A BIG talk about illustration (and life).

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.

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A double page spread from ‘Seasons of Wonder’ by Julia Key.

Building draughtsmanship confidence has meant practising regularly. I go to life drawing sessions…

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… 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.

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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.

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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.

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These are some circus style letters I painted on mdf as practice.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

Writing Signs. A course in hand painted lettering.

It was through a discussion with friends of mine that I realised I’d be pretty useless in the event of an apocalypse. Illustrators are not at the top of the list when it comes to survivalist skills………Which is how I ended up on a traditional sign writing course. Definitely a useful skill. Definitely.  The world is always gonna need signs.
OK perhaps I’m being slightly facetious. A beautifully painted sign in heritage colour enamel is not going to be at the top of your thoughts in a life and death situation and there are certainly other reasons to learn traditional sign writing. Put simply, it’s a beautiful and skilful trade and I wanted to learn how to do it. Signs have always fascinated me and there are few things other than a lovely typeface and an eloquent design created by hand that can make your heart sing more. I work with letters often and thought I could increase my skill set, especially after a friend of mine had been on the same course and I’d seen how much her lettering and chalk boards had started to fly.
Nick Garrett was our tutor at The London Signsmiths. A third generation sign writer, he was passionate about the craft, had a deep understanding of the cultural significance of signs and an almost encyclopaedic knowledge of typefaces. By simply adding a serif or elongating or curling or thickening a line, you could watch him unfold the history of letters from the Romans onwards.
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We started drawing out sans serif letters. Nice and straight and clean. Concentrating on keeping parallel strokes even, understanding the correct angles for diagonals and playing with heights of cross lines. I found it deeply satisfying and meditative.

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Paint skills followed. Practice working with the long sign writers’ brushes, a palette and the mahl stick which acts as a hand rest. This was far more challenging for me because I was unused to the brush and awkward hand angle. The way the paint was applied was also different – in its distribution within the brush and how it could be brushdragged to create pin sharp straight lines or brushtwisted to make sharp killer corners.

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Oh those corners…. Totally necessary to master for the serifs of Roman lettering. Practice, practice, practice. Again and again until the mechanics come easy. How many years does it take till you truly master them?

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Other forms of lettering were offered up. The fluidity of Script, the brashness but surprising complexity of Dom Casual, beloved of the retail sale, and the almost magical fades and shades found in the vintage bazaar and the fairground. Each form was explained and demonstrated and by the end of the week, could be practiced by students.

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I wish I had worked on something larger for my last project – a challenge to create a traditional sign using multiple lettering styles in a pleasing design. I often use lettering in my personal work and I’m used to working small so I could have learnt more, I think, by stretching to some wider dimensions. But perhaps that will come with time and I’ve already got some MDF cut out waiting for me.

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The not yet finished sign for Jimbob, the Cheesemonger. I made him up but he really should exist…

So how will the course affect my work as it is now?  Every year, I send out a mail shot to publishers in hand lettered envelopes.  For these and my maps, I have never aimed to create a perfect letter and appreciate the quirks and irregularities of something that looks hand made and has some personality.

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I also used to regularly paint chalk boards for the Dukes at Komedia cinema in Brighton which was mainly briefed to be a hand rendered version of a film poster of some kind where the lettering was a straightforward copy of the original.

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I think I now have a much better understanding of letter shapes, painting process and how to make space work well for me and it will truly be interesting to see, having completed the course, if my lettering changes and improves.

And should there be an apocalypse any time soon, I’m pretty sure the world will still need some (beautifully painted) signs. Definitely.

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Adjust and Deliver. The story of the front cover for ‘Hand Drawn Maps’.

Adjust and deliver was the catch phrase for completing the front cover for ‘Hand Drawn Maps – a guide for creatives’.  Front covers are never easy to nail and this one was no different.

Cover #1 was the cover I had initially drawn out for the first proposal.  It wasn’t clear whether, as it was a book about drawing, the image would be a line drawing or fully coloured in.  The designer liked my idea of reversing the image with Photoshop so that the original pencil rough became white – its negative –  giving it the look of a chalkboard.

By the time the book was finished, views had changed.  Covers are tricky things as they need to encapsulate the contents of the publication with one single image, be aesthetically pleasing, commercially bold, swimming strongly in a competitive sea of other books.  I needed to revamp the original cover idea to take all these points into account. I was asked to create a couple of thumbnail images as proposals for the cover.  The main design team would discuss and feed back.  These were the thumbnails I came up with.

After some deliberation, the response was that actually the design team quite liked the very first cover with the compass rose that I had drawn.  I was asked to create a full scale pencil rough with an indication of colour.  The cover was to be full colour because it needed to stand out in a competitive market.  It was also very important to include my name as author and the subtitle – ‘a guide for creatives’.  The publisher additionally asked for a busy detailed map in the background.  For this, I chose an axonometric urban map which could feature some of the very random symbols from the interior of the book.  Lighthouses, pagodas, building size beer bottles and hipster coffee cups all started popping up in this fantastic city.

Cover two. The original.

Cover two. The original.

I waited for a response. Cover #3. The sales team were involved. They wanted the cover to sum up the wide scoping subject matter of the book which ranges from picture maps, to word maps, underground metro maps to platform game maps, palmistry and phrenology charts, architectural and mind maps. A border with chapter titles was called for. There was also a question about where the logo should sit. Could I provide another rough?

The cover with the chapter titles and logo added.

The cover with the chapter titles positioning and logo added.

Cover #4.  Another meeting had happened and it was suggested that perhaps the compass should be made smaller to give the background map more room to breathe.  It was decided that the logo could actually go on the back of the book but the subtitle didn’t look very prominent.  The subtitle ‘ A guide for creatives’ was very important in reaching out to potential buyers.  Could I come up with a way of making it more eyecatching? The adjustment was made by adding a banner with the subtitle to the image.

The cover with a smaller compass rose and a banner with the subtitle added.

The cover with a smaller compass rose and a banner with the subtitle added.

Finally, I was given approval but was first asked to provide a colour rough.  In my experience this is a fairly unusual practice.  As I work by hand,  providing a colour rough would be time consuming at a moment when the deadline was already well in sight.  I can only imagine that the design team were more used to working with illustrators who generally used digital tools to colour.  A click of the button can infill space in less than a second. For me, painting the colour rough, even at 25% of the full dimensions, took a few hours.

Colour rough

Colour rough

Cover #5.  The design feedback on the colour rough was that the subtitle still wasn’t visible enough.  Apparently, although Westerners read from left to right, the eye lingers on the bottom right corner.  I could go to full colour but was asked to swap the subtitle to the other side (the bottom right corner) with my name which should be made smaller.

Map cover - mid painting.

Map cover – mid painting.

The adjustment was made. Done, dusted and delivered.  I just had to wait for final approval.  It didn’t come.

The design and sales teams were still not happy.  The subtitle still wasn’t prominent enough.  Could I make it cross the entire banner at the bottom and move my name to a smaller banner crossing the compass points at some place aesthetically convenient? The only way to do this, other than repainting entirely was to add using Photoshop, collaging in the repainted wording over the top of the original.  Painting by hand really doesn’t lend itself to making easy and fast adjustments unfortunately and this was becoming increasingly clear.

Cover #6.  With the print deadline acting like some kind of guillotine the final change was made.  Once more, Photoshop was the only thing that made it possible in time without having to repaint.  I was asked to change the central compass rose from the originally agreed red to a blue.  This made the main book title popout against the contrasting oranges of the compass points.  Again, very much a sales decision based on how well the book would stand out visually on a physical book shop shelf and how well it would stand out as a thumbnail image online in virtual stores like Amazon.

The final artwork.

The final artwork.

This entire process took about a month to complete.  I’m not used to artwork being tweaked quite so often and over such a long drawn out period.  In my experience, usually all teams come together after the rough stage and then to discuss and approve on artwork delivery but here it was clear that there were multiple voices involved in the decisions being made, on multiple occasions and with multiple sales and design boxes that needed to be ticked.  I wonder whether the increasingly anachronistic nature of my working practice – working by hand and taking time – is becoming a hindrance in meeting the demands of a fast paced sales driven publishing economy more than ever before.  It was expected that I could adjust artwork easily and deliver changes immediately, probably with the click of a mouse. Ironic if you take the title of the book into account.  However, although the experience felt fairly stressful for me, I did learn a lot about the process of creating a truly commercial cover for a large publisher specialising in design led books.  I hope the thought and hard work that went into it, really does make ‘Hand Drawn maps’ stand out from the crowd and sell many many copies

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….

 

 

 

Custom addressed envelopes…

The life of an illustrator involves a constant search for work and new projects. To keep things entertaining for me and perhaps make things more entertaining for the art directors who receive thousands of art samples a month, this year I decided to create some custom addressed envelopes for each publisher.

Posca pens and a little imagination was all it took to hand letter them and become part of a long tradition of mail art. Apparently mail art developed in the 1950’s and 60’s stemming from the Fluxus movement but I’ve certainly found examples of decorative envelopes going back to the 19th century.

Stuffed with printed illustration samples of recent work, they should be winging their way to companies both in Britain and the US as I write this.  Wish me luck that my work gets noticed and some juicy commissions come my way!

Promotional envelopes

Envelope

Envelope

Ps: I was recently asked for permission by Leeds Trinity University for these images to be used as examples in a Visual CV class for the Digital Narratives and Social Media course.  A lovely compliment and I wish I could attend. It sounds fascinating!

We Dream of Blue Whales

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My maps are finally ready to print!

In the Summer of last year, I took part in an artist’s residency across 1300 miles of the North Atlantic in a sailing boat mapping whales for an international maritime conservation database.

The resulting work was the triptych, ‘We Dream of Blue Whales’ which was shown in the exhibition ‘The Whale Road’ alongside work by the three other artists on board. You can read more about this huge adventure on my fine art website, about the journey itself, my work process shortly afterwards, and the final pieces and exhibition… There are tales of drownings, hurricanes, smuggling, ghost ships and the hunt for some very elusive sea monsters and finally about the inspiration behind ‘We Dream of Blue Whales’…

I am very excited to get the prints back from the printers so please feel free to contact me on here if you would like to know more.

Illustrated artists map of the flightline of a single Barbastelle bat.

An artists map commissioned by ONCA gallery in collaboration with Sussex Wildlife Trust for the exhibition ‘Making Tracks’ in July 2013.

The map is based on the flightline of a single Barbastelle bat – Starbeard 3 – from a roost in Butcherland, Ebernoe Common in Sussex using data from a SWT field survey. I was interested in how bats use echolocation to navigate; they effectively shout and listen to the echoes returning to locate themselves. With that in mind, I included echoes of the people and history of the Wealden landscape that you can still see if you look closely too. I learnt lots about that area: – the old days of charcoal making, forest glass and limestone kilns and the fact that there are 30 words for the word ‘mud’ in Sussex dialect…

The long shape of the map is based on the original English strip maps of the first days of mapping.  You can see a larger and complete version here.

The name Starbeard comes from the translation of Barbastelle – Beard: barba and Stelle: star.

The exhibition opens on July 5th 2013 and continues for two months in Brighton, UK.

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