The prompt for Kick-About #25 The Age of Aquarius and it made me think of the song from the stage musical Hair.
I did go briefly down a rabbit hole to look up the meaning of the expression in astrological terms. It’s complex but predictably vague and controversial. The Age of Aquarius may have begun in 2600 BCE, or may have begun in the 20th Century or may be yet to begin. Having grown out of what limited interest I had in astrology years ago, this was not a direction that inspired art. It did lead me to quite an interesting little reading session about hippies, beatniks and the New Age movement of the 1960s and 1970s, but the complexity of this material reminded me of why I was never very good at history in school and why I admire people who are good at history!
But visually, the culture of the ’60s and ’70s is interesting. In fact I already had a digital collage with a psychedelic flavour that I made in November last year after watching the progress of the US elections with horror and dread. I had a powerful craving for the dawn of a new era, and for women to play an important role in it.
In Australia, that thirst for a change of culture, and a redistribution of power is even stronger now. If you’re interested, journalist Leigh Sales talks about it here or there’s a briefer version on her Instagram page here.
But what the heck. I had to make something new just for this prompt. So I decided that peace, love and harmony were the go, but sticking with the a secondary theme of female solidarity and friendship.
When the moon is in the Seventh House And Jupiter aligns with Mars Then peace will guide the planets And love will steer the stars This is the dawning of the age of Aquarius Age of Aquarius Aquarius Aquarius
Harmony and understanding Sympathy and trust abounding No more falsehoods or derisions Golden living dreams of visions Mystic crystal revelation And the mind’s true liberation Aquarius Aquarius
And here’s the dawning of the Age of Aquarius being celebrated in a small way between two friends. The moon is definitely in the Seventh House. Need you even ask? It is quite peaceful, but it seems to be darker than the November artwork.
A celebration of female friendship.
Naturally, I did my paper doll technique again. Draw them, then dress them. It never gets dull. I should have given the second woman another arm. But she manages ok without it. (You go, Sister!)
And you can hardly even see the giant pollarded woman in the forest behind them. She represents my anxiety and is taller than the tallest tree. But see how well she hides? She’s kind of cool though. She reminds me of all those centuries old mythical giants in story forests. Sometimes they’re sleeping, and they awake when they’re needed. A bit like anxiety, they have their uses. You just don’t want them hanging around at every party.
Thanks Phil. I’m looking forward to seeing what people choose for the anniversary edition.
I’ve missed these kick-abouts over the last few months. So this image is pretty much how I feel about joining in again!
This woman, if not the actual quote, seems so infinitely suited to the kinds of figures I have been painting in ink over the last year or so. You’d think that’s the direction I’d go. But no. I’ve taken a more mundane direction. Because I’ve been fostering cats for the local RSPCA.
Cats in Australia are a problem. They’re often mistreated, rarely desexed, often dumped, and the feral population is gigantic, doing enormous damage to our wildlife. Click here to find out more. My lovely foster cat arrived painfully thin, with four bouncing babies. All five of them have now been successfully adopted. Hooray! Go well, little ones.
I was drawing them to get my cat drawing skills up. They weren’t very good at holding their modelling poses while they were awake… Ahem! They have that in common with small children. But it was certainly a delight to have them around for a few weeks.
Technically these guys once were wild, having been picked up as strays. But at the same time, they were affectionate and tame. So they are not really my response to this prompt. My response was I think a little influenced by a far superior cat painting, by William Kentridge that is on the wall of my studio in postcard form. But really it was just a fun play about with ink. Fairly large scale on cartridge. Here he is below, significantly reduced in size.
I swished up a few garden plants for him to prowl in. Then combined the two in Photoshop.
I altered his head and paws a bit to bring him into a more domestic cat proportion, and away from the original, more expressionist type. He represents the suburban animal who is both wild and tame at the same time. Every time he goes outside, he becomes his own ancestor – a wild animal. Our suburban gardens are his hunting ground. It is a fascinating thing, albeit devastating to our wildlife.
Thanks again, Phil. As always, I enjoyed this little detour. And as always, it sparked off a series of new ideas. I woke up at 2 o’clock this morning and couldn’t get back to sleep. I soothed myself with thinking about painting this cat prowling in a forest and somewhere between 2.30 and dawn, a wordless picture book has been born, fully-formed in my mind. (Well, not quite fully formed.)
The prompt for Kick-About #16 is from a Robert Frost poem. You can read the entire the poem here. It’s a lovely one.
I’m pretty pushed for time at the moment, so I have been missing Kick-About challenges lately. And I’m late for this one. But I couldn’t resist doing a pretty literal interpretation of this one very hastily this morning!
I added some trolls playing chess on the lake. And who knows? Maybe Robert Frost was imagining the same thing. However, I’ve taken them out again for now. It needs more work balancing the composition than I have time for today. Another little job for January, perhaps. :-)
Thanks again, Phil! A lovely interlude in a busy time.
This year, while I’ve been lurking in my home studio during Melbourne’s lock-down, two of my picture books have been going around all over the place doing things without me.
CBCA Book Week 2020
Searching for Cicadas has given me a wonderful inside look at the CBCA awards this year, by being shortlisted for the Eve Pownall award. I was intending to get out to schools this Book Week to enjoy the buzz among teachers and students, but due to the lock-down, any school visits would have been via Zoom, and that’s a bridge too far for this phone-phobic introvert. (Although I don’t rule it out later on.)
But I enjoyed the Book Week buzz on line – the costumes, the amazing books, the teachers doing their thing. I loved the YouTube video presentation of awards. It featured insightful comments from school students of all ages and intimate presentations from book creators; all the more special because of their personal setting in people’s homes. Indigenous Australia—both the people and the land—had a strong and resonating voice. You can view the entire thing here. The judges’ report and a description of all the winning, honour and shortlisted books can be downloaded here. Thankyou CBCA, for the sterling work you do.
A couple of weeks ago, a rather different bit of recognition came my way and I confess to feeling a bit emotional about it when I heard. Far from here, in Obermenzing in the western part of Munich, is a castle full of books. It’s called Blutenburg Castle and is the home of the Internationale Jugendbibliothek, the International Youth Library. It was founded in 1949 by Jella Lepman and it has become an internationally recognised centre for children’s and youth literature. Its central purpose is to ‘promote global children’s and youth literature of high aesthetic and literary quality and of significance for cultural literacy.’ And each year a team of experts select books from all over the world to be named White Ravens and to be presented at the Bologna Children’s Books Fair and the Frankfurt Book Fair.
The gorgeous artwork on the cover of the White Ravens catalogue is by Emma AdBåge. You can see more of her work here.
Royal Zoological Society of NSW Whitley Awards 2020
Oh boy! What is a RZS, NSW Whitley award? It’s a celebration of all things nerdy and naturalist. That sounds like my husband. But nope. It’s a book award, this time from the Royal Zoological Society of NSW. ‘Awarded annually, the Whitley Awards are presented for outstanding publications that profile the unique wildlife of the Australasian region.’
I’m happy to say that Searching for Cicadas is a recipient of the award in the children’s story category. You can find the full list here. The beautiful sticker features a sugar glider, who would probably eat my cicadas, but that’s a price I’m prepared to pay. Thank you Royal Zoological Society of NSW.
It’s nearly, nearly Book Week 2020! Hurrah! And I love the theme this year.
Perhaps you are at school. Perhaps you are at home school. Either way, here is a game you can play with family, friends or classmates. It’s a drawing game, a writing game, (or could it be an acting game, a dancing game or something else?) and it’s based on something I have found to be true for me. Sometimes it’s easier to start with something, rather than nothing. Sometimes you need a little leg up, before you can go galloping off on your creative journey.
It’s very simple…
Step One. Download the pdf with all of the pages I have prepared for you. (Here is the pdf.) Or download the jpegs if that works better for you. (They’re at the bottom of this post in the Downloads section.)
Step Two. Chop them up and stick them into some bowls or hats or boxes. (If you are a keen scissor user, you will enjoy lots of cutting up beforehand. If you are not so keen, you could do the close-your-eyes-and-stab-with-a-pencil technique, which is similar to the pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey technique.)
Step Three. Close your eyes and pull as many or as few selections out as you want. I suggest one head, one body, a couple of personality traits and anything else you want is extra. (But free!)
How many prompts should you choose? Probably you’ll find it easier if you pick only a few prompts. If you have too many prompts you might get into a tangle. Important note: if you don’t like what you pull, chuck it back and try another one. It’s meant to be fun.
Step Four. Draw your Curious Creature and write about its Wild Mind.
Step Five. Teachers and parents are SO GOOD at thinking outside the box, so they will immediately see that this is an open-ended activity and can be used in lots of ways. For example…
Pair off with another person and see what happens when your two Curious Creatures meet. Write about what happens.
Pair off with another person and swap heads. (Not yours, silly. Just the picture.)
Is your bit of writing worth re-writing into a longer story, shorter story, poem, comic strip, same story different character, play or skit?
Stick all the Curious Creatures up on display and choose whichever one you like to write about or draw.
Vote for one of them as President or Prime Minister. Talk about why you chose him or her. What personality traits might be useful for a leader?
Form a group and make a Great Big Very Curious Creature with lots of heads and bodies. Add wings, extra legs, tails, hair, whatever you like.
Make a jungle for all your Curious Creatures.
Which personality traits do you think best describe you? Do you know what all of them mean? (I added some of my favourite words and you might like to look them up.)
Think of a book character in one of your favourite books. Which personality traits might match that character? Can you write a scene that didn’t happen in the book, showing those personality traits?
Can a Curious Creature or a person have two personality traits that don’t seem to match? (For example: cautious and fun-loving, bossy and sensitive, fierce and warm.) Explore!
To show willing, everyone in my family had a little go at this activity last night. And here’s the proof. (One of them wasn’t very willing actually.)
The Chocolate Cat-Astrophe (A Halloween inspired story about a cat-duck at Easter.)
Sidney heard his mum calling and opened his eyes. He was feeling a little sick. He wiped the tell-tale chocolate from his bill. Probably everyone would have mistaken it for mud anyway.
‘Coming, Mum’ he groaned, not sure his voice would carry down to the kitchen. He rolled off the bed and noticed that his furry tummy, usually a graceful 3cm off the floor, was dragging uncomfortably on the shag pile rug as he swayed towards the door.
He opened the door and extended his head out into the corridor. His sister skipped past and grinned at him.
‘Dinner smells great!’ she said. And scampered down the stairs.
‘Burp’ replied Sidney, and dragged himself to the top step. His belly had rolled the lint from the carpet into a fuzzy ball under his belly button. It felt a lot like someone was poking him in the tummy. He tried to ignore it.
‘Hope you haven’t eaten all your chocolate already, Sid.’ she called over her shoulder. ‘It’s apple pie for dessert.’ She disappeared into the kitchen.
Sidney took one step down.
His stomach stayed on the top step.
Sidney took a second step down.
His stomach settled with a sigh on the landing. It refused to move.
Cat bodies are stretchy so Sidney was able to take a third step down. His stomach countered by making a move in the opposite direction. There was an uncomfortable twisting sensation.
‘Sid!’ called a voice from downstairs.
‘Coming’ squeaked Sid.
His stomach took another determined step along the corridor. Away from the stairs. Behind him he felt his back paw open the bathroom door.
He stretched his neck downwards and took in a long, loving sniff of roast dinner.
Then he felt a sharp jerk and his chin bumped the stairs as he was dragged upwards. One, two, three steps.
Sidney grabbed the carpet with his claws.
He saw a blue bathroom light glowing on his white front paws as they clung to the slowly buckling carpet.
Then in a smooth, powerful movement like a heavy sea swell, Sidney and the carpet were pulled backwards into the bathroom.
The door slammed shut.
The PDF with all the pages in one document is here. (You might need a pdf reader on your computer to open and print the pages. If you don’t have a pdf reader of some kind you can download one of those free from here.)
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.
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.