Sometimes your work is more visible than you realise…

Wall Street Journal review

A short post this – I am still juggling copy edits after the mammoth task of writing my book on hand drawn maps with painting the illustrations for a new children’s book about the seasons. Time is tight. ..But I thought I’d write briefly about a book review I recently received and also about how sometimes your work is more visible than you realise…

Last week, I received an email from Eerdmans Books for Children with some reviews of ‘Manger’, a book I illustrated for them in 2014 – there’s definitely no guarantee your publisher will send reviews out on time! And what a lovely surprise to find one from The Wall Street Journal, not only with a picture but very complimentary too. Two years delayed and I hadn’t known about it until now.

The same day, I heard news that one of my favourite map illustrators had agreed to feature in my map book. He knew of my work, liked it and had been using it as an example for his students at a prestigious New York art school. I hadn’t known about that until now either and was surprised and honoured.

I suppose my point is that the invisible threads of communication are netted around the world very richly and you can’t always know who is watching or reading about your work. It’s a call to others and a reminder to myself to keep going when times are tough, when you believe no one is listening and you are simply shouting into the darkness. You just might be wrong.

 

I wrote my first book!

I have illustrated many books before but a few weeks ago I delivered the first book I have both written and illustrated to the publishers. Not only was writing it a first, but it was also about maps and for adults – another couple of firsts.  It was a total unknown for me and what a ride/learning curve/marathon it has been… To say I hit the road with only a very basic map to my final destination would be an understatement.

The deadline was an incredibly tight one – so tight that when I planned it out I knew there would be no weekends off or much of a social life for a couple of months.  I would need to write 500 words a day and complete 5 illustrations by hand every week.  Almost one picture every 24 hours. Usually I’d expect a couple of days for an illustration….

I wasn’t totally sure it was doable but the only way to find out was to get pedalling and see.

Marvin the cat did his best to advise...

Marvin the cat helped with quality control…

It turned out that I loved writing although I had never really done any professionally before. I’d wake up and while I was still in bed, over toast and coffee, I’d start. The 500 word per day limit seemed daunting but actually I found I was writing more and having to heavily edit and cut back. My tendency was to go for wordiness and the struggle was to remember this was a fun ‘how to’ book about hand drawn cartography and not a scholarly treatise. I also had to find the balance between writing about me and my personal experience and writing for the reader. A tricky one realising how loud your ego can shout.

The research was heavy because the plan was to include writings about both historical and contemporary maps.   My PC was jammed with a row of open sites and my reading list similarly stuffed with links.  Pinterest became overloaded with a library of images I’d obsessively collected, finally divided into chapter headings after the sprawl got too much. The book will eventually run to a couple of hundred pages but I can’t imagine what it must be like to write a novel or anything academic requiring way more research. I learnt so much though and it felt like a crash course in cartography.

Creating the illustrations was fun and meant I got to be particularly playful in my work. I’d planned out the design of the book initially so that each page looked different from the others with a variety of media. I got to incorporate the methods I used in my fine art practice and hand lettering (drawing in pen and ink) with the more painterly side of watercolour and gouache that you see in my picture book illustrations.

It started to become a very personal book;  Friends and family became inspiration for any representations of people; maps were based on places I had visited like New York, Reykjavik and Tokyo.

My nieces became the inspiration for these two characters....

My nieces were the inspiration for these two characters….

Regularly working 10 hour days, I stopped when the light dimmed or my eyes started complaining. But somehow, because it was so enjoyable, that lovely combination of resentment, boredom and exhaustion never really came knocking.

And now I have delivered the final package to the publishers with a weird selection of envelopes of mock-ups for the photographer, covered drawings, paintings, digital scans and instructions written to an embarrassing level of control freakery.  The say I have over the book may be small and my copious planning is perhaps slightly redundant, but this is all part of the learning curve.  In the end, I am purely creating work (rather than a Nobel-Prize-winning life-time’s worth of research) for a client who has his own remit and understanding of his market. Both my words and images may be changed to fit into this and it’s good, if hard, to be accepting of that.

We will just have to see what comes of it all, won’t we? However the final publication looks, the adrenaline fuelled insomniac scribbling, hours spent painting that just flew by and wonder-filled map discoveries will have been totally worth it. It’s been some adventure.

And next time, if there is a chance to both write and illustrate another book, I’ll be able to take a more detailed map with me for sure. In the meantime, a celebration is definitely in order.

Marvin and fizz.

Marv agrees….

 

 

 

A Pewter Plate Award

Well, I didn’t expect this in the post!

A lovely boxed-up and wrapped-in-tissue-paper surprise arrived for me at the beginning of the week. I am the very proud recipient of a pewter plate award from Highlights Magazine for illustration of the month (September) for ‘Hippos Hippos’… See the post a few months back about it in the article –  illustrating for magazines.

Highlights have been a stalwart feature in the American children’s magazine market since 1946 and have sold over a billion copies. Its motto ‘fun with purpose’ is reflected in the well loved collection of stories, characters, jokes and puzzles appearing every month.  I’ve tried to find out the back story of the pewter plate award but without luck.  Regardless of this, whether it’s a publisher tradition or a new innovation, it takes some effort to honour a different illustrator 12 times a year in this way. Magazine illustrations are inherently ephemera so, although I would expect to be treated professionally, I wouldn’t expect too much from the publisher/illustrator relationship in general. Which is why this is so lovely and has made me feel appreciated even more so.

I have won a number of awards before (for my illustration for books) but it’s also a very rare occasion that I receive something tangible so it will, no doubt, hold pride of place on a bookshelf in the studio!

Pewter plate award

 

 

The City Mouse and the Country Mouse

Another double page spread illustrating a poem – The City Mouse and the Country Mouse – for Ladybug, a ‘literary children’s magazine’, was commissioned during the spring, just as I was crawling out of my winter ‘Call of the Wild’ fug.  Ladybug is designed for children between 3-6 years old as an arts and culture magazine for the very young and as a precurser to Cricket – the original publication founded in the 1970’s as a ‘New Yorker’ for young adults. In addition to original stories and poems, there are lots of articles on the natural and cultural world, as well as songs, games, and activities introducing children to language.

The weather was veering between unseasonably warm sunshine and monsoon rains making the air smell green and the earth tumble forth wild flowers and happy weeds. This commission by Cricket Media illustrating the classic Christina Rossetti poem describing the lives of two mice, was the perfect project for those April times.

Working with Cricket Media was a smooth experience and the commission was very straight forward from the beginning.  The brief simply asked me to ‘illustrate the poem’ – interesting to see the different approach to the previous commission earlier in the year from Highlights Magazine (see previous blog post) which was more heavily art directed.  I was also encouraged to be anthropomorphic – something that isn’t so common at the moment but surprisingly enjoyable on the creative front.   I’ve pasted the rough pencil drawing below which was accepted without changes.

town and country mouse

Then I created the finished painting which was also accepted without changes. It really couldn’t have been easier…

The city mouse and the country mouseThe poem tells of the contentment of the country mouse, the beautiful simplicity of nature and the value of his friends in comparison to the sophisticated, but lonely life of the metropolitan mouse.  It’s a sentimental take on nature, perhaps very Victorian in it’s idealised view of country living, but, regardless, this warm and fuzzy commission was the perfect antedote to the raw brutality of nature and the fighting, emaciated huskies found in ‘Call of the Wild’ in December.

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Can you hear the Call of the Wild?

September  has come round quickly and finally, finally ‘Call of the Wild’ is officially published by UK based children’s book publisher, Miles Kelly and is calling to you from all good book shops…

Wolf illustration

A rip-roaring adventure, perhaps inspired by the author Jack London’s own experiences in the Klondike gold rush, was first published in 1903 as a series of installments in the Saturday Evening Post. I love the use of composition and white space in the illustration below by Charles Livingstone Bull.

Saturday Evening Post cover.

 

It found its way into book form a month later becoming an immediate success with ten colour tipped illustrations by Charles Livingstone Bull and Philip R. Goodwin and with a colour frontispiece by Charles Edward Hooper.  Since then, it has been translated into 47 languages and made into 3 films.

The novel examines ‘the law of the club and the fang’, echoing Darwin’s theory of the survival of the fittest – apparently Jack London had been reading this before he started writing.  Only the strong survive and in this book, usually the ‘strong’ are those who are in tune with the wilderness and far from the softness and stupidity of city life. The canine hero, Buck, has to hear the call of the wild and listen to the true heart of the wolf inside.  Eventually he triumphs becoming the leader of the wolf pack at the end.

‘Brown Wolf’, the short story set to finish the Miles Kelly edition, also shares this sentiment.  Brown Wolf chooses the harsh, wild but honest world of the pack dog, ever loyal to his first owner and rejects the easy life of ready food and country walks that he finds himself in.

‘Call of the Wild’ joins Miles Kelly’s collection of mini classics adapted for children: ‘The Jungle Book’, ‘The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’, ‘The Wind in the Willows’ and ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’.  Each book has the feel of a traditional classic but with a contemporary edge – 25 colour plate illustrations, spreads with illustrated borders throughout, illustrated oval chapter openers and finally full notes about the author, illustrator and themes of the book all presented in a beautiful card slipcase.

And each book is called a mini classic for good reason as they are small enough to fit neatly into the size of your hand, despite the weight of their literary credentials.

image

‘Call of the Wild’ can be bought from all good bookshops!

Meet the artists! Artist in Residence for Little Green Pig

I’m excited to be appearing, very briefly(!), as an artist in residence at No Walls Gallery in Brighton on behalf of Little Green Pig as part of their pop-up event- ‘Make it up.’

Make it up.

Little Green Pig is a charity based in Brighton in the UK encouraging literacy and story writing in disadvantaged children. It runs events where kids build confidence writing stories with the help of professional illustrators and authors. Imagine their excitement creating their own picture book by the end of a session…

Time is valuable at the moment as I’m fully involved in writing and illustrating my own book (about maps) so short of helping out for an entire session, I’ll be an illustrator-in-residence for an hour on the ground floor of No Walls Gallery between 1- 2pm on 31st August.

An initial story making workshop (to be held at the gallery downstairs) will be happening on Monday 29th where children will sow the seeds for a story. Each following workshop will take those seeds and grow them into new stories so an entire garden of books will be flourishing by the end of the week.

The free workshops will happen every day from Tuesday 30th August to Saturday 3rd September, 10 am – 12 pm. The children will write a team story and then finish them off individually with help from volunteer story mentors, complete with illustrations by them and an artist. They’ll then go home with their very own book! Suitable for 8 – 12 year olds of all levels with one session available per child. To book a place please email: info@littlegreenpig.org.uk .

Different authors and illustrators will appear each day:

Tuesday 30th Aug – Writer: Laura Wilkinson.  Artist: Inko
Wednesday 31st Aug – Writer: Kate Harrison.   Artist: Helen Cann (me!)
Thursday 1st Sept – Writer: Alex Heminsley.  Artist: Jaime Huxtable
Friday 2nd Sept – Writer: Bridget Whelan.  Artist: tbc
Saturday 3rd Sept – Writer: Ed Hogan.   Artist: Phil Corbett

The professional illustrators will work on creating images for the story in their own styles with the focus fixed on the process and art of creativity rather than perfection. I think this is so important as part of making art (actually in most things…) – often, it’s the idea that something should be perfect that actually quenches true innovation and even prevents creation before anything has emerged. So expect a very happy lack of perfection!

If you are in Brighton, come and visit. I’d love to have a chat…

Post-script: I had a lovely time with Little Green Pig at No Walls Gallery.  Supplied with some excellent coffee and a highly imaginative story created by the kids earlier and brought to life by bestselling author Alexandra Hemminsley (Ig- @hemmograms), I conjured up this very quick illustration of Margot escaping on her amazing flying camel, Alan.

Alanspirational

image

Event: Make it up – a Little Green Pigs pop-up event.

Email: info@littlegreenpig.org.uk

Address: No Walls Gallery. 114 Church Street. Brighton. Bn1 1UD.  UK.

Date and time of my residency:  Wednesday 31st August 2016. 1-2pm.

(other artists will be in residence for the rest of the week).

 

 

Illustrating for Magazines – from start to finish.

As a children’s book illustrator, there are many ways I can be commissioned and not always strictly for books.  Earlier in the year, I was asked to illustrate a couple of poems for children’s magazines and I thought I’d share the process of working on these single pieces from start to finish.

Obviously each publisher and even each designer has their own way of doing things but there are a couple of hoops that an illustrator would usually need to jump through.

First, the brief arrives. Sometimes the designer has a very clear idea about how the illustration should look and is prescriptive in the details. Here is the brief from Highlights Magazine explaining how the designer envisages the illustration for the poem, ‘Hippos Hippos’.

hippo brief

Having read the brief, I interpreted it as you can see below. All my drawings are in pencil and easy enough to change and adapt.

hippos hippos #1

Once the designer had discussed it with her team, she replied with the following.  It’s clear from her response that she wanted a more photographic and less stylised illustration with details based in reality.

designers comments

So – Round 2! Although I don’t like getting changes (!), it’s good to remember that I am working for a client who knows their market and hopefully has a clear idea about what they want. As an illustrator, it can be more difficult to work with a designer who has very little idea about what they want from the finished piece and therefore, isn’t able to communicate the brief well. Often, this leads to more changes and confusion- further hard work in the long run….

Hippos hippos#2

The revised piece (with a note from me to the designer in pink).

The spread was then given the go-ahead, completed and sent.  At this point, it is usually possible for the designer to return the work again – perhaps suggesting a few tweaks here and there. As my work is created by hand this becomes more problematic than if it was digital but it’s possible to change things using collage or more opaque paint.

hippos hippos my version

The final painting was adjusted slightly by in filling the white area above the title and making the grass clumps less contrasty – and then the project was complete!

image

 

 

 

‘You never know what will happen…’

In 2008, there was a devastating recession in the UK.  Money was tight and as a freelancer, work was very thin on the ground.  Contracts were cancelled and I took on second and third jobs to keep the wolf from the door.  I struggled to create sample work that I thought would be commercial, bring in money, give people what they wanted. All resulting in a big fat Nada…
I was worried but friends kept telling me not to give up because, ‘you never know what will happen….’

It was a difficult period but with hindsight, also creatively very productive.  Once I had relaxed into the acceptance of having no work and without the constrictions of deadlines and designer visions, there was time to make art that was entirely my own.  It was a surprise that my heart steered me towards fine art and what I wanted to make had very little to do with children’s picture books.

I was drawing regularly at life classes and at a weekly drawing-in-a-pub meetup group.  Paintings and portraits were created in biro, in acrylic – so little like my usual watercolour illustrations that they looked as if they had been done by someone else.  Only a few have been exhibited and looking back, seem a little clonky, but I learnt so much and was so excited by, I suppose, the idea of transformations, of new choices and other, future possibilities.

It was also the time I became interested in making maps as fine art objects.  I’d illustrated maps for children’s books before…

…but had come across the illustrative map work created by fine artists such as Grayson Perry, Adam Dant and Stephen Walter – for adults, shown in gallery contexts and with something different to say about how we perceive, or indeed map, the world in general.

Inspired, I made my own map of my home town, Brighton, annotated with stories both personal and historical.  Further maps of the history of coffee, the flightpath of a particular Barbestelle bat and the moon followed.  Always I mapped places that fascinated me.  There were no particular rules to follow and I mapped purely for the fun of it.

Out of the blue, a few gallery shows came afterwards; at Onca Gallery and for Correspondence. My most recent mapping adventure took me sailing across the North Atlantic as part of an artist residency tracking whales which also resulted in a gallery show – ‘The Whale Road‘.

It is from there that we come most up to date.  In 2015 I was approached by a fairly well known publisher to see if I was interested in writing a book about hand drawn maps.  I was asked to make a rough list of potential chapters and a few sample pages back in September and after a long, long, long wait (during which I had actually given up on the idea that it would be published), have finally been given the go ahead.  It will be the first book I have both written and illustrated, my first book for adults and my first book about maps.  My first meeting is tomorrow.

I suppose my point is (and also note to self…) that you never know where life will take you and even if it’s tough, good things can eventually (sometimes years later) come from the times when you think you are struggling.  It’s always worth opening yourself up to exploration and playfulness – doing something just for the heck of it even if you don’t expect to make any money from it.  And if another recession hits, or my book illustration work dries up for a while, I’ll try to continue to make new work which comes from the heart.

Perhaps I’ll go back to those paintings and drawings again…. You never know what will happen…

A book in progress and my first Gif…

pond-gif

An illustrator’s work is never done when it comes to marketing herself. And even if you would rather be outside in places that are more green and simple than urban, technology still helps get that work done…

I’m in the middle of illustrating a new book about things that live in gardens; moles, foxes, squirrels, bats and bees.  And frogs of course! I grew up with a mother passionate about nature and wildlife – tadpoles were always found each spring, nettles were collected each summer morning as food for the peacock butterfly caterpillars and stick insects were forever escaping around the house till my dad complained and banned them for good…  I remember as a child standing on the porch in the early morning sunshine with a collection of butterflies sitting on my upstretched palms, shivering their still damp wings, fresh from leaving each chrysalis.  Once dry, they would fly off into the brightness. My mum has passed her love on to me and illustrating stories about animals and plants is always something I enjoy.

Helen Cann

In a world where technology – seen as the direct antithesis to nature – is necessary for marketing any small business, I created my first Gif this morning!  A tiny thing (which perhaps took more time than necessary for the final result) but useful to post on social media and advertise my illustrations.  It’s still a bit glitchy and posting in some places makes it look grainy but seems to work fine on my blog.

At some point, I’ll spend time on something more extravagant, but in the meantime, my little frog with his cheeky wink will have to do…  Sometimes its the small, subtle things that are the most perfect.

 

 

What I get up to in my studio…

Studios are forever fascinating to the general public.  For some reason, friends and acquaintances of mine love to visit me in my place of work and I’m sure this wouldn’t be the case if it was an office.  The arcane and unusual happens in studios.  They are filled with mysterious objects far from the mundane and peopled with bohemians and artists dancing on the edge of craziness…. They are Romantic-with-a-capital-R and are almost always in garrets.

My studio (on a tidy day)

My studio (on a tidy day)

I’m not sure if my friends and acquaintances are then slightly disappointed when, having made their way up the scruffy staircase above the milkshake shop, they enter into my bright, white and very workmanlike workspace.  Definitely not even the hint of a garret.

Yes, it is filled with the art equipment of my trade – the paint boxes, coloured pencils, acrylics, inks and a huge collection of collage papers – collected over the years from around the world; paper bags, origami papers, wrapping paper and wallpaper semi-overflowing from colour coded boxes.  But there are also the printers, computers, staplers, tape-dispensers and paper clips necessary for the most everyday of businesses.

Studio art paraphanalia

Studio art paraphanalia

The studio chill out zone. Just switch on and enjoy...

The studio chill out zone. Just switch on and space out…

The studio drink cellar. For those late night deadlines...

The studio drink cellar. To get you through those late night deadlines…

I share my space with two others – currently with Clive, another artist and Alistair (creative but non-professionally creative) who works for a charity spreading positive policies around the world.  None of them are outwardly bohemian or even remotely crazy.  We share biscuits and coffee and go out for an annual Christmas drink.
Mostly it’s me who makes the coffee….

Can't go wrong with a High School Musical mug and some coffee.

Can’t go wrong with a High School Musical mug.

It’s been a space that has allowed me to get as messy as I like and pursue projects outside of my illustration commissions.  Occasionally I have been employed by my local arthouse cinemas (The Duke of Yorks and Dukes@Komedia) to make props publicising upcoming films.

A pop-up book to promote the horror film 'The Babadook' commissioned by Dukes@Komedia.

A pop-up book to promote the horror film ‘The Babadook’.

A pop up cinema (made from a cheap gazebo) which showed black and white films for the Kid's Club at Dukes@Komedia cinema.

A pop up cinema within a cinema which I made from a cheap gazebo to show black and white films for the cinema Kid’s Club.

A huge papier mache head promoting the film 'Frank Sidebottom'.

A huge papier mache head promoting the film ‘Frank Sidebottom’.

You definitely have to try it for size...

Apparently it was very difficult to breathe in.

When I have time, I work on my fine art practice – painting or making artist maps.  Although my illustration is very established, I am slowly building up my fine art career strongly supported by Onca Gallery, where I have exhibited regularly.  You can find out more about my fine art by visiting here.

We Dream of Blue Whales

We Dream of Blue Whales (a mapping project first shown at the exhibition ‘The Whale Road’.)

Chinese emperor mid painting.

Chinese emperor mid painting. Originally commissioned by The King’s Head pub in Dalston, London.

But most importantly, the studio keeps me sane.  I like people so solitude doesn’t suit me. Being able to talk to my colleagues about the night before or the burning issues of the day, hear the buzz of the street, knock back an occasional milkshake or complain about the relentless busking outside the window gives me a tremendous feeling of contentment and belonging. Regardless of whether my studio truly is a Romantic-with-a-capital-R place to work, this is what makes it most valuable to me…

cheeky Helen