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.
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.
Paul Coppens, founder of the Melbourne Philharmonic Orchestra, composed a piece of music to accompany the children’s performance, and provided a full orchestral backing track. The result was spectacular.
I wasn’t able to go up to see the performance, but I have seen a video on Paul’s website. You can see it here. (You’ll find the ’Thunderstorm Dancing‘ link at the bottom right of the screen.) It is only six minutes long and a delight. Thank you so much, Paul.
It makes me so happy to see the book used in this way. It is ideally suited to the classroom. The end of the performance is a stroke of genius by the teachers. Bravo!
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?