Tag Archives: art

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.


Finding the third artist

Arthur by Brown.

In January of this year I started working as a colourist alongside my husband Tom, on the John Matthews graphic novel interpretation of Le Morte D’Arthur. This is an intensely collaborative project – a dead author and a living one, Tom doing all the lines and then me doing the colour, and then Tom doing the final things in photoshop – not least sometimes dropping his lines back in on top of my work. Someone else will be lettering the pages.

I’ve worked collaboratively before, but usually as an author – either writing with other authors (Professor Elemental, Letters Between Gentlemen) or as Tom’s author. There are all kinds of issues around art/words collaborations, but the artist does the art and the author does the words and for your bit you remain yourself, albeit in service to something that is more than you.

At the moment we’re working on the same sheets of paper. For the first couple of weeks I found it hard just bringing colour to the pages. What I do obscures Tom’s lines, inevitably. I’m a big fan of his pencil work, so watching it disappear from view is an uneasy process. A page I’ve coloured looks very different from one he’s drawn. The lines alone have an airy, delicate quality while the colour is solid and substantial. For the first week I had the unpleasant feeling that I was taking pieces and wrecking them. Then the photoshop magic started, and the original lines went back on top of the colour. A whole new thing emerged, something that wasn’t really him and isn’t really me. The third artist who is more than the sum of its parts. We’ll probably call it ‘Brown’.

A great deal of talking goes on around each page – an advantage we have, as most comics artists do not sit at the same table as the colourist. We’re finding out what our individual strengths are, where to back off and let the other one handle it, where to be ok about the end result not looking like our bit. I’ve started trying to do on paper some of the things we thought would happen in photoshop – candle glows, mist… and I spend time watching Tom do the final work on the piece. In seeing what changes he makes I can better see how to get the page right in the first place so that he does less.

In an ideal world, we’d pass the paper back and forth between us, doing very little in photoshop. We’re already talking about what happens with Hopeless Maine this way. I had a go at the latest cover, using watercolour pencils, which gives Tom room to come in over the top and reassert pencil lines. Oils are trickier that way – slidy, and a physical presence on the page. I know it can be done, because my grandmother used to pencil over oils to get the rigging details on tall ships. But these are things to explore another day.

Cover art above. The Sky, the ray of light and the lighting effects are Tom’s.


Open Art Surgery

When we do events, Tom and I quite often find there are people who would like to talk to us – or to other already in-print people – about their own work. We’re happy to do this, and it’s something we anticipate doing formally at Asylum this year (massive Steampunk event, August bank holiday, Lincoln). Next week (13th February 2016) we’ll be at Museum in the Park, in Stroud from 11am – 3pm, feel free to seek us out and ask us questions.

In the meantime, here are some FAQs that, to be honest, I’d rather not be dealing with at Open Art Surgeries, not least because there’s very little I can do to help you if I’m faced with one of these…

  • I had an idea for a book. This is lovely, and best of luck to you, but an idea for a book is not a book, and if I take on helping you to move that book from the idea stage to the writing stage it’s going to use up more time than I can spare. Learn about characters, plots, world building, dialogue, etc etc, and then try and write the book. If you want to talk to me, or anyone else about publishing, there’s absolutely no point even asking until you’ve established that you can write. Many people start their first novel and don’t finish it and go no further. Let’s find out if this is you or not before we talk.
  • I started a novel and I can’t finish it and I don’t know what to do! Don’t worry, this happens a lot. Most published authors have some failed attempts along the way. It is ok to ditch the first attempt and try something else, or re-write it in a different way – this is a learning process. It’s ok to feel stuck for a while. If you can get through this patch, you could be the sort of person who writes books. If you can’t get past it, you are not cut out for authoring.
  • Will you read my book? Probably not. If you’re a friend, or I’m really taken with what you’re doing, I might offer, but if you have to ask me, it’ll probably be a no. It’s a time issue. If you are going to ask me to read, be clear about what you’re asking for and why you think this will help you. If you’re looking for reviews and endorsements, I may say yes, if it’s clearly my sort of thing.
  • Can Tom do me some art? If your book is unwritten, and there is no budget for art, this is not a question to be asking. If you want to do a comic and don’t have an artist, you need to find an artist at the same career point as you, i.e. someone who has never done a comic and wants and author to work with. Art takes a lot of time, think carefully before you ask someone if they are willing to give you hours of working time for nothing when they could be being paid. They would have to love you a lot to say yes. Tip – if you want to re-use a piece of art someone’s already done, the chances are they will license it to you for something more affordable, that one’s always worth enquiring about.
  • My child wants to be an author/artist. Then make sure they have some means of earning a living during the long stretch of a creative career when you can’t get paying work and everyone expects you to give your stuff away for ‘exposure’. Currently the industry is a mess and creative people are sorely underpaid. We have no idea what the score will be in ten year’s time.
  • I can’t draw a stick figure. We hear this a surprising amount, and we don’t know why people feel the need to come and tell us this, but we can’t do much to help you except say this. Art is not magic, nor is writing. Mostly it comes down to graft. If you are willing to put in about ten thousand hours (on this, or any other thing you might not have mastered) you will probably master it. That’s all you have to do. Spend ten thousand hours drawing or writing and you’ll be a whole other person.
  • Can you put me in touch with X? Again, we may offer to hook you up with people if we think you are just what they were looking for. If you have to ask, we’re probably going to say no. If you think about someone else’s contact network as something to access and exploit, you’re on shaky ground. What we have is relationships with people built up over time, nourished by care, effort and attention. We aren’t going to give you their phone number unless we have a really good reason to do so.

If you’ve established that you can write, or draw, if you’re trying to figure out how to take your work, or your project to the next level, do come and talk to us. We may be able to offer advice and insights, and if we like what you’re doing and we can think of a way to help you, then we will.


Art and Paganism

A recent blog of mine on the question, What is Paganism? provoked some interesting responses here and on social media. So I think it’s worth carrying on with this one. One of the concerns people raised is wanting to make value judgements about other people’s behaviour when really problematic, and the idea that without really firm edges, Paganism doesn’t mean anything.

So, let’s talk about art! Literally anything can be art these days. It’s not defined by what you create, but by the act of putting a frame round it, or putting it in a gallery, or announcing it as art, or being officially An Artist. Arty people have pushed this one in every way imaginable, which means that ‘can this be art?’ is, from an art perspective, no longer an interesting question. Curiously there’s now a resurgence in art that looks like representation of things. Once the question of ‘is it art?’ is no longer relevant, the question of ‘is it any good?’ becomes more relevant. ‘Good’ is notoriously hard to define, and we will all disagree about which works of art are ‘good’ clever, innovative, and which are rips offs and rubbish.

I think there’s a lot of similarity between Paganism and Art. For decades we’ve been pushing the edges of what can be considered Paganism. Is a Zen Druid a Pagan? Is a person whose practice is almost entirely Yoga a Pagan? Can Christians also be Pagans? Is a World of Warcraft Druid a Druid? And despite the lengthy internet arguments, the truth is that if someone wants to self-identify as a Pagan, then it’s impossible to prevent them using the term. By saying ‘I am a Pagan’ we’ve hung ourselves up in the Pagan gallery, we’ve framed ourselves in a certain way.

Like the question ‘is it good art?’ the question ‘is it good Paganism’ is often subjective. Good Paganism for a polytheist Heathen living in a yurt is not necessarily going to look much like the Good Paganism of an urban vegan Witch or the Good Paganism of a Yoga Druid. Having framed and carefully labelled ourselves, we might look round at all the other frames and labels hanging in the Pagan gallery and find they make no sense at all. But then, this also happens with art. In a physical gallery many of the things on display won’t make much sense to us either. Goat with flowers, still life of dead birds, blotchy thing, unmade bed and of course urinals and piles of bricks. Art doesn’t have to make sense to everyone looking at it. Maybe Paganism doesn’t either.

The problem with wanting to define Paganism along ethical lines, is that we rapidly have to exclude all ancient Pagans. Animal and human sacrifice would not be acceptable today. In modern Paganism, we do need ethical considerations. We do need to be able to say ‘what you are doing is not what I think a modern Pagan should be doing’. However, I think ethics are more effective when they aren’t tied to a belief system, but come from a more pragmatic view of the world. An ethics you can argue a logical basis for is a lot easier to explain and defend than an ethics that depends on belief. You don’t need an Art Ethics to decide whether burning £20,000 or giving away everything you own as a piece of art might have an ethical dimension.

I think it gets really interesting when we hold these three things separately.

Is it Paganism? To answer that we have to decide what we mean by Paganism. We will all come up with slightly different answers.

Is it good Paganism? A wholly subjective question, but well worth asking, as we also have to figure out what ‘good’ means.

Is it ethical? Which requires us to decide what is ethical in the first place.

There will never be tidy agreement between all Pagans on this, there will always be people who self identify as Pagans who are innately troubling to other Pagans. The question is not how to eliminate the ‘problem’ Pagans. You only have to look at other faiths to see how unworkable that is, or how vile it is when it works. So let’s ask some other questions about what we do with this, because those are bound to be more interesting.


Wife of the artist

Last year, will be remembered by my household as ‘the year of the raven’s child’ because mostly what my husband did last year, was draw. There were a lot of 12 hour and longer days, and a lot of seven day weeks of him sitting at the table, and drawing from the moment he got up, right through the day and well into the evening. This is, it should be noted, entirely normal for comics artists at all levels of the business. Long days sitting at the board and no days off, for wages that numerically are the same (not relatively, numerically) as they were in the late seventies.

Art takes time. Back in the 19th century, John Ruskin was protesting about the way in which people were being required to work as machines, but no one really listened to him, and the industrialisation of creativity has continued, and if anything, got worse. I have heard of artists working 18 hour days. I know authors who write at a rate of a novel a month.

For those not caught up in the creative industry, this can all sound fine. Because as everyone knows, doing art and writing books is fun, so doing it all day must be fun and not like a proper job at all. By extension doing it all day every day and never getting a day off is also fun because this is a hobby so you can just keep doing it. Right? I grant you, a bit of playful painting of a Sunday afternoon is fun. Writing a poem on a whim, making up a short story… these are delightful ways to spend some time.  But when your day starts about 7am and you have to hit the board, or the keyboard, and make content for ten hours and more and then get up tomorrow and do it all again… ‘fun’ is not the best description. When you tot up the figures, the chances of making the minimum wage doing this are slim. No one joins the creative industries seeking this, but to be ‘professional’ this is all too often what’s required.

Many comics artists die prematurely. They die in America in part because their low pay does not allow them to afford health care. They die because their sedentary lifestyles undermine their health, and because if you have to spend your waking hours working, then all the self-care things like cooking and food shopping go out of the window.

Such work does not pay most people doing it enough that they can keep a second person at home to take care of them. Fortunately for us, I also work from home. Last year, alongside the various day job things I do (press officer, publicist, editor, professional blogger, occasionally author of fiction and non fiction) I did pretty much all the household stuff. I fought a running battle to make the time to get him outside regularly, to get odd hours of downtime when we could, and to give him some leisure time alongside this phenomenal project.

There were about 200 pages of art in this project. A page a day isn’t unusual for comics, but often a person is drawing, or inking, or colouring, not doing all three. A page a day doing all three, is tough. Tom can do a page a day, but then to go from the drawn image to the finished electronic image takes more time. A comics page isn’t created by just sitting down of a morning and putting down the lines. It has to be planned to get the text onto the page. Often, research is required. There are continuity issues and things that have to be remembered and repeated. The bigger the book, the more of these there are. So alongside the drawing and the toning, there also has to be time for page design, character design, and research.

There’s a really macho culture in comics. It has, for a long time, celebrated the habit of working yourself to death. People take pride in their long, long hours hunched over drawing tables. Anyone who can’t keep up should get out, is the general wisdom. That complicity with the system helps keep the comics industry the way it is. But in the last few months I’ve seen increasing numbers of artists stepping away from this, to talk about the truths of their lives, the human cost of being asked to work like a machine. It’s one thing to suffer for art out of personal passion, another to institutionalise that process. Last year was tough, but we got through it. Tom could have made the choice to push straight into the next big thing and go along with the story about how you get successful as a comics artist. He could have chosen the short life expectancy, and restricted relationships. He didn’t. Having put heart and soul into the year of the raven’s child, he’s eased off, and we’re going to try and find other ways to make this work.

I’m with John Ruskin on this one: We should not be trying to turn people into machines.


How to empathise with imaginary people

Tom and I are co-creators on a graphic novel series. Volume three has just launched in webcomic form over at www.hopelessmaine.com . For various reasons I’d not looked at it much in the year since Tom finished the art. It came as a bit of a surprise to realise how many real people and settings had crept into this one. The first chapter features the church from Purton, Gloucestershire, fellow comics creator Maxwell Vex, and Canadian Steampunk icon Lee Ann Farruga, more real people will be along later.

It is generally held wisdom with comics that the more realistic the people are, the harder it is to empathise with them. Smiley emoticon faces have the power to be anyone, and this can be a great aid to getting people into the story. Cartoons function in a totally different way to realistic representations, in terms of how they affect the mind of the viewer. From a creative perspective, this raises some really interesting questions about whether we want people getting inside or standing outside the characters.

Alongside that is the issue that the less detailed and individual the faces are, the harder it is to have something visually gorgeous going on. Elegance can be had, but not sumptuousness. You can’t have nuances of emotion in smiley emoticon faces either. The words have to do more of the work.

Hopeless is not a story full of ‘everyman’ characters where the idea is that the reader can slot their own life into the gaps. Although that said, a surprising number of people have cheerfully imagined themselves into islander roles, which is part of why more of the people we know are getting into the books. We know this from www.hopelessvendetta.wordpress.com and from reader responses. Despite the specific and individual nature of characters, people can get into this. I have theories of course. I always have theories…

Everyman faces work for simple storytelling. They work for uncomplex emotions. If you want a mix of emotions, you need more face with which to express it. You need eyes that can reshape and lips that can move, and a body shape that can express feelings. It isn’t possibly to convey all of the things human bodies and faces can convey without an image able to hold more of those details in the first place.

I think it’s also a consideration that empathy is not transference. You can feel with a person without feeling that you *are* them. I know that many people come to all manner of things just looking for affirming reflections of themselves, but not everyone does. Some people are happy to look outwards, to consider unfamiliar emotions and ideas, to put themselves in shoes that are not their own. If your capacity for empathy depends on being able to see yourself in whoever you’re looking at, then simpler cartooning is your friend. If what inspires you to empathy is seeing someone else’s humanity, then perhaps more involved art isn’t going to alienate you from the story.