Podcast episode: conversation with Amanda Niehaus

art by Kaylah Del Simone

My episode of Science Write Now’s Conversations podcast is live! I had lovely conversation with Amanda Niehaus about observations and story textures and narrative moods, and some of the topics touched on in the observation journal essays they reprinted in Edition #5.

You can listen on their website, or on Google, Apple or Spotify.

2021 summaries — workshops, lectures, panels

I took a break from regular class tutoring this year in order to meet art and writing deadlines, and also it was, well, 2021, so this was a fairly quiet year on the workshop front. However it is virtually impossible to get me to shut up, and I did have the opportunity to present workshops to some excellent people.

I’ve linked to posts about the workshops. This list is subject to update, because I’m sure there were more panels.

Pen drawings with bits of maps, clouds, compass roses. A sheep on a solitary island with "Map of the Last Lonely Island". A stag running down a beach with a label that leads to "Elsewhere".

Workshops and lectures

Photo: State Library of Queensland

Conferences, panels, readings, sketchings

Concordia Lutheran College residency

The girls’ boarding houses used to be behind the school, so I was not used to seeing the actual front of the school (Redlands House) every day

One of this year’s big projects was the week I spent up at Concordia Lutheran College in Toowoomba as artist and writer in residence.

It was a new experience for all of us, and as a result turned into an extremely intensive but very entertaining week. 11 workshops for students and a talk to parents and teachers was… a lot, but I learned so much by doing it, and had a great time.

The giddy exhaustion was compounded by the surreal quality of being back at my old boarding school, and how little had changed. The uniforms and computers were different, but the Year 12s were still discussing Green Day in the corridors, and the art hallway smelled as it always had — of soapstone powder.

The magic lantern (left) was probably the most useful object I took with me.

Some general notes

  • I ran the workshops at a fairly high level — trying to keep them accessible and useful, yes, but also giving students a crash course in what I do for a job.
    The students were absolutely up for this — the year 10 and 11 fine art students bravely went through a compressed illustration process (with demanding art director), the year ten English students (while in some cases physically climbing onto each others shoulders) got deep into the guts of the gothic, and the year 4s broke down the phrase “rust-scumbled silos rapunzeled by vines” like nobody’s business.
  • I did learn quite a bit about running school workshops vs more self-selected sessions, and also the approaches needed for over 30 participants (better suited to a talk than a workshop, because there isn’t time to interact the way I like to) and under 10 (which allows more tailoring around what the individual students want to learn). The students and teachers were universally engaged and involved (and the librarian marvellous!).
  • It is SO NICE having mixed ages in workshops, whether combined year levels or having a teacher sit in as a participant — it shakes everyone’s self-consciousness out a little bit AND it means I have someone not a student I can call on for the first example, which gratifies the students. (Thank you to the teachers who walked into that trap.)
  • The observation journal provided some incredibly useful activities and material for workshops, and the short stories I send out to some patrons were the perfect length for examples and demonstrations — another benefit of doing lots of small things regularly.

Monday and Tuesday

Dragon-powered magic lantern

On Monday and Tuesday I was on the primary-school campuses. I gave two 2-hour workshops each day: year 5s in the morning and year 6s (with a couple of very dignified 4s mixed in) in the afternoon. The student drawings with this post are from the year 5s on the first day.

This workshop was on “Making the Mechanical Fascinating” and included:

  • Terrible speed drawing
  • What is machinery?
  • What is the fantastical?
  • Finding (and swapping) the best examples
  • Recombining objects
  • Why is a bulldozer like a dandelion?
  • Creating poems
  • Terrible and Wonderful inventions.

There were so many fabulous ideas and a LOT of energy, and a surprising willingness to break down a sentence or two I’d prepared earlier (Travelogues does a lot of what we did in this workshop, so I mined it for examples). 

My sketch based on an idea by one of the Year 5s: A ghost with a clock where its face should be


On Wednesday I did Narrative Recombination with Year 11 English for nearly 2 hours. This included:

  • Choosing stories with personal “mythic resonance”
  • Close-reading of some paragraphs and pictures from my work (where I do this)
  • Breaking scenes down
  • Building scenes and stories back up again (in groups)
  • Identifying the mood-movement of a story (to hack beginning/middle/end)
A ballpoint pen lying on a very tiny 6x6 grid of drawings of map elements

I also took ALL the year 7s through Small Drawings, Big Ideas, a reworking of the workshop I did for Words Out West. It involved:

  • What is a story (an extremely broad definition that included sports matches and building a house — necessary with a group of people who haven’t chosen to be at a creative workshop, but also useful for the rest of us)
  • Your favourite things (vs other people’s)
  • How to draw small and fast
  • Coming up with new favourite things
  • Creating stories you like

Then in the afternoon I gave the year 11 art students a Gothic Birds Accordion Book workshop. This was based on the “Book of Marvellous Birds” workshop I’ve given before, but targeted to people who should know how to draw, and also very genre-specific.

While many of the other workshops incorporated free ideas and mixed up art and writing, this workshop was an introduction to working as an illustrator of other people’s stories.

Topics covered included:

  • Drawing fast and bad
  • What is Gothic imagery, and how to tweak it
  • Kathleen ad-libs a short Gothic story, and an art brief
  • Identifying scenes to illustrate
  • Thumbnailing
  • Rolling an image between genres
  • Adding more story to an image
  • A quick art show (such fun)
All the activities were versions of approaches I use on projects


In the morning, I did an Australian Gothic Birds writing workshop with the year 10 English students. This had a lot of elements (‘sustaining cultural context’, the Gothic, Australian Gothic, birds, writing…), and it was the workshop I worried most about. Fortunately (given the principal sat in on the whole workshop!) the kids took it and ran, and it went very well. It featured:

  • Identifying the Gothic (and your favourite bits of it)
  • Involving Australian birds (there was a surprisingly strong anti-emu contingent)
  • Combining elements (with examples)
  • How to cheat at writing setting (i.e. close-readings of paintings)
  • Rolling a scene between genres
  • Story patterns
  • How to quickly build up a story from your idea (there were some lovely ideas, but the most memorable one involved the Prime Minister turning out to be a murderous kookaburra sleeper agent)

The year 8s, a smaller group, got a slightly calmer reprise of the ideas workshop I did with the year 7s the day before.

Then, with the year 10 art students, I did a slightly more intense version of the Gothic Bird Book I’d done with the year 11s — the year 10s having already had a crash-course on the Gothic that morning.

Then on Thursday evening I gave a presentation and Q&A over wine and cheese to a group of teachers and parents, who were lovely, welcoming and very interested in the possibilities for children who want to get into the arts (me: it’s hard work, sure, but I can’t say it’s harder than law).


Glimpse of observation journal — I was colour-shifting steampunk approaches

Finally on Friday I had a very small session with some self-selected year 9s. It was a lovely casual session, combining mechanical and fantastic elements.

Sketches from the quad

Then I had a smidgen of time to sketch students over lunch in the quadrangle, before going back to my motel and falling deeply asleep.

In summary, it was a great week, with fantastic and supportive students and teachers and librarians. I was able to test and develop a number of ideas and workshop approaches, and it was lovely to go back to a place that had once been, for a few years, home.

I used to be library monitor here and water the plants with a hook-topped watering jug, so this was cool.

Celebrating Mother Thorn — online on 1 December 2021

On Wednesday 1 December 2021, there will be an in-conversation between Karen McDermott (publisher at Serenity Press), Juliet Marillier and me! It will be on Facebook live and should also be on YouTube — I will update with that link when I have it. Edit: Now available to rewatch on Facebook.

It is at 12pm AWST (Perth), 2pm AEST (Brisbane = no daylight savings) and 3pm AEDT (Sydney = daylight savings). For everyone else, you’ll have to calculate it from 4am GMT/UTC! (Timezones!)

And in the meantime, you can read more about the (Ditmar Award-winning!) Mother Thorn here:

The book is available from Serenity Press:

This Saturday! Festival of Cancelled Events at Avid Reader

This Saturday 9 October 2021, Avid Reader is holding a Festival of Cancelled Events for authors who had books out in the last year (and I’ll be reading!): interstate authors will be reading online (with a watch party at the shop) from 4-5pm and local authors will be reading in-person and online from 6-7pm AEST (NB for those watching online, there is no daylight savings in Queensland!)

Bookings need to be made separately for each event, and links to the Avid Reader events pages are below:

Join our interstate author guests Bri Lee, Amani Haydar, Fiona Murphy, Jenny Valentish, Caroline De Costa, Clem Bastow, Nicola West and Sophie Green for an afternoon chat about launching new books during a year full of lockdowns.

Join our local author guests Mirandi Riwoe, Kay Kerr, Trent Jamieson, Kathleen Jennings, Christine Jackman, Laura Elvery, Claire Christian, Hugh Breakey and Anita Heiss speaking into the night about their latest books.

(We’re watching outbreaks so all events are, of course, subject to the obvious possibility.)

School sketches — Concordia

My week as artist in residence at Concordia Lutheran College was wonderful (lively, inventive, intense), but without much time for drawing. So, since I finished just before lunch on the Friday, I sat out in the quadrangle and did some very quick sketches.

The uniforms have changed since I was there (ours were brown, white and yellow). (Also I hardly ever sat in the quadrangle when I was there — I mostly spent lunch hours in the library).

I don’t draw groups as often as I’d like to, but it’s always worthwhile — the different attitudes and interaction, the necessary speed.

The flocking which happens in any group of people with overlapping interests, but concentrated, like birds wheeling on the sound of a bell.

QATA workshops — a brief account

The Queensland Art Teachers Association invited me to give a workshop on my observation journal at their 2021 conference — an exciting invitation to receive, and great fun on the day. It was an honour to be able to sit in a few talks and watch over the shoulders of teachers developing their craft, and also to demonstrate to them how I approach my observation journal, and learn a little about how they approach teaching art (very useful, in fact, for a later set of workshops).

I gave two 2-and-a-quarter-hour workshops, running through how I structure and use the journal, with plenty of activities and a focus on art rather than writing. I based it on the original presentation I gave for SCBWI Qld early in the year, but that was for a mix of writers and illustrators. Illustration and writing are fairly interchangeable in how I approach them, but given this was a presentation for art teachers, it was good to be able to swap in a lot more (and new) journal pages with plenty of pictures, and shift the focus.

Observation journal pages yet to be posted about in detail

Here’s the fancy description:

This workshop will introduce participants to an observation journal technique. It’s an easily adaptable approach I have been using and teaching to record and reflect on the world and my creative process and practice(s) — not only to catch those thoughts, but to build on them to develop process, materials, techniques, theories, ideas, resources, and more. It is designed to be manageable, personal, practical, adaptable, entertaining, and useful.

An actual studio space at South Bank TAFE, and my own sign

All the participants were wonderful — interested, interesting, willing to try anything, full of practical questions and feedback (so very useful when giving a presentation to people in a field adjacent to your own!), and so very open and various in their approaches to the activities and art. Also, after keeping us on track by neatly avoiding a clear speculative fiction distraction, I instead accidentally brought all the Midsomer Murders fans to the surface.

I was there as an illustrator demonstrating how I work, but beyond that, I had two main aims with the workshop:

  • to demonstrate how the journal works as a set of tools for people who want to keep thinking creatively about their own art — i.e., for creative teachers; and
  • to show its use in ongoing learning, theorising and explaining of artistic work — i.e., for students.

But I also wanted to make sure everyone was drawing from the start, and tangling with the activities (because the journal is really more about working out how you prefer to work than about adhering to strict rules). I’m hoping someone has photos of those exercises that I can share at some point, but I was too busy bounding around the room.

Observation journal pages yet to be posted about in detail

After I introduced myself and covered some of the context and origin of the journal, I explained the journal structure as I use it (observation; activity; review), and possible further uses of the pages, as well as some of the practical results of having kept the journal.

We then looked in more detail at some of the categories of reflection and exercises — general and targeted observations, ways to make notes that are creatively useful, the many applications of lists, the uses of favourite things, mixing and matching for ideas, examining finished work, learning from your own process, acquainting yourself with your materials…

The observation journal involves a lot of gradual building-up of activities, thoughts, and approaches, so it’s interesting to try and convey that in a workshop using short activities. But there were plenty of those, which included:

  • Bad birds.
  • Tools.
  • Observing.
  • Planning a heist.
  • Lists!
  • Deconstructing your favourites.
  • Terrible remixes.
  • Scurrilous aspersions.

Edit: some of these appear in some form on the blog, or will in the future. The ones I’ve written up AS exercises are under the writing exercises/art exercises tags (they should lead to almost exactly the same group of posts, so choose whichever link you like). Others are adaptations of general (and/or forthcoming) observation journal posts, the introduction to which is here.

Here I am, looking ridiculously excited to be at an actual conference again. I had to get a COVID test the next day but it turned out all I had was a case of having talked for five hours.

Thanks again to QATA — and, to give further credit where it’s due, here some of the books which helped build aspects of the journal, as recommended in the workshop:

Next Library updates

Photo: State Library of Queensland

The fine people at the State Library of Queensland have now posted at length about the Next Library Camp, including sketches (by me!), photographs, and some of the presentations and creative projects: Next Library.

There are also shorter posts about participant experiences on the Public Libraries Connect Blog, and many photos at the Next Library Camp Flickr album (in case you’d like to compare them to the sketches.

Photo: State Library of Queensland

Here is my earlier post with details from the sketchbook: Library sketching — Next Library Camp at the State Library of Queensland.

The sketch page I was working on in the photo above (and the State Library photographer, Leif Ekstrom)

A few more uses for the observation journal

Just a few pages

The original purpose of the observation journal was to demonstrate a feasible approach for students who’d been set observation journals for assessment (the early days). It turned into a place to consider, reflect on, adjust, tinker with and riff on written and drawn stories, and other aspects of how I work. (NB: Words in bold throughout are a list of journal uses, so that I can easily find them again.)

From there it became a source of ideas for articles and material for blog posts. It’s served as a very handy set of tools for fixing problems on other big projects. Something I continue to like about this approach is how it evolves and adjusts to my needs and interests at any point in time.

Over the last few weeks I’ve given a number of workshops to writers and illustrators (at the Queensland Writers Centre), to art teachers (at the Queensland Art Teachers Association conference), and to English and art students (from grades 4 to 11 at Concordia Lutheran College). I’ll post more about those soon.

A few of the workshops

The observation journal has been invaluable for preparing all of those workshops.

Indirectly, it has been the place I worked out how to explain my own techniques and working theories. More directly, exercises I refined for my own uses have turned into workshop activities (see writing/art — either tag will bring up most of the same posts).

Other pages have taught me what sort of questions to ask after doing an activity — a little mental stockpile of approaches and variations. And the physical pages themselves have become a voluminous stock of material to serve as references, examples, illustrations, and ornaments for slides.

This wasn’t particularly planned. Largely, it’s a demonstration of the (occasionally unexpected) usefulness of simply tinkering away at something, adding to it little by little and bit by bit. One of the other benefits of small things.

But I’ve learned, now, that (a) keeping on learning and thinking about how I work and (b) remembering to go back and sift through those thoughts for material, is a very useful way to develop workshops that are on topics I want to talk about!

Back from Toowoomba, trailing ghosts

I’m newly arrived back in Brisbane (just in time for a snap lockdown!) after a wonderful but intensive week as artist/writer-in-residence at Concordia Lutheran College in Toowoomba — my old boarding school.

I’ll post more about it when I’ve organised my thoughts and have some photos from the school that I can share. However it was a wonderful week of workshops with grades 5-11 (and incredibly supportive librarians and teachers) on writing, ideas, the illustration process, using drawings to write and narrative structure to draw, and industrial fabulism, and the Gothic, and the Australian Gothic, and Australian Gothic Birds. The students went all-in, and developed ideas for some fascinating (and not infrequently horrifying) work.

I am now going to sleep very thoroughly. But to keep you awake, here’s a quick sketch I did based on one of the ideas the Grade 5s had, of a ghost with a clock where its face should be.