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.)
The prompt for Kick-About #12 is the Cottingley Fairies! Remember those cheeky photographs that fooled everyone back in 1917? Hats off to Elsie Wright (16) and Frances Griffiths (9) for scoring a hit without the use of PhotoShop. Who needs PhotoShop when you have cardboard cut-outs and a camera?
I think of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle when this subject comes up, because I’m aghast that the man who created the most skeptical and scientific of fictional detectives, Sherlock Holmes, could be so gullible as to believe that these photos were authentic. But the truth is, if I had been around in 1917, I would very likely have been one of the people who was fooled by them, simply because I would have wanted to be.
In 2009, a friend Annabel Butler and I found a small ceramic gnome in an op shop*. From memory the original gnome was a ghastly thing; cheap and badly painted with a red slash of paint across his mouth that was about as accurately applied as The Joker’s lipstick. He was only about 10-15 cm tall. We sneaked him into the garden of a local friend and said nothing about it.
The friend was a bit of a trickster herself, so we responded with denial and polite curiosity when she asked us if we had put it there. We followed up by putting a few more in every now and then, and moving them around the garden. We were surprised when her local enquiries became a little frantic and she became spooked. So we confessed. But it turned out that her two children were not spooked but charmed by the gnomes and took to calling them fairies. They were convinced that the fairies were alive and moved around when nobody was looking.
Naturally, we couldn’t let the children down…
The fairies multiplied enormously, built huts, got married in various gender pairings, even wrote the occasional letter which had to be delivered to the letterbox via a tiny, tiny rope ladder that took Annabel ages to make. There was a Christmas feast with a musical stage show featuring some ugly clowns. Then the fairies departed because we felt they had overstayed their welcome.
But I received a note from Sass, whose garden it was:
‘I wanted to tell you how much we enjoyed our visit from the fairies and how much the girls are missing them. They are asking questions I am unable to answer and wondering if they will ever return for a visit. The garden seems so very quiet and boring now without them. So if they happened to reappear for any unforseen reason we would welcome them back with open leaves.’
They returned in a hand-made covered wagon, charred by dragon fire and set up camp again. I can’t quite understand or believe how we found the time in those days for such activities.
Looking at these photos, I’m reminded again of how seemingly unconvincing the installations were. It was the Powerful Energy of the children’s imaginations that brought them to life. How I love that Powerful Energy! And as an adult, I regularly delve into books I read as a child in an attempt to recapture the Power. I am forever hammering on the back of the wardrobe, so to speak.
I’ve made a couple of new ‘fairies’ for 2020, the stranger-than-fiction year. Possibly due to the poisoning of my mind by doom-scrolling through US election news, my 2020 fairies are a pair of Dickensian style villains, sloping back into the forest after getting up to goodness knows what… (Perhaps he is carrying a sack?) The female figure, superficially posing as a pretty thing, with gossamer wings and a lacy apron, has overly long stick insect arms and carries a thorny crook/trident. The male of the species is wearing a lacy collar that droops down in a hairy way from his neck. But the rest of his torso is naked and a bit bloated.
I tried the image out with my viral pattern overlaid in the background. I like the way it makes the scale of the figures ambiguous. It could be dandelion seeds or similar, or perhaps it’s a light effect in the sky. But I think I prefer the image without it. It takes it a little too close to 1960s psychedelic picture book art, and I’ve always preferred the more restrained 1950s art.
Apologies to my email subscribers if you receive this twice. Due to operator error, the post became a draft again. And now in order to make it visible, I have to republish it. Hopefully that doesn’t mean it comes into your inbox again.
Does it look enticing to you? TRAPPIST-1e is one of the most potentially habitable exoplanets discovered so far. Your descendants may be living there one day. It is similar to the size of Earth and closely orbits a dwarf star named TRAPPIST-1 which is not as hot or bright as our sun. One side of TRAPPIST-1e faces permanently towards its host star, so the other side is in perpetual darkness. But apparently the best real estate would be the sliver of space between the eternally light and the eternally dark sides – the terminator line where temperatures may even be a cosy 0 °C (32 °F).
The artist’s impression above reminds me of a polished marble kitchen bench, albeit one from which all of your plates and utensils would slip off. It looks cold. It makes me want to crawl back into bed, snuggle up and feel grateful. However, it is beautiful.
I started painting some plants for this new world, and I imagined that they would all be turning towards the dim light of their star. So I made a world where everything was evolved to point in one direction only, sucking up the warmth, the light, the energy; a single-minded yearning, shared by every living thing on the planet.
It made me ponder on humankind’s perpetual yearning, which leads us to disaster over long roads and short. If only we could all focus as readily on the majesty and wonder of the world that we already inhabit. There was nothing I could paint for this new world that could rival the natural wonders in the one we already have. I made the new inhabitants – refugees from Earth – look on in wonder. And then, because of their pose, looking upwards within the vivid setting, it put me in mind of a propaganda poster. which made me laugh.
Thanks again, Phil Gomm! This took me on a pleasurable journey this afternoon. I‘m posting this a bit early because I won’t have any more time to spend on it later in the week.
The prompt for Kick-About #10 is one of Joseph Cornell’s boxes from 1946 titled ‘Romantic Museum’. I have a book of Cornell‘s bird boxes, and I love it, but I hadn’t seen this box.
Every person‘s experience of a work of art is different. Nevertheless I can’t help wondering how many people may see ‘mass isolation’ as I do in this piece – viewing it now, during a pandemic. I see a hand stitching quietly, small, intimate objects, windows and walls and another window over the entire thing. And finally a cloud of black sand infiltrating everything. This prompt was chosen by artist, Vanessa Clegg. I will be interested to read what she has come up with.
My response to this piece led me to paint a series of hearts partly hidden behind or framed by window shapes. I was thinking of them as hearts as I was painting, though they didn‘t look like hearts in the anatomical sense, nor as pictograms. They represented all those people; their feelings, quietly beating away, hidden behind windows and walls. A lot of them were in shades of red, but they changed to blue and other colours.
I started thinking of all the ways hearts are described. All those corny yet evocative terms…
smouldering • aflame • stony • black • blue • hidden • heavy • bursting • in flight • weeping • broken • united • wounded • beating • battered • lifted • stolen • promised • given • taken • tender • gentle • faint • brave • open • loving • pure • of glass (thanks Blondie) • rotten • twin • frozen • bleeding
Then I thought of all the combinations I could have, starting with Blue Tending to Black. How about Pure – Frozen, or Stolen – Smouldering, Stony and Promised… but I realised That what was really giving me pleasure was the layering and texture. No surprises there. Layering and texture have been a focus for me for quite a while and are very evident in my most recent book illustration.
In particular, I was using a fan brush to very lightly drag layers of watercolour and gouache across the painting. The delicacy of the fragmented lines entranced me. Also the way the colour changed as the paint dried, as gouache will do. It made the painting feel so alive. Each pass with the brush partly obscured the previous layer, but did not completely cover it. It felt like a metaphor for life. Which is really what artists are grappling with every day. And probably partly explains their angst! Every decision is a little goodbye to the past that cannot ever again be recovered exactly as it was. And a hello to a new possibility, that just may be more beautiful yet.
The passes with the brush became slower, more deliberate; crossing over left to right, top to bottom. Always with the heart in the window in mind. Then I found myself weaving.
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!
This is Noodle. Her origins are unknown, and we adopted her as a ‘beagle mix’ three years ago. Probably she has a fair bit of staffie in her and perhaps Jack Russell Terrier. I have said that I‘ll get her DNA tested one day to see what she really is, but perhaps that would disappoint. We have always called her The Beagle.
Here she is, in the arms of a shelter staff member, after having done her time as a stray in the pound. If you think her front leg looks a bit weird, you’d be right. Shortly after this photo was taken, her deformed front leg was amputated. Just ten days later, we adopted her, with stitches running half way around her torso. Very Frankenweenie.
We had hopes that she would be an up-close-and-personal-couch-companion for the family. In this expectation she has never disappointed. Despite the fact that there are frequently arguments over who will get The Beagle, (and not just among the children… ahem!) she manages to share herself around with admirable diplomacy. But her skills do not end there. She has a cat-like ability to make herself comfortable which is seemingly enhanced by the lack of one front leg. She‘s able to curl up into a very satisfying ball.
Like anyone loitering around this house for long, she is frequently used as a model for drawings and she has appeared in various books.
Legend has it that beagles have a hearty appetite and a talent for mischief. Along with this they have a politically dangerous belief that they need not obey the directives of humans. In this they may be ahead of their time, and not for the novice dog owner. In plain language, they will raid wastepaper baskets, chew up your cushions, take your dinner from the table if you leave room to fill up your wine glass, and won’t come back when you take them to the park for a pleasant stroll. In the absence of genetic proof, we have always found this legend to be the most compelling argument in favour of Noodle being a beagle.
Yesterday I was working in my studio with the fire burning. Everyone else was in their Remote School or Remote Office*. But Noodle‘s favourite too-small-bed-by-the-fire was empty. Upstairs I heard the curious noise of rustling paper. I hastened towards the noise and found that Noodle had opened the lid of the kitchen pedal bin and helped herself to the aromatic baking paper we had used to line the oven tray the night before. (Chicken kiev). Given that the bin is considerably taller than the three-legged, genetically unconfirmed beagle, I considered this no uncommon achievement. Bravo, little Beagle. You have made it.
*Dear reader from the Year 2025, Remote School and Remote Office were plush-lined space ships that hovered over suburban homes in 2020, wherein people went to work or school. Although small pets were generally welcome, Noodle could not manage the rope ladder.
Here we go with another Kick-About prompt from Red’s Kingdom. It comes at a good time. I‘ve been working productively during Melbourne’s two lockdowns on my picture book project When You’re Older*. The project has leapt forward dramatically, which is satisfying, but I needed a little break and a breath of creative fresh air. The disconnectedness and anxiety that many of us are feeling as a result of the pandemic and the world news are pretty wearing, even to an introvert like me.
The prompt is Cicada, and those little creatures are old friends at this stage. I spent two weekends working on this prompt. The first one I spent learning some animation techniques, and my original intention was to make an animation by selecting material from Searching for Cicadas**, either working with some of the unused artwork, or developing a page from the book.
But on the second weekend I wandered in a different direction. It began with thinking about cicadas in a less realistic way and thinking about drawing some She Cicadas in the style of my Metropolis Bird Women. Then I thought about the unique, and seemingly magical qualities of a cicada (in particular, its life cycle and metamorphosis) and how easily cicadas might fit into a fairy or folk tale. I haven‘t written anything like that since The Woman, the Chicken and the Grapes. And it seemed the perfect break from intense illustration work.
However, I was forgetting my tendency towards perfectionism (strangely combined with a loathing for neatness, exactness or fussiness), and so, Kick-About time is up and the fairy tale is not complete. But never mind! Here are some images I began for it and I’ll work up the text a little more before posting it.
Cheerio for now. Time to get back to the snowy scenes for When You‘re Older.
*When You‘re Older, written by Sofie Laguna, to be published by Allen and Unwin. ** Searching for Cicadas teaching notes here and you can purchase at your local bookshop. If you are in lockdown and need to buy online, in Australia you can find a local bookshop here or check out this page. If you‘re in the USA there‘s this page and it may include other countries too. Let me know.
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.