Royal Show 2018

I went sketching at the Royal Show yesterday and even took my paints. The School Paraders gave me an opportunity to sit down in a peaceful place and sketch some fairly still subjects.

I’m still enjoying not immediately posting my sketchbooks online, but I gave this painting away to the mum of the competitor so I wanted to record it now. Especially because I was proud of my milestone of painting outdoors without a table.

Process: SCBWI Entry

I posted my entry a few days ago, and mentioned that my process had become kinda shaken up, in a good way, by Blaugust, so I wanted to document it in a little detail.

The idea of the contest was to illustrate a story in three images. The story must be on the theme ‘misunderstood monsters’ (inspired by Frankenstein), and it must show: dilemma, conflict and resolution.

I started during Blaugust, with a general brainstorm of monster characters and plot points. What type of monster can I have? What kind of story do I want? I latched onto the idea of a monster protecting its babies (or eggs) from human action and being misunderstood as simply hating humans. From there I got excited about princesses and dragons and different ways that humans and dragons could come up against one another (mining etc). I researched different historical views on dragons and got sidetracked learning about King Tamar and medieval Georgia and just focussed on learning about that to spark ideas. Here are my sketches at this stage:

New regent is faced with killing an old ally to protect her people.
Going off to battle.
Messier, but the idea is that she’s looking at a hatching dragon egg. The dragon has taken pity on the foolish young regent and decided to explain her actions.

(You can see that a lot of the compositional ideas stayed with me even as the setting changed dramatically.) At this point I considered adding an advisor character, got a little frustrated by the ‘why’ of the story and – inspired by Shaun Tan – decided to write some accompanying words to clarify it all in my head. These words actually stayed through the whole process and you can see an alternate version of my entry on tumblr.

betrayal comes as questions

how could she?

why would she?

they are rhetorical, but you do not notice

it’s only later you realise

there may have been answers

Then I threw the whole thing up in the air and tried to work backwards from the text, creating a different story in a different world. I no longer wanted to be working in a medieval setting and I kinda wanted a modern or steam/cyberpunk story. I write a lot of notes in my sketchbook when I’m brainstorming, which is kinda cool because I can follow back my thought process later.

“dragon was useful because it’s a crest and also a monster. the juxtaposition is built in.”

“I can’t quite figure a way to give it the gravitas of medieval royalty”

and then on the next page:

“it’s her own invention! it IS Frankenstein (…) she created life that could create life.”

And that was basically the final key to the ideas in the narrative. A few more pages of sketches and miscellaneous ideas (what kind of monster, again) and I sketched something that set a visual tone for me and created my main character:


I designed the robot from pterosaurs (the true dragons) and bats and birds. And then I finalised the compositions using ideas I’d already generated earlier.

At this point I also had to actually render the pieces. And this was the most scary part, but also maybe the best news of the whole project, because it was more fun than rendering has been for me for a long time, much quicker and less stressful on my body, and I liked how free it felt when finished. It’s mostly made of watercolour elements that have been scanned in, resized/rotated and layered over (and sometimes inverted). On top of that I added the main characters in digital paint with digital pencils over the top.

I still have a lot of experimentation to do, and I don’t think I’m going to render every picture this way from here on out. But it was an enjoyable way to build a piece and I liked the sort of photo-negative vibe it gave off, leading me to feel like the whole thing was taking place in an industrial cold-war type setting.

Taking my time to let ideas percolate was really useful and led me down paths I wouldn’t have otherwise gone. Using words to help me attach emotions to the pictures was also interesting, and I think it really helped me distill the concept in my head. And I’m excited by the prospect of using traditional materials more in my work. So, good stuff all round 🙂


Day 21 and I’m flagging

Blaugust is beginning to fall by the wayside. I’m not too upset about this because I feel like it served a pretty useful purpose, and the reason I’m struggling to blog is because I want to spend all my time experimenting and making art.


So today let’s just talk about that. On the weekend I went out with my watercolour set for the first time and did the two images above and below this paragraph. I sat with my brother in a warm food court and we sketched a rainy Melbourne. On the practical side of things I learned that it’s good to have more than one sketchbook, so you can swap between them as paint dries. I brought them both just so I had options and it turned out to be really useful. On the art theory side of things, I mostly learned that I should go out and do this a lot more.


At home I’ve been trying to stretch myself out to more complicated scenes in traditional media, with characters, settings, and lighting. I’m working purely from reference at the moment, and am loving Jamie Oliver’s recipe books as a source of interesting reference material. This picture was done from a lovely atmospheric photo in Jamie’s Italy and, while there are a lot of flaws, I think it’s a good starting point. I’m getting to a good value range and, above all, it’s just fun to paint a full scene in my sketchbook. It gives me a taste of what I could get to.


I’ve been using my black pencil a lot, and I also want to experiment with shadow lines in blues and purples and browns. And I’ve gotta remember to use pencils first and then crayons, because you can’t use pencil on top of crayon…

All in all though, it’s going well, and I think maybe (for all that I set new goals just the other day) it’s a good idea to run with experimentation + reflection for a while, and then dip back into theory once I’ve let myself find my own way.

So see you sometime soonish, maybe. But also maybe I should just stop attempting to predict what I’m going to write about because I could equally be back tomorrow with theory 😀

Day 19: The Learning Process

The thing about learning something new is that you just have to do it a lot. I’ve been experimenting with different types of paper, different types of media, trying to make myself use colour, and finding ways that feel right to me.

Ostensibly I’ve been researching the medieval Kingdom of Georgia, but it’s really been much more about putting paint down on a page and saying ‘oh no, that’s not what I meant at all’ to myself lots of times. Learning.

And I finished a mini sketchbook. (I made it myself from a bunch of different types of paper!)

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Reference images: Tamar, St George, Oshki, Vardzia, Katskhi Pillar, Shatili, Caucasian Agama (1,2,3), Georgian horsemanJvari Monastery, Georgian helmet, Gelati Monastery, Bolshoy Thach. Some of these links are sensible, others definitely don’t lead to the original image :/

Some overall thoughts

As always when learning something new, the quality varies hugely. I did put up every page even though my pride really didn’t want me to. Inconsistency is such a struggle, because you get so proud of how you learned to do something right! And then you do it again and it’s a disaster.

Patience and excitement go a long way, as does confidence that an error will not render the page worthless. So much of it is psychological, and panickily trying to ‘fix’ an error inevitably makes everything much worse. Staying calm is important, but so is caring about the end result. It takes effort to get things right, so I’ve got to stay engaged throughout the process.

I really like toned paper and white charcoal pencil, which is not that surprising. Way back when I first started to draw, my parents sent me art supplies for my birthday, including two toned paper sketchbooks and some black and white charcoal pencils (thank you!). I prefer the (less smudgy) black coloured pencil now, but it’s basically the same. And, actually, I’m still using the same white pencil, although not for much longer because it’s getting small. I’m going to start working more like this, even though it’s not bringing colour into things. I enjoy it so much that it seems silly that I’ve not been practising with it. And even without colour, the ability to use light and dark lines is pretty relevant to the directions I want to go in.

I like the watercolour on toned paper too. Probably because it helps me get a bit of unity in the piece, and keeps my colours from being too bright. I still have a long way to go on mixing colours to the value and hue that I want, and I’m considering just limiting myself to three or four colours (from my palette of 11) for a while, so I can get some of that unity and learn to mix things with fewer variables to worry about. I can always add extra colours over the top with pencil and crayon anyway.

Paper (and which side of it I’m working on) makes a big difference. I’m going to just let this go for now and keep using bits and bobs of all kinds of definitely-not-designed-for-watercolour-paper because I don’t need these sketches to look fancy, and I think there’s a hardiness you can learn from using whatever paper is around.

And now, onto another sketchbook!


Day 17: Pause, and Begin Again

This was always going to be a bit of a mess. You can only form the coherent storylines once the process is complete. But I can take stock of where I’m at, what I’ve learned, and start wandering in other vague directions.

Big Blaugust Lessons

The things that I really want to hold on to:

  • An illustration needs a purpose (an emotion, idea, or narrative) and communicating that purpose is more important than communicating that I have any particular technical skill.
  • Style and technique are there to serve the goals of the picture, and my overall artistic goals, rather than ends in and of themselves.
  • I need fodder to make interesting illustrations. Drawing observationally, as research, and from life, gives me material to pull into illustrations. I shouldn’t just draw within narrow research bounds, but more widely to give myself ideas.
  • And I need to draw to practise seeing. I need to draw to practise knowing what I care about in a scene, and to experiment – in a low-stakes situation – with how to represent that.
  • I can spend more time on individual illustrations than I have been. I can do many roughs, including colour roughs. It’s important to take my time in order to render in a way that feels right to me, rather than rushing it through in a way that I don’t really like.
  • I’d really like to get better at traditional art.
  • Experimenting with new materials, new techniques, new ideas is A+ good stuff, and that’s where a lot of my development comes from.
  • It’s important to get good enough at the things I don’t care about so that they fade into the background and don’t attract attention away from the things I do care about.
  • On that note: it’s okay to care about some parts of a picture more than other things. Necessary, even. I should stay curious about what things I personally care about, and be aware so I can amplify or tone them down to fit certain illustrations.
  • It’s worth chasing the things I care about, and continuing to try to build them into my practice, even if I’m not sure how.

robot ruin1.jpgWhat were the goals again?

  1. Figure out the kind of stories I want to tell
  2. Consider the pieces of art I really like, stylistically
  3. Analyse the way those styles and techniques support the stories and emotions they’re conveying
  4. Tie this all together by doing studies and experimenting with new techniques

Have I achieved them? I’ve definitely done a lot of 2 and 3, but there’s a lot more to cover. I’ve been doing some of 4, though you haven’t seen much evidence of it. And 1… well, the realisation that pictures need to be about things rather than about skills has just sort of done away with this as a question that needs to be answered. I was looking for an answer like ‘oh, yes, draw people-based stories from Ancient Civilisations, sometimes fantastical’ and then I could start ticking boxes within that category. But that all seems backwards now.

In the rest of the month I’d like to expand on points 2,3 and 4, by considering elements of illustration I haven’t yet investigated.

I want to look at different methods for creating contrast and leading the eye. I want to look at various ways that illustrators seem to consciously step away from realism, and their reasons for it. I want to focus on some specific things like illustrating people and illustrating in greyscale. I want to go back in history to other art movements/illustrators I like and see what they have in common with modern illustrators I like. I want to do some studies of individual illustrations to really get into the nitty-gritty of how it works. This is a slight change of topic, but I also want to reflect a little on organisation of materials, projects, folders etc and how to make it easier for myself to create. And I might start posting some of the sketchbook experiments I’ve been working on.

robot ruin2.jpg

That’s a lot of stuff and I’ll be busy volunteering at, and attending, the Melbourne Writers Festival in the final week of August, but we’ll see how it goes 🙂