ILF Spinifex Writing Camp

My first work with the Indigenous Literacy Foundation


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


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.


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.



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.





IMG_1847 the didgeridont.jpg

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.


(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.)



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 it is professionally scanned, as I’ll be designing the book to be published by the ILF.


IMG_6650 one on one

IMG_0818 jonas and jamal.JPG

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.


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


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


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


frozen kangaroo tails





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


blobs can be addictive.


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.

IMG_0828 jemima.jpg

IMG_0829 Daisy.jpg


‘Welcome to Tjuntjuntjara’ song led by Charlie on Ukelele





IMG_6696 jump.jpg

The Woman, the Chicken and the Grapes

folk tales from frankston

The woman, the chicken and the grapes

There were once a woman and her son who loved chickens.

One day the woman looked at the grapes in her fridge and decided that they were no longer appetising enough for her family to eat. So she and her son took some of the grapes out to feed to the chickens in the garden.

Because the garden was on a steep slope with a hard driveway running through it, the grapes were inclined to roll and the woman and her son laughed in delight to see the chickens run up and down the hill chasing the grapes and one another.

grapes to chickens

But after a short while, the woman noticed that one of the chickens was standing still and jerking its head in an uncomfortable manner. And although her son laughed to see the chicken dancing, the woman saw that this was because the chicken was trying to dislodge a grape that was stuck in its throat.

The boy picked up the chicken and saw that foam was accumulating in its throat as it struggled to breathe. The woman took the chicken and tried to reach a finger down its throat to retrieve the grape. But the throat was too long and too narrow. Then she saw that the bird’s comb was turning blue and that it would soon die if she could not clear its airway. So she gently but firmly blew once down the bird’s throat.

Although this inflated the chicken momentarily in quite a surprising way, it did not dislodge the grape and the boy began to cry. Then the woman in desperation, felt amongst the feathers on the front of the chicken’s neck. She found to her surprise that the grape was very easily detected and she quickly pushed the round lump upwards into the bird’s mouth and out onto the ground where she stamped it flat before another chicken could take it.

The bird began to breathe again and sat contentedly in the woman’s arms as she comforted the boy. Soon the boy stopped crying, and the chicken began scratching around the garden with the others as before.

The next day, the woman saw the remaining grapes in her fridge, which were not good enough for the family to eat, but yet not poor enough to throw onto the compost heap and she said to herself. ‘I will not make the same mistake again. This time I will cut up the grapes so that they do not stick in the chicken’s throat.’ And she pulled out a large chopping board and a very sharp knife and began to slice the grapes.

But the grapes began to roll about the board, and the woman was hard put to cut them without losing them onto the floor. So she held each grape closely and cut them individually saying to herself, ‘a job worth doing is worth doing well’. But holding one grape a little too closely, she accidentally cut off the very tip of her finger and she bled and bled.

The chickens did not mind the blood, nor the tip of the finger. Not a single chicken choked on a grape and there were three eggs in the nesting box that day, each with a yolk as round and yellow as the sun.

Studies in blue

Today I have been working on the mid section of roughs for Leonard Doesn’t Dance. It’s a difficult time for poor Leonard.

As I was drawing, in search of the right feeling in his posture and expression, I thought it might be interesting to picture book enthusiasts to see some of the thought that go into each illustration. So here we go.

Leonard RHS studies lores

An A2 sized page of studies for a vignette on page 15. (8 scans later, boy do I wish I had an A2 sized scanner!) I have numbered my drawings in order in case you are interested to see the progression of ideas.

I’m not sure if you’ll be able to read my notes on the page. Leonard is feeling sorrow, resignation, defeat, regret, longing. Expressions I want to avoid include alarm, fear, guilt, anxiety or furtiveness.

Those who draw will know how a tiny variation in the curve of an eye or eyebrow, or the tilt of a head may change an intended sorrow into an accidental horror.

L sad 3

No.3. The heavy line at 10 o’clock on the eye gives the expression wretchedness. Otherwise the large, round eye looking backwards might have indicated a fear of pursuit.


L sad 4

No.4. This is my preferred facial expression. It says best what I think Leonard is feeling.

L sad 1.jpg

No. 1. The expression seems a mix between extreme mortification and horror, with a bit of disgust thrown in. The up-curving neck shows too much energy. I want Leonard to look a little defeated. 

L sad 6.jpg

No. 6 Although I like the body posture with raised wings, the face here is not quite as good as  that of No.4. The head tilt is less submissive, more head-butt. The crest is more raised, the eye less miserable.

L sad 2

No.2. Utter dejection with 1920s silent movie era eye makeup! Leonard is not even looking back, just downwards. I think I’d rather he looks wistfully backwards as it indicates a suppressed longing to join in. I don’t want our boy to be completely bereft of spirit. Poor lad.

Sometimes a thing like this can be positively excruciating if you can’t get it right. But today I enjoyed it. Leonard is  very accommodating.

In Leonard’s case, I have the eye to work with and also the caruncle (a patch of coloured skin) around his eye, which acts as an eyebrow or an underscore for the expression in his eye. And living with a flock of chickens has taught me what a sick or miserable chicken looks like; the hunch, the fluffed up feathers, and sometimes the dropped wings.

L dejected.jpg

But with Leonard’s crest I depart from the nature of birds. A fluffed up crest in the real world might indicate bird misery, but I’m using Leonard’s crest more in the way of ears like a dog, that drop when miserable, raise when interest is sparked. That is probably a language more readily identifiable to children, since more have dogs than chickens… in Australia at least.

So that covers the face. What about the body?

dejected posture.jpg

He’s retreating, so he’s best drawn partly from behind. The fluffed up hunched shoulders, I mentioned earlier. He should look clumsy, so I experimented with leg postures. He has just alighted so I need to suggest the flight just finished. And he’s walking away and downwards, so I have to suggest the forward downwards movement as well.

One challenge is the wings. Raised wings (6) could suggest a certain lifting of spirits. Spread wings look nicely clumsy (5) but tend to get in the way of the main subject (his lowered face). Lowered wings (2, 4) may be best for misery but are not so good for movement and flight. (In 2 he looks positively beaten. It’s a bit much.)

wings raised.jpg

Today as I was working on this, I once again remembered my fabulous school art teacher Cecily Osborn. I remember her explaining how artists can seek to depict movement in a motionless work of art. She used the ancient Greek sculpture of a discus thrower Discobolus by Myron as an example. The sculpture doesn’t depict any real life movement employed by an athlete whilst throwing a discus, but instead attempts to creatively suggest the movement that came before as well as hinting at the movement to follow the instant in time depicted by the sculpture. The sculptor borrows our imagination to evoke a movement that he can’t create in reality.

roman bronze reduction discus_thrower_Myron

A Roman bronze reduction of Myron’s discus thrower. The original artwork was made around 450BC.

“The potential energy expressed in this sculpture’s tightly wound pose, expressing the moment of stasis just before the release, is an example of the advancement of Classical sculpture from Archaic.” (says Wikipedia)

I’m very serious today, aren’t I? Do you think I am overthinking this?

I don’t think so. These thoughts take longer to describe than they do to think. All this and more goes through an illustrator’s head as he or she is drawing. And a lot of it is subconscious too. But it’s part of what makes the pictures work, it’s part of observing our world, and how the experiences of life feed into an artist’s work. I love that about my job.

But here are a couple of over-excited woodpeckers, because I wasn’t just drawing misery today.


woodpecker black and white judywatsonartwoodpecker judywatsonart

Hello studio, hello birds, hello autumn.

It’s the second week of the school holidays and I’m back in the studio today after a busy week with the family. The boys are visiting with their grandparents in the country all this week. And I have no work to show you yet, so I thought I’d just say hi.

I really love the autumn in Victoria. The light is soft and warm with honey tones like a dessert wine. (yum.) It’s the best time of year for closing your eyes and lying in the sun,

Hugo shaking apples down.JPG

for shaking apples from the apple tree,

last water fight of the season.JPG

or for having the Last Great Water Fight of the season.


But in the midst of this mellow finale, the wild birds have been rowdy today for some reason, as they were back in the spring when they were fighting for nesting sites and mates and eating each other’s babies!

This afternoon I saw a kookaburra nearly stun itself by attacking its reflection in our lounge room window, as a grey butcherbird watched closely, waiting for an opportunity. While the kookaburra sat on a branch recovering its composure, the butcherbird (3 flights up) dived down and audibly clouted it on the top of the head. Is that adding insult to injury, or injury to injury? The kookaburra raised its head feathers in lieu of a comb or a finger and looked outraged and rumpled but didn’t pursue.

Our chicken girls weren’t rowdy though. In fact, they were a little alarmed by the swooping and noises in the trees around them when I let them out this afternoon.

chicken conference in driveway.jpg

A chicken conference under the sheokes.

Takara spots a kookaburra.jpg

Takara demonstrates her funky chicken dance as three kookaburras overhead cause some concern with their noisy display. 

fluff balls eating south african food.jpg

Our two Salmon Faverolles, Takara and Cressida Cowell eating peanuts in the driveway. Takara (on the left) has started laying and hence the big, red comb. Cressida is a late bloomer and a big, fat baby who galumphs about tripping over her ugg boots. She is by far our largest and heaviest chicken and at the bottom of the pecking order. It’s amusing to watch tiny Storm scold her whilst barely reaching up to Cressida’s fluffy chin at full stretch. 


Meanwhile, back in the studio, for want of new artwork to show you today, here are some of the musicians that didn’t make it through the auditions recently.

They don’t mind. They have a regular gig down at The Swamp on Thursday nights.

swing band.jpg

Here are a pair of cockatoos do-si-doing. They are going to try to squeeze into a spread for Leonard Doesn’t Dance tomorrow.

20-21 dancers 3.jpeg

My drawing board now that the sun has gone down,

drawing board.jpg

My black Cornish Rex inkwell,

Cornish Rex ink well.jpg

and last of all, something that isn’t here yet. The Squirrel. A wood fired stove that will soon be warming my studio. Woohoo! 



Bird Immersion (2)

This is another quickie post. It’s all terribly busy around here.

Even the birds are looking a bit concerned.

call duck

I’ve often seen ‘Call Ducks’ advertised when I have been browsing the chickens-for-sale ads (as some of us do). I feel this may be what they look like.


worried galah

And this galah barely knows which way to turn.

light box in action

I’m still excited about my new light box. It’s much bigger than the trusty old one. It gets brighter or dimmer if you hold your finger on the power button! Sometimes I do that just for fun.

You may be able to see that one spread looks rather a lot like the (empty) stage of a theatre. It’s not a stage, but I quite like that it looks like one. And I like that I can sketch the characters freely on a separate sheet of paper over the top of the scene. I suppose this is what animators used to do all the time.

20-21 muso initial sketches

These are my first drumming bird sketches. It’s been interesting to work out how the bird might play the instrument and how much to simplify or modify the instruments from those in the real world. I liked the bounce in the woodpecker trio at top left but I came up with a much better drawing later. The first one I drew here was the duck and that drum looks most unstable. I’m not sure it’s even three dimensional!

I worked out a great plan (my 25th) for the cover of Leonard Doesn’t Dance in the shower the other day. I often draw Leonard covers on the shower screen. It is an important part of my process and one of the more literal interpretations of bird immersion. Luckily I have imprinted the idea almost perfectly on my brain, because when I went back to the bathroom to photograph the cover design, it had melted away….

That reminds me, I need to buy another back-up hard drive for my computer.

And lastly, for those of you who are interested in bird immersion in general, (you may be the kind who browse the chickens-for-sale ads) did you know that some chickens can swim? Go here to see the most gorgeous Buff Orpingtons in a swimming pool.

It should be added at this point, that we had to rescue Stella from the fish pond a few weeks ago as she fell in and did not seem to have the required flotation skills.

(Why does ‘floatation’ look wrong?)


Bird Immersion

Sorry I haven’t been around in Blog Land.

20-21 Leonard with 2 heads


Happily, this is mainly because I’ve been so busy drawing my roughs for Leonard, (and turning 50, and looking after an extra child because we have an overseas student staying with us at the moment).

I have to say, despite the fact that I’m multi-tasking like crazy (bad) Leonard is really fun (good!).

I can’t show you very much (bad). Many of the roughs describe the finished image. And this book, true to Frances Watts’ Style, will be brimming with humour (good!). So by showing you the full page roughs, I would be giving away all the gags (terribly, terribly bad).

But I can share with you bits and snippets and here-and-there touches.

chickens lightened.jpg

It’s interesting that the roughs have reverted to pencil, maybe my most natural medium. And this will pose its own challenges when it comes time to make the final art with broad paint strokes. The roughs began as large paintings, then switched to charcoal, and finally, to pencil.


swingin Leonard

And something I’m excited about is my new light box! Wowsers! It’s so cool.

But I’m going to leave this and write more later.

I’m multi-tasking, remember?





Fish Feast Update

This greedy little pelican, a doodle drawn for feast week in the 52 Week Illustration Challenge back in 2014, just returned from being on holidays at a friend’s beautiful retreat in Warburton, Victoria. (You can find the retreat here if you’d like to book a stay.)

As a result partly of the sunlight and partly of the unorthodox materials used to produce the drawing (for more info go here!), I noticed that the fish parts and wave pattern had faded to rather a nice sepia colour.

faded Pelican

I probably should have left it that way. But it seemed to be calling to me like this…

Judy, Judy, colour me in! Pleeeease colour me in, I beg you!

[repeat and intersperse with pitiful whimpering]

Being a soft hearted thing, and fond of pelicans, I did as I was asked with the following result.

pelican feast colour pencil

I’m pretty sure I prefer the original grittiness and I’ve got a bit of a tummy ache from the chips I was eating at the same time.

But boy was it fun!