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.

Art process: a small discarded skull

Hand holding cut-paper skull, in black paper, crowned by strawberries

This little cut-paper skull was one of two designs I worked on simultaneously for Light Grey Art Lab’s Pandora’s Box art swap. I still find it very charming, but I had envisaged the design in colour and couldn’t get that to work the way I wanted.

Skull coloured in natural colours, and purply-blues.

The way I coloured this silhouette was to cut it up digitally into the different colour areas — I include bits that will overlap, to make a cleaner join. 

Then I run those through a vector program individually and layer them back in Photoshop — this gives a smoother edge than I get if I just colour it directly in Photoshop (I strongly suspect there is an easier way to do this, but this works).

Here are the four layers:

The trick here is to put an identical dot in each section. You can see it at the top right of each colour. This makes it much simpler to align the layers!

Once they are stacked together, I add texture and shadows, etc. 

In the end, I went with a pen and ink design, but the purple skull is beginning to appeal to me.

You can find the collections on the Light Grey website, and throughout the show, works will be available on the online shop as special mystery packs. You can check out the mystery packs here! And select pieces will only be available at Light Grey Art Lab in Minneapolis. 

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).

Do Panic

Amateur Opossum Actress by Rebecca Kriz

I bought a print of “Amateur Opossum Actress” by Rebecca Kriz, because this is basically my approach to any endeavour with a deadline or other degree of commitment/external expectation.

At this point, it helps to acknowledge that behaving like this is simply my process. It takes a lot less energy to plan for dramatics than to try and avoid them.

(I also schedule panicking time for some projects, so when I’m hyperventilating and people check up on me I can say ‘No, this is fine, this is what I’m meant to be doing!’)

If you, too, are an amateur opossum actress, I highly recommend buying a print from Rebecca Kriz!

(The other illustration is an original Belinda Jane Morris painting for my story “Skull & Hyssop” — the story was in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet #31, the painting was a last commission from the days of being a lawyer. The cross-stitch is Rapunzel, designed & stitched by me even longer ago.)

WQ Magazine — art process

I was delighted to do the cover art for issue 273 of WQ Magazine, the magazine for Qld Writers Centre members. This post is about the art & the thinking process behind it.

Front cover of magazine in brown, blue, and yellow:
T, shears, moon, tortoise, rabbit, mayfly, girl with flag, I, swallow, M, shark, acorn, comet, pomegranate, rakali, E

The concept and the brief

The theme of the issue was TIME. Within that, I was encouraged to do what I liked.

Originally, QWC sent me some examples of work of mine that particularly appealed to them — the three examples below, of the hands cutting silhouettes, the “Scarlet” scratchboard image, and the US cover of Flyaway. This is useful for several reasons:

  • Because I work in several styles, it makes sure we’re all on the same page.
  • If the brief is fairly broad (“time”), it gives me some parameters to play within, which is always more interesting.
  • If I’ve had some new ideas I want to play with, it also lets me introduce them appropriately.

The examples QWC sent had in common strong deep colours and a very graphic approach. But I had also just finished the April calendar (Silver and Gold), and was keen to try that style again. So I added that into the thumbnails.

Here are the thumbnail sketches I sent in — always on the theme of time, with a variety of motifs.

Here’s a close-up of the thumbnail sketch for the chosen direction. Most of these elements made it in, but a few needed to go to leave room for the lettering.

Collecting my thoughts

It was (as always) thoroughly enjoyable working out elements to put in. I decided to go for things that meant “time” to me, rather than trying to be universal — although I was open to further input, and as usual I tried to go for elements that might have more than one meaning!

For both writing and art, I do like making these sorts of lists and collections. See, for example, Observation Journal — written sketches and samplers, On making samplers of various kinds, and When in doubt make lists and shuffle them. It’s useful for coming up with ideas, but it’s also an attractive way to make a thing: many of the calendars represent some version of that process.

Several of the motifs should be fairly obvious (although nearly all have two meanings, and some have more personal book-connections). Some of the possibly more obscure and/or specific references include the steam engine (a reference to the impacts of railways on the understanding and use of time), the crocheted collar with its grass of parnassus flowers from Ruth Park’s Playing Beatie Bow, Lydia running with a flag from Evaline Ness’ Do you have the time, Lydia, the ice-skates for Philippa Pearce’s Tom’s Midnight Garden, tortoise and/or hour lilies from Michael Ende’s Momo (the tortoise and arrow together are also for Xeno’s paradox) and a HERE/NOW/NOWHERE urn from Diana Wynne Jone’s Fire & Hemlock. The water-rat is a rakali or kuril, for Kurilpa and this river, and rivers generally & metaphorically.

The few that didn’t make it in are the solitary leaf/tree (the acorn was doing that work, but it lost a very oblique Shaun Tan reference), a box (Pandora? Schrödinger?), a bell (so many reasons, but personally and predominantly The Magician’s Nephew), some lilies-of-the-field, and a pair of dancers (plenty of dance/time connotations, but honestly it was a Strictly Ballroom reference).

Pencils

The next step was to rule up the space I had to work with. I drew up a template on the computer, then printed it out and used it as a guide for the pencils, refining the details and replacing a few motifs with the letters TIME (loosely referencing some old collections of illuminated letters).

There are a few more images here than appeared on the final cover. This is mostly because I wanted both the original inks and the digitally coloured version to stand on their own as images.

Inking

Once the pencils were approved, I darkened the lines on the computer, printed them out, put them on the light box, put some nice Canson drawing paper on top, and began inking it with a brush and Dr PH Martin’s Black Star Matte ink (instead of my usual Winsor & Newton).

I inked around the shapes first. This gave a strong silhouette, and once you have that, it’s surprising how little detail you need to add to give the impression of a full drawing. (I’ve written before about the useful structural role of silhouettes in both art and writing — Silhouettes, or: Outline View, and On silhouettes and further points of connection.)

You’ll see here that I split the art across two A3 pages.

Once the silhouettes were drawn, I went in and hinted at the fine detail. I’m still particularly pleased with this collar (a reference to Playing Beatie Bow).

Here are the finished inks:

I scanned in the finished pages, adjusted the contrast, then vectorised them in Inkscape (one day I’lll work out Illustrator). This keeps almost all the wobbles and line variation, but gives a lovely strong clear contrast. Here it is in hot pink, because it amused me.

Then I took the (black!) inks back into Photoshop, where I added colour.

Colour

I wasn’t entirely sure how to colour the cover — whether to keep the the simple yellow/grey of the April calendar, or a greater range of colours.

I decided just to get the colour flats down first — selecting the areas under the inks that would be different colours, and filling them with anything, on the understanding I could change the colours later. To keep it simple, I just used two colours, blue and green, plus white.

Here are the areas coloured in — this layer sat under the inks, so it could be untidy to begin with. (Technical details: I mostly used the “lasso” tool to select areas, only occasionally bumping more detail in with the pencil or eraser tools.)

At this colour flatting stage I have to force myself to not care about the final colours. Just pick the number of colours I want to use and then select the different areas. The colours can be adjusted later.

Colour choice

I’ve written before about aspects of working with very limited colours, both in art and writing (Sketchbook colours — blue and gold).

I did at one point think of doing more with the colours, but decided I preferred the two-tone version.

In the end, I settled for blue and yellow, which (as previously mentioned) I like a lot. Blue and yellow, together, have slightly different meanings than blue and green, so I swapped some coloured areas around. I added an old paper texture over the top, to give a bit of surface variation.

Editing

Finally, with the advice of friends, I took out 9 elements. This was tricky, but we decided that the finer shapes, which had less weight on the page, could be removed — the sickle and needle and arrow, and so forth. I liked them very well, but they shifted the light differently to the others.

Then I rearranged the others to fit the cover layout and complement each other. And here is the final wraparound cover!

Copies and prints

WQ magazine is provided free to members, but the Queensland Writers Centre do supply additional copies and copies to non-members for five dollars (plus, I imagine, postage) if you contact them with your details.

They have also given me permission to sell prints of the full art, and those are now up at INPRNT and Redbubble (the repeating/square version is also on Redbubble if you prefer e.g. a scarf or a notebook).

Thanks & support

Thanks to QWC, and Callum and Sandra, for this opportunity — both to do this cover and to get away with doing exactly what I wanted to on it! Thanks also go especially to Shayna, Alex, Claire, and Aimee for early thoughts on & responses to this project.

Thanks also to my patrons over on patreon.com/tanaudel, who got sneak-peeks, and give encouragement, and let me practice early drafts of my process posts on them. If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, 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 prints etc are available at Redbubble (prints and all sorts of things), INPRINT (art prints) and Spoonflower (fabric and wallpaper).

June 2021 Calendar — Dragons

Note: This calendar is supported by patrons, who get it a little bit early, along with other sneak-peeks and behind-the-scenes art: patreon.com/tanaudel, and also by those very kind people who throw a few dollars towards it via the tip jar: ko-fi.com/tanaudel

Dragonlets for the June calendar! Wriggling all over the place. You will notice distinct design homages to Smaug (as depicted in Tolkien’s drawings), particularly the tiny wings with a single anchor-point, and the three-pronged tail. It turns out tiny wings are MUCH easier to manage for decorative purposes. Others are more in line with my usual dragons.

Here’s a glimpse of the project’s beginnings in my notebook, where most calendars begin.

I was originally planning mermaids, for the Mermay illustration challenge, but we just had mermaids in February

I drew these to a grid, which was a puzzle, getting them all to fit — especially since I wanted some to go off one edge and back on the other (to better repeat).

There’s a printed grid under this sheet of paper, which I used as a guide — all the dragons take up 10 squares.

Once I’d sketched out the dragons, I used that set of dragons as the base for another set of sketches (each dragon filling the same space as its twin, but facing the other way. I put those together and darkened the sketches on the computer, then used a lightbox to ink the finals on clean paper before tidying and colouring them on the computer.

Hunt Crowquill 102 nib and Winsor & Newton black ink, on Canson illustration 250gsm paper

I’ve also wrangled it into a repeating pattern, which is now up on clothes, stationery, prints & etc at Redbubble! I will put it on Spoonflower, too. Oh, and the February mermaids are now up on Redbubble, too.

And here (for personal use) are the printable versions. If you like them and/or like supporting the arts, you can contribute to the calendar (and get it and other behind-the-scenes things early) at patreon.com/tanaudel (starts at US$1/month!) or by buying me a coffee or two through Ko-Fihttps://ko-fi.com/tanaudel.

Illustrations: a wedding, a kite

Tiny pen and watercolour painting of a young man and woman flying a kite on a hilltop in a strong wind, and being lifted off the ground.

Earlier this year, I drew a set of little people (below) for a good friend’s wedding. I’ve known Shayna a very long time, and she and her sisters have shown up in illustrations more than once, and behind cameras (her mother took my current headshots). When we can, we get together for art evenings, and she’s always saving me on technical things — she’s a graphic designer, and did the early mock-ups of the Flyaway art placement for me, too, when the illustrations were just an annexure to a dissertation. If you’ve ever visited and seen my beloved The Wolf Man painting, that was by Shayna.

I drew several stacks of ballpoint sketches (nb — not portraits), to get them sketchy enough for the invitation. Here they are in parts of Shayna’s layout (the full invitation (pdf here) was a single large sheet that folded into a pamphlet/poster).

Her wedding was then cancelled by a short sharp lockdown, but in the end it was able to go ahead only two days later than planned, high on a cloudy mountain with wedge-tailed eagles circling below us.

For my card to them, I wanted to tie it back to the invitation, and put both characters together. I folded an A5 piece of Canson illustration paper in half, then taped it down with masking tape. Process: Light pencil, ink lines with an 0.05 Staedtler micron (I think), erase the pencils, put down masking fluid, colour with (Daniel Smith) watercolour, remove masking fluid, touch up with pen and a tiny bit of white gel pen.

Paper stuck to a drawing board with purple masking tape, a picture partly painted with masking fluid still showing, and a narrower tiny pen and watercolour painting of a young man and woman flying a kite on a hilltop in a strong wind, and being lifted off the ground.

You will notice this is not quite the same illustration as at the top of this post! I was seized by self-doubt at some point, and painted that second card just in case. I love them both — the figures below, and the hill and path in the squarer painting — and in the end I took both of them all the way to the wedding and made up my mind when I got there.

Art Process: Chain of Iron silhouette portraits

Cover of Chain of Iron, with a girl with long red hair and a yellow dress
Chain of Iron cover art by Cliff Nielsen

Chain of Iron is out in stores! (These photos were taken in Where The Wild Things Are, because my copies are still somewhere in the international postal system and also it’s a great bookstore.) You can get Chain of Iron through all good & usual bookstores, and see all the illustrations in the Collector’s First Edition.

Silhouette portrait of a man tipping a hat, with an oval frame surrounded by flowering vines, a spear, a newspaper, a dagger, and a bottle

This edition has 10 silhouette portraits by me. It was a really lovely commission to do, and interesting — trying to work spears into circular compositions and distinguish flowers in silhouette and hint at bottles when working in cut paper… and that was just this image.

To begin with, I had a wish list from Cassandra with all the characters and a selection of moods and elements. I got out a stack of folded drawing paper (I cut A3 paper in half lengthwise then make it into little 4-page accordion-fold A5-sized booklets).

I began with some very preliminary sketches, sorting through some of the possibilities for combining a silhouette portrait and a frame. This stage is just me thinking through the pencil, watching what happens on the page, getting a feel for what is interesting and plausible.

Several tiny pencil drawings of head-and-shoulder faces in profile, with scribbly frames and a globe pendant, etc
This is actually one whole 4-page sketchfold pieced back together after I scanned it

At that point I was pretty sure of the rough dimensions of the frame, so I drew a template on the computer, printed it out, cut it out, and used it to trace little page outlines that I could use for my thumbnail sketches.

4 photos, cutting, tracing and drawing in an oval template

Here I was working through several different frame treatments for various characters — flowers growing from a central oval frame, from a rectangular outer frame, various patterns of growth, etc.

Four tiny pencil sketches of framing arrangements, very scribbly

Once the appropriate style was decided, I enlarged the chosen thumbnail sketches and developed them into clean pencil drawings. I scanned those in for minor adjustments, and so I could send them for approval. Here they are all stacked on top of each other in Photoshop, before I flipped them for printing.

Illegible stack of scribbly lines

I printed each sketch larger than my original pencil drawing (I work small!). Then I printed them again because I forgot to flip them! Because I’m working on the back of the black paper, everything has to be reversed. Then I taped each printout to a sheet of 80gsm black paper. I have to be careful to make sure the tape doesn’t go over the area that will be cut! Especially here, where the image runs nearly to the edge of the paper.

I put white graphite paper in between the drawing and the black paper. I used Royal & Langnickel white graphite paper, which smells like a drawer of tailor’s chalk, if you’re into that.

As you can see here, the line is a tiny bit fuzzy because the copy paper diffuses the pressure of my pencil. Also I’ve used the graphite paper before, and the white has worn off in some places. All to the good! Everything gets refined further as I cut.

9 photos of stages of positioning, tracing, and cutting silhouette elements

Then I work around each image, section by section, until it’s all cut out, and then I lift the excess paper away (carefully cutting little threads and sections I missed).

Here is the back and front of an image before I cut it out. (I actually cut this design twice — there were some composition issues that only really showed up once it was actually in silhouette, in spite of all the pencils and emails and tracing — possibly I could have corrected it in Photoshop but it was in fact easier this way, and good to have another go at some of the more complicated sections of e.g. necklace chains.)

Front and back of Anna & Ariadne picture (woman in dress on balcony, woman in suit reaching up to her, with frame of ivy, roses, necklace, top hat, sword, snake). On the back, white tracing lines are visible.

They are quite fragile once freed from the backing! I put them in plastic letter sleeves for scanning. Then I clean up minor corrections and run it through a vector program — this preserves almost all of the little wobbles and angles and personality of the hand-cut line, but it gives a really strong, clear, neatly resizeable silhouette that the publisher can wrangle into position.

4 photos of a hand holding silhouette elements: spider and web, cogs among geraniums, old-fashioned car, skull

Most of the individual silhouettes were separate from their frame, for this ghostly one we reversed the centre, to give a ghostly/negative effect (and funnily enough, keeping the centre of the flame solid seemed to effectively change a regular silhouette candle into a silhouette of a black candle).

Portrait cut out of black paper (so it is white on black) surrounded by thorns, a coffin, comb, sword and candle

You might have noticed something missing! That’s because I hand-lettered the names. I printed the pencilled names all out on one piece of paper, put that on a lightbox with clean paper of the top, and lettered it with a dip pen and ink (Hunt Crowquill 102 nib and Winsor & Newton black ink).

I usually have to do some names several times, to get them to work the way I want.

Pencilled and inked loopy writing of character names

Then I scanned those in too and cleaned them up, and sent all the art off to the art director (the excellent Nicholas Sciacca).

I really enjoyed this project. It was an intensive process, because the paper cutting is fairly physically wearing. But there were so many beautiful and intriguing images to play with, and technical challenges and new approaches — how to put a spear into an oval frame? How to convey fictional personalities through only head-and-shoulders silhouettes? — so it was both pleasing for the sake of this project and as part of being an illustrator trying variations and solving puzzles.

(The originals for these have been claimed by the appropriate people, but there might still be a few City of Bones and Clockwork Angel drawings available at Book Moon Books in Massachusetts.)

Let me know if you have any process questions!

You can get Chain of Iron through all good & usual bookstores.

Also, if you’re into supporting artists and art and posts about it: Supporters on Patreon got some sneak-peeks of this and other projects (and process posts) — I’m at www.patreon.com/tanaudel, with levels of support starting from US$1/month. Or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and when cutting out this many silhouettes, I get through quite a bit of coffee).

Sketchbook colours: blue and gold

Three Pitt Pens

When I’m sketching, I work in a Moleskine pocket notebook, and use mostly Faber Castell PITT artist pens — often quite vigorously. However, these are three of my current favourite sketching pens (for more on favourite colours, see Loving the tools):

  • Small Black Fineliner 199
  • Sky Blue brush tip 146
  • Green Gold brush tip 268 (note — it’s not metallic, but more of an old mustard colour)

The first time I really started using them as a set was at the Natural History Museum in Oxford — and mostly because it was a very blue-and-gold place.

sketches of architecture and skeletons at the Museum of Natural History, Oxford
Museum of Natural History, Oxford

At this point I was mostly using the two colours to identify the blue and yellow of what I was looking at, as well as using the blue for some shadows.

I’d already been using blue for shading, sometimes — especially when I didn’t have the time to record more detailed colours. It’s more vivid than a grey shadow — I like how it lifts the picture off the page as a little object, instead of making the figures sink into it. (By “shading” I mean both adding actual shadows, and indicating darker colours.) And while the blue is cool, it doesn’t look cold on the warm cream of the Moleskine pages.

Sketches of people in medieval and hobbit costumes
Costumes at the Arthurian Festival at Château de Comper

I began using the mustard yellow to do the same. It had a much warmer effect than the blue, but I liked its old-school monochrome effect. And neither of them seemed to say This Is What The Scene Is About in the way some other colours, such as green, do.

Sketches of people sketching in Boston MFA, and in transit at Penn Station
Boston Museum of Fine Arts and Amtrak Penn Station

But since I liked both the blue and the yellow for this purpose, I kept using them together.

Sketches of people browsing in Book Moon Books
Book Moon Books, Easthampton Massachusetts

In these sketches (above) at Book Moon Books, I used the blue for the figures — for shadow and cold and to make them stand out, and because their backs were mostly to me — and yellow for the books and store, for the warmth and light. I really like how the use of the two colours distinguishes the figures from the background (which doesn’t really happen with the white dress in the grey sketch at Château de Comper, earlier).

By the time I got to Avid Reader for Love Your Bookshop Day last year (context: Queensland, Australia, where that was safe and legal!), you can see the use has shifted again. You can also see that I bought new pens which hadn’t begun drying and darkening.

A sketch of people browsing in Avid Reader
Avid Reader, Brisbane

In the Avid Reader drawings, I’m using both colours on each figure, instead of using them to separate elements. I suspect this was in part because it was daylight, and warm weather — there’s a breezier feeling to these than the Book Moon sketches! But I was also using the two colours to quickly note the direction of light and where shadows fell, as well as to distinguish some areas of different colour, even if they weren’t exactly these colours.

Recently, I’ve been sketching some workshops at the University of Queensland (I’ll post more of these soon — but the art is already up for patrons on patreon.com/tanaudel). Going back over those pages, I realised how many things the colours were doing.

A sketch of four people at a table talking
University of Queensland — Defence Innovation Bridge

Even just in the scene above, you can see where I’ve used the colours to show shadow, the direction of light, the colour of the background, to separate figures from each other and the table, and to keep the events in the speech bubbles at a remove by only using blue in them. And in the image below, I’ve also used the yellow over the blue to hint at a khaki uniform.

A sketch of an army officer talking about a bulldozer

So! Here are a few benefits/uses of very limited colours, especially for fast sketching:

  • Speed
  • Portability
  • Shadow (and shape and direction of light)
  • Warmth and cold
  • Tone and more colours than you’d think
  • Separating elements
  • Separating styles
  • Pulling a sketch together
  • Anchoring a drawing to or lifting it from the page
  • Very quickly communicating the most important details
  • Unifying a group of drawings/creating a consistent style for a project
  • Echoing particular printing styles (I love, for example, what Evaline Ness could do with two colours.)

Writing/Illustration activity

  1. Choose two colours you like. It doesn’t have to be blue and yellow. Blue and red is another popular choice, and an image search of Risograph prints will give you some ideas of what can be done with a limited palette. Or pull out two coloured pencils at random.
  2. Do a few small monochrome sketches (in words or pictures!). If stuck for ideas, perhaps do 20-second sketches (e.g. this very fast Ramon Casas study) or one-minute written descriptions of some famous paintings. Work in black line or pencil or, if writing, in bare-bones description with no colour.
  3. Now, rework each sketch by adding hints of those two colours (coloured pencil, watercolour, markers, digital colour, words…). Here are a few approaches you could try:
    1. Show the direction of light and shadow, or where the highlights are (Dorothy Dunnett does this fabulously in some of her novels, and John Dickson Carr creates lurid effects with green and red in The Waxworks Murder).
    2. To pick out as much of the original colour as you can.
    3. To distinguish between a figure and the background.
    4. To show warm and cold areas.
  4. Bonus round: Change the colours and see what happens.

Note: This post began as a post for supporters on Patreon — if you’d like to support art and posts about it, 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).

March Calendar — Rondels

An ink drawing on a mottled blue background of 12 floral wreaths/rondels, colouredin pale beige and white, including stars & moths, grasshopper & dandelions, heron, crown, bees, spiderweb, goblet, fox, moon, cat, bouquets, and a snuffed candle.

Note: This calendar is supported by patrons, who get it a little bit early, along with other sneak-peeks and behind-the-scenes art: patreon.com/tanaudel, and also by those very kind people who throw a few dollars towards it via the tip jar: paypal.me/tanaudel — I’m extremely grateful for all your support.

I was cutting it fine on this month’s timing, so I decided to do the most complicated of many ideas (the other main contender was a simple repeat of dandelion flowers and leaves).

As for this design, of stars & moths, grasshopper & dandelions, heron, crown, bees, spiderweb, goblet, fox, moon, cat, bouquets, and a snuffed candle — oh, I like self-contained worlds, and objects that could belong to tales, and old endpapers, and a sense of being watched, and silver-and-bronze, and blue brocade, and arrangements that could be the best sort of game… There are a couple call-backs to other illustrations I have done, including for Holly Black’s Folk of the Air trilogy, and Angela Slatter.

Pencils vs final

Edit: It’s also up as a print on Redbubble.

And here (for personal use) are the printable versions. If you like them and/or like supporting the arts, you can contribute to the calendar (and get it and other behind-the-scenes things early) at patreon.com/tanaudel (starts at US$1/month!) or through the tip jar at paypal.me/tanaudel.

Observation Journal — things that tell you what they’re doing

This observation journal post was an exploration of a pattern I’d noticed in some things I liked and in recent conversations — looking at where I saw it, and what it did, and what I liked about it, and how I could use it. In this case, it was the question of things that tell you what they’re doing.

Double-spread from the observation journal. Two densely hand-written pages. On the left, a page with five things each that I had seen, heard and done, with a picture. On the right, a mind-map thinking through projects that tell you what they're doing.

Left-hand page: Writing in a second-hand shop where someone kept gradually increasing the volume on “MMM-bop“.

Right-hand page: I’d been thinking about things (movies, books) that tell you what they’re doing, and show you what they are — also talking to Helen Marshall about “books that teach you how to read them.” So on this page, I simply pursued some of those thoughts, and the patterns and links between them.

In particular, it was prompted by two then-recent trains of thought: I’d written the post Making Things Manifest — mock-ups and outlines that morning, and I’d just seen Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears (cinema experience illustrated here). It also tied to earlier thoughts on staginess (Observation Journal — chasing patterns with digressions on the appeal of staginess).

As is often the case with the observation journal, watching the process itself is often the useful thing. In this case, it confirmed to me that this approach was a useful way to think more about what might otherwise have been fleeting interests. Even if, as here, I didn’t reach some overwhelming conclusion, the process of shuffling through my thoughts was valuable, and it helped me clarify some actual interests, and find intriguing new questions to pursue in future — it also underlined a difference between thinking-as-a-reader and thinking-as-a-writer, something I’m still learning.

Observation journal page, densely hand-written pages with a mind-map thinking through projects that tell you what they're doing.

Some key points:

  • There’s an honesty and generosity to things that are very frank about what they are doing, even (especially!) if that’s experimental. I can be overly coy with drafts, and don’t particularly like highly signalled plots, so this is a useful course-correction.
  • It honours and unifies books-as-objects (and other physical creative activities-as-objects).
  • Strongly genre-specific books are often very up-front about what they are. This also means that if you’re doing something different, it can pay to be explicit. (In fact, if the common trend is strong enough, people still might not even notice the flags you were waving.) This was a common element in the Australian Gothic books I looked at for my MPhil, and when I was writing Flyaway: a reliably beautiful Gothic aesthetic often leans heavily and explicitly on a robust declaration of that beauty wherever possible. (I’m planning a post about that.) There are many reasons to be subtle, of course, but sometimes it’s simply a function of acting too clever for my own good, which can sometimes be mean.
  • That honesty about boundaries and limitations also gives a really useful structural framework to swing around in.
  • A clearly-stated structure, like a clearly stated aesthetic, has a strong gravitational pull. It attracts story to it.
  • And in fact a vivid aesthetic can get a story a long way, if not the whole way (see e.g. Guillermo del Toro).
  • For me, a strong aesthetic sense is one of the sparks that can bring an idea to life (see Observation Journal — a tremor in the web for the process of working that out). So I pushed a little further in that direction, thinking about structures in terms of their relationship to a clear aesthetic — specifically through Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears, a movie which is very clear about the sort of movie you will be watching!
    • My first note on it was:
      curiosity/hope –> confirmation –> delivery –> reminder and clincher –> satisfaction = never distracted by expecting it to be some other movie
    • But I realised that this was very much me thinking as a viewer/reader rather than as a writer. I was looking at my reactions/interest rather than why I had those reactions.
    • So I broke it down again, looking at where the story signalled and anchored its (extravagantly gleeful and ridiculous) aesthetic/tone (there’s an overlap between those):
      HINT (before inciting incident)—play—ESTABLISH—play—EXTRA—business—(after denouement) FLOURISH

I hope to tie this to some current interests. One is how narrative time interacts with space and landscape and time (Intermultiversal interview). Travelogues, being literally vignettes from trains in motion, obviously connects to that. But Travelogues is also very up-front about being explicitly descriptions from trains in motion, with no secret subtexts.

The taking of reference photos