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.

Observation Journal — project reviews (calendar art)

On this observation journal page I was continuing to work out an approach to project reviews that felt useful for me.

Left page: the soft sounds of water, a macrame fitting, how much can fit into two hours

This review is for the July 2020 calendar art (below) — a pattern of sewing implements sprouting flowers.

An illustration on a blue background of various sewing implements sprouting cover flowers and daisy chains

This review focussed on three main things:

  • What worked/what I was happy with (e.g. the usefulness of parameters; specificity and responses to it — I was delighted by how many people were pleased by the mere presence of the tatting shuttle)
  • What could have been better (e.g. planning colour placement at the sketch page instead of being surprised by the massive pinkness of strawberry pincushions)
  • What I wanted to try next time (e.g. more specifics, specifically of the fantastic-industrial type).

This approach didn’t cover everything I wanted a review to cover — the time the project took, for example, and people’s responses as a separate area to think about, what made a project “click”, and why I did things the way I did. That last would get into the process again as a distinct question the following week. In particular, I wanted the project review pages to catch ideas I wanted to pursue, rather than just coldly tinkering with the process.

But the page did lead to a little chain of thoughts on industrial fabulism (here: “fabulist-practical and the industrial-fantastic”), already something I knew I was interested in, and which seemed to appear in previous projects (aspects of “The Heart of Owl Abbas” and “Kindling”, for example). It’s not directly connected to steampunk per se, and isn’t so much the part where I added magic to real tools in this picture. It’s the parts where unexpected beauty was hidden in them — the wax-rose, and the glass beads on the lace bobbins, and the existence of bird-clamps (hemming birds). It’s in the specificity of technical drawings and practical diagrams and the more lyrical type of article in motor magazines (there’s a note there to buy a book with some of my favourite farming illustrations in it).

I’ve mentioned industrial fabulism previously, in relation to Travelogues, but this is where it first began to show up in the journals — I’ll post more thoughts on that soon.

Observation Journal: Lessons for presentations and conferences

One of the purposes and benefits of the observation journal, apart from tinkering with my ideas of story and image and coming up with schemes, is taking the opportunity to watch myself at work. This includes the process leading up to a project — working out which ideas strike a spark, and maybe why, so that I can aim for those in the future. And after I finish something, it’s been valuable to turn it inside out and see how it held together, and how I felt about it.

So here’s a little run of connected pages from June last year, when I was drafting and giving the keynote at the Australian Fairy Tale Society‘s convention. (Here’s my original post reporting on the conference.) I’ve indicated a couple of the main lessons about writing speeches and being on panels — with the note that they are lessons for me, but might be useful for others.

(Also, the AFTS fairytale anthology is launching a little over an hour after this post comes out.)

More below…

Engraved mirror in gold watch case, reading "Once upon a time" in reflection.
A magic mirror from Spike Deane — you can read more about it here
Continue reading

Observation Journal — on editing

This week of the observation journal featured a few reflections on editing (I’d like to think I was on a roll, but I had submission and uni deadlines). See previously: notes on editing “Not to be Taken” in Observation Journal — Application to a Story, and editing checklist.

Double page of observation journal. On the left, five things seen, heard, and one, and a drawing of a mug with a dinosaur on it. On the right, "Some 2am editing observations".

I know that some people hate writing and love editing. I don’t understand this. You get to just make things up when you’re writing, and there’s trackable progress and a definite end point! I find editing hard work (with too-infrequent flashes of gold), and I have to keep reminding myself that I can still just… make things up. This page wasn’t an attempt to solve that problem, but I wanted to at least record how these editing passes got done, in hopes I could find some patterns later — a sort of prelude to a project review, or a fragment of one.

Key editing lessons (from these stories):

  • Efficiency is not the same as efficacy.
  • If there’s a worse and more urgent task on my desk, I will in fact choose to edit. Deadlines help, but they aren’t fun.
  • When I’m reading over a draft, I often write questions to myself in the margin. This is rarely helpful. What is helpful is to force myself to write an answer to the question then and there — or at least to write the question and then give myself three mock solutions/phrasing (even if they’re bad ones). I can change my mind later! But at least there’s something to work with.
  • I need to start in order to let things begin being done. 
  • It seems smart to deal with issues in batches! But I won’t. Starting at the beginning and nibbling through is excruciating, but I will do it. (See efficiency vs efficacy, above).
  • The necessity of rolling slowly through.
  • The (eventual and occasional) magic of momentum.

These two projects predated the journal and these were interim edits. One project is out on submission now, though. The other is a story within the novel I’m working on for uni, so… one day.

(You can also see I made these notes at 2am and on the wrong page, which is where numbering the pages for cross references comes in handy.)

Tiny biro drawing of a mug with a dinosaur on it
Tea Rex mug (it’s the General Eclectic one)

Observation Journal — application to a story

I’ve put these three pages of the observation journal together because they all relate to the same project — my short story “Not to be Taken” in the poison-themed Egaeus Press anthology Bitter Distillations.

Butterfly on a wine glass

The story began in the journal — I’ve posted indirectly about it before, from the pages where I was first trying to sort out my ideas. It forms the third row from the bottom in (Too) Many Ideas (several elements appear in the final story) and was the subject of the alphabetical list in Reflections and Alphabetical Order (of all those ideas, the final story was closest to “R”, but only if you unfocus your eyes).

By this stage, however, I had written the story and was suffering through the editing process, which I only seem to be able to get through by being dramatic about it (I’ve accepted this as part of my method). So it seemed an obvious subject for journal exercises.

Two pages of observation journal, densely handwritten. On the left, five things seen, heard and done, and a picture (of a painted rock). On the right, the exercise described below.
Left page: A crow shining sky-blue, my housemate trying out her rollerskates, and a new pie shop.

The first was an exercise from Helen Marshall, which has appeared before (10 Terrible Things). It is simply a list of ways I could rework the story to make it definitely worse.

This was a lot of fun and silliness, but in the end it was helpful. Shifting the idea to be about minor characters or flipping all the roles, or changing everyone into birds, made me think more about whether I wanted to keep certain elements, and be more deliberate about the ones I did keep. It also made me check that I was actually liking the story — there are a couple notes there about things that usually help me:

  • aesthetic
  • emotional spine
  • genre
  • character emotions (this is a tricky one but I’m starting to remember to think about it).

The story did not change hugely as a result of this. But it did make me more assured about it. You’ll see the notes there are about tightening the draft and remembering to TAKE CHARGE of my own projects, which is a lesson prompted by a few things last year.

Two pages of observation journal, densely handwritten. On the left, five things seen, heard and done, and a picture (of a laptop balanced on a drying rack). On the right, the exercise described below.
Left page: Hatbush city limits, and arcane symbols

The next page features another activity I’d heard most recently from Helen Marshall (in a subject she was running and I was tutoring): 5 terrible opening sentences. The first example is for “Not to be Taken” (the actual first sentence for which ended up being “Lucinda collected poison bottles”). It didn’t shake up the draft as much — the 10 terrible takes (above) were much more effective for that.

But I also tried it on a non-existent story, and the exercise was very effective for that. Writing bad opening sentences was a very fun way to find a path into an idea, and to quickly develop a cast of characters along the way. Trying exercises out until I work out what they do suit is another good use of the journal.

It was also particularly interesting to note what appealed about each (terrible) sentence, and why — frankness, restrained humour, fun with stock characters (see also: The Caudwell Manoeuvre), and so on.

Two pages of observation journal, densely handwritten. On the left, five things seen, heard and done, and a picture (of a butterfly on a wine glass). On the right, the exercise described below.
Left page: A butterfly breeze, and cobweb weather.

By the next week, I’d actually managed to finish editing the story (and had sent it to Angela Slatter for comment). This page is a simple breakdown of what I actually did (the editing checklist started here), and what worked, and lessons I learned, which included the following:

  • The painfulness of editing is not an indicator that anything is wrong with the process.It will take the time it takes.
  • That will be more time than I want it to be.
  • But faster than avoiding it.
  • Some distraction/inhibition-removal helps.
  • Aesthetic & theme are useful for making decisions.
  • Rule of threes (and thoughts on the stability of triangles — this led to two blog posts: Three Points and Silhouettes and Further Points). 
  • Doggedness & commitment.
  • Dissatisfaction with “predictability” may be a function of reading it 17 times. What’s satisfying for a reader is different for the writer.
Laptop balanced on a drying rack in the carport

Observation Journal: Project review and the brightness of sky in water

This observation journal entry is a further development of post-project reviews, pursuing a set of questions that work for me.

Hand-written double spread of observation journal. On the left page, five things seen/heard/done and a drawing. On the right, densely handwritten notes.

Left page: Butterflies, balloons, the arrival of a giant mixer for the new pie shop. Until the weather grew briefly chilly, I was playing the guitar in the evenings, and will probably return to it in about 7 years (the urge seems to correlate to natural disasters).

Right page:

One of the things the observation journal has been very useful for is reviewing finished projects.

Some previous observation journal post-mortem posts:

On this page, the process is starting to look more like what I do now, superficially at least. (The project is the cover art for The Spellcoats, which needed to be in a style that isn’t quite my usual one, to fit a set of existing covers.)

I started with broad associations: “left too late/delay”, “HUGE file” and “took SO LONG”. Not exactly novel and not particularly helpful (except for the useful reminder that working heavily digitally and needing to match someone else’s existing style take a lot longer than some other approaches).

But then I incorporated the patterns/suprises/likes/dislikes/steal approach (adapted from Todd Henry and Austin Kleon) that I use for note-taking. This was useful because it:

  • gave a loose structure (beyond my various worries and self-criticism)
  • brought balance — one of the things I most like about that set of questions is that “disliked” comes so late in the series.
Right-hand page of observation journal. Densely hand-written chart. Post-job review of cover art for The Spellcoats.

Highlighting the things that felt most significant is very useful for reviews. I need to remember to do it more often. In particular, two elements that have kept cropping up since then are:

  • subtle communications via textiles
  • the importance of surface ornament

Another interesting realisation, however, was that the process of working on a book that has had several covers before is extremely illuminating about why those artists and art directors made the choices they did.

Tiny pen drawing of a boy about to hit a water depth post with a stick.
Boy fights post

Art/writing review exercise

If you want to try this out, consider a project you finished within memory. Then make a few notes (I like to try for a minimum of three) on each of the following points. You can interpret them broadly:

  • Patterns you’ve noticed (in what you do, and what you made, and how you did it, and between this and other things you’ve seen lately)
  • Things that surprised you (in the outcome, the source material, the media you worked in, a response)
  • Things you liked (the pleasures, the things that went well, the reactions you had or received, the feeling of a keyboard or supplies)
  • Things you disliked (in the finished project, the process, the surrounding circumstances)
  • Things you’d like to try (in consequence of the above, or again, differently, for another purpose, prompted by the project)

Observation Journal: adapting business

On this page of the observation journal: repurposing ideas from other fields, coping with language, and a very strong pink.

Left page: The character failings of possums, a great (and successful!) dice hunt, and a sense of the world getting gradually muted.

Right page: Adapting business tools to creative purposes.

Double-page spread of observation journal, densely hand-written. On the left, five things seen/heard/done and a picture. On the left, notes on the Value Proposition Canvas.

I tend to resist business language, which is neither fair (I often have no problem with the underlying concepts) nor useful (particularly when teaching a business-adjacent course). One of the exercises I had my students do was list the language in their field that’s most irritating to them and then find other words to use, at least in their own mind and first drafts, freeing them up to use the underlying ideas, while being able to convert back to business terms in formal contexts.

This can be a useful exercise even with non-irritating technical language — making sure it means something to me a bit more viscerally. A lot of the observation journal is me relearning things that I “knew” in a way that is useful to me.

Densely hand-written notes on the Value Proposition Canvas.

The resources and assessment around which I was developing the tutorials included using the Value Proposition Canvas (VPC), “a tool for marketing experts, product owners, and value creators”. The phrasing is so very businessy, and I wanted to come to terms with it — and its possibilities — before introducing it in class.

Approach to a business tool:

  • In class, we ended up inventing ridiculous ideas (see: Observation Journal — improbable inventions) and then trying them out on the VPC. Using those ideas removed a lot of pressure to use the VPC. Instead, it became a framework for the students to clamber around and learn its possibilities for their approach.
  • For example, I realised filling out the table involves a lot of back-and-forth, details and ideas evolving from answers to other questions, and so I needed to approach it as an exploration rather than a checklist.
  • This also revealed that the VPC was quite a fun way to elaborate on an early idea, like the brief allusion here to an alarm that would wake you by gently questioning you and recording the details of your dream before you fully woke and lost the details.

Adapting it to my purposes:

  • However, for my personal use, the VPC turned out to be an interesting way to look at a project after it was done (in this case, an enamel pin design) as part of a creative post-mortem.
  • It was particularly useful as a way to look for things to strengthen and avenues to develop next time. This isn’t so much a critique/debrief as the obvious next step when my approach to learning things is mostly just to do them. It’s not a “what went wrong” so much as a “let’s do that again!”.
  • Reviewing it now, I want to add some of these points back into the master list of post-mortem questions I eventually developed (more of that as we go, but you can see a recent example in this State Library of Queensland post about illustrating the winners of the Queensland Literary Awards).

Exercise:

  • Make a column and list common/sigh-inducing/annoying jargon/technical terminology/business language in either your area of work (narrative structure? design principles?) or something adjacent you keep wandering into (applications, banks, time management…). This is also useful when developing secret bingo sheets for professional conferences.
  • If you need to work off some irritation, make a second column where you flippantly or cynically translate all the words.
  • But then make a third column where you try to translate the word to a term or phrase that captures the actual underlying meaning or importance of the idea to you. Maybe there’s a genre you like reading but don’t like the label for, or a time-management technique, or… Can you find another word or title that works better for you. For private use, perhaps, or coping in business purposes (not unlike developing strategies for listening to or looking at unfamiliar art), or translating from one field to another.
  • I’ve found this a useful way to capture ideas to chase further — little points where I think, “oh, I didn’t know that that’s what I like about [e.g. country house murders, or time-management]. Even if something I write gets labelled as that for sale, calling it [e.g. tragedy of manners/death-by-architecture, or temporal escape clauses] explains what I want to actually do and learn about.

Observation Journal: Deconstructing Giants

Note: I’ve put together a draft introduction to the observation journal here: Observation Journal. Comments and further questions are welcome.

This instalment of the Observation Journal features a semester commencing as if nothing very different would happen this year, and also a critical look at a drawing of some giants, as I felt my way towards a framework for reviewing my own projects in a way that would actually be useful for me.

(I’ve enjoyed how much the process and purpose of the observation journal has been about working out how to use it in a way that pleases me, rather than following a pre-existing template. In that regard, there can’t be any wasted pages.)

Double page of observation journal, densely handwritten. On the left, 5 things seen, heard, and done that day. On the right, handwritten notes on what worked and didn't about a project.

Left page: The nerves of the first day of teaching for the semester, in the class that would have the observation journal assessment, and also the memorable sight of a bush turkey self-consciously taking a dust bath in a garden bed in the middle of a high-traffic area of campus.

Right page: Another attempt at a creative post-mortem (see also the Observation Journal posts: Creative Post-Mortems and The Opposite of Unicorns). This time i wanted to try adapting Doug Sundheim’s “The 4 Questions to Ask When You Debrief on a Project”, from the Harvard Business Review, with some additions.

The project I was looking at was the March Calendar: Giants.

I can see the value of the questions Sundheim proposes, (goal, degree to which it was met, causes, things to change). However, they didn’t quite fit the things I wanted to record about a creative project — or at least, not an art project (I could see them working well with non-fiction writing, and some fiction, and on particular aspects of technique).

There’s so much exploration in many of the projects I do, and often there are interesting discoveries along the way. But the 4-question framework focuses on measuring the difference between goals and results, and doesn’t really have a place to think through those necessary wanderings and catch hold of stray ideas and possibilities.

The right page of an observation journal spread, with handwritten notes on what worked and didn't about a project.

It was the “Happy”/”Could do better” columns that drew out the most specific and useful thoughts. I’ve typed them up here, but note that they are very specific to this project and my preferences.

Happy: This was a lot of fun — it’s nice to have the freedom to honestly compliment yourself! These aren’t necessarily things I think are perfect, at all, but they are the bits that pleased me, or flirted with ideas I want to play with more.

  • Poses & faces, especially breathing fog, carrying books
  • War pig! Just the whole scene — movement, interaction
  • Long odd feet [there can be so much character in strange feet]
  • Tiny things that look smaller even without context [this always interests me]
  • Working lines + select = cleaner [I don’t know what this meant — possibly something to do with how I was setting things up in Photoshop]
  • Extra ink + watercolour texture = good [trying to push past my defaults]

Could do better: I don’t like this phrasing. And most of these could be summed up as “push past your habits”, which might be a more useful category: habits to shakeup.

  • Plausibly deniable nether regions
  • 3D-at-the-edges, especially rounding of tower
  • Advance colour choice
  • Earlier. Not at 1:30am [Hah]
  • Shadowing
  • Noses and narrative questions [I can work this out individually but not as a combined issue]
  • Occasionally too Hilda-esque (including colours) [I love being influenced, but also trying to adapt away from those influences (not for the first time that week), and/or only using one element at a time, and after sitting with them long enough that they lose their attachment to the usual source. I do really like the giants in Hilda, though! And the simplicity of the colours! And…]
Pen drawing of a long-haired dachshund
Long-haired dachshunds always seem to have too many legs.

Observation Journal: The Opposite of Unicorns

(Flyaway is officially published tomorrow!)

This instalment of the observation journal includes a lizard, a very nice shade of green and the difficulty of scanning gold leaf — it’s also part of the series working out the questions to ask myself when I’ve finished a project. (See previously: Creative post-mortems.)

Left page: This was the splendid day a water dragon joined us in one of the university eating areas.

Right page: I was being fairly flippant, gluing scraps to the page, but in the process I discovered a question I want to add into my template of post-project questions: What is left out and what is left behind? What is excluded and avoided and skimmed over?

In relation to silhouettes., I often have wonderful ideas as I’m cutting things out — how to do a project differently, ways to treat branches, an image suggested by a shadow. But usually I forget afterwards. And on other projects, there are things that are often deliberately left out — characters who never appear on the page, or questions that are there but never directly addressed. So it’s a question that’s useful both for new ideas, and finding the edges of a project, and confirming decisions made.

This black paper offcut was the trim from a silhouette unicorn (for stationery for Patreon supporters). However mostly, for some reason, the leaf-shapes suggested pigs. I also tried stencilling with gold sizing and leaf, which was marvellous fun, the more so because it didn’t work at all.

Observation journal — creative post-mortems

Left page: One of the things I particularly enjoy finding, when I flip back through the observation journal pages, is the moments of people playing against stereotype: here, the very sporty boys engaged in a deep discussion of which piece of art to buy. But finding evidence of types is charming, too — the construction worker stopping to analyse the state of a door-jamb. In sum, and as previously noted: observing people makes me like people more.

Right page: I was wanting to record thoughts and discoveries from my own projects, especially as I usually collapse in a fog of exhaustion at the end and never make any notes at all. Later in the observation journal, I tried some more formal project review formats, but while they have some useful prompts they tend to be very narrowing. This freeform approach let me wander off following fascinations and examining aversions.

A double-page hand-written observation journal spread.

The project was a little story I’d done for Patreon — a PDF booklet of lies about spiders.

A drawing of a spider gesturing to a whiteboard.
Spiders like to give long presentations analysing projections.

In this case, most of the useful points turned out to be about patterns I’d noticed in my work: the difficulties and possibilities of locking oneself into a story involving set large-number motifs (spiders, Snow White, and Sleipnir); a love for greyed tones; the potential and problem (if trying to get quickly from idea to finished project) of working very small.

Hand-written analysis, from the observation journal, of how a project labelled "SPIDER STORY" went.

One of my reflections after doing this (visible at the bottom of the full page) was that I wanted to get down more of the ideas I had for other projects while working on this one — I’d noticed, for example, that when working on silhouettes I would often reach a stray corner or complication that made me excited to try a new design, which I’d then forget again. Later in the observation journal, I tried to keep track of those new ideas when doing project post-mortems.

However, on this page, actually recording my frustrations about process (instead of rediscovering them every time) paid off — I finally got InDesign.

Drawing of two black teacup poodles, with writing: "Two tiny black poodles howl-yowling at 2 shaved white maltese who were essentially being dragged along like cats"
“Two tiny black poodles howl-yowling at 2 shaved white maltese who were essentially being dragged along like cats”