Cover Process

Look at this! My illustration on the cover!

The cover story is a fictionalised account of a real kid – John Hudson – who spent his early childhood as a chimneysweep, was sentenced to a prison ship for theft at age nine and was on the First Fleet to Australia at thirteen. The First Fleet convicts were given clothes, and fed relatively well, so in the story the kid’s feeling happy and hopeful.

I really wanted to capture that sense of peace, relief and new beginnings on the cover. I toyed for a bit with the idea of showing London in the background – a grey smog against a blue sky. And I even had some complicated ideas about the shrouds forming a metaphorical jail cell. But in the end the sails and the birds seemed to work best to convey freedom.

The trickiest part of this stage was making sure the ship was historically accurate while also forming a backdrop that was (a) clearly a ship, (b) emotionally powerful and (c) not too convoluted or distracting, especially behind the character. I had to really push the perspective to get it to work how I wanted, but I was happy in the end. It helped that I had a stack of reference photos from when I visited the Polly Woodside – thanks past me!

In the final rendering stage, I knew I wanted to stay away from black linework. I wanted richly coloured dark lines, and bright light lines. This is the little experimental style guide I made for myself before I started the final piece:

Lessons from others

I wrote a little about my Sketchbook Skool class the other day. Yesterday I had a chance to put into practise a lesson I picked up from Rebecca Green:

Art is not fragile. Nor do you only get one chance at it.

I watched in her demo as she changed her mind many times. Painted over previous sections, then coloured over them with pencil, then crayon. In her Q&A she said that changing her mind is her usual process and she can often just rework a section, without ruining the illustration. Additionally, when the materials do start to crumble, she just starts the final illustration again – now with more information about what she wants to do with it.

I started the final of this illustration yesterday, and it felt like my second pass with paint was an absolute disaster. Hence yesterday’s post. But I sucked it up and decided to push the piece as far as I could, in the hopes that I’d learn something from it. What I learned was that the second pass wasn’t a disaster at all. It just needed more. I layered and scrubbed and scribbled and scraped and smudged and painted over mistakes. It turned out really well!

Today I’m gonna have another go at the same piece. I probably won’t post it again, unless I learn something really cool. But there are some things I want to try. I want to change the drawing a tiny bit, and I want to test some different ways of handling the pencil textures.

The Psychological Side of Things

So much of the creation of art is just mind games with myself.

Right now I have, of course, reached a point where I’ve managed to develop several sketches pretty well into actual drawings. This is, definitely, a huge success.

Unfortunately I’ve become very attached to them. I really want them to work. I really want to capture that emotion and convert it into a picture. I really want them to become finished pieces of art that I can share and show you and be proud of. I know that these could be great illustrations.

But, of course, that’s not the point at the moment. The point is to push myself to learn to finish illustrations traditionally. I have just (admittedly half-heartedly) attempted that with one piece and… it’s not going well.

And so I get scared. I worry that it will never work. I procrastinate because I don’t want to fail and I do nothing, because that’s psychologically easier than trying again. I put in a half-hearted effort because why try hard?

Fortunately, I knew this was going to happen, and wrote down why I am doing all this at the beginning, so I could refer back when I didn’t want to anymore. And so, here is the essence of my why:

I really like a lot of traditional pictures I’ve made. I want to be able to do that consistently, and for imagined scenes. I want to explore my own artistic voice in other mediums. I want to see if I can transfer my sketch style into finished pieces. I want to sit down, without a computer, and create something beautiful and meaningful.

Right now, of course, this doesn’t feel like quite enough. But it’s a useful reminder that this is all part of an ongoing learning curve. I’m doing this for the sake of my many, many future sketches, that I will love as much as these ones.

Time to take a deep breath, and figure out a way to make this work.

Illustrating for The School Magazine

This year I’ve been very happily illustrating for The School Magazine (a NSW-based literary magazine for primary school students). I love it. I feel like there should be a lot more to say, but that’s really it. I’m learning, I’m challenging myself, I’m generally pleased with how my illustrations turn out. I’m enjoying the wide variety of texts (including poetry!) and artistic possibilities. It’s good stuff and I can’t wait til I can show you September’s illustrations. And October’s. And November’s. But for now, here are the June and August illustrations.

Nikola Tesla and his cat Macak:

A spider for a poem:

And finally, Benjamin Franklin and Frank Epperson: two historical kid-ventors, along with Brandon Cowan, a modern one!

Zoo Trips – Week 2

I only made it 4/5 days this week, but they were all very useful! I definitely understand lemur hands and feet more than this time last week.

I spent a fair bit of time chatting with the keepers, who taught me fun lemur facts (they hate water, including rain) and explained how to tell the lemurs apart. There are two with shorter tails, two with longer teeth, one who’s always a bit dishevelled, and another with a lopsided smirk. They’ve also got varied markings, particularly in their faces. I can only pick one or two at the moment, but maybe I’ll learn more in the next few weeks.

Some of the keepers asked whether I was learning to draw lemurs for a particular project. Beyond ‘learning to sketch more’ the answer was no, but now of course I’ve started to come up with one. So that’s fun too, because in trying to sketch lemurs from imagination I learn what it is that I still don’t understand about their shape. At this point the only reference I’m allowing myself is my own sketchbook, which is really showing me what I still need to learn. Mostly it’s to do with movement, and those really quick gestures, but I still have a few anatomical confusions too.

Homework!

Along with going to the zoo every day (I missed today shhhh) and setting my own assignments+exercises, I also signed up for a course at Sketchbook Skool.*

The class I signed up for had Mike Lowery and Rebecca Green as tutors, and I love them, which was basically the clincher. But it’s Vanessa Brantley-Newton, whose name I didn’t know, but whose books I have seen about the internet, that has really got into my head with useful advice. (Not that the others haven’t been great. I’m sure I’ll be back with some of their advice later. But for now: Vanessa.)

She taught herself how to illustrate for children by going to bookshops and studying up on all the books that exist. She told us about how she would dissect the way they worked, and set herself homework assignments. I felt like Anne of Green Gables finding an instant kindred spirit…

She also talked a lot about the psychological side of making art, and the importance of setting aside time to just… play with art. This is something I’ve heard other artists talk about many times before, but without any guidance whatsoever. Vanessa, however, gave a demonstration. She set herself a prompt (the word ‘ridiculous’) and collaged her way to an end result. Perhaps it was just good timing in my brain. Perhaps it was the fact that she was using collage, which I find a particularly freeing medium. Perhaps it was that she was singing one of my favourite songs as she worked. But I felt like I finally kinda understood. The point was to make something for the sake of making it. It wasn’t for anything other than herself. It wasn’t because it would hopefully lead to a big fancy project. It wasn’t going to be perfect, but it could be expressive. It could still hold meaning.

I like to solve problems and it’s generally how I approach illustration. This is useful but means that ‘playing’ always seems a little perplexing. I’ve often tried it just to end up with an unsatisfying drawing that I feel needs to be taken to my computer and worked on for several hours to get anywhere worthwhile, or I’m left with scribbly marks that have no meaning or value to me at all. Using a prompt though, and with the challenge of combining bits and pieces to cobble together the result, it really worked for me. The challenge will be to hold onto that essence when my brain wants to be ~productive~, or when I’m using a medium where I feel like I should end up with a ~better~ final result, but we’ll see. It was fun and reminded me of painting nights with friends in Adelaide. (@UnwiseOwl, yeah I’m looking at you guys).

*This is not an ad for them – I’ve also previously taken courses on Schoolism and Skillshare (what is with all the S’s?) and downloaded tutorial videos from James Gurney. If you wanna chat pros and cons and specific purposes, come talk to me in the comments. But for this specific goal, I thought a sketchbook focussed class would be ideal, and a variety of tutors would give me a bunch of different ideas, so hopefully something would stick.