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!