Tag Archives: art

A Stranger Dream – review

I don’t dabble that much in colouring books, in part because I frequently end up colouring for work purposes. However, I was asked if I’d review this, and I said yes, for the simple reason that creator Sarah Snell-Pym is a very lovely person. She’s also got what I can only describe as a unique mind, and as a consequence what she’s made is a truly unusual colouring book.

The front cover describes it as ‘a non-linear visual poem about identity… in an adult colouring book.’ The poem is embedded in the images and you have to find the words, some of them are more obvious than other. That calls for a deep engagement with each page, and it gives a strange coherence to the book as a whole.

The art is only on one side of any given sheet of paper. This means that by colouring in one image, you don’t mess up another one – especially an issue if you want to use pens or inks.

There’s a lot of variance in terms of how much of the page you are offered for colouring. Some pages have a lot of open space, encouraging you to do your own thing. Some pages have a lot of black on them, so you don’t need to do much to get the whole image. I like this. It creates room to decide what you’re equal to.

Sarah’s art style is playful, and easy to get into. One of the things that stuck out for me is a reoccurring image of two unhappy blobby beings who merge in the middle. A personification of dysfunctional co-dependency, I thought. Two beings with no proper boundaries, or one identity being subsumed by the other. They connect with the relationship and identity angles in the poem. if you look closely, you can see them co-blobbing at the bottom of the book cover.

More about the book here – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Stranger-Dream-Love-Sarah-Snell-Pym/dp/1530078490

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Taking the politics out of art

It happens a lot on twitter; that fans will tell creators to shut up about the politics and get back to the art. From what I see, the politics are usually left wing. It seems a very odd idea to me, for all kinds of reasons.

Firstly, any creativity happens in a context. Artists and writers and musicians aren’t kept in little boxes where the rest of the world can’t affect us. We may be talking about politics because they impact on us – changes to working tax credits, national insurance the VAT put on electronic content in the EU – these things all affect creators directly, to give some recent examples. In America, lack of money for healthcare is a very big problem and one that kills creative people. We don’t have the luxury of ignoring the politics that affect our everyday lives any more than anyone else does.

Most of us do not sit in high towers imagining how the world is. We have friends and families, neighbours, communities. Things that may not impact on us directly may well be impacting on them and we may need to speak up for them – and when you’ve got a following, of course you want to use it for good, and sometimes that means saying something about foodbanks, child homelessness, or environmental destruction.

To be a good creator, you have to care about your creative form. To make up stories, or to reflect the world through song, or visual art, you need to be interested in the world and to care about it. Good art is rooted in the world. Yes, there’s a lot of imagination involved, but imagination that isn’t informed by experience doesn’t tend to work. It is a creator’s empathy and insight, their ability to speak meaningfully to people that makes the work good and gives it substance. You can’t ask people to care about the world as part of what makes their profession function, but never say anything about it to avoid causing discomfort to people who just wanted escapism. You can’t ask people not to put politics in their work – to only have irrelevance and silliness that has no relation to the rest of culture or human experience is preposterous.

Last but by no means least, silence is also a political choice with political consequences. To say nothing, is to support whatever’s going on. It is to enable, and allow. Silence leaves the voiceless unheard. It leaves questions unasked, and mistakes, and abuses unchallenged. Silence is often taken as tacit consent. And it allows people who can’t be bothered to engage with real issues, people who are comfortable and privileged, able to carry on in their untroubled bubbles. Which is what is being asked for when creators are told to shut up and stick to the art. Do we exist to supply amusement to people who only wish to be amused? No we don’t.

This post was inspired by something Professor Elemental wrote this week about politics and steampunk – you can read that here – https://www.patreon.com/posts/18350074


Building a better world – art and activism

Last week someone responded to my blog about what’s happening in modern Druidry by saying that we don’t need more books, we need more activism. My knee jerk reaction (as someone who writes books and gets involved with activism) is that of course we need both.

I’ve seen comments from people who are far more involved with activism than I will ever be, saying how much they appreciate good books to escape into, and other nourishing forms of art. I’ve done enough campaigning to know that it is gruelling, it wears you down emotionally, you get exhausted. If all you do is fight, you can lose track of the good things that you were fighting for, becoming totally focused on what you’re fighting against. That makes it really hard to stay motivated and keep going. Sometimes it means becoming the thing you were trying to replace.

One of the big questions when dealing with any cause, is how to get more people involved. How do you make them care enough to take action? How do you get them to change day to day life choices if you are an environmental campaigner? How do you persuade them that your cause is the one they should give their money to? Hard hitting, emotionally affecting campaigns can have the effect of shutting people down and driving them away. Who can face looking at another lost and starving child, another brutalised animal, another grim and traumatic outcome of human behaviour? How many of those can you bear to see before you start tuning out?

To make change, you have to believe that change is possible. You need hope, optimism and a sense of the possible good outcomes that can be achieved through your actions. It is better to inspire and uplift people into action than to frighten or depress them. People who believe in their own power can and will act. People who feel powerless in the face of all that is wrong, give up. Stories, songs, art – expressions of hope and possibility – help people to change things.

We need stories. We need stories about things that worked out ok, or better. We need stories about how much better things could be. We need things that feed our souls so that we are fighting for something, not merely grinding ourselves down against the vastness of all that is wrong. For some people, the comfort of a spiritual book is a real boon in this context as well. Guidance on how to uphold the spiritual side of your life, and the inspiration to do so, can be a real blessing. Something to hang on to when the world is breaking your heart, something to bring your grief to, and somewhere to seek sustenance.

For some people, spiritual practice is what makes it all bearable and possible. For some people, it’s escapist fantasy fiction. For some of us, it’s music, dancing, or walking, or bird watching or any number of other things. It is important to stay human, and to do the things that fill us with joy and hope.

If you want to do your art and activism at the same time, watch out for Share the Love in February – raising awareness of climate change.


Inspiration and grind

Creativity depends more on effort than it does on inspiration. There’s the work you need to put in to develop your craft and study the forms you want to work in. There’s the effort it takes to go from original, brilliant idea to finished piece – planning, researching sketching, drafting, editing, revising, learning, practicing – depending on what you do. Without graft, that first spark of inspiration isn’t worth much at all.

But at the same time, without the spark of inspiration what does the grafting do? To my mind, when its just graft, what I’m doing is developing my skills, not creating something new. Sometimes that’s a very good thing – as with practicing a song, or looking at other people’s work in order to learn.

It is of course possible to set about something in a deliberate, workish way, and then have the inspiration turn up because you’ve made a space for it. Some people may find this an effective method, for others it won’t work as well. I find it works well for me to play with ideas in my head when the spark of inspiration turns up, and get it to the paper when I have time. I don’t have to be all fire in my head for the writing down part of the process, just for the ideas stage.

Some things don’t need full on fire in the head creativity. This blog doesn’t. Not every day. Today I’m working with what I have – habit and craft – rather than a flash of wild creative thinking to get things moving. There are quite a few things I can do from this sort of headspace. I can edit and work as a colourist, and I can write articles if someone chucks a topic at me.

I have in the past tried to write creatively when I’ve felt no real inspiration but just wanted to feel like I was still a writer, or had a deadline to meet. That approach doesn’t work for me. It leaves me feeling hollow and weary. The creative writing I produce when I’m just knocking it out is not work I tend to like at all. I do not get to access my best thinking, and there may be some very solid technical reasons for this.

If I use my conscious mind to knock out a piece – well, that’s fine for nonfiction, where putting together facts and ideas in an organised way is the main point. What I think inspiration means, when looked at mechanically, is that the less conscious bits of my brain have absorbed an array of things and put them together out of sight of my conscious, and it is now all ready to roll. If I’m working consciously, I will tend to do things that are obvious, less original, there won’t be that underlying flow of ideas moving me onwards. It all feels a bit constipated.

Very conscious, deliberate, planned writing allows a person to stick to traditional story shapes, and I assume traditional methods in any other art form. Creating unconsciously from inspiration rather than a plan can allow all kinds of previously unthought and unthinkable things into the mix. Often a balance of the two is called for, bringing skill, knowledge and discipline in to balance up the delirious outpourings.


Staring at birds

One of the things I like about art, is how it makes you look at things. This is why my other half – artist Tom Brown – runs art sessions in a meditative context sometimes. Most of the time our looking can be fairly superficial, with much of what’s around us reduced to little more than backdrop and scenery. It’s god to change that.

Taking up colouring in the last year, I’ve had to pay much more attention to what things look like. How colour, and light and shape interact. What things look like, and what I can do with a pencil that might represent and suggest what things look like.

As I mentioned last weekend, I’m having a go at Inktober over on twitter. Every day I stick up an ink drawing. I’ve chosen birds as my theme. It’s already being a serious learning experience.

I sit down with a nature book, a pencil and a pad and I try to draw a bird from its photo. Something specific, and something striking enough to be recognisable – heron, avocet, kingfisher, curlew was where I started. They have shapes and colours that help them stand out from other birds. Of course every type of bird is unique, and there will be things that make it especially itself, but some of those are easier to represent than others. Some birds – like the kingfisher – can be expressed by their colours.

However, I’ve been pushing into the ink work more, and all my ink is black. Could I make a Canada goose look like itself without putting some brown pencil in the mix? Maybe.

Fractions of a millimetre in the length or curve of a line can turn one bird into another. I found it recently where working on a bear image that the differences between bear, dog and badger weren’t that big. A slight mistake on the face and the wrong animal would look back at me. And yet, we can look at these images and say dog, badger, bear where only a tiny fraction of difference exists.

For me it raises all kinds of questions about how we perceive and remember, how we sort shapes and use abstracts. How many lines do I need on the page to clarify which one is a duck, and which one a crane? Not many.


Notes on Ophelia – adventures in art

This year, Tom and I have been experimenting with new ways of collaborating on art and artefacts.

Creating this image was a joint process. It began with my idea to re-imagine well known works of art in the Hopeless Maine setting. We chose the art to jam on together, but working out how to take familiar images into the world of Hopeless was largely Tom’s doing. Above, you see the Millais Ophelia re-imagined into a world where the water is murkier and has things living in it.

Tom did all of the original drawing. I then went through with coloured pencils. Colour impacts on mood, shape, depth and in this case I had the partial translucence of water to contend with as well – it’s without a doubt one of the most challenging things I’ve ever worked on. I then handed the piece back to Tom and he reasserted some of the hard lines, scanned it, and did the things in photoshop that keep the scan looking more like the original. We’re trying to do as little computer tinkering as possible.

I’ve written about collaborating before, but to reiterate, there are key things to making this work – letting go and letting the other person do their stuff is necessary. We also talk to each other a lot while we’re working, feeding back, working out how to make it go as a joint project. What emerges is, I think, far more than the sum of its parts. A third artist who can most easily be called ‘Brown’.

A lot of comics art these days is done in photoshop, which can make it very smooth and shiny. Holding my nerve to be ok with the medium showing is something I struggle with – in this case the pencil marks, in other cases the brush marks or the oil pastel smears. I like the organic, messy physicality of working with materials, but I also feel a kind of pressure to produce shiny industry standard smoothness, which of course, I can’t…


Colouring for poetry

One of the things about illustration work, is that the spark of inspiration tends to come from somewhere else. When I’ve got my colouring hat on, I’m several stages down the chain of inspiration. Writing inspires a black and white drawing, which Tom then passes to me, and I do my best to make colour-sense of. What I do is very much led by what’s already been done. On the plus side, this means I can often work on colouring when I’m feeling short of personal inspiration.

 

This is one of our more recent pieces – a cover for a poetry collection by Adam Horovitz.

Working on the convolvulus had me thinking that I could perhaps go back to drawing plants in detail – something I’ve not done since my late teens.


Colouring for Fun and Profit

 

Like most children, I had colouring books, but as soon as I could draw for myself I did more of that. Adult colouring books aren’t something I would automatically have gone for – but this is because I kept drawing. Many people don’t – and the reasons often have little to do with ability or personal potential. Creativity is often seen as frivolous, not proper work, not something that will provide a real job.

So, on the profit side, it’s worth considering that creative industry is worth a lot of money. Every single manufactured item you own was designed by someone. There are even jobs colouring in. I know because I do it. In the comics industry, it’s perfectly normal for the original drawing and the colours to be done by different people.

On the emotional side, creativity is essential. We aren’t meant to be cogs in a machine, dutifully performing tasks without thought, care or room for innovation. All of us have the capacity to be creative. Many of us are denied the opportunities, or actively discouraged from taking them. Creativity doesn’t sit well with doing what you’re told and accepting what you’re given, and that’s probably why so many people are steered away from it, and why it’s so often presented as being only for an elite few.

So, if adult colouring books open a door for you – excellent. If a colouring book gives you the confidence to pick up some pens, or pencils, and if you get joy, or calm out that, all to the good. However, if working within the lines keeps you thinking that you can’t go it alone, challenge that idea! If you don’t think you can draw, ask when it was that you stopped. Like everything else, drawing depends on doing it, and pushing through the times when what you imagine and what you do are a long way apart. It’s worth knowing that professional artists have exactly the same problem, and what they can imagine, and what they can execute are always out of synch too.

 

 

Images in this post were taken from the Moon Books Gods & Goddesses Colouring Book (officially by Rachel Patterson, but I gather her whole family were involved in creating it!). I used a professional standard of pencil, but not a professional standard of paper so the colours were less intense than they might otherwise have been. It’s worth bearing in mind that if you’re using cheap pencils, felt tip pens, crayons etc, then you’ll have a hard time making your work look like something done with far more expensive kit – the main difference is density of pigment. Quality of paper has an impact too. Also avoid comparing your work to anything that might have been in photoshop. Art done on paper is never as smooth and shiny as art done on a computer.


Light, art and wonder

On a few occasions now, Tom has taught art in a spiritual context. Why? Because if you approach it in the right way, then trying to draw something leads to a depth of engagement with it. Most of the time our eyes slide off surfaces and our brains see what we think is there, not what is actually happening. Slowing down to really look creates an entirely different engagement with the world.

For the first half of this year, I spent most of my afternoons as a graphic novel colourist. While I’ve always been interested in visual art, I’ve never worked on this scale before, and it taught me a lot. One of the things it taught me was to really look at light. The quality of light has a huge influence on how everything appears. Twilight is wholly different from noon. Indoors lighting with candles is very different from being outside, and so on and so forth.

One of the direct consequences of doing the art, was a radical increase in how much time I’ve spent paying attention to the sky. I have discovered that a lot of the time, what the sky really does is wilder and weirder than anything I would dare to put on a page. Skies that look painted, and where the ‘brush strokes’ are visible. Skies full of wonderfully improbably colours. Clouds in shapes that are far too representative.

Light affects mood. Cold and harsh light has a very different emotional impact to warm light, and while we might not process that consciously, the impact is with us every day. Natural light has a different effect to artificial light. Having periods of fading light, twilight and gloom affects me in significant ways. We tend to wipe out the lower light periods from our lives with artificial light, and we don’t get as much proper darkness as we should.

Colour of course is nothing more than light bouncing off things and interacting electronically with tiny sensors in our bodies. Your distribution of rods and cones affects what you can see, if you can see. Some of us see more colours than others, some of us better process light than others. There are some people who don’t see colours in the same ways as the majority, and others for whom a colour is also a note, or a smell or some other thing. Colour is a very subjective thing. We all have emotional responses to colour that have elements of personal experience in them. Whether red is sexy or angry for example. Whether pink is girly, or a strong colour. Whether lots of white is soothing, or maddening…

When we come to a place, or an image, we bring all that personal history of colour with us, getting an experience purely our own. Trying to make a visual thing impact on people in specific ways is nigh on impossible, but art isn’t really about what’s possible, when you get down to it.


Art and the Druid

Scan of an original page from The Raven’s Child, drawn by Tom Brown.

On radio 6 recently Mark Radcliff claimed that only 0.7 % of the British public own an original work of art, but in France it’s more like 73%. I have no idea if this is true. Many of us will own prints, posters, mass produced knick knacks and other interior decor. It tends to be cheaper. Why would we pay more for a work of art?

First up there’s the question of the kind of world you want to live in. Do you want the spaces we inhabit to be prettied up by mass produced banality? Without original artists somewhere in the mix, that’s what we’d get. Often what you find as a poster or print is a piece of someone’s art, or photograph, duly copied and licensed. Popular, famous work involves artists who are dead and no longer subject to copyright. It may be that you’re fine with the driven starving artist model, where people spend their whole lives working unrecognised, Van Gogh style, only to make other people vast wads of cash after they’ve died. It’s not a model I’m a fan of.

We are affected by our environments. That includes the soundscapes and visual experiences we have on a daily basis. Mood, emotion, sense of self, even which genes are switching on and off, is informed by the space we are in. How we feel about that space is an important part of the mix. When you feel emotionally invested in what’s around you, it’s different to being surrounded by things you don’t really care about.

I have four pieces of original art on the walls – 2 pieces of my grandmother’s, 1 Andrew Wood, 1 Grizelda Holderness. I also have a limited edition Walter Sickert print (Army of Broken Toys Walter, not dead might have been Jack the ripper Walter). I have art prints from Matlock the Hare, and a Dr Geof poster. I have art postcards bought directly from local artists whose originals are out of my league. Each of these involved conversation, exchange, engagement, so when I look at the prints, they feel very different to other prints I’ve owned in the past. They feel personal. Beyond this, I have a small collection of Pete Brown (no relation) pottery, A Matlock the Hare Dripple, a handcrafted Hopeless Maine doll made by a young artist, a giant goth moth, small artefacts made by arty friends a pottery dragon, and a dragon made out of a coconut shell. Other people’s creativity is an everyday part of my life.

My living space is populated by things I care about, and representations of people I care about. Now, if you’re thinking in terms of spirits of place, on in animist terms that allow for objects to have spirit, art has implications. Here is someone else’s awen made manifest. Here is someone else’s soul poured into an act of creation. Here is a gift of creativity between friends. Bought or given, the object or image someone else has made with their own hands has a different feel to something mass produced.

I firmly believe that art should be affordable for everyone. For twenty five of your English pounds, Tom Brown will carefully roll an original page from Hopeless Maine or The Raven’s Child into a tube and post it to you. For £45 you can have two and we’ll throw in a poster. If you’re outside the UK, postage is a little more expensive. Original pages (as with the image in this post) are hand drawn in graphite, and are unique – each one having gone on to be a page in a book. They aren’t quite the same as art intended to hang on a wall, but they are most certainly art, and also very cheap, even by the standards of comics pages. Leave a comment if you’re interested and we’ll email you.