way of doing things” (ie, get your sponsors to commit to the work before you make it).

“You can watch people walk past Carluccio’s” (because the branch in Brighton has a huge window you can sit at and observe people walking by, and this is a good source of inspiration).

Grey: “The secret thing about picture books is that they aren’t for children at all” (they are also for the adults who buy and read them, and there aren’t any other channels where you can match illustration and text so perfectly. She was a bit doubtful about graphic novels – too much on the page).

“Sometimes your best ideas come from playing with your food.” [Shows slide depicting a toy dinosaur with a hat made from a raspberry] “Lots of my books feature food going out of control”.

Gravett (talking about where to find inspiration): “What do I fancy drawing?” – ie, draw whatever you feel like drawing.

Stamp forest

Stamp forest by Myfanwy Tristram

This is another of my aerial view collages – click the image to see it bigger.

Birds fly over a forest at twilight, taking messages to a loved one. Between the trees are little houses and lakes; on some of the lakes are boats.

This one is almost entirely composed of stamps; the sea and the birds are tracing paper, put through my printer* and superimposed with wavy lines from postcodes. The beach is made from manilla envelopes.

Notice that each bird is now carrying a tiny little letter, too.

It accompanies others in the series: Green Shield stamps paddyfields and Stamp Valley (which I am eventually going to redraw now that my style has developed a bit on this project).

* Yay for the uncomplaining HP 5524 – you might change your IP address far more frequently than anyone would think necessary, but you aren’t afraid of a bit of non-approved paper stock going through your innards.

On the other hand, if Santa is listening and has any extra space in his sleigh, I think an A3 scanner is currently top of my wishlist. Sorry HP 5524, I still love you, I just hate aligning multiple scans of a single picture.

Green Shield stamps paddyfields

Stamps landscape by Myfanwy Tristram

In the last few days, I’ve put the finishing touches to a complex collage of paddy fields. It’s made of tickets and postage stamps (many contributed by kind friends) and maps (including one I used to navigate around Japan, before the advent of smartphones in my life). These elements symbolise travelling over great distances.

I also used Green Shield stamps, which don’t symbolise anything, but which seemed so right for the landscape. Then there’s a bit of ink.

You might remember my first drawing of these steppes, which was a simple version in painted inks, from this post.

Paddyfields by Myfanwy Tristram

Then came this valley, also populated with random stamps.

stamps landscape by Myfanwy Tristram

Now the two ideas come together in a new landscape. I’m really pleased with it: from a distance, I think the details of the stamps and maps make it look like an aerial photograph.

I’ve been fiddling around with placing birds over the top of it*, and then I went away for a while and had the idea of just showing their shadows.

Stamps landscape by Myfanwy Tristram

This is all still work in progress, and I am going to have to get the original collage scanned professionally. As you’ll see if you click and view it larger, this is a composite of several scans. Why don’t they ever match up?!

* These are drop shadows, created from the airmail label bird I showed earlier. That took a bit of thinking through: once I decided I wanted the shadows, but not the birds themselves (because the background is so fussy, it’s really hard to make out any detailed birds, no matter what colour they are), I had to figure out how to do that. Make the bird layer invisible, and the shadow becomes invisible too.

In the end, I expanded the canvas, put the birds outside the main frame, pulled the drop shadows way out from their ‘parent’ shapes, then flattened all the layers and chopped off the margin with the actual birds in it.

I bet there’s a more conventional way to do this. As a self-taught Photoshop user, I am aware I often go all around the houses to do something that a pro would be able to do without thinking.

Trying things out

Work in progress by Myfanwy Tristram

Here is a small bird I made from some Brighton bus tickets.

We’re all switching to pre-loaded cards and mobile phone tickets these days, so it’s not as easy as it used to be to get hold of paper bus tickets. It’s funny to think that  maybe in a couple of years’ time, this picture will look really dated.

In any case, I need to make more of an effort to collect tickets while they’re still around. Our daughter still requires a 30p one for each journey, at least, so I can nab all the ones she hasn’t folded into paper boats.

bus ticket bird by Myfanwy Tristram

He stands pretty well on his own – I could see this image working for a simple Christmas card. But I have bigger fish to fry. I’m getting towards the point where I want to do some full pages for my children’s picture book.

Now, what follows is all still at the ‘trying things out’ stage; it’s not finished work, but it’s getting nearer to it. And nearer to saying ‘this is the style I’m happy with’. You’ve already seen a phone snap of the below:

Work in progress by Myfanwy TristramI’m enjoying the collage, but it’s flippin’ time-consuming.

Other things I am enjoying include:

– Ink (especially *on top of* the collaged paper – see how it seeps into the tissue, but misses out the gold birds?);

– Deciding the girl’s hair is pink because she’s *just that wild*;

– Loosely basing the dad on a Nick Cave type of figure, for all the mums who might appreciate that as much as I do (though a friend told me he looked more Frank Zappa-esque).

Oh, and although you can’t see it that well here, the girl’s top is collaged from this beautiful old shoebox I found. Triangles – they are very now, you know. I’m trying not to use it too fast, or maybe I just need to scan it so I can always sample from it. Or – here’s an idea – I could just buy more shoes. That’s always a good solution to most problems.

On top of that, lovely friends have been sending me tickets and stamps to cut up and glue and generally muck around with.

I got to the stage where I didn’t feel like I could go much further without having a text to work to, even if it’s not the final one. I’ve mocked up the dummy book, and that did help a lot in knowing where the double page image spreads should go, and where there will just be small vignettes, etc. So the next thing I did was to put together one of those spreads.

Bear in mind that this is very much just trying stuff out. Also forgive the scanner lines – it’s a big picture, my scanner is small, life is short, etc etc.

birds-carry[Click to see bigger]

There’s a lot I like about this picture, but for my money it isn’t doing its job.

To start with the positives:

– I like the window acting as a frame within a frame, and I like the extra 3D-ness the collage gives that effect.

– I rather like the colours, especilly the curtain rail being such an impertinent pink.

– And the curtains, despite being overly gothy (perhaps suitable for our Cave/Zappa dad?) are looking rather lush.

But what’s not working is the scene beyond the window. That little red ticket bird that was so clear in the first picture of this post just gets lost in all the detail behind. Faring even worse are his smaller pals on the telephone wires (which incidentally seem to be emanating from Dad’s mouth – layout fail). The idea is that birds will all be composed of tickets, but at this scale, they just can’t be read clearly. This page is a big reveal – birds! – so they really need to be much more prominent.

It all comes down to the background. I must say, I was having a lot of fun doing all those rooves and chimneys and smoke (tracing paper collaged on), but this isn’t the place for it. It doesn’t matter – it’s all a learning process, and perhaps I can use those ideas somewhere else.

I thought I’d try Photoshopping in some previous birds, and then cloning my little ticket bird, but I can’t say anything’s perfect just yet. Trying quick fixes like this rarely works – I reckon I’ll be better off taking everything I like about the picture, and using it to inform the next version.

Birds at the window by Myfanwy Tristram

Birds at the window by Myfanwy Tristram

In summary: it’s not perfect, but it doesn’t matter. It’s all good learning. And blinkin’ heck, inks are lovely.

sketch by Myfanwy Tristram

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.

Birds

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:

birds

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:

kite

(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:

Fevvers by Myfanwy Tristram

And, ooh!

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.

Paddyfields by Myfanwy Tristram

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?

Me-er than me

http://www.etsy.com/uk/people/emilyruthplays?ref=owner_profile_leftnav
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.

And second:

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.

Some more learnings from the children’s book illustration course

tutor

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?

Consequences

Exquisite corpse2

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.

Exquisite corpse

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.

Illustrators in Conversation: Oliver Jeffers and David Mackintosh

Mackintosh and Jeffers2

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!).

bookstall

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.

Mackintosh and Jeffers

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…

Mackintosh and Jeffers3

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.