Saturday, May 17, 2008

A Spectre Hovers

No, not a spectre hoovers. Nothing to do with ghosts vacuuming. All the time I was working on the illustrations, I'd revisit my words. These are words that I'd looked at many times, made minor changes and then put down again, thinking the story was complete. As I've said before, every time I'd read them, I'd be convinced that I could make a nip here, a tuck there, to get the words to work better together. So, the spectre of re-writes never really goes away. I just learn to live with its intervention and be happy with the results.
On one occasion, I realised that one piece of fine tuning took a verse back to a form it was in a couple of weeks before. I'd changed and re-changed and arrived back where I'd already been.

I began laying out the pages to accept the illustrations as they were completed.
Because of the way they are printed, books work with page quantities in units of eight.
32 pages plus covers worked just right to have a verse per page with a couple left over for title pages etc.
At this point I decided I wanted to have an X-Ray type image for the front cover, so added that to my list of illustrations and began collecting reference and researching X-Ray images.

Inking and colouring

Once my drawings were laid out in pencil, I'd lay a sheet of detail paper over the top and ink directly onto that. I'd decided during the design stage that I wanted a border around the page. That would prove useful when I'd scanned the line artwork because the drawings were larger than the image area of my scanner, so they all had to be scanned in two pieces and put together in Photoshop. The borders enabled me to see the overall shape of the image, thus making the stitching together easier, and quicker. In retrospect, making the artwork fit the scanner would've made the process a little faster, but then I would've been doing my drawings at a smaller scale, which would've made the drawing process less relaxed and constrained and thus less 'free' in style.
In my first colour test, I made a conscious effort to keep the application of quite scruffy and deliberately went over the lines in places. The lines are quite hard and solid, so a certain looseness in the colour would be more fun.
One beauty in working in Photoshop for me is being able to work in layers. I kept the linework on the top layer and added colour on another. As I worked I could view the colour layer alone to confirm I was doing OK. I quite liked the look of the colour layer on it's own, but perhaps that would be something I could apply to something another time. I had no time for experimentation. After all I had thirty one illustrations to complete!

No time to lose

I've always said that adrenaline shouldn't get involved when making creative decisions, but, on this occasion, I had to choose a method of Illustrating The Boy with an Axe in his Head that would help me get the book finished in time for 'Book Week' in October.
My first choice was whether to go for traditional media - ink, paints on paper or board, which I often prefer because there's a 'real' piece of art at the end to show for my efforts, or would I opt for digital methods?
Ultimately, I'd be doing the assembly of the artwork myself in Quark Xpress, a piece of software I've used extensively since I first began working on Apple Macs in 1991. So, at some point my artwork would have to be digitised, either by scanning or having been created in the computer from the beginning.
By this time, I'd got most of my illustrations roughed out. Five were ready to begin work on, the rest were waiting like greyhounds at the starting gate.
Looking back through my portfolio, I noticed that within all of the styles I've adopted over the years, there is one which I'd say isn't derivative of anyone else's work. One I drop into when I'm 'getting into the groove' and it was one I could simply apply to what I'd done so far.
What I'd do, was create inked lines of my drawing, scan them into the computer and apply the colour in Photoshop - another of my favourite packages.
A 'EUREKA!' moment.
This way I'd only be scanning in linework, so the scanning process would be faster. Applying colour digitally cuts out all of the time mixing colours, cleaning paintbrushes, spilling water all over the place (OK, so I'm occasionally clumsy) and cleaning up afterwards.
Time to get to work!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Get Scribblin'

So, the words existed, I had my hero, so it was time to put some shapes down.
By now, I'd worked out a rough sequence for the book and had put a rough visual together indicating the content of each illustration. One thing I'd yet to establish was what style of illustration to use and what method.
I'd been toying with various media, for example - ink line and watercolour wash or perhaps acrylics.
I'd penciled out four or five pages. There was no reason why I couldn't lay out every page before deciding on how to complete the illustrations.
On an unrelated subject, I was talking to my accountant, Jim Simmons, about a theory I have that I could teach someone to draw using an unusual approach I'd arrived at. He suggested I'd be able to try out the method by visiting a school, of which he was a parent/governor. I did just that and went to see the head teacher, the very helpful Mrs Ward, of Weddington Primary School in Nuneaton.
I was telling her about my idea for teaching children to draw and, in passing, mentioned the book I was working on. Suddenly, all thoughts of me helping to develop the artistic abilities of kids at the school and I'd agreed to be 'guest author' for the book week the school was holding in October. I explained that the book was far from complete. To which the Head said "I'm sure you can get it finished in time."
That was the middle of July. I was going on holiday for two weeks the following day, which meant I had two and a half months to finish the book! Gulp

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Got him!

It was quite a relief to be able to pin Maxwell down and say "That's how he looks".
While it is quite liberating to be able to work for yourself on projects like this, there is a common theory that if you are your own client, you are the most difficult to satisfy.
It seemed to take weeks on and off, deliberating and pontificating, agonising and pondering. But then I said to myself - Hold on, this is meant to be fun!
So, rather than adopting a style to do the job, I simply took the style that comes easiest and went from there.
With no particular purpose in mind, I would draw Maxwell in a range of activities - running, jumping, looking up, down, in profile or from behind. He was my new best friend and I needed to get to know him because we were going on a journey together!

Establishing a style

Because I've been producing illustrations for a lot of years, I've used a wide range of styles.
So, when it came to selecting which style to use for The Boy with an Axe in His Head, I was unsure which would work the best to help tell the story.
As this was my own project, I could do what I liked. There was no client paying me to do the work, nobody telling me what Maxwell should look like. I explored a little further.
By this point I'd decided on the proportions of my character. Using the head as a measurement, a regular proportioned man is around eight heads tall. For Maxwell, I went for four.

Fixing a face

I began to draw faces. If I'm trying to establish a character's face from scratch, I simply draw face after face after face. Each one different from the last, in a random fashion, similar to speed writing where you write thoughts as they occur. I drew faces as they came along. Once I'd done one, I'd swiftly do another until I had sheets of faces.
From these exercises I chose faces that felt they had potential. Yes, I needed a face for Maxwell, but I'd also have to draw his friends, so nothing was discarded, just in case.

Maxwell the first

My very first sketch of the boy, Maxwell, came out like this.
If I'm going to draw a character several times from different angles, in various poses, in a range of activities, the character needs to have signature features that identify him or her.
Having worked on the poem, it required the boy to be older than this, also, to be able to draw him in the poses needed for some of the illustrations, he'd have to be slightly better proportioned.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Write and rewrite

If I produce a drawing or painting and leave it alone for a while, when I come back to it, there are things that stand out that need changing. I'll question why I did it like that in the first place. It could be that, while you're in the process of doing something creative, you can be so involved with it that you fail to see small errors and misjudgments made along the way.
For me, writing is the same. Having typed the words into my computer, I revisit them with a fresh eye and often have to make changes. A tweak here, a line modified there.
It could be that every time you leave a piece of work, you go away and undergo subtle changes in yourself. Your perspective might change, opinions might shift based on experiences that might happen to you whilst separated from your work. Then when you come back to it, you make changes to the work to realign it with your updated view on life. I wonder whether this process would ever end.
There comes a time when you have to force yourself to step away from the piece for fear of overworking it. How finished is finished?
After weeks of jotting, scribbling and word juggling with The Boy with an Axe in His Head, I'd arrived at something I was seeing as a whole. Sure, there were places I could still go, but somehow it didn't seem necessary to explore absolutely every aspect of having a handle protruding from the boy's head. The boy, by the way, is called Maxwell.
It was time to start thinking about the visual aspect.
Time to sharpen my pencils.

Sunday, May 4, 2008

Another thing I discovered with writing in verse, I need to work longhand with pen or pencil on good old fashioned paper. I push thoughts around by scribbling key phrases, setting up rhyming partnerships and fooling around with word relationships by simply jotting them down. One idea will give flight to another while something totally unexpected can pop into being by the collision of words on a page. I find typing into the regimented format of a word processor restricts this organic process.

One benefit of working with pen and paper is that I can work anywhere. No bulky laptop for me to lug around. No problems trying to hook up to a Wi-Fi hotspot or power outlet.
The little notepad I use to capture my thoughts really came into its own. On a train, sat on a park bench, sitting in the car - the world was my studio.
As I arrived at material with which I was reasonably happy, I clattered it into my computer for safekeeping.
In my early notes, I'd put down situations to be explored - shopping, sports, clothing, etc.
I had no set sequence in which to work. I planned, once I had a verse for each of my ideas, to arrange them in some logical order, but that was to be some time in the future.
I'd take an idea that appealed to me at the time and begin scribbling words. I didn't always have my notepad with me, so any available paper would be recruited as a launchpad for my words. This led to me regularly stuffing mismatched sheets, napkins, drinks mats etc. into my rucksack to work on later.

By this time, I'd decided on a title for this piece of work 'The Boy with an Axe in His Head'. Simple and to the point. I didn't see any point in trying to mislead anyone.

The Silence Goblins

I don't like silence when I work. A few years ago when I worked in a design studio, my chum, Paul Crowley and me created these fictitious characters 'The Silence Goblins'. When the music stopped, they'd creep out of the shadows to tamper with our creative thought processes and make us rubbish at our work. Well, that was our excuse. So, when it fell quite, we'd look at each other in mock panic proclaiming "The Silence Goblins are here!", to which one of us would have to respond by hastily putting some music on.

The music I have on in the background is often dictated by my state of mind at the time.
Sometimes it can be soft and floaty, others it could be banging dance 'choonz'.
One thing I have discovered, if I'm writing from my imagination where the words are being lined up in my head before I squeeze them down my arms and out of my fingertips onto the keyboard, I can't have music with lyrics - I think they're called songs. I find the words in the music get all tangled up with the ones I'm trying to line up, like disruptive naughty children in a line of soldiers on parade. It all goes wrong and I have to put on something instrumental to chase away the unruly little rascals.
Interestingly, if I'm typing from experience, as if making an entry in a diary, lyrics aren't invasive at all. In fact, as I'm typing this, I'm listening to REM, Accelerate - an album plump, juicy and fit to burst with rich lyrics and they're not bothering me in the slightest.
That probably means something, but I don't have a clue what.

Saturday, May 3, 2008


Unwisely Santa offered a teddy bear to James, unaware that
he had been mauled by a grizzly earlier that year.

With acknowledgement to Tim Burton.

One of the characters from Tim Burton's 'The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy'.
OK, it's not written in verse, but you get the idea.

Thick and fast they came

It's really quite astounding, how an idea can run away with you. I carry a notebook everywhere I go (well, almost everywhere) just in case something pops into my head. Pinning down ideas is like catching falling leaves in autumn. They can flutter around and are so elusive, but if you can catch them in a book before they join the mess of fallen fragments on the floor, you stand a chance of doing something with them.

Ideas of what it would be like to live with a handle protruding from my head were popping into being like falling leaves on a windy day in autumn. So much so I decided I wanted to make them into something permanent.

For some time I've been an admirer of Tim Burton's poetry, particularly 'The Melancholy Death of Oyster Boy' - a collection of tales of bizarre and startling characters. He has the ability to make the absurd acceptable and his delivery in verse makes it all the more intriguing.
So, to follow his lead, I decided I would write a poem about how it would be to live with an axe in the head.
Fairly quickly I came to the conclusion that to write the poem about a bear wouldn't be as interesting to read because bears just don't get involved in similar circumstances to us humans. I settled on a boy because I was one, a long time ago, so I could perhaps trawl my memories for situations I might have encountered. I did briefly consider having a girl go through the experience, but somehow, a boy seemed logical. I mean, whoever heard of a girl with an axe in her head? Anyway, axes are just so 'blokey' aren't they?

So I started writing and writing and writing......

Friday, May 2, 2008

I had an idea...

I was designing a greetings card with the caption 'I can't get you out of my head'.
On the card was an image of a cuddly bear with a huge axe in its head.

The image got me thinking what it would be like to have an axe like that permanently sticking out of my head.
Let's forget the gruesome part of blood and stuff. It's a cuddly toy bear, so they don't have to worry about such things. I mean the physical presence of the handle.
I started thinking about all the things that I'd be able to do. All the things I'd be prevented from doing, all because of this new extra part of me.

The idea intrigued me and I decided to explore the concept and started jotting down situations where the handle of the axe would make a difference. I was surprised to arrive at quite a few situations where it would be a benefit.
I'm not very tall, so to be able to reach an extra couple of feet could work to my advantage. Imagine trying to reach that tasty apple just out of reach on the tree. Not a problem. I'd simply be able, with a flick of my head, to tap the apple from the tree into my waiting hands.
This could be the start of something quite interesting. Let's see where it goes.