Hundreds of dear little lines

Usually when I share process pictures of silhouettes, they’re for specific commissions, and the final transferred line is very tidy — it’s a function of the approval process, the need to fit specific formats. But when I work on my own pieces, for gifts or for patrons or as samples to test treatments for a larger project, the drawing isn’t neat at all.


A stationery-design-in-progress for Patreon, doubling as a test patch for another project

It’s a graphite scribble directly onto the back of the paper, working out the curves and patterns, the tension and shapes, gesture and narrative. Dozens of searching lines until the promise of something is there on the page (this example is unusually tidy). When I cut, it’s a matter of choosing the right line from those there, improvising along structures established in the fray, or trusting to an average of equally appealing choices.

In a conversation today I realised that people think I’m being wildly productive and well-adjusted, and I’m really not. This isn’t to seek pity or sympathy (beyond the current blanket baseline!) — it’s just that I don’t usually talk too much about life outside art/writing on here, and wanted to keep it like that! Everything’s not great (although I’m much better off than many people and recklessly optimistic in company) and it’s been difficult to do anything at all except flail at urgent changes to courses I tutor, or else sit and stare at the sunlight (the weather’s been wonderful, which just makes it more surreal — usually disasters come with weather, and scents of mud or smoke heavy on the air).

But when I can, I potter and chip away at things, and it all comes back to art in the end, as usual — or at least, to stories. Making little lines, and flailing, and feeling my way back to a shape on the paper. Just one. And then another.

And the weather is marvellous.

Distance ed


Me and my enormous feet at school, supervised by my dad, with those all-important School of the Air adjuncts: a Royal Flying Doctor radio and a fearsome stack of butchers’s paper.

If you find you’re having more group meetings remotely, here are some etiquette tips from those days:

  • Raising hand to ask a question/interjecting with a question –> “[own name] with a question!”
  • Raising hand in response to a request by teacher –> “[Own name]!”
  • Concluding a remark/answer –> “… [teacher’s name].”

(When I went to boarding school, I got laughed at for shouting “Katie with a question” with my hands neatly on my desktop, and for finishing my answers with the teacher’s name, as in, “The chimera was made in 400BC, Mrs Lamerton”.)

More useful substitutions:

  • Feigning ignorance/inability –> crumple a chip packet into the microphone.
  • My dog ate my homework –> oh no, I have to go, the cows got into the house paddock and are knocking over the antenna.
  • Fall asleep in class –> the tractor battery powering the radio ran out of charge.

(These are all real examples and scale well to current technology. For example, we were participating in a group online watch-and-shout-along of The Lady and the Highwayman last night until a possum knocked a fuse off the electrical pole.)

Making little things

Grand plans have their place. But sometimes it is good to make little things.


Clockwork beetles (eventually became part of an illustration for Trudi Canavan)

They are beautiful. Their tininess is fascinating and they look incredibly complicated by virtue of being small, and all the natural textures come out to play in ways that are lost in a big piece. People will compliment you on your remarkable detail work which is a nice ego boost, although you know that the trick is this: the smaller a piece is, the more detail you can leave out.


Trying to get the textures of matchbox art (for Mermay)

They are completed so soon. You have made a thing! It is out in the world now, being. On busy days or hard days or stagnant days or days all stacked up on giant projects, they remind you that you can make a whole thing, that you can hold in your hand.


Out of desperation to have drawn a thing, any thing, that day.

Like a prettyish sort of little wilderness, you can lose yourself in a small project without fear of wandering too far. There are, after all, times when you can’t get away for long, and times when you need to stay close to home.


Learning control

They can be test-patches for larger ideas. There’s no pressure there. No commitment. You are just trying things out in the service of some larger beauty. A few verses to try out the style of a grander epic. A short story to feel out the edges of a world. A tiny print in the manner of a picture book you’d like to make. And maybe it will lead to grander things, or maybe you will decide this was enough. You have made a thing, after all, and it was not here before.


High waists are back in

Many little things, all set side by side, can add up to a collection, an exhibition, but that is not the point.


And why are we standing behind the watch? What does it mean?

You can pretend you are a clockmaker, or a spy hiding secret messages.


And then, when you are done (so quickly!), you can put the rest away and sit back for a little, or go for a walk, shining with having made a thing, one thing, today.

Old maps

My family has often drawn maps. Next time I visit them (next time I’m allowed to — what a strange year this became) I need to dig out a pirate map — complete with ominous bullet hole — my father made when I was little. I think it’s in a big Nürnberger gingerbread chest with other childhood treasures.

One of my mother’s sisters was a draughtsperson, and took us on a memorable tour of the Yale plan department when we visited her there (and printed us plans of various buildings, as souvenirs!). My father’s brother got onto a few real actual maps, including in the Northern Territory (below — if you look at neighbouring names you’ll get an idea of the relevant decade) and Antarctica.


When I was pulling together all our map books and atlases to take to some some map illustration workshops, we found a few more:

Here is a treasure map of our house out west, leading to a present for my mother. Whatever it was, we hid it in the bathroom. (The “giant’s causeway” was the stepping stones that led to the outdoor (unplumbed) toilet, so this was before we installed a septic tank and put a new toilet building at the site of the “thorny strait”).


All good maps have a mermaid and a sea-monster.


This one was for a very early (and somewhat culturally unexamined) Peter Pan birthday party for a (now 20-year old!) nephew, held around Lake Burley Griffin in Canberra.


And here are the clues!


Ideas, exercises, lessons:

  • All good maps have a mermaid and a sea-monster. If you have been world-building and have not taken this into account, consider redressing your omission. Think laterally if you must, but I see few reason why this cannot be literal. Space mermaids!
  • You can use all sorts of locations as a base for a fantastic world. Start with your living room and sketch a map, transpose the details into relevant fantastic locations (is the tissue box a volcano? a fever hospital?) and send a hero on an adventure across it. What perils might they meet? Rough out a quick scene (written or drawn, according to what you do).
    An advantage of this is that many rooms are roughly rectangular and so your world will print nicely onto the opening pages of a novel.
  • Converting a house to a fantastic location is one way to occupy time at home. You’ve got the option of a treasure hunt, of course, but you can be quite literal here, too. In fact, one time at college we had meant to go on a picnic, but it rained, so we went to great lengths to recreate a park (duckpond and all) in my room and had the picnic there. As social isolation increases, I’m going to have to work out what I can do to get (more of) a cafe vibe happening in my house.


The Alternate Bear, or: Getting There By Whatever Means Necessary

I couldn’t find this image yesterday.  It’s an incidental illustration from the back cover of Greer Gilman’s Exit, Pursued by a Bear, as later converted into a t-shirt design for Small Beer Press (publishers of good books, which should be bought).


The line that inspired it I still think is one of the funniest things (and I keep revisiting it in other contexts). The appearance from the wings of “two men in a rug” just… it has different nuances than “five raccoons in a trenchcoat”.

Both are useful metaphors for art (and, indeed, life). But while the latter implies tricks and larceny, Muppets and the weaponisation of imposter syndrome, the former is about ‘rude mechanicals’ getting a job done by any means necessary: the show carries on, even if it isn’t at all the way we planned it, even if it’s low-tech and powered purely by goodwill and a collective, wilful self-delusion. The players roll up their sleeves and dig out discarded props, the audience watches for moments of transcendence amidst the chaos and, if they can, for the moments it can be managed, they all have a good time doing it.


The Madding Crowd

Sketching makes me like people more.


I liked these people anyway

People in crowds become individuals. (This does relate to yesterday’s post: Sketch Notes).


Why NOT dance with an inflatable unicorn?

The first time I went to the British Museum, I tried to see the Rosetta Stone. It was easy, crowding forward, to resent everyone else who was in the way. So many people. It can’t mean to them what it does to me.


Some access issues

But when I retreated and got out my sketchbook, suddenly each person was an individual, to whom the stone meant something that made it worth seeing, and I was drawing a picture of people loving it.

And sometimes I’m drawing individuals I love, and realise they are a crowd, a whole.


Readercon 2017, tag yourself

This is one of the reasons I like to sketch during O-Week (Orientation Week). It makes me more benevolent in general, which is always nice when I’m about to start teaching again.


Fairy floss!

Everyone comes into focus, busy in their own way. There’s a degree of headshaking around the annual toga party, but look at them! All those teenagers in bedsheets.


The phones, the wings, the Hercules, the occasional serious cosplayers. Body language is 75% funnier in an inexpertly constructed toga and rugby shorts.


Merry Christmas!

2010 Christmas Card

Here is this year’s Christmas card. I have not yet decided if it is more Grinch (after his heart grew but before he got used to it), Midwich Cuckoo, or Wicked Witch of the West. Lesson learned: don’t select colours on too little sleep. It did look good when all the cards were printed and set out on the table.

The design is one I made notecards from a few years ago (you can see those here). It was a lino cut. I scanned in the piece of carved lino, then edited it in photoshop, rounded the corners and shifted the colours out of alignment (I like that look). I printed it on fairly heavy textured drawing paper and rounded the corners with a clipper.

It is rainy, grey, humid but cool Christmas weather here. The lawns grow crazily, bush turkey chicks are roaming the gardens, my sister trapped an enormous huntsman spider under the bathroom rubbish bin and my neighbour saw a black snake on the footpath last night. The neighbours on the other side had their Christmas party last night. I took a mango, prawn and danish fetta salad (just that, on a glass plate, drizzled with sweet chilli sauce) which was both quick and very quickly eaten (neighbour across the way sat down with a spoon and finished it off).

Below is the advent calendar, all coloured. It is very cheerful and bright on the wall above the sideboard and the Christmas cards.

Advent Calendar

Merry Christmas, all, and God bless us, every one!

Bookplates and World Records

I’ve been working on a bookplate design for Gillian Polack, so that she can offer people signed bookplates for her latest novel, Life Through Cellophane (which is a very enjoyable, gentle horror story) if they can’t get to her – I managed to buy it at the launch, spend a whole weekend in her general vicinity and still not get my copy signed, so I will be asking for one.

I posted some early ideas a few days ago. This is a collection of the final pen and ink drawing (top left), a series of variations, and the final bookplate (bottom right):

Bookplate progression

Now, because my mother (of all people) tells me off for not writing enough about my life, I will tell you some highlights of the last week:

  • My mother has been at the coast for a week. My younger sister and I spent the weekend, walked along the beach (the sea and the sky there are always shell-coloured), read, drank pinacoladas and got caught in the rain. I managed to go into antique, retro and second hand book stores and escape only with two books (on Australian aviation, unsurprisingly).
  • My sister’s boyfriend was driving us to the station on Monday morning. We usually loop around a traffic circle instead of turning right across traffic, but as we came up to the traffic circle (two lanes) there was a huge cloud of brown dust – a rubbish truck had lost its skip. Fortunately, we were in the ute so we hopped the median strip and retreated.
  • Tuesday I saw Astroboy, which was intellectually insulting. I also had a KFC Zinger Works Burger which was very good – I’d been looking forward to it for ages, but the KFC at Indro is the world’s slowest and usually out of chicken.
  • Yesterday I went to the QUT Writing Gala (university awards and launch of their journal Rex) at the Gallery of Modern Art, talked to people about the secret Brisbane which exists in backyards, then on my way out was forcibly diverted into the gallery theatre where a world record breaking comedy attempt was taking place. I stayed for over an hour and my copy of Rex was appropriated and used in part of the act.

Here is my sister asleep while my mother read Dean Koontz out loud, and Lindsay Webb’s comedy attempt:

Page 1

ETA: Unless it’s a convention and I figure they’ll find me anyway, I sometimes email people a copy of the sketch of them – I just had an email back from Lindsay Webb’s team and apparently they put the sketch up on the screen at the back of the stage!

Putting away the pieces

I have had a weekend of… something-yellow-labelled-Thrive and old lace. And bottles with odd contents, labelled only with the names of family members. Cufflinks and photographs and records, nutmeg graters, aprons, diaries and slides.

Tomorrow: a 12 hour drive with my knees underneath my chin because of ballgowns, very old mixmasters and paintings by a minor artist of whom Google says his works hardly ever come on the market, which is probably because my grandmother owned most of them. I’m at risk of being flippant, but it’s only to keep general spirits up. We were in hysterics yesterday afternoon, and all burst into tears together yesterday morning.

Everyone says it is sad deconstructing a life, and I keep saying that she wouldn’t have been sentimental about everything – there are things you treasure, like the wedding ring and watch and the ring from the man who asked you to marry you but you didn’t want to get married again, and those you put in a shortbread tin at the bottom of a cupboard under your folding travel hangers. But other things are just the clothes you wore because a body has to wear clothes, and there’s no point getting sentimental over that – unless its over the scent that lingers on them.


Page 31

I’ve been absent for several reasons – limited internet access, family health, my health and, most recently, two funerals.

The first was my grandmother’s. Her name was Challis Barling and she was 87. She was loving and generous, one of those proper North Shore ladies who on occasion cheerfully let her guard down and revealed her country upbringing. She had been involved with Red Cross and Lifeline and Meals on Wheels for decades, she gathered people into her orbit. She was sensible and selfless and never saw the reason to say ‘why me’ – though she had been widowed, her older son had vanished in the Andes, her daughter nearly died of a bone infection, her second husband was sick for a year and then died and her younger son first brought over an American bride to whom it took the family a little while to warm (until, as she told my mother, “I’ve seen how happy you’ve made my son”), and then was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and couldn’t go to the funeral because, physically, we could not get him to Sydney. She had also – and I must have forgotten this when I was reading Cryptonomicon – been a cryptography clerk at Macarthur’s Brisbane headquarters during WWII and had decoded the message that the battle of the Coral Sea was on. She also had a strong and enduring faith, and that was reflected back by all who spoke at the service, even those who did not share it. And there were so many people at her funeral in Sydney last Wednesday – from the minister who got choked up because he had known her since he and his wife first came to the parish to her quiet gardener and the hairdresser who used to open after hours for her and said it had been a beautiful funeral for a beautiful lady, but he had to run because he had left someone under the dryer.

On Thursday my mother, my younger sister and I flew back to Brisbane and spent the evening visiting my father where he was in respite care. The next day I went to work and read my email to find out that Kris Hembury had died.

Kris was a writer, past president of Vision Writers (of which I am current president because of a reverse-coup staged by Kris). He was my age – only two months younger – and was vibrant, clever, witty, never passed up a pun, wise, a keen critiquer, a mad fan, someone who, as was said at his service today, not only connected with people but connected people to each other. He had won writing awards, had started investigating screenplays and had started another degree and work on a novel and was still emailing the list with schemes in spite of the frustrations caused by his malfunctioning email. He died of aggressive bronchial pneumonia and his funeral was today. It was very well attended and an announcement was made by Fantastic Queensland which I will let them announce officially first. It was beautiful to see so many people who had known and loved him gathered around his family – a family that was clearly used to having a house full of people of all ages who loved Kris, both in life and death.