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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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.