On notebooks: Questions and declarations

My notebooks are full of little questions I rarely go back to — and if I do, it always seems such an effort to worm my way back into the original excitement of the idea in order to answer them. I could just be drawing something new.


I’m learning, gradually, to phrase the questions as answers, even if only tentative ones.  To catch ideas as a sketch or the most fragile of outlines. To just paint the thing and see if, as usual, that solves the conundrum.


It’s a small way of staying in motion.

Found a missing cat


Found yet another style of cat (see: Once more, with feline).

This was a linocut illustration for one of my Patreon short stories.

I have quite a few deadlines still to hit over the next several weeks (fairy tale silhouettes! mosaic novel sketches! tales of dreadful substances! teaching!), but I’d very much like to get back to plying with block printing. I’m not great at it (as I’ve discussed before), but it’s so pleasing to do.


Once more, with feline

I’ve mentioned before that I enjoy drawing cats (Cats; Stray Bats). Lately, going through files, I keep coming across sketches and projects with cats in them.


They appear in a variety of media and, in some cases, distinctly different approaches and styles. Taken en masse, they function as something of a sampler (On making samplers).

It’s not just a way of offering different treatments to a client, but of exploring the subject. How much you can communicate in a silhouette will translate into a line drawing; the movement and roundness of a line drawing feeds back into a silhouette (more about silhouette drawings here: Party Portrait).


Sketches of Church for a design for Shadowhunters leggings

Similarly, producing a large cat can teach you a lot about which gestures you can select in order to produce a small cat, while making a tiny cat gives you the minimum detail you need to create a large cat — anything more is a bonus.


Cover detail for Tansy Rayner Roberts’ Creature Court novels

Or even how little information is needed to read as “cat” at all (and how to know when you’ve gone too far).

The shifting of styles is important not just when working out the style, but working out where the weight of a story is — in the picture of the cat itself, or the trail of paint below it? That might not correlate with the amount of detail in the picture.


And every new cat teaches you more about that style you’re working with, as well as about the possibilities of cats, and suggests details and poses to carry off into other styles (or tactfully leave behind).


Art and writing activities and exercises:

  • Take a small scene (drawn or written, your own or someone else’s — if you can’t think of anything, then simply imagine a cat). Make a list of styles/genres (Pre-Raphaelite, Art Deco, Pop…; Da Vinci, Mary Sheppard, Banksy…; Tolkien, Montgomery, Funke…; Hardboiled, Edwardian comedy, 21st-century travel writing…). Roll dice (or point at random) to choose one, then quickly rough out how that original scene would change when reworked in that style. Try it again, and see what happens now. What works, what shifts, what new details do you discover about the scene or the style or your own preferences?
  • Picking one image (or animal) to pursue through different styles is a lovely thematically coherent way to create a sampler for your own reference.
  • If you’re stuck indoors with other people, you could easy make this a sort of round-robin/Exquisite Corpse/Telephone game, each writing a short scene or then passing it to the next person to change it into a different genre, and then on to the next until it becomes something entirely different.
  • A game like this can of course become its own project — see for example Matt Madden’s comics book 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style (“inspired by the French author Raymond Queneau’s 1947 book Exercises in Style (Fr Eng), itself inspired by Bach’s Art of the Fugue“). And slightly less formally, Catherynne M. Valente’s “decopunk pulp SF alt-history space opera mystery” Radiance contains a backstory that keeps shifting genres as its film-making characters work out how best to retell it.



Aurealis shortlist: Stray Bats

First, enormous congratulations to all the works on the Aurealis Awards shortlist. If you need some reading, that is an excellent place to begin.


Second, I’m thrilled to announce that Stray Bats, by Margo Lanagan, published by Small Beer Press and illustrated by me, is on the shortlist for Best Collection:


It is a chapbook of splendid and fantastic vignettes, very much the right length for reading between many tasks, or when concentration is low (as well as in more optimal situations).


You can buy it here: Small Beer Press.

I always endeavour to take some credit for the accolades received by books I have illustrated or, in this case, suggested, but the nomination really is all due to Margo’s splendid writing.


Handsome and clever


This is one of a few four-panel stories I drew as a response to book and movies I read/saw last month: Read and Seen February 2020. (Some of the others are going out on Patreon).

This one was suggested by Emily Carroll’s Through the Woods, Fran Krause’s Deep Dark Fears and The Creeps, and Emma.



Flyaway news: Australian edition!


Big news about Flyaway was announced today by Tor.com:

Picador will publish the Australian Edition of Kathleen Jennings’ Flyaway

And that means a beautiful new cover (the designer for this version is Liz Seymour).


If you’re Australian and after this edition, preorder links are through here, or contact your local bookshop (they’d really, really appreciate it)!


On making samplers (of various kinds)


Most of the samplers people see today are decorative recreations of old ones. But a lot of early samplers weren’t intended for home furnishings: they were a practical record of techniques and approaches, as well as proof of the maker’s ability to use them.


A textbook (of literary devices, of art techniques, of embroidery stitches) is handy, of course.

But a roll of linen (or a dedicated sketchbook, or a file of deliberate writing exercises) goes so much further. It is a handy guide, yes, but it’s also a method for processing information from elsewhere, for knowing what it looks like when you do it to your ability and taste, of measuring that ability over time, of knowing your materials, collecting the particular approaches that you like and vividly recalling the approaches that didn’t work for you.


Covering ground

And beyond that, it’s a way of training your hands, of finding out your voice, of keeping your hands busy in quiet moments, and — sometimes — of creating a pleasing object after all.


A variety of oceans

Thoughts/exercises for artists and writers

  • Consider how you approach exercises and activities. Could you collect them into an ongoing sampler of some kind? A running document of scraps or book of creative approaches that you’ve found particularly useful? A sketchbook dedicated just to collecting watercolour textures, or treatments of bark, or clouds, or (when the times allow), people? A roll of stitch samples? Could you start a long-term one, or keep a book for just a week?
  • It’s also a nice way to dip into something you’d like to learn or be better at. Is there another medium (digital or oil or lino) you’ve wanted to try, or another genre, or something you need to know about for writing research? Or just something new and soothing you’ve idly been interested in.
  • Consider when you can work on these things? Samplers often fit into the interstices of a day — a way to keep hands busy when talking or listening or watching, something that can be picked up between activities without any pressure of date or scale or being finished, a way to follow your curiousity.
  • Imagine you are illustrating or writing a scene in which your character meets (or is) a Person Who Makes Things: a blacksmith, perhaps, or a seamstress, or a fly-fisherman. Sketch a quick outline of the scene and setting (in words or pictures). Now consider the process by which that Person Who Makes Things learned and practises their trade: samplers? master-pieces? a little trophy-wall of examples? And what does that show about them — do they love or hate their trade, work on it for joy or duty, are their samples utilitarian or whimsical? Add a few of those details to the scene, and see what it does to the texture and character of the story.