Silhouettes, or: Outline View

Occasionally when I talk about silhouettes, I don’t mean silhouettes-as-finished-art but silhouettes-as-part-of-the-process. See, for example Art Checklist (and writing) and the activities in Party Portrait.

Liking silhouettes as I do, I enjoy hiding line and colour layers occasionally, just to see what’s underneath them. But it’s also a useful way to assess the clarity of a design. Most of these unicorns (from this month’s calendar) are fairly self-explanatory, for example. But the one scratching itself needs a little more effort/horse experience to parse: not itself a bad thing, sometimes a silhouette can function as a gestural sketch, and compact designs are appealing.


Just seeing them in silhouette can also help show up anatomical or perspective vagaries — not always a problem, depending on style, but it’s nice if they’re deliberate (or at least plausibly deniable).

They’re also useful for assessing whether a certain mood is conveyed (this is from March’s Giants).


They’re also useful for assessing whether I’m happy with how the space is filled — whether it needs more variation, or pollen-dots to fill in vacuums (this one is from October’s “Cold Hands“).


I’ve been marking essays and commenting on scene cards, for uni, so I suppose the writing application for all this is — as for illustration — really an editing one. The effect can be replicated by writing an outline after the draft is finished, in order to see the clean shape or if any rowdy elements need to be pulled into line.

Sketches and notes: their purpose


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).



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.


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.

The Key to All Mythologies (or: cultivating spurious links)

A common thread between a lot of my favourite ways of collecting and getting and stress-testing ideas is, well, looking for common threads. Finding a strand in the tapestry of stories I like, or want to tell, or know relatively well, and pulling it to see what comes with it.


The scratchboard underpinnings of Scarlet

You can use the results to construct a theory (however spurious: quite useful for coming up with ideas for academic proposals and short stories), a conspiracy (also useful for plotting, per Tim Powers), a subplot, a thematic patterning, a deeper resonance to a simple image. It’s an excellent way to shuffle through your mental library for fun and profit, and to try out connections. And if you enjoy reasoning and arguing, or want to get better at them, it’s good practice.

Plus, it’s fun, and an excellent way to vary many games if you’re more into parlour games than more formal board/card games.


  • Game variations: Draw a card from Dixit, or three from Once Upon a Time, or one from Machine of Death, or a line from Masquerade, and see how many stories you can think of that (you can argue) they describe. You can get metaphorical/esoteric, as long as you’re prepared to back up your claims.
  • Writing/illustration: Think of a favourite story, and then choose a favourite/key element from it (for example, if you choose Cinderella it might be clocks, or glass, or lizards). Then start a list of other stories you know fairly well that also rely heavily on that element (Apollo 13? Snow White? Jurassic Park?). Try to get to ten.
    – Then step back and think about hidden connections that might exist — is there a trade in enchanted glass objects?
    – Maybe there are strong enough echoes that you could blend stories (could Cinderella be written to be about an astronaut?).
    – Or there might be textures and themes you could drag from one story into another (what if, when illustrating Cinderella, you make the enchanted lizards terrifying? or if, when riffing on stories about velociraptors, you make them beautiful?).
  • Or choose an object close to hand, and do the same.


(Also up now as a print on Redbubble)

Sketching with words

The post on Illustrating Flyaway, over at, 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.


(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.


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.


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.


Beautiful horrors.

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