Maybe with some reference to Sherlock Holmes.
In three illustrations featuring “dilemma”, “conflict” and “resolution” and at least three characters in the story.
I am a big believer that limitations foster creativity – there is nothing as paralyzing as complete freedom – but the brief for the debut year of the SCBWI Narrative Art Award seems to have been drafted by a master. I have rarely came across a challenge so maddening and so fascinating, so clever in combining clear limits (3 illustrations, 3 situations, 3 characters) and wide horizons of creative playgrounds. And Sherlock Holmes, of course – how can one resist that!
I had not planned in participating, but then a project opportunity I was saving time for did not pan out, and my mind started circling around the problem set by the Award brief like my children around the cake batter – waiting for an opportunity to lick the bowl.
Here is how it played out.
Step one: find out that the whole Sherlock Holmes canon is available as audiobook read by none less than Stephen Fry. Jump at the opportunity to re-familiarize myself with the timeless stories and confirm my recollection – after hours of delightful being read to while doing other stuff – that none of the Sherlock Holmes classics is really suitable for children and that Sherlock himself is barely relatable for 8-11 year-olds.
Step two: browse the local library for children mystery stories – finding none that triggers my interest (I am NOT going to illustrate Skullduggery Pleasant!). Discover instead that there have been countless parodies of Sherlock Holmes – also some geared for children. Start to play with the idea of a child version of Sherlock Holmes….and when it comes to that, why not a girl version? How about that super-observant, mildly obsessive, book-devouring girl that has played a role in my life, but with supreme self-confidence instead of the outcast halo?
Step three: Go home and start filling pages of character sketches. In the process, add sketches for a younger boy sidekick: Watson, of course. Google female names that sound like “Sherlock” and celebrate the birth of Charlotte Holmes, 12 year old half-orphan in Victorian London, with a busy father, a distracted governess and lots of gumption. Watson becomes the re-incarnation of the Baker Street Boys.
Ok, so now there are characters but still no story…
Total blank. Not easy to tell any story in three illustrations, let alone one that you do not know.
Step four: Re-consider the Sherlock canon. “The Hound of the Baskervilles” is one of the most famous novels. Has some elements that could be translated into a children’s version. But a 12-year-old girl in Victorian England is not likely to be camping on the moors and the climax scene involves shooting a dog….no, no, no. How about the hound is the victim instead of the weapon? I start to vaguely imagine a mystery involving a theft of meat at the butcher’s, a missing hound and his distressed owner. I start researching how stray dogs were handled in London at the turn of the century….and find something else instead: the story of The Brown Dog Affair.
In 1903, Swedish feminists infiltrated the University of London and condemned the practice of vivisection on dogs performed in the Department of Physiology. The controversy, known as “The Brown Dog Affair” raged for the next 10 years and led to the establishment of a Royal Commission to investigate the use of animals in experiments. Women were still a rare occurrence in university halls at that time – which makes their bravery in exposing the issue even more impressive. The setup seemed perfect for the character of Charlotte Holmes, and the significance of the events is very striking for me – as I have worked in drug research for a long time and know a bit of something about animal experiments.
And so it clicked. These illustrations are a bit of a turning point in that they are targeted to a mid-grade story, they are black and white and focussing on narrative more than anything else. Regardless of how the award pans out, I have won all I needed to win from this exercise!
And now there is this story swimming around in my head – collecting fragments of dialogue and shreds of description in its loose nets. My last attempt of writing a mid-grade novel has stranded at 12000 words…Maybe I should give it another try.
NaNoWriMo is coming up….;-)
The paint is drying on the pixels of kid no 50 of the 100 kids project I started in September 2016 and I believe this is how people must feel at the 13th mile of a marathon: gasping for air and with the nagging feeling that it was not such a good idea to start after all…
But if I compare my goals (which I had the foresight to write down) with the outcome so far, I should conclude that it was actually a pretty good idea. This is what I wanted to achieve:
- Practice vignettes (aka, dealing with white backgrounds) and limited palettes – yes. Still not so fond of white backgrounds, but at least I know the issues they present. On the other hand, I discovered I really love limited palettes and they are becoming a standard approach in all my illustration work;
- Practice children proportions and children faces and hands – both improved by leaps and bounds with this exercise;
- Concentrate on storytelling and emotion rather than display in character design – yes, I am quite happy with how I sticked to this commitment;
- Practice different rendering styles and different levels of stylization – yes. Indeed I learned to use all sorts of different approaches, but I have also lost some sense of continuity of style which I need to gain back…a good reason to go on with the next 50;
- Add images featuring children to my portfolio. That obviously worked – many of the 50 made their way into my online and printed portfolios and even to a few postcards;
- Increase social media engagement. This has definitely worked out, especially thinking that I started with no social media presence whatsoever.
So, recharging batteries, refocussing on the goal, and on with the next 50!
There are a lot of “100-something” challenges out there – for illustrators, for designers or simply to initiate a life habit. Why the number 100 rather than 50 or 1000 is anybody’s guess, but, for illustrators at least, it is a neat amount. Draw 100 hands, for example, and you’ll definitely dramatically improve your hand-drawing skills (pun intended). Draw 100 faces from photos and you’ll find yourself able to draw faces without reference quite easily. I know because I did it. Many times over. Probably not quite enough….Because the truth is that one hundred of anything is only just a start on the path to design or drawing proficiency. One thousand would be a much more adequate estimate of what it takes….but I guess that number is too scary for anyone to begin!
Anyhow, I decided to do a “100 kids” challenge back in September and I can now celebrate the 25th kids-versary. I am giving myself one year to finish it, so I am fully on schedule (no, 100-something does not mean that you should necessarily do one per day. Sometimes it makes sense, sometimes, like in this case, it does not).
This is what I hope to get out of the exercise:
- Experiment with different rendering methods and solidify my preferred rendering style (that is why I am going for full renders, which definitely excludes the one-per-day concept). The experiment part has resulted so far in discovering digital watercolor and digital pastel as a nice alternative to my preferred (oil-like) rendering;
- Improve my ability to design child characters – something a children book illustrator definitely needs to master;
- Learn how to do vignettes and isolated characters. This was probably the biggest discovery, because rendering on white has completely different issues than rendering a full illustration. You always have the white of the page overpowering every attempt to render light, and have to compromise on light intensity;
- Enrich my portfolio with illustrations featuring children. I have been trying to go for occasional full illustrations, though this has proven tricky to accomodate, but I have definitely gained some nice vignette illustrations in the process;
- Have a steady stream of good quality or portfolio level small illustrations for posting on Instagram and Twitter. I personally believe that social media posts for illustrators should have almost the same quality as what you would choose for your portfolio. There is some lee-way, of course, but the potential exposure is just too large to risk ruining your reputation (shall we say “brand”?) with sub-par work. Work-in-progress is always an option of course, but for many people, even people working with illustrators, it is difficult to judge the quality of a sketch. And some of the prep-work and underpainting look so ugly that I would not dare to share it with anyone.
- And, of course, I love to draw children of any age – so it is nearly always the first thing that comes to my mind when I do not know what to draw!
So far, the experiment has definitely been a huge success for me. Something that I had not anticipated is that I end up doing most of these illustrations on the iPad. This has purely convenience reasons (I do them in scraps of free time or while watching a film), but has had the added bonus of making me quite familiar with ProCreate.
Anyhow, here are the first 25 – and looking forward to the next 75 (and beyond?…). If anyone wants to join in, feel free to use the #100kids hashtag!
This must have been one of the painting I have spent most time on – I did not count the hours, but it felt like an eternity. At 260 cm across at 300 dpi (9 ft approximately), it called for an amazing amount of detail work, literally down to single fur hairs. This is not the largest illustration I have ever done (I have done a poster for the arrival corridor of Basel airport, 6 meters long – that is about 20 ft), but it is definitely the largest painting I have ever done. It will be printed on an acrylic panel, I believe, and mounted on the reception desk of a vet’s office.
I hope guests and patrons, with two or four legs, will like it and maybe it will make their waiting for the vet’s visit more enjoyable while they pour over all the tiny details I put in.
Meanwhile, since I retained all rights to the image, I got this idea for a funny rhymed book about pets taking over the vet’s office and wrecking havoc. No word has been written (yet), but a second illustration is already lined up….for whenever I can master the will to tackle another ginormous painting (I fear I have to keep up the size so as to maintain a consistent level of detail).
Ah, the medium is digital of course, using exclusively pencil brushes (Kyle’s Happy HB and Kyle’s soft pencil) and an occasional touch of Aaron Blaise inimitable fur brushes. As I have now come to expect, I went through the dark-tea-time-of-the-soul phase with it and stayed there stubbornly for at least two days. And as I have also come to expect, I crawled out of it at some point and now I quite like it. It is good to know by now that this happens every time on any illustration, big or small, and the only solution is to refuse to give in and pull through it and to the other side.
Inktober is over.
My first graphic novel ( oh well, it is a short story!) is born.
Traditional inking was not that enjoyable for me, and I do not think my skills in inking improved in any noticeable way – it remained clumsy for me. But maybe I crunched too much in too little time.
What I found enormously enjoyable though was the breaking down of a story in a panel-to-panel sequence, thinking about tools and devices to make the flow work and to convey the right emotion. It is like storyboarding (which i have always enjoyed a lot) on steroids. It’s like directing a film. but also doing all the visual development work at the same time. In this case, I skipped character development and did only very limited environment work – on a next attempt I would invest more at the beginning to sort those things out.
The drawings may be lacking finesse and originality, but I really love the story – it means a lot for me on so many different levels…On to the next project!
Day 27 of Inktober – Scan of completed page 15.
A couple of people said they would have liked the relationship between Inkling and Adam to take up more space. I find this interesting, because in my intention, Inkling is not a real person, but an expression of Adam’s mind – his longing and his unexpressed wishes. Inkling is in effect Adam’s creation, so it is a part of Adam himself…or not?
Again, what is the relationship between the artist and that part of himself or herself that is visible to the world in the form of paintings, sculpture or other creation?