Category Archives: creative process

An Intoxication of Elements

(or Kill Your Darlings)

Poor dangling darlings

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.

I started with this.
Then I made some smaller embellishments. The wet one was key. I wasn’t so chuffed with the one on the right. But we’ll see. Mmmmm.
I’m looking for that HEAVY draped look. So heavy, the ship is just drifting slowly, groaning, becalmed.
Wait, I might want the weed to drape deeper, and and to curl forwards to enveloping the mermaid. So here are some wild and woolly tentacle-weeds.

Then I put them on the image, with the ship and a few mermaids. (This is a corner detail.)

There are already too many mermaids, but the weed is making me tipsy.
Deep dark squelchy, wet bits contrasting with hard, branchy drawn bits
Oooh, that purple is going crazy in there.

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!

Searching for Cicadas

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.

Portrait of the artist as a very young person, before I illustrated this book.

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.

The skeletal pencil and ink background of a spread from Searching for Cicadas
Ghostly shadows of the child figure for the same spread
The spread with colour and characters added

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.

Dirt and pine needles between the toes. Nothing beats bare feet.

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.

summer days in the country with my brother and Mum. I have no cherry earrings on in this photo.
Soundtrack: cicadas, magpies

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!)

Camping with Pa: bliss!
Soundtrack: cicadas, magpies

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.

This was my favourite cicada. He didn’t make the cut. I think it was because he had just a bit too much personality for a non-fiction title. He is my little friend.

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.

Me with my grandfather, the irrepressible Pop Worrall who wasn’t with us for long enough. We never went camping but we did lots of swimming together.

Leonard galumphs into bookshops

I nearly wrote ‘Leonard dances into bookshops’. But then I remembered that Leonard Doesn’t Dance… or does he?

Leonard doesnt dance detail.jpg

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.

This lovely cover was designed by Hannah Janzen.

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.

Here are some of the lolly birds from the white cover design. Some of them found their way onto the new cover anyway. Perhaps you can spot them.

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!

Here I am

After the longest time!

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.

Leonard and the Can-can pigeons

Detail of the can-can page from Leonard Doesn’t Dance by Frances Watts

They look like this.

Leonard colour page sample

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.

‘Disappointing Flowers’

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.

repeat pattern lores

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.

8-9 tree shapes lores

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.

Yes. I think some of them are Call Ducks.

 

Thunderstorm Dancing is Two

Or nearly two years old.

thunder-cat-2-type

I have been AWOL for a while, with back surgery and other challenges to deal with. So although Katrina Germein had asked me late last year to do a little sketch of the Cat Called Thunder to use in celebration of the second birthday of our book together, I had not until now been able to work on it.

It seemed a friendly little task to use as a portal back into work, so I cleared the drawing board last week, (quite some task!) and set about trying to draw my little Cornish Rex again.

It takes me some time to learn to draw any of my book characters in a way that speaks true. And I have found also that after enough time has elapsed since that intensive process of making a book, the character is lost again. I can recognise him or her perfectly; can spot an imposter a mile away… but that doesn’t mean that I can make my hand produce the authentic version (below) on demand.

thunder puss page in progress

In most cases, this really doesn’t matter. And I wasn’t too bothered about creating the perfect Thunder picture for a birthday invitation, (indeed the cat in the book varies considerably in scale and type) but it was a nice exercise and got my fingers inky again.

I did a lot of sketches and none of them really captured him in his entirety. The little sketch below captured his lively personality (and undershot jaw!) but the body was incorrect.

thunder-head

Here are just a few of the doodles. You will see that at some point I began suggesting the number 2 in various ways.

2-years-old-1
A cheeky Crouching Cornish.

2-years-old-4

2-years-oold-3

The Contemplative Cornish

2-years-old-2

The flick-of-the-wrist Cornish

2-years-old

The Crafty Cornish (he was meant to be contented and sleepy looking!)

2-years-old-4

A chunky Cornish… A Cornish Cob?

dog cat sketch thunder birthdaythunder cat with giftthunder cat with straight tailthunder catThunder with big red 2

Since none of them hit the mark perfectly, I coloured up three of the best. (See top and below) I’m not sure if this design makes it look as though Thunder is pooping out a fish bone. I hope not, as this could be painful. He suffers for my art. *sigh*

And my favourite of the sketches looks nothing whatever like the original character, and is the Flick-of-the-Wrist-Cornish who is like an exclamation mark come to life.

Purrs to you all. And I will see you soon!

thunder-cat-two-chunkythunder-cat-crouching

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.

Cheerio!

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! 

morso-1430.jpg