Sketches and notes: their purpose

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I was going back through photos and found this unused sketch from Kij Johnson’s The River Bank.

This stage of a project is very charming — the snapshots of moments, the hint of movement (or, as here, stillness) and expression. They are usually just notes for myself, but a lot of the work involved in finishing a more formal final illustration is about trying to capture that lightness. (Although when I’m making sketches that will be the final illustrations, there’s a lot of unseen work involved in trying to teach my hand the shapes of what I’ll be drawing).

 

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Sketches in progress for Angela Slatter’s The Tallow-Wife

 

Something I’m gradually learning with writing is to treat the early stages in a similar way: quick notes on an aesthetic, lists of “lush language” (per Kim Wilkins), just sketching the best bits (including sketching with words) so that the heart and movement is there.

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And if you are looking for a pleasant, gentle, sunlit story, with nothing more nefarious than foxes and stoats, written with a deft touch and a loving eye, I highly recommend The River Bank.

Beyond the main event — experiments with sketching

I’m testing ways to sketch in the absence of my usual opportunities to people-watch. (Of course, unusual opportunities still show up.)

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I’ve posted about using household objects as stand-ins:Sketching the people glimpsed from the corner of your eye, and A discovery of headstrong obstinate girls.

So in an effort to find people going about their daily lives, I tried sketching people in the background of TV shows.

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Advantages:

  • The background business is frequently less composed and dramatised than the main action (not always).
  • Generally, the full figures are shown.
  • There’s less detail, and so there are fewer distractions from considerations of pose and movement.
  • It’s pacy, especially with rapid-fire changes of camera angle — you have to sketch or lose the moment.
  • Watching just the background actors and extras is frequently delightful, and also a great way to rewatch shows.
  • Keeps my hands busy while watching Midsomer Murders.

Disadvantages:

  • It’s still cast and staged and costumed of course. I want to try this with background views in news or tourism or documentary footage.
  • Sometimes the camera cuts away too quickly — but then, passersby are often lost to view in the ordinary course of affairs.
  • The temptation is there to freeze-frame and sketch, but that would be defeating the whole purpose. (Leading to thoughts about sketching and temporality.)

I have more experiments to try, but this one was quite enjoyable, a pleasant challenge and an excellent excuse to watching the goings-on on Midsomer.

Writing/art exercises:

  • As above — have a sketchbook (or notebook) handy and sketch (or describe) background characters while watching a show (no pausing the show). Concentrate on movement, distinguishing poses, unusual lines — it’s about noticing, and training your eye and hand to communicate people.
  • When watching (more especially when rewatching) a show, pick a background character and imagine the scene or story from their perspective (sketch or write accordingly). I watch Pride and Prejudice with my dad a lot under ordinary circumstances, and much as I love it, I find myself reframing it as a different person’s story each time.
  • When looking at pictures (Pinterest, an art book, a virtual gallery tour), allow yourself to quickly acknowledge the main action. After that, you can only look at the background. What is going on there? Textures? Sidelong glances? Centurions being thrown off cantankerous horses? Tiny gilt angels no bigger than sea-monkeys? (I tried this with a friend once in a Renaissance exhibition and ended up in a very strange conversation? conspiracy theory? with a guard about rabbits in art).

Sketching with words

The post on Illustrating Flyaway, over at Tor.com, has a few location sketches on it from when I went to Hanging Rock with Belinda Morris (yes, that Hanging Rock, and yes we had a picnic), trying to figure out how Joan Lindsay did it.

I also went out to the area around where I grew up, and which partially suggested the region of Inglewell in Flyway, and although I did get a few sketches on the way, it proved difficult for two reasons.

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(Thanks to the Cecilie Anne Sloane Postgraduate English Creative Writing Research Scholarship made both trips possible)

First, I was driving alone, and it turns out I find it easier to say “stop! pull over! back up!” if I am not in fact the person trying to get from A to B before nightfall. Second, I draw with line and shape more than light, and it was the light that twisted something in my heart and stomach.

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But I’d also deliberately abandoned any photography skills I had back when I first started seriously sketching, and there are qualities it requires real skill to catch in a photograph (looking back to Hanging Rock, it’s as intensely, dizzily beautiful in real life as in the book, but in photographs it is just as eerie as in the movie).

So I started dictating as I went. Not dictating paragraphs of prose — I haven’t got into the stride of writing that way. Just… sketching. Going over words, looking for phrases or descriptions or similes or ten ways of seeing a set of silos, in the same way I’d draw a Blue-faced Honeyeater again and again, trying to find the shape, the line, that means the light that I see.

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Not all of these show up in Flyaway. I went on this trip as part of the editing process, confirming my memories and tightening what I’d already written, checking the way the light shifted over a day, what it did on the road. What the road did. Recording bits of other places, for other stories. Memories. Small wonders.

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Beautiful horrors.

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Sketch as sketch can

I’ve mentioned that I like sketching people (and sketching helps me like people): The Madding Crowd.

Since many of my preferred methods of relaxing (cinemas, cafes, people) are somewhat curtailed at the moment, I’m working out alternative approaches.

But for now — taking the opportunities where I find them.

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On notebooks: Questions and declarations

My notebooks are full of little questions I rarely go back to — and if I do, it always seems such an effort to worm my way back into the original excitement of the idea in order to answer them. I could just be drawing something new.

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I’m learning, gradually, to phrase the questions as answers, even if only tentative ones.  To catch ideas as a sketch or the most fragile of outlines. To just paint the thing and see if, as usual, that solves the conundrum.

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It’s a small way of staying in motion.

Cats

Cats are great fun as decorative elements, but often difficult to catch on paper.

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Saffy, a descended ceiling-cat

When I visit friends with cats, I spend a lot of time chasing their cats around trying to draw them.

This is further complicated by cats who gradually vanish between the sofa cushions while they are being sketched.

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From Cassandra Clare’s December 2019 newsletter

It’s fun to glance back occasionally and see them over time — both changes in the cats and in my pursuit of an explanation of how Scottish Folds work.

Here’s Reginald (and Maggie) in 2017.

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And some bonus lions from the Melbourne Zoo the same year (“lion-coloured” is one of my favourite colour descriptions):

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The Madding Crowd

Sketching makes me like people more.

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I liked these people anyway

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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Sketch notes

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Sketching through a manuscript last night.

I don’t have a good mental template for goats.

Pigs are also tricky. Their legs are so stiff. I need to spend more time sitting on a fence drawing them.

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One of the many  excellent reasons to sketch from life is that your mind and hand start to learn the basic lines that make up an animal or person or a movement — the top picture suggest I’ve spent more time drawing people interacting with clothes than drawing goats at all — and what makes a shadow mean things, and where the drama is in tiny far-off airport workers.

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I love sketching people in hi-vis.

It’s the same with writing. Taking notes out and about is a good way to get an appreciation of the range of habits and rhythms of interactions, and Angela Slatter has occasionally given me homework in the form of sitting under a tree for an hour and describing the leaves without using the word “green” (but more vehemently).

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I don’t have a picture of the tree-description page, but here are some rainy-day notes.

Even if I never go back to refer to these, even if I’m inventing worlds, the act of noticing gets the world into your fingertips, in all its textures and varieties, and it’s there when you need it.

Of course, it doesn’t just give a template. Sketching reminds me when to deviate from a template. Those are the details and textures that bring a picture or a world to life.

How do people actually interact with plinths?

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And it’s suprising how often the person holding out their arms and twirling in a cafe is not, as might be the obvious conclusion, a little girl, but a man demonstrating the move to his daughter, who is holding a stuffed tiger and regarding him with doubt.

 

The Ministry of Silly Walks

 

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Still a bit wobbly at this point, but look ma, no walking stick!

Some thoughts about walking:

 

  • I’ve just subscribed to Rob Walker’s Art of Noticing newsletter, which today recommended Elastic City‘s book Prompts for Participatory Walks. Since it sounded relevant for several projects, I ordered a copy and unduly complicated the procedure, leading to an exchange of emails in which I was at least able to clarify for the pleased but startled Elastic City the probable reason for a sudden surge in orders.
  • Years ago I was sketching in San Francisco and a man stopped to chat and ended up taking me on a short walking tour of various Painted Ladies and other significant buildings. He usually specialised in tours of the San Francisco watershed (ThinkWalks). And Katharine and Matt and I loudly discussed spurious histories in the hopes of misleading other tourists.
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2012?!

  • The Elastic City project reminds me in turn of Joël Henry‘s collaboration with Lonely Planet, the charming The Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel. I enjoyed this for the stories it suggested as much as the ideas: I wanted to read about people finding each other in unlikely ways, or someone earnestly sightseeing through Melbourne on a penny-farthing. The book seems to be out of print, although there are some ideas on the Latourex site and the Lonely Planet travel blog: 7 ways to experiment with travel.
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Teenage magpie hiding under a beehive, in the rain

  • I’m also reading a book Terri Windling recommended to me, Lauren Elkin’s Flâneuse: Women Walk the City She lent it to me in Dartmoor, when I was going out (being taken out) walking on the moors or through fields nearly every day, and it was both affirming (I adore Dartmoor and love walking there, but so many books about Walking™ are about the wild, and I also quite like cities) and set up a bit of cognitive dissonance (being very much not in a city at the time).
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It’s always “caterpillar grass” to me

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He gave up. There’s still just an alley of mown grass through the middle of this backyard forest.

  • I’ve been thinking about this because I’m just getting back to walking regularly after being laid-up. My doctor wants me to go swimming but I’m staunchly resisting, even if it means walking in rainstorms and crouching down to watch earthworms, and trailing home wringing wet.
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No-one else was using the swing.

  • I’ve been keeping an observation journal for a project, and while I’ve been walking the same suburban circuit, it really is marvellous how many new things there are to notice each day. How quickly the teenage magpies grow up (they’re twitchy New Adults now, unsupervised, and look like they put their whites through the laundry with their dark clothes). What the spiders are doing. How the tiny soccer players follow their teenage coach like ducklings and gather around to take off his hat and play with his hair when he kneels down to talk to them. How some thoughts and memories get stored on a walk, and I only rediscover them when I revisit that ibis-tree, those bent reeds with their cross-hatched ripples. I don’t take a phone or notebook with me, but I list the things I remember when I get home.
  • And the students are returning to campus, which means all sorts of interactions to see and overhear while strolling through the Great Court, people stalking corellas with their phones, societies recruiting on Market Day…
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Obviously I had my sketchbook with me at this point.

  • I like ambling, not bounding up mountains. I like games without scoring. I like walking without having to take a survival kit. I like pocket-sized adventures.

 

Tiny Birds

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Some tiny birds from the margins and interstices of my notebook/journal. I quite like the faint shadow on the owl (top right).

They aren’t illustrative of anything in particular except, perhaps, horror vacui (what else are dragons for?).

The brown birds were, however, suggested by some sketches I did in the Qld Museum on Saturday, while I watched children being towed away from fascinated contemplation of fossils to look at snakes, and being blindsided by the actual height of a bush stone curlew.

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Materials:

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