The prompt for Kick-About #18 is Fernand Leger’s painting, below.
I’m running late again, for this Kick-about, and I missed the Christmas one. So I have just whizzed down to my supremely messy studio (in need of a good clear out before work commences next week) and painted a few quick Christmas dinner themed sketches inspired by Leger’s perfect little still life. Since I’ve just been to see Joy Hester: Remember Me, at Heide, it felt pretty easy to swing into black ink outlines with minimal colour.
I was a little too hasty with my first sketch. Not having the exact brush pen I was wanting to hand, I used the one that was there. The ink is grey-pale and not waterproof. So when I threw a bit of ink on, it melted. I thought it would, but sometimes I like that look. I switched to waterproof ink and brush with pencil for the next two sketches. I liked the scratchy impulsiveness of the thrown down colour pencil. And then I didn’t really notice my medium any more, because it became all about the people in the images.
I rarely do a still life. For me, TheThings are all about the people that use them. So I became lost in some invented people and what their moods and relationships might be. In my final image, it was interesting to find that despite the small crowd of people in the central part of the drawing, the subject was really the man at extreme left and the slightly harassed mother at the extreme right. It became all about their isolation within the crowd.
As a matter of fact everyone in this last image looks as though he or she is disengaged or separate somehow. Which is often the case at family Christmas gatherings, I think. It can be an emotional time for people, especially for the introverts, and for those who have more than their fair share of family problems. Having said that, our family gathering this Christmas was a warm and relaxed thing and I felt that the connection between people was both grateful and strong. After such a year we were so lucky to have a moment of relatively unfettered togetherness in Victoria before the next Covid cases came along. I’m counting my blessings.
Looking at the three here, the first two are the strongest, and perhaps they suit the medium best: lots of white space; not too much going on; a clear focus. Also, the large central area of red. But I enjoyed doing all three.
Thanks Phil. I’ll try to be on time next time. :-) x
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 had me really thinking. It led me in all sorts of directions.
One of my ideas was a weird and very complex dot-to-dot image that would be different for every person who embarked upon it because the connections between numerals would be created by answering a series of questions about family, friends and neighbours. The end result would be a deeply personal web of lines in different colours. But given the shortness of time I have for making art for art’s sake, it felt like a laborious task. I drew the dots though. :-)
My next idea involved painting some areas of adjacent colour, each area representing a member of my immediate family. I intended to overlay those colour areas with lines connecting the people, each line representing an interaction. I was interested to see how this would look and began a practice run on paper, while I prepared a large wood panel in the garage for painting.
However when I went to paint the wood panel over the weekend, that painting took off in its own direction and turned into something about grasslands rather than family. (More on that later, but here’s what the unfinished painting in the garage looks like in case you wanted to know.)
Well, I thought of opting out for this fortnight, but then I remembered the unfinished practice run on paper. I chopped it into strips and collected my family into eight piles. Two teens, myself, Scott, and all four grandparents. Although one of them isn’t with us any more, he is already deeply woven into the fabric of our family.
Then I took up a discarded piece of work from an earlier kick-about and began weaving the strands of the family together.
So this is my family. Though separated by space, and even time, we are woven inextricably. Our colours harmonise and clash depending on the day and on which other threads are adjacent, but we strengthen each other over all. And a tug on one thread, will summon help from several other threads.
Chopping sections off into small interludes was a fun follow up. Here are some mini family interactions.
Hello from Locked Down Melbourne. We are a little way off the easing of restrictions, but they are on the horizon. I cleared out and organised my linen cupboard on the weekend. It brought me great comfort. I now realise that we have about 80 pillowcases. Hmmm.
But today was the first day of spring. The hens are laying, the wild birds are fiercely courting, nesting, and engaging in aerial warfare. The garden is in uproar where Scott has been landscaping with giant rocks. The garden is his sandpit. And also his linen cupboard.
Oh yes! The kick-about. This was an inspired choice of prompt. We were to respond to a very lively piece of music, to blow away the cobwebs. In truth, I think I am still stuck in the Kick-About #7 Ennui, but the idea of having energy and the space and freedom to expend it is appealing. I listened to the music while walking around the local nature reserve on a windy, sunny day. It was glorious.
The fast machine was a billy cart in my mind. But that seemed too earthbound. And perhaps due to my caged bird mentality at the moment, my thoughts turned towards flight. Some little ink sketches resulted.
Once again I was planning an animation. But my computer obstinately refuses to export a video file. Phooey!
But I had revisited the work of Eadweard Muybridge earlier in the week when I was drawing running dogs for When You‘re Older.
This gave me the idea to arrange my little steampunk witch drawings into a tribute to Muybridge‘s sequence photographs. It was fun. But in the end, I felt they looked better on a plain white background.
Here are a couple of frames from the obdurate animation file.
This last image does not bode ill for my little witch. In the final frame she sits up. I wanted a cheeky smile to emerge. However, when I drew it in, she looked demonic. So I removed. it. Ha ha!
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.
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.