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.

Combined sketches

Having some fun. These quick iPad sketches were to demonstrate ways to combine ideas (for an upcoming workshop). Above, a drum-horse and floral cart. Below, laptops meet ornamental mirrors.

Art process: a small discarded skull

Hand holding cut-paper skull, in black paper, crowned by strawberries

This little cut-paper skull was one of two designs I worked on simultaneously for Light Grey Art Lab’s Pandora’s Box art swap. I still find it very charming, but I had envisaged the design in colour and couldn’t get that to work the way I wanted.

Skull coloured in natural colours, and purply-blues.

The way I coloured this silhouette was to cut it up digitally into the different colour areas — I include bits that will overlap, to make a cleaner join. 

Then I run those through a vector program individually and layer them back in Photoshop — this gives a smoother edge than I get if I just colour it directly in Photoshop (I strongly suspect there is an easier way to do this, but this works).

Here are the four layers:

The trick here is to put an identical dot in each section. You can see it at the top right of each colour. This makes it much simpler to align the layers!

Once they are stacked together, I add texture and shadows, etc. 

In the end, I went with a pen and ink design, but the purple skull is beginning to appeal to me.

You can find the collections on the Light Grey website, and throughout the show, works will be available on the online shop as special mystery packs. You can check out the mystery packs here! And select pieces will only be available at Light Grey Art Lab in Minneapolis. 

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).

“On Pepper Creek” — illustration process

South of the Sun: Australian Fairy Tales for the 21st Century is now published and released (and can be bought)!

A particular shout-out to Lorena Carrington who did so much wonderful art & design AND illustrator-wrangling for the book! You can also support her on Patreon.

The anthology includes my short story “On Pepper Creek”, a story of a preoccupied (and morally ambiguous) family and an anxious (and amoral) stowaway.

It was a slightly tricky story to illustrate because (a) it’s mine and (b) it’s about something that largely isn’t seen (also, to the extent it is seen, I was picturing it in Emily Hare‘s style).

Here are some of the early thoughts I was working through.

16 ballpoint thumbnail sketches

As usual, I was charmed by the idea of doing a silhouette, and started working through the design for that, but as much as silhouettes leave to the imagination, they make it difficult to outright disguise something, unless you want it to be thoroughly camouflaged or confusing. Also, I was getting stressed by some other deadlines.

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

In the end, I decided that since this was my story, I could have as much fun with negative space as I wished, and just hint at what was within.

The final illustration was in pencil and watercolour, and I did a few versions, until it was as loose as pleased me.

So here is the final illustration for “On Pepper Creek”, in South of the Sun.

Pencil and watercolour drawing of a long hairy arm and clutching clawed hand reaching towards a red spinning-top.

Difficult dogs

Cardigan-ish Corgi (lower sketch)

Alex has requested a “corgis by moonlight” calendar some month, and I’m not saying dogs aren’t fairy-tale standards, but even the usual suspects aren’t easy to draw in a way that look as poetic as they sound. There’s a lovely literal/metaphorical interplay in some fairy tales, and illustrations can sometimes pin that too clearly to one interpretation. (Eyes as big as saucers, I’m looking at you.)

In Juliet Marillier’s Mother Thorn, where “Copper, Silver, Gold” takes the story of “The Tinderbox” as its starting point, we kind of elided the specifics of the dogs’ eyes for the illustrations — that visual element of canine body horror was not what the story needed or was about.

A very small dog detail from inside Mother Thorn

And while interchangeable canids (like interchangeable equines) rely on generalities, corgis, like donkeys, require specifics (even if it’s just to suggest corgi-kind).

And of course, even among corgis, there are variations.

Pembroke-ish Corgi, to accompany the art for Laurie Marks’ rather splendid Elemental Logic quartet

Do Panic

Amateur Opossum Actress by Rebecca Kriz

I bought a print of “Amateur Opossum Actress” by Rebecca Kriz, because this is basically my approach to any endeavour with a deadline or other degree of commitment/external expectation.

At this point, it helps to acknowledge that behaving like this is simply my process. It takes a lot less energy to plan for dramatics than to try and avoid them.

(I also schedule panicking time for some projects, so when I’m hyperventilating and people check up on me I can say ‘No, this is fine, this is what I’m meant to be doing!’)

If you, too, are an amateur opossum actress, I highly recommend buying a print from Rebecca Kriz!

(The other illustration is an original Belinda Jane Morris painting for my story “Skull & Hyssop” — the story was in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #31, the painting was a last commission from the days of being a lawyer. The cross-stitch is Rapunzel, designed & stitched by me even longer ago.)

WQ Magazine — art process

I was delighted to do the cover art for issue 273 of WQ Magazine, the magazine for Qld Writers Centre members. This post is about the art & the thinking process behind it.

Front cover of magazine in brown, blue, and yellow:
T, shears, moon, tortoise, rabbit, mayfly, girl with flag, I, swallow, M, shark, acorn, comet, pomegranate, rakali, E

The concept and the brief

The theme of the issue was TIME. Within that, I was encouraged to do what I liked.

Originally, QWC sent me some examples of work of mine that particularly appealed to them — the three examples below, of the hands cutting silhouettes, the “Scarlet” scratchboard image, and the US cover of Flyaway. This is useful for several reasons:

  • Because I work in several styles, it makes sure we’re all on the same page.
  • If the brief is fairly broad (“time”), it gives me some parameters to play within, which is always more interesting.
  • If I’ve had some new ideas I want to play with, it also lets me introduce them appropriately.

The examples QWC sent had in common strong deep colours and a very graphic approach. But I had also just finished the April calendar (Silver and Gold), and was keen to try that style again. So I added that into the thumbnails.

Here are the thumbnail sketches I sent in — always on the theme of time, with a variety of motifs.

Here’s a close-up of the thumbnail sketch for the chosen direction. Most of these elements made it in, but a few needed to go to leave room for the lettering.

Collecting my thoughts

It was (as always) thoroughly enjoyable working out elements to put in. I decided to go for things that meant “time” to me, rather than trying to be universal — although I was open to further input, and as usual I tried to go for elements that might have more than one meaning!

For both writing and art, I do like making these sorts of lists and collections. See, for example, Observation Journal — written sketches and samplers, On making samplers of various kinds, and When in doubt make lists and shuffle them. It’s useful for coming up with ideas, but it’s also an attractive way to make a thing: many of the calendars represent some version of that process.

Several of the motifs should be fairly obvious (although nearly all have two meanings, and some have more personal book-connections). Some of the possibly more obscure and/or specific references include the steam engine (a reference to the impacts of railways on the understanding and use of time), the crocheted collar with its grass of parnassus flowers from Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow, Lydia running with a flag from Evaline Ness’ Do you have the time, Lydia, the ice-skates for Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden, tortoise and/or hour lilies from Michael Ende’s Momo (the tortoise and arrow together are also for Xeno’s paradox) and a HERE/NOW/NOWHERE urn from Diana Wynne Jone’s Fire & Hemlock. The water-rat is a rakali or kuril, for Kurilpa and this river, and rivers generally & metaphorically.

The few that didn’t make it in are the solitary leaf/tree (the acorn was doing that work, but it lost a very oblique Shaun Tan reference), a box (Pandora? Schrödinger?), a bell (so many reasons, but personally and predominantly The Magician’s Nephew), some lilies-of-the-field, and a pair of dancers (plenty of dance/time connotations, but honestly it was a Strictly Ballroom reference).

Pencils

The next step was to rule up the space I had to work with. I drew up a template on the computer, then printed it out and used it as a guide for the pencils, refining the details and replacing a few motifs with the letters TIME (loosely referencing some old collections of illuminated letters).

There are a few more images here than appeared on the final cover. This is mostly because I wanted both the original inks and the digitally coloured version to stand on their own as images.

Inking

Once the pencils were approved, I darkened the lines on the computer, printed them out, put them on the light box, put some nice Canson drawing paper on top, and began inking it with a brush and Dr PH Martin’s Black Star Matte ink (instead of my usual Winsor & Newton).

I inked around the shapes first. This gave a strong silhouette, and once you have that, it’s surprising how little detail you need to add to give the impression of a full drawing. (I’ve written before about the useful structural role of silhouettes in both art and writing — Silhouettes, or: Outline View, and On silhouettes and further points of connection.)

You’ll see here that I split the art across two A3 pages.

Once the silhouettes were drawn, I went in and hinted at the fine detail. I’m still particularly pleased with this collar (a reference to Playing Beatie Bow).

Here are the finished inks:

I scanned in the finished pages, adjusted the contrast, then vectorised them in Inkscape (one day I’lll work out Illustrator). This keeps almost all the wobbles and line variation, but gives a lovely strong clear contrast. Here it is in hot pink, because it amused me.

Then I took the (black!) inks back into Photoshop, where I added colour.

Colour

I wasn’t entirely sure how to colour the cover — whether to keep the the simple yellow/grey of the April calendar, or a greater range of colours.

I decided just to get the colour flats down first — selecting the areas under the inks that would be different colours, and filling them with anything, on the understanding I could change the colours later. To keep it simple, I just used two colours, blue and green, plus white.

Here are the areas coloured in — this layer sat under the inks, so it could be untidy to begin with. (Technical details: I mostly used the “lasso” tool to select areas, only occasionally bumping more detail in with the pencil or eraser tools.)

At this colour flatting stage I have to force myself to not care about the final colours. Just pick the number of colours I want to use and then select the different areas. The colours can be adjusted later.

Colour choice

I’ve written before about aspects of working with very limited colours, both in art and writing (Sketchbook colours — blue and gold).

I did at one point think of doing more with the colours, but decided I preferred the two-tone version.

In the end, I settled for blue and yellow, which (as previously mentioned) I like a lot. Blue and yellow, together, have slightly different meanings than blue and green, so I swapped some coloured areas around. I added an old paper texture over the top, to give a bit of surface variation.

Editing

Finally, with the advice of friends, I took out 9 elements. This was tricky, but we decided that the finer shapes, which had less weight on the page, could be removed — the sickle and needle and arrow, and so forth. I liked them very well, but they shifted the light differently to the others.

Then I rearranged the others to fit the cover layout and complement each other. And here is the final wraparound cover!

Copies and prints

WQ magazine is provided free to members, but the Queensland Writers Centre do supply additional copies and copies to non-members for five dollars (plus, I imagine, postage) if you contact them with your details.

They have also given me permission to sell prints of the full art, and those are now up at INPRNT and Redbubble (the repeating/square version is also on Redbubble if you prefer e.g. a scarf or a notebook).

Thanks & support

Thanks to QWC, and Callum and Sandra, for this opportunity — both to do this cover and to get away with doing exactly what I wanted to on it! Thanks also go especially to Shayna, Alex, Claire, and Aimee for early thoughts on & responses to this project.

Thanks also to my patrons over on patreon.com/tanaudel, who got sneak-peeks, and give encouragement, and let me practice early drafts of my process posts on them. If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, 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 prints etc are available at Redbubble (prints and all sorts of things), INPRINT (art prints) and Spoonflower (fabric and wallpaper).

Sketching mysteries

I’ve been sketching when I watch TV with my housemate in the evenings. Currently, that means I’m sketching Midsomer Murders. This is in the service of (a) having something to do with my hands and (b) test-driving Procreate on an iPad Pro I’ve hired for a month. (It turns out this is an option! I searched for business equipment hire places, and hired it along with an Apple Pencil — they rent Cintiqs, too, and I was planning on trialling both, but the iPad Pro is already very promising and considerably more useful than the very old one I last used.)

This is not my first time sketching Midsomer Murders, but last time I was using it as a source of passers-by in lieu of being able to watch actual people (see Beyond the main event — experiments with sketching).

This time I’m using it for speed-sketching characters (since I’m watching with someone else, I can’t keep pausing). It’s an effective way to watch a fairly familiar show. I definitely notice certain demographic idiosyncrasies more than usual, for good as well as ill — there are lots of great character actors with interesting faces in episodic murder mysteries, and they skew older so there’s more to work with in terms of visible structure.

Also, while people don’t hold their poses, they keep reappearing, so you can try the same person again from different angles.

It was also very good practice to draw people in the act of speaking, the different ways they move their mouths, and how their teeth fit into them, which comes up less in some fields of illustration than in others.

And of course the ongoing reminder that the faster the sketch, the more happy I am likely to be with it. Here are two of my favourites.

Kind-of-sort-of Ruby Wilmott (Julia McKenzie) and Jack Fothergill (Sam Kelly)

June 2021 Calendar — Dragons

Note: This calendar is supported by patrons, who get it a little bit early, along with other sneak-peeks and behind-the-scenes art: patreon.com/tanaudel, and also by those very kind people who throw a few dollars towards it via the tip jar: ko-fi.com/tanaudel

Dragonlets for the June calendar! Wriggling all over the place. You will notice distinct design homages to Smaug (as depicted in Tolkien’s drawings), particularly the tiny wings with a single anchor-point, and the three-pronged tail. It turns out tiny wings are MUCH easier to manage for decorative purposes. Others are more in line with my usual dragons.

Here’s a glimpse of the project’s beginnings in my notebook, where most calendars begin.

I was originally planning mermaids, for the Mermay illustration challenge, but we just had mermaids in February

I drew these to a grid, which was a puzzle, getting them all to fit — especially since I wanted some to go off one edge and back on the other (to better repeat).

There’s a printed grid under this sheet of paper, which I used as a guide — all the dragons take up 10 squares.

Once I’d sketched out the dragons, I used that set of dragons as the base for another set of sketches (each dragon filling the same space as its twin, but facing the other way. I put those together and darkened the sketches on the computer, then used a lightbox to ink the finals on clean paper before tidying and colouring them on the computer.

Hunt Crowquill 102 nib and Winsor & Newton black ink, on Canson illustration 250gsm paper

I’ve also wrangled it into a repeating pattern, which is now up on clothes, stationery, prints & etc at Redbubble! I will put it on Spoonflower, too. Oh, and the February mermaids are now up on Redbubble, too.

And here (for personal use) are the printable versions. If you like them and/or like supporting the arts, you can contribute to the calendar (and get it and other behind-the-scenes things early) at patreon.com/tanaudel (starts at US$1/month!) or by buying me a coffee or two through Ko-Fihttps://ko-fi.com/tanaudel.

Illustrations: a wedding, a kite

Tiny pen and watercolour painting of a young man and woman flying a kite on a hilltop in a strong wind, and being lifted off the ground.

Earlier this year, I drew a set of little people (below) for a good friend’s wedding. I’ve known Shayna a very long time, and she and her sisters have shown up in illustrations more than once, and behind cameras (her mother took my current headshots). When we can, we get together for art evenings, and she’s always saving me on technical things — she’s a graphic designer, and did the early mock-ups of the Flyaway art placement for me, too, when the illustrations were just an annexure to a dissertation. If you’ve ever visited and seen my beloved The Wolf Man painting, that was by Shayna.

I drew several stacks of ballpoint sketches (nb — not portraits), to get them sketchy enough for the invitation. Here they are in parts of Shayna’s layout (the full invitation (pdf here) was a single large sheet that folded into a pamphlet/poster).

Her wedding was then cancelled by a short sharp lockdown, but in the end it was able to go ahead only two days later than planned, high on a cloudy mountain with wedge-tailed eagles circling below us.

For my card to them, I wanted to tie it back to the invitation, and put both characters together. I folded an A5 piece of Canson illustration paper in half, then taped it down with masking tape. Process: Light pencil, ink lines with an 0.05 Staedtler micron (I think), erase the pencils, put down masking fluid, colour with (Daniel Smith) watercolour, remove masking fluid, touch up with pen and a tiny bit of white gel pen.

Paper stuck to a drawing board with purple masking tape, a picture partly painted with masking fluid still showing, and a narrower tiny pen and watercolour painting of a young man and woman flying a kite on a hilltop in a strong wind, and being lifted off the ground.

You will notice this is not quite the same illustration as at the top of this post! I was seized by self-doubt at some point, and painted that second card just in case. I love them both — the figures below, and the hill and path in the squarer painting — and in the end I took both of them all the way to the wedding and made up my mind when I got there.