(Not) illustrating Travelogues

While filing art recently, I found early printouts of some of the threads that would become Travelogues.

Pencil sketch of foxgloves, over cut-off text.

These were made before I knew what on earth these records of journeys should become, and I was trying to work out whether they could (or ought) to be illustrated.

Pencil sketch of cow, tractor, and boat, over cut-off text.

I sketched my way through, and eventually realised they should not. The words that make up Travelogues were already very visual; those images needed to stand alone.

Pencil sketch of violin, sack, tree in pot, over cut-off text.

But there are metaphors and sounds in there, too, and graspings after meaning that I realise now might have been flattened into a single dimension, if I’d illustrated them.

Pencil sketch of passenger looking out a train window, over cut-off text.

It’s a peculiar chemistry, working in words and images. Illustrating Flyaway, I realised that I often use illustrations to annotate, and that the academic work I was doing parallel to Flyaway had drawn that away (more on that here: Illustrating Flyaway).

Pencil sketch of abandoned vehicles, a window with leaves against it, ruined jetty, tanker, over cut-off text.

On the other hand, this loose, light, pencilled style suited Margo Lanagan’s Stray Bats very well — perhaps because it was a way of linking minds and teasing out thoughts (as, indeed, the text itself was — it’s a delightful chapbook of vignettes and I highly recommend it).

Pencil sketch of workman, over cut-off text.

Travelogues, however, already contained all the snapshots I was trying to capture, and the rhythm of the railroad, and its sounds, and the strange tunnels of the mind.

Pencil sketch of waterbird, over cut-off text.

Travelogues: Vignettes from Trains in Motion is available from Brain Jar Press, and through good bookstores and the usual online suspects.

Inktober and triangulation, or: Nature LOVES a vacuum

Brush-and-ink and imitation-gold-leaf illustration of a hen looking at a radio.
“Radio” plus “The cowardly hero deceived the hen.” (This was VERY TINY and also a birthday card for my father and something of a riff on His Master’s Voice.)

I’m probably grossly misusing the word “triangulation” but it fits because it’s a process of navigation AND an indirect way of approaching something AND this is about using three elements.

So:

  • A structure can be used to attract a story (see: Narrative Theory 1).
  • External input — something from outside my own head — is very useful when creating my own work.
  • Limitations (e.g. of materials, format etc) are hugely useful for pushing against creatively — they enhance the creative force.

I find that two constraints can suggest starting-point ideas, but using three together fairly reliably creates things that feel like stories. It holds open a space for things to fill. (See also: Observation Journal — A Tremor in the Web for more feeling-my-way-towards-ideas and Observation Journal —improbable inventions for another three-things approach).

Brush-and-ink and imitation-gold-leaf illustration of a thief sitting on a tree root and looking into an enchanted mirror.
“Radio” plus “The evil thief sighed in the deep dark forest.” The “radio” here turned into a pair of enchanted communicating mirrors.

Which brings us to Inktober. I’m repeating my approach to it last year, using three main boundaries:

  • Prompt: I use the main/official prompts (there are many others), because that’s simple, and because where they don’t fit my personal tastes/interests (i.e. “radio”) it makes me work harder to come up with something that pleases me. I like using and fighting against external prompts and timeframes, and having to incorporate something that’s not entirely from inside my own head — that was the appeal and lesson of Illustration Friday way back when (and that tag is a deep dive).
  • Technique: Ink, obviously, but I further limited it to silhouette brush work because I want to get better at brush work and silhouettes seemed simpler (why I, of all people, would think that, but here we are), and incorporated imitation-gold leaf (because it’s pretty and I have a lot to learn).
  • Second prompt: I’m using tweets from Fairy Tale Fragments (@fairytaletext) on Twitter. This pulls everything into my preferred fairy-tale area, but involves some mental acrobatics to incorporate e.g. “radio” into that sort of setting.
Sketches for possible illustrations.
“Rodent” and the process of feeling out that day’s @fairytaletext tweets looking for things I wanted to draw
Brush-and-ink and imitation-gold-leaf illustration of a mouse on a wine bottle drinking out of a thimble.
“Rodent” plus “Once, there was a drunken thief who lived in a tall tower.”
Brush-and-ink and imitation-gold-leaf illustration of rats in a coat riding on the back of a wolf and pretending to be human.
The creative process illustrated, or: “Rodent” plus “The ugly servant saved the wolf.

Note: It’s tricky getting good photos of the foil, and impossible to scan usefully, but it’s got a lovely buttery-gold gleam under lights.

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.

The Lie Tree - thumbnails

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.

The Lie Tree - cover

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).