Skeleton Orchestra — prints etc

A few people have been looking for the original post of my musical skeletons.

It was the October 2020 calendar art, but it’s also up on Redbubble (as a print, and on shirts, scarves, phone covers, etc) and on InPrnt as a print. Spoonflower to follow in a little while.

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Girls Running From Houses

Here’s a project I started over the holidays! I made Girls Running From Houses (@girlfleeshouse) using, and haven’t stopped tinkering with it yet.

It does relate to some ongoing things I’m working on, but it was also a place to put all the ideas I was having but couldn’t act on because of existing obligations.

It is full of running girls and brooding houses and Gothic situations, and if you are into that sort of thing, I very much hope you will enjoy it.

At the moment, it posts hourly, with occasional more frequent flurries posted by me when I’m tinkering with the code.

Previously on this theme: Girls Running From Houses calendar art (also on Redbubble as prints, dresses etc: Girls Running From Houses.)


Concordia Lutheran College residency

The girls’ boarding houses used to be behind the school, so I was not used to seeing the actual front of the school (Redlands House) every day

One of this year’s big projects was the week I spent up at Concordia Lutheran College in Toowoomba as artist and writer in residence.

It was a new experience for all of us, and as a result turned into an extremely intensive but very entertaining week. 11 workshops for students and a talk to parents and teachers was… a lot, but I learned so much by doing it, and had a great time.

The giddy exhaustion was compounded by the surreal quality of being back at my old boarding school, and how little had changed. The uniforms and computers were different, but the Year 12s were still discussing Green Day in the corridors, and the art hallway smelled as it always had — of soapstone powder.

The magic lantern (left) was probably the most useful object I took with me.

Some general notes

  • I ran the workshops at a fairly high level — trying to keep them accessible and useful, yes, but also giving students a crash course in what I do for a job.
    The students were absolutely up for this — the year 10 and 11 fine art students bravely went through a compressed illustration process (with demanding art director), the year ten English students (while in some cases physically climbing onto each others shoulders) got deep into the guts of the gothic, and the year 4s broke down the phrase “rust-scumbled silos rapunzeled by vines” like nobody’s business.
  • I did learn quite a bit about running school workshops vs more self-selected sessions, and also the approaches needed for over 30 participants (better suited to a talk than a workshop, because there isn’t time to interact the way I like to) and under 10 (which allows more tailoring around what the individual students want to learn). The students and teachers were universally engaged and involved (and the librarian marvellous!).
  • It is SO NICE having mixed ages in workshops, whether combined year levels or having a teacher sit in as a participant — it shakes everyone’s self-consciousness out a little bit AND it means I have someone not a student I can call on for the first example, which gratifies the students. (Thank you to the teachers who walked into that trap.)
  • The observation journal provided some incredibly useful activities and material for workshops, and the short stories I send out to some patrons were the perfect length for examples and demonstrations — another benefit of doing lots of small things regularly.

Monday and Tuesday

Dragon-powered magic lantern

On Monday and Tuesday I was on the primary-school campuses. I gave two 2-hour workshops each day: year 5s in the morning and year 6s (with a couple of very dignified 4s mixed in) in the afternoon. The student drawings with this post are from the year 5s on the first day.

This workshop was on “Making the Mechanical Fascinating” and included:

  • Terrible speed drawing
  • What is machinery?
  • What is the fantastical?
  • Finding (and swapping) the best examples
  • Recombining objects
  • Why is a bulldozer like a dandelion?
  • Creating poems
  • Terrible and Wonderful inventions.

There were so many fabulous ideas and a LOT of energy, and a surprising willingness to break down a sentence or two I’d prepared earlier (Travelogues does a lot of what we did in this workshop, so I mined it for examples). 

My sketch based on an idea by one of the Year 5s: A ghost with a clock where its face should be


On Wednesday I did Narrative Recombination with Year 11 English for nearly 2 hours. This included:

  • Choosing stories with personal “mythic resonance”
  • Close-reading of some paragraphs and pictures from my work (where I do this)
  • Breaking scenes down
  • Building scenes and stories back up again (in groups)
  • Identifying the mood-movement of a story (to hack beginning/middle/end)
A ballpoint pen lying on a very tiny 6x6 grid of drawings of map elements

I also took ALL the year 7s through Small Drawings, Big Ideas, a reworking of the workshop I did for Words Out West. It involved:

  • What is a story (an extremely broad definition that included sports matches and building a house — necessary with a group of people who haven’t chosen to be at a creative workshop, but also useful for the rest of us)
  • Your favourite things (vs other people’s)
  • How to draw small and fast
  • Coming up with new favourite things
  • Creating stories you like

Then in the afternoon I gave the year 11 art students a Gothic Birds Accordion Book workshop. This was based on the “Book of Marvellous Birds” workshop I’ve given before, but targeted to people who should know how to draw, and also very genre-specific.

While many of the other workshops incorporated free ideas and mixed up art and writing, this workshop was an introduction to working as an illustrator of other people’s stories.

Topics covered included:

  • Drawing fast and bad
  • What is Gothic imagery, and how to tweak it
  • Kathleen ad-libs a short Gothic story, and an art brief
  • Identifying scenes to illustrate
  • Thumbnailing
  • Rolling an image between genres
  • Adding more story to an image
  • A quick art show (such fun)
All the activities were versions of approaches I use on projects


In the morning, I did an Australian Gothic Birds writing workshop with the year 10 English students. This had a lot of elements (‘sustaining cultural context’, the Gothic, Australian Gothic, birds, writing…), and it was the workshop I worried most about. Fortunately (given the principal sat in on the whole workshop!) the kids took it and ran, and it went very well. It featured:

  • Identifying the Gothic (and your favourite bits of it)
  • Involving Australian birds (there was a surprisingly strong anti-emu contingent)
  • Combining elements (with examples)
  • How to cheat at writing setting (i.e. close-readings of paintings)
  • Rolling a scene between genres
  • Story patterns
  • How to quickly build up a story from your idea (there were some lovely ideas, but the most memorable one involved the Prime Minister turning out to be a murderous kookaburra sleeper agent)

The year 8s, a smaller group, got a slightly calmer reprise of the ideas workshop I did with the year 7s the day before.

Then, with the year 10 art students, I did a slightly more intense version of the Gothic Bird Book I’d done with the year 11s — the year 10s having already had a crash-course on the Gothic that morning.

Then on Thursday evening I gave a presentation and Q&A over wine and cheese to a group of teachers and parents, who were lovely, welcoming and very interested in the possibilities for children who want to get into the arts (me: it’s hard work, sure, but I can’t say it’s harder than law).


Glimpse of observation journal — I was colour-shifting steampunk approaches

Finally on Friday I had a very small session with some self-selected year 9s. It was a lovely casual session, combining mechanical and fantastic elements.

Sketches from the quad

Then I had a smidgen of time to sketch students over lunch in the quadrangle, before going back to my motel and falling deeply asleep.

In summary, it was a great week, with fantastic and supportive students and teachers and librarians. I was able to test and develop a number of ideas and workshop approaches, and it was lovely to go back to a place that had once been, for a few years, home.

I used to be library monitor here and water the plants with a hook-topped watering jug, so this was cool.

Back from Toowoomba, trailing ghosts

I’m newly arrived back in Brisbane (just in time for a snap lockdown!) after a wonderful but intensive week as artist/writer-in-residence at Concordia Lutheran College in Toowoomba — my old boarding school.

I’ll post more about it when I’ve organised my thoughts and have some photos from the school that I can share. However it was a wonderful week of workshops with grades 5-11 (and incredibly supportive librarians and teachers) on writing, ideas, the illustration process, using drawings to write and narrative structure to draw, and industrial fabulism, and the Gothic, and the Australian Gothic, and Australian Gothic Birds. The students went all-in, and developed ideas for some fascinating (and not infrequently horrifying) work.

I am now going to sleep very thoroughly. But to keep you awake, here’s a quick sketch I did based on one of the ideas the Grade 5s had, of a ghost with a clock where its face should be.

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

Flyaway: A creeping sensation

Photo of the sawmill through the trees

There is a story in Flyaway called “The Sawmill”.

The setting was inspired by a decaying set of sawmill buildings on a sliver of land that would have once belonged to the corner of our property (I did confirm I could go out there!).

Detail of the wire gate illustration (cut paper) for the chapter

I drove back out that way when I was editing Flyaway — checking my memories and taking notes. I found the overgrown gate and climbed over and walked through the trees the same way “Jack” returns in the book.

It was both far closer than I remembered and much, much further.

Photo of a sawmill hut
One of the huts

The day was bright and the dry grass cracked. There was no phone reception and the buildings had… changed. The old detritus had been cleared out. There were a few boxes there with things left over from other people’s lives. A few chairs, although they could not be sat in, were arranged on the porches as if someone had been sitting there a few moments before.

And of course in the years since I’d last been there, I had written the story that became that chapter of Flyaway. I was alone in the loud bush, and while my memories of the sawmill were of adventure and the treasure to be found in stored boxes, my adrenaline response had been pretty well appropriated by my imagination.

It didn’t even need to be dark.

The light caught in the grass

Horror that describes horrible things in great detail (or with just enough to let your imagination do the work) is of course dreadfully effective. But for uncanny horror, I’ve found the process strongest (on the writer, if not the reader) if I begin with something towards which I feel affection, and ask but what if it were fearful? It adds an extra layer, the sense of something you love turning to show a face you don’t know, the feeling of a dog’s head beneath your hand but instead of a welcoming movement an “absolute stillness”.

The sawmill, a garden, a friend; good manners, a gate, a line of poetry. And then: but what if this were not all it seems, what if it were used for ill, what if there were something else sharing that space, or beneath it, or in its eyes, or watching from the trees…

Flyaway is out now, and a Gothic book perfect for either October or December, the two traditional months for slightly creepy tales

Edit: Edited to fix the link to M. R. James’ “The Diary of Mr Poynter”. James does this sort of thing extremely well, and his stories have left me looking suspiciously at things like leather bags and bedsheets.


A series of inkblots. Created a little while ago, in the midst of other deadlines, in a fit of desperation to make-and-finish something, anything. Even so the accordion set did not please me. The textures on the larger pages were interesting (Winsor & Newton Indian Ink, dropped or swirled or spattered into patches of water).


A parrot. The eternal game of finding patterns in ink and kettles and clouds.


A story. Another game, of finding a tale in the structure created by something else — in this case, something to connect ten inkblot drawings (it turned into a little story for patrons).


Art or writing activities:

  • Make inkblots.
  • Find other ways of making inkblot-equivalents. Dropped scarves become landscapes. Homewares become historical personages. Take photos of strange clouds.
  • Find pictures in them. Draw or describe them into greater clarity.
  • Take eight (or five, or three — the number will attract a story-shape, but any number will do) of any of the above. Fix up a story (graphic or written) to fit them.

Tiny story: Hunters

Another of the four-panel story experiments (see previously: Handsome and Clever). I continue to be fascinated by how stories fall so easily into the four panels — and into other set formats, too. Like cats.


Had I the wings of a turtle-dove


A trial silhouette sun-print (cyanotype) from an ongoing fascination with metamorphosis in fairytales.

I was trying to get different degrees of exposure on a cyanotype, in this case by using two silhouettes, one cut out of black paper (the bird) and the other out of glassine (the person). At the sides you can see the bulldog clips and the way light refracted through the edge of the clear acrylic sheet keeping it all from blowing away in the sun.

Some of this fascination got out into various things I have written, of course, and in the meantime there’s always the ongoing extremely long Twitter thread (tbc) on Ovid’s Metamorphoses, which starts here and continues with gifs.



October calendar: Cold hands


Fairy tales are famously hard on the feet (per Kelly Link’s “Travels With The Snow Queen”), but they aren’t kind to hands, either.

So here, for Halloween (and with the very excellent support of my patrons) is a collection of specific and general fairy-tale hands: spindle-pricked, scissor wielding, changed to silver, unlocking doors… (I’m including a non-blue-handed version, for those less spookily inclined, but the black-and-blue really does look rather like the colour schemes in Edmund Dulac’s fairy tale illustrations).

I also really like the underlay-colours here. Still want to work up a design like this without lines, but I keep getting distracted by detail. I should start with silhouettes.

Screen Shot 2019-09-26 at 1.44.25 am.png

I’ve also created a repeating pattern of this design, and it is now up on Redbubble on notebooks, dresses, etc (as part of my Halloween and Fairytale collections) (and if you like fabric by the yard, I’m waiting for test prints from Spoonflower). Incidentally, Girls Running From Houses (from last October) is now a repeating pattern and is on there too.


Edit to add: I’ve added the blue background (pink hand) version to Redbubble, too: Take My Hands.

The files below are for personal use and — as I mentioned — are done with the help of my wonderful supporters on Patreon (who also get sneak-peeks, variant colours, stationery, new Daleks, etc). If you’d like to join as a patron (from $1!) or otherwise throw a few coins in the tip jar to help the calendar keep happening, that would be very welcome — the calendar is fun, but takes a lot of time.

October calendar colour Black blue handsOctober calendar colour Blue pink handsOctober calendar lines

Note re links: I’m experimenting with affiliate links, which means I might get paid a small commission if someone buys something after clicking a link on my site. This is my first attempt, so I’m really just testing out the program links at this point!