Observation Journal — Five Things to Steal, cosy crime edition

The observation journal, here, shows traces of comfort viewing in my house. In particularly, my housemate and I got deep into Shakespeare & Hathaway: Private Investigators and Rosemary & Thyme, two series I’m fond of for very similar reasons: They have a light touch with the ridiculous, but a keen awareness of it; they have vigorous interpersonal relationships without romantic tension, and they are about people actively going into business partnerships and dealing with the consequences (which more often involve mysterious murders than tax returns).

Given that similarity, I’m surprised by how little overlap there is in the things I admired in each show — although taken together, they are a list of elements I’d love to try and include in a hypothetical cosy crime show.

(Related: previous Five Things to Steal posts and an explanation of what it means, drawn from Austen Kleon’s Steal Like An Artist.)

Shakespeare & Hathaway

Double page spread of observation journal. On the right, five things seen, heard, and done, and a picture of a fly. On the right, a densely handwritten list of "5 things to Steal from Shakespeare & Hathaway"
Left: Cashew pesto and ominous clunking, and a picture of a fly
  • Strong visual associations for each character — Frank’s untidiness and Luella’s Barbie-pinks (and Sebastian’s magnificence). There’s a note that says “vivid, characterful, delightful”. At the time, the offices of Shakespeare & Hathaway reminded me of the Boffins’ sitting room in Dickens Our Mutual Friend, but the technique also has a lot in common with the clear colour-coding of families in Bridgerton. It’s highly stylised, but for that reason it can be attractive and charming, and it’s an effective shorthand.
    • *An art/writing exercise: See end of post.
  • Vigorous platonic found family — neither particularly functional nor dysfunctional, but comfortable and not putting up a facade
  • Unfashionableness of characters (which ties into the strong visual simplification). Frank and Luella and Sebastian are in their own ways odd, either from not caring, or from intense caring, or from pursuing a non-standard approach to fashion. It adds the sense of openness between the characters, too.
  • Ongoing fiction that no-one in the area recognises or notices Luella’s very distinctive car. It’s just a faint ridiculousness that everyone goes along with, and adds to the sense of a little intense world. It’s not magic, but it’s heightens the sense of fiction.
  • Low-key superpowers — each character is slightly better than average at something which you might be justified in not expecting (if only based on what’s common on tv). Luella is not presented visually as the sort of character who is good with numbers and memory, but she is; Frank outpaces suspects regularly; Sebastian is very flamboyant for someone whose disguises are so thoroughly believed. Among the characters themselves, it is never a big deal — it’s just them. It adds a sense of kindness and possibility that I think might be lost if it was acknowledged.

All of this tied into a few patterns of things I’d been enjoying recently:

  • surfaces (honouring and using them)
  • vividness and colour
  • playing things straight and very low-key
  • people who are good at their jobs

Rosemary & Thyme

(I do like this blue — these borders have previously appeared in Framing Devices and Stories in the Ornament)

Double page spread of observation journal. On the right, five things seen, heard, and done, and a picture of a pigeon near a cafe table. On the right, a densely handwritten list of "5 things to Steal from Rosemary & Thyme"
Left: Breeze and sun and a man warbling like a bird and carrying a skateboard. Also a drawing of a pigeon.
  • A job which is an excellent reason to be in other people’s worlds and lives, which is useful for an episodic mystery. I was thinking of this because of having a lot of tradies in the roof and under the house at this time last year, although I’ve also connected it to Lord of the Rings, Gilmore Girls and abrupt intense proximities.
  • Early easy friendship –> going into business, and the structure this gives not only to character and relationship arcs, but also to plot possibilities and parameters. It’s something I like about Kiki’s Delivery Service, too.
  • Two Bad Mice as a character/relationship template. There’s a sense of glee and amusement, significant glances and body language that only they can read, mischief and trying to tiptoe out of trouble. It’s also a template that adds a lovely over-the-top-ness to bits where characters are in the background.
    • *An art/writing exercise: See end of post.
  • The freedom of having characters ‘of a certain age‘. They have a degree of freedom (hard-won) to simply be, not to have to be discovering themselves or transitioning between life stages, or bounded by obligations, but with the confidence and freedom to be flirtatious, etc. It’s just kind of nice.
  • The appeal of the settings. Beautiful buildings, ridiculous privilege, excessively sweet villages, acres of gardens (all moderated, of course, by crime). This felt connected to the power of an aesthetic in stories — settings that are compelling enough to do half the work of dragging the viewer (or reader) in and keeping them there. “A want to be there and a place to be drawn into.” (In part, this is a good reason to keep checking that I’m writing things I like).

Writing/art exercises

  • Surroundings: In a written or drawn sketch, show a character’s personality only through their surroundings. Then try showing the effect of that character’s presence on another person’s setting.
  • Dynamics: Pick a scene in your story or genre that might have background characters (the Proximities post talked about this, too). E.g., the christening in “Sleeping Beauty”, the bystanders at the airport during the climax of a rom-com… Think of a famous couple (not necessarily romantic —Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner work). Give two of the background characters that relationship dynamic. Do a quick sketch (drawn or paragraph) of the scene, and see how it changes.

Note: If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a Patreon account (patreon.com/tanaudel) and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and I get through quite a bit of coffee).

Observation Journal — Food as Magic and other quibbles

In this observation journal spread, I was working out some recent feelings about food as magic (vs food in magic).

Two pages of observation journal, densely hand-written. On the left, five things seen, heard, and done, and a picture of me reading on the couch. On the right, a chart of thoughts about food.
Made a new multi-ribbon bookmark for the journals

Food thoughts

I can’t remember specifically why, but magical food had been bothering me. I must have read a rash of enchanted-food stories around about then. Some of which were great! if you wrote one of them I would probably loved it! But there were some patterns which didn’t appeal to me personally.

For some reason, while I love food in stories about magic, I’m extremely picky about food-as-magic, food-magic, literalisation of Proust, etc. It’s weirdly personal and unhygienic, and intimate, and extremely decadent, and in a romance it competes with other elements with the same issues.

Also it makes me feel inadequate and afraid for cakes. I’m still stressed about that episode of Tremontaine, in which food was not magic (good!) but was elaborately-constructed and in peril (I can’t handle it! I can’t watch cake decorating shows where they have to deliver the cake!).

But I do like food IN fantasy, and books generally — good plain food and comically bad food and food as simple decadence and food as care and competence, and food fights, and knowing the cake will survive to be eaten. (I can even forgive cake destruction if it’s early and an inciting incident and heavily flagged). “Lots of food and lots of fighting” as someone (Norman Lindsay? the internet is not helping) said of children’s books.

One of the funnier things to me, looking back through this, is the clear formative fingerprints of various stories. Good plain food is certainly a reference to Narnia and other post-WWII children’s books (although in that regard can I draw your attention to the existence of this Anthony-Bourdain-in-Narnia fan fiction?) — and indeed earlier books, with bland nursery food and the Bastables stabbing a pudding to death with their forks. “Why am I so annoyed by men who make omelettes?” is traced back to Sabrina (the 1995 movie). And lovely as Chocolat is, the food fight in Hook for some reason filled the spot in my heart the subtly-magical chocolate might have taken. (Inconsistently, I am quite okay with magic food in Alice in Wonderland and The Magic Faraway Tree but I suspect that’s because the food isn’t any weirder than anything else that’s going on).

Almost-immediate edit: I am now thinking of all the magical food I do like. I think there’s some similarity to how I feel about historical settings and very-near-future astronaut stories, which is that the non-magical version is already so interesting that my tastes incline towards it, unless the context or writing is doing the work to pull me away. Maybe.

Observation journal thoughts

This is one of those journal pages looking for patterns in things that had been interesting or bothering me. I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for here, so it’s a very loose collection of thoughts. You can see me finding the boundaries of my likes and objections as I work through them — noting a dislike of a certain type of decadence, and then realising I liked other ways of showing decadence, which started up a list of things I do like.

However, recently, I’ve started reading a few books that I ought to like, but which manage to land just outside what I do like. So I’ve been more deliberately feeling for the boundaries of tropes and motifs in this way, and trying to find out if there’s any common features to that dividing line.

It’s an interesting exercise. It’s useful to know what I like, so that I can steer towards it, and I enjoy refining those definitions. But finding out what I don’t like is useful too — not just for avoiding it, but for the challenge of working out how I could (for example) write food as magic in other ways, and trick myself into liking it.

Trying to write on the sofa with a bad back.

Writing/Art exercise

  1. Think of your favourite genre, and five things you love in it (tropes or images or motifs or poses — written or drawn). Maybe it’s magical food and books about writers with writers block, and enchanted portals that get closed forever, and the erosion of once-beautiful buildings, and the inner lives of serial killers — you do you.
  2. Pick one of those. What are some versions you have seen and love? What are the important aspects? Are there any patterns to what you like about it?
  3. Are there examples of it that haven’t worked for you, or can you imagine an example that wouldn’t work for you?
    – For example, I like food in fantasy, and I like books about hilariously horrible writers, and magical portals, and beautiful buildings, and crimes being solved — but it takes a lot to make me like the versions listed in paragraph 1 above!
    – For artists: Later in the journal I try this with images, too. It’s a little easy to mock women on cliffs wearing shawls and staring into the distance, but if they can see something approaching, or there’s a sense of urgency, like she’s just run up the cliff, or she’s doing more than just clutching her shawl mournfully, I will happily plunge back into that particular angst.
  4. Just feeling out the edges of things you like can be useful. But if you want to go further, pick one of those versions you don’t like, and see if you could push it further, and how far you would have to go to make it charm you again.
    – For example, I like flamboyant over-the-top caricatures of writers. I tend not to like books about writers with writers block. I might like a book about a writer with writers block, looking for their muse, if they were only pretending to be a blocked writer and were just trying to infiltrate a literary festival in order to commit dreadful crimes. Or even better, if they were actually an undercover detective infiltrating bohemian society in order to thwart a murderer!
    – And while I now quite want to read or write this, I’ve also learned (or emphasised) that I like characters being consciously and flamboyantly unlikeable for Reasons, and ridiculous secrets, and exposes of literary foibles, and unlikely Rube-Goldberg detective plots, if the characters are sufficiently outrageous.
  5. Do a quick paragraph or pencil sketch, to catch the idea, and so that, if necessary, you can say you did write or draw something today.

Note: If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a patreon account (patreon.com/tanaudel) and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and I get through quite a bit of coffee).

Observation Journal — Unlikely Abrupt Intense Proximities

I’d been using the observation journal to think through the patterns in all the Regency reading I’d been doing in early 2020 (see the previous post on Ridiculous (but charming!) situations).

Over the following weeks I pursued it further — first, simply making a quick list of things I personally did and did not like, and then having far too much fun listing Unlikely Abrupt Intense Proximities.

1. Likes and dislikes

Two-page spread from observation journal. Five things seen, heard and done, with a picture of someone walking; A list of likes and dislikes.
Crows really do fly like hand shadows

Some of these are quite picky, and many are indefensible.

  • A set way of writing love scenes vs a bit of variety and personality. (But I prefer fade-to-black.)
  • Implausible/unexplained perfumes vs scents that reflect the character’s life and something of their character.
  • Silliness and slapstick vs characters who are very earnest and unaware of the ludicrousness of their situations.
  • Satin and ruffles vs muslin and gauze.
  • Unconvincing stock characters vs absolute commitment to a stock character.
  • Unnecessary angst in the face of obvious love vs love followed by complications vs late epiphanies but without angst.

And of course, all the versions I don’t like can work for me if they’re doing it with absolute defiance and/or doing two things at once.

There’s also a note there, semi-related, from when I ran into Lou on a walk that day and we discussed bathroom breaks in books and where, for example, (as in Diana Wynne Jones) they can highlight relative wealth, etc.

As with the unsubstantiated manifesto, I like making lists of opinions without having to justify them. It’s fun, but it’s also a good way of finding things to play with, either in the observation journal or to see what I can do with them in a picture or a story (how would I describe satin in a way that doesn’t offend my sensibilities?). It’s also interesting to see where my limits are on tropes I broadly like (e.g. descriptions of clothes) — this topic comes up again later in the journals.

2. Unlikely Abrupt Intense Proximities

Two-page spread from observation journal. Five things seen, heard and done, and a photo of a camera tripod setup, and a list of unlikely abrupt intense proximities
The Home Ice Cream Van gave form to our days

Back in the Ridiculous (but charming!) situations post, I realised all the situations I listed shared “a degree of unlikelihood combined with abrupt intense proximity”. So on this page I just made a list of some of my favourite abrupt intense proximities from romances and rom-coms. Occasionally these are a meet-cute, occasionally they’re a whole subgenre — and they’re not exclusive to romance, of course. Most also work for buddy and odd-couple drama/comedies and for horror stories.

  • Trapped by a storm
  • Locked in a cupboard
  • One bed 
  • Everyone thinks we’re [whatever]
  • Blackmail you to help me
  • Responsible for your safety
  • Joint responsibility for someone else
  • Unwilling guest/host
  • Parties to an arrangement
  • Civility does not permit me to depart
  • You have foisted yourself onto me and now I am not sure how to get rid of you
  • Injury compels me to stay here
  • It is efficient to pursue our parallel interests together
  • Hired to provide a professional service
  • Arrangement of convenience
  • Sibling/ward/friend’s friend
  • Mistaken identities
  • Mistaken personalities
  • Vehicular accident/transport issues
  • Task to complete together
  • Only doing this as a favour for someone else

After that I played around with a few elements, to see what happened to them as they turned into a story. I flipped expectations (see The Caudwell Manoeuvre), ending up with a rough uncivilised Beauty and an elegant, modest Beast, and tried picking an aesthetic or a setting, e.g. a bed and breakfast, or folk horror (why not both?). I’d already been playing with those approaches, of course, but adding a situation kicked the process forward a few steps.

Art/writing exercise

  1. Think of a classic type of situation in your favourite genre (the discovery of the body? the re-emergence of the monster? the race to the airport?) and make a list of some versions of that situation you’ve seen. (Or use the list above).
  2. Then make a list of settings — genre-feasible or not, as you prefer!
  3. Pick one of each at random and sketch (words or pictures) how that situation would work. How would a “chase to the airport” scene work (or what would perform the same function) if you were setting the story on a steamboat? How would the “discovery of the body” work in a bridal fabric store?
  4. See what you learn about what makes those types of situations work for you, and/or about the setting.
  5. Variations: Try it in different genres, or pick the standard characters involved in the situation and flip their descriptions (an aloof, intelligent witness and and an emotionally-overwrought detective?).

Note: If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a patreon account (patreon.com/tanaudel) and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and I get through quite a bit of coffee).

Observation Journal — Stories into spaces

On these consecutive pages of the observation journal, I was playing with stories and shapes — how a container not only calls a story into existence (see Narrative Theory #1) but how a story changes to fit the container.

On the first day, I played with an existing story, Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tale of “The Wild Swans“. I treated it more as an idea, subject to change, rather than a rigid existing story. (It would be fun to try this process again as a way of representing/analysing an existing story, though.)

Page with tiny pen scribbles filling groups of 4, 3 and 5 boxes, with various images of nettle-spinning and bird transformation, and notes about e.g. "After the nettles & briars, The thorns & the pyre, Could you feel kindness when you met it again, Or did you cease to sit & spin", all in very tiny and largely illegible handwriting

I drew up some three, four, and five panel arrangements. At the time I wasn’t thinking in terms of comics panels — they were just dividing the story up into Big Moments. I dropped the story into them (by sketching it).

Tiny pen scribbles of person putting on clothes and turning into berd with words "At last she finished the garment, pulled it on, & — becoming a swan — flew away."

All the time I watched what happened, and which bits of the story took over (transformation, the scarcities of kindness), and how the story changed itself.

Tiny pen scribbles of people talking to birds, transforming, being married.

This was a way of shaping this story, rather than analysing story shapes generally (although I did that later elsewhere, running several stories through the same shape).

The next day I tried the same exercise, but on an idea drawn from elements of an observation journal page (page 198, which you can see in a previous post) — something to do with the ghosts of animals, a much more nebulous concept than the Hans Christian Andersen story above.

Page with groups of 4, 3, and 6 boxes, with little scribbled drawings in them.

And again, the different numbers of panels created a different shape for the story to fill, pulling the ideas away from each other.

Tiny pen scribbles of a person who sees a ghost cat, glimpses it in their bedroom, and falls asleep with it curled up on the end of their bed.
Here is someone followed home by a ghost cat.

Art/writing exercise

  • Take a story idea (or a loose concept, or an existing story).
  • Draw up a series of boxes in groups of two, three, four, five (or one, for a challenge or a very tiny story).
  • For each group of boxes, consider how you could fit that story into just those boxes. Which key scenes or moments could best sum up that story? Sketch or briefly write each scene into the corresponding box. Then try a different arrangement, or a different approach, or think of the worst scenes to sum up the story and find out what happens if you only keep those.
  • Make a note of how the story changes. Which visuals take over, which themes seem to survive the winnowing? Which new ideas emerge? Does it change the original concept or your understanding of the story? Which groupings seem too thin, too complex, just right for the story or for the way you think?

Observation Journal — do it for the aesthetic #3

This page of the observation journal is an further follow-up to the previous two pages playing the impact of an aesthetic on a story idea ( Observation Journal: Do it for the aesthetic and Do it for the aesthetic #2).

Double page spread with purple borders. Small handwriting. On the left, five things seen, heard and done, and a picture (of a mailbox). On the right, the aesthetic exercise described in the post.

Left page: Frying ham, apparently, which seems out of character. Also the eternal feeling of futility that arises when there is so much to do other than making things (to be fair, it was April 2020, but of course Brisbane is going into another short sharp lockdown today).

On the right page, I was (literally) mixing things up a bit. First I made a table with four columns

  1. AESTHETIC — I created these by choosing three elements at random from the observation pages (the left side pages).
  2. GENRE (some favourites)
  3. MOOD (the first ones that sprang to mind)
  4. CHARACTER (again, chosen from the observation pages — they are very useful for these sorts of exercises!)

The game was then to choose one at random from each column, and work out how it could be made to work, and notice how each element pulled against the story. Some examples: “high fantasy in a brooding suburban utopia” starring “walking girls”; “an elegiac junior sound & fury” featuring a radio announcer; and “a mystical Gothic of wildlife and, incidentally, murder” about an officious clerk.

Things I learned:

  • This was quite fun, as with all recombining. At the time, I was beginning to feel tense about not actually making anything with some of ideas. However as I revisit them, especially in light of other journal activities, I find there are many sparks of interest and possibility there, and a couple of ideas I want to pursue. And of course, just having fun is nice, too.
  • But as I review these pages I’ve also noticed some of these elements have got — indirectly — into other projects (a few of the crime/gothic aesthetic bits of this are definitely in something I’m working on at the moment. And the lessons of this page — the vigour of some of these elements, and the degree to which I have to wrestle a story to an aesthetic — are also ones I’ve been consciously using on a current comic project (of which more in the fulness of time).
Right-hand page of observation journal with very small handwritten version of table described in this post.

Art/writing exercise: (This is really quite short! You can just read the bold bits. Everything else is elaboration and alternatives).

  1. Make your table, with a column each for Aesthetic, Genre, Mood, Character. Try to put at least 10 entries in each column, if you’re going to use it a few times. Below are some notes on ways to fill each column:
    1. Inventing aesthetics:
      1. If you want to do it exactly the same way, start by making a list of 5 things you’ve seen, heard, and done today. Choose three things at random from that and use them to create an aesthetic. E.g., from last Friday I could choose “Red striped umbrella by work ute”, “wide low small planes” and “Zoomed into confirmation meeting” which might give me “moiré-print airline graphic design”, which I swear is a thing (stripes + video = moiré; moiré + planes = flashbacks to airline blanket patterns).
      2. An alternative way: Look around you and pick random things around you — I can see a judgemental porcelain figurine, a waterbottle and a crime novel, which gives me, let’s see… Tudor riverside Gothic. (Or if you don’t want to do the full word-association process, just hyphenate two things in your field of vision, e.g. folk-art robotics). You can be ridiculous here — a great many things have the potential to be a vivid aesthetic. (Folk-art robotics! Outsider-art AI!)
    2. List genres. Pick ones that you find interesting or likeable, and maybe the opposites of some of those. Or search online. If you only work in one genre, that’s cool — consider these all hyphenated subgenres of that one.
    3. List moods, as above.
    4. List characters. These are really just types, or people-who-do-x.
      1. You can find or invent them from a list of observations — last Friday, for example, gives me “Middle-aged man on scooter with go-pro on helmet”.
      2. Or you can mix and match in the same way as for the aesthetic: “carbon paper” + “once you’re there, you’re locked in” give me a greyed-out office worker, while feathers without a bird and people pulling faces after an uncomfortable experience give me enchanted swan-girls who do NOT enjoy the transformation experience.
      3. Alternatively, you can list the great stock characters of your favourite genres (miserly uncle; brave governess; dashing cavalry officer, etc).
  2. Pick one at random from each column and make a sketch (drawn or written) of a key scene from this hypothetical story.
    1. If you’re stuck for a key scene, it’s okay to rely on cliches.
      1. Ask yourself what sorts of scenes does that genre almost always have (or get ridiculed for having?). Is it the equivalent of a chase-to-the-airport scene in a rom-com, or a “Fools! I’ll show them all!” from a pulpy science fiction novel, or even a bored-in-the-car opening sequence from the start of a YA fantasy? Take that, and apply mood, character, and aesthetic.
      2. Or do the same with a character (judgemental barista? elusive bird-girl?) or mood (does “elegaic” suggest someone standing on a balcony staring sadly into the rain? does philosophical suggest someone smoking a pipe?) and go from there.
  3. Notice what is happening as you try to make the elements work together:
    1. Can you make the elements work together? Why or not? What gives? What — for you — exercises the strongest pull on a story? (It’s the aesthetic, for me, followed by the genre.)
    2. If you do this a few times, what patterns emerge?
    1. Try swapping out just one element. What shifts?
    2. If any of the stories spark into a bigger idea, can you identify what made that spark?
    3. Which individual elements do you like (or loathe!), and want to use (or avoid) in future?

Note: If you’d like to support art and writing and posts like this about it, I have a patreon account (patreon.com/tanaudel) and patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and I get through quite a bit of coffee).

Sketchbook colours: blue and gold

Three Pitt Pens

When I’m sketching, I work in a Moleskine pocket notebook, and use mostly Faber Castell PITT artist pens — often quite vigorously. However, these are three of my current favourite sketching pens (for more on favourite colours, see Loving the tools):

  • Small Black Fineliner 199
  • Sky Blue brush tip 146
  • Green Gold brush tip 268 (note — it’s not metallic, but more of an old mustard colour)

The first time I really started using them as a set was at the Natural History Museum in Oxford — and mostly because it was a very blue-and-gold place.

sketches of architecture and skeletons at the Museum of Natural History, Oxford
Museum of Natural History, Oxford

At this point I was mostly using the two colours to identify the blue and yellow of what I was looking at, as well as using the blue for some shadows.

I’d already been using blue for shading, sometimes — especially when I didn’t have the time to record more detailed colours. It’s more vivid than a grey shadow — I like how it lifts the picture off the page as a little object, instead of making the figures sink into it. (By “shading” I mean both adding actual shadows, and indicating darker colours.) And while the blue is cool, it doesn’t look cold on the warm cream of the Moleskine pages.

Sketches of people in medieval and hobbit costumes
Costumes at the Arthurian Festival at Château de Comper

I began using the mustard yellow to do the same. It had a much warmer effect than the blue, but I liked its old-school monochrome effect. And neither of them seemed to say This Is What The Scene Is About in the way some other colours, such as green, do.

Sketches of people sketching in Boston MFA, and in transit at Penn Station
Boston Museum of Fine Arts and Amtrak Penn Station

But since I liked both the blue and the yellow for this purpose, I kept using them together.

Sketches of people browsing in Book Moon Books
Book Moon Books, Easthampton Massachusetts

In these sketches (above) at Book Moon Books, I used the blue for the figures — for shadow and cold and to make them stand out, and because their backs were mostly to me — and yellow for the books and store, for the warmth and light. I really like how the use of the two colours distinguishes the figures from the background (which doesn’t really happen with the white dress in the grey sketch at Château de Comper, earlier).

By the time I got to Avid Reader for Love Your Bookshop Day last year (context: Queensland, Australia, where that was safe and legal!), you can see the use has shifted again. You can also see that I bought new pens which hadn’t begun drying and darkening.

A sketch of people browsing in Avid Reader
Avid Reader, Brisbane

In the Avid Reader drawings, I’m using both colours on each figure, instead of using them to separate elements. I suspect this was in part because it was daylight, and warm weather — there’s a breezier feeling to these than the Book Moon sketches! But I was also using the two colours to quickly note the direction of light and where shadows fell, as well as to distinguish some areas of different colour, even if they weren’t exactly these colours.

Recently, I’ve been sketching some workshops at the University of Queensland (I’ll post more of these soon — but the art is already up for patrons on patreon.com/tanaudel). Going back over those pages, I realised how many things the colours were doing.

A sketch of four people at a table talking
University of Queensland — Defence Innovation Bridge

Even just in the scene above, you can see where I’ve used the colours to show shadow, the direction of light, the colour of the background, to separate figures from each other and the table, and to keep the events in the speech bubbles at a remove by only using blue in them. And in the image below, I’ve also used the yellow over the blue to hint at a khaki uniform.

A sketch of an army officer talking about a bulldozer

So! Here are a few benefits/uses of very limited colours, especially for fast sketching:

  • Speed
  • Portability
  • Shadow (and shape and direction of light)
  • Warmth and cold
  • Tone and more colours than you’d think
  • Separating elements
  • Separating styles
  • Pulling a sketch together
  • Anchoring a drawing to or lifting it from the page
  • Very quickly communicating the most important details
  • Unifying a group of drawings/creating a consistent style for a project
  • Echoing particular printing styles (I love, for example, what Evaline Ness could do with two colours.)

Writing/Illustration activity

  1. Choose two colours you like. It doesn’t have to be blue and yellow. Blue and red is another popular choice, and an image search of Risograph prints will give you some ideas of what can be done with a limited palette. Or pull out two coloured pencils at random.
  2. Do a few small monochrome sketches (in words or pictures!). If stuck for ideas, perhaps do 20-second sketches (e.g. this very fast Ramon Casas study) or one-minute written descriptions of some famous paintings. Work in black line or pencil or, if writing, in bare-bones description with no colour.
  3. Now, rework each sketch by adding hints of those two colours (coloured pencil, watercolour, markers, digital colour, words…). Here are a few approaches you could try:
    1. Show the direction of light and shadow, or where the highlights are (Dorothy Dunnett does this fabulously in some of her novels, and John Dickson Carr creates lurid effects with green and red in The Waxworks Murder).
    2. To pick out as much of the original colour as you can.
    3. To distinguish between a figure and the background.
    4. To show warm and cold areas.
  4. Bonus round: Change the colours and see what happens.

Note: This post began as a post for supporters on Patreon — if you’d like to support art and posts about it, patrons there get behind-the-scenes process and sneak-peeks, starting from US$1, or you could buy me a (virtual) coffee at ko-fi.com/tanaudel (and I get through quite a bit of coffee).

Observation Journal: Do it for the aesthetic

On this page of the observation journal, I was playing more with the question of whether (and how far) an aesthetic (in the pop-culture sense of a distinct style/mood/mode) can drive a story.

Two densely handwritten pages of the observation journal, with a green watercolour border. On the left page, five things seen, heard, and done, and a drawing of a bottle. On the right, thoughts on stories and aesthetics.

Left page: Butterflies, neighbours, and forgetfulness.

What I was elaborating on:

I’d been using the observation journal to think through why certain ideas appealed to me, and why certain projects seemed to just work, while others dragged. A point that kept emerging was the sense of the heavy lifting a really clear aesthetic or style could do. Here are a few posts about that:

In this post, I wanted to dig in a bit deeper.

The right page of the observation journal, with handwritten thoughts on stories and aesthetics.

The process:

  1. Selecting elements:
    1. I chose three elements from the habits and resistance exercise (e.g. “vivid”, “emphasise less obvious part”, novelise picture”). I was just using these as guides to suggest an idea.
    2. Then I picked an aesthetic. In the first case, it was a brilliantly-coloured feverish Victorian setting (the second one was nautical-piratical). I define aesthetic pretty broadly.
    1. I also picked a literary key — something to tune the idea to. In each case I picked a main or obvious reference (e.g. Dorian Gray) and a secondary reference that was either less obvious or contrasted intriguingly (e.g. a line from Milton, “they also serve who only stand and wait”). I wasn’t trying to be wildly original here — the intention was just to ride along with the aesthetic and see how far that got the idea.
  2. Mixing a plot:
    1. Using those elements for the base idea, I outlined a very rough possible plot. (Note: This is almost always faster with a brand new idea I haven’t committed to yet.) I just outlined a few points:
      1. Main Idea (someone who frames enchanted portraits)
      2. Point of View (flamboyant detective)
      3. Turning Point 1 (detective compromised)
      4. Turning Point 2 (trap sprung by unexpected person)
      5. End (twist)
  3. Identifying possible set-pieces:
    1. Rather than (necessarily) scenes, I made a quick list of visual situations and motifs that caught the right aesthetic. (e.g. poetry salon, gilt and glass and velvet frame shop, hothouse of tropical flowers).
    2. I included a contrasting note — e.g. against the overwrought decadence, one “knife-sharp and bare rooftop” scene.

What I learned

  • This aesthetic framework is a useful way for me to think about stories. It’s also a lens that lets me try out and understand other people’s thoughts about story structure better.
  • The observation journal continues to be a very useful way for me to chip away at little questions and concerns, and find my way into them.
  • As with most mix-and-match games, this was both fun and quite fast, but could have used more space (in fact, I tried it again the next day, with more art — I’ll post that soon).
  • I could feel how the aesthetic picked up the idea and set certain story-gears turning and catching. I’d like to trace more clearly where that happens, but it needed a bigger page.
  • Having that contrasting secondary aesthetic, like a note of a contrasting colour in a painting, was appealing. I wasn’t sure how much it added to the feeling of the story, but it definitely added to the creation of ideas. Setting up the opposition of an overheated drawing room and a cold roof automatically teases out things that could happen to bridge the space between those settings.
  • I think I could use this to start working out a story (as here). But even just doing it as a game now and then has made me a lot more aware of what I am doing with the aesthetics in other projects, and which ones I like, and how to use them to come up with or deepen ideas.
Tiny pen drawings of women in late Victorian evening gowns near a fern, a woman in a travelling outfit by a gladstone bag, an Oscar-Wilde-ish gentleman, and a collection of clocks and broken ornaments.
Some sketches made the following day

Activity/exercise

  • Make a list of aesthetics you like, or hate, or have seen recently, or found in a list online, or can invent by hyphenating two things in your field of vision — Regency Romance, Nordic noir, 1970s beachside, Horse & Hound, midcentury Elvish (I’ve seen this in a nightclub), a particular Instagram filter…
  • Pick two that are fairly different.
  • Sketch (words or pictures) a quick setting that suits each (a room, a poolside, an arrangement of scenery). You can be obvious, and even cliched, as long as you really commit.
  • Consider the sort of story which might let you move from one set to the other. What moments or characters or actions emerge to fill that space? What happens if or when trailing elements of one aesthetic brush up against the other?

Observation journal — practical application

This page of the observation journal is me playing with some discoveries from previous pages.

A double page from the observation journal. On the left, five things seen/heard/done and a drawing of me walking and talking on my phone. On the right, sketches of repeating patterns.

It’s a follow-up to the last post (Observation journal — paired points). I was again going back to the earlier exercise on points of habit and resistance. It’s interesting tracing these explorations and variations through the journal.

I gave myself the task of inventing a pattern (a fairly common occurrence, given the calendar art). Then I picked at random some of the flipped habits, and applied them to the task — getting close to fairy tales where I could.

Sketches of nine repeating patterns, briefly discussed below.

It was fun to do, but also interesting to see what fell out of the process. They are as follows:

  • Pulling petals off the flower for “whole/fragments”. I like the simplicity with which this one varied the pattern.
  • Doing — I think — aggravated deities for “body language” (I’d been listening to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, and if you like a gif reaction thread, here’s mine). Funny, but energetic.
  • Swapping stereotypes/archetypes (I can’t remember what they all started as, but there’s definitely a man with great boots dressing a cat in fancy clothes — as ever, the Caudwell Manoeuvre is relevant). I like it, but it heads straight into new story territory, which might be more than is needed for a repeating pattern.
  • Choosing a random Wikipedia topic (something about swimming). A classic.
  • Setting it to a song (“My Queen Bee”, having just watched Emma., which previously featured here: Observation Journal — The Emma heist and concert strategies).
  • Asking “whose POV” which somehow became about chairs. But tumbling them around added a lot of interest to a pattern.
  • Introducing a time limit. This is the sort of prompt that obviously does interesting things to a written story (adding a race against time). But it also adds some impetus to a drawing. I’d already covered body language, above, so the idea evolved into a claustrophobia/panic dream of underground station staircases.
  • Novelise (+POV). I… have no idea what this was. It has a bit of Cinderella and My Fair Lady, but that can’t have been the starting point.
  • Trope. Again, I wish I’d written it down! Something about vigorous family games in historical novels.
Close-up of the "swap stereotypes" drawing. It includes what might be a cow in a cloak, a man dressing a cat, a girl in rags touching stars, and a girl in a party dress.
The cow and the ragged girl with the stars are giving me strong Mary Poppins vibes, but I simply don’t remember. There might have been something Little Matchgirl-ish going on, but once you flip a thing it heads off into its own story.

What I noticed about myself from this page was that I still tried to force everything to become a story. Having the “pattern” limitation helped moderate that impulse. Also: drawing is a fabulous way to work through an idea, but written notes are far better at capturing the thought process.

Looking back at it now, I can also see a few lessons about what makes a pattern pleasing to me:

  • It’s nice when the repeating of a pattern makes sense (or at least if the pattern doesn’t make the viewer wonder too much about why these things are here, recurring).
  • Too much energy (narrative or otherwise) can distract from the smooth operation of a pattern (if not handled judiciously). I tend to prefer some vivacity in my pieces if I consider them just as an illustration, but more soothing compositions give a more classic feeling.
  • Simplicity can be pleasing, but it’s not my natural state. See the point above.
  • Different angles on a thing (e.g. chairs) adds depth and variation to a pattern while keeping the selection of objects to a minimum.
  • Patterns are a great place to play with variations on a motif (not news, but confirmation).

Exercise for writers/artists — originally from Points of habit and resistance.

  1. Look back at your work: the sum total of it, or comments you’ve received, or a piece that you’re working on at the moment.
  2. Look for patterns and habits. If you’re looking at one piece, what are some distinctive features? Lyricism? Vigour? Tiny pen marks? Make a list.
  3. Now flip the list. Think of opposite(s) for each item. (Hardboiled prose? Calm? Bold brush strokes?)
  4. Try applying a few of those approaches to your work — a sketch or a paragraph, new or existing (or rework a piece by somebody else, as a way to study it closely).
  5. What do you notice about what you resist, and why? What changes?

Observation Journal — Paired points

On this page of the observation journal, I returned to an earlier idea (points of habit and resistance) to see what else I could tease out of it. Also on that day, my housemate and I started watching Shakespeare & HathawayPrivate Investigators and got extremely into it.

Double-page spread of observation journal. On the left, five things seen, heard, done, and a picture. On the right a handwritten list of "Pairs of things around points to lean on".

One of the strengths of the observation journal has been having a place and structure within which to revisit ideas, turn them over, try them again, vary them, etc.

Earlier, I had made a list of my art and writing habits and then worked out what the flip-side of those would be (Observation Journal — points of habit and resistance). On this page, I was reversing that process. I took some points I wanted to concentrate on in my art, and found their pair. It gave very different results. For example, a habit of drawing plain surfaces might be flipped into a reminder to consider surface texture. But texture as a pair works well with structure.

In this case, though, the pairs weren’t intended as a corrective for their partner. Instead, I wanted a list of things to consider at the same time. For example, a prompt to address both structure and texture, or to offset a sense of revelation with one of mystery. It’s quite valid to only do one. But the possibilities of doing both and playing them off against each other are intriguing, and can add impetus to an idea. (For the prose version of this, see: Observation Journal — The Caudwell Manoeuvre.) It’s also a good way to add contrast and variation to a piece.

A handwritten list of "Pairs of things around points to lean on", with a small sketch of a person and a list of STRUCTURE elements (bones, stitching, hairspray, gesture" and TEXTURE elements (cloth, skin, eyes, colour)

I could also feel how it might feed into character or world design, making me consider both the bone structure and the clothing choices of a person (or clothes structure and skin texture), for example. Or, if drawing (e.g) shelves in a closet, the same pair might prompt me to consider both the carpentry involved (how the shelves were supported, etc) and what pattern of paper might be used to cover them — and suddenly there’s a vivid image of a house and an era and the decisions made by the people in it. (Related: Observation Journal — Surfaces).

It’s an idiosyncratic list, particular to my interests and my own loose interpretations of terms. In addition, not everything has a neat pair — but that just makes the process of making one more interesting.

Art/writing exercise

  • List a few things you like in art/writing, or would like to work on. (E.g. forward motion, deep shadow, Regency aesthetic…)
  • Think of a pair for each term. (There’s no right answer — maybe today Punk feels like the opposite of Regency, maybe they have more similarities than you’d expect and the opposite of Regency is Sesame Street.)
  • Now, pick one pair at random. Apply them to a piece of art/writing you are working on (or do a sketch in art or words of your favourite character). How can you enhance or use both terms in that piece?
Tiny pen drawing of person in exercise wear, holding a phone and a ball-thrower, while a dog chases a ball.
motion vs stillness

Observation Journal — stalling and stopping

This page of the observation journal is about where my work was stalling and why (also Agatha Christie and guitar).

Double-page spread of observation journal. On left page, 5 things seen, heard, done and a picture. On the right, a hand-written table of thoughts on why I wasn't getting work done.

My position in relation to introspection is fairly well advertised. It’s not what I, personally, enjoy using the observation journal for, and too long a course of it will make me stop keeping a journal at all. However, the journal has been very useful for working out ways to muse over things in ways that are practical for me.

In particular, rough tables suit how I think: I can concentrate on just jotting notes, and then look for patterns, and not write myself into a spiralling pit of angst or ennui.

In this case, I was looking at Where I Was Stalling & Why.

A hand-written table of thoughts on why I wasn't getting work done.

This was in April 2020, so I need to say up-front that this list alone did not fix anything. I still am digging my way out of some stalled projects from last year. However, it taught me a lot about what to avoid. It’s also fascinating to revisit now, where I’m setting up for some new large projects.

Here are the columns:

  • Project list (cunningly mis-named to protect those involved)
  • Quick thoughts on why I might be stalling.
    • Just high-level thoughts on what was going wrong (an unpleasant mixture of inertia and panic).
    • It was good doing this on multiple projects. Occasionally a note on one project would make me realise it applied to another. And once it was done, I could look for patterns. The main patterns were:
      • (Loss of) impetus and (loss of) enjoyment
      • Lack of pressure + competing distractions
      • Guilt + stuck-together-in-door
      • Doubt
  • Ways I could fix those situations.
    • The most magical fixes were, boringly yet thrillingly:
      • Accepting there is no one right task (and therefore no ‘wrong’ choice).
      • Picking anything — why not the first thing on the list?
      • Setting a timer for fifteen (or 30) minutes to concentrate on solving just one of the issues (it worked and the project in question is out). This is the only solution that works for me almost 100% of the time. I’m always wildly irritated that it works.
        (There’s a reason Evaline Ness’ Do You Have The Time, Lydia speaks to me.)
  • Ways I could avoid those situations happening again.
    • These turned out to be mostly same reasons projects catch fire in the first place (see: Observation Journal — giving ideas a push):
      • Acting immediately
      • Using (and surfing) the fun of it
      • Setting aside the time
      • Doing the prep work
Pen sketch of person sitting on steps playing guitar
I only practice the guitar during natural disasters

As an aside, I’ve recently found Charlie Gilkey’s Start Finishing useful on aspects of managing multiple projects. It’s the sort of book I suspect is most useful if you’ve already got a robust understanding of how you manage your work, and of how to approach time management books, and can therefore apply/mine it for specific solutions. I found myself resisting the structure/phrasing of the book itself the whole way through, but it’s also been one of the most useful things I’ve read for a while.

Writing/art exercise

  • Think of a project that you are stalled on (or want to start, or don’t have the skills for, or…). The first one that springs to mind, or else pull it out of a hat.
  • Set a timer for 15 (or 30) minutes.
  • Until the timer goes off, you can either work on the project or stare at the project. But you can’t do anything else. (You might have to consider your definition of “work”. I generally exclude planning and research, unless it’s extremely obvious the lack of that is what is stopping me moving forward — which is rarely the case. Related to which, this pamphlet (Turbocharge Your Writing) is one of the most practically useful writing books I’ve ever read.)
  • The few times this doesn’t push either me or the project forward, it later turns out that staring time was what the project actually required. (This is specific to my experience and how I work, but I hope the worst case of this exercise just means you got 15 minutes quiet thinking time).