So, having battled through the second module of the course – and, dear reader, my last blog post, if you have been diligently following (profuse thanks, if so – and apologies for the rather dry, unrewarding nature of both textual and illustrative content therein…) – Christmas 2013 was in large part an essay-writing interval.
I say essay-writing… More accurately, I sat ensconced on my bed, surrounded by library-book-built cairns, alternately reading, huffing and sobbing as I attempted to wrestle a blizzard of words and images into two cogent discussions on 1.) the narrative quality of visual imagery and 2.) the structural merits/failings of a selected picturebook/graphic novel crossover text. Occasionally, Marvellous Dave would courageously tiptoe across the threshold with a cup of tea (or glass of wine, in the last week – hour immaterial…), but there was no time for casual chit chat if I was to have sufficient desperate-weeping time to see me through both assignments. After three years churning out essays for an English degree – not to mention a stint as an assistant editor writing copy for a reference book series – you might think the prospect of constructing two relatively short written arguments would seem a mere trifle, but having revelled in almost exclusively illustrative pursuits for four straight months, my brain seemed emphatically reluctant to comply with demands for intelligent wordsmithery… Curses! (That I would have to confront the reality of mustering a 6,000-word dissertation from this same labour-averse grey matter in a couple of short months was conveniently, and hastily, ‘filed’ before it could stir any undue alarm…)
The intervening three or four weeks post- January ‘hand-in’ and pre-Semester 2 start were mainly occupied by completing small, personal commissions (including a 40th birthday caricature of a running buddy [see below], a wedding gift portrait, and preparatory work for a pet portrait) that had been loitering patiently for several weeks – and the start of the course, in one instance – awaiting a little chink in the coursework schedule. It was a relief to return to pencil-wielding, after weeks of frenzied note-taking and keyboard-tapping, but a little odd to be revisiting a manner of working that – after the intensifying observational discipline of the course – felt strangely unfamiliar, counter-intuitive, and a little bit like ‘cheating on’ the MA…
I was desperate to keep what now felt like an ill-fitting, threadbare ‘visual language’ at a proverbial arms length and to try and recapture the ‘magic’ I had begun to experience in terms of translating the world through my own visual form of expression. The return to Cambridge in February soon dispelled any lingering artistic malaise: I really missed my course mates over the festive break, and to reconnect with them, and bathe in the coruscating glow of illustrative brilliance emanating from our tutors (this semester including James Mayhew, Marta Altes, Hannah Webb, Alexis Deacon and David Hughes – alongside the eminent Prof. Martin Salisbury, of course) was just the reinvigorating tonic the, er, creative doctor (???) ordered…
Embarking on the Diploma Project – an exercise in exploring what we had learned in the previous semester but now very purposefully tailored to a child reader/viewership (where the previous project had not specifically been…) – represented an exciting shift up a gear towards realising our ambitions as picturebook makers. Although I, like most others, had arrived armed with a few possible ideas to pursue, it was clear that the next few weeks would be critical in first exploring and then identifying the most promising contenders for a child-centric visual sequence that would synthesise the technical elements we had learnt so far whilst continuing to develop our emerging personal visual language (or ‘style’, as we are absolutely prohibited from referring to it unless in entirely inaudible whispers…). Below are a handful of sketches from this initial, unresolved stage as I cast about for a theme that I was sufficiently enthused by to want to ‘create’ with during the six-week module:
Although loathe to abandon horses (again…) and seagulls, I settled on the ballet theme, and attempted to find a ‘way in’ by experimenting with various different media (incl. brush pen and ink, acrylic inks, pastel, charcoal and monoprint) and interrogating my eddying thoughts about possible formats and scenarios for narrative potential and enjoyment factor (my abiding feeling from the experience of the last module was that I had taken it – and myself – way too seriously…!). A spider did feature early on in this ideas-storm, but it quickly became evident that my lifetime-spanning, debilitating fear of arachnids was going to impede the process of character development. Plus, by nature of their diminutive size and horribly gangly proportions, spiders don’t readily lend themselves to expressiveness without recourse to cartoon-esque devices. It seemed sensible that the spider character should, instead, be realised as a mouse – although the notion of a mouse that lives in the theatre and has a penchant for ballet seemed disappointingly familiar…
The opportunity to observe a series of children’s ballet, to watch countless films of both traditional ballet performances (a stalwart of mid-afternoon Christmas holiday TV scheduling…) and documentaries (inspired by a fortuitously-timed interest in the art form at the BBC, it seemed), and to attend a production of The Sleeping Beauty by Cambridge (University) Ballet Club, all fuelled my enjoyment of this module, while a burgeoning interest in the art of Edgar Degas (surely the indisputable foremost artist in depicting this theme, and from a ‘reportage’-like perspective that imbues his work with a freshness and modernity that belies its age) motivated me to venture into the bowels of the print room (accompanied by similarly hesitant print-process virgins) to experiment with subtraction mono printing methods in order to break away from the tyrannical pencil!
These forays into print were often rather long, drawn-out affairs – sometimes rather less-than-successful, frequently frustrating, but always educative: my initial impulse to micro-engineer every mark made was soon overtaken by a realisation that the medium doesn’t allow this sort of hyper-controlled retentiveness, and gradually I learned to relinquish determinacy to the ink and creative whim of the environment. Learning alongside seasoned printmakers – many of whom are studying on the MA Printmaking course – and benefiting from their wisdom and experience (and homemade cake…), generously shared, also nudged me much farther forward in terms of personal creative evolution than I had imagined possible: I had begun to despair of ever experiencing the merest tingle of a creative epiphany that it seemed so many of my colleagues had been transformed by in previous months (that makes it sound like some sort of religious awakening, but I suppose – in a very tenuous manner of speaking – it is…), and now I was sensing those first, exciting, er, pins-and-needles! 🙂
In the end, and despite the revelation that I really rather enjoyed print (after overcoming its personally intimidating reputation…), I came to the conclusion that the ‘methodology’ best suited to both this picturebook project and that I found most satisfying combined two hand-rendered processes – i.e. graphite drawing and watercolour painting – synthesised with a little digital wizardry; the end result, while perhaps recognisably reliant (to an extent) upon Photoshop’s magic ‘Multiply’ tool, I hope retains something of that traditional, hand-crafted quality.
This, though, is not ‘The End’; I feel as though I am just beginning… Exciting times ahead!! 😀