Observation exercises


This is another layout from the observation journal. As previously described (werewolf conferences and colour treatments), the left-hand page is a serious of observations from the day.

The right-hand page, in this case, is a series of more structured observation/noticing games. I did them in Black Milk cafe (in January, when we could still go inside), but you can try them in any situation — the more boring the location, the better it works for changing how you look at things (useful for drawing and describing, too).

2020-01-17-KJennings Cafe observations

  • 12 things I could hear: This is a category on the left-hand page, too, but it’s the one I struggle with. Here: the whisper of cars, the freight train brakes that sound like welding, “Einstein was a Surfer”…
  • ROYGBIV: Find every colour in the spectrum. With e.g. a slate roof or a single tree-trunk, it’s enough to find one of each. With a whole scene or room to work with, trying for three or five is useful. Here, there’s yellow: on a peachy-white silk rosebud, caught in the base of turned-up tumblers, pale chocolate-chip biscuits, a t-shirt on a sign, a $50 note as someone handed it over…
  • Tones: Find the brightest lights and darkest shadows. (The brim of a hat, the reflection on the edge of a sieve). If you draw this, rather than just recording it, it can adjust how you see the world for an hour or two.
  • Narrative: Pick a story and list the key elements. Then look for the equivalents of those in your setting. I almost always do Little Red Riding Hood, so I made an effort and played it with the Minotaur, this time. It’s sometimes surprising how well things match — this cafe has a central island, and also a hidden downstairs room, and there were red threads woven through the coffee bags. Others require a bit more effort — the signalling effect of black sails here replaced by the hanging bathroom key.

Failure is always an (entertaining) option

I don’t mind sharing failures as such, except for a lingering worry that they’ll be the last thing I ever post. They’re part of the process; like doing scales, they get the feeling of the materials into your fingers, etc, etc, resilience, you can’t fix what doesn’t exist, and so forth.

There are, however, some failures I persist with in order to remind myself of the boundaries of what I should (or want to) attempt. There are workshops I go to with the primary intention of remembering not to try this at home. Screen printing, for example, and letterpress.


From a Print Gocco workshop at Avid Reader

I love what everyone else does with them, but they don’t work with my style, my patience, my back, my set-up of sinks, my preference for not being entirely filmed with oil-based inks, and so on (weirdly I love lino printing, so everything has its exception).


Inking things, mwahahaha

I always meet great people, learn new textures, observe how people interact with the tools, find techniques to borrow, get out of the house, etc. But mostly, it’s a form of walking the bounds of what I do want to do.

Then there are the failures I pursue because failing is funny, but once I (re)gain some competency it stops being entertaining. This was the origin of the whole cooking experiment on Twitter (thread begins here), which, incidentally, also contains the reason for the bandaid on my hand in the Border Keeper process video.

Collage is becoming both for me. I admire what actual collage artists do with it. But it doesn’t resonate with me as a process. I get cranky and covered with glue and drop words and think the end result is both too weird and too simple, and yet keeping flipping back to look at it, shake my head, and laugh.

It started with attempting to record collage without any glue. Then I had glue, but couldn’t cut up the paper with the overheard notes on it (and forgot there was a photocopier just there I had just used it).


A line from an amazing conversation overheard at a training session

My resistance to it doesn’t make obvious sense, because I like weird and simple and glue and scissors and words. It’s just that this is the outer edge of my preferred territory, and its good for me to visit it, but there’s a reason I choose not to live here.

I also like limitations, and recombinations, and juxtapositions. I just prefer them to happen before the final piece gets formed, not as the final piece. Or at least, to be cleverly veiled.


How do you do, fellow humans?

For instance, what I want this to be is a story about Fashion Spies who are possibly robots, and also about a kidnapper who starts glueing together a ransom note but is limited by the words available on the few pieces of paper available to him and ends up plunging sideways into an wild conspiracy, sort of Foucault’s Pendulum meets that one science fiction Father Brown story by way of O. Henry.


Thule Quacks


Some pencil-and-watercolour sketches of the Road to Babylon, and the very large and intelligent Thule quacks, from Diana Wynne Jones’ Deep Secret.

Deep Secret is one of my favourite Diana Wynne Jones novels — funny and shifting and faceted. It’s also at the foundation of much of my career: it taught me that there were such things as science fiction conventions, and convinced me to go to Canberra for my first Conflux, where I hid in corners drawing. It brought me friends who proof-read things in emergencies (these were thank-yous for that). It brought me to the Diana Wynne Jones fan email list, which is where I met many wonderful people, not least Emma Falconer (whose Fire & Hemlock print is all over my house on wall and mugs) and Gili Bar Hillel, for whose Utz Books I was, incredibly, able to illustrate a book cover for Diana’s The Power of Three. It took me to Bristol last year for the Diana Wynne Jones conference (and a paper that ties to my PhD topic).

And of course in Bristol we went to the Clifton Suspension Bridge and danced a witchy dance, to the profound indifference of the ghost of Isembard Kingdom Brunel.


See what I see


There has been, for the last little while, a lot of talk about aphantasia and degrees to which people “see” things, mentally, and whether it hinders or helps the creative process.


Quite a few writers seem startled by the idea that people don’t have very clear mental images. But a surprising number of illustrators seem to be in just that situation. Since they’re both in the business of inserting stories into other people’s heads, the difference is intriguing.

Moving away from strict aphantasia, I’m interested in how much visualisation is functional/trained (setting aside whether a given reader has accumulated enough of a visual library — my littlest nephew doesn’t have enough of a framework for what a “dragon” is to be interested in stories about them yet, and growing up without TV or computers, I didn’t get cyberpunk as a thing until I saw The Matrix).

If I do the exercise above, cold, or if I’m reading as a reader, I’m a 1. If I’m in the process of writing, it drops down a few notches — sometimes it will be a 3, sometimes the word “apple” will appear in my mind or on the page and then I have to consciously stop and push it back along the scale until I can ‘see’ and describe it more specifically.


Tree fight!

But if I’m illustrating, I’m closer to a 5, and often don’t see the picture until it’s on the page. Lynda Barry talks about that process of drawing as discovery rather than expression. Even (or especially) drawing from life is a process of getting the image from the world onto the page through hand and pencil. And most ‘visualisation’ of solutions is more schematic/word-based.


Notes on a project

I mentioned above reading as a reader. A book can be as vivid as a movie, then. But when I’m reading as an illustrator, looking for images to draw, ideally I’m sketching them as I go, converting directly from words into shape and movement without necessarily picturing that inside my own head.


Earliest ideas

When I do picture things too clearly, it’s a trap. The disparity between the imagination and the reality can be distressing!This is one of the reasons I don’t often illustrate my own work (I had to get at the illustrations in Flyaway by starting more decoratively and then pushing back into the text).


Obligatory pre-order link

Although art and writing both come from the same storytelling aquifer, they reach the world through different wells. If I’m going to develop an illustrated piece of my own, I usually have to start with art and support it with words, and/or carve away the words until they don’t distract me from what the art is getting up to.


If it could just stay like this…



Bat Time, Bat Channel


Claire just reminded me of this today: Back in 2018, I sent some fashionable bat sketches to C.S.E. Cooney and Carlos Hernandez, and people wrote poems about them, which was delightful and hilarious.

Bat-Folk: A Virtual Anthology Based on the Art of Kathleen Jennings

Bats are delightful to draw, and the more bats one draws, the simpler it is to classify people one meets by the variety of bats they would be.

You know you’ve met them.

Here’s a little piece I did a year or two ago for those patrons who get monthly stories. (They are also up on various things in black-and-white on tanaudel.redbubble.com: Bats and stars).


And of course not forgetting all the bats drawn for Stray Bats by Margo Lanagan:


This was another project which at least began fairly spontaneously, although it ended with me spending three days running around London in a heatwave looking for a suitable scanner.

(Also, if you’re in Western Massachusetts, a lot of the original art and sketches for Stray Bats is at Book Moon Books).

February Foxes


Welcome to February, and a busy crew of librarian foxes, foxes in libraries, and general bookishness!

This calendar is brought to you, as usual, with the support of patrons on patreon.com/tanaudel, and if you’d care to see art and calendars early through that and help them happen, please feel very free to check out patreon or toss a few coins in the jar through paypal.me/tanaudel.


I’m hoping these sketches will turn into a bigger project, and I’ll put a repeating pattern up on Redbubble and Spoonflower as soon as I can (I’ve been out of action for a few weeks and am now scrambling to deal wth deadlines). I have put it up on Redbubble as a printLibrary Foxes, but there’s a bit of tinkering involved to make it repeat pleasantly.

In the meantime, below for your personal February-planning purposes, are the printable pre-coloured and colour-sheet versions of the calendar. (And of course, a tip through patreon or paypal.me never goes astray).

February Calendar Colour blogFebruary Calendar Lines blog

The Queen of Nothing — the map!


The Queen of Nothing, the third in Holly Black’s Folk of the Air trilogy, and sequel to The Cruel Prince and The Wicked King is now out! I’m visiting Massachusetts at the moment and got to ride along to Holly’s first event of her tour, at An Unlikely Story. But now I can also show you the map.

I have loved adjusting the map for this series (although altering wave patterns in ink with each new ocean detail, and splicing them in digitally, was certainly a challenge!).

Under the map (above) are sketches of possible treatments of the corners and new details. But other new pieces came from the little thematic sketches I made along the way (no spoilers).


A few of the little original ink drawings of tiny new details are now available at Book Moon Books in Easthampton, Massachusetts (or will be by tomorrow, when I am sketching there!). Below is the tiniest.

(The cover art is not by me. Sean Freeman has been illustrating those, with design by Karina Granda. BUT I did draw the foil designs under the dust jackets on the hardcovers — and got to meet a girl with the Cruel Prince design tattooed on her arm, which was very exciting!).


Art by Sean Freeman, design by Karina Granda, tiniest fox by me, SNAKE by Holly Black