On making samplers (of various kinds)

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Most of the samplers people see today are decorative recreations of old ones. But a lot of early samplers weren’t intended for home furnishings: they were a practical record of techniques and approaches, as well as proof of the maker’s ability to use them.

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A textbook (of literary devices, of art techniques, of embroidery stitches) is handy, of course.

But a roll of linen (or a dedicated sketchbook, or a file of deliberate writing exercises) goes so much further. It is a handy guide, yes, but it’s also a method for processing information from elsewhere, for knowing what it looks like when you do it to your ability and taste, of measuring that ability over time, of knowing your materials, collecting the particular approaches that you like and vividly recalling the approaches that didn’t work for you.

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Covering ground

And beyond that, it’s a way of training your hands, of finding out your voice, of keeping your hands busy in quiet moments, and — sometimes — of creating a pleasing object after all.

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A variety of oceans

Thoughts/exercises for artists and writers

  • Consider how you approach exercises and activities. Could you collect them into an ongoing sampler of some kind? A running document of scraps or book of creative approaches that you’ve found particularly useful? A sketchbook dedicated just to collecting watercolour textures, or treatments of bark, or clouds, or (when the times allow), people? A roll of stitch samples? Could you start a long-term one, or keep a book for just a week?
  • It’s also a nice way to dip into something you’d like to learn or be better at. Is there another medium (digital or oil or lino) you’ve wanted to try, or another genre, or something you need to know about for writing research? Or just something new and soothing you’ve idly been interested in.
  • Consider when you can work on these things? Samplers often fit into the interstices of a day — a way to keep hands busy when talking or listening or watching, something that can be picked up between activities without any pressure of date or scale or being finished, a way to follow your curiousity.
  • Imagine you are illustrating or writing a scene in which your character meets (or is) a Person Who Makes Things: a blacksmith, perhaps, or a seamstress, or a fly-fisherman. Sketch a quick outline of the scene and setting (in words or pictures). Now consider the process by which that Person Who Makes Things learned and practises their trade: samplers? master-pieces? a little trophy-wall of examples? And what does that show about them — do they love or hate their trade, work on it for joy or duty, are their samples utilitarian or whimsical? Add a few of those details to the scene, and see what it does to the texture and character of the story.

Art process: The Darkest Part of the Forest

I was delighted to have the chance to design a header and ornaments for a rerelease of Holly Black’s The Darkest Part of the Forest.

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2019 edition, cover art by Sean Freeman, design by Karina Granda

Lately, I’ve been appreciating decorative illustrations more than I used to, and it was lovely to just spend the time designing faery swords and choosing leaves.

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The header itself was an intriguing proposition. It was to be a specific object/scene from the book — the glass coffin in the forest. Glass coffins are their own challenge, of course, but for other single-header books (e.g. Holly’s Modern Faerie Tales trilogy) I’ve tried to pick images that are less specific and more broadly representative of elements of the book.

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Holly has a very particular gift for combining the wondrous with the mundane, in this scene no less than others. Capturing the weeds and rubbish as well as the coffin and its occupant was a delicate balance.

It was also a slightly different style of drawing to my usual more 2d representations. This needed a dark forest to nestle into, as well as an ornamental frame.

Here are the completed pencils, to use as a base for the final drawing — you can see where I was moving things around digitally (e.g. the fox) as well as swapping tree sketches outs for different effects..

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I decided to experiment with more hatching, just because — in this case, leaving out the outlines in the background (which I am usually all about).

Here is the final ink drawing, as it appears in the book.

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And a sword (and an epigraph, which Holly also always chooses beautifully).

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Exercises for illustrators and writers (from the perspective of the illustrator):

  • How much of an image can you show without outlines? How much of a scene can you write only by describing the background?
  • Think of a book (a favourite, or your own). Design a single iconic/thematic image that would work as an ornament to introduce all the chapters.
  • Find a single decorative image (the Public Domain Review is a good start — search ornament or browse around) that could work as a chapter header for a hypothetical book. Extrapolate from that to work out what sort of book it might be. In a book tuned to that image, what would the action/adventure chapters be like? What mood would the reflective sections have? What crises and reversals would happen in a book that could be summed up in that picture? Is this an image that necessitates the presence of a prologue?
  • You can do a similar exercise with an epigraph/leading quote. Let a book fall open, browse Bartleby or choose a random page from Wikiquotes (the ‘random page’ link should be on the right). That’s now the epigraph for an as-yet-unwritten book in your favourite genre. Proceed as above. (Or you could try a random quote as the lead-in for each chapter (or each scene in a short story) — choose a reasonable number, line them up, and work back from there to find out what the story (or an appropriate accompanying illustration) could be.

Making little things

Grand plans have their place. But sometimes it is good to make little things.

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Clockwork beetles (eventually became part of an illustration for Trudi Canavan)

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.

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Trying to get the textures of matchbox art (for Mermay)

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.

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Out of desperation to have drawn a thing, any thing, that day.

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.

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Learning control

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.

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High waists are back in

Many little things, all set side by side, can add up to a collection, an exhibition, but that is not the point.

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And why are we standing behind the watch? What does it mean?

You can pretend you are a clockmaker, or a spy hiding secret messages.

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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.

Pin process: Tea & Sympathetic Magic

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I mentioned this when talking about my latest enamel pin for Tansy (and that project‘s fully funded, but until 8 April 2020 you can still support it and get a castle pin: Castle Charming). It’s a pin I designed for Tansy Rayner Roberts’ Patreon, and her novella, Tea and Sympathetic Magic.

I’m not averse to drawing the odd hedgehog, and this had the added pleasure of letting me justify my collection of teacups as reference material. Here are the early sketches of a variety of teacups and urchins.

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We considered gold surrounds, as per the Creature Court pins, but opted for the black lines.

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It’s so much fun to draw something and have someone else take it away and bring it back as something shiny and wonderful, and the beauty of enamel pins is that you end up with multiples that you can let run through your fingers.

Making Things Manifest: Mock-ups and outlines

Because I’ve been teaching some classes on creativity lately, I’m getting preoccupied with the steps between having an IDEA™ and actually creating a thing that exists in the world.

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So many problems get solved by doing. But more than this, I find ideas — like cats — tend to flow to fill the shape of the box that you give them. It’s not just limits and borders (which are so useful for letting ideas, like waves, pile up against). An idea fed into a four-panel comic takes its own story-rhythm. An accordion-folded strip of paper quickly concertinas a rough story into a full draft. And a full draft of anything is already something that can be usefully shown to other people.

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This was a story for patrons

There’s also a cruising gear the mind shifts into. Making mock-ups can be a form of procrastination, of course, but also it’s a very useful anaesthetic. Sometimes you sit down to do a rough treatment of some personally-tailored ideas-cards you wish existed, and look up a considerable time later from a completed deck of 50.

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These all also have the advantage of having taken on a tangible form outside my own head. Ideas and sketches and outlines alone don’t always have this. They rely on a degree of emotion and momentum and excitement in my mind, and if I revisit the notes later, I can’t always recapture that, or work out what it was. Or read my handwriting.

This works for prose, too. Once an idea achieve a certain gravitational pull, I sometimes use a template loosely based on Susan Dennard’s 1-page synopsis (for fiction) or a standard intro-3-points-conclusion numbered outline (for prose) to make sure all the necessary parts are roughly accounted for, or given placeholder options. Then I pin them in place in a form I can easily store indefinitely, and come back to and pick up again.

And occasionally (e.g. for the few comics I’ve done) I’ll write a quick “treatment”-description first, which covers the overall story, its feeling and mood and key visuals/words, but isn’t actually a draft, so doesn’t have to bear the weight of those particular anxieties.

Art/installation process: Mary Poppins and the Story Bank

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Image courtesy the Story Bank

A very exciting project I was involved with last year was the new Story Bank in Maryborough, Qld, the birthplace of P. L. Travers, who wrote (most famously) Mary Poppins. It’s a story museum, a P. L. Travers museum, a storytelling journey, and it’s been such fun to be on the edges of it — and I’m hoping to go up for the Mary Poppins festival later this year. Last time I was there the Story Bank was still being fitted out, and I could only peer piteously through the gates.

Great street crossing signs, though.

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Image courtesy the Story Bank

My involvement with the project was a collection of line drawings, and it’s the second time I’ve had the chance to play around the edges of a field largely defined by a Shepard. The lively original Mary Poppins illustrations were by Mary Shepard who, I only realised while doing this, had E. H. Shepard (of my favourite Wind in the Willows illustrations, and of course Winnie the Pooh fame) as a dad.

I posted a bit about illustrating The River Bank, and those lessons proved useful here: developing an approach to the illustrations that was faithful to the text, honoured the famous illustrators and their iconic images (which are so much a part of the history and experience of the books), but was also my own style.

Here are some of the development sketches. I was doing these at various people’s tables in Western Massachusetts.

First was the compass, which needed a treatment that could be read from any angle and also addressed some of the aspects of the original art that… perhaps didn’t age terribly well.

We went with B, which required a lot of animals — bison and all!

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The portrait represented its own set of difficulties. The format, first of all, and then how everyone should be have, and then the fact that Mary is described so exactly as Shepard drew her, like a Dutch doll, that it’s an effort to not look like a direct copy.

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Finally, as a nod to various vanishings into pottery in the books, a design for a plate.

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This developed into two designs, one for a plate, and one for a tureen, with an intermediate horizontal design that became a wall decal. Here are some concept sketches for the tureen while a suitable tureen was still being sought.

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From there, all was inked and assembled, tidied up digitally, and sent up to the Fraser Coast.

I’ll take photos when I get there again, but in the meantime, courtesy of the Story Bank, here are a couple of the pieces in place.

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Compass, photo courtesy of the Story Bank

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Kite-flying, photo courtesy of the Story Bank

 

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Plate, photo courtesy of the Story Bank

If you’re in or visiting Queensland, I do recommend checking out the Story Bank, and the activities they have there.

Process post: Castle Charming pin

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I was going to save this post until later in Tansy Rayner Roberts‘ Castle Charming Kickstarter campaign, but it’s already been more than 3/4 funded in its first 24 hours!

Castle Charming is a collection of linked short stories and novellas about a year in the life of a fairy tale kingdom, by Tansy Rayner Roberts.

(Incidentally, while I’ve never run a crowdfunding campaign directly, I’ve been involved with quite a few, and the biggest lesson, from Kinds of Blue (9 years!) on, has been: the more complete a project already exists, the faster it funds.)

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One of the reward levels is an enamel pin based on a design by me (the first pin I designed was also for Tansy’s Creature Court crowdfunding campaign (final pins here), and in the interim there was a hedgehog in a teacup, too).

Here are the early sketches (already seen by patrons, including a few I’ve trimmed off here because I definitely want to do something further with them at some point).

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Tansy chose M, but with bean plants around the base instead of the generic flourish. I worked up a few approaches (bean plants are notoriously vertical, so working up a horizontal version was an enjoyable puzzle — we had to opt for a short-podded variety), but our favourite was the clustered beans and leaves.

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From there, I straightened it up and inked it with a brush, then tidied it (lightly — we wanted to keep the hand-drawn effect) digitally and added colour.

I’ll post a picture of the final pins when they become reality, but in the meantime, you can get one by supporting the campaign here: Castle Charming.