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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
Planning a heist.
Deconstructing your favourites.
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.
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:
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.
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!
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.
A few weeks ago I gave an illustrated map workshop at the Queensland Writers Centre, for about 18 people in person and over 50 online (I bound around and build things on the floor, so a big shout-out to Sebastian for keeping up with the camera, and relaying online conversations and generally doing the hard work of wrangling me!).
The map workshop was specifically illustrative and narrative rather than scientific. I am neither a cartographer nor a geographer, and do not claim to be! My own maps are pictures of the spaces where stories happen — not just the physical place, but the idea of it, and the sort of things that could happen there.
The workshop was a splendid mixture of ages and interests — a thoroughly enjoyable selection of people, because of how all those experiences and abilities and fascinations bounce off each other. I had a few epiphanies about my own work process, too (particularly in relation to written ‘maps’).
There were people who left with map designs to ink, and people who left with stories to tell, and a whole range in between who played with all sorts of skills — communicating through images and drawing tiny things and thinking through a physical space and looking at a world and breaking open a story.
Several attendees have very generously allowed me to post extracts from their sketched maps. I wish I could show you all of the designs that were emerging! While we started from the same story and landscape discussion, there was such a wide range of choices, solutions, storytelling, worldbuilding, linework…
I do so love the “Far Away” label here — the way it frames the map, so that this is where the story is happening, but there is a larger world ‘altogether elsewhere’. It adds an extra level of framed-ness to the story (and a faint breeze of possibilities). The unmistakable little people, doing just what they need to (chopping, laundry), the house with its veranda, the receding perspective acknowledging that the high country is merely a backdrop to Events. Meg’s notes are also heavily drawn.
Consider this corner of Asia Ren’s map:
The varying weight of the pencil lines here are great. Those mountains — scribbly they are, they are DEFINITE, and suggest a certain type of massive, aloof, mysterious horizon as they recede into the background. The boil of the waterfall, the distinct darkness (almost three-dimensional) of the lair, the specificity of the path being a cliff path…
Watching the class consider the different levels and dimensions of the landscape spins out so many questions and takes and stories.
Here’s a slice of Toni Risson’s map (the rectangle borders of this map are themselves on a skewed perspective, which also suggests many possibilities).
What keeps catching me here are all those beautiful curls in the river — suggesting the flow of water, of course, but also making a distinct ornamental choice. The houses have two clear architectural types. The sense of action — the axe mid-swing, the wolf with its attention drawn. This is to be a world caught at a moment of suspended motion.
Megan Badger’s labels delight me:
The drawings here are very clear and instantly communicative: those boats and that fish, the neatly fenced vegetable garden! This map is about the mechanics of the world, all the things that are going on alongside and behind the story — “mum’s wholefoods”, a crossroads for deals, the chant of the washer women (the possibilities of recording sound on a map).
(Also: If anyone else from the workshop reads this post and is willing to send me their map/thoughts, I’d love to look at some more of these details — and if you sent through your pictures but didn’t include a preferred link to your online presence, just let me know!)
Please note, it is an illustrative rather than a scientific cartography workshop! I am neither a cartographer nor a geographer — my maps are big pictures of the spaces where stories happen. BUT you do not have to be an illustrator or even able to draw particularly well to take this workshop — you just need to be willing to draw and break open a world. I will be teaching some drawing tricks, and mostly it’s about story.
The Brisbane Writers Festival is back — and done for the year (it’s staying in May, now, and next year is the 60th anniversary). It was lovely to see people again, and sketch in the cafe, and listen to talks on history and life, poetry and family.
I usually have difficulty remembering what happened on a panel, but many people said lovely things about it afterwards, and there were some excellent questions.
I do remember one question on how you judge the parameters of magic/myth when writing it into a ‘real-world’ story. We all had different answers, of course — the fairytales in Melissa’s novel were specifically contained and retold within a historical, non-fantastic setting; Tabitha followed a theme and let the elements grow; I talked about (a) developing an ear for certain types of stories, so you can hear when you strike a false note, and (b) letting the magical elements sit in the setting/story until they start to change each other — and following the consequences.
There was another question, too, on the purpose/use of myth and fairytale. Melissa was specifically dealing with the way fairytales were used to communicate and argue around the restrictions of a society and royal censorship. Tabitha was using them as a way to allow the processing of grief and loss, and the preservation of what is mourned. I spoke about their usefulness as a template, because I find it more organic to use a fairy tale as a structural key than to think about acts and arcs — that’s a matter of familiarity and ease. But I also got onto another favourite topic, about how there are points in time where people sort of agree on how certain stories are to be told (you see it when artists agree what the basic cat should look like, which makes medieval cat drawings look implausible, until you meet cats who look just like them). I find that having a sheaf of alternative templates (fairy tales, for me) lets me shake those ideas loose, and look at them in a different light. So, for example, people are starting to tell post-lockdown stories, and those are starting to converge. But you could pick any number of fairy tales and retell the story through that: “Rapunzel” is an obvious one, but “Little Red Riding Hood” would work just as well (the year that was eaten by a wolf), or even Cinderella — I had just broken new shoes in at the start of 2020, and now I’m having all sorts of problems wearing them again.
A particularly memorable panel I went to was “Out of the Wreckage”, in which Kelly Higgins-Devine interviewed Margaret Cook’sA River with a City Problem: A History of Brisbane Floods and Jamie Simmonds’ Rising from the Flood: Moving the Town of Grantham. I still have very vivid memories of the 2011 floods (as well as being cut off, I’d started at the Department of Transport and Main Roads just days before they happened, and since something like 95% of the state’s transport networks were affected by that year’s rains, it was a crash course in the department’s responsibilities!), and was tangentially involved with some of the Grantham relocation. It was a vivid and compelling discussion (and surprisingly entertaining), so I am looking forward to reading these two.
I’m giving a narrative map illustration workshop for the Queensland Writers Centre on 19 June 2021. It will be face to face at the Queensland Writers Centre in the Queensland State Library (Brisbane), but the event (and me bounding around drawing on boards and building small worlds, while pursued by the videographer) will also be live-streamed.
Please note, it is an illustrative rather than a scientific cartography workshop! But you do not have to be an illustrator or even able to draw particularly well to take it — you just need to be willing to draw and break open a world. I will be teaching some drawing tricks, and mostly it’s about story.