I have joined in a Kick About! It’s a bit of creative play organised by Phil Gomm over at Red’s Kingdom. Phil provides a prompt and we have a couple of weeks or so to make something. It’s casual. Lovely!
I have been wanting to do something calm and creative to harvest all this turbulent Isolation Energy. (The dreams! Is anyone else having crazy dreams?) There seem to be a lot of Creative Challenges that have popped up to keep people busy during isolation. But with already more than enough actual work to complete, they weren’t calling to me.
Then I saw Phil Cooper’s glorious artwork for the previous Kick About topic, and I jumped on the band wagon. The current theme is Metropolis, which could mean any metropolis, but I have taken it to be the 1927 German expressionist Sci-fi film by Fritz Lang, because it’s one of my favourite films. I have fond memories of being taken along to it as a teenager by my big brother. My eyes were nearly popping out of my head.
I started with my usual black ink. I chopped up and printed from a few bits of foam to create an impression of the Metropolis City. And a fountain of water.
But some of the most compelling memories of the movie for me were the scenes in the Rich Men’s pleasure gardens. I was thinking of using the city scene as a backdrop behind the gardens. I coloured it and knocked back the contrast, but ultimately it was too distracting to use behind my main subject, which had more than enough going on with the plants.
The Pleasure Gardens are extraordinary. They are stupendously opulent, and are filled with tumescent plants and feature a scalloped grotto and various fountains. In them two very striking scenes take place. In one, an unprepossessing petty official pompously selects a concubine, as though choosing a piece of fruit from a fruit bowl. She is to entertain Freder, later that day.
In the other scene, Freder frolics with the girl in the garden, playing a game of chasey around a fountain, when suddenly from a doorway, the angelic Maria appears surrounded by children. ‘Look, these are our brothers,’ she says.
Need I say it? Freder is dumbstruck. Smitten. The poor concubine becomes insignificant, and her distress is evident in her face and posture, as she fails to retain Freder’s attention. She’ll be demoted, no doubt. Or something…
I wasn’t really sure which of these scenes I was going to play about with. It turned out to be sort of both. But really, the gardens themselves became the main subject.
I placed the children and Maria in the garden, and some concubines. But they seemed somehow too literal, and it was too busy. Surprisingly, it was Freder’s moment of suspense and call to action that won me over. And only he remained in this scene.
I decided to make a second scene featuring the bureaucrat selecting the concubine and had several goes at different forms for the women, some exaggerating their body parts and others not.
I was pleased with my version of the bureaucrat as a stiff little penguin creature with big eyes and yellow socks. So after a few different versions, battling to find a balance between background and foreground, whilst still using my favourite black ink for the figures, I made the girls into bird people as well.
It’s still not entirely resolved. Especially with regards to the background colour. But I really enjoyed using a muted art deco palette, heavily infused with black, because it suggested the darkness of the film without actually being black and white.
It’s just a Kick About. So that’s it for now. It did give me lots of ideas, and took me into some wacky places that were very refreshing. Thanks so much Phil Gomm and also Phil Cooper!
It’s about the life cycle of cicadas, but also about family and connecting with nature, and it’s set in Australia.
You can make the activity as simple or as complex as you like. It’s suitable for all ages. Take an hour, or take a week on it. Budding field naturalists may like to make a life of it.
Part One: How I illustrated the endpapers for Searching for Cicadas
First I went outside into the garden. I took photos of the leaf litter under some trees. I gathered up samples of twigs, leaves (both green and decomposing ones), seeds, cones and feathers. I also walked into our local nature reserve and collected other samples.
I spread these samples out on my work bench, and began drawing and painting them, attempting to capture the character of the plants: the branching patterns, the blobs of lichen on the stems, the angles and curves. I had no particular method. I was just playing, and seeing what might come out of it. I knew I would be using the best bits, discarding lots, changing some up on the computer.
The next part was scanning and assembling the artwork in PhotoShop. It’s not so relevant here. Except for one thing. My job was to find the music in the arrangement of pieces. They needed to fill a rectangle, but also more. They needed to dance across it using the power of their shapes, their colours and their textures.
Now it’s time for you to make stuff!
Part Two: beginning your leaf litter project
Part Three: making a leaf litter collage
Bonus Challenge: what is that?
• See how many plants you can identify.
• Are they local or exotic species?
• What are some of the ways that botanists or horticulturalists identify plants?
• How many insects or evidence of other wild animals did you spot? Can you find out about their life cycle?
• Do you think any of the plants and animals depend on each other? (In Searching for Cicadas, we find out that the Black Prince cicada is found mostly on She-okes near a river.)
• Are there feathers? What bird do you think they came from? (use your detective skills)
• Make a poster and draw (or glue onto it) all of the things you found. Are some of them connected to each other? (For example, does a beetle live in a rotting log? Why do you think he lives there?) What have you found out about nature in your chosen space?
Bonus Challenge: Focus on one element (as an illustrator)
Pick one creature or plant and make a special study of it. Read about it and draw it lots of times until you can do it fairly easily, without copying a photo. (This is what I had to do with cicadas.)
Have you mastered a plant or animal? Now make your special plant or animal into a character and write a story or comic strip about it. Hooray!
Bonus Mini-challenge: seasons
At a different time of the year, what do you think you would see in the same space? Would it be different? Make a drawing to show what you think it might look like.
If you’re in Victoria, Australia, and you love plants, animals and the natural world, you can join the Victorian Field Naturalists Club. There are meetings and great activities for kids and adults, and you can meet people who love the same stuff! If you’re somewhere else, you can probably find a club near you. Get your hands and feet dirty!
My acacia (wattle) ‘leaves’ in the collage above are not really leaves. They are actually phyllodes. My next activity wanders into the anatomy of acacias. You can find it here, later today.
Hello! I hope you are getting some time outdoors, even if it’s to dig around in a little bit of garden or a pot plant. Or walking around the block with your dog, or cat, or ferret. Every time I go outside and breath some outdoor air I feel so much better.
Searching for Cicadas was recently shortlisted for an award. Hooray! I have never been shortlisted for a CBCA award before so I didn’t realise I would be getting emails with interview questions. Today I had to get myself organised and answer some of them and one of the questions was:
“What are your top tips for parents who might be teaching their kids at home with this book?”
That’s a big question, and it would take me about a week to answer, so instead, I suggested an activity for kids and parents. It’s based on the endpapers for the book. (Here are the endpapers, below.)
Because people might like to skip my chatting and get straight to the activity, I will upload it as a separate blog post. As soon as it is uploaded (tomorrow) I will add the link here.
You can make the activity as simple or as complex as you like. It will be suitable for all ages. Take an hour, or take a week on it. Budding field naturalists may like to make a life of it, and if they do, I send them a big hug.
I will endeavour to edit the activity as I receive feedback from teachers.
Paul Coppens, founder of the Melbourne Philharmonic Orchestra, composed a piece of music to accompany the children’s performance, and provided a full orchestral backing track. The result was spectacular.
I wasn’t able to go up to see the performance, but I have seen a video on Paul’s website. You can see it here. (You’ll find the ’Thunderstorm Dancing‘ link at the bottom right of the screen.) It is only six minutes long and a delight. Thank you so much, Paul.
It makes me so happy to see the book used in this way. It is ideally suited to the classroom. The end of the performance is a stroke of genius by the teachers. Bravo!
Feel free to download these cicada drawings and use them in your home or classroom. You might like to make a bushland collage and paste cicadas onto your trees or have them flying through the air. Some need colouring, and some simply need to be printed, cut out and pasted down.
I have posted pdfs and jpeg versions of the same three pages. Use whichever format is easiest for you to download and print.
When illustrating for children’s books, we are helping to teach children empathy, which is enormously important for their future wellbeing, and for the wellbeing of our world. So drawing a character’s feelings in a way that children can relate to, or ponder and begin to understand, is Number One for me. It takes precedence over aesthetics and character continuity.
This means that I often approach the end of an illustration project and look through it to find that I have not one leading character, but several variations on that character. Sometimes it bothers me and I change the artwork if time allows. Leonard is pretty variable throughout Leonard Doesn’t Dance, sometimes thicker or thinner and his beak varies from one page to the next. Sometimes he has enormous wings, and other times, they’re stubby. Does it bother me? Nope. He’s still the same gawky, tender-hearted, enthusiastic and loyal fellow throughout. And his feelings are written large on his face and in his body language. I’m happy with that.
Late in the process of illustrating Leonard, I noted a few pictures that could do with tweaking, to make Leonard more consistent. One of them was this image of Leonard just out of bed, reading a notice about the Big Beaky Bird Ball.
The drawing for this one had been done early on, (see the sketch at the top) and my ‘Leonard shorthand’ had developed since then. Later on, he had a longer, narrower neck, looser curves on his toes (yes, I actually think about those things) a smaller body and bolder black and white contrast – he looks less fuzzy and soft in later illustrations.
I really loved my page four Fuzzy Leonard, but I redrew him. I killed my darling. I lengthened his neck and made other tweaks. I finished the illustration and went back to other edits for other pages.
Finally, I came back to page 4 and looked at it. I had loved this scene. It had made me feel so warm and fond of Leonard. He reminded me of a 3 year old in pyjamas, just out of bed with his hair all fluffy and squashed and his face all soft and sleepy.
Somehow, though the character was now more consistent with other pages, the joy was gone. Somehow, the Leonard I loved was no longer there. At the eleventh hour I raised Fuzzy Leonard from the dead. I must have very fine necromancy skills because he was just as loveable as I remembered him to be, and he didn’t show any zombie tendencies at all.
Character continuity… I’m conflicted about it. I dorealise that if I found it easy I wouldn’t be conflicted about it… Did Charles Schultz ever have these problems?
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.
Then I put them on the image, with the ship and a few mermaids. (This is a corner detail.)
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.
I nearly wrote ‘Leonard dances into bookshops’. But then I remembered that Leonard Doesn’t Dance… or does he?
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.
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.
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!
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.
Detail of the can-can page from Leonard Doesn’t Dance by Frances Watts
They look like this.
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.
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.
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.
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.