Travelling to Mexico on the information highway.

It’s funny, as an illustrator, how many places I visit before I create a picture.  And by visit, I mean metaphorically travelling down a fast paced information highway, halting occasionally at random pitstops for a quick look around or perhaps, a longer stay. Throughout my career, I’ve visited many locations, hiking the snowy wastes of Greenland, schlepping through the deserts of the Middle East and wandering the streets of Beijing, all via a screen in my studio. This post is about approaching the internet with an explorer’s curiosity and how it can lead you to creative inspiration.

Back at the end of last year, I was commissioned to create the front cover and contents page of the May/June issue of Cricket Magazine, an illustrated publication for children in the States. The theme was ‘Hummingbirds’ and even for a small project like this, the journey was no different.

I have never seen a hummingbird in real life so I started the project with some rambling research, opening creaking digital doors and exploring little known cyber pathways. As usual, I was sucked down an internet vortex leading me to unfamiliar worlds. There were steamy jungles, brilliant blossoms and tiny hovering birds, far from the familiar wrens and robins of the English garden.
The lime greens of the feathers and the hot pink of the flowers reminded me very much of the colours found in folk embroidery, from Russia in the North to Latin America in the South. I set sail on more random research adventures and landed up on the warm shores of Mexico, home of an incredible textile culture.

Elvira Gomez. Photograph by Thelma Datter.

Mexican folk embroidery has been in existence from pre-hispanic days, developing centuries ago from its roots with the Mesoamerican Otami peoples into the form today known as Tenango. It features the flora and fauna of the region in unreal colours and geometric patterns. Broad flat stitches neatly cover the cloth and larger pieces can take years to complete.

Photograph by Thelma Datter.

Mexico is also the home of the white throated hummingbird.

It’s a beautiful thing when two paths converge. By exploring, allowing myself to travel without boundaries, I had found connections between two diverse subjects and a way to visualise and create something new.

White throated hummingbird by Dominic Sherony.

With Mexican embroidery as inspiration, my pages became filled with twirling blossoms, their distinct shapes, a useful foil for further patterned collage. The hummingbirds danced above them, drinking their nectar and making nests in their magenta petals. I wanted the whole image to become a riot of blooming decoration where botanics and birds took equal precedence in the pattern.

So it’s with the publication of this month’s Cricket Magazine that my short metaphorical stay in Mexico is done. I’ve come away with small souvenirs of understanding and a place to return should I ever need inspiration for beautiful bright birds and flowers. The internet is my ticket to travel. It allows me to reach places I have little knowledge of and, if fortune smiles, lets me leap across subjects and make creative connections. Despite all its faults, it’s a vital tool in the illustration suitcase.

 

As I look out on my very English garden today, relishing the May warmth, the sky is the palest of blues and the lilac tree, a delicate mauve. It’s certainly good-looking in a reserved, polite way but there’s a large part of me that would like to see the joyful pink of the hibiscus, the shocking blue of a hummingbird and the unapologetic azure of a Mexican sky, not just captured in pixels on a screen, but for real one day.

 

 

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An Interview for Illustrator Saturday.

8A15FDE2-DCED-450D-AFFF-133795A0EEDFI was recently honoured to be interviewed by Kathy Teaman for Illustrator Saturday, a weekly post she promotes on her wordpress site http://www.kathtemean.wordpress.com.  Kathy was a regional advisor for SCBWI, the Society of Childrens’ Book Writers and Illustrators in the U.S. for many years and her very popular blog exists to help both published and unpublished authors and illustrators, with expert industry knowledge, technical tips and information from children’s book editors and agents.

You can read the interview here.

 

 

Spring flowers.

The sun has finally come out, the primroses and windflowers are scattering palely across the green and my cherry tree is blossoming flamboyantly in the back garden. Work always gets put into perspective when the spring flowers arrive.
It’s been a busy month with multiple small projects: from educational commissions, to an outsized image of a wolf for an outsize book cover, to a couple of self promotional map projects of Barcelona and Lapland, to creating sample illustrations for a proposed book in time for London Book Fair. Hardly time to feel the spring warmth kiss my face and smell the first cut grass of the year.

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I adore painting plants and the recent blooming extravaganza has made me think how often they’re included in my illustrations. Perhaps, as the daughter of a botanist and botanical artist, that’s not surprising. It’s a truism that there will always be flowers in my mother’s house.

I realised that I cut the flowers in my illustrations from many different metaphorical gardens. First there’s the straight watercolour, more of a realistic botanical approach. I generally look at photographic reference material and keep colours naturalistic. I know from watching my mum work that using photos isn’t ideal but access to the real thing isn’t always possible. The following image shows details from a logo I did recently for a florist. It’s not gone live yet so I can’t show you the illustration in its entirety.

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Then there’s the more stylised approach. I often use designs from other times or cultures to inspire more graphic flowery renditions. The flowers in ‘Feathers for Peacock’, for example were informed by the punchy style of 1970’s patterns. They have a blocky feel and there are circle shapes and tear drops and squares with rounded corners. The clean spaces really lend themselves to using collage. I think we might have had something reminiscent on the old wallpaper in the kitchen as I was growing up…

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Here are some more details of stylised flowers, this time inspired by Mexican embroidery. I spent a lot of time researching Central American textiles and was blown away by the beautiful colours and compositions. These illustrations come from a cover of a forthcoming children’s magazine, due out in May.

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Sometimes I take a real-life plant but subtly adapt it by simplifying shapes and colours so it has an air of reality but is stylised… In this illustration, I researched pondside plants, all flowering around the same time, and used them as a base for those in the picture. This is from ‘In my Garden’.

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And then there’s the combination of the two approaches. Nobody said you had to stick to one style, did they? Why not combine a more naturalistic look, based on genuine botany alongside a created imaginary plant world? Here’s an image commisioned for Cricket Media’s Ladybug Magazine published last year. The buttercups on the right are naturalistic in comparison to the collaged blue flowers in the centre that are entirely imaginary.

(N.B. I like drawing frogs as much as I like drawing flowers…).country mouse with textcleaned up

And in this endpaper, also from ‘In my Garden’, I used painted stylised flowers alongside collaged stylised flowers cut from origami paper alongside more naturalistic depictions of animals, birds and butterflies.

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I think drawing and painting flowers will always be a love of mine and just like real flowers, they will clamber and climb and push their faces to find the light in my illustrations regardless of whether I choose them to be there or not.

And just like my mother, I hope there will always be flowers in my house.

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Mapping Ditchling.

Ditchling is a pretty village, warm with half-timbered character, hugged by the Sussex Downs.  It has a long connection with the Arts and Crafts movement and was the home to printmaker Eric Gill in the early 20th century. I was very honoured to be asked to run a hand drawn mapping workshop at the award winning Ditchling Museum of  Art + Craft last weekend.

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As part of my workshop, I take my students outside to walk the territory of the location they are mapping (as far as is possible and weather permitting). How else can you understand where you are, unless you experience it personally? So, as preparation, I decided to walk the territory myself and hand draw my own map of Ditchling.

My initial sketches were rough. It’s hard to map on foot, especially in the rain. But what’s important is that the mapmaker marks the features he finds important, either by sketch, note or photograph. It doesn’t need to be perfect.

Back at the studio I hit more formal references, comparing my rough sketches with other paper and digital maps of Ditchling, including both OS and Google Satellite maps.  It’s always interesting to see where my maps differ from the others, and indeed, how they differ between themselves. It just goes to show that there is no such thing as the Truth.

Using all of the references, including my own, the map was drawn up using a gridding technique. It’s always at this stage that I, as the mapmaker, decide what features should appear in the map. The map is a personal understanding of a place, after all.

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For me, it was the black and white cottages and the jolly post office at the crossroads, the flinty church dating back to Saxon times with its rows of solemn trees and dark ancient yews. It was the Anne of Cleves House, slightly dishevelled; a ghost peering forlornly through the diamond paned windows. (She likes to keep doors open apparently.) It was the Bull Inn squatting confidently next to the car park and the rival White Horse, blustering it out manfully up the road. It was the Old Meeting House sitting amongst the haphazard gravestones of Quakers waiting for redemption, silent from centuries of peaceful prayer. And it was the Georgian brick house on the high street, once belonging to Eric Gill.

Who knew what sad and terrible things happened there…

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The Museum of Art + Craft was created to house some of Gill’s work and we were based in the studio there.  Although there was certainly no sinister atmosphere at all in either museum or village, his work and name seemed to be everywhere and I felt his presence permeated the place.  I still appreciate the simple beauty of his lettering and can’t quite connect the clean honesty of his work with his crimes. I wanted to echo something of his style in my map, nevertheless, and chose to do it by making the road system dark and picking out the lettering in white, as I had seen in some of his prints. But there, the similarity ends.

Cut to the workshop and each student had a different experience of Ditchling as we walked it’s green dampness. One took notes of bus stops and telephone boxes, of the shapes of fences and boundary lines, whilst another marked the signs of spring in the clumps of snowdrops and wild daffodils. Each eventually made a map of the Ditchling they alone had understood, felt and seen. Each map was stamped with their own personality. Very far from the industrialised digital maps that the Arts and Craft Movement would have railed against if it had existed today.

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And so now, there exists 7 new maps of Ditchling, particular to an individual mapmaker and to a particular time. Although Eric Gill would have approved of a process founded on working by hand, I hope it was not his ghost who looked over us. I hope it was that other ghost, in the Anne of Cleves House,  perhaps slightly heartened that we had unlocked doors to get outside and walk the village. And heartened that we were firmly keeping the door open, not shut, on the craft of hand drawn mapmaking.

Book now for a place on my Hand Drawn Mapping workshop.

A very quick post to let you know that Wednesday is the last day you can book a place on my hand drawn mapping workshop at Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft on 10th March 2018. The workshop runs from 10.30 to 4 pm and includes refreshments and lunch. All materials will be provided.

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Hand drawn maps are a beautiful alchemy of form, fumction and artistry which express a view of a particular place at a particular time by a particular person. At the workshop you’ll learn :

– how to research your territory with notes and sketches
– simple gridding up techniques
– how to use negative space effectively with pattern, illustration or stories
– how to create decorative compass roses and cartouches
– how to design personalised feature icons and keys
– easy to draw but simply elegant hand lettering

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Date: 10th March
Time: 10.30-4 pm
Address: Ditchling Museum of Art + Craft, Lodge Hill Lane, Ditchling, E Sussex, BN6 8SP
Telephone: 01273 844744
Email: enquiries@ditchlingmuseumartcraft.org.uk
Cost; £70.00 plus £2.58 booking fee. £70.00 if booking by phone.

Tickets: here.

 

 

 

A map to find your way through Valentine’s Day.

Valentine’s day comes but once a year, and love it or loathe it, you cannot avoid the commercial juggernaut that is the Valentine’s card, in the UK and US at least. Valentine’s cards have really only been around for a few hundred years but the sentiment of describing romantic love visually has been around for much longer… And sometimes through the (usually tongue in cheek) format of the map.

Our urge to understand the world through maps has been subverted to the concept of mapping emotional territory, skipping away from physical geography and heading, map in hand to the undulating but sometimes terrifying Lands of Love.

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This first map of ‘the Open Country of a Woman’s Heart’ was created in the USA some time in the 19th century by a ‘lady’. I have a suspicion though, that this was by a man with no high opinion of women. Clues lie in the geography of a place, ‘exhibiting … the dangers to travellers therein’.  Journeys need to be navigated through the frightening regions of Fickleness, Coquetry and Sentimentality. Oh – and there’s a steamboat that will take you from the Sea of Wealth to the Land of Selfishness.

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The anonymous artist who created the next Map of Matrimony seems to have a more balanced view of relationships. Created in 1825, it looks like a genuine cartographical map at first sight but come closer, and you’ll see a land detailed with regions called The Vale of Gladness, the Region of Rejoicing and the Land of Promise. Don’t get too comfortable on your journey though, because you might also meet the Quicksands of Censure, the Coast of Desperation and the Mountains of Delay, inhabited by lawyers, apparently.

There are several other beautiful examples of these kind of maps and they were all inspiration for my own map of a heart. Mine is pure Romance with a heady dose of idealism. There is no cold cynicism here, despite an image based on a scientific diagram rather than the traditional icon. Yes, dear readers, that’s really what a map of my heart looks like. Even if I get grumpy when I’m hungry, I sure need a lot of sleep and I’ve got a thing about overhead lighting, the interior geography of my heart is still gentle. Perhaps a swim in the River of Realism might be refreshing as inhabiting those lands is never that easy.

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So to all of the lovers out there, who cheerfully wander the ‘Meadows of Can’t Wait for the Next Time to Hold You’, I wish you safe travels.

But although my map may be idealistic, it was at least made with kindness so I send it as a Valentine’s card to those whose journey is harder. To those unrequited lovers who get caught in the ‘Rapids of Pining for the Unavailable’, to those with loves who are lost across metaphorical mountains, to those who have lost all hope and those who are simply working out if it’s OK to journey on their own. I wish you a very happy Valentine’s and an easy route to navigate whichever Land of Love you find yourself in.

Mapping the River Don.

One of the many projects that have come to me after Hand Drawn Maps hit the shops was a commission by The River Don Millowners’ Association. They needed a map of the River Don for a small publication about the history of the association and its philanthropic works. History and nature. Right up my street. Of course I said yes.

The River Don Millowners’ Association is a charitable organisation that was originally set up in the 19th century to protect the interests of local millowners. Although it closed in the mid ‘60s, its funds still existed. They were invested and the proceeds are now used for the benefit of the community, often for projects that celebrate industrial heritage.

So it was at the end of last year that I found myself poring over multiple OS maps of the River Don, stained by red brick industrial Sheffield, held at bay by the wilderness of the Peaks. Judging by the maps, it looked to be a beautiful place. Steep contours crossed the paper, occasionally interrupted by symbols for small woods and slashed by icy blue streams. Tiny villages clung to the windswept hillsides, their names hinting at the stories of the people who came before.

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I started by working out how my own map would fit on the page dimensions I’d been given, using the OS and Google satellite maps as a guide. Scale was an important issue. I used layout paper to roughly sketch the journey of the river, checking the features the client wanted were all included. There was a gutter going down the middle so I had to be careful that vital parts of the map didn’t disappear down the centrefold. A little creative mapping was called for because of this – some of the river tributaries became longer than they are in reality and allowed for the lettering to be read easily.

Eventually after a fair number of mis-tries, I had a workable map model and the drawing was transferred to my usual heavyweight watercolour paper.

Next came some research into the main features mentioned in the book; the mills and wheels, the bridges and smoking chimneys. I chose to show these in tiny oval vignettes – this format would pick them out against the background colour and allow for a variety of scales and viewpoints to look consistent. I loved reading about the history of the mills and looking at old photographs of both rural and industrial heritage.

More secondary features like the houses of Sheffield and the many trees were kept simple. I wanted there to be a hint of mid Victorian folk art about them so shapes are clear and perspective is flat.

One of the joys of hand drawn maps is being creative about the map ‘furniture’- the compass, the neatlines and the cartouche. I researched 19th century graphic design for some inspiration. Old metal signs found on industrial bridges gave me an idea for the shape of and lettering on the cartouche. Old printed pamphlets gave me ideas about the neatline corner decoration. These details were pared down from the usual Victorian decorative extravagance to match the simple feel of the rest of the map.

Once drawn out, the map was finally painted mainly using gouache. I like the blockiness that gouache gives me and hopefully it adds something to the flat, unnuanced naïve feel. Colours were chosen to reflect the greens, greys and blues of the Peaks combined with the reds, ochres and dusty tans of the settlements. The creamy paint was given free rein over the wide moors and details of windows, leaves and lettering were painted with a fine brush and a magnifying glass.

This was a very satisfying project to be involved in and gave me full-on permission to indulge my inner geek. I enjoyed learning something new about industrial history in Yorkshire and also how an association, built on the drive for commercial success and often battling with local communities over resources, slowly developed into a philanthropic organisation with the community at its heart. ‘Power and Philanthropy,  the story of the River Don Millowners’ Association’ by Anthony Swift is a fascinating read and is available to buy from Kelham Island Museum in Sheffield.

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A map of the stars – an early Christmas present.

Winter is upon us.  There’s frost in the morning, the light is a soft blue in the daytime. In the evening, the moon shines hard and white.  If you are lucky (and live somewhere in the wilds), on a clear night you can see the stars.  One of the highlights of my year so far was to see the Milky Way. I was lying on a sunlounger at midnight in the middle of the Dorset countryside looking up at the constellations and trying to remember their names. It really got me thinking about a map of the stars.

Man has documented the stars since the stone age but the age of the enlightenment saw a boom in astronomy maps.  I love how the traditional constellation forms were described through illustration  – no cold Scientific digital maps here.

 

V0025744 Astronomy: a star map of the night sky in the northern hemis

This historical astronomical map comes from the Wellcome Library.


My most recent map honours the historic tradition of charting the constellations and how they all fit together in the skies using not only notes as usual but images as well.

A Map of the Winter Constellations in the Northern Hemisphere (or Winter Star Map for short) is a circular map on midnight blue mount board.  It’s drawn in white ink and the original has been handfinished with genuine silver leaf to pick out the stars themselves (NB : the prints available are simple blue and white).  The notes tell some of the legends behind the constellations which vary from culture to culture.  What we see as the Great Bear can be understood as a wagon, a skunk, a canoe, a camel, a shark and even a coffin by other peoples for example.  Other notations include folk beliefs associated with the constellations and interesting facts about the history of astronomy and contemporary astronomical thinking.  Belief and the idea of the ‘fact’ is constantly changing as time gallops forward.

Giclee prints can be bought exclusively from ONCA Gallery in Brighton in person or online for £65.00.  They’re printed in archival ink on heavyweight paper and measure 40x40cms unframed, meaning they can fit into a standard off the shelf frame easily.

I’m pretty sure they’d make a great wintery Christmas present for someone forever wondering about the stars and the legends behind them.

A short post about a film poster

It’s way too early for Christmas (is it??!!) but this is a short post about a poster I did for a little indie film, ‘Home for Christmas’ a few years ago that has now been bought up by Amazon Prime and trending as I speak…

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The film – a Christmas romcom-  was made by Jump Start films based in Brighton on a very tight budget.  Much of the work was volunteered and it was made often using local actors in Brighton itself – my flat even starred as a location at a couple of points.

Any money was crowd funded through donations, events and raffles:

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Fundraising event poster

There was a premiere at the famous historic Brighton cinema – The Duke of Yorks – one of the oldest working cinemas in the UK.  The cinema plays an important part in the storyline and I happened to have a few shifts tearing tickets there at the time alongside the Director, DoP, and Sound.  It was fun to be involved in the making of a feature film and see behind the curtain of what it takes to pull something like this off.

The illustration for the poster was hand drawn in black ink and shows some characters from the film and elements from the cinema, almost a character in itself. Colour was added digitally at a later date.

It’s taken a few years for this little film to get to this point and I’ll look forward to seeing where it goes next.