A discovery of headstrong, obstinate girls (or: simple time-travel)

The people in yesterday’s post (Sketching the people glimpsed from the corner of your eye) were all in roughly current clothing, because 75% of the time that is what the people I sketch from life are wearing.

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Decorative metal tree/hanger

One of the ways I sometimes develop characters and/or story ideas, however, is to sketch and/or imagine passersby into the clothing of another era. The rules of that game are very simple (see below).

So, for the purposes of the people-less people-watching exercise, and my offhand reference to character design, I picked another style/era for the same experiment:

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L-R, top to bottom: Paint-water jug, Cottee’s bottle, kettle, vase of proteas, thermometer, Rork Projects reusable coffee cup, SodaStream.

Similar principles apply, but with the specific constraints of a chosen field of fashion/awareness/visual retention.

They very quickly gain their own opinions, and it is a truth universally acknowledged that young women with decided opinions must be in want of a plot.

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The kettle

But neither youth nor beauty are a prerequisite for opinions or designs.

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The Cottee’s cordial bottle, again

I find that characters who first appear in motion often gather story to them as they move along.

Writing/Illustration exercises:

  • The original version: If you are in a position to watch other people go by: Choose genre and era, and draw or mentally insert the Very Next Person you see into appropriate clothing. They are now your main character. (For this exercise, it’s important to do it this way — if you pick and choose your hero/ine, or cast people according to type, there are far fewer surprises).
  • The home-alone version: As above, but with the personifications of household appliances (a la yesterday’s post).
  • And then? Find a secondary protagonist by the same method. Give them a little push and put them, with all their attitude, into a sketched or written scene — just a few lines. What are they scheming together? Who are they wrong about?

Cover art process: Welcome to the Bitch Bubble

FirstCurrent events have made it a little tricky for authors & publishers to celebrate new books and get them to you. This book comes out in May, but is available for preorder now. Please consider doing so!

A month ago, Lauren Dixon and Hydra House Books announced the cover for her new collection, Welcome to the Bitch Bubble.

The process for this one began with a breakfast conversation at the World Fantasy Convention hotel in LA in 2019.

From there, I received the manuscript and worked through it, thinking of treatments (how best to capture vigour vs whimsy, how to handle colour vis-a-vis the title, etc).

As usual, I made some accordion-fold sheets of drawing paper and drew my way through the stories, catching images that were particularly resonant.

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And, of course, getting distracted by skeletons in sundresses. Here I am making a cyanotype print of the cutout.

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(You can also see, above, that I was playing with some of the silhouette treatments I tried at the Illustration Master Class.)

Using these, I put together the initial thumbnail-sketched ideas. You can see me working to find a synthesis between my usual gentler style and the raw aggression of some of Lauren Dixon’s writing!

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Lauren and Tod came back with their thoughts on direction and colour, and from those I put together the next set of more detailed sketches. You can see how elements of the different thumbnails were recombined.

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The sketches above were for the idea that was always the frontrunner, but there were a couple of others we liked, so I played with them too (presumably avoiding other deadlines).

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I still really like those hair legs and would like to do a cover with them!

After that, I enlarged the sketch and used it as a rough base to make the more detailed final pencil drawing. This is the stage where all the strands and leaves and limbs have to link so that they hold together when I cut them out.

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I then used those pencils to trace down the lines onto black paper (remembering to flip them! I don’t always remember to do this), and cut them out.

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Once the silhouette was cut out and scanned, we kept trying out different combinations of colour and texture (the more gleeful of us clamouring for garishness, the more sober attempting to rein us in).

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And then, over to Tod (of Hydra House) to bring it home!

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Welcome to the Bitch Bubble is available for preorder now, and given what current events are doing to launches, conventions, bookstores, etc, it would be great if — if this sounds at all like your sort of book! — you’d consider preordering through the links here or a good independent bookstore near you.

River Bank: Early design

This is the second process post for my illustrations for Kij Johnson’s The River Bank (from Small Beer Press). The previous post was on my first response.

The next stage of the illustration process was to work out the style I wanted to use, and the character design.

I’ve always adored E. H. Shepard’s illustrations for The Wind in the Willows. Many many other great artists (Shepard was the fourth, and Arthur Rackham followed him) have illustrated Kenneth Grahame, but for me, Shepard most perfectly captured the gravitas and pomp, the comfort and homeliness of Grahame’s little folk.

E. H. Shepard (you might also know his art from such books as Winnie-the-Pooh)

If I were to illustrate The Wind in the Willows I would, I suppose, have to take an entirely individual approach. But because this was a sequel, I wanted to do what Kij Johnson achieved (with such apparent ease and vivacity) in doing with the text. She honoured Grahame while being herself in the telling. In the same way, I didn’t want to try to be Shepard, but I wanted to pay respects to him.

So I began by studying Shepard’s illustrations – his lines and shapes – until I began to feel that I could in some small way see through them to the living characters he was imagining.

As well as the ‘master studies’ above, I began looking at other approaches to drawing the characters, and also at reference of real animals (if I were to design characters from scratch I would start there).

Then I began to work out the new characters, in keeping with the old. Rabbits are underrepresented in The Wind in the Willows, so I went further afield – that’s a mislabeled study of a Tenniel White Rabbit at top right, below.

Fortunately, Mole did wear a dress at one point in The Wind in the Willows, so I could start there for Beryl, and begin to work out the rough proportions of both Beryl and Rabbit at the same time as working out some era-appropriate clothes for them.

And also the sorts of movements that they would need to make in those clothes. Beryl lost her cardigan and lace collar (above, lower right) and got something soberer and more sensible.

Rabbit went in the other direction.

Having sounded out the characters, I then made a quick reference sketch of varying heights. This is not a particularly easy job. The original characters are wonderfully fluid, able to fit into holes in river banks and drive motorcars with equal ease. 

It amuses me how the various illustrations and adaptations treat this. I decided to keep close to Shepard and go for an implied but unacknowledged variability. If J. M. Barrie’s fairies were only big enough to hold one emotion at a time, I think Kenneth Grahame’s folk adapt, from moment to moment, as necessary to contain all the adventures of life on the river bank.

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The Lie Tree cover art

I hadn’t yet read any of Frances Hardinge‘s novels when Gili Bar-Hillel of Utz Books asked me to illustrate the cover for the Hebrew translation of The Lie Tree. And oh, it is so very good!

Here are a few of my first thumbnail concepts for the cover.

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The novel is a beautiful combination of gothic mystery, scientific discovery, faith, lies, ambition, hubris and secrets. Part way through I realised that it felt like Matthew Arnold’s poem “Dover Beach”, and then a particularly apt sentence sent me back to the beginning to check for a nonchalant line that convinced me this was entirely deliberate on Hardinge’s part.

Here are the pencils. We decided to go with more open vinework around the title.

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I then cut the final image out of black paper, and sent it through for the designer, Dor Cohen, to do wonderful things with.

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The Hebrew translation of France’s Hardinge’s novel The Lie Tree, translated by Yael Achmon, is now available for pre-order from Utz Books: The Lie Tree.

Thanks to my supporters on Patreon who help give me time to put together these process posts (and who get to see projects like this early).