Observation Journal: Five Things To Steal From The Art Gallery

This page of the observation journal is a reflection (nefarious) on a visit to QAGOMA (the Queensland Art Gallery & Gallery of Modern Art).

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations, a drawing of a running lizard, notes on things seen at the gallery

The Five Things To Steal exercise is a useful way to quickly make notes on and tease inspiration from specific books, movies, etc. But I’ve also found it a lovely way to approach a broader experience — in this case, an art gallery.

It’s a good way to capture a substantial (but not overwhelming) handful of impressions, and speculate on what to do with them.

(Related: previous Five Things to Steal posts and an explanation of what it means, drawn from Austen Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist.)

Handwritten notes on 5 Things To Steal From QAGOMA
  • The sense of being parachuted into someone else’s visual memory: a sense of slowly descending into a landscape belonging to a particular artistic vocabulary.
    • This was in relation to a Mavis Ngallametta exhibition — I’d seen the paintings in small reproductions, but that was nothing like the experience of simultaneously looking up at and floating down into their enormousness. And simultaneously being reshaped to fit into them.
    • I wrote a bit more about this vs writing in my post about Travelogues: All the shapes of the land.
    • It’s also something that I’ve been thinking about again more recently — it seems like it should relate very much to map illustration, but I love it as an example of lowering readers into a world.
  • The scrolling effect of the repetition of a long cabinet full of ceramic forms like water plants and coral and fungi.
    • This is for the reminder to use repetition, but also the appeal of long decorative bands.
    • (Like the notes on the camp dogs, below, this fascination continues to get into the calendar patterns.)
  • The mundane writ large, gaining weight and honour and importance.
    • This is about the value of the everyday, yes, but also of the contribution detail and texture and focus have to making something feel mythic.
  • Sunken garden, mirror pool, bronze figures, water dragons — a particular enchanted aesthetic.
    • (This is a description of the gallery cafe.)
    • I’ve noted it as a potential aesthetic for a large project I’m just now editing. It managed to completely flow off the back of that story, but I’m hoping it will pool in the next project.
  • The Aurukun camp dog sculptures, for a large number of repetitions that are entirely individual and have very distinct personalities. (And I mean, look at them.)

I enjoy looking back at these five-things-to-steal posts, finding my way back into an experience of something, turning over fascinations to see how they’ve grown or what’s grown under them.

I also like this little list of things seen on the same day (from the left-hand observation page — that structure is based on a Lynda Barry exercise, see more on this page: observation journal).

Handwritten list of things seen during the day, including wildlife and art exhibitions

I like the specificity of it, the way that makes the everyday remarkable, the way the list of disparate things forms into an impression of a day, the weight of wistfulness of the absence of jacaranda flowers under the painting where they are sometimes scattered.

Illustration/writing exercise:

  • Go to an exhibition or art gallery (in person or virtual). Roam around it idly.
  • Then think of five things you would like to pinch from it.
  • Then ask yourself why — what about that artwork or approach to curation or unexpected lighting appealed to you?
  • Then make your heist plan: how would you steal each of those effects for your own art/writing?
  • Do a little written or drawn sketch of a way you might incorporate that aspect.

Terrible tiny ballpoint sketch of running lizard
terrible lizard sketch, water dragons do not look very like this

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Observation journal: remixing good art

On this observation journal page, I used previous notes on my creative habits in order to remix an image.

Double page spread of observation journal. Tiny handwritten observations, a drawing of a birds nest in a tree.
I’m still amused by the little seen/heard/did icons on the left (observation) page

In a previous post — Points of Habit and Resistance — I did an activity where I listed some of my creative patterns and habits (good and bad) and then flipped them. (See also Paired Points, for more on that).

So e.g. “whimsy” flips to “violence” or “grotesque”.

The aim was to not correct habits, but to be aware of them and see where I wanted to adjust them and where I wanted to double-down.

I’ve been working that list up into a larger project, about which more soon!

On this page, I just wanted to play with some of those prompts.

For the purposes of trying them out, I chose an image I already liked — in this case, Ryo Takemasa‘s Water Lily illustration (see it here on Ryo’s portfolio or buy prints on Society6).

Screenshot of Ryo Takemasa art print of waterlilies in shades of blue-green on black water with a crescent moon above
Those blue-greens, the DEPTH they give the darkness, the shimmery yellow fingernail moon…

(A few other water lily images I’d been looking at recently also got into these ideas.)

Trying an exercise with someone else’s picture is a great way to:

  1. study how and why that picture works for me,
  2. know I’m working with something I already like (I’m sometimes too close to my own work), and
  3. relieve any pressure I feel to make something out of the exercise — this is Ryo Takemasa’s picture! I’m just conducting an exercise.

I then ran that image through a number of my prompts, and made quick drawn and written sketches of how they might change the scene.

A set of smaller sketches varying a drawing of lilypads.

It was interesting to note which gave rise to new ideas, and which suggested a treatment for a related topic.

There are close-ups of the exercises below:

Continue reading

Sketches at GOMA — European Masterpieces

Last week I snuck out to visit GOMA with Shayna, and see the exhibition of European Masterpieces from the Met. They’re renovating, we’re briefly not in lockdown…

I don’t sketch much when I’m visiting galleries with friends — there are important conversations to have, the backgrounds of Renaissance paintings to examine, people with cameras to dodge.

But I did get to do some of my favourite gallery sketching, which is sketching OTHER people sketching.

But I did get in a sketch of one of my favourites — which is MUCH larger than I imagined. I like it because it is so direct and frank, odd in its blank expanses and then unexpectedly detailed, not unlovely but far more concerned with what the sitter is doing. And if you look at it too long, it feels exactly like when a friend is drawing you and staring very hard at you but never quite meeting your eyes because they’re fixated on the shadows of your nose.

Here is the portrait — you can find out more about it on the Met’s page.

Marie Denise Villers — Marie Joséphine Charlotte du Val d’Ognes (1786–1868) 1801

Drawings from the QWC Map Workshop

A few weeks ago I gave an illustrated map workshop at the Queensland Writers Centre, for about 18 people in person and over 50 online (I bound around and build things on the floor, so a big shout-out to Sebastian for keeping up with the camera, and relaying online conversations and generally doing the hard work of wrangling me!).

Pen drawings with bits of maps, clouds, compass roses. A sheep on a solitary island with "Map of the Last Lonely Island". A stag running down a beach with a label that leads to "Elsewhere".

The map workshop was specifically illustrative and narrative rather than scientific. I am neither a cartographer nor a geographer, and do not claim to be! My own maps are pictures of the spaces where stories happen — not just the physical place, but the idea of it, and the sort of things that could happen there.

Francis Hardinge wrote beautifully about that in The Writers Map — you can read an extract here: Wizards, Moomins and Pirates: The Magic and Mystery of Literary Maps, but I also heartily recommend the (World Fantasy Award winning) book: The Writer’s Map: An Atlas of Imaginary Lands — Huw Lewis-Jones.

Here are a few of the books I referred to in the workshop (there are so many out there! and this isn’t including assorted atlases, books about place names, etc):

The workshop was a splendid mixture of ages and interests — a thoroughly enjoyable selection of people, because of how all those experiences and abilities and fascinations bounce off each other. I had a few epiphanies about my own work process, too (particularly in relation to written ‘maps’).

There were people who left with map designs to ink, and people who left with stories to tell, and a whole range in between who played with all sorts of skills — communicating through images and drawing tiny things and thinking through a physical space and looking at a world and breaking open a story.

Several attendees have very generously allowed me to post extracts from their sketched maps. I wish I could show you all of the designs that were emerging! While we started from the same story and landscape discussion, there was such a wide range of choices, solutions, storytelling, worldbuilding, linework…

Here’s a section of Meg Dunley’s map and notes (you can see more over in instagram.com/megdunley).

Meg Dunley

I do so love the “Far Away” label here — the way it frames the map, so that this is where the story is happening, but there is a larger world ‘altogether elsewhere’. It adds an extra level of framed-ness to the story (and a faint breeze of possibilities). The unmistakable little people, doing just what they need to (chopping, laundry), the house with its veranda, the receding perspective acknowledging that the high country is merely a backdrop to Events. Meg’s notes are also heavily drawn.

Consider this corner of Asia Ren’s map:

Asia Ren

The varying weight of the pencil lines here are great. Those mountains — scribbly they are, they are DEFINITE, and suggest a certain type of massive, aloof, mysterious horizon as they recede into the background. The boil of the waterfall, the distinct darkness (almost three-dimensional) of the lair, the specificity of the path being a cliff path…

Watching the class consider the different levels and dimensions of the landscape spins out so many questions and takes and stories.

Here’s a slice of Toni Risson’s map (the rectangle borders of this map are themselves on a skewed perspective, which also suggests many possibilities).

Toni Risson

What keeps catching me here are all those beautiful curls in the river — suggesting the flow of water, of course, but also making a distinct ornamental choice. The houses have two clear architectural types. The sense of action — the axe mid-swing, the wolf with its attention drawn. This is to be a world caught at a moment of suspended motion.

Megan Badger’s labels delight me:

Sketched trees, houses, gardens, paths, fishing village. Typed notes that say:
Map features:
mums wholefoods
fishing village
crossroads where deals are made
granny's apothecary
memorial meadow
and the washer woman's chant:
"beat the cloth
flow and froth
beat until the grime comes off"
Megan Badger

The drawings here are very clear and instantly communicative: those boats and that fish, the neatly fenced vegetable garden! This map is about the mechanics of the world, all the things that are going on alongside and behind the story — “mum’s wholefoods”, a crossroads for deals, the chant of the washer women (the possibilities of recording sound on a map).

(Also: If anyone else from the workshop reads this post and is willing to send me their map/thoughts, I’d love to look at some more of these details — and if you sent through your pictures but didn’t include a preferred link to your online presence, just let me know!)

Observation Journal — First Sentences

On this observation journal page, I was taking some more time on another favourite first sentence (following on from my earlier attempt to batch-process first lines).

Double-page spread of observation journal: On the left page, five things seen, heard, done, and a picture; On the right, thoughts on first lines.
Left page: “Greengrocer’s glowing with oranges, lemons, apples, melons, tomatoes”; also, I forgot how to draw a shopping trolley

Really, it was just an excuse to spend some time in the first line of Sarah Caudwell’s Thus Was Adonis Murdered:

Scholarship asks, thank God, no recompense but Truth.

Handwritten thoughts on the first line of Thus Was Adonis Murdered.

I love this first sentence. There’s no reference to persons, places, or events. There is, however, a very clear narrator: portentous, comically formal with fits of frank informality, weighty and oblique but perhaps (perhaps) not as complex as they perceive themselves to be.

And there’s already, here, a note of the relief and resignation on which the narrator (though not the plot) will end the book — ultimately, the narrator (Hilary Tamar) is more concerned about their own overlooked brilliance than the guilt or innocence of the accused Julia.

It’s punchy and funny and a little startling, and a definite Mood. There’s no action, but there is a tension — between the latinate and English words; elevated diction vs brevity; lofty principles vs grumpy relief; that very brevity vs the irony and doubled negatives. Why “thank God”? What has happened, what due was not given, who would express themselves this way? (If you’ve read the books, you’ll know this is a question that is immediately, constantly, yet also never answered.)

I then did a couple of replacement exercises (from Stanley Fish, see also previously: bodysnatching). I switched out each element (without particular attention to elegance of phrasing) to get, e.g. “Breakfast seeks, thank the cook, no pinnacle save omelette” and “The star requests, thank agents, no special treatment save a sedan chair.”

What this brought out (for me) was the personification, the irony, the echoes of Pride & Prejudice in the dubious veracity of a broad statement, and how difficult it is not to be sarcastic when using this particular sentence structure.

It’s also just a great book.

A previous take on Caudwell: The Caudwell Manoeuvre.

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Locus Award finalists — Art

Locus awards banner

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.)

Cut paper silhouette in progress for Flyaway cover — a heart with lemon trees growing from it, and birds

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.)

This is a nomination for art, not for writing, but since I illustrated Flyaway and it came out last year, I’m going to wave the book around as having Locus-shortlisted illustrations (here’s a whole article about the illustrations and process on Tor.com), along with art for e.g. Tallow Wife advance glimpses, the calendar art, “Undine Love“, Mother Thorn, lots of art scattered throughout this blog and other places online, and involvement in projects such as Welcome to the Bitch Bubble, World Roulette, enamel pins. I’m sure I’ve missed a few due to 2020 existing in a fog.

American and Australian covers for Flyaway

“Ghoulish but sentimental” — an interview with Socar Myles, Ghostwriter

BIO: Socar Myles is a Vancouver-based former illustrator and full-time ghostwriter, whose illustration work can be found at www.gorblimey.com.

KJ: Socar Myles and I first met years ago through the old Elfwood notice boards, and Socar gave me a great deal of thoughtful, professional advice on my early efforts. Her art enchanted me — ethereal creatures, and strange, soft, dense, spooky imagery with hints of Beardsley and Klimt and sly laughter — and recently she made a remark on Twitter that suggested she was writing seriously, only I couldn’t find anything under her name or any open pseudonym! So I sent her a message to find out more, which turned into this interview.

KJ: You’re known more as an illustrator, but you’ve moved into ghostwriting and I am fascinated. How did you get from illustration to writing full-time?

Socar: Many years ago, I wrote and illustrated a short comic, “The Zombie Ball,” which appeared in the Fleshrot Hallowe’en special. I posted an excerpt on my blog, and a book packager reached out and asked if I’d be interested in writing middle-grade fiction. I thought writing middle-grade fiction could be a quick route to children’s illustration gigs, so I said yes.

As it turned out, I never wrote any middle-grade fiction (or illustrated any). I didn’t understand the market at all. Instead, I spent years writing “for fans of” books (something popular would come out, and I’d dash off something in the same vein). It wasn’t glamorous work, but it taught me to write fast in a variety of genres, and to identify what would sell.

As my illustration career took off, I focused mainly on that, and let the writing fall by the wayside. But when my vision failed, I decided to pursue ghostwriting more seriously. By that time, my original publisher had gone out of business, and I wasn’t sure how to break back in. I Googled “ghostwriting jobs,” which led nowhere—mostly, I found Upwork gigs and content mills paying pennies a word. Then, I researched book packagers, and found a few that felt right.

At the moment, I’m doing contract work for two packagers, one of which produces mainly romance, the other YA fiction.

KJ: How does being, or having been, an illustrator feed into your writing?

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Just one more thing

Screenshot of the words:
"Here is a thing that didn't exist yesterday..."
Emily Carding, introducing a video on her Patreon
Screenshot of the words: 
"Also there is a sense of creation about it. There were more horses in the field when I left it than there were when I went in."
T. H. White, after assisting at a foaling, in England Have My Bones

Anthology announcement: Bitter Distillations

I’m very excited to have my short story “Not to be Taken” included in the forthcoming Egaeus Press anthology Bitter Distillations, and in very fine company. The story has been described as “very strange”.

And then I saw this lovely reduction linoprint from Bethan Foulkes (bethanfoulkes on Instagram), and clearly it was meant to be mine.

Small reduction linoprint of a green bottle labelled "not to be taken"

Travelogues: All the shape of the land

This morning (by my time), C. S. E. Cooney, with the very able conducting services of Carlos Hernandez (together Hernandooney) and Miriam Grill, hosted a Read-a-Thon of the whole of Travelogues, which just came out on Tuesday.

t was a wonderful group of new and old friends — poets, directors, artists, writers, readers —and 14 people were reading aloud. (The screenshot above is from the text Claire marked up for reading).

As a writer, getting to see people play with the words, emphasise and pronounce and laugh in real time, getting to watch readers read (which is what I mean when I say reading is a spectator sport), and have people excerpting their favourite lines in the chat, and discussing their train experiences and reminiscing about certain movements of a carriage, and sending photos of scenes like those described, and discussing the qualities of pigs, was just enchanting.

I’ve included the screenshot above because of this line:

Night, and all the shape of the land is in the shift and wallow of the carriage.

It captured so much of what it turns out I was trying to do with Travelogues: to hold onto scenes and moments in such a way that the reader could get into them and travel inside them, the way a passenger does in a carriage, feeling the landscape through the movement. It’s one of the qualities of what I’ve been calling industrial fabulism — a way not only of expressing the experience of made things, but of experiencing the world through them, and finding enchantment in that.

And then as a writer, to get to follow the reader’s experience — through accents and word choices and meanings — added a fascinating nested quality to this effect, and was an astonishing gift to receive from some very good friends.

We chatted about this after the readings, but I was also thinking of it because of seeing the Mavis Ngallametta exhibition at GOMA last week. Her work is vast and shimmering and affectionate. It’s deeply unlike Ravilious‘s (mentioned in Travelogues) and William Robinson‘s. And yet, like their paintings, Ngallametta’s enormous canvases convey the impression that if only you could get inside them and contort yourself just so (parachute up through the wall for Ngallametta and open your many-lensed eyes; slide through an old train window and fill your lungs for Ravilious; roll down a rainforested mountain for Robinson) you could be in the artist’s world.

(This connects to the discussion because Travelogues was a painterly exercise in many ways — it’s a (written) visual sketchbook, recording physical observations and sorting through pallettes and lines.)

Further thoughts no doubt to follow.

Travelogues is now available to purchase from Brainjar Press directly and the usual online suspects, as print and ebook. Brainjar Press is using local printer options where possible, but given the current state of postal services generally, it’s better to order earlier than later!