Observation Journal: The evolving review, art process, sparks

These three observation journal pages are all a review of the same two art projects, and hammering out more of the best way for me to review projects.

The first was my illustration for “On Pepper Creek”, which is now out (with its accompanying story, also by me) in the South of the Sun anthology of Australian fairy tales from the Australian Fairy Tale Society and Serenity Press). I’ve posted about the art process for that illustration here: “On Pepper Creek” — illustration process.

Pencil drawings of trees and waves and creatures with long tails.
Process sketches

The second was a scratchboard illustration for the World Roulette art exhibition and book (from Light Grey Art Lab). I’ll post more about that once the parcel of books arrives.

A snipped of the illustration

The first page was a quick exploration of the difficulties of not having an art director, and therefore having to make decisions myself. I realised that in this situation I frequently take two designs to quite an advanced stage before committing (or letting the deadline commit me). See also this small discarded skull.

Left page: Two men carrying a chair, crossing a flood plain

I then followed up with a few thoughts about why I chose the final image, and what I liked about it.

  • In one case, I chose the simplest idea so that I would still have time to do my second choice if it didn’t work (in fact, I drew several final versions of the first image, getting it to look as simple as I wanted it to be).
  • For the other, I chose the design I most wanted to spend the materials on, but ended up using the most complicated technique.

The main things I learned were:

  • On the day: Overcomplication is part of how I get things done, and so to leave room for it, within reason. (Efficacy > efficiency.)
  • In retrospect: I need to more consciously seize the reins of projects without the voice of a strong art director. I learned this more thoroughly later, but the beginnings of the realisation are here.

The next day, I decided to review other aspects of the projects, realising (although not learning) that one page was not enough for two projects.

Left page: Uber Eats’ “Your orders” symbol looks like the ghost of Ned Kelly

Here I looked at likes, alternative concepts, difficulties, dislikes, and things to try. A few themes are the ongoing pull towards denser folkloric designs, the desire for movement, the value to a piece of committing to a strong style for that piece, and the use of space.

I also wanted to leave more room to think about “why this one”, i.e. why this design. So I added it on the next page, the following day.

Left page: “Your name on rice”

As suspected, this was an illuminating question. As when I looked for the sparks in writing ideas, it has the potential to speed up the process (I’m sure I’ve posted about this, but maybe it’s still on the way). But completing this page also gave me some guidance around choosing projects when working under pressure.

A few highlights:

  • Playing with the space on a page, and/or filling the space pleasingly.
  • Fluidity/movement AND a sense of ornament.
  • A strong stylistic choice.
  • The pleasures of the material.
  • Limits on what I needed to think about.

Writing/drawing exercise:

  • Look back over a selection of your drawings/writing/other creative projects.
  • Jot down a few notes about what appealed to you about that idea: what made it spark, why did you choose it, what about it made you keep going?
  • Are there any patterns to those reasons?
  • Choose a few of the strong or common reasons. See if you can retro-engineer an idea that meets those requirements. (Here, for example, a strongly narrative wallpaper design would meet my criteria above, and is in fact a thing I often stumble into playing with — and I’ve finally signed up for some actual lessons about classic pattern design). Do a quick sketch of it (in words or writing.)
  • Bonus: Flip those criteria and repeat the exercise above. (For my criteria, that would result in a sort of overcrowded and deliberate ugliness.) Can you do it? Do you hate it, or are there things in it you’d like to try? Does it define the edges of why you mean by those criteria (for example, the point where a detailed all-over design becomes crowded)?

For posts on finding the spark in a project, see also: Sparks and navigable worlds, Do it for the aesthetic #3, Giving ideas a push, and A tremor in the web,

Note: If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a Patreon account (patreon.com/tanaudel) and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and I get through quite a bit of coffee).And/or check out prints and products available at Redbubble and Spoonflower.

Musical werewolves — a game for one or more players

Recently I was driving while feeling disappointed in a werewolf movie, and tried to distract myself by imagining every song on the radio was over the end credits of a better werewolf movie, and attempting to reconstruct it from there.

This works with almost any song. I’ve played it with friends in cafes with a Korean jazz playlist, and again alone today, reading Terri WIndling’s Tunes for a Monday Morning over on Myth & Moor, and later listening to Triple-J in the car.

So, for example, Martha Tilston’s “The Sadness of the Sea“.

This would be an elegaic story, in which the werewolf families sadly assume wolf forms permanently and retreat into the receding wilderness.

Declan McKenna’s “Beautiful Faces“, however, would clearly suit a story in which a group of youngish monster hunters, after some high-key-colour adventures, patch themselves up and head out for a dangerous/glamorous night on the town.

I find the game works best if you only listen to (and don’t watch) the videos, and is the most fun if you choose the songs at random.

Observation Journal: Drawing from other images

I often use the observation journal to work out ways to vary activities, and swap them between media. (I recommend that as a general creative exercise in itself — picking a task from some other field of creativity and trying to swap it into your own.)

This page was a continuation of the mixed metaphor activities, playing with visual recombinations (see: Variations on descriptions, more swapped descriptions, and similes and genre flips). However, because I didn’t really choose a target object, but just explored combinations of two concepts, it does skew close to simply mixing and matching for new ideas — see: Improbable inventions.) But that’s okay — I was feeling out the edges of the activity.

Basically, I took two items at random from the last few observation (left-side) pages, and considered how they might influence each other in an illustration.

So for example:

  • “ferns + pressure hose” suggested the vigour and angles to use in a drawing of ferns, affecting the composition, and leading to a little bird being driven forward in the general momentum.
  • “startled” and “dog with ball” suggested the use of more exaggerated body language and facial expressions when drawing someone who is startled (or joyfully chasing a ball).
  • “Beads” and a person who “always takes off their jacket in the shade” suggested using shade more deliberately (obscuring details), adding details of beading and missing/fallen beads on a dress, and generally adding extra movement to someone dropping beads.
  • This then turned into a note about a Cinderella who is always dropping things — hairpins, beads, etc. Presumably, this was to make the lost shoe in-character, but the following note says (evidence? Gattaca?).

Writing/art activities
(nb these are mostly variations of previous exercises, so you can find examples of similar approaches at e.g. Sketching the people glimpsed from the corner of your eye and variations on descriptions)

  • Stealing descriptions 1
    • Make a three lists of five things from your day: things seen, heard, and done (this part is adapted from Lynda Barry’s Syllabus). Or just look around you.
    • Pick two items at random.
    • Consider how you could use one of those objects to draw the other — do a few sketches. (For writers, consider how would you use one to visually describe the other, and write a short paragraph.) You can be as literal or lateral as you like. The sound of clanging steel could suggest the way light might reflect off an object, for example, or the deepness of velour might incline you to deepen the shadows.
    • Try two or three variations for each pair.
    • If any suggest more of a world or a character, or echo a story you know, pursue the connections and see where you end up.
  • Stealing descriptions 2
    • Choose two objects at random (e.g. a teapot and a cat).
    • Describe or sketch one literally.
    • Then adapt that description (e.g. of the teapot) to the second object (e.g. the cat) changing as little as possible. (For writers, start by just swapping out the nouns).
    • See what possibilities or impossibilities you end up with. Develop the sketch/description further if you like.
  • Borrowing at large
    • Think of another field of creative endeavour (or even non-creative). Quilting? Shearing? Search for some exercises, activities, or tutorials in that field.
    • See how much of that exercise you can adapt into your own writing/art/other medium. Can you follow it literally? Adapt crop rotation principles to a work schedule? Use a traditional patchwork pattern to suggest a story structure or scene composition?

Note: If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a Patreon account (patreon.com/tanaudel) and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and I get through quite a bit of coffee).

More Midsomer sketching

Here are a few more Midsomer Murders sketches (season 22 episode 4). As ever, the rule is that I can’t pause the show.

Previously on Midsomer Sketching:

Midsomer Sketching

More Midsomer Murders sketches! These are from episodes 1, 2 and 3 of Season 22.

I’m really enjoying these speed-sketches. I started them mostly to get/keep in practice using the Procreate app (I’m sticking with a traditional media base for my art, but there’s always some digital editing). TV sketching, however, does require faster reflexes than actual cafe sketching, because while the models viewed from a cafe do walk out of view, the scene is rarely actually cut mid-stride, and there’s no fancy camera work. On a show, however, the views and clothing are more varied, and occasionally the camera angle and lighting are dramatic. Also, it’s cool to look back at a few pages from a single episode and see if there are patterns or colour themes.

(And of course it remains a useful way to draw when excursions are limited.)

The rule continues to be that I am not allowed to pause the show while sketching.

Previously on Midsomer Sketching:

Observation Journal: By whom and to whom

On this observation journal page, I was thinking about by whom and to whom stories are told (whether in words or pictures).

(A quick note: The examples in this are pretty light: just me riffing on fairy tales. The exercise does, however, also lend itself to thinking more deeply about who gets to tell a story and who listens — and to remixing that.)

The page
(I’ve transcribed the lists — see the bottom of this post)

I’d been thinking, recently, about points of view, and the voices of slightly unexpected narrators. This was mostly because I had been reading Kim Scott’s Taboo and Maria Dahvana Headley’s The Mere Wife (a really interesting pair of books to read against each other). I’d also just reached the section about narration in Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer.

First, I made a list of 20 people who could be telling or listening to a story (keeping it fairly general, but with a fairy-tale retelling in mind). As usual this got out of hand and escalated to 45. Then I made two story-specific lists, for Little Red RIding Hood and Rapunzel.

After that, I mixed and matched entries from those lists to end up with, for example, “What the washerwomen at the ford told Little Red RIding Hood’s mother” (my favourite LRR is where she runs over the river on sheets held by washerwomen), or “What the kitchen told the prince” (which would turn the extended attempted-murders version of Rapunzel into a crime scene investigation).

The typed versions of the list are right down at the bottom of the post.

Use

It was a lot of fun doing this, both seeing the potential immediate impact on story and purpose, but also how well it worked for editing — suddenly contracting and clarifying a story, suggesting a form it should take or a hidden (or overt) agenda. Even if I don’t change the narrator, referring back to this exercise is useful for strengthening my commitment to what I have written or sketched. (Tangentially related: reversing the (ideal) audience). The exercise has also made me more aware generally of the possibilities and ramifications of considering point of view and purpose. And it’s remained a useful exercise for new and ongoing projects, even (or perhaps especially) where I want the narrator to remain largely behind the curtain but still have a bias, either for subtle drama or my own amusement.

Art application

All this applies to illustration, equally. There are obvious art/point of view overlaps, of course, but there are also deeper narrative impacts: Consider the focuses in the stories told by the ” nurse” of Hokusai’s “100 poems explained by the nurse.” And see also previous posts on Viewpoints and Thinking About Points of View.

Narrators and observers

I’ve typed up the full lists at the bottom of the post, but as with most of these activities, making the list is one of the most useful parts of the exercise.

Art/writing exercise

  • Version 1: Generalities
    • Consider (broadly) the general type of stories you like to work with/read.
    • Make a list of types of possible narrators and audiences (keeping them all in one list is more exciting). Push for 20, but keep adding more if you like. (Or use my list below.)
    • Pick a scene of a story you are working with/enjoy, or choose a fairy tale you might retell/illustrate..
    • Choose two items from the list at random. They are now the teller and the audience.
    • Sketch (a paragraph or a drawing) a scene from the story as it might be told by and to those characters.
  • Version 2: Specifics
    • Choose a fairy-tale you might wish to retell/illustrate (or another story idea you are working with). (If you’re in a hurry, use one of my stories and lists below.)
    • List the characters in the story — include main, secondary, and background/implied.
      • Bonus: Expand the list by adding other significant/necessary/implied/intriguing settings and objects from the story. (Animals can go into either list, as appropriate.)
    • Choose two entries from the list(s) above at random. The first is the storyteller, the second is the audience.
    • Sketch (a paragraph or a drawing) a scene from the story as it might be told by and to those characters.
  • Version 3: Silliness
    • As for version 2, but use a list from a different fairy tale.
  • Bonus
    • Note how the story might shift or change, what secrets and agendas come into play or become possible, what parts of the story drop out of view or become important. What changed about actual physical viewpoint, or mood, or tone? Does it deepen or shift understanding of details of the world of the story?
    • Follow some of those changes through the rest of the story, and consider what larger consequences they might have.
    • If you tried both versions (general and specific), which approach was easiest to work with? Which more vigorously changed how you presented the story?

Birds-eye view of a pigeon

Below are the (personal to me, and not comprehensive) lists of potential tellers and audiences.

Continue reading

Observation Journal — similes and genre flips

This observation journal page is a late-night variation on previous exercises with flipped descriptions.

Like most late-night writing activities, it got a bit silly, but it was fun, and it turns out to have underpinned some more recent explorations.

Two page spread of densely handwritten observation journal. On the left page, five things seen, heard and done, and a drawing of a cat. On the right, the exercise described.

First, I picked items at random from the left-hand page, and tried to work them up into a simile, e.g. clouds like uncurling ribbons. Those comparisons, being drawn from daily life, tended to still be based in it. (I do find this exercise useful for building and describing a vivid world. I’ve elaborated on it in Variations on descriptions and More swapped descriptions.)

Then I reworked each sentence twice: once for a science fiction setting (from a ridiculous old testing-ground of a story) and once as some sort of Regency fairy tale.

So e.g. “steam uncoiling like a galaxy”, further flipped into “a galaxy uncoiling like steam”, and then “ice softening like unstarched lace”.

I wasn’t looking for a 1:1 equivalent, obviously, but something that approximated the original phrase.

(The Xs between the sentences are where I put the sentences into the wrong column, because if you think the phrase “ambulant laser-truncheon” is inconsistent with a strictly Georgian setting, you would be entirely correct.)

Right page of observation journal, with three columns and a variety fo flipped descriptions.

As I said (and as you will see if you try to read my handwriting, which isn’t necessary): a lighthearted little exercise. But it is a fun activity to keep your mental fingers limber (good for car trips and conversations with friends if they are those sorts of friends, i.e. the writer equivalent of theatre kids), and it is an interesting way to practice thinking about the structures and textures of a world, and the differences between genres, and to fine-tune word choice and tone.

Ballpoint drawing of a cat rolling on its back.

Like most creative exercises, the activity seems to translate between writing and illustration.

Writing/art exercise

  • Pick two observations/things around you at random, and work out how they could be similar. Writers, build a simile/metaphor. Illustrators, look for ways you could draw one thing using the shapes, textures, etc, of the other. (For more detail on this, see the activity in Variations on descriptions.)
  • Pick two genres you like (or two distinctive story worlds — your own or someone else’s). It could be clipped noir and bushwalking nonfiction just as much as something fantastic.
  • Consider your original sentence/sketch. How could you create an equivalent effect in those other two genres/worlds. What objects/textures belonging to those settings or aesthetics could you use or invent?
  • Bonus round: Repeat the exercise a few times, from the beginning. See if you notice any patterns in how you approach it, or the world, or the stories you seem to be telling. For example, here I found that the descriptions very quickly began to feel as if they belonged to a larger underlying narrative. That exploration wasn’t the point of this exercise, specifically, but I’ve found those patterns instructive to keep an eye on (as much for identifying strengths and things to explore as for finding habits that should be shaken up).
  • Bonus bonus round: Pick two very close genres (or even two moods in the same setting), and look at the changes needed to shift between those.

TV sketching — backgrounds

Midsomer Murders — The Sting of Death

I’m practicing with the Procreate app by sketching during shows. Usually I draw people (see: Beyond the Main Event and Sketching Mysteries), but this time wanted to shake myself up and test my (very low) tolerance for drawing backgrounds by sketching sets and buildings instead. The rule for TV sketching is that I can’t pause the show, which makes this mostly painless.

Midsomer Murders — either The Point of Balance or The Miniature Murders

Also my visual memory is indifferent, so I can’t tinker with the drawing for very long after the scene changes. But sometimes it also means I only capture the telling details. Sometimes. (See also: Lots of little bad drawings.)

Midsomer Murders — The Sting of Death

As with most sketches, I find a little colour can do a lot of work — explaining, unifying, contextualising. Colour, more than line alone, is a great aid to memory — both for recalling what I was looking at, and for remembering (or wanting) to look at that particular page of sketches.

Midsomer Murders — The Sting of Death

It’s also been illuminating to work out which bits of architecture I can and can’t extrapolate. Dormers I can work out from first principles, but windows are a more chaotic proposition.

Leverage — The Underground Job (I think)

Art/writing exercise:

  • Try to capture a range of settings from a TV show without pausing the show.
    • This can be in pictures, as above, or in a few jotted sentences — the things that leap out at you, the way you’d capture and describe that place.
    • It’s an interesting little workout, and a pleasant way to keep my hands busy when I don’t want to completely zone out during a show. Also, even if it’s a show set in places I like, I still find it makes me draw (or describe) places I wouldn’t ordinarily choose, and adds them to my mental thesaurus. (So far, I find murder mysteries particularly good at rolling through a range of interesting sets in an episode.)
    • (This is kind of what Travelogues is, of course, if you replace a TV screen with a train window.)
  • Bonus step: Make a note of what was easy and what was difficult (architectural terminology trips me up), and what you enjoyed and resisted.
    • I find this part of exercises occasionally surprising, sometimes affirming (I don’t want to spend my life drawing horizontal blinds), and frequently a checklist for deliberate research.

Observation journal: patterns and textures

This observation journal page is an actual observation page.

On a recent page, I’d made a note to look more closely at noisy miners in future (see: more swapped descriptions). They are very common, and I’d fallen into a habit of thinking of them as drab grey birds.

Pen sketch of a honeyeater
Patterns on a honeyeater, from a previous page

They are not.

Handwritten double page spread. On the left, five things seen, heard, done, and a picture. On the right, sketches and notes of patterns and textures.
Left page: Fried chicken and gravy and cornbread.

I made two quick drawn studies of some of the patterns I could see: first on the bird, then on the sofa.

Then I repeated the exercise, this time making written descriptions of the surfaces I could feel — both texture and temperature. The cool smooth varnished floorboards, with a faint impression of the grain, the slight rib(?) of buttons of close-set nails. The chalky-dry matt-satin of turquoise beads.

Sketch of a noisy miner and some cushions on a sofa, and handwritten notes on pattern and texture.

It’s a pleasantly meditative little exercise, just touching the surface of the desk and thinking carefully of words to to describe it.

It also complemented previous thoughts on the importance and possibilities of surfaces written and illustrated (see: Surfaces and Variations on Habits).

Writing/illustration exercise:

  • Look closely at some of the surfaces around you (look up and under as well as around). Sketch or briefly describe any repeated patterns (decorative or otherwise). (If you can, repeat the exercise both inside and outdoors — I found it much easier outside, and with live subjects.)
  • Touch a few of the surfaces (using common sense). What textures are there, and what temperatures? Try to sketch those, or capture them accurately in words.
  • Bonus rounds:
    • Look at a favourite painting or photograph. Try to imagine and describe/sketch some of the textures in it.
    • Pick a scene you are writing or drawing. See if you can put some of those textures/patterns into it.

Note: If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a Patreon account (patreon.com/tanaudel) and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and I get through quite a bit of coffee).

Observation Journal — sympathy for characters

These two sets of observation journal pages are considering why I find some characters sympathetic.

Short version:

These are three ways for creating sympathetic characters that I found particularly interesting:

  • Authorial kindness for (although not necessarily to) characters.
  • Characters who value each other. (This demonstrates why the reader might care, but also creates something new to protect.)
  • Villains on their worst days. (Unwilling sympathy.)
Three pen drawings of a moustachioed villain, one with an arm-cast, one in pouring rain.
Moustache-twirling villain on (a) moustache twirling and (b) and (c) on bad days

Long version:

I’ve broken down the notes in more detail below (and there’s an art-or-writing exercise at the end).

Continue reading