Kindness is a Wonderful Thing

This morning I received a Christmas greeting from a lovely illustrator of children’s books. It was unexpected, and most welcome. It reminded me how easy it is to reach out across the world with a kind word, and I wondered why we don’t do it more often.

As I sit here in my winter, behind with my projects and trying not to beat myself up for not getting my owl books finished for the Christmas stockings, her message from summery New Zealand lifted me and in some quiet way turned my thoughts back to my projects with a lightness I hadn’t felt for a while.

Later in the day I was tidying my large assortment of papers, trying to weed out a few of the older ones. Was it coincidence that among those papers was a delightful, but long-forgotten, greeting card from the same illustrator, sent on a very different occasion? lisa allen card

I enjoy her illustrations. They are whimsical, light, good fun. They can be touching, poignant, memorable. Somehow, even when the books are as diverse as “Anzac Day Parade” and “A Hot Cup of Chocolate” the illustrations still show her distinctive hand. It got me thinking about how, when we are being true to ourselves, things are cohesive; everything fits together well.

Lisa, who sent me both the card and the Christmas message, is also a kind and generous artist who has willingly given her time to discuss – at some length on the phone – the technical aspects of illustrating with me. So, this dark and foggy evening, my post is not about what I am doing, but about what we could all be doing. It’s about sharing kindness. Sharing a little kindness is not difficult. A message that takes you a few minutes to write might just be the sunshine in someone’s day.

And yes, Christmas is nearly here, but is not too late to add more books to the gifts under the tree. And if they are illustrated by Lisa Allen, you are sure to have fun with them too.

How High is the Fence?

blog corn pic
Today as I drove through beautiful Italian countryside towards the town of Pontecorvo I passed a field of corn. It is two weeks since last saw it and thought to myself “It wont be up to the top of the fence by Christmas”. Today I thought “three weeks until Christmas, and yes, it is almost high enough”.

I smile as I make these apparently ridiculous silent observations, all the while calculating how far we are here in Italy, now in June, from the equivalent growing season in New Zealand. The fact that this Pontecorvo cornfield has no fence around it at all is totally irrelevant. In my mind it is growing fast towards that goal, racing to reach the top of the imaginary fence in my relocated “Christmas” marker of time.

Why is it important that the corn (or maize, as I knew it) be up to the fence by Christmas? Well, apparently – at least for the cultivars planted when I was a child – the crops that had reached fence height by Christmas would almost certainly be mature enough to harvest, and store in the cribs with netting to keep out the birds, before the bad weather arrived. If the plants hadn’t reached the fence by Christmas then there was the risk that the corn wouldn’t dry out and keep, or, worse still, the risk that it wouldn’t be harvested if the rains came and the heavy machinery became bogged in the mud.

How is this relevant to a book blog? It struck me this morning that the phrase “up to the top of the fence by Christmas” had become a part of who I am, how I think. As a child I noticed the crops, the fence tops, and the season. Things we learn in a nurturing environment stay with us.

I thought then of the other associations that spin out from this: happy memories of sitting in the crib turning the cobs, ostensibly making sure that they were drying right through, but in fact savouring the colours, the silky feel of the smooth grains of corn, and enjoying being up in the crib which was like a tree house to me. Happy memories also of the books I read, and the colours in the illustrations that reflected my childhood. Phrases from some of those books stay with me too. Who could ever forget the Little Red Hen, or Henny Penny with poor Chicken Licken as the sky began to fall? Childhood memories shape us, if we let them.

I enjoy revisiting memories from my childhood; always happy ones. But, oddly enough, when I look back at these memories now I often see them in pen and wash, as book illustrations, as fictional things. I am blurring fact and fiction; smelling the dust at my feet and the dogs in the kennels nearby, feeling the sun on my skin as I pull myself up into the maize crib, looking back to only the golden weather.

I would love to sketch the children clambering up into the maize crib. The image has come before the story. I am beginning to think that the best books for very young children are those that are firmly grounded in reality, a secure place from which they can reach out and explore. Is there a book in that “rich garnered grain”?

I doubt that I could easily locate an old maize crib with corrugated iron roof and the birds hovering around. There my memory will have to suffice. It is not too difficult to find a crop of corn to draw; like Christmas, the season is approaching. I do wonder, however, “How high is the fence?”

The Art of Balancing

balance2

When I read that my grandson – freshly out of a solid plaster cast for a broken arm – was balancing on his mother’s balance ball, weights in hand, singing energetically to “Another one bites the dust” I felt more than a moment of envy. Energy, enthusiasm, and action without fear. That’s a powerful combination.

I dream of being energetic; a person of action, cheerfully engaged and productive. Yet in my particularly busy times I appreciate why writers hibernate, work like crazy, and emerge only when the work is done. I also seek some balance and I am not sure that balance is possible without routine. What is it I am wanting – a balancing of the many different aspects of my life, balance within my working week, or balance over a longer period of time?

Productive time demands single-mindedness, or a strict routine. There is a lot of truth in the advice given, in various forms of the same idea: “If you wish to be a writer, write.”  (Greek philosopher Epictetus, who died in the year 135). More recently, writer Stephen King said “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” If so many writers are saying this, it must be true, right? I suspect that, perhaps, it’s not a fully complete instruction. Writing every day is pointless if you are writing badly, writing without purpose, writing with nothing in particular to say.

Thinking about writing has been decried, but I believe it is important to think about where you fall in the two camps of writers as described by writer Ryan Holiday in this interesting post. What is it that you have to say? Are you compelled to write? Or are you writing for the sheer pleasure of creating something new, crafting it, editing, nursing the very best from the language you have chosen to write in?

Holiday passes on excellent advice that he received early in his career: “go do interesting things”.

Go do interesting things. This is the fulcrum on which we must balance our careers, not on the hours in the day, not on the months in the year, not on the routines we establish. If I fill my life with interesting things, and slide from one end of the seesaw (the writing end) to the other (the illustrating end) then somehow, I hope, that productive balance that I seek in my life will come. It will come not because I have clocked up a certain number of hours in the day, but because in my interesting life I have ideas and stories that are demanding to be written, demanding to be illustrated, determined to be published.

On My Desk

owls progress

Despite flirting with the acrylics last week, I am back into watercolour and watercolour pencil. Some things you just can’t fight. That’s what the owls seem to want, and if I am honest it’s what I want too.

When I have completed the first set I’ll come back in with pen around the main characters, but my main focus for this book will be on colour and action.

I am very happy with the Fabriano 4 drawing paper. If it were just a little heavier I would prefer it to Bristol Board. It is holding enough water to suit my needs, but in some ways with the smooth and sealed drawing surface (instead of using an absorbent watercolour paper) the watercolours are behaving more like acrylics. I’m happy with that.

Play Time

Today (after a tidy-up in the studio) I assembled all my pages and sketched a few more little owls fluttering their way up and down the tree. In the sorting of the storage area (not quite chaos) I found the remains of a block of drawing paper I had used for preliminary sketches for clients wanting a fresco in their ancient house some years ago. The paper is Fabriano 4, 220gsm smooth, and is about the weight I need; I have run out of the Bristol Board I was using in New Zealand. I thought I would try it with some Derivan Flow acrylic.

blog loosen up post

This isn’t an illustration for the book, but it was a couple of minutes of play time, exploring how much paint and water this paper will take, and loosening up my hand after some intense concentration in smaller, more detailed works. I think that the paper is going to be perfect for the light-weight acrylics, provided I drop my brush size down just a little to match. It doesn’t cockle (warp or wrinkle as it swells with the water) unless I use a very watery wash, and the acrylic slips and slides wonderfully on the surface. Best of all, it is available in my village, a two kilometer wander along the side of this beautiful mountain.

Can I build up an atmospheric background without it wrinkling too? Onwards…

Do Book Illustrations Have Gender?

I took a gentle wander through some recent photographs looking for one to post here today. It hit me that even photographs seem to have a gender bias. One folder of lovely wisteria against salmon coloured walls looked far more feminine than other folders of photographs. The observation surprised me, and set me thinking about gender bias in books.

I see this photograph as being feminine, yet the photograph could well have been taken by a man. Is it the colours that make me think this?

blog wisteria

When I took the photo I was looking at colour, depth of field, composition, but not thinking gender at all. Am I influenced by the feminine gender words bella vista, bella panorama, perhaps? Would I see it as less feminine if I had composed it differently, and thought of it as a great view?

I looked for another photo from that day. Is this one more masculine? It’s certainly of a great view.

blog wisteria b

I ponder this because, as I choose colours for my illustrations, I think it is something I need to be aware of. My drawings and paintings will match the stories that I write, but will there be an inherent gender bias in my choice of colours? Is that something I should consider, or doesn’t it matter at all?

I was an avid reader as a child and devoured the Biggles series of books as much as I did the Katy series. Did these books have a gender-specific target audience? If they did, I certainly ignored it and read every word with equal pleasure.

I Can Do That

blog drawing linesWhat is perfection, and should we aspire to it? My illustrations show action, colour, empathy, but never perfection. It is not my aim. It is important to me that my art for children is ‘accessible’.

I like to imagine that with pencil, paper, pen, paint and water, they too could begin to illustrate their own stories. I imagine a classroom teacher saying to the little ones “Can you see the pencil lines? What do you think she did next, after drawing the picture?”

I could remove all the pencil lines when the paint holds the form. In fact, I did remove most of them, but then added some again. If you look closely at the image you might see where some have been lightly erased, where the wrist and the sleeve meet. It is a calculated choice, what to leave, what to erase, what to put back more strongly to be read in the picture. It is this kind of interpretive interaction that brings out the creativity in little ones. And, perhaps, in the big ones too.

Once the brain engages with a process, or with imagining what might be in a space, the imagination is captured and brought into play. I don’t think that happens quite so much when everything is perfect; you are more likely to look, appreciate, and move on without actively engaging with the creative process.

As with all art work, illustrations have at least three aspects; what the artist intends, what the viewer sees, and what happens in the space in between. In shared reading there is yet another dimension, with the reader leading the discussion. I have considered putting in a page of discussion starters at the end of my stories, and more educational facts that I find in my research, but so far (apart from in the true story, Michelle and the Bumblebee) I have resisted this temptation. The readers will find what they are ready for, when the time is right.

But I digress. Back to the illustrations. In this digital age I think it is important that young children look at original art, and at the process of creating art. Art that is not ‘perfect’ with every line defined, every colour and shading transition smooth. I would like children to see my construction lines, and to think “I can do that”.

jamie helping Nonna blogSharing the process with a young reader. Quality time for both of us 🙂