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”