M Harold Page is at it again! Here's a sneak peek of a trio of kick-ass women I've been illustrating for his next epic tale. Stay tuned for the hero of the story, a space mercenary NCO turned academic archaeologist...
So. I've been a not-academic-in-suburbia for about 18 months now, and I have yet to properly do what I set out to do, namely design and print my own fabric, and make stuff from it, to sell.
Not that I haven't done other things. I've created covers for an epic set of books. I designed and made a wedding dress. I've done a couple of small but lovely illustration jobs. I've become the co-chair of my son's school's PTA, and as a result have helped organise a children's art show, the school's first fireworks display, and the largest annual village fete in the county. I've reverse-engineered clothing patterns from existing clothes, finished piecing the top of a quilt that I started about 6 years ago, and started crocheting a poncho (that last one might have been a slight over-reach on my part). And I'm genuinely pleased with and proud of all that (well, maybe not the poncho).
But none of that is what I had planned to do. What I still plan to do. So why does my planned stuff keep getting shuttled to the bottom of the pile, while other stuff jumps to the top?
When people hear that little lament, they almost invariably ask "Is there something you're scared of that's stopping you?" I know what they mean -- they mean (but rarely say), am I scared of failure. Of doing the thing that I really want to do and not doing well at it. I get that, but? The idea of failure really, genuinely doesn't bother me. Failure is part of the process, and I love the process. I mean, good grief, I did a PhD. I know from* failure and setbacks. You down tools, go do something else for a bit and let the disaster settle for a while, then you go get back to work and try something different.
So. What the heck is it that's stopping me? My lovely friend Maureen suggested that maybe I'm kind of stuck on the planning part -- that I've been looking, lovingly, at the picture of future me having a successful textile design business for so long that in fact the looking, lovingly, has become my job. And that does ring true, to a certain extent. I spend an inordinate amount of time on Pinterest, pinning beautiful things that I might (possibly) use as references at some (distant) point in the future.
But the more I think about it, the more I'm not sure that's the only thing that I'm stuck on. I've been looking at the way I work, the way I have always worked, and I've realised that I am really, really poor at choosing something to focus on. I don't like the idea that if I'm going down one path, I'm not going down a different one (flashback to emotional conversations with my professor father about choosing to major in arts rather than sciences, because "what if it turns out I want to be a scientist?!?"**).
I can write lists of things that I need to do, and break those things down into sublists, but if I decide to spend all day on list item (a) writing a blog post, or (b) writing a different blog post, or (c) figuring out how to change my website name***, or (d) ordering labels with my logo on, or wait, (e) figuring out what my logo should look like, then I'm not spending my valuable time doing one of those other things on my list that I should be doing (and did you notice that none of those were actually "print some damn fabric already"?) and that stresses me out and I get stuck and I don't do any of them.
And then I go and do something that has kind of a defined beginning and end and is small and self-contained and doesn't require me to decide where to start. Or I just sit and stare at Pinterest and do nothing at all.
So tell me. Tell me how you do it. How do you decide where to start, and what to ignore for the moment, and when to go back to what you've ignored and what if you never get a chance to go back to it...?
How do you begin?
* "I know from" as a grammatical construction basically means "I know a lot about." Google tells me it might be derived from Yiddish.
** Answer -- I majored in arts and became a scientist anyway. Linguistics rocks.
*** I changed my website name!
Cast your mind back a couple of days*: we had a Martin-approved elfin face for Maud, the mad, magic-wielding princess, and a body to go with it. Next steps? Get the head and body together, ink them up, and scan them.
To start the process, and despite my dreadful experience with mashing Queenie's features onto Maud's face, I simply stuck the approved-of head onto the body using Photoshop. I then printed it up, took it over to my lightbox** and traced it in pencil. I tend to do this with all the images that I'm going to ink -- I like to keep the original un-inked so that I can go back to it and start again if necessary. Then this tracing got inked with a brush pen (I use a Pentel one that takes a fountain pen style cartridge), then the inked version was scanned, and finally the scan went through its first basic edit in Photoshop.
Above to the left you can see the inked version just as it was when it was scanned. The middle version has had its colours selectively altered to bump up the black and clean up the white***, and the right version has had some additional editing done to prepare it to be imported into Illustrator. For this stage of editing, what I'm generally aiming to do is clean up any unwanted ink blobs, fill in any areas that didn't quite get inked as they should have, and tidy up anything that, on second glance, doesn't work the way I wanted it to -- so, for example, I erased a curl at the bottom right of Maud's hair, because it took away from the general right to left swoosh that I was trying to get, and I erased some of the catch-light detail at the end of her nose, because it looked too busy.
But the main thing I'm doing at this level of editing is adding and deleting pixels. When I'm all done with my editing in Photoshop, I'm going to import my image into Illustrator and use Live Trace to turn it into a vector image, so that it can be manipulated without losing any detail****. However, in its default settings Live Trace does have a tendency to treat white or grey space in the middle of a line as "no line here," and to treat the slight wiggles you get at the edge of a pen line due to the texture of the paper, as "give the line a big, poky-out bit here." Above left you can see a scan (enlarged) of a pencil sketch (it's Maud's hair), and above right is the result if you try to Live Trace the sketch without doing anything to it. Interesting, but really not the look we're going for.
So, in I go with my tiny eraser tool, zoom right in to the picture, and knock the pointy edges off the lines. Then I go back with my tiny pen tool and fill any gaps in the lines. Before I do all that, the image looks like the line above left; once I've finished my pixel editing, the image should be like the larger black shape to the right (that's a zoomed-in bit of Maud's sleeve, by the way). I don't edit every line this way -- some lines you want to look scratchy and incomplete, like the shading on Maud's arms -- and you do have to go carefully to ensure that you don't lose the hand-inked look.
Then I select the lot with Photoshop's Lasso tool, and copy and paste it into a new Illustrator document. After Live Tracing and Expanding, I can then select different elements of the image and drop colours into them. Well, in principle I can do this. In practice things sometimes get complicated. The main complication with Maud was that I had coloured in her hair when I was inking. That meant that, in Illustrator world, her hair was part of the outline of her body, and couldn't be selected without selecting all the lines that touched her hair as well (likewise the parts of her eyes that needed to be green, which couldn't be selected without selecting the rest of her eye). The quick-and-dirty solution to this (I'm sure someone out there will have a more sophisticated idea I could try) was for me to make a copy of Maud's head and hair and erase all the elements except for the parts I wanted to colour: her hair, eyebrows and the irises of her eyes. I could then safely colour this copy, and layer it over the original image without worrying about affecting the rest of the picture.
Then all you have to do is place Maud carefully on a background and surround her by swirls of magic, and she's good to go!
* Yes, I know, I know, I said I'd finish the post "tomorrow." Man, you people are impatient!
** A spare drawer from an Ikea wardrobe, filled with LED light strips, with a sheet of plexiglass/perspex laid across the top.
*** In Photoshop: 1) ensure your image is in RGB mode; 2) Image > Adjustments > Selective colour: select white and decrease the amount of black in the white to -100%, then select black and increase the amount of black in the black to +100%; 3) Image > Adjustments > Curves: move the sliders at right and left towards the middle until the desired level of contrast between the black and white has been achieved.
**** There are other ways to vector-ise (is that a word?) an image; Live Trace is quick and undemanding, which is important when you need your brain for other things, like trying to figure out how to get 24 Vikings onto the back of a Zeppelin.
"Night. There's a castle on the clifftops above the sea. Castle is on fire. Top of massive Zeppelin is level with the battlements.
Crazy red haired princess on battlements is using magic to keep the zeppelin caught there. Meanwhile, Ranulph - shirt sleeves - and 2 dozen Vikings in mail are jumping from the battlements - magic assisted - to land on the zeppelin's back. They look kind of grim. Kind of Batman moment.
Airship is silk over ribs. There's an open machine gun post on the dorsal with a little fence around it. Obviously, it has a massive tale fin."
Whew. I mean, really, seriously, whew. I actually did that plumber-patented teeth-sucking thing. With a scene like that, where do you start? I did what every self-respecting artist should always do: I grabbed hold of the one thing that I thought I had a chance of getting right, and pretended the rest of it didn't exist. In this case, that was Maud, the magical princess.
I started by going to my Pinterest board to see if I could find a photograph of anyone that looked like they might be magically holding a zeppelin aloft. There were a lot of noble princess types, but in fact the photo that grabbed my attention was the one to the left above -- yes, she's half naked and holding a gun, which was not in the brief, but she has a very satisfyingly Bonnie and Clyde posture going on that I thought would work for our heroine. To the right you can see my sketch. I've replaced the gun with an outstretched hand, fingers curled up as if lifting, and (after some humming and hawing and trying out various options) I've brought her other arm into view: the perspective in which her non-working arm is completely hidden behind her back works in the photo, but it didn't translate well in my sketch. Looking at the two pictures side-by-side again I now also notice that Maud in my sketch has a rather imperious look on her face, and has lost the slightly knowing, "oh, you think you can mess with me?" expression of the original photo, which is a shame, but which in the end probably worked out well, as you'll see below.
Ok, so now we have the beginnings of a princess, but how is she going to fit into that gloriously insane scene in Martin's brief? Well, at some point when I was researching pulp book covers for SVT1, I rediscovered the fabulous Nancy Drew book covers of my youth, many of which feature a montage of different images from the book (like the cover above left), rather than one single scene. It occurred to me that with everything (castle! clifftop! fire! zeppelin! sexy knight! mad princess! 24 leaping vikings! partridges! pear trees!) that was meant to be included in the SVT2 cover, dividing it up into multiple smaller scenes might be the way to go. I sent an email with a quick sketch (above right) to Martin, and asked him what he thought. Answer came there back: "Awesome. But..."
But?!? Ah, but, the "but" wasn't anything to do with the proposed composition (that was the "Awesome" -- phew), but rather our lovely Maud, who Martin was seeing for the first time. Martin informed me that his Maud was modelled on the old Robin of Sherwood actress Judi Trott, "but completely nuts. Like she gets an unholy kick out of casting magic." And at that point in the message Martin inserted a photo of Miranda Richardson as Queenie from Blackadder (see below left) looking particularly bonkers. Fair enough, I thought to myself, let's just transplant Queenie's features on to Maud.
At this point I want to stop my little narrative to say that I really, really wasn't going to include this next set of pictures. My sketch is hilariously bad, and cringingly embarrassing, and other phrases meaning that I really kinda want to consign it to the dustbin* forever. But, in the interest of artistic honesty I'm going to put it out there. Because, let's face it, creating stuff never goes A, B, done. It's more like A, Q, H, monkey, blue cheese, roundabout, jam sandwich, C, close enough, done.
So there you have it folks. This is what you get when you try to shoehorn two images together without really thinking about it. Yes, Maud now looks crazy, but in a possessed-by-a-demon kind of way (or even a goosed-up-the-backside kind of way), rather than a perfect-but-slightly-crackers kind of way. Back to the drawing board I went.
Actually, I went back to the research first. I was on the hunt for Maud's face. She needed to be beautiful, of course, perhaps even delicate, but also look capable of totally cleaning your clock if necessary (or at least look as if she thinks she's totally capable). And the look that kept popping into my head was one that actress Natalie Dormer (Margaery Tyrell in Game of Thrones, Irene Adler in Elementary) often has -- a combination of innocent and slightly frighteningly powerful. The trick would be to somehow capture that look.
If I had to pin it down, I'd say the look comes from the combination of the enormous, wide-set, doe eyes (very Disney princess), and the smirk-plus-canted-eyebrow (very Disney villainess, actually). The sketch to the top right was the first one I did; the lower one was altered at Martin's request to make Maud more elfin: I narrowed her face and emphasised the pointy angles. Natalie Dorman has a way of tipping her head down and looking at you slightly through her eyebrows, which makes her look rather cunning (Benedict Cumberbatch does that too, for anyone who's taking notes on this sort of thing). For Maud I wanted less scheming , and more accidentally-getting-high-on-her-own-power, so I kept her eyes quite wide open at the top, and slightly closed at the bottom, hoping to convey concentration and excitement.
In the end what we ended up with was something I described to Martin as a sociopathic Tinkerbell. And, as this post has gone on much longer than anticipated already, and I haven't even started getting to the digital stuff, I shall stop here and carry on tomorrow.
And just in case you haven't got your copy yet, go check out Swords Versus Tanks 2: Vikings battle Zeppelins while forbidden desires clash! And then leave a lovely review!
* US: trashcan, CAN: garbage, SCOT: bucket
A couple of days after we moved in to our new house in leafy suburbia, I got an email from a dad from my son's old school in Edinburgh. Said dad is author M. Harold Page (that's Martin to you and me), and was about to indy publish a trilogy of books, but he'd lost his cover artist (misplaced him down the back of the sofa or something). Did I fancy, asked he, doing a place-holder cover for him?
At the time I was armpit-deep in moving boxes, with an absent husband (he'd been sent to California for work the day after we got the keys to our new house) and a YouTubing 8-year-old. My reply was therefore something* along the lines of: "the prospect of doing something other than opening another box, sighing, and trying to drum up the will to decide what to do with another plastic tub full of assorted rolls of tape, cables, decapitated Lego men, board game parts and tea towels, sounds lovely. What had you in mind?"
What Martin had in mind was a fantastic, crazy, mashup, pulp-style cover for a book in which knights in late 1400s armour fight time-travelling WW1 tanks. Naturally, given my extensive background in illustrating graceful seaweed and gently fluttering ginkgo leaves, he thought I'd be just the man for the job. (Actually, he admitted after we were some way through the process that if he'd seen this website before he'd asked me to do the cover, he might have thought twice.)
Above you'll find the finished cover for Episode 1 of Swords Versus Tanks***. Episodes 2 through 4 are in progress, and will involve a mad, magic-wielding princess, a berserk** of Vikings, a cliff-top castle, a Meso-American pyramid, and some Aztec/Mayan warriors. If you come back in a day or so, I'll do you up some picture-heavy posts on how we got from Martin's brief to the final product.
(And, if you fancy it, you can order a poster or a mug from here.)
* Actually, that's a lie. That was exactly what my reply was.
** What? That seems like a perfectly sensible plural for Vikings.
*** Edited to add link to the Actual Book.
Hello. It's been a while. Ok, it's been more than a while. But I have a good excuse! Really!
It goes like this: we moved! We upped sticks and carted ourselves south. We are now inhabitants of a sleepy, green, mostly commuter town north of London. A stellar job came my husband's way, and, given the ever decreasing funds available for academic research, we kind of thought we'd better jump on it.
It was a massive upheaval. We had lived in Edinburgh for about 20 years -- since we were students. Our son had only ever lived in Edinburgh. We lived in a beautiful old flat in a busy, hipster part of the city, and our son went to school a 3 minute walk away. We didn't need a car. And we all had (still have!) some of the most fabulous friends there. In contrast, our new home is a 30 minute walk from everything, where "everything" emphatically does not include the multiple independent coffee shops, delis, German and French bakeries, and two (count 'em two) local chocolatiers that we had in our old neighbourhood. My husband now has a long commute into London every day. And of course we know no one here.
But. Our house is sunny, and has two gardens, and is big enough for me to have my own studio space. The hour round trip walk that I make twice a day to take our son to the tiny village school he got a place in goes past the edge of at least two very pretty conservation areas, and the school itself seems to be a really good match for our son. My husband's lovely, lovely family now live only a 20 minute drive away, and they are brilliant about making sure we are coping ok. We got fantastically lucky with our neighbours. And we are slowly, slowly settling in.
However, in the meantime, if you spot me about anywhere looking like a bunny in headlights, or indeed an alien in a strange land, do feel free to offer me a restorative gin. Or some cheese.
Back in November of last year, which seems like a very long time ago now, I spent a week commuting through to Glasgow*. Given that it's not a desperately exciting trip, and that in order to catch all my various forms of transport (bus-train-bus) I had to be up and out of the house well before I would normally be out of bed, I think it's fairly safe to conclude that I was making the trip for something fairly special. That special thing was a week-long course with Joanna Kinnersly-Taylor, a Glasgow-based textile artist and designer.
I'd been wanting to take a course with Joanna for quite a while. At the end of my very first screen printing course, I had mentioned to the head of textiles at the ECA (the lovely and utterly enthusiastic Lindy Richardson, who tutored us for a couple of days in the middle of the course) that I'd really like to try to take my screen printing further. Lindy had suggested I get in touch with Joanna, who runs small, intensive dying and printing courses from her studio.
I did send an email to Joanna, but for a few years my life and work and finances and all of those fun things kept intervening and stopping me from actually taking a course. Then a few things happened. First, my husband gave me Joanna's book for Christmas, which brought the courses back to the front of my mind. Second, my research hours were drastically cut back, leaving me both with some spare time, and with a pressing need to investigate an alternative means of making a living. And last but not least I got an email from Joanna saying that she was going to be running one of her courses again soon, and would I like to take part.
And so, back in November, I bussed-trained-bussed my way each day between Edinburgh and Glasgow to spend the most delightful week in Joanna's spacious WASPS studio in Dennistoun. Over the course of the week we designed, refined and selected our images for printing, burned them onto screens, dyed our fabric, and then screen printed our images onto the dyed fabric. But that really only scratches the surface of what we did.
There were four of us in the studio that week. We had two crew, as it were: Joanna, who is gentle and generous, with - we discovered - a deadpan humour that she deploys with the most accurate timing and the straightest of faces, and Jasmine, an amazingly thoughtful student from Heriot-Watt School of Textile and Design who was acting as Joanna's assistant for the week. And there were two students: me (loud, brightly coloured, Canadian), and my amazing classmate Susan (elegant, adventurous, a truly gifted storyteller) who had travelled up from Surrey especially for Joanna's course.
And over the course of the week all four of us talked. We talked about textiles, of course, and our designs, and our favourite fabrics from other designers. We talked about our art backgrounds and our non-art backgrounds, and the other creative and non-creative things we like to do. We talked about our kids, and our holidays, and our home renovations. We drank tea and talked, and shared chocolate and talked, and printed and talked.
And here's what I think we were doing as we talked, the thing that was more than learning as much as we possibly could from Joanna in a really short amount of time: we were building a mini-community. We were listening to each other, and learning from each other, and bouncing ideas off each other, and encouraging each other.
And like these things do, this community became part of the story of the things we made that week. Having that community, that group of like-minded individuals all thinking about the same stuff, gave us the safety-net-cheerleading-team combination that allowed us to dive in and try things that we might not have tried before, all of which then ended up in our art. It's something I need to remember as I try to build up this business: a good community can really galvanise your creativity.
* That's what you say: through to Glasgow. It's one of those phrases, like "Where do you stay?" meaning "Where do you live?" or "The dishes want washing", meaning "Are you going to wash the dishes or just let them sit and fester you mucky person?" that throws newcomers, but that rapidly becomes part of your vocabulary just by dint of living in Scotland. Except "Back of nine," which I have never managed to sort out. It appears to mean one of "Just before nine," or "Just after nine," or "Just before ten.": in my case it invariably means I'm going to be wrong, and late.
Since deciding to jump head-first into the world of trying to make a living by my creative wits alone (-ish), I've had a lot of people ask me why this career path, why this particular direction (my favourite one of these came from a highschool friend's husband, a lovely man, who said "But you've been an intellectual for twenty years or more! How will you cope?!?").
I grew up in a family that loves to tell stories. And it's not just the point of the story that we enjoy. We like the telling of the story just as much: the detailed set-up and meandering background that leads to the satisfying punchline. I am especially guilty of wanting to provide All The History behind every comical incident. Early on in our relationship, before he realised how fruitless this action would be, my husband used to stare at me with amused impatience and ask me to "skip to the end." (I never did. I don't think I can.)
My dad is a particularly talented story-teller. A few years ago, he started sending stories via email to my son. These stories are true-ish tales (of Dennis Dimwitty, the contractor hired to work on my parents' new apartment, who requested some anti-gravity paint because the stuff he was using on the ceiling kept running back down the brush and onto the floor, or the taxi driver who put his right foot on the gas and his left foot on the brake and pumped them "like you do when you're playing the harmonium," which made the taxi move "stopgostopgostopgostopgostopgostopgo"), and historical adventures (of Davy Croquette, the cowboy who invented the cheese finger, and of the Vikings, Ragnar Ruedenoyse and his friends Snorri and Soggi Staelbred, who fought against the Saxons at the battle of Penselwood), and some of them are even Really Ancient stories about when my dad was a boy, back in the wilds of Dorset. And all of them are full of details, and asides-to-the-reader, and rewinds, and factlets. And my son loves them, because they make him laugh, and because they're just like Papa.
I think stories are important. For all the usual reasons, of course: they entertain, they comfort, they inform. But they also connect us: the listeners and the tellers. All of that background, all the meandering, all the "getting there" of the story, all of the unique twists that an individual puts on spinning a tale for another individual, that's the story-teller's fingerprint, if you will. It lets you see what's important, or funny, or interesting, or curious to the teller. It is a little image of the teller that you can carry around in your head for a while.
What does all this have to do with anything, I hear you ask? (Skip to the end, woman!) Well, here's the thing. When you make hand-made things, especially when you make hand-made versions of things that can be mass-produced and bought extremely cheaply, you do kind of wonder why you're bothering. I mean, who is going to spend £30 on a cloth bag when they can pick a plastic one up for 5p (40p for a bag-for-life) at their local supermarket? What, as they say in the start-your-own-business manuals, is the value that we hand-makers are adding for our customers?
Over the years I have bought many, many hand-crafted items (too many, if a recent trip home to help clear my boxes, and boxes, and boxes of stuff out of my parents' house so my brother and sister-in-law and nephew can live there without constantly tripping over all my tat is anything to go by). Hand-carved silver jewellery from the west coast of Canada. A blanket woven using a traditional Québequois technique (I've just looked it up - it's called catalogne) that uses strips of rags as wefts. Teeny, tiny baskets the size of my baby fingernail. A rag doll with brown woolen hair, bought at the same time as my best friend bought a matching doll with blond hair. And it isn't just the uniqueness of the thing or the idea that I'm getting a one-off that appeals, although that's part of it. It's that they tell the story of how they were made in a way that something mass-produced can't. Don't get me wrong, I love my iPad, but I have no sense of it having a history before I gave it one. Whereas each of the hand-made things that I own or have owned was already carrying its own story around with it before I came anywhere near it.
So. What we add is us. Our own, rambling, peculiar, quirky stories, and the way that we tell them. We add those to our crafts, because you can't craft something and not add yourself somehow, and then we send them on their way, for other people to add their own stories to. Which I think, really, is why this direction. For the stories.
But first, a cup of tea.