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.

The Art of Balancing

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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.

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.

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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…

A Book Without Pictures

“and what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures or conversations?” (Lewis Carroll, in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland).

‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’(Lewis Carroll, in Through the Looking Glass).

One of the blogs I follow is Brainpickings. Today my inbox brought me some background on Alice in Wonderland.

It has been an ‘Alice’ kind of week. A young Italian friend is reading Alice in English. She purchased her copy of it in Spain. Alice certainly gets around. We had a little fun with my favourite quotation about memory. Here it is (in context):

‘I don’t understand you,’ said Alice. ‘It’s dreadfully confusing!’

‘That’s the effect of living backwards,’ the Queen said kindly: ‘it always makes one a little giddy at first —’

‘Living backwards!’ Alice repeated in great astonishment. ‘I never heard of such a thing!’

‘— but there’s one great advantage in it, that one’s memory works both ways.’

‘I’m sure mine only works one way,’ Alice remarked. ‘I can’t remember things before they happen.’

‘It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards,’ the Queen remarked.

Occasionally I wonder if I am living backwards. My book without pictures has been on hold for a long time, stalled on 30,000 words when I took a break from it. The next chapter is writing itself as I sleep – my subconscious has been working backwards. My paintings for an exhibition are progressing reasonably well; my daytime work is going forward. And somewhere in the working day, and on my desk, are some little owls waiting for some colour. A book must have pictures, after all.

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 🙂

Thanks Also to You

A lovely message arrived in my in-box. Here is a section of it.

“Gosh (grandchild) and I have enjoyed your books, they evoke so many questions, you have added so much detail and she doesn’t miss a thing.”

One of my aims is to have my books read to children, and with children, ideally snuggled in with time to enjoy. It is a time that I love myself, and must have enjoyed as a child. It is more than reading; it is physical contact, sharing, exploring new things together, revisiting old friends, and wandering off into an imaginary world in a safe way. So a big Thank you 🙂  This made my day.

And a response to my “Discipline Required”  post on Facebook: “That picture makes me want to be in Italy SO MUCH!! But you should work, because I had to read “The Lost Happy” about 6 times in a row to D and J yesterday!!!”

Here is a little tease from Fluff and Scuff, while you are waiting for the next books, D and J.

From page 7:

Scuff scampered and scurried and hurried up the tree, branch by bendy branch, twig by wobbly twig.

Don’t fall off, Scuff.

Page 11:

Wind looked all around.  What did he see?

He saw baby owls asleep in the tree. 

But by Page 25:

Fluff was looking up at a big, yellow… 

What was Fluff looking at, I wonder?

The Research Stage

Is it a case of ‘once a teacher, always a teacher’, I wonder?

One of the things I aim for in my books is to educate, or to at least provide space for learning and discussion. Michelle and the Bumblebee is an example of this.front cover 2

When I agreed to write the story, I wanted to complement the true story with accurate pictures. I was surprised at how little I knew about the bumblebee. I had painted them from “life” (actually from corpses I had found in my garden) many years ago, but couldn’t remember the details. How many segments are there in the bumblebee’s legs? Which way do its ‘knees’ work? How many stripes does it have? Are the stripes all the same colour? Is it ‘bumblebee’ or ‘bumble bee’?

I enjoyed the research, which started a little like this:

bee details

As the story developed I also tried to give Mr Bumble Bee a persona. He became more of a cartoon sketch, his stripes became more random as his face took on more expression and his wings varied in size to create the effect I wanted. bee face

Despite this evolution, I kept the details of his body structure and legs accurate.

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The teacher in me also had the last word. I concluded the story with a diagram illustrating the pollination cycle, and gave the last illustrated page to a realistic bumblebee.

bee small for blog

All of the illustrations were fun, but this last one was the illustration I enjoyed the most.