The final instalment (well, y’know, until the next one…) in my slightly-scrabbling, 3-part catch-up series of Children’s Book Illustration MA posts (I am literally blown over by the audible sigh of relief from t’ blogosphere…). This is a rather less structured offering than the previous two (I know: you didn’t believe it possible… I am, you see, brimming with surprises!), on account of my having galloped through recounting Modules 2 and 3 of the course, and having arrived, somewhat abruptly, at the roadblock that is Module 4: the Diploma Review, or ‘dissertation’ as I have previously (and rather grandiosely, for a 6,000-word document…) described it.
While grappling with that particular word-built ogre, we were encouraged to continue developing work initiated in the previous module, both to capitalise on the progress we had made during those previous six weeks – by using the creative momentum accrued to propel our visual language’s evolution and creation of finished pieces – and to function as a ‘differently expressive’ (i.e. more intuitive, visual) foil to the, by now, disorientingly unfamiliar practise of essay structuring and keyboard-tapping (it was clear from the briefing that some on the course foresaw boredom of sanity-compromising proportions without some mitigating activity of this order). The freedom to intersperse self-reflective, Review research with project work during these weeks was invaluable in allowing a ‘dialogue’ to develop between the discoveries and connections I was forging, and the illustration work I was producing, the one informing the other in a way that really helped train my focus on a more well-defined trajectory (where previously I had tended to cast about in all directions, hoping to ‘hit’ on something that would somehow immediately identify itself as ‘The Right Thing’ and solicitously guide me onwards towards the successful resolution of my creative quandary).
How this actually manifested, however, was as me studiously avoiding the reproachful presence of the laptop (in fact, actively burying it beneath a slew of messily arranged notes and photocopies as a primitive defence against its shinily-chiding surfaces) and scurrying off to the printroom at every opportunity – luxuriating in hours of ink daubing and smearing to test out my newly-devised approaches to achieving a quality of mark that I felt would exactly attune with my narrative purpose for the Module 3 project. Frustratingly, some of these ventures (occasionally entire days…) were rather less than satisfactory – the most extreme of which involving roughly 5 hours’ meticulous plate-inking preparation (which, on initial appearance, promised to be rather good in relation to previous attempts [if I do say so myself, etc., etc.]) almost entirely undermined by a moment’s lapse in concentration at the crucial pressing stage when, engaged in some casual chit chat about vegetable alternatives to flour in cake-making (or some such other scintillating topic), I placed the expensive Japanese tosa washi paper I had just purchased wrong-side down under the blankets… Gah! The result was a less-than-crisp, disappointingly grey print (see below) as reward for a whole day’s careful ink manipulation. The trouble with (and, perversely, joy of) mono printing is, as the term suggests, its absolute uniqueness: you only get one shot before the plate is wiped clean and that ephemeral image is obliterated forever, preserved only in whatever impression you have managed to lift with one sheet of paper*. One of those “chalk it down to experience” episodes that people ‘tactfully’ chirrup when they can see you’ve totally ballsed something up entirely due to your own ineptitude…
*Usually. Degas himself often made a second print from his monotype plate – a sort of ‘ghost’ image – then he then worked into with, e.g., or used as a ‘base’ for a painting.
Needless to say, this image did not make the ‘final cut’, and I think qualifies as a ‘blind avenue’ of creative enquiry, as Prof. Salisbury might describe it: I had a theory, a strategy for achieving a particular atmospheric, visceral (what I came to refer to, for my own purposes, as ‘a bit grubby’) quality that I had found in Degas’s monotype-based works and that I hoped to harness for my own, illustrative ends – it’s just that it hadn’t quite ‘come off” and I realised that I had underestimated the medium I had chosen. Ink demands a certain degree of autonomy from the authorial process, a freedom to work its inscrutable magic beyond the tyrannical grip of ‘the vision’ that will, ultimately, lend it a life and vigour of its very own. Well, that’s what I think anyway… And that’s what I’m attributing the above abortive endeavour to: my own jealous grasp on the image, approaching the plate with a strong vision etched (ha! Printmaking pun for you, at no extra cost…) in my mind that I fought against the ink to direct into being on the plate, instead of keeping in mind a sense of what I wanted to depict and allowing the physical process of brushing on and wiping away ink to determine how that would eventually reveal itself.
The Macmillan Prize brief also constituted a highly alluring distraction from the rather more word-centric task at hand, although by the time I had resolved to try and complete a dummy-book and sufficient finished artwork spreads (almost certainly nibbling at the heels of the very last days to risk submission by post, if not into digital-submission-only territory…), I was also beginning to revel in the research element of the Diploma Review. (I’ve included a few more spreads from my Stage Fright [almost wordless] picturebook entry, taken from the dummy book [pdf thereof] that was required to be submitted alongside the finished artwork pieces, below…)
A Macmillan Prize Highly Commended-er herself, my first interview subject for the assignment (I had settled on the [perhaps inevitable, given my preoccupation with this in my own work] sprawling subject of ‘tonal’ qualities in children’s picturebook illustration, my title now being: ‘In a Theatrical Light: an exploration of tonal variation in children’s picture books, with particular reference to a parallel aesthetic in theatre and film’) was the super-lovely Paula Metcalf – accompanied, on the day, by her little dog, Walter [‘Wally’] (a very sweet, white Westie). Paula’s work – well, that which I had chosen to focus on particularly (characterised by Mabel’s Magical Garden and Poddy and Flora), but which no longer really represents her increasingly loose, fluent visual language – is wonderfully ethereal and perfectly blended to lend her images an immediate sense of a believable, real space, one that the reader can immediately inhabit, but which glows with a sort of dreamlike, fantastical quality that defines it as a magical realm of experience. She spoke of her early belief that tonal and linear marks were mutually exclusive, that one compromised the power and integrity of the other – her early ‘methodology’ privileged purely tonal rendering of objects and spaces, working as she did on a tiny scale to create meticulously gradated pencil drawings that she then overlaid with colour (for and of which she has an enviably natural affinity and understanding) – but emphasised that, following a fairly recent ‘epiphany’, this was no longer true and that she was enjoying exploring more spontaneous, expressive mark-making that combined both with colour to achieve images with a powerful sense of movement and life.
Throughout our multiple-venue interview (it transpires that the pub of Cambridge are not as accommodating of a small, impeccably-behaved dog as one might expect, or at least hope; we resorted to a selection of old-fashioned ‘boozers’ that, inevitably, practised rather bizarre opening hours), Paula was really generous in recounting her own not-always-positive experiences as an illustrator – particularly insecurities dating from her MA-student-era – and in crystallising from these the moments that had proved most valuable for her. While my enthusiasm for the subject of my Review was growing with each rambling question Paula patiently tried to interpret and answer, I found the little chestnuts of personal experience she shared seriously competing for attention and threatening to entirely occlude my focus!
In addition to considering the work of an array of illustrators whom work tonally (including Ian Andrew, Chris Van Allsburg, Stephen Lambert and Aaron Becker), I contacted three other professional ‘practitioners’ in the course of my research – Jim Kay (A Monster Calls; new ‘visual imaginer’/illustrator of the Harry Potter series; a pretty awesome [and, probably, equally terrifying] gig, by anyone’s reckoning!!); Portia Rosenberg (Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell , soon to be recreated in film [casting began in March this year]; she gave a great interview about her work to the SCBWI online magazine, Words and Pictures in March 2014, which you can still read here); and Alexis Deacon (part-time lecturer on the MA; works, including but not exhaustively, While You Are Sleeping, Slow Loris, Beegu, Memory Palace, The Selfish Giant, Jim’s Lion – this last published this month [June 2014] and showcased at The Illustration Cupboard in St James’, London); Lindy-Hopper extraordinaire; general, all-round genius). All were incredibly patient and helpful in their responses, despite my characteristically verbose question-framing style: with each successive interviewee, my focus narrowed a little further, the line of enquiry became more ‘honed’, so that Alexis (whom I was most trepidatious about approaching…) was treated to the most clearly formulated set of questions – although, unfortunately, that isn’t saying much (they were hardly what one might call ‘pithy’). I won’t subject you to all my findings, but there were a couple of things that I thought might be of interest:
Portia Rosenberg, whom also studied on the MA, said that she very often begins a drawing with the element(s) that most interest her – despite a more technical sense to take a broader, ‘mapping out’ approach to the scene – and that these are usually the faces of people, being especially interested in exaggerated characterisation and informed by sense of the humorous in humanity. She mentioned that one of the things she had discovered on the course, and throughout her own illustrative career, was that the ability to draw, to render visual images in a particular way, was something that it was possible to improve and develop with learning and practise; that, while one person might seem to have an innate ‘talent’, another with what might be perceived as a lesser facility for drawing had the capacity to build on their skills through intelligent observation and diligence (or sheer bloody-mindedness…) to achieve results that far outstripped what they may’ve imagined themselves capable of previously. A cheering thought.
Jim Kay, discussing his ‘crude use of tone’ in A Monster Calls (his words, emphatically not mine…!!) – where the interpretive impulse of the reader is called upon to construct meaning from the “pixellated ‘noise'” of the marks – as representing something of a struggle in the creation process: that wonderfully free, expressive line that skates across the surface of the paper – often ‘skipping’ in places as the texture of the drawing surface catches/eludes the, e.g. charcoal tip, sometimes took between 30 and 40 attempts to ‘get right’, as any eraser work suddenly altered the quality and intensity of the mark, disrupting the illusion. Reassuring to hear that even the brilliant are plagued by dissatisfaction from time to time! 😉
On responding to a question pertaining to sources of inspiration, Alexis Deacon talked about the importance of remaining/becoming receptive to all things/people as possible sources for learning. I’m afraid I’ve definitely been guilty of being fairly dismissive of certain things/people out of a rather presumptuous sense that, either, they were merely reiterating things I already knew (albeit in the most superficial terms, sometimes) or that they were not relevant to me. Although I’m pretty sure the inclination to ‘filter’ the information I’m exposed to everyday – a reflex I think we’ve all evolved to some degree in the age of relentless sensory bombardment – will stubbornly linger, I would like to think that I am at least a little more aware of when I am ‘censoring’, and more readily disposed to interrogate whether this is done rightfully/advisedly, or whether I might learn more by disabling the filter…
In the unlikely event of any further interest, I do have a version of the final thing clogging up a few 22.1 MB of my hard drive (it includes a lot of pictures…), although I think I’d be rather reluctant to offer it up for more thorough public scrutiny; by its nature, as a ‘review’, and contrary to the usual, more scholarly form of dissertations, it is pretty subjective and focuses on my own creative development in the latter sections. (Unfortunately, next year’s 1st-year full-timers – and 2nd-year part-timers – will be offered my Diploma Review, along with everyone else’s, as guidance for their own studies at the start of this module, with no indication as to its relative merit as example…)
Here endeth the recap. And now, on with the summer!!! To whet your, ahem, appetite for forthcoming posts (I hope…) I offer one of my submissions for another, recently discovered creative warm-up/procrastination facility: Daily Doodle! (You can find them on Twitter, @Daily_Doodle, where you should be able to identify the day’s topic [either from the image contributions in their feed, or from the recurring hashtags…], and they also have a Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/DAILYD00DLE. Open to all – doodle away, people!! 😀