Alumni Book Sale Acquisitions

Photo of various older books set out on a table

My haul from the UQ Alumni book sale! Under $30, so I’m perfectly happy with their well-worn state.

Most are reference books. My main criteria for art reference books are illustrated (not with photographs — Reptiles and Amphibians snuck in there), with a preference for line art over more painterly art. That is so I can see the construction and key features quickly for art reference. I think The Trees is the best of the illustrated selection — much as I love The Observers Books, this is illustrated only with paintings. The others will be useful until I come across a book with art that suits me better.

Wildflowers of the World is great, too, but it turns out I already had a copy of that — they are plentiful at the alumni book sale. I think I might have a copy of Katherine Briggs’ classic A Dictionary of Fairies, too, but look at that glorious (battered) Tony Meeuwissen cover!

The Police of Paris and The Gentle Art of Tramping (a re-release but we make do) are tangentially connected to vague possible projects. I think I’ve mentioned before that I like old reference books because nothing rests on me remembering anything with great accuracy, and it’s an excellent conversational opening at parties (at which people are also usually happy to fill in what’s happened since).

Then there’s the Perry Mason, for reading, and the Barbara Cartland’s because I know, I KNOW, but I adore the cover art (and the Book of Useless Information has line illustrations by the same artist). The paintings are by Francis Marshall — here’s a gallery of many of the Cartland covers. As far as I can see, there hasn’t been a volume of his cover art published, but I very much hope there will be!

Reference: Diagrams and Novel Devices

Some of my favourite reference books are those with many useful diagrams.

A few of these books are purely informative — the basic underlying structures of trees, for example. For art, this is directly useful as a reference and identification, while for writing they’re useful for descriptive shorthand (do those branches reach out like hands or curl up like beckoning fingers…). At bottom right are the endpapers for The Ladybird Book of Trees.

Often diagrams are more useful than photographic evidence. They not only confirm and explain it, but show at least one way that people who understand such things have chosen to reduce the information (in pleasing form) for reproduction. They are also a little less idiosyncratic than individual photos, for better or worse — for better, mostly, as long as I remember that fact. Shown at top left is The Observer’s Book of Wild Flowers.

These sorts of guides are particularly useful for working out the commonly-agreed distinguishing details of a thing (here, a plant) — which in turn helps me understand what’s going on in reference photos (or reality!) and how a particular example might have more personality than “the perfect specimen that’s figured in my book”. (If you know who wrote the poem that line is from, please tell me! It’s about an apple tree and I cannot find it online).

But the diagrams that are the most fun appear in old illustrated books of advice. Now, old unillustrated books of advice are also fascinating in and of themselves.

Of quenching an house on fire — The Faithful Surveyor, George Atwell, 1658, which I found because it’s one of the earlier examples of the use of the term “foot-loose” and someone was being wrong about that on the internet. It also opens with an Ode to the Theodolite.

But when they are illustrated! First, there are the styles particular to an era of art and print technology. Then there’s the aesthetic pleasure of purely communicative art. And then again, they are full not only of intriguing devices and useful plans, but also of people and animals going about their work. A whole dictionary of visual vocabulary. For art, they present all sorts of ways people have communicated textures and movements and physical interactions, unexpected ways to solve problems, telling details to add to a setting.

And for writing — well, of course they’re very useful for research for a particular point in time (the movie Babe, for example, brilliantly captures a certain farming attitude to life embodied in these types of books). But beyond that, they are a catalogue of ingenuity and invention that can suggest all sorts of details for inventing or adding texture to world — from the need of an expert to name all the main points of an animal to the misappropriation of almost any human invention to serve some unanticipated purpose, to the apparently eternal human drive to automate everything.

The book with the blue ink is Handy Farm and Home Devices and How to Make Them. The one with the squatter at extreme ease in a squatter’s chair is Ron Edwards’ Australian Traditional Bush Crafts. These were my parents’, but I am saving up for a complete set of Edwards’ Bushcraft books, because the illustrations are jaunty and detailed and IN QUANTITY and very informative.

Art reveal: Castle Charming Bookplates

I’ve been designing bookplates for Tansy Rayner Roberts, for her (successful!) Castle Charming kickstarter (I previously posted about the enamel pin design for that).

Here is the first glimpse of the bookplates back from the printer (Tansy arranged all that end of it — I do particularly enjoy the moment where someone else takes art away and brings it back as a shining object).

It’s pen and ink with ink washes.

And here are a few of the sketches from which it began:

Books are fascinating as design elements. They seem so potentially decorative and yet they’re very… boxy, and make you make style decisions around e.g. perspective, and how shabby to make them in order to get some texture going.

Some of my favourite books covers are early 20thC school prize book editions. Mostly because of their spines! But the other sides are marvellously textured (and the insides are gorgeously mottled — blank pages in Mr Dalton and Janet have provided many of the textures I use with digital colour).

Almost all of these are from the Lifeline Bookfest, and are the primary reason I’m not allowed to go anymore until I buy more bookcases.

Time spent in procrastination is seldom wasted

I have to actively remind myself to leave time to stop and play with materials. Like lying around reading, it is actively part of the job, but rarely feels like it.

It’s closely related to remembering to do studies for a finished artwork, instead of jumping in boots first and flailing away under deadline. When I was starting out, the idea of doing studies seemed exhausting. Now, they’re a joy: just tinkering, really; no pressure; nothing to see here.

[Relatedly, before I actually wrote a novel the idea of doing 17 drafts sounded horrifyingly inefficient. Now it’s nice to be able to work on a piece and tell myself, “no need to stress, I’ve still got thirteen more drafts to play with.”)


One of the illustration briefs for the 10th anniversary edition of Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel was for an illustration of a blueprint.  Although I do play with cyanotypes, these illustrations were to be in pen and ink — and pretty much the exact opposite. I was determined to do it without trickery, however (aided by the fact that this was an illustration-of-a-documents, not a replica of a document itself).

Above, I was testing an array of chinagraph and Prismacolour pencils, masking fluid, and just painting around the lines.

In the end, as the most complicated (but clearest) option, I went for masking fluid. It’s a liquid rubber that you paint down then watercolour (or ink) over (the picture below is before I added washes of grey ink). When the paint is dry you gently rub or lift away the masking — you can see here that I was using it to keep highlights bright on the glass surfaces.


(You can see here the ink bottle, wine glass, and magnifying glass from the reference post).

My copies have, I suspect, run afoul of Current Events Impacting International Shipping, but I’ll post more on the process and final illustrations as I can.

Reference objects: Clockwork Angel

Here are a few photos of reference objects for the 10th Anniversary of Cassandra Clare’s Clockwork Angel (previous post about those illustrations is here: Clockwork Angel). They cover a few of my usual sources of reference.

The first is this little angel I found at ReLove Oxley, a wonderful local second-hand shop and cafe. The final angel design didn’t look much like this one, but it was useful for a sense of scale, how to handle fine features, and for the slight metallic finish.

I frequently go to ReLove for coffee, and often find useful reference — I buy enough that for this book they just let me borrow a violin. I walked home carrying it in its case, feeling like a gangster.


A great deal of reference material, however, comes from around my house. Here’s a parasol that’s been in the bottom of the linen cupboard, a box of beads and bangles, The Myths of Greece and Rome (old books standing in for old books), Mortimer, my Year 12 formal dress, my grandmother’s gloves, and some crumpled paper. Not featured but also starring: spare buttons, fancy embroidery scissors (also a contributor to the Scissors calendar), and my letter-opener.


Another old book: an 1887 volume of Cassell’s Magazine, printed on horrible Victorian wood-pulp paper which smells like burned sugar and is crumbling away at the edges. It’s a wonderful reference for illustration styles of the era, particularly homewares and mechanical elements, and its inventions page is delightful.


Look at this: “a small pocket apparatus for the electric illumination of flowers, such as roses, to be worn in the hair or on the dress.”


Architecture is always a challenge, mostly because I usually prefer to suggest it. Here I was mocking up light and perspective possibilities for a two-story library (the Hydralyte tin is a spiral staircase which did not end up in the picture due to dear lord spiral staircases).


Fantasy frequently requires images of hands holding glowing things, and I’m gradually accumulating night-lights in order to work that out.


Sometimes I just have to set up the image. Inkbottle, wine glass and magnifying glass on a sketch for a different illustration.