Once more, with feline

I’ve mentioned before that I enjoy drawing cats (Cats; Stray Bats). Lately, going through files, I keep coming across sketches and projects with cats in them.


They appear in a variety of media and, in some cases, distinctly different approaches and styles. Taken en masse, they function as something of a sampler (On making samplers).

It’s not just a way of offering different treatments to a client, but of exploring the subject. How much you can communicate in a silhouette will translate into a line drawing; the movement and roundness of a line drawing feeds back into a silhouette (more about silhouette drawings here: Party Portrait).


Sketches of Church for a design for Shadowhunters leggings

Similarly, producing a large cat can teach you a lot about which gestures you can select in order to produce a small cat, while making a tiny cat gives you the minimum detail you need to create a large cat — anything more is a bonus.


Cover detail for Tansy Rayner Roberts’ Creature Court novels

Or even how little information is needed to read as “cat” at all (and how to know when you’ve gone too far).

The shifting of styles is important not just when working out the style, but working out where the weight of a story is — in the picture of the cat itself, or the trail of paint below it? That might not correlate with the amount of detail in the picture.


And every new cat teaches you more about that style you’re working with, as well as about the possibilities of cats, and suggests details and poses to carry off into other styles (or tactfully leave behind).


Art and writing activities and exercises:

  • Take a small scene (drawn or written, your own or someone else’s — if you can’t think of anything, then simply imagine a cat). Make a list of styles/genres (Pre-Raphaelite, Art Deco, Pop…; Da Vinci, Mary Sheppard, Banksy…; Tolkien, Montgomery, Funke…; Hardboiled, Edwardian comedy, 21st-century travel writing…). Roll dice (or point at random) to choose one, then quickly rough out how that original scene would change when reworked in that style. Try it again, and see what happens now. What works, what shifts, what new details do you discover about the scene or the style or your own preferences?
  • Picking one image (or animal) to pursue through different styles is a lovely thematically coherent way to create a sampler for your own reference.
  • If you’re stuck indoors with other people, you could easy make this a sort of round-robin/Exquisite Corpse/Telephone game, each writing a short scene or then passing it to the next person to change it into a different genre, and then on to the next until it becomes something entirely different.
  • A game like this can of course become its own project — see for example Matt Madden’s comics book 99 Ways to Tell a Story: Exercises in Style (“inspired by the French author Raymond Queneau’s 1947 book Exercises in Style (Fr Eng), itself inspired by Bach’s Art of the Fugue“). And slightly less formally, Catherynne M. Valente’s “decopunk pulp SF alt-history space opera mystery” Radiance contains a backstory that keeps shifting genres as its film-making characters work out how best to retell it.



The late week

Twitter etc

  • Monsters! This new, Karen Beilharz-helmed anthology of comics (with sea monsters by me) is now funding on Pozible. It’s all written and illustrated but we need the pre-orders to get it printed. Rewards include a map by me. (Because it’s been asked, and Pozible isn’t entirely clear on this: if you want to help, but don’t necessarily want a book, you can enter an amount here: Pledge amount). The first comic, “Monster Hunter”, has been posted already.
  • Rapunzel: Fablecroft is publishing Kate Forsyth’s PhD exegesis The Rebirth of Rapunzel: A Mythic Biography of the Maiden in the Tower (background pattern and cover art by me).


  • Deep Dark Fears: Late to this party, but Deep Dark Fears is deliciously evocative and unsettling, and I have ordered the book.
  • Pride & Prejudice & Zombies: Went twice, went with incredibly low expectations, had a ball, see it while it’s in cinemas. It’s also got a number of Easter eggs for long-term Austen fans. But I mistook Sam Riley for Kris Marshall and was confused (although not unpleasantly so).

  • Science! If you like science communication and illustration, the #sciart tweetstorm is currently on.
  • Two new books:
    • The first translation in over 100 years of Jules Verne’s Mikhail Strogoff, from Eagle Books (a new imprint of Christmas Press), with illustrations and gold-edged pages and just the right size to fit comfortably in the hand and handbag.
    • The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the way Home, the last book of Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland books, which I will buy but which I am afraid it will hurt to read because they are so perfect in themselves that I am sure the ending will be like a knife.
  • Coffee in Oxley: If you are ever in the western suburbs of Brisbane, check out Re/Love Oxley on Blunder Road – a good little cafe with an industrial shed of old and kitschy things, including pyromaniacal sewing machines.

  • On looking too long at art reference: Seals are really weird and if you look at them too long it is like staring too hard at the word “walk” or “amongst”. They cease to be unique functioning objects and become gaps in the world, free-floating black holes, units of the matter before eternity. They refuse to be what you desire or believe them to be. If you gaze too long into the seal, the seal gazes back into you.
  • ‘A Plot for the Annoying of the King of Spain’ – this whole stream of tweets is delightful:

  • Style: Peter de Sève on artist’s style, although I believe it applies equally to any creative endeavour:
    “An artist’s drawing is a catalogue 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.”
  • Lessons learned: One thing I am repeatedly learning this year is how little you can get done in a day, and how much in half an hour.



This week: news and matters of note

This week on Twitter etc. (rings by Janet Kofoed)

This week on Twitter etc. (rings by Janet Kofoed)


  • The X-Files finally started in Australia (everyone complained about the pop-up ads but I thought it restored the nostalgia which the shock of watching on flat-screen in HD took away). In commemoration, here is the original music video to Bree Sharp’s “David Duchovny” which is so full of wait-was-that? cameos that it bears watching to the very end:

  • If you are into Old Hollywood, You Must Remember This, or Catherynne M Valente’s Radiance, then this long but cumulatively charming article from Brisbane newspaper The Truth, only 100 years ago, is a winsome read: Where Films Are Faked, Fixed and Finished.
  • The rather marvellous talking-to-writers expedition last week included much talk of pens, and it is one of the joys of working in these fields that asking “what pen do you use” tends to result in an arsenal emptied over the banquet table (that was at Illuxcon), while their owners trade virtues and merits. For the record mine are: Hunt Crowquill 102 with Winsor & Newton India Ink (drawing), Pitt Artist Pens (sketching), slim fine ballpoint (for notes, although I haven’t settled on one that is reliably non-blotting).

Hunt Crow Quill

  • Peter Ball’s post on “Prose, Blocking and the Perfect Combination” has a very useful approach to thoughtfully orchestrating the action in your writing.
  • Peter’s post (above), however, also underlines the degree to which storytelling advice translates across media. Illustration, movies, novels: all these contain examples and principles which can be incredibly helpful no matter what field you’re working in. Plus, if you need another incentive to watch Every Frame A Painting, it is 7 minutes of all the Best Bits.
  • Another resource for those trying to make the impossible believable is James Gurney’s Imaginative Realism (that’s James National-Geographic-and-Dinotopia Gurney). It’s also just interesting – my mother made off with my copy to read it. His rather good blog is Gurney Journey.
  • Here’s a less accessible but in-depth look at some myths about classic composition advice – of direct use to photographers and artists but, I would argue, also very useful to writers if you don’t mind doing some heavy lifting with metaphors (and you’re writers, aren’t you?): 10 Myths about the Rule of Thirds
  • The Ship Song Project continues to be beautiful – when I sing it while doing the dishes, this is the version I try to sing:


Books read, things seen – January 2016


Books finished

The Accidental Creative – Todd Henry: Read on Peter Ball‘s repeated recommendation, and proving very practical as I sort out how this year is working.

The Black Sheep – Georgette Heyer: I’d forgotten I’d read this book until I reached the last few chapters (of which I’m rather fond). Mari Ness’s write-up of this on Tor.com (Almost Slumming It: Black Sheep) is, as usual, thoughtful and thought-provoking: “Miss Abigail Wendover, the protagonist of Black Sheep, is under the very understandable impression that she is in a Georgette Heyer novel.”

The Scarecrows – Robert Westall: courtesy of Kelly Link

The Seance – John Harwood: recommend and lent by Angela Slatter, with a gorgeous Niroot Puttapipat cover.

Radiance – Catherynne M. Valente, with a Will Staehle cover which perfectly captures this “decopunk pulp SF alt-history space opera mystery set in a Hollywood-and solar system-very different from our own”

The End of a Fence – Roman Muradov: I still have no idea what happened in this little graphic novel but I liked it, and the author has confirmed that is the point. It operates slightly below the conscious level, is very beautiful, and without looking in the least like it reminded me slightly of the world of Shaun Tan’s The Lost Thing.

Claiming the Courtesan – Anna Campbell’s debut novel

Assorted books in progress

Making Your Own Days – Kenneth Koch

Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi

The Memoirs of Harriet Wilson – Harriette Wilson

Chocolate and Cuckoo Clocks – Alan Coren

Movies and music

Sherlock: The Abominable Bride

The Big Short

Joanna Newsome concert


A pattern I noticed across many books I read this month was that of lies, duality, falsehood and their power to create truth, or something new and true and separate from the truth they started off from…
Continue reading

Cover art and illustrations – The Bread We Eat in Dreams – part 3

I just realised I never posted the final instalment of this!

The post on the cover art process for Catherynne M Valente’s The Bread We Eat in Dreams is here: Cover art and illustrations….

When I started the sketchbook, I listed the table of contents in the front, highlighting the stories which were to have their own images (one is missing, as “The Shootout at Burnt Corn Ranch.” and its illustration were added to the collection later in the publication process).

As I read, I sketched the ideas which most took my fancy, aiming for a handful of images for each story. Here’s an example:


I narrowed down my favourite images for the internal illustrations, then drew up a template within which they all had to fit, and – where necessary – took reference photos. This is my housemate:


Then I went straight to finals: light pencils, then ink, usually two or three for each story. Then I scanned in all the pages, added a layer of shading, and separated them out into individual image files. Here is an example of the layers:


And here are the final illustrations:

I worked this way because – given the requested sketchy style – it would have been harder to do sketches for approval, and then attempt to replicate the looseness of the sketch.


They are all pen and ink drawings, with shading added later on the computer (Photoshop Elements, if you were wondering).


Then I sent them off, with the end result that it was quite exciting for me to go through the book and find out which images were used in the end.


And if you want to know which were the finals, and particularly what the stories are about, you will have to get hold of the book for yourself!

Cover art and illustrations: The Bread We Eat in Dreams – part 2

Part One of the process posts for Catherynne M Valente’s collection The Bread We Eat in Dreams  (from Subterranean Press) is here. If you click on the pictures, most should have an option to see a larger version.

Sketchbook - first page

The many-talented Trudi Canavan once gave me several accordion-fold sketchbooks. I used one of them when I started reading through this collection, keeping a note of images for the stories, and those I’d like to use for the cover.

Sketchbook - Bread We Eat in Dreams

At the end, with a list of imagery, I made several thumbnail sketches for the cover. I still like that tiger with the human face.

Cover Sketches - Bread We Eat in Dreams

We went with the most scribbly design. I drew a key, to make sure I caught everything.

Cover Key - Bread We Eat In Dreams

I then pencilled and inked the cover (india ink, crow quill nib) on a piece of A1 drawing paper. I had to get it scanned at Officeworks, before adding colour on the computer – just a few shades of blue, and a scan of the blank, aged endpapers of an old book for texture.

Here is a (simplified) overview of the cover process:

Cover Process for The Bread We Eat in Dreams

Next – the internal illustrations!

Cover Art: The Bread We Eat in Dreams – part 1

Catherynne M. Valente’s collection The Bread We Eat in Dreams is published! Beautiful, velvety, three-dimensional and smelling of ink. I really like the finish Subterranean Press uses for their dust jackets.

The Bread We Eat in Dreams

I’ve loved Valente’s work for years and it was a delight to be asked by Subterranean to illustrate this collection. There is an immense variety here – poems, stories, lists, far-futures, travelling rooms, unexpected facts, fallout and fairytales, blood and bone and apples (the author’s comments on the stories are here on Subterranean’s website). If I had to pick one favourite, it would be “The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland, for a little while” a prequel to (utterly enchanting) The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. I read this when I was only two chapters into the novel, however, which created a perfect tension of suspense/devastation on finishing both. But images from so many of the stories linger with me.

Proposed illustration for The Girl Who Ruled...

Proposed illustration for The Girl Who Ruled…

The jacket is another full wrap-around design, with references in it to all the stories and poems, which is a game I like to play when I have the chance to read a whole collection before illustrating (and the art director lets me!).

Cover Art for The Bread We Eat in Dreams

If you click on the image, you should be able to see a much larger version, however here are a couple of my favourite details:

Details of Cover Art for The Bread We Eat in Dreams

I will follow up with another post on the process, and the internal illustrations. Watch this space…

Edit: Part two of the cover process is now up.

To Spin a Darker Stair – cover art

I have a little list of authors whose work I would like to illustrate one day, editors I would like to work with, and so on. So when I was asked to illustrate To Spin a Darker Stair from Fablecroft Press, I almost fell off my chair, because I like working with the publisher (I did a few illustrations for Worlds Next Door in 2010), Catherynne M. Valente was one of the unattainable heights on my list (I mention her occasionally) and I realised, after reading Faith Mudge’s story, that the only reason she wasn’t on the list was that I hadn’t read her writing before.

The book is a collection of two short stories – fairytales retold from the witch’s perspective. Valente’s “A Delicate Architecture” is a bitter confection, as suits “Hansel and Gretel”, while Mudge’s “Oracle’s Tower” traces the rise and fall of a witch and her power over her charge.

Here are the cover roughs:

To Spin a Darker Stair - thumbnails

It was harder developing a design for a two-story book than it is for a collection. We wavered between B and C, and the publisher decided to go with C, but as a wraparound image. I’d still like to make a dress with painted panels as in G. From there, I drew a final pencil sketch, probably (I hope) emailed it for approval, inked it, scanned it and added colour in Photoshop Elements.

To Spin a Darker Stair - cover

I also drew two internal line illustrations for each story, but those will wait for another time. Or, buy the book!

A Game of Daleks

A Game of Daleks

This instalment of the Dalek Game is, of course, for George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones. I had planned to draw a Game of Thrones Dalek for a while now, and had planned a chess image. Then a few weeks ago I read Georgette Heyer’s Cousin Kate, in which the heroine learns to play Fox and Geese (not a key plot point). The name reminded me of the recording of  J.R.R. Tolkien singing Sam Gamgee’s song about the trolls to the tune of “Fox went out on a chilly night”, but I am always willing to be reminded of that. I had, however, forgotten the game altogether.

It is, I grant you, not the most memorable of games (especially if you prefer parlour games to board games anyway, as I do), but it is one which appears to lend itself well to many varieties of handicraft, and therefore features frequently in craft books, woodworking books, self-sufficiency handbooks and so forth (a brief summary of my childhood there). I remember my mother made us a set in orange and white polymer clays.

In other news: You may notice the April blog header, which is a snippet of the cover of To Spin a Darker Stair, the new book now available from Fablecroft Press. It features 2 stories, one by Catherynne M. Valente and the other by Faith Mudge, with illustrations by me. I’ll post more detail of the art soon.

A Midsummer Night’s Dalek

A Midsummer Nights Dalek

This instalment of the Dalek Game is for Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It is also an excuse to practise drawing donkeys – one day the necessity will arise! I think it is a little better than the last one (for the same play – I am only practising donkey heads). Certainly cuter, and when drawing Daleks that is evidently the prime consideration.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is not my favourite Shakespeare – I have not decided what is. Neither its title nor its stage directions are as wonderful as A Midwinter’s Tale (although I had to wait for J. K. Rowling before I learned how to pronounce Hermione). I am not certain why I resist it – perhaps because it conjures up such a floating, sweet image, although that isn’t what I get when I sit down and read it. Perhaps it is the general connotation it takes in the collective consciousness? A shame, if it is, because parts of it are – or should be – hysterically funny.

My current favourite references/adaptations/reworkings of it are:

  • Dead Poet’s Society (directed by Peter Weir and written by Tom Schulman) – for the ethereal tragedy (I get flashbacks to this whenever I watch House).
  • Terry Pratchett’s Lords and Ladies – for a very funny, very nasty, very (what? respectful? faithful? something different but equal to that) Discworld take on the story, with all of the beauty that ought to be there and all of the horror and earthy bloodiness which makes the beauty terrifying. Also the stick-and-bucket dance. I commend to you Tansy Rayner Robert’s post on this book: Slash! Stab! A Lesson in Practical Queening.
  • Neil Gaiman’s short graphic story “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (drawn by Charles Vess and coloured by Steve Oliff) – for an interleaving of the play with its historical setting and performance, within the story of Sandman: complex, beautiful, complete.

It would be easy, I suspect, to take a wholly unpleasant reading of the play – no doubt it has been done. I appreciate the role of that sort of reading and storytelling, but it usually feels to me more as comment/exercise than a distinct and independent Thing In The World. What I love about the pieces above is that none of them disregard the beauty which is associated with the story in order to rewrite it into nastiness. They are all truly beautiful. But the loveliness which could be merely pretty or at worst cloying is not only offset by the darkness: together they make something very solid and elegant and – without detracting at all from that – funny. All three have scenes which still, in recollection, make me laugh aloud (“this desk set was made to fly”).

I’m reminded of Catherynne M Valente’s story “A Delicate Architecture”, in which sweetness must be offset by the hint of salt and marrow. Which conveniently leads me to…

In other news: To Spin a Darker Stair, a boutique collection of two short stories by Catherynne M Valente and Faith Mudge, and illustrated by me, is on pre-order from Fablecroft Press (more news on the cover when it appears). Also, speaking of English takes on fairy queens (and taking on English fairy queens), I drew some pictures of Janet and Tam Lin for Illustration Friday.