Look at that! I’ve jumped seamlessly from Kick-About #28 to Kick-About #36 without a single kick!
I was busy there for a while. By putting just about every other thing to one side, I have finished my picture book project for Allen and Unwin, and I’m very excited that I will have an advance copy of When You’re Older in my hands in late November this year. So Hip hip hoorah! But more on that another day. This rather hasty post will be about surrealism and the language of dreams.
The theme is Sheila Legge, seen above in costume in 1936 as a ‘Surrealist Phantom’ in Trafalgar Square to promote the opening of the 1936 International Surrealist Exhibition … Should I call it a costume? Because she is a living work of art, the living embodiment of a Salvador Dali painting Printemps nécrophilique.
I’m sure I’m not the only one to be having vivid dreams and nightmares at the moment. Melbourne is currently still in lock-down while we wait for enough people to be vaccinated against Covid-19 to allow us to step out without swamping hospitals and losing many more lives. Unlike so many others around the world who are facing real danger and hardship, I am here, at home, living in a kind of paradise with a partner in full time work, a roof over my head, a vista of green outside my windows and the company of my family. For all this I am truly grateful. Nevertheless the night time world of my dreams is a wild one – a Rousseau Paradise, rather than a Fragonard. This was even before I started re-reading short stories by Angela Carter and Leonora Carrington… Ahem.
So there’s a coincidence! Just when I was reading the short stories of Leonora Carrington, who met Max Ernst and became involved with the surrealists in 1937 at the age of 20, the Kick-About veered into the very same territory with Sheila Legge.
All I have to offer the Kick-About today is the beginnings of a… something… featuring some bird-headed, flower-headed women. They will possibly eat one another. I may add colour if there’s anything left of them by tomorrow. (growls softly)
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 #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
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.
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.)
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!
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.
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.
There were once a woman and her son who loved chickens.
One day the woman looked at the grapes in her fridge and decided that they were no longer appetising enough for her family to eat. So she and her son took some of the grapes out to feed to the chickens in the garden.
Because the garden was on a steep slope with a hard driveway running through it, the grapes were inclined to roll and the woman and her son laughed in delight to see the chickens run up and down the hill chasing the grapes and one another.
But after a short while, the woman noticed that one of the chickens was standing still and jerking its head in an uncomfortable manner. And although her son laughed to see the chicken dancing, the woman saw that this was because the chicken was trying to dislodge a grape that was stuck in its throat.
The boy picked up the chicken and saw that foam was accumulating in its throat as it struggled to breathe. The woman took the chicken and tried to reach a finger down its throat to retrieve the grape. But the throat was too long and too narrow. Then she saw that the bird’s comb was turning blue and that it would soon die if she could not clear its airway. So she gently but firmly blew once down the bird’s throat.
Although this inflated the chicken momentarily in quite a surprising way, it did not dislodge the grape and the boy began to cry. Then the woman in desperation, felt amongst the feathers on the front of the chicken’s neck. She found to her surprise that the grape was very easily detected and she quickly pushed the round lump upwards into the bird’s mouth and out onto the ground where she stamped it flat before another chicken could take it.
The bird began to breathe again and sat contentedly in the woman’s arms as she comforted the boy. Soon the boy stopped crying, and the chicken began scratching around the garden with the others as before.
The next day, the woman saw the remaining grapes in her fridge, which were not good enough for the family to eat, but yet not poor enough to throw onto the compost heap and she said to herself. ‘I will not make the same mistake again. This time I will cut up the grapes so that they do not stick in the chicken’s throat.’ And she pulled out a large chopping board and a very sharp knife and began to slice the grapes.
But the grapes began to roll about the board, and the woman was hard put to cut them without losing them onto the floor. So she held each grape closely and cut them individually saying to herself, ‘a job worth doing is worth doing well’. But holding one grape a little too closely, she accidentally cut off the very tip of her finger and she bled and bled.
The chickens did not mind the blood, nor the tip of the finger. Not a single chicken choked on a grape and there were three eggs in the nesting box that day, each with a yolk as round and yellow as the sun.