Starsky the Rainbow Trout

I wrote this at Cleveland College of Art & Design in Middlesbrough (1987-8) when I was studying for my Foundation Certificate. I made this book dummy as part of my response to a textiles module. The brief was to buy a whole fish from a fishmonger’s, which would serve as inspiration for the duration of the project. We had to draw and ‘get to know’ the fish – we kept them in the college fridge in between classes. The studio was ripe by the end of the module.

Starsky was executed in pencil crayons and inkpen (very 1980s – everyone wanted to be Raymond Briggs back then). I was a strict vegetarian at the time, and, although I eat fish now, I’ve never really fancied trout.

As a published picture book author, I would say to my young student-self:

  • Not bad for a first try at making a story book, but:
  • Avoid rhyming text for a first book; it makes translation of co-editions tricky, but if you must:
  • Try using a thesaurus to avoid lazy rhyming stanzas.
  • Learn some grammar and how to spell ‘fly’ and ‘embedded’.
  • Fish don’t ‘shout’ – they scream silently (in the same way an uprooted flower does). They don’t laugh either. Mainly, they glug.
  • Think about page turns – who was lurking on the bank? Make the reader want to turn the page to find out. Same goes for the very last line – it would be more dramatic if it had a page to itself at the end.
  • Don’t simply illustrate the words, drop some words and let the pictures do the talking, too.
  • Try for a more imaginative title – publishers aren’t keen on ‘Sammy the Squirrel’-type titles. How about Massacre in the River Tees* instead?

I got an good mark for that module, and the tutor tried to persuade me to apply for Textile Design at degree level, instead of Graphic Design. I don’t think textiles would have been my thing. Too stinky.

*joking, of course

Homemade cards for friends

For as long as I can remember I’ve made greetings cards for friends and family. They’re never much like any commercial designs I’ve done. I like making them – it gives me the chance to do whatever the flip I want however the mood takes me. I do try to make cards that I hope the recipient will like. So, a card I might make for my mum is going to be very different from one I’d make for a friend-bloke who’s into art or music. Click to view gallery:

The ideas are usually very spontaneous (last-minute!) and depend on whatever there is to hand at the time. It could be scraps of paper, old typewriter ribbon or letraset. I keep hold of the by-products of my work – brush wipings and colour tests on pieces of card, for example – and use them as materials for other projects. Some cards are indications of what I was working on at the time: The brighter messy-paint collage ones are from children’s books, and are older; the inky ones with white and grey paint are from my graphic memoir and comics. I went through a long phase of using sweet wrappers, which friends would collect for me. I don’t feel precious about the designs – like they have to be some grand work of art.

I’ve thought about the reasons behind giving something I’ve created: Well, it’s cheaper for a start!  But, deep down, it can be about a strong wish to solidify what I feel might be an important friendship; it’s my way of saying I like you lots, you’re OK – here, have this thing I made.  I believe that once you give something away, you’re no longer its custodian. It’s nice to think people might keep a card but if not, that’s OK – it has served its purpose.

Thanks to the friends who lent me back some cards for this post.

Christmas card designs

December is upon us, so I’ve just added a Christmas card design to my shop. I’ve probably already missed the boat but, hey, I’m not keen on premature dangling of baubles.

I’ve been designing Christmas cards for many years. It formed a large part of my freelance work for a while. Some of these have been published commercially; some were for speculative work; and some were just my personal annual card designed for friends and family. All designs are my copyright now – click to view gallery:

Childless or child-free?

Click to view:

There are supportive communities online for those who are childless by circumstance and for those who are childless by choice. I’ve never felt that I can totally identify myself with either label.

I’m not keen on any term that defines you by what you are not. It seems rather negative. There has been much discussion about this topic on Gateway Women, a site conceived by Jody Day to bring together, and celebrate, women who don’t have children for whatever reason. She coined the term ‘nomo’ (not a mother). Again, the term certainly isn’t for me for the reasons stated above, but the site has some interesting articles and is a good place to go if you’re seeking solidarity with others in a similar situation.

In short, people who didn’t procreate shouldn’t have to be defined by that very fact. However, and all too often, women of my age are.

Bamboo dip pens

The recent enthusiasm among some comics friends for using dip pens/nibs prompted me to dig out some old home-made ones. I wasn’t sure I still had them, but after rooting around in my old fishing tackle box (a must-have for the 1980s art student), I was pleased to find they were still there. I made them in an illustration module at art college. For any UWE Illustration class-of- 91 reading, I think we did this in Julian Fraser‘s class in the first year.

To make these we used bamboo cane cut-offs of varying widths; stanley knife for shaping the nib; aluminium drink can; and masking tape. For this thicker pen you need to add a rectangle of thin aluminium for the ink to pool behind, or you’ll end up with puddles. It can be bent into the right shape easily enough and taped in place with masking tape. I can’t remember if we used tin cutters or old scissors.You also need to cut a vertical slit in the nib.

This isn’t required for slimmer pieces of bamboo, perhaps because the ink’s meniscus is strong enough in a narrower space. Both of these pens are quite worn out but it’s nothing a bit of re-carving won’t sort out. One disadvantage is that, in finer pens, the nibs can split because of drawing with vegetation instead of steel!

I thought I’d see if they still worked, so spent an hour drawing bits of view from my studio window. The results are unsurprisingly haphazard but I quite like the limited control; it makes for more gestural lines and ‘happy accidents’. However, the accident on the roof of Jamia Mosque, Totterdown, was ‘unhappy’. I think this pen might be my preferred one for drawing trees from now on, but I won’t be ditching my usual Joseph Gillott nibs for panda food anytime soon.

ME/CFS Comic

This is an image I produced last year for the blog Better, Drawn. The blog is run by comics creator Simon Moreton, and part of its aim is to encourage visual expression of the issues and feelings of long-term mental or physical illness sufferers. 

Most contributions are one-page comics, and you don’t have to be a seasoned scribbler to submit a page. Its intention is not to showcase drawing virtuosity, rather to provide a common space for people to display their experiences of illness.

My page at at Better, Drawn is all about ME/CFS, a misunderstood, stigma-steeped illness. Or rather, I should point out, two illnesses lumped together for which there’s still no test or cure. I originally posted it anonymously worrying that clients would pick up on it and decide that I was somehow unreliable. I’ve decided that my decision to remain anonymous was probably tantamount to admitting to some sense of shame regarding the illness. With hindsight, I’ve decide that was counterproductive to my intentions of drawing it in the first place! I should also point out that I’m mostly recovered but still in touch with others who aren’t, and this image illustrates a common experience.

Fellow creators who’ve contributed to Better, Drawn include Andrew Godfrey, Emma Mould, Nick Soucek, Thom Ferrier, and Bonbon, as well as Simon himself.