Curse Workers — art reveal

Some more exciting news!

A new bindup of Holly Black’s magical con-artist trilogy The Curse Workers is coming out in November — and I designed a new silhouette chapter header for each book. It’s available to pre-order now.

(The cover design is by Michael McCartney)

They are great books, gritty and with a cynical enchantment. Much as I love Holly Black’s Elfhame and fae enchantments, I’m always so surprised and drawn in by the patina of her (almost) real-world settings — it adds such a salt-and-acid note to the sweetness (however decadent and cruel) of the more fantastic settings. And The Curse Workers is all that side of the story. It’s also a story of embedded rather than discovered magic, where it’s a (disreputable) part of the structure of technology and fashion, politics and society and organised crime.

(Another illustrated project that is available to pre-order is the limited edition of Angela Slatter’s The Tallow-Wife — and there are a few more coming soon, like the special linen-cover edition of Juliet Marillier’s Mother Thorn in April!)

Observation Journal: 20 ways with gold foil

Let’s get back to the making things type of Observation Journal page. The first half of this post is about the approach to an exercise, the second half of it is the resulting list of some possibilities to use foil on book covers.

Double spread from observation journal. On the left, five things seen/heard/done and a picture of a painting leaning up against a fence. On the right, a list of 20 ways with foil treatments, with accompanying drawings of a silhouette dog.

Twenty Things

I’m a fan of the twenty things exercise, either starting with an object and working out twenty uses for it (my dad used to make us do this on long car trips); or starting with a question and listing twenty answers.

I think it’s fun, and it’s also interesting to watch the process of ideas being pushed through different barriers — for example:

  • with the “twenty uses” version there’s often a point where the obvious gives way to the interesting and then to the ludicrous and then circles back to the intriguing;
  • with the “twenty problems” variant it loosens my grip on the first/obvious choice I imprinted on (even if that turns out to be the final choice, it’s usually stronger for a bit of objectivity).

This is also why I’ve kept the self-reflection panels on the observation journal pages. Not just to do the exercise, but to step back and watch myself doing it, and learn. You’ll see here I noted on the side that “20 really is the magic number. 11 is where I had to look further/do more research.”

“Twenty things” has shown up in the observation journal before, when I was working out the colour treatment for Lauren Dixon’s cover: Observation journal — werewolf conferences and colour treatments.

This page was also for a cover — in this case for Juliet Marillier’s Mother Thorn, for which we had the opportunity to use foil on the cover of the special edition (out in April). But I hadn’t designed specifically for foil combined with a silhouette before. So I made this list of 20 WAYS WITH FOIL TREATMENTS. (The activity is also great for tricking yourself into working on something.)

Handwritten observation journal page: a list of 20 ways with foil treatments, with accompanying drawings of a silhouette dog.

Here’s the list (excluding the running commentary to myself alongside). It’s project-specific and non-exhaustive:

  1. GOLD on BLACK (or colour)
  2. BLACK on GOLD
  3. Gold-limned silhouette on coloured ground (almost calligraphic)
  4. Gold base/border on coloured ground
  5. Foil highlights in silhouette design
  6. Above plus gold background (2)
  7. 5 plus flyaway bits in foils
  8. Fine foil pattern supporting coloured silhouettes
  9. Black on colour, gold lettering
  10. Gold support/background for lettering
  11. Colourised/textured silhouette with foil ornament bits
  12. 1 but with many cut-out details
  13. Multi-silhouettes, different foils
  14. Silhouette (black on colour) surrounded by drawn foil pattern
  15. Gold effect on blue texture
  16. Gold silhouettes, deeper-coloured shadow
  17. Black on colour. Only important details picked out in foil (e.g. figures, coins, birds).
  18. Border in one foil, title in another
  19. Foil silhouette on coloured ground with overlapping white title square
  20. Spot gloss blacks with foil lettering background

You’ll see that my terminology here is not particularly technical! That’s one reason for accompanying it with sketches. Ballpoint drawings aren’t hugely informative for foil/colour treatments but did help me to think through the practicalities, and whether an idea reminded me of something I’ve seen elsewhere, or made me feel (to quote) “ugh”, at least for this project.

The next step (square box on the side) was to do a test version, to run through a few of these.

6 variations of a silhouette illustration of a girl sitting in a tree, receiving mail from a dog on the ground and delivering it to a bird in the air. Some are coloured, some have gold elements.

The final cover used approach C, which was a combination of 11 and 5, although there was briefly a 19 in the running.

Writing/art exercises

  • 20 Things: Pick a handy object (or something you’ve seen today). Come up with twenty uses for it.
    • This could be as light-hearted as 20 Uses for a Plastic Fork.
    • It’s good for car trips and working out how your friends think, but it’s also good practice for just thinking sideways.
    • Afterwards, it can be useful to note where the ideas got more difficult, or sillier, or if you know where some of them came from. This is interesting, but you
    • It can also be useful for turning objects in a story into plot (or other things).
    • It could even become a project on its own.
  • 20 Ways: Think of an aspect of a project that you are stuck on, or something you’d like to play with but haven’t quite managed to, and list 20 Ways To Deal With It.
    • I find this more useful when the initial problem is narrower — 20 Ways to Tell A Short Story is fine, but I can get past 100 without breaking a sweat. 20 Ways to Tell A Short Story In An 8-Page Accordion Booklet forces more invention. (These examples are from current pages of the observation journal, and I’ll get to them in time!)
    • Like Ten Terrible Things, I find this lets me have fun exploring options without feeling like I have to commit to any of them, or abandon my early ideas. The list is the point.
    • Sometimes your first instinct will still have been right, but you’ll be more certain of it (and have stress-tested it, and maybe come up with some new ideas for future projects), and you’ll have released your stranglehold on it a little, too.

Mother Thorn — book trailer

From A Licence to Quill comes this book trailer for Juliet Marillier’s Mother Thorn, and other tales of courage and kindness, illustrated by me.

The Serenity Press hardcover special edition is out now, and the trade release of the linen cover is in April 2021. More on that as the date approaches!

Read and seen — December 2020

A photo of a hand holding a cut-paper silhouette of a woman dressed in a moth-costume.

A strong commonality among the December books was a twinned sense of costuming on the one hand, and becoming more who you are on the other. How that turned into a moth girl I’m not entirely sure, but that was where the associations started.

Books

  • Borrowed Dreams — May McGoldrick (romance, villainy, benevolent interference)
  • A Skinful of Shadows — Frances Hardinge (ghosts! the English civil war!)
  • Powder and Patch — Georgette Heyer (Georgian makeover montage — I always thought this was a silly book, and it is, but I liked it so much more on the reread)
  • Reading Like a Writer — Francine Prose (appreciating sentences)
  • Every Tool’s a Hammer — Adam Savage (this was about more than just fitting your studio space to the way you work instead of the other way around, but that was the main revelation for me)
Screenshot from the ebook of Every Tool's A Hammer with the following highlighted: "you don't want to just store stuff, you eventually want to retrieve and use it as well."
From Every Tool’s A Hammer: an epiphany

Other

  • The Happiest Season
  • Darren Hanlon’s Regional Xmas Tour — The Majestic Theatre, Pomona

Inktober and triangulation, or: Nature LOVES a vacuum

Brush-and-ink and imitation-gold-leaf illustration of a hen looking at a radio.
“Radio” plus “The cowardly hero deceived the hen.” (This was VERY TINY and also a birthday card for my father and something of a riff on His Master’s Voice.)

I’m probably grossly misusing the word “triangulation” but it fits because it’s a process of navigation AND an indirect way of approaching something AND this is about using three elements.

So:

  • A structure can be used to attract a story (see: Narrative Theory 1).
  • External input — something from outside my own head — is very useful when creating my own work.
  • Limitations (e.g. of materials, format etc) are hugely useful for pushing against creatively — they enhance the creative force.

I find that two constraints can suggest starting-point ideas, but using three together fairly reliably creates things that feel like stories. It holds open a space for things to fill. (See also: Observation Journal — A Tremor in the Web for more feeling-my-way-towards-ideas and Observation Journal —improbable inventions for another three-things approach).

Brush-and-ink and imitation-gold-leaf illustration of a thief sitting on a tree root and looking into an enchanted mirror.
“Radio” plus “The evil thief sighed in the deep dark forest.” The “radio” here turned into a pair of enchanted communicating mirrors.

Which brings us to Inktober. I’m repeating my approach to it last year, using three main boundaries:

  • Prompt: I use the main/official prompts (there are many others), because that’s simple, and because where they don’t fit my personal tastes/interests (i.e. “radio”) it makes me work harder to come up with something that pleases me. I like using and fighting against external prompts and timeframes, and having to incorporate something that’s not entirely from inside my own head — that was the appeal and lesson of Illustration Friday way back when (and that tag is a deep dive).
  • Technique: Ink, obviously, but I further limited it to silhouette brush work because I want to get better at brush work and silhouettes seemed simpler (why I, of all people, would think that, but here we are), and incorporated imitation-gold leaf (because it’s pretty and I have a lot to learn).
  • Second prompt: I’m using tweets from Fairy Tale Fragments (@fairytaletext) on Twitter. This pulls everything into my preferred fairy-tale area, but involves some mental acrobatics to incorporate e.g. “radio” into that sort of setting.
Sketches for possible illustrations.
“Rodent” and the process of feeling out that day’s @fairytaletext tweets looking for things I wanted to draw
Brush-and-ink and imitation-gold-leaf illustration of a mouse on a wine bottle drinking out of a thimble.
“Rodent” plus “Once, there was a drunken thief who lived in a tall tower.”
Brush-and-ink and imitation-gold-leaf illustration of rats in a coat riding on the back of a wolf and pretending to be human.
The creative process illustrated, or: “Rodent” plus “The ugly servant saved the wolf.

Note: It’s tricky getting good photos of the foil, and impossible to scan usefully, but it’s got a lovely buttery-gold gleam under lights.

Badgers and Unicorns

Two family cards from September! Both ridiculously tiny, although in the first case it was because I started too close to the top of the paper.

Look at this tiny car!

Detail of cut paper silhouette of Badger talking and smoking a pipe, with toad driving a car and a galloping horse on the smoke.

The first is for my dad for Father’s Day. He was always a fan of Badger in The Wind in the Willows, and after illustrating Kij Johnson’s The River Bank, I still haven’t had enough of playing in that world.

Detail of cut paper silhouette of Badger talking and smoking a pipe, with toad driving a car and a galloping horse on the smoke.

The River Bank is a very good book, by the way — even disregarding the illustrations! It was one of the Washington Post’s 50 Notable Books for 2017.

I freehand-sketched the illustration onto the back of a scrap of paper, and then refined it as I cut it out.

Cut paper silhouette of Badger talking and smoking a pipe, with toad driving a car and a galloping horse on the smoke.

The second card was for my niece’s birthday. She is now two and likes unicorns.

Detail of fingers and paintbrush painting flowers and unicorn.

This time I sketched it lightly onto a piece of card, then darkened the main lines. Then I went over it with watercolours.

Detail of fingers and paintbrush painting flowers and unicorn.

I went with a more horse-shaped unicorn than my usual goat/borzoi hybrids.

Pencil and watercolour drawing of a unicorn on a field of flowers, with a garland of flowers trailing from its horn.

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.

Undine Love: Reprint, new art

A big week for writing news! In addition to the new piece, my short story “Undine Love” has just been reprinted on Tor.com!

It’s a story of promises and hospitality, set in Australia (or something like it), and I’m still rather fond of its heroine and her not-entirely-absent family.

Ever since doing the cover for The Border Keeper I keep thinking it would be a great idea to cut out strands of wire.

This is the first publication of Undine Love since it appeared in ASIM in 2011, and although Tor.com doesn’t usually illustrate reprints, I wanted to do a fresh set in the style of the silhouettes in Flyaway.

But you’ll need to go to https://www.tor.com/2020/06/11/undine-love-kathleen-jennings/ to see more…

More legs than strictly necessary

“I had a little pony,
His coat was dapple grey
…”

To make nursery rhymes creepy, usually only a slight wilful misinterpretation is necessary.

An additional leg here or there.

The slight twist that makes the familiar uncanny.

“… I lent him to a lady
To ride a mile away.

Flyaway: A silhouette in gold!

2020-05-22-FlyawayCase3

Looook at it! I did not know there were going to be foils on the case (under the dust jacket) of the Tor.com edition of Flyaway!

(These are the production manager’s photos for approval)

2020-05-22-FlyawayCase1

They are so shiny!

2020-05-22-FlyawayCase2

I remain fascinated by what different colour treatments do to a silhouette — what grows and narrows, what turns into a void or lifts off the paper.

It’s just over two months before publication (although both the US and Australian editions are available for pre-order now).

I’ve written more on the illustrations here: