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 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.
This is a collage of very scribbly drawings from the observation pages of the journal. I made it for a workshop about the journal I gave for SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) Queensland.
It’s a useful compendium of the variety of pictures in the journal — and the variety of quality. From diagrams of dangerous u-turns, through unconvincing cats, to badly-remembered helicopters. The point isn’t to be any good, or even large (see the soy sauce fish) — it’s just to make a drawn note of something from the day.
It’s illustration as the most short-hand version of communication — but so varied in what it succeeds in communicating (at least to me, its intended audience). Only a few have a caption, like the Uber Eats receipt symbol above (it does look like the ghost of Ned Kelly). But while I could have written a more convincing crow-in-the-window, what I was trying to remember here was its attitude — and the same for the boy in the very short tree, out of which a teacher was attempting to lure him. The hot water bottle was something simple and comforting (my back was still causing havoc), and the point of the person pushing the office chair uphill was their very specific cryptid pose.
And taken together, there’s something pleasing (to me) about the sheer volume of sketches, the resonances that appear between them (a sequence of birds, a contrast between plane shadows and a sturdy drawing board. I firmly believe that:
if you draw fast frequently you discover both a shorthand (eyebrows + nose = me) and what you like to draw
if you draw small, people think it’s detailed — the opposite is true (or scale, the grid is 0.5cm, less than 1/4 inch, and the pictures are drawn with a ballpoint: Pilot BPS-GP<F>)
if you draw a lot of small things it becomes a big piece of art (or at least an extended comic routine, which is also art)
“bad” can be an aspiration, not a criticism
if you draw things badly a lot, it just becomes ‘your style’
And these aren’t “good” pictures in the classical sense. The anatomy is dubious, the camelids are just a scribble with ears, the perspective isn’t, I forgot how sofas work. But where they work, it’s because:
I don’t care if these are good — they’re not meant to be academic exercises. The only way to get them wrong is not to do them.
They’re fast, which makes them honest while also conferring a degree of plausible deniability
They’re also chatty (although I’m primarily talking to myself) and I like chatty drawings just as much as those which look like worlds you could walk into (anecdotes vs epics)
You can see the important-to-me shapes. The curly back of the sofa below is not at all accurate to the actual woodwork, but that’s the impression it left. The cockatoo above isn’t at all correct, but all I wanted to remember was the punk hairstyle (I think the breeze was behind it). The contrast in the movement of the boy in the tree vs the pose of his teacher (the second picture above) was all I needed — everything else is just supporting context. Movement tells a story and covers over a multitude of inaccuracies.
But there’s something else I discovered putting these slides together: Seen en masse, these scribbly drawings become a time-lapse of a week, a month, a year, a cascade of days and alpacas and domestic upheaval and other people’s cats.
The Locus Awards top ten finalists have been announced. So many wonderful books and people and congratulations to all. Awards lists are always useful reading lists, and so many of the short pieces are available online that you don’t even have to wait to start reading them! Just follow those links!
(Incidentally, if you teach any sort of genre fiction writing, keeping on top of the short fiction nominations is a fast way to keep a fresh stock of reference stories and the conversations in them.)
I’m delighted and honoured to be included in the list of Artist nominees, in the rather astonishing company of:
They’re all amazing artists, and very influential — do check out their work if somehow you don’t already know it!
(And also a reminder that now is a good time to keep an eye out for artists doing interesting things this year, for next year’s nominations! Share art! Tell people you like it! People who aren’t artists aren’t always sure how to talk about art, but honestly “I like this” is a great start. “Why” is fun, but secondary.)
Last month, I sketched a matrix-game workshop at the University of Queensland — a type of roleplaying game designed not to be “won”, but to create & identify problems inherent in (or that could affect) the scenario, for later investigation.
The workshop was part of the Defence Innovation Bridge — a joint project between the UQ Business School, the UQ Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences, the Australian Defence Force, and several startup companies in very interesting fields. The workshop was run by Dr Helen Marshall and Professor Kim Wilkins.
The scenario being played through involved an evacuation being conducted in diplomatically awkward circumstances, with an eye to raising questions about systems, strategies and limitations to do with communication technologies (among other things).
I was (always!) looking forward to some documentary sketching — complicated in this case by the physical people mostly just sitting at tables (no dramatic poses, I thought) and some technical things happening into the situations they were describing (for which I might not have mental reference).
Of course, the combination of physical presence and stories being told turned out to be delightful to draw. People got invested in characters and situations, which made their movements interesting.
It was also enjoyable considering how groups related to each other at tables.
Or moved between tables.
I also discovered that it can be fascinating watching what people do with their feet when sitting for a day — not as consciously communicative as hands, but definitely expressive.
Drawing what was happening in the game was more difficult than in other role-playing games where each person controls one character — this was groups and interests and technical details, and a fairly high-level view of the situation, and all being discussed and refined and changed.
I solved this by drawing the scenarios and fragmentary suggestions into speech bubbles, which at least amused me. However it also had the effect of creating rough time-stamps, capturing attitudes in the room around particular points in the game — an unusual but intriguing record alongside the more traditional formal note-taking.
The notebook is a pocket Moleskine sketchbook, and the pens are all Faber Castell Pitt Artist Pens (I posted more about the colour choices here: Sketchbook colours — blue and gold.):
Small Black Fineliner 199
Sky Blue brush tip 146
Green Gold brush tip 268.
6 solid hours of live sketching is a lot. Especially after a year of doing very little out and about.
Documentary/reportage sketching involves rather intense alertness. Not just the drawing, and the noticing what you’re drawing, but noticing things to draw, and patterns, and so on. It burns up a bit of energy.
I do like documentary sketching, though! It’s very useful for other work, of course, but there’s a liveliness and immediacy and plausible-deniability to drawing in the moment, picking out flashing fragments of the day, sharing things that charmed me, or jokes, or fascinatingly human gestures. Also, sometimes it’s nice to just draw a thing, intensely, and then be done with it.
Feet are surprisingly expressive.
Drawing conversations as speech was a lot of fun, and has worked its way into some projects since.
The blue and yellow combination feels very effective — a hint at colour difference, warm/cool separations, delineating areas. It’s starting to feel more naturally and flexibly communicative. I posted more about that colour combination here: Sketchbook colours — blue and gold.
Note: This post started as a post for supporters on Patreon. 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).
I enjoyed this type of manifesto much more than some introspective ones (see: Manifestos (ugh)). It’s rather fun being unreflectively and unsupportedly opinionated. Here’s the list as it stood then (with some commentary):
Art should be just absolutely infested with so-subtle-its-invisible allusions & references & foreshadowing. [I don’t like doing puzzles, so I kind of hate this as a viewer, but as long as I don’t expect anyone else to pick up on them, it’s an excellent way to add texture.]
Movement trumps accuracy. [I went to the She-Oak and Sunlight exhibition and just sighed a lot at hurrying flecks of people busying themselves across canvases in one or two smears of paint.]
Aesthetic is king. [Guillermo del Toro makes movies for illustrators]
Keep it chatty. [An excuse or a philosophy?]
Space should be filled with a network of bits.
Tinier is easier (it isn’t).
With enough SIZE or REPETITION anything can become fine art.
The soul of most composition is just this: be deliberate.
Why realism, though?
Texture and colour like icing is a heaven closed to me. [I write so I can be painterly — there are passages in Flyaway that are deliberately me using e.g. Tom Roberts’ palette and light.]
Revisiting this after almost a year, I don’t think my feelings have changed significantly (although some are being tested, though not threatened, by recent projects). However I’ve been thinking more about them, ever since writing them down. Some have turned into exercises and workshops; some have helped me make clearer decisions; some are lessons I never learn.
Here is another element that emerged from the journal! It’s a tiny note on which jagged leaf shapes were most fun to draw (at least in ballpoint pen).
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).
When I’m sketching, I work in a Moleskine pocket notebook, and use mostly Faber Castell PITT artist pens — often quite vigorously. However, these are three of my current favourite sketching pens (for more on favourite colours, see Loving the tools):
Small Black Fineliner 199
Sky Blue brush tip 146
Green Gold brush tip 268 (note — it’s not metallic, but more of an old mustard colour)
The first time I really started using them as a set was at the Natural History Museum in Oxford — and mostly because it was a very blue-and-gold place.
At this point I was mostly using the two colours to identify the blue and yellow of what I was looking at, as well as using the blue for some shadows.
I’d already been using blue for shading, sometimes — especially when I didn’t have the time to record more detailed colours. It’s more vivid than a grey shadow — I like how it lifts the picture off the page as a little object, instead of making the figures sink into it. (By “shading” I mean both adding actual shadows, and indicating darker colours.) And while the blue is cool, it doesn’t look cold on the warm cream of the Moleskine pages.
I began using the mustard yellow to do the same. It had a much warmer effect than the blue, but I liked its old-school monochrome effect. And neither of them seemed to say This Is What The Scene Is About in the way some other colours, such as green, do.
But since I liked both the blue and the yellow for this purpose, I kept using them together.
In these sketches (above) at Book Moon Books, I used the blue for the figures — for shadow and cold and to make them stand out, and because their backs were mostly to me — and yellow for the books and store, for the warmth and light. I really like how the use of the two colours distinguishes the figures from the background (which doesn’t really happen with the white dress in the grey sketch at Château de Comper, earlier).
By the time I got to Avid Reader for Love Your Bookshop Day last year (context: Queensland, Australia, where that was safe and legal!), you can see the use has shifted again. You can also see that I bought new pens which hadn’t begun drying and darkening.
In the Avid Reader drawings, I’m using both colours on each figure, instead of using them to separate elements. I suspect this was in part because it was daylight, and warm weather — there’s a breezier feeling to these than the Book Moon sketches! But I was also using the two colours to quickly note the direction of light and where shadows fell, as well as to distinguish some areas of different colour, even if they weren’t exactly these colours.
Recently, I’ve been sketching some workshops at the University of Queensland (I’ll post more of these soon — but the art is already up for patrons on patreon.com/tanaudel). Going back over those pages, I realised how many things the colours were doing.
Even just in the scene above, you can see where I’ve used the colours to show shadow, the direction of light, the colour of the background, to separate figures from each other and the table, and to keep the events in the speech bubbles at a remove by only using blue in them. And in the image below, I’ve also used the yellow over the blue to hint at a khaki uniform.
So! Here are a few benefits/uses of very limited colours, especially for fast sketching:
Shadow (and shape and direction of light)
Warmth and cold
Tone and more colours than you’d think
Pulling a sketch together
Anchoring a drawing to or lifting it from the page
Very quickly communicating the most important details
Unifying a group of drawings/creating a consistent style for a project
Choose two colours you like. It doesn’t have to be blue and yellow. Blue and red is another popular choice, and an image search of Risograph prints will give you some ideas of what can be done with a limited palette. Or pull out two coloured pencils at random.
Do a few small monochrome sketches (in words or pictures!). If stuck for ideas, perhaps do 20-second sketches (e.g. this very fast Ramon Casas study) or one-minute written descriptions of some famous paintings. Work in black line or pencil or, if writing, in bare-bones description with no colour.
Now, rework each sketch by adding hints of those two colours (coloured pencil, watercolour, markers, digital colour, words…). Here are a few approaches you could try:
Show the direction of light and shadow, or where the highlights are (Dorothy Dunnett does this fabulously in some of her novels, and John Dickson Carr creates lurid effects with green and red in The Waxworks Murder).
To pick out as much of the original colour as you can.
To distinguish between a figure and the background.
To show warm and cold areas.
Bonus round: Change the colours and see what happens.
Note: This post began as a post for supporters on Patreon — if you’d like to support art and posts 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).
It is illustrated throughout with vignettes and spot illustrations in the same style as The Bitterwood Bible.
It’s a loose, conversational, first-impressions style that I love working in. It’s so first-impressions that the label for my sketchbook notes for the project became not only the title page, but the spine lettering and the basis for some of the cover ornaments.
First impressions isn’t the same as easy. Here, more than any other style, is where I can feel all the work of observing (the world, how I work, how other people solve problems) and sketching pay off.
I particularly enjoy working this way because it catches that first response of an early reader, the images that intrigue and charm me, the conversation I wanted to have with the stories when I was first exposed to them. And also because, while there’s a lightness to the style, there’s also a lovely weight of quantity — spooling out wavering lines in response to the stories as they unfold, questioning and reacting and correcting.
More commonly, illustrating a book involves reading through, responding, making thumbnail sketches, having those approved, refining pencils, having those approved, and then working on the finals (subject to approval). For The Tallow-Wife, the selection process was simply the appeal of the text (and the limits of my abilities!), and the taste of the author and publisher as they select and place the final collection of drawings.
Cassandra Clare’s latest Shadowhunters novel Chain of Iron comes out very soon. The cover art is by Cliff Nielsen, but I had the enormous fun of cutting out 10 silhouette character portraits, to be printed in the first edition.
They will be printed in black on white, but for one online event they are also being printed on these rather resplendent dust jackets!
I will post more process pictures in due course, but here are a few to begin with!
Generally, the “five thoughts on…” exercise was a good reminder of he little push than an (even arbitrary) structure gives (a) at all, (b) to dig deeper, and (c) to begin forming coherent ideas.
The thoughts, part of an ongoing preoccupation:
People Decorate Surfaces. It appears (with often-self-conscious exceptions) to be a fairly basic human urge. Decorating surfaces in a picture (written or drawn) therefore helps create a sense of humanity, and that a place is lived in by humans. This is something I have to remind myself of fairly often. Museums are excellent for this.
Leaving out surface texture and decoration can make the storyteller’s job harder. Even thoughtful texture helps objects to do/explain more (see: movie effects documentaries generally). Ornament takes it further.
Ornament = personality, context, worldbuilding, culture, backstory, stories within stories, foreshadowing, etc, a sense of pattern and therefore law/lore built into the structure of the world.
Cheating. Texture and ornament conceal wobbly lines, hide problems with perspective, can overrule detailed linework, etc. Opposition between texture and structure can create interesting effects (I admire this but struggle with it).
Unifying aesthetic. An overlay of textures, patterns, and/or ornaments can have a structural/thematic role. Connections and echoes and tinting.
(bonus) Care & detail & depth. High production quality can help create the impression of overall quality — this effect is often temporary. However, seeing that someone else has taken care over making a thing can sometimes make a viewer realise it might be worth taking the time to look/read/watch that thing.
Think of a story-scene in a place built or occupied by people.
It can be from a project you are working on, or from a story you like.
If nothing springs to mind, pick a fairy-tale scene: perhaps the main room of the bears’ cottage from “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”.
Sketch the setting quickly (using words or pictures).
Perhaps it’s a small room, thick plastered walls, low beams in the ceiling, a wooden table with three chairs, a pot-bellied stove, a windowseat. (Or it could be the economy cabin of a plane, or a cave used by climbers, or…)
Now walk around the setting. Consider each surface. How might the people who use this place (or have used it) have decorated or textured each of those surfaces?
For example, the top of the table is probably deeply fluted and grooved by being scrubbed, its legs have been scuffed by kicking claws, and the low stairs are dipped from heavy use. The beam in the low doorway has a cushion nailed to it because bears sometimes forget to duck. The cushion is a less-washed version of the ones in the window-seat: brightly but clumsily embroidered. Someone has scratched stick-figures into the plaster, close to the floor. There are geraniums in the window, obviously (it’s a cliche for a reason), and the curtain is a tacked-up piece of… hmm, what shall it be? Samples of rich cloth a salesman carried? (And what happened to the salesman?) The shelves in the corner are lined with newspaper, some of which gives glimpses of alarmist reporting about human children rampaging in the forest. On the sides of the kitchen cabinet is painted a history of how the bears came to live in this place, and on a cheerful checkered cloth on the table is a half-whittled spoon, with “just right” worked into its twisted handle…
Look for places where the story starts to grab hold of the textures, or vice-versa.
Above, the clumsy embroidery gave me a feeling of personalities, and the vanished salesman suggested a little background mystery, which could both threaten and explain the unattended child about to feature in the story.
Look for places where you could make the details do double-work.
Could a pattern foreshadow or link to a later part of the story? Could an ornament or texture hint at a detail about the broader world? What fabric pattern or graffiti or stamped grip or commercial label could make the unfolding story better or worse for the reader, whether through secrets or deepened affection or a deeper awareness of the meaning and consequences of the actions?
Bonus: Look at your setting again and start changing aspects of the surfaces.
See how each element changes the possibilities for the story, and where they begin to force changes to other elements.
Or pick a different emotion/aesthetic/genre and see how you could change the textures to reflect that.
For example, perhaps the furniture is of highly-polished dark wood, upholstered with stiff green velvet (worn but carefully mended), lichened with antimacassars and starched doilies, and the walls whitewashed so that the low sun casts every little dimple in the plaster into long shadows, and only useful herbs grow in the window box, and there is a painstaking and pious sampler on the wall, and a single book on civilised housekeeping, and a portrait of the sort done by travelling painters in which extreme care (if mediocre talent) has been applied to try and make three bears look like three very stiff and sober humans.
Finally: In a finished project, a little can go a long way. There are other artistic considerations than how to treat the surfaces, and too much detail can be overwhelming (and sometimes none is needed at all). But the exercise of thinking through the surfaces of a scene can bring its people and possibilities to life.