I keep buying illustrated books thinking, hmm, what an interesting compendium of mark making, technically this is a reference text…Continue reading
Usually when I share process pictures of silhouettes, they’re for specific commissions, and the final transferred line is very tidy — it’s a function of the approval process, the need to fit specific formats. But when I work on my own pieces, for gifts or for patrons or as samples to test treatments for a larger project, the drawing isn’t neat at all.
It’s a graphite scribble directly onto the back of the paper, working out the curves and patterns, the tension and shapes, gesture and narrative. Dozens of searching lines until the promise of something is there on the page (this example is unusually tidy). When I cut, it’s a matter of choosing the right line from those there, improvising along structures established in the fray, or trusting to an average of equally appealing choices.
In a conversation today I realised that people think I’m being wildly productive and well-adjusted, and I’m really not. This isn’t to seek pity or sympathy (beyond the current blanket baseline!) — it’s just that I don’t usually talk too much about life outside art/writing on here, and wanted to keep it like that! Everything’s not great (although I’m much better off than many people and recklessly optimistic in company) and it’s been difficult to do anything at all except flail at urgent changes to courses I tutor, or else sit and stare at the sunlight (the weather’s been wonderful, which just makes it more surreal — usually disasters come with weather, and scents of mud or smoke heavy on the air).
But when I can, I potter and chip away at things, and it all comes back to art in the end, as usual — or at least, to stories. Making little lines, and flailing, and feeling my way back to a shape on the paper. Just one. And then another.
And the weather is marvellous.
I’ve mentioned that I like sketching people (and sketching helps me like people): The Madding Crowd.
Since many of my preferred methods of relaxing (cinemas, cafes, people) are somewhat curtailed at the moment, I’m working out alternative approaches.
But for now — taking the opportunities where I find them.
My notebooks are full of little questions I rarely go back to — and if I do, it always seems such an effort to worm my way back into the original excitement of the idea in order to answer them. I could just be drawing something new.
I’m learning, gradually, to phrase the questions as answers, even if only tentative ones. To catch ideas as a sketch or the most fragile of outlines. To just paint the thing and see if, as usual, that solves the conundrum.
It’s a small way of staying in motion.
If you find you’re having more group meetings remotely, here are some etiquette tips from those days:
- Raising hand to ask a question/interjecting with a question –> “[own name] with a question!”
- Raising hand in response to a request by teacher –> “[Own name]!”
- Concluding a remark/answer –> “… [teacher’s name].”
(When I went to boarding school, I got laughed at for shouting “Katie with a question” with my hands neatly on my desktop, and for finishing my answers with the teacher’s name, as in, “The chimera was made in 400BC, Mrs Lamerton”.)
More useful substitutions:
- Feigning ignorance/inability –> crumple a chip packet into the microphone.
- My dog ate my homework –> oh no, I have to go, the cows got into the house paddock and are knocking over the antenna.
- Fall asleep in class –> the tractor battery powering the radio ran out of charge.
(These are all real examples and scale well to current technology. For example, we were participating in a group online watch-and-shout-along of The Lady and the Highwayman last night until a possum knocked a fuse off the electrical pole.)
Some days, of course, are just about creating shapes to be filled with things another time.
Borders that set a mood for later making. Folders to fill with text one day.
Outlines that aren’t a promise of anything, only a potential. Prepared pages just the size for something to be drawn (tomorrow).
Just playing with lines, that’s all we’re doing.
Just roughing out where edges might be, oh fickle muse. A purely mechanical activity. Nothing to see here. Nothing that counts. Move along.
We wouldn’t be so rash as to slip and accidentally put something in those spaces.
Grand plans have their place. But sometimes it is good to make little things.
They are beautiful. Their tininess is fascinating and they look incredibly complicated by virtue of being small, and all the natural textures come out to play in ways that are lost in a big piece. People will compliment you on your remarkable detail work which is a nice ego boost, although you know that the trick is this: the smaller a piece is, the more detail you can leave out.
They are completed so soon. You have made a thing! It is out in the world now, being. On busy days or hard days or stagnant days or days all stacked up on giant projects, they remind you that you can make a whole thing, that you can hold in your hand.
Like a prettyish sort of little wilderness, you can lose yourself in a small project without fear of wandering too far. There are, after all, times when you can’t get away for long, and times when you need to stay close to home.
They can be test-patches for larger ideas. There’s no pressure there. No commitment. You are just trying things out in the service of some larger beauty. A few verses to try out the style of a grander epic. A short story to feel out the edges of a world. A tiny print in the manner of a picture book you’d like to make. And maybe it will lead to grander things, or maybe you will decide this was enough. You have made a thing, after all, and it was not here before.
Many little things, all set side by side, can add up to a collection, an exhibition, but that is not the point.
You can pretend you are a clockmaker, or a spy hiding secret messages.
And then, when you are done (so quickly!), you can put the rest away and sit back for a little, or go for a walk, shining with having made a thing, one thing, today.
My family has often drawn maps. Next time I visit them (next time I’m allowed to — what a strange year this became) I need to dig out a pirate map — complete with ominous bullet hole — my father made when I was little. I think it’s in a big Nürnberger gingerbread chest with other childhood treasures.
One of my mother’s sisters was a draughtsperson, and took us on a memorable tour of the Yale plan department when we visited her there (and printed us plans of various buildings, as souvenirs!). My father’s brother got onto a few real actual maps, including in the Northern Territory (below — if you look at neighbouring names you’ll get an idea of the relevant decade) and Antarctica.
When I was pulling together all our map books and atlases to take to some some map illustration workshops, we found a few more:
Here is a treasure map of our house out west, leading to a present for my mother. Whatever it was, we hid it in the bathroom. (The “giant’s causeway” was the stepping stones that led to the outdoor (unplumbed) toilet, so this was before we installed a septic tank and put a new toilet building at the site of the “thorny strait”).
All good maps have a mermaid and a sea-monster.
This one was for a very early (and somewhat culturally unexamined) Peter Pan birthday party for a (now 20-year old!) nephew, held around Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra.
And here are the clues!
Ideas, exercises, lessons:
- All good maps have a mermaid and a sea-monster. If you have been world-building and have not taken this into account, consider redressing your omission. Think laterally if you must, but I see few reason why this cannot be literal. Space mermaids!
- You can use all sorts of locations as a base for a fantastic world. Start with your living room and sketch a map, transpose the details into relevant fantastic locations (is the tissue box a volcano? a fever hospital?) and send a hero on an adventure across it. What perils might they meet? Rough out a quick scene (written or drawn, according to what you do).
An advantage of this is that many rooms are roughly rectangular and so your world will print nicely onto the opening pages of a novel.
- Converting a house to a fantastic location is one way to occupy time at home. You’ve got the option of a treasure hunt, of course, but you can be quite literal here, too. In fact, one time at college we had meant to go on a picnic, but it rained, so we went to great lengths to recreate a park (duckpond and all) in my room and had the picnic there. As social isolation increases, I’m going to have to work out what I can do to get (more of) a cafe vibe happening in my house.
I couldn’t find this image yesterday. It’s an incidental illustration from the back cover of Greer Gilman’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear, as later converted into a t-shirt design for Small Beer Press (publishers of good books, which should be bought).
The line that inspired it I still think is one of the funniest things (and I keep revisiting it in other contexts). The appearance from the wings of “two men in a rug” just… it has different nuances than “five raccoons in a trenchcoat”.
Both are useful metaphors for art (and, indeed, life). But while the latter implies tricks and larceny, Muppets and the weaponisation of imposter syndrome, the former is about ‘rude mechanicals’ getting a job done by any means necessary: the show carries on, even if it isn’t at all the way we planned it, even if it’s low-tech and powered purely by goodwill and a collective, wilful self-delusion. The players roll up their sleeves and dig out discarded props, the audience watches for moments of transcendence amidst the chaos and, if they can, for the moments it can be managed, they all have a good time doing it.
If you want to read, don’t be a writer.*
I mean, if you’re going to be a writer, then obviously read.
But they tell kids who read a lot that they should be writers, and it’s a trap! Writers spend such a lot of good reading time re-re-re-re-reading their own work.
But if you want to read a lot for your job, illustrating is where it’s at. That’s where you get the books before almost everyone else, and where dedicated development of reading comprehension and the desire to comment on everything other people has written pays off.
It even usefully diverts the desire to analyse themes, or to wax academic without suddenly having the Chicago Manual of Style thrown at you.
And sometimes, at last, your favourite books*** come back around and need new art.
*I am, of course, doing both, so interpret this accordingly.
**Unless, of course, it’s to illustrate it.
***Not generally style manuals, but who knows? There is, after all, the delightful Maira-Kalman-illustrated Strunk & White.