[Edit: It’s also up on InPrnt now]
This observation journal spread was concerned with “Five thoughts about surface texture/decoration”.
Generally, the “five thoughts on…” exercise was a good reminder of he little push than an (even arbitrary) structure gives (a) at all, (b) to dig deeper, and (c) to begin forming coherent ideas.
The thoughts, part of an ongoing preoccupation:
- People Decorate Surfaces. It appears (with often-self-conscious exceptions) to be a fairly basic human urge. Decorating surfaces in a picture (written or drawn) therefore helps create a sense of humanity, and that a place is lived in by humans. This is something I have to remind myself of fairly often. Museums are excellent for this.
- Leaving out surface texture and decoration can make the storyteller’s job harder. Even thoughtful texture helps objects to do/explain more (see: movie effects documentaries generally). Ornament takes it further.
- Ornament = personality, context, worldbuilding, culture, backstory, stories within stories, foreshadowing, etc, a sense of pattern and therefore law/lore built into the structure of the world.
- Cheating. Texture and ornament conceal wobbly lines, hide problems with perspective, can overrule detailed linework, etc. Opposition between texture and structure can create interesting effects (I admire this but struggle with it).
- Unifying aesthetic. An overlay of textures, patterns, and/or ornaments can have a structural/thematic role. Connections and echoes and tinting.
- (bonus) Care & detail & depth. High production quality can help create the impression of overall quality — this effect is often temporary. However, seeing that someone else has taken care over making a thing can sometimes make a viewer realise it might be worth taking the time to look/read/watch that thing.
- Think of a story-scene in a place built or occupied by people.
- It can be from a project you are working on, or from a story you like.
- If nothing springs to mind, pick a fairy-tale scene: perhaps the main room of the bears’ cottage from “Goldilocks and the Three Bears”.
- Sketch the setting quickly (using words or pictures).
- Perhaps it’s a small room, thick plastered walls, low beams in the ceiling, a wooden table with three chairs, a pot-bellied stove, a windowseat. (Or it could be the economy cabin of a plane, or a cave used by climbers, or…)
- Now walk around the setting. Consider each surface. How might the people who use this place (or have used it) have decorated or textured each of those surfaces?
- For example, the top of the table is probably deeply fluted and grooved by being scrubbed, its legs have been scuffed by kicking claws, and the low stairs are dipped from heavy use. The beam in the low doorway has a cushion nailed to it because bears sometimes forget to duck. The cushion is a less-washed version of the ones in the window-seat: brightly but clumsily embroidered. Someone has scratched stick-figures into the plaster, close to the floor. There are geraniums in the window, obviously (it’s a cliche for a reason), and the curtain is a tacked-up piece of… hmm, what shall it be? Samples of rich cloth a salesman carried? (And what happened to the salesman?) The shelves in the corner are lined with newspaper, some of which gives glimpses of alarmist reporting about human children rampaging in the forest. On the sides of the kitchen cabinet is painted a history of how the bears came to live in this place, and on a cheerful checkered cloth on the table is a half-whittled spoon, with “just right” worked into its twisted handle…
- Look for places where the story starts to grab hold of the textures, or vice-versa.
- Above, the clumsy embroidery gave me a feeling of personalities, and the vanished salesman suggested a little background mystery, which could both threaten and explain the unattended child about to feature in the story.
- Look for places where you could make the details do double-work.
- Could a pattern foreshadow or link to a later part of the story? Could an ornament or texture hint at a detail about the broader world? What fabric pattern or graffiti or stamped grip or commercial label could make the unfolding story better or worse for the reader, whether through secrets or deepened affection or a deeper awareness of the meaning and consequences of the actions?
- Bonus: Look at your setting again and start changing aspects of the surfaces.
- See how each element changes the possibilities for the story, and where they begin to force changes to other elements.
- Or pick a different emotion/aesthetic/genre and see how you could change the textures to reflect that.
- For example, perhaps the furniture is of highly-polished dark wood, upholstered with stiff green velvet (worn but carefully mended), lichened with antimacassars and starched doilies, and the walls whitewashed so that the low sun casts every little dimple in the plaster into long shadows, and only useful herbs grow in the window box, and there is a painstaking and pious sampler on the wall, and a single book on civilised housekeeping, and a portrait of the sort done by travelling painters in which extreme care (if mediocre talent) has been applied to try and make three bears look like three very stiff and sober humans.
- Finally: In a finished project, a little can go a long way. There are other artistic considerations than how to treat the surfaces, and too much detail can be overwhelming (and sometimes none is needed at all). But the exercise of thinking through the surfaces of a scene can bring its people and possibilities to life.
“An artist’s drawing is a catalog of the shapes that he loves. When I’m drawing something, I’m trying to find the shapes that please me. I believe that’s what makes up what people refer to as a style”.Peter de Sève, A Sketchy Past: The Art of Peter de Sève
There has been, for the last little while, a lot of talk about aphantasia and degrees to which people “see” things, mentally, and whether it hinders or helps the creative process.
Quite a few writers seem startled by the idea that people don’t have very clear mental images. But a surprising number of illustrators seem to be in just that situation. Since they’re both in the business of inserting stories into other people’s heads, the difference is intriguing.
Moving away from strict aphantasia, I’m interested in how much visualisation is functional/trained (setting aside whether a given reader has accumulated enough of a visual library — my littlest nephew doesn’t have enough of a framework for what a “dragon” is to be interested in stories about them yet, and growing up without TV or computers, I didn’t get cyberpunk as a thing until I saw The Matrix).
If I do the exercise above, cold, or if I’m reading as a reader, I’m a 1. If I’m in the process of writing, it drops down a few notches — sometimes it will be a 3, sometimes the word “apple” will appear in my mind or on the page and then I have to consciously stop and push it back along the scale until I can ‘see’ and describe it more specifically.
But if I’m illustrating, I’m closer to a 5, and often don’t see the picture until it’s on the page. Lynda Barry talks about that process of drawing as discovery rather than expression. Even (or especially) drawing from life is a process of getting the image from the world onto the page through hand and pencil. And most ‘visualisation’ of solutions is more schematic/word-based.
I mentioned above reading as a reader. A book can be as vivid as a movie, then. But when I’m reading as an illustrator, looking for images to draw, ideally I’m sketching them as I go, converting directly from words into shape and movement without necessarily picturing that inside my own head.
When I do picture things too clearly, it’s a trap. The disparity between the imagination and the reality can be distressing!This is one of the reasons I don’t often illustrate my own work (I had to get at the illustrations in Flyaway by starting more decoratively and then pushing back into the text).
Although art and writing both come from the same storytelling aquifer, they reach the world through different wells. If I’m going to develop an illustrated piece of my own, I usually have to start with art and support it with words, and/or carve away the words until they don’t distract me from what the art is getting up to.
The printable May calendar page is here, brought to you with the support of my patrons (and if you’d like to toss a few coins in the hat, they are always welcome and keep the calendar happening: Patreon (ongoing); paypal.me (one-off)). And also by a few episodes of This Podcast Will Kill You.
I’m not sure yet if the bilby was a marsupial too far, but I’m quite pleased by its rocking approach to playing the lute. And I do like the idea of bats swaying in the branches, playing their ukuleles at sunset.
Anyway, this is a trifle sillier than usual, but it’s my birthday month, so why not have a snake playing a lagerphone?
The images below link to full-size .jpg files that you can print at home: pre-coloured, or to colour yourself.
Selkies for May!
These calendars are brought to you with the help of my patrons on patreon.com/tanaudel, and if you’d like to contribute, or are trying to think of a birthday present for me (it’s in May!) joining Patreon would be a great way to do it. Levels start at $1 a month, and there are many extra behind-the-scenes things, as well.
The colours were tricky for this one. Selkie pictures tend to be very muddy brown or too green. I worked towards these colours after consulting a number of William Morris designs and several photos of seals on beaches at sunset.
The page can be printed coloured or to colour yourself, from the files below. And please do consider supporting the calendar on Patreon!
Here’s a little gouache painting I did to practice deer (and use up paint!) – it’s ever-so-slightly fanart for the game “Kiss Me Deer” as played by the Bennet sisters in the book of Pride & Prejudice & Zombies).
The art of scanning gouache is one which I have yet to study in more detail. Perhaps photography is the way to go.
Speaking of the Patreon, if you’d like to throw a dollar in the hat towards the monthly calendar, or subscribe at a higher level to get extra printable stationery and behind-the-scene peeks at upcoming projects, this is a great way to do it. You could even put it on your wishlist!
Welcome to Midnight, Light Grey Art Lab’s exhibition of dreams, which has opened today in Minneapolis and online.
I’d been keeping track of dreams out of curiosity, and began to focus on a series of dreams I had which I clearly recognised as anxiety dreams from the last time I was at university: snakes, searches, war, volcanoes. This time, however, everything was always dealt with calmly and ended happily. Also there was a dream about pineapple butterscotch upside-down-cake.
I narrowed the choices down to a dream about taking shelter in a zoo in an office building in a wartorn city. I don’t dream in my own style, and the strongly backlit scene from the dream was a new approach to try.
After a series of tests, I decided to do a pen and ink drawing with digital colour (I kept panicking about getting the yellow wrong, and was submitting the art digitally for this exhibition).
And here is the final piece, The Peaceable Kingdom. You can even try your hand at dream interpretation, if you so desire.