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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