Reference: Diagrams and Novel Devices

Some of my favourite reference books are those with many useful diagrams.

A few of these books are purely informative — the basic underlying structures of trees, for example. For art, this is directly useful as a reference and identification, while for writing they’re useful for descriptive shorthand (do those branches reach out like hands or curl up like beckoning fingers…). At bottom right are the endpapers for The Ladybird Book of Trees.

Often diagrams are more useful than photographic evidence. They not only confirm and explain it, but show at least one way that people who understand such things have chosen to reduce the information (in pleasing form) for reproduction. They are also a little less idiosyncratic than individual photos, for better or worse — for better, mostly, as long as I remember that fact. Shown at top left is The Observer’s Book of Wild Flowers.

These sorts of guides are particularly useful for working out the commonly-agreed distinguishing details of a thing (here, a plant) — which in turn helps me understand what’s going on in reference photos (or reality!) and how a particular example might have more personality than “the perfect specimen that’s figured in my book”. (If you know who wrote the poem that line is from, please tell me! It’s about an apple tree and I cannot find it online).

But the diagrams that are the most fun appear in old illustrated books of advice. Now, old unillustrated books of advice are also fascinating in and of themselves.

Of quenching an house on fire — The Faithful Surveyor, George Atwell, 1658, which I found because it’s one of the earlier examples of the use of the term “foot-loose” and someone was being wrong about that on the internet. It also opens with an Ode to the Theodolite.

But when they are illustrated! First, there are the styles particular to an era of art and print technology. Then there’s the aesthetic pleasure of purely communicative art. And then again, they are full not only of intriguing devices and useful plans, but also of people and animals going about their work. A whole dictionary of visual vocabulary. For art, they present all sorts of ways people have communicated textures and movements and physical interactions, unexpected ways to solve problems, telling details to add to a setting.

And for writing — well, of course they’re very useful for research for a particular point in time (the movie Babe, for example, brilliantly captures a certain farming attitude to life embodied in these types of books). But beyond that, they are a catalogue of ingenuity and invention that can suggest all sorts of details for inventing or adding texture to world — from the need of an expert to name all the main points of an animal to the misappropriation of almost any human invention to serve some unanticipated purpose, to the apparently eternal human drive to automate everything.

The book with the blue ink is Handy Farm and Home Devices and How to Make Them. The one with the squatter at extreme ease in a squatter’s chair is Ron Edwards’ Australian Traditional Bush Crafts. These were my parents’, but I am saving up for a complete set of Edwards’ Bushcraft books, because the illustrations are jaunty and detailed and IN QUANTITY and very informative.

Art reveal: Castle Charming Bookplates

I’ve been designing bookplates for Tansy Rayner Roberts, for her (successful!) Castle Charming kickstarter (I previously posted about the enamel pin design for that).

Here is the first glimpse of the bookplates back from the printer (Tansy arranged all that end of it — I do particularly enjoy the moment where someone else takes art away and brings it back as a shining object).

https://www.instagram.com/tansyrr/

It’s pen and ink with ink washes.

And here are a few of the sketches from which it began:

Books are fascinating as design elements. They seem so potentially decorative and yet they’re very… boxy, and make you make style decisions around e.g. perspective, and how shabby to make them in order to get some texture going.

Some of my favourite books covers are early 20thC school prize book editions. Mostly because of their spines! But the other sides are marvellously textured (and the insides are gorgeously mottled — blank pages in Mr Dalton and Janet have provided many of the textures I use with digital colour).

Almost all of these are from the Lifeline Bookfest, and are the primary reason I’m not allowed to go anymore until I buy more bookcases.

Time spent in procrastination is seldom wasted

I have to actively remind myself to leave time to stop and play with materials. Like lying around reading, it is actively part of the job, but rarely feels like it.

It’s closely related to remembering to do studies for a finished artwork, instead of jumping in boots first and flailing away under deadline. When I was starting out, the idea of doing studies seemed exhausting. Now, they’re a joy: just tinkering, really; no pressure; nothing to see here.

[Relatedly, before I actually wrote a novel the idea of doing 17 drafts sounded horrifyingly inefficient. Now it’s nice to be able to work on a piece and tell myself, “no need to stress, I’ve still got thirteen more drafts to play with.”)

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One of the illustration briefs for the 10th anniversary edition of Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel was for an illustration of a blueprint.  Although I do play with cyanotypes, these illustrations were to be in pen and ink — and pretty much the exact opposite. I was determined to do it without trickery, however (aided by the fact that this was an illustration-of-a-documents, not a replica of a document itself).

Above, I was testing an array of chinagraph and Prismacolour pencils, masking fluid, and just painting around the lines.

In the end, as the most complicated (but clearest) option, I went for masking fluid. It’s a liquid rubber that you paint down then watercolour (or ink) over (the picture below is before I added washes of grey ink). When the paint is dry you gently rub or lift away the masking — you can see here that I was using it to keep highlights bright on the glass surfaces.

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(You can see here the ink bottle, wine glass, and magnifying glass from the reference post).

My copies have, I suspect, run afoul of Current Events Impacting International Shipping, but I’ll post more on the process and final illustrations as I can.

Reference objects: Clockwork Angel

Here are a few photos of reference objects for the 10th Anniversary of Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel (previous post about those illustrations is here: Clockwork Angel). They cover a few of my usual sources of reference.

The first is this little angel I found at ReLove Oxley, a wonderful local second-hand shop and cafe. The final angel design didn’t look much like this one, but it was useful for a sense of scale, how to handle fine features, and for the slight metallic finish.

I frequently go to ReLove for coffee, and often find useful reference — I buy enough that for this book they just let me borrow a violin. I walked home carrying it in its case, feeling like a gangster.

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A great deal of reference material, however, comes from around my house. Here’s a parasol that’s been in the bottom of the linen cupboard, a box of beads and bangles, The Myths of Greece and Rome (old books standing in for old books), Mortimer, my Year 12 formal dress, my grandmother’s gloves, and some crumpled paper. Not featured but also starring: spare buttons, fancy embroidery scissors (also a contributor to the Scissors calendar), and my letter-opener.

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Another old book: an 1887 volume of Cassell’s Magazine, printed on horrible Victorian wood-pulp paper which smells like burned sugar and is crumbling away at the edges. It’s a wonderful reference for illustration styles of the era, particularly homewares and mechanical elements, and its inventions page is delightful.

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Look at this: “a small pocket apparatus for the electric illumination of flowers, such as roses, to be worn in the hair or on the dress.”

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Architecture is always a challenge, mostly because I usually prefer to suggest it. Here I was mocking up light and perspective possibilities for a two-story library (the Hydralyte tin is a spiral staircase which did not end up in the picture due to dear lord spiral staircases).

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Fantasy frequently requires images of hands holding glowing things, and I’m gradually accumulating night-lights in order to work that out.

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Sometimes I just have to set up the image. Inkbottle, wine glass and magnifying glass on a sketch for a different illustration.

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Reference as it finds you

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I’ll post some more of my favourite reference objects soon. But while it is great to have them, and they can save a lot of time, a great deal still relies upon being able to make do.

Above is a perspex trophy and the creek at the end of my street standing in for reflections on the glass coffin in my illustration for The Darkest Part of the Forest.

Below are dominos and a tube of Hydralite standing in for a gallery above an alcove, and a spiral staircase.

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And here is a small part of the haul of objects unearthed from around my house to use for the illustrations for Clockwork Angel: a paper parasol (fortunately discovered in the bottom of the linen cupboard, because I’d mislaid the cocktail ones), a lovely book, my Year 12 formal gown, my grandmother’s black gloves, my embroidery scissors, assorted buttons (in lieu of cogs), and of course, Mortimer.

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Reference skulls

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For one reason or another, there always seem to have been skulls around the house. Cattle skulls (since we were graziers), bird and wallaby skulls in the Interesting Things Basket on top of the microwave (this collection, and its eventual demise, made it into Flyaway). Then at college there was an anatomical model that would show up clothed and posed in dorm rooms from time to time. After that, my housemate was a vet student and kept a reference dog skull on top of the television (this, combined with preg-testing gloves draped over the back of a door, explained the awkward atmosphere during a visit payed by some police after my car was stolen).

And then, one day, I was skull-less (or rather, all the skulls in the house were in active daily use), at which point I realised how much skulls show up in my line of work — and how useful reference really is, even for my typically very stylised approach.

There are plenty of references online, of course, and handy adjustable skeleton apps (I think I used one for the Illustration Master Class paintings), but they aren’t the same as being able to turn an example to the light, or glance across idly to confirm a suspicion about particular bones — and a too-adjustable, over-detailed option (especially one which, as in an image search, shows up at the scale I’m working at) tends to make me want to copy it exactly, which isn’t at all my style. In art as in prose, I prefer to hit a point somewhere between allusion and plausible deniability.

I bought a replica anatomy chart, but my then-housemate (not a vet student) disapproved of it hanging in the common areas, so now it gives my room a far more Gothic aura than it would otherwise have. I used a tiny vodka bottle for a while, in a pinch, but it had its drawbacks.

Finally I bought Mortimer, who now lurks on top of a bookcase behind my desk and features — more or less — in many, many illustrations.

(There are also a few skeletons up in the Halloween collection on Redbubble.)

And since the era of Zoom, it comes in handy for other things, too.

A discovery of headstrong, obstinate girls (or: simple time-travel)

The people in yesterday’s post (Sketching the people glimpsed from the corner of your eye) were all in roughly current clothing, because 75% of the time that is what the people I sketch from life are wearing.

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Decorative metal tree/hanger

One of the ways I sometimes develop characters and/or story ideas, however, is to sketch and/or imagine passersby into the clothing of another era. The rules of that game are very simple (see below).

So, for the purposes of the people-less people-watching exercise, and my offhand reference to character design, I picked another style/era for the same experiment:

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L-R, top to bottom: Paint-water jug, Cottee’s bottle, kettle, vase of proteas, thermometer, Rork Projects reusable coffee cup, SodaStream.

Similar principles apply, but with the specific constraints of a chosen field of fashion/awareness/visual retention.

They very quickly gain their own opinions, and it is a truth universally acknowledged that young women with decided opinions must be in want of a plot.

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The kettle

But neither youth nor beauty are a prerequisite for opinions or designs.

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The Cottee’s cordial bottle, again

I find that characters who first appear in motion often gather story to them as they move along.

Writing/Illustration exercises:

  • The original version: If you are in a position to watch other people go by: Choose genre and era, and draw or mentally insert the Very Next Person you see into appropriate clothing. They are now your main character. (For this exercise, it’s important to do it this way — if you pick and choose your hero/ine, or cast people according to type, there are far fewer surprises).
  • The home-alone version: As above, but with the personifications of household appliances (a la yesterday’s post).
  • And then? Find a secondary protagonist by the same method. Give them a little push and put them, with all their attitude, into a sketched or written scene — just a few lines. What are they scheming together? Who are they wrong about?

Sketching the people glimpsed from the corner of your eye

There are many advantages to going outside and sketching people going about their daily business (see: many sketchbook posts). Unfortunately, for one reason or another, it’s not always easy.

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paint-water jug and candy (dice) jar

Many of the people-less options for sketching lose the spontaneity, the unselfconscious (or over-selfconscious) movement, the serendipity of people just going about their lives. But I’ve been trying out a few alternatives.

So last night when I was meant to be planning the week I started sketching household items as people. (Watercolour because I had some in the palette).

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If I’d been sketching the wine bottle, the kettle, the vase of proteas, I would have been entangled by the static detail and a desire for accuracy. But since these weren’t people, I had to work briefly to capture the potential in them to be people.

I then pulled details out a bit more:

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(This is a reversal of my usual line-then-colour process).

In some of them I can still see their origins (wine glass at top left, vitamin bottle at bottom right), others are more obscure. My kettle was more emo than I knew. I’m particularly fond of grocery-bag dude (an actual grocery bag).

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Later, I made a more formal study. This page is all a bottle of Cottee’s cordial (top and centre). I don’t love these sketches (and I wouldn’t usually sketch the same passer-by more than once) but the multiples were useful for working out what I was noticing. A lot of it was about the weight distribution and the centre of gravity, and the gestural lines: where the motion is or could be — from there it’s about extrapolation into a likely person.

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You can see it a bit more clearly with the little milk jug I use for my painting water. At the top right is a little diagram of the weight and the sense of movement in the shape, followed by a series of people that could be. The details of the jug (angles, ornament) suggest other details.

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Here are the elements I most noticed myself noticing and working with:

  • Angles: these quickly hint at a gesture, a movement, a story
  • Weight distribution: this is quite fun, and also reduces an inclination to idealise the figure — you have to work with what you’ve got, and that’s often a lot closer to real people
  • Balance: related to weight distribution — knowing where the centre of gravity needs to go, how people would hold their hands to stop themselves tipping over, helps to instantly fill out a lot of information about the person
  • Attitude: all the points above contribute to this, and attitude in turn suggests any of those elements that aren’t obvious — it’s pose and posture and emotion
  • Consequences (action/reaction): which way a coat blows, how grumpy men in pyjama bottoms feel about grocery shopping
  • Existing knowledge: this is, of course, not the same as sketching real people, but it made me work consciously with a lot of what I learned from doing that
  • Personality: different from attitude, but a combination of that and shape and the hints given by colour and pattern — the boldness of a deep red enamel, the sort of person who wears stripes or flowers in certain combinations

I also tried using one of the objects to suggest a group pose. Here’s the paint-water jug again.

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It’s a fun process, both for what it teaches about what I already know, and how it shakes it loose.

Art/writing exercises:

  • Do super-quick sketches of objects around you as if they were people passing by. Or when designing a character use a nearby object to inform it (texture, attitude, colour). The trick is to move quickly: fill a page with different objects in as little time as possible.
  • Try the same in writing. Find a household object, deduce the most obvious aspects of attitude, physicality, style, and write a snapshot description of that person — just three or four sentences. Then on to the next. Try quick-writing four or five characters. E.g.:
    A thin woman with wide sloping shoulders and a long nose, dressed in too-neat, too-glossy green. Whip-smart with sharp fingers and a habit of prying. Clangorous and clashing with coworkers, sober and supportive with her employers. A model employee and a terrifying boss.
    – Honest as a window, with a pale top-knot of hair fine as fibre-optics and eyes bright as daylight. A sturdy figure, bubbling with thoughts, ideas, distractions. A comfortable stance, a little jaunty, a little off-kilter, just enough to always seem ready to begin a game.)

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Edit: There’s now a Part 2 — A discovery of headstrong, obstinate girls (or: simple time travel)

Art imitating life imitating art imitating

This is not a re-enactment of a painting. This is me getting reference for an illustration (more on which soon, but between this and needing impromptu video-conferencing backgrounds, my undergrad collection of shawls is getting a workout).

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(Photos by Liz McKewin)

Not least because they remind me of illustrators’ awkward reference photos, I am enjoying all the recreating of paintings lately. It’s like a 21st-century reinvention of an Edwardian novel, with all those tableaux.

(The link above is to Muddy Colors’ Artist Selfies: Everybody’s Doing It post).

Art/writing exercises:

  • For writers, as well as readers, here’s a great deal to be said for dressing up. Knowing that certain hats cut off your peripheral vision, or the noise of heels on a hardwood floor, or how harsh embroidery can be on the skin is wonderful for sensory detail, while catching the detail of where a seam actually rips or how striped fabrics chevron, or what angle of light causes the shadow of a hat to obscure a face can also add beautiful texture and accuracy to a story. 
  • For writers, learning to really see into a painting can help with visual descriptions. Dorothy Dunnett (who was also a portrait artist) does this magnificently, and in her historical novels describes scenes with visuals that are not only rich but also in the style of painters of the relevant era.
  • For illustrators, the applications are obvious (for more on using reference more rigorously than I do, I recommend Muddy Colours and Gurney Journey), but I am waiting for someone to start a trend of drawing a photo of someone’s re-enactment of a painting that was based on a photo of someone dressed up (Alphonse Mucha and Norman Rockwell both used photo reference heavily and very well). 

 

 

The Winged Histories – cover art process

Winged Histories

This is the cover art for Sofia Samatar‘s novel The Winged Historiessequel to her World Fantasy Award winning A Stranger in Olondria (both published by Small Beer Press).

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The process of revisiting A Stranger in Olondria to reconstruct my illustration approach there was illuminating – particularly in relation to remembering to usefully label layers in Photoshop. We learn.

I had the chance to catch up (with Small Beer’s permission!) with Sofia at World Fantasy to discuss the broad approach to the cover, and exchange some reference for her vision of architecture and birds, and mine of uniforms.

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That settled, I prepared the thumbnail sketches and general colour approach for approval – G was chosen (although the profile was later changed, and colours deepened).

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Time for everyone’s favourite: Awkward reference photos! I used other reference for the figure (but won’t embarrass them), I’m just here modelling in yoga pants and a leather jacket with blue masking tape so that I can see what key parts of the costume do in the pose. Again, a skyline of crockery set up with a plasticine-and-plastic-bag vulture gives some reference for light/perspective.

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Then a foster-cat attack.

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Then drawing.

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And redrawing (there were several replacements of hands, heads etc).

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I scanned and pieced the elements together in Photoshop, then coloured them. Here is a gif of the process, but it makes it look far faster and more logical than it was: there was a lot of reworking, experimentation, remixing and so forth, as well as adjustments, added decoration, skin tone changes and other adjustments on consultation. But gifs are fun.

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And I can’t remember why it came to this:

Penguin-in-Olondria