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.
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.
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…
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:
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.
When I’m looking for some intellectual stimulation or inspiration, I often listen to TED Talks online, delving into subjects like Creativity or Motivation for example. TED was originally set up as a design and technology conference in 1984 but has now grown into an online media giant, freely flowing with talks on science, culture and any academic subject you can think of under the banner of ‘Ideas worth Spreading’. So it was with great honour to find one of my maps has made it to a TEDx talk. TEDx helps independent organizers to create a TED-like event in their own community in order to ‘spread the ideas’ too. Smaller in scale but in an age of sharing, size doesn’t matter so much anymore.
This particular TEDx talk was held at the ISM University of Management and Economics in Vilnius, Lithuania this October. The theme was “Question The Expected” and asked the 500 strong audience to be curious about their choices, beliefs and perceptions of the world.
You may remember my involvement in September with the Baby Lab at the University of Sussex. In connection with that, the talk was given by Doctoral Researcher, Alice Skelton, who works there. Her research is particularly about colour perception in babies and how humans develop the use of language to talk about colour.
One of the largest projects Alice has taken part in is the Categories project, which looks at how infants below 6 months categorise colour. And by categories, I mean grouping colours into ‘red’, ‘blue’, ‘green’, ‘yellow’, ‘brown’ or ‘pink’ etc. There is a huge difference between a rich dark wine red and a bright perky pillar box red but in our culture we still group them together or categorise them, as ‘red’. In the study, babies were tested to see if they could tell the difference between colours without having the words for them, if they were categorising them and how they did it. The results will ultimately tell us how we talk about colour as adults.
It turns out that pre-language babies in the study could naturally distinguish 5 different colour categories. The suggestion is that distinguishing any further subtleties or disregarding some subtleties must come after language is learnt. Different languages divide up the spectrum differently- so some languages only have 5 main categories they group colours in but others use 6 or 7 or 8… English has 11 and Greek and Russian for example both have 12 categories. The environment you are born into (and therefore what your community labels as important) teaches you names for colours, in which groups they are categorised and the subtleties in colours you are most able to distinguish.
The ability to see in colour is a skill that humans enjoy very much. It’s what allows us to appreciate great art. But it’s a practical tool in our box too. We can find things at a distance more easily; distinguish between objects (are you about to eat a carrot or a parsnip?); or highlight important features in a simple way. And this is where my map popped up as an example on the TEDx presentation screen…
This map of Brighton (from Hand Drawn Maps) is designed as a sensory map. Instead of focussing on physical features in the town, I have mapped the smells you might encounter using simple coloured icons. Brown for the beer smell wafting heavily outside the many bars, pale yellow-green for the lemongrass smell lingering outside the Thai Restaurants and a dirty lilac for the smell hovering over the rubbish bins in the less brightly lit corners. The intensity of the smell is shown by the intensity of the colour. Sometimes the smells combine, shown by the colours lapping over each other.
Without being able to distinguish the subtleties of the colours I’ve used and categorise them, (as a red or a brown, for example), the map would be much harder to understand. Being able to distinguish those subtleties relies on your language and culture. So although it’s a fairly decorative art-map, leaning more on illustrative aesthetics than pinpoint accurate geography, you can only read it easily if you have the right words and your culture has taught you how to.
And that, my friends, is not art but science.
This post is a short one about a short, small project that gave me a lot of pleasure to do. What was surprising was that it was a book for the education market, ie: part of a graded reading scheme, working for which I often find fairly challenging.
I was approached by Scholastic at the beginning of August to see if I was free to create artwork for a reading book called ‘The Tale of the Fisherman’. It’s a well known traditional Japanese folk tale about a fisherman called Taro Urashima who saves a sea turtle.
The turtle transforms into the Princess of the Sea …
… and takes Taro to her sea palace under the waters in a giant bubble.
Taro is given many wishes; he wishes for gold of course but eventually chooses his home and family over an ocean of riches.
It’s a beautiful story and for the most part, I was given free rein over the illustrations. The main instruction was to ‘make them look Japanese’… I found this approach very refreshing as it allowed me to work in a more personal and natural way – using composition, character and technique as I would usually. Very often for educational projects, I am given a super strict brief detailed down to what should be where in each picture. This is understandable as the main role of the illustration is to help children read and understand the words on the page. Creating drama, beauty or narrative pace isn’t a priority.
Sometimes the layout has already been drawn out for me page by page by the designer and effectively, I am just being asked to replicate these drawings. It’s a challenge in such cases to find a way to work in my own style, where composition and look are very personal. What excites me in illustration, is the play between flat and decorative areas, stylised pages and interesting viewpoints – not creating a conventional photographic scene. When sketches have been provided at the start of a project, I have to somehow adapt to another person’s visual imagination, even if I know the outcome will look nothing like my usual work. And in this situation, it’s good to understand that the publisher sees the pictures as servants to the words with the ultimate outcome of teaching a child to read.
‘The Tale of the Fisherman’ proved to be very different with text and pictures given equal weight. Perhaps the suggested hint of a ‘Japanese style’ was educational in itself. After quite a few happy weeks swimming in the warm seas of Japanese woodcut inspiration, I hope I created a book that not only teaches using both word and image but is beautiful too.
I was recently asked by the University of Sussex to take part in some research by the Sussex Baby Lab there. The Baby Lab does research in what babies can see. This project, as part of the British Science Festival (5th-9th September 2017 in Brighton) involved tracking babies’ eye movements while they looked at a 13 different artworks from illustration to fine art – some of which were mine. For each baby, the average amount of time looking at the image and the average number of eye fixations were measured. As they are unable to articulate their preferences, heat tracks were made of their eye movements and from this, it was possible to see which work was most attractive or stimulating to them.
I was worried that none of the work I presented had been made specifically for babies. I was told it didn’t matter. It was just important that each piece could be used to test the differences between adult eyes and those of babies. I chose an illustration from a book for much older readers and two fine art works, not made with children in mind at all.
In general, it’s known that babies see the world slightly differently to adults. Babies’ colour vision isn’t developed in the first year. Red and green differences can be picked up in the first 2 months, blue and yellow after 4 months. They need saturated intense colour to discriminate between colours – the more distinct and contrasted, the better. Apparently babies do prefer some colours over others, for example blues, reds and purples rather than dark yellows, greens and browns.
Babies between 1-4 months are able to see the difference between some shapes (eg: a cross and a circle) and after 5 months have been shown to prefer curved shapes to angular ones and straight lines. Babies over 12 months prefer to look at vertically symmetrical patterns over patterns with horizontal symmetry or asymmetrical patterns. Babies of all ages also love looking at faces or things that look like faces.
They aren’t able to see fine details and lots of small patterns blur into a single mass. In the first few months of life, controlling eye movements is tough and they can get ‘stuck’ fixating on one thing, although this improves with time and practice. I expected that my last illustration would fall into this category and not be particularly successful in holding the babies’ attention.
However, it actually did pretty well. The heatmap below shows how babies were fascinated with the eyes in the peacock’s tail (8.9 fixations on average). The average looking time was 4.14 seconds from a maximum of 5 seconds (4th out of the 13 works tested in this area).
One of the most successful images was this digital artwork from my good friends at Cornish collective, Granite and Glitter. This frog print was top in achieving babies’ eye fixations – approximately 11 times per baby. It’s a complex image with multiple colours and the heat map below shows how the babies look at the bold patterns on the frog’s back and then move to the right as they look at the repeat patterns.
The artwork that was used in the research will become an exhibition , ‘Seeing the World through a Baby’s Eyes’ at the Jubilee Library in Brighton from 4th-17th September 2017 to showcase the features that babies like to look at. Research scientists will be on hand on the 7th September to explain the results and techniques used to visitors.
It should be a really fascinating show; I’ve learnt so much already from being involved and I’d like to head over to check out the other artwork and talk to some scientists. If I ever illustrate a book for babies, hopefully I’ll be able to use some of the research in how I design each picture…
Jubilee Street, Brighton BN1 1GE
The following is adapted from a 10 minute talk I gave to Brighton Illustrators Group (BIG) in July alongside 5 other illustrators and designers. I was asked to talk about something inspirational or what inspired me. BIG was established 22 years ago and exists to support and advise illustrators living and working in the Brighton area. It aims to promote the work of member illustrators, share professional advice and create a space to network. It’s a brilliant Brighton institution so it was an honour to be asked to speak.
I’ve been illustrating for over 10 years now and work almost exclusively by hand in the field of children’s books and map making plus I have a developing hand lettering practice too. I occasionally use photoshop to clean up or remedy mistakes but in general have made a choice not to work digitally as a whole. I just prefer ‘slow illustration’ – the physicality of painting and drawing, getting messy, the jeopardy of making raw marks that might not be easily erased with the click of a button. And the mental discipline of planning and committing to colour before you put it on paper; you certainly need to be confident in your mark and colour choices. And I like the feeling of having a physical object at the end of a project. Something tactile that changes subtly depending on the angle and lighting of your viewpoint.
This way of working isn’t fashionable, and doesn’t make it easier or faster but I’d prefer to make a living working by hand rather than a lifetime spent in front of a screen.
Building draughtsmanship confidence has meant practising regularly. I go to life drawing sessions…
… and also meet ups, drawing in pubs – observing and documenting the punters and barmen where stillness is no prerequisite and your subject can move at any moment. This has trained me to capture likenesses quickly and without self consciousness in a public place. I chose the next illustration to say how important it is to focus on your strengths and understand how they can be adapted for your business.
I often post drawings on social media and, supported by my images on Twitter, I was contacted by a designer working for the prop department at the BBC. They needed some life drawings and also someone to act as a hand double for a costume drama. One of the actors played an artist and footage was needed of her hand sketching – which was where I came into it. My ability to draw portraits quickly in crowded places (in pubs or on set) was very useful. Privately, this commission became known as ‘The BBC Hand Job’….
This image was one of the results – a portrait of Anna Chancellor, well known for playing the character of ‘Duckface’ in the film ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ starring here in the drama ‘Mapp and Lucia’.
Since then, I have been asked to provide more drawings for the BBC’s adaptation of ‘Howard’s End’ which will be aired later in the year.
Another way to use drawing is lettering. I love typography of all kinds, especially if it’s been done by hand. The personality of the artist can be caught in the tiny imperfections and quirks of each letter, unfiltered by a font package. It really doesn’t matter if it’s not perfect.
This envelope was made as part of a mail shot campaign sending promotional work to children’s book publishers. I’ve done this a few years running now – every envelope is different, takes some time and there’s not much room for error. But I learn something new from each one and it allows me to be creative while doing a fairly mundane task. It’s important to keep broadening my skills and working out ways to make my strengths an advantage. I’ve just finished creating another prop – a map – this time for a high profile Hollywood film. Unfortunately I’m not able to talk about it yet but it screens in the Summer of 2018. Notably, the designer specifically wanted something hand lettered and had looked at the lettering on my website before briefing.
Which leads me to the ultimate in hand lettering – signwriting. As I said, I try to keep adding to my skill set and recently went on a course in traditional signwriting in London. Although not strictly illustration, an understanding of graphic design is necessary. You need a good eye, a steady hand and it’s a very physical job. But it’s the physicality I love – the smell of the paint, the feel of brush on surface, the satisfaction of creating a beautiful straight line or perfect curve by the downward swoop of an arm. And again it provides a hint of risk, in that you can’t just nuke it with Photoshop if it goes wrong.
I recently created a window installation using hand painted and lettered signs for an exhibition. On the strength of the window display, I was contacted by the brand manager of a well known chain of restaurants asking to quote for some similar signs. Nothing came of it in the end but it’s serves as an example of how working to your strengths and thinking outside the box has the potential to lead to multiple diverse streams of work.
I find challenges inspiring. When I first left university, I got a job in an antique print shop. I was a disaster and lasted about 3 weeks before I got sacked. But I came away totally inspired by early 17th century road maps – beautifully hand drawn and engraved with personality and soul. Fast forward some years later and during the last recession, I had a period of unemployment. I started to make my own maps to fill the time. They were never printed – just a vehicle for self expression which I saw as fine art and started to show in galleries. Each map was filled with notes about the place and sometimes line illustrations. They were all done by hand, sometimes directly onto the surface in ink.
This map is part of a triptych I made as a result of going on an artist’s residency on a ship. I sailed for the best part of a month as part of the crew 1300 miles across the North Atlantic documenting whale sightings. This was certainly challenging for me because I thought I was going to die. Genuinely.
However, the challenge sparked creative ideas. I couldn’t draw much due to the motion of the ship so I collected overheard stories and travellers’ tales. They became the basis for the maps alongside notes and drawings on how whales have been seen historically and how they have been mythologised and hunted.
As a result of my fine art mapping practice, I was commissioned to write a book on how to draw hand drawn maps, published in June by Thames and Hudson. The challenge here was whether I could both write and illustrate a 17,000 word book for adults within an super tight timeframe of 4 months. I loved every minute – especially the writing – but it did mean no social life over that time. At all. I had to write 500 words a day, every day, and complete an illustration every day and a half. So much for ‘slow’ illustration.
In summing up, I think it’s important to understand and cherish your strongest skills. Even if fashion dictates something else. I believe in thinking outside the box in how you put those skills to use. Learning and adding to your skill set, focussing on your strengths, is vital. Accept challenges too and get out of your comfort zone, realising that they can be truly inspirational. Doing all these things can demonstrably lead to new work.
But most important of all, figure out what it is that gives you joy and is creatively stimulating in your work. Then find as many different ways as possible to keep doing it. It’s as simple as that.
I guess that counts for life in general.
So my exhibition of Hand Drawn Maps has now come down and I thought I’d add a quick postscript with some pictures of the show and the private view. Over 65 people came on the night, there were a lovely number of sales and I think everyone had a great time!
More photos of the window installation.
And the private view and launch in full flow…
It’s been a long hard slog of a month but finally the exhibition (my first solo show and book launch) of ‘Hand Drawn Maps’ is coming together…
I started planning the window display in late May. I wanted something to stand out, advertise the exhibition and get visitors in as the show only lasts for a few days….
These were the thumbnail prototypes for the window display:
I then chose a design in consultation with the gallery and created a very basic mock up on Photoshop…
Most of the signs had already been created but I had some hand lettering to do and some tweaking…
Next a few hours moving signs around till I got the best arrangement. It took longer than I expected and taking into account the gallery framing system, I used some easels and a wooden box….
Paperwork needed to be sent to the Gallery including a price list and my artist’s blurb. All done along with the poster and invite, also designed in late May. The latter were sent out to my mailing list and to free online listing sites locally alongside Facebook, Instagram (@helencannart) and Twitter (@helen_cann) in early June.
From this, I got featured in a lovely preview piece written by Peter James Field for the Brighton Source.
Prints had to be printed and framed images protectd with bubble wrap. Some trusty friends were organised to help me carry my framed pictures, prints and window installation signs to the gallery. They were amazing and on one of the hottest days of the year…
So now it’s two days before the exhibition. Advertising – check. Marketing – check. Delivery of artwork to the gallery – check. Paperwork to the Gallery – check. Beer bought for friends – check.
Fingers crossed that the show goes fine and is a fitting launch for ‘Hand Drawn Maps’. And hopefully more beer will be enjoyed in celebration.
Hand Drawn Maps
O N C A Gallery, 14 St George’s Place, Brighton, BN1 4GB