An Intoxication of Elements

(or Kill Your Darlings)

Poor dangling darlings

When I’m illustrating a page for a picture book, I sometimes find that I capture a mood that expresses the meaning of the text in a very rough form. It feels right, but it’s just a framework. When I work on the final art for that scene, I add layers of detail, making decisions as I go along, and at some point, the juxtaposition of colours and shapes becomes intoxicating.

Once intoxicated, I find myself off on my own little adventure, with my eyes open in wonder at all the pretty colours, textures and shiny things. And then at a certain point, (often when I place the image into the layout to check the flow of the narrative) I find I am hit with a bucket of cold water.

Sober up, Sister. All the shiny things are beautiful. But they don’t work on the page.

Or they don’t work with the text anymore, or they don’t work with the sequence of illustrations. The original truth has been lost under the shiny things. And then it’s time to kill off my darlings. That phrase applies to illustration just as much as writing.

For example, this week, I’ve been making a ghost ship for my current picture book project When You’re Older by Sofie Laguna. It’s my first ghost ship, in my first enchanted lagoon, with my first ghost pirate. The ship is fun. I’ll need to paint it again, because it isn’t there yet but I can see it’s going to work. Yay! Under the ghost ship, there is a mermaid swimming. Yay! And everything is all blue and green and wet and shimmery and deep looking. But to make it truly ghostly it needs some heavy weed and barnacles and stuff hanging from the hull in a dark, spooky but beautiful way, right? Of course, right.

This is where I got intoxicated.

Oh boy! You should see what happens when you start layering up seaweed under a black ship in a turquoise sea! You seriously can lose your head!

These were my building blocks.

I started with this.
Then I made some smaller embellishments. The wet one was key. I wasn’t so chuffed with the one on the right. But we’ll see. Mmmmm.
I’m looking for that HEAVY draped look. So heavy, the ship is just drifting slowly, groaning, becalmed.
Wait, I might want the weed to drape deeper, and and to curl forwards to enveloping the mermaid. So here are some wild and woolly tentacle-weeds.

Then I put them on the image, with the ship and a few mermaids. (This is a corner detail.)

There are already too many mermaids, but the weed is making me tipsy.
Deep dark squelchy, wet bits contrasting with hard, branchy drawn bits
Oooh, that purple is going crazy in there.

My psychedelic dream here came to an end. The page needed a rock or island in front of all this weed, in order to give a sense of the waterline, and to visually anchor the image on the page. With the weed visible in the bottom right hand corner of the spread, all the energy was leaking off the page. No, not leaking …pouring torrentially.

Besides this, was all this weed adding anything to the mood, the action or the experience of the main characters? No.

So I have killed some darlings. I’ve taken it all back to serene. Sorry. You can’t see that yet.

But I’ve added a skeleton. But not one of those up top. And some palm trees… Yay!

Searching for Cicadas

A book about summer and family… and cicadas of course

Two books in one year is outrageous for me. I’m a slow cooker of books. Especially picture books. Each one is for me such a journey of discovery and striving and learning and change. So they emerge slowly.

Portrait of the artist as a very young person, before I illustrated this book.

But speaking of emergence, this is a book about cicadas… cicadas emerge slowly too! Some of them spend several years underground in their nymph form. One species spends seventeen years underground, which is longer than I have ever taken to illustrate a book… thankfully. Then they dig their way up into the light, shed their outer casing, dry their wings and sing a song to the summer. The boys do, anyway. And I’ll bet not many people know that they cover their ears when they are singing so that they don’t deafen themselves. Lesley taught me that.

The skeletal pencil and ink background of a spread from Searching for Cicadas
Ghostly shadows of the child figure for the same spread
The spread with colour and characters added

There are so many bits of fascinating information in Lesley Gibbes‘s text. And there are more than insects here too. There’s a narrative featuring a grandfather and child who go looking for cicadas on an overnight camping trip. And that is what I call fun.

Dirt and pine needles between the toes. Nothing beats bare feet.

Cicadas, summer and grandparents go together like cheese and biscuits. There’s something about these wonderfully noisy creatures (the cicadas, not the grandparents) that fascinates adults and children alike, and while we are sharing our fascination, we share a time, that later becomes a treasured memory. It did for me. I remember holding cicadas on my hand and collecting the empty shells (exoskeletons) and attaching them to the front of my clothes by their hooky little feet. They looked very decorative, along with the ripe cherry earrings hanging from my ears.

summer days in the country with my brother and Mum. I have no cherry earrings on in this photo.
Soundtrack: cicadas, magpies

I consider myself lucky to have been offered the opportunity to illustrate a Nature Storybook for Walker Books. It’s a series that I’ve admired for a long time. It features a double layer of text; story and scientific fact alongside one another in a child-friendly format. There are quite a few in the series, all beautiful. (I’d love to own an original painting from Dingo by Claire Saxby and Tannya Harricks. And check out Tannya’s dog paintings!)

Camping with Pa: bliss!
Soundtrack: cicadas, magpies

A few years ago I did quite a bit of illustration work for Museum Victoria where I got a taste for illustrating New Things That I Knew Nothing About. You research, scribble, take notes, panic, draw, draw again until you get it right… or right enough. (It’s never perfect.) This was a bit like that. It was really satisfying to learn to draw a cicada. I’m not confident I’d be able to draw a convincing one now, but for a few moments in time, I could do it.

This was my favourite cicada. He didn’t make the cut. I think it was because he had just a bit too much personality for a non-fiction title. He is my little friend.

And best of all was illustrating the Australian bush and the leaf litter. It made me want to make great big paintings of leaf litter.

Me with my grandfather, the irrepressible Pop Worrall who wasn’t with us for long enough. We never went camping but we did lots of swimming together.

Leonard galumphs into bookshops

I nearly wrote ‘Leonard dances into bookshops’. But then I remembered that Leonard Doesn’t Dance… or does he?

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I’m very fond of that great galumphing bird. I relate to him very much. The initial enthusiasm, the self doubt, the impulse to hide away in a thorny tree, the desire to be with my friends that usually draws me out of the tree. And like Leonard, I have some fabulous friends.

My thanks to the team at Harper Collins and to Frances Watts, for patiently waiting for Leonard as he put one lanky leg in front of another (tripping over several times) and eventually became finished art; now a book.

This lovely cover was designed by Hannah Janzen.

I had been initially drawn to a white cover, because black ink on white paper was a signature part of making the artwork. There was a lot of ink involved. Brushed on, drawn on, printed, wiped and smudged onto white paper. Big broad strokes, and fine textured marks. So my original idea was to have an inky black and white cover, with a pop of red on Leonard’s face, and a scattering of brilliantly coloured birds flung around it like a double handful of lollies, and wrapping around both covers.

The team at Harper Collins didn’t think the white design was indicative of what was inside: a rampant world of jungly colour. This was perfectly true, and is why editors are so great! and Hannah did a fabulous job of designing something rich and celebratory.

Here are some of the lolly birds from the white cover design. Some of them found their way onto the new cover anyway. Perhaps you can spot them.

I visited the Grade Sixes at Derinya Primary School a few weeks back and we had a great time talking about Leonard Doesn’t Dance, story arcs, tension and making storyboards for picture books. There is just so much to talk about! A two hour session went by in a flash. I will be signing up with Creativenet Speakers’ Agency very shortly, so if any schools or groups of lovely librarians within Cooee of Melbourne would like to book a workshop and talk with me, that will be the place to go.

I have another book released this month as well! A very leafy book about cicadas. More on that soon. Enjoy your week!

A few moments

It’s early winter. Everybody’s out of the house. For just a few minutes. Too little time to do any serious work. I nearly sat down with the dogs in front of the newly laid fire and gazed into it…

 

But instead, hello.

Three books on the go at once here. I’m working hard at them. All of the projects are rewarding, but when I’m working on one, I have to try hard not to worry about the others. But enough of that.

Last weekend I took 24 hours to work on something outside my books. It’s outside my books, because it sprang out of them. (All three.) And now it has a life of its own. It’s mostly trees and plants and spaces and light, but those spaces have things in them, and stories. The something will go in lots of ways from here. But for now (since I only have a few moments) just a few images of the germination.

branching grasses print copyfrondy print copylooking uplurkersprint textureprint texture 2rampartrampart with temporary dogtree branchestrees with moon

They’re back. So I’ll go and cook dinner.

Bye. x

Here I am

After the longest time!

Hi there. I’ve missed you. Work on Leonard Doesn’t Dance is going well. And I’m also working on another exciting project. A picture book by Sofie Laguna called When You’re Older. It’s a bit tricky working on two; just when I’m submerged deeply in one, I have to haul myself out by the scruff of the neck and focus on the other. But it’s fine, because both are lovely books.

Leonard and his pigeon friends are learning the can-can. I can’t do the can-can. (I might yet learn… A fake leg might be helpful.) But pigeons can can-can.

Here’s a small section of what I’m working on today. The background is in progress so the yellow area is sketched in. And all around what you see here are plants and other birds and a couple of beasts. But this is one of the white pages. The full colour pages look different.

Leonard and the Can-can pigeons

Detail of the can-can page from Leonard Doesn’t Dance by Frances Watts

They look like this.

Leonard colour page sample

Detail from a full colour page as the sun sets in Leonard’s world.

I’m using a big mix of media in this book. I’m printmaking, painting, drawing, collaging and digitising. (I’m doing the same for When You’re Older, but with a different colour palette.)

The printmaking is the most fun part. There’s something so intoxicating about printmaking. When the outcome is uncertain, due to the variability of the process, you are always on the brink of something… and it could be wonderful. It could be a treasure. Those op-shoppers among you will understand the feeling as it’s rather similar.

The print below is saved to my computer with the ignominious title ‘Disappointing Flowers’. But once colour and collage treatment are added, it actually works very well.

‘Disappointing Flowers’

This is a quick mock-up showing how the application of colour and a trim here and there, bring a disappointing print into a context that works. At least, for me. It’s not from the book.

A quick digital collage of my disappointing flowers to see if they rise to the challenge.

This one I was truly delighted with. It’s such a simple pattern, printed with a single block and roughly aligned. The roughness appeals to my deepest instincts in a way that nothing tidy or perfect can do. And the print has become a raw material like a delicious cheese that I might put into some cooking.

repeat pattern lores

Rough, ready and rambunctious, this print appeals to me like a Staffordshire Bull Terrier.

And here are some of the inky painted areas I’m using. These too, will be barely recognisable when I’ve finished colouring and ornamenting them on the computer, but for me, the shapes produced with a brush have more animation than anything I can draw directly on the screen.

8-9 tree shapes lores

Inky tree shapes for Leonard Doesn’t Dance… Or maybe for When You’re Older.

Now it’s back to the page. Some ducks are calling for my attention.

Yes. I think some of them are Call Ducks.

 

Thunderstorm Dancing is Two

Or nearly two years old.

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I have been AWOL for a while, with back surgery and other challenges to deal with. So although Katrina Germein had asked me late last year to do a little sketch of the Cat Called Thunder to use in celebration of the second birthday of our book together, I had not until now been able to work on it.

It seemed a friendly little task to use as a portal back into work, so I cleared the drawing board last week, (quite some task!) and set about trying to draw my little Cornish Rex again.

It takes me some time to learn to draw any of my book characters in a way that speaks true. And I have found also that after enough time has elapsed since that intensive process of making a book, the character is lost again. I can recognise him or her perfectly; can spot an imposter a mile away… but that doesn’t mean that I can make my hand produce the authentic version (below) on demand.

thunder puss page in progress

In most cases, this really doesn’t matter. And I wasn’t too bothered about creating the perfect Thunder picture for a birthday invitation, (indeed the cat in the book varies considerably in scale and type) but it was a nice exercise and got my fingers inky again.

I did a lot of sketches and none of them really captured him in his entirety. The little sketch below captured his lively personality (and undershot jaw!) but the body was incorrect.

thunder-head

Here are just a few of the doodles. You will see that at some point I began suggesting the number 2 in various ways.

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A cheeky Crouching Cornish.

2-years-old-4

2-years-oold-3

The Contemplative Cornish

2-years-old-2

The flick-of-the-wrist Cornish

2-years-old

The Crafty Cornish (he was meant to be contented and sleepy looking!)

2-years-old-4

A chunky Cornish… A Cornish Cob?

dog cat sketch thunder birthdaythunder cat with giftthunder cat with straight tailthunder catThunder with big red 2

Since none of them hit the mark perfectly, I coloured up three of the best. (See top and below) I’m not sure if this design makes it look as though Thunder is pooping out a fish bone. I hope not, as this could be painful. He suffers for my art. *sigh*

And my favourite of the sketches looks nothing whatever like the original character, and is the Flick-of-the-Wrist-Cornish who is like an exclamation mark come to life.

Purrs to you all. And I will see you soon!

thunder-cat-two-chunkythunder-cat-crouching

ILF Spinifex Writing Camp

My first work with the Indigenous Literacy Foundation

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Here are Gregg, me, Tina, Cindy and Ann. About to take to the skies.

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A little way down is a brief write up of my June trip to Tjuntjuntjara. I wrote it for the IBBY newsletter after I got back. Quite a lot has gone on since then, but I’ve not had the time and head space to write blog posts. But it’s time to start catching up before I forget how to blog. So I’m cheating and putting the IBBY story up here to get started. If the style seems a little unlike my usual, it’s because I had to keep it to 400 words so there was no room for shenanigans!

And before we go on, I LOVED my trip to Tjuntjuntjara, but it was scary because:

• I had never participated in a school creative camp before and the team did not have any definite plans beforehand. We were making up the program as we went along, according to the needs of the kids, which were unknown until we got there. So I couldn’t really prepare much beforehand. (Although, in hindsight, I should have had more of a go at this!)

• I am not a confident flier and I had to catch three planes each way, one leg being on a light plane. (I could phrase that better, but I’m quite liking the mental image of myself balancing with one leg on a light plane, the other… who knows where? on an albatross, perhaps.)

• I am not, as yet an experienced public speaker, despite the best of intentions…

• my back is jiggered at the moment so the trip was bound to be uncomfortable.

Here’s my 400 word write up!

In June I travelled with ILF staff Tina and Cindy, and author illustrators Gregg Dreise and Ann James to Tjuntjuntjara, an aboriginal community in WA, 550 km east of Kalgoorlie. There we spent an intense three days working with the students to produce a story and artwork to be published next year.

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Ten children participated in the writing camp; only two from Tjuntjuntjara School. The rest had driven across the desert with their teachers from other communities, over 200 km away and two were from Firbank Grammar in Melbourne. The children had spent a day getting to know each other before we got there.

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Gregg Dreise, a talented extrovert, performed songs, drew, painted, talked, led story making sessions and taught the kids to paint and throw boomerangs. His modified didgeridoo, the ‘didgeridon’t’, was a happiness generating kid-magnet. Gregg was our Batman Utility Belt. He could do anything.

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Ann James has a quiet, accessible manner of talking, as though she’s sitting around a kitchen table, even when she’s up in front of a crowd. On the first day Ann deftly demonstrated the art materials that we brought. She encouraged the kids to dive in and try everything before finding their favourite medium, and then supported them in producing a series of illustrations for their writing over the latter two days of the camp.

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(Note: here she technically IS sitting around a kitchen table. We did all of our art workshops in the kitchen, while Tilly cooked up wonderful, healthy food for students and teachers.)

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I was able to scan some of the first day’s work and whizz them up in PhotoShop with some text to show the students how their work might look on a printed page. Working with the kids one-on-one over the next two days as they revised their writing and worked up their illustrations, I felt so privileged. Some were shy to begin with but we connected very quickly by sharing ideas about their work. It was an intimate and enriching experience and fabulous to witness their stories taking physical form. I can’t wait to see the artwork again after has become a book published by the ILF.

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IMG_6650 one on one

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Here I am being blown away by the two boys’ work. These two were fabulous at drawing characters. They were around the same age as my boys so I was on familiar territory.

Tjuntjuntjara Principal Charlie Klein pulled all the different parts of the day together for the kids, making sense of everything, and memorably making them write for their dinner and their beds at the end of each day on a giant roll of brown paper. We had to do it too on the last day. The kids told us we were cheating if we drew pictures.

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Ready, set, write!

By the way, if you want to donate to the ILF, go here. They do great work!

More pics, in no particular order

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Here I am talking about how I illustrate, and Ann is photographing my feet ;-)

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Here’s Charlie preparing the students to write for their supper.

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frozen kangaroo tails

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Tilly Klein reading one of the many books donated by the ILF on the new reading mat.

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blobs can be addictive.

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Teachers and students were all trying out the different art materials. There were many periods of quiet activity, despite the number of people busy in the kitchen.

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‘Welcome to Tjuntjuntjara’ song led by Charlie on Ukelele

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