16 December 2014

Christmas in Cape Town

Oh yes. I'm swapping the promise of a frosty winter wonderland for watermelon by the pool. As of today, I'm outta here, London. Much as you looked beautiful in the sparkly winter sun today.

Home for Christmas - family, birdsong, tic tic of sprinklers on the lawn, swimming with my niece. Beach and mountain. Long dirt roads. Old friends. All the people I love most in the world in one town.

A different wonderland to be sure. And not winter. Great happiness.

24 November 2014

Chinese food illustrations

I haven't posted in a while - sometimes it's good to start with whatever I've got, rather than driving myself nuts wondering what would be the perfect post. 

So. Here's a sneak peak of some new food illustrations I've been working on. 

The notes are from a visit to the V+A museum, that wonderful place where I am always instantly in love with some or other beautiful thing. Or things. The fine ceramics and painted scrolls of the Chinese galleries this time, and a perfect starting point for my food theme.

The Hackney Marshes are so so beautiful at this time of the year, all the wet leaves and now bare branches and the reassuring smell of vegetation gently decomposing, turning to soil, nothing wasted at all. 

Airtime in nature, away from screen and sketchbook, space to unravel new ideas and get perspective on old ones.

Where do you go to unravel your ideas?

23 October 2014

My illustrations on BBC2 with Monty Don this week!

Wow, what a fantastic week for my illustration! Landscape animation whizz Matt Parker over at room 60 turned my plant watercolours into 'Before and After Monty' sequences for a gardening show with Monty Don on BBC2. That's the title sequence up above there with Matt's butterfly making magic with the 4D effect.

It's on from Monday to Friday at 7 p.m. all this week. 

While I love seeing my work in print, and also watching it develop on paper when I'm painting, seeing it unfold in garden vistas on TV takes it to a whole nother level, I gotta tell you. 

Wow, the glowing box in the living room with my very own agaves and astilbes populating the screen!

Heh heh. I am loving that. A lot. 

So much the better that it's a gardening programme featuring real people with their very understandable struggles to match idea to plot and to reality, with the ever cheery and affable Monty dropping by to deliver solid good advice and, occasionally, a hand in the digging and planting. 

Nice work if you can get it, eh, being a gardening rock star? Here's a review in the guardian.

For now though, I'm happy to stick to watercolour plant illustration. 

Warm and cosy and (mostly) indoors works for me at this time of the year - my South  African hands have never quite been able to deal with planting onions in November.

Below, a keyframe from the series, which is how I supplied the illustrations originally.

09 October 2014

The Big Draw at Hackney Central Library

The first of my three Big Draw workshops for Hackney Libraries started with no less than 60 reception and year one children filing into the activity area in Hackney Central Library. 

That's a whole lot of little drawers, folks. I haven't seen that many 5 and 6-year olds in one room since I taught English in Japan, but at least we all speak the same language here.

Seats found for everyone, coats and high viz jackets removed, hands in the air, don't touch anything yet, listen to the teacher - that'd be me. (I wasn't on crowd control luckily, gentle reader, that was the job of the hard working teachers and their assistants. Masterly they were too. Respect!)

I wanted the children to experience the joy of drawing with charcoal, and asked everyone to listen to the sound it made as they crumbled and squeaked their sticks across a page. 

One boy told me it reminded him of the sound of a fox rustling in the bushes. 

Heh. A sound designer/foley artist in the making, I do believe. Pixar, you read it here first.

(Note to self on charcoal drawing and 5 - 6 year olds: wet wipes. In abundance.)

The next activity I had planned wasn't quite age appropriate - I asked the children to draw the feeling of being on a busy bus. Some tried, but most children went straight into drawing an actual bus, so I went with that. I'm guessing here but 5 and 6-year olds are probably pretty literal minded at this stage, or at least I would have needed to set that up differently. 

The game of 'musical pencils' went down a storm though. It's something I do in the studio myself when I'm getting all tight and stiff with line. As soon a song on iTunes changes, I pick up a new drawing instrument at random and keep working  with whatever I pick up until the next song and so on. Magic often happens that way for me.

For the kids, we handed out different drawing materials, and had a librarian - the very helpful James - stop and start a CD. They loved putting their hands up when the music stopped, and deciding on a new pen or marker.

Library users were not all equally enamoured alas with 'To market, to market' blasting away, but hey. 

Sixty little people had fun drawing, and they learned to listen to the sound of charcoal on a page. Mission accomplished.

Next 2 workshops - free, drop in and good for all ages - are at Dalston CLR James Library on Friday 17 October (more info here) and Stamford Hill Library on Tuesday 21 October, click here for more info. 

Maybe see you there - we'll be rustling pencils either way.

26 September 2014

Letter to Malevitch

Dear Kazimir, 

I first met you during a slide show in a gloomy lecture theatre as an art student at the University of Cape Town. Those lectures were pretty early in the morning so if I wasn't always that awake, when you came up, forgive me. 

Also, a slide of a painting of a black square is a little ho hum, I think you might agree. Last week, we met properly, eyeball to canvas, at the Tate Modern and I saw I had misjudged your work entirely.

I remembered that you were a Russian artist who painted a black square on a canvas and then a white cross on a white canvas and that was a Big Thing at the time, which was somewhere in the tumultuous context of the peasant revolts, of Stalin and Russia in the 1930s. 

(History isn't my strong point Kazimir, so that's roughly about right I hope.)

It was a surprise, on meeting your work at the Tate Modern again, to discover that you also painted portraits of your dad and later your mum. Tender, naturalistic portraits. And wooden bungalows, peasants in the fields. Homages to cubism, to futurism in rich, deep colour. Not the sort of thing I saw you as doing at all when we first met.

I had no idea that you were so into colour. Richly glowing hues, shimmering like icon paintings sometimes. 

The chalky limestone-white backgrounds of your abstract work, the deep almost black plums, yellows both sunny and dirty. Red squares talking to black squares, pinks. Soft greys. I found the language of Suprematism to be surprisingly lyrical. 

The Black Square and all the critical engagement where you were finding a new place for art, was but the half of it, I see that now. 

As a painter, you also paid your dues as a master of colour, space, and the dance of shapes both abstract and figurative.You brought your heart into painting as much as your head, and as such it was a pleasure to get to know you better.

12 September 2014

Everything Changes/Goodbye Summer

Hey, where did the summer go? Seriously. I painted this before heading to Turkey for a week of swims in the Med (which I am deeply grateful for, for sure). The holiday ended, in my case, in a stinking summer cold which meant I was indoors for 10 days watching the sunlight dancing in our London garden. 

A few more weeks of answering emails and next thing I know is I'm packing for a ten day vipassana meditation sit in Herefordshire. Reluctantly. I wanted to bail and seriously considered a last minute cancellation. 

So much time away. So many things to take care of, so much to enjoy and do as an illustrator, as a social media trainer, as a wife and friend. So much on in London.

I got on the train though. And, by the end of the ten days, I was super glad that I did.

I wish I could say it was a time of thoughts landing as softly as autumn leaves on the forest floor, that ten day sit. In the interests of full disclosure though, my mind was more like a bucking filly, clanging into every thought, kicking and rearing at every unpleasant sensation for most of the time. Nothing special about that, I guess.

So much wildness in the mind is revealed when all else is stilled, when life is lived with an inwards focus, sitting in meditation for many, many hours a day as is the programme on mediation courses in the tradition of U Ba Khin and SN Goenka. Unpleasant sensations abound, to put it mildly.

But there are breaks, respite is possible. The woods are my place to soften focus, to loosen my grip a bit. As I walk in the heightened state of sensory awareness that slowly arises on about day 3 or so, I find there is something new to see each time.

Small things: the moss among tree roots, tiny scratch marks around mouse holes in the ground, a pale spider, backlit in the early morning sun, waiting, just waiting in absolute spider trust for the next sustaining moment to unfold.

Tiny, slow changes also, things I'd usually miss completely: over the ten days, small patches of yellowing leaves turn here and there, the beginning of autumn. Apples ripening.

Time to let go of the summer, smilingly, as our meditation teacher, Goenkaji, would say.

Of course, there are also wonderful moments: long, deep, spontaneous in-breaths, the gentle blessing of Hereford rain on the roof of the meditation hall. Space between interior conversations expanding, softly. The capacity for healing opening up, compassion and joy arising as thoughts began to land more gently. 

Thoughts that gradually lose their importance and sense of permanence, no more and no less worth clinging to than the yellowing leaves floating onto the woodland floor. Everything changes, all in a flux, all in a flow (in Goenkaji's words).

More information on 10 day Vipassana sits in Herefordshire and worldwide is here - do feel free to contact me if you're at all curious to know more. It's the best gift you can possibly think of giving to yourself all year. Of that I am sure.

19 August 2014

Summer Fruit

Fruit is more delicious in sunny countries. Fact. 

This was a plate from one of the beach cafes in Kas,Turkey, where I spent a week with family in July - my parents from Cape Town via Istanbul, my sister and niece from Stockholm, and us direct from Gatwick.

The two nicest beaches in Kas are tiny pebbly coves snug in a peninsula still covered in  olive groves on crumbling terraces just behind the rows of cabanas and deck chairs. I loved the fruit plates, which can be delivered to your deckchair, perhaps with a little glass of tea, Turkish style. Luxury indeed.

Getting there involves a ferry ride across a turquoise bay, so the deal is you have lunch and snacks from the cafe, and spend the the whole day on the loungers, or, if you can bag one early, a cabana strewn with cushions, on the rocks. Perfect for lying in the sun, contemplating the mountains opposite, and wondering whether to have a swim or not.

There wasn't all that much time to hang about though, as my little niece had other ideas. Such as being peddled about in a banana boat and making rabbit faces on the rocks. 

Funny how those busy things turn out to be the best bits of the holiday, and the days doing nothing much poolside kinda fade in memory. Ah well. 

August in London, I am unfaithful to you. Give me August on the Med any day. Forty degrees and counting? I can live with that.

07 August 2014

The happiest making sardines ever

B and I have been saying we need a day under the tree at the Towpath Cafe for weeks. It's a place to lie on a rug and watch the canal side traffic skittle by while putting our worlds to rights.  

Today was the day. 

For lunch, alas not the whole day, but the sun isn't always out here in London so there shouldn't be too much messing around, since next thing we know summer has gone and slipped through our cupped hands.

The food is always totally properly good here, no joking about. We both had the sardines to prevent food envy. Just as well, since there could well have been tears.

Totally perfect fishies. Mint in the tomato salad. Pickly cucumbers, all crunchy and vinegary. Inspired.

17 July 2014

A wild flower logo commission

A producer based in Chicago who loves wildflowers so much that her production company is named WildFlower Production contacted me recently, asking if I could paint a logo for her, based on a detail of one of my illustrations she'd seen online.

I agreed, on the basis that I'd explore the possibility as an illustrator, as opposed to a perfect resolution from a graphic design point of view. Judith, the client, was happy to go with this as she is a creative herself, and had a strong sense of what she wanted.

I began with some research on the main letters. The brief was to form them from campanula stems, leaves and buds.

Judith decided she'd like the rest of the lettering to be hand written by me too, so I tried out a few variations. Which turned out not to be that varied at all - it's my own handwriting, after all.

I love the meditation of writing over and over again. It always amused me when writing a hundred lines out was meted out as a punishment in school. Duh. Don't you get it? I friggin' LOVE the feel of a pen gliding over paper. Yep, even a hundred times. Though this time I think I probably stopped at 30.

I sent over some pencil roughs before trying out variations of the wildflower letters, which again turned out to be pretty consistent. I guess painting wild flowers is a kind of hand writing for me too these days, in a good way.

The rest, as they say, is Photoshop.

Tweak, nudge, resize, nudge up, nudge down, shake it all around. Pin up on board. Mull. Tweak some more. Save as. Send to client. 

Take in feedback.

Nudge and adjust here and there, erase, flatten layers and arrive at a final version at last. Ping over in dropbox. Thumbs up from Judith in Chicago.

Happy client, happy illustrator.

16 June 2014

Carving leaf stamps from erasers and other planty arts.

For ages, I've had a board for hand carved plant stamps on pinterest, so when the lovely folks at St Mary's Secret Garden asked me to do an art workshop for Open Garden Squares weekend, I thought hello, rubber stamp making.

I added another activity too - um, the very technical art of plant bashing. A most direct thing, as in say... cornflower petals + gently bashing a small stone onto card = cornflower blue pigment transferred. Simple. 

It needed to work as a drop in workshop for all ages. On a micro budget. I settled on card making, and of course had elaborate plans for the various stages. 

Which I thankfully chucked out - I know from the art workshops I did when I was teaching English in Asia that it's good to plan carefully but then let go of how it actually unfolds. Participants make the magic happen in their own way.

I did a tryout using printing over contour drawing and a teeny bit of plant bashing to use as an example, but of course on the day it evolved into something much better than I could have worked out on my own.

It was so lovely to see how children approached card making. Some loved to draw, some really got into the plant bashing, and most children really loved carving the stamps and exploring ways to print them.

It was Father's Day on the Sunday - added motivation. K made the card below right - using a grass blade stamp he'd carved - for his dad who is currently away in Cameroon for long stretches on business. It was a compass, he said.
It was lovely to see how children readily learn from one another.

L, who is on the right in the photo above, really got into it and, together with her design lecturer dad, made a whole range of stamps, including a trade mark to print on the back of each card, below.

A, below, found that her name was a good one for avoiding the printmaker's problem of everything being in reverse...

Happily, plenty of adults gave themselves permission to have fun with the stamps and play too. Things got more figurative, as is our way, but I think no less playful. I loved how colours got more subtle as the stamp pads got messier. 

The yellows and blues below are from cornflowers and calendulas. No guarantees as to lightfastness alas, but maybe that's not the point. 

We all had fun, and I finally got to explore carving stamps from rubbers. Watch this board on pinterest, I look forward to adding some stamp pictures of my own.

06 June 2014

The joy of green

I'm working on a lovely commission for animation company room60 at the moment, who specialise in animations for landscaping and the environment amongst other things. 

The project is headed for TV broadcast eventually, but for now, the work for me is all about greens and more greens, seeing as my end of the bargain is supplying the plants for use in animation. Simple.

So fun, to have a list of plants and paint them, one by one -  a meditation in the possibilities of watercolour within a limited scope. I love that I can say today I got paid for painting...moss.

As for the greens, here's a list of hardworking ones, in case you feel the urge to illustrate a garden sometime soon. I must say I can recommend it.

Hooker's green
Sap Green
Olive green
Oxide of Chromium
and plain ole' blue and yellow mixes with a teeny smidge of red or orange thrown in. 

Which of the illustrations are your favourites? I think for me the page with the lilies below and the grasses. Love the grass action in the second photo. Let me know what you think, and please tweet or share on facebook if you enjoyed reading this.

05 May 2014

Two new wild flower paintings

On May 1st, I picked these - carefully and respectfully, mind - on Hackney marshes. Whilst out there, I do believe I heard a cuckoo in the distance. 

Could be, right?  I'm no expert, but the sound of a cuckoo is pretty much unmistakeable.

Yellow flowers were a traditional part of Beltane celebrations, possibly because yellow represented fire, so I read in Wikipedia. The Gaelic May Day festival traditionally marked the beginning of Summer when cattle were driven out to pasture. Doorways and windows as well as the animals were decorated with yellow May flowers to protect them from evil spirits and to encourage good growth in the fields. 

I wanted me some of those good vibes, and sure enough, I got them from just seeing the yellow flowers in their jars in my studio. A very happy making sight.

Wildflowers don't hang around, so you best be getting on with painting them in a day or so, without thinking too much about the whole thing. Works for me.

Watercolour on Fabriano.

11 April 2014

How to work a book fair

The London Book Fair: in the belly of a vast exhibition centre, the gentle illustrator is confronted with stretches of purple and lime green exhibition stands lined with books. In the children's book section, yellows and shouty pinks sprinkled with glitter vie for attention under the neon lights. 

Yikes. Most unlovely. I found myself heading for the door within the hour, grabbing a tea and banana bread from the cart outside for a break and some sunshine before giving it another go.

Here's a survival guide for the visually sensitive.

  • Focus is key. Hone in on the talks that offer something of value, slowly walk the aisles and explore when a book looks particularly inviting. Ignore the rest, or try to.
  • Check out the non-English markets
  • Arrive early for the portfolio show and tell, grab a ticket and bring along an actual  portfolio, as in paper in leather bound cover. Ten minutes max with a random publishing house, but still. I hope to be there next year.
  • Ask for a publisher's Children's Book catalogue. Most publishers are happy to hand them out.
  • Make forays outside for regular doses of fresh, (Earl's Court) air.
  • Arrange to meet up with a friend. Fairs can be overwhelming.

I did enjoy a talk on becoming a children's book illustrator hosted in the Children's Hub where seasoned pro Chris Wormell showed slides of the ideas pages of his sketchbooks: stuffed full of notes and thumbnail sketches, not a single idea wasted. Ideas that have turned into one book after another. As well as many a book that didn't make it, but that's all part of the fun.

Templar Art Director Mike Jolley told us that he enjoys receiving submissions. And looking at blogs. More so than websites, he said he finds blogs far more interesting. Good to know, not so?

And for me, the treasure of the day was in the foreign languages section. Belgian illustrator Anne Herbaut's new book je t'aime tellement que for Casterman. True, the cover is pink, but it is, I think you might agree, a thing of beauty. 

Phew, at last - something genuinely lovely.

How do you survive trade fairs? Any ideas welcomed - please do leave a comment below, I love hearing your thoughts.

06 April 2014

The Big Blue book launch

My friend Yuval, author and illustrator of The Big Blue Thing on the Hill, had a book launch at the Idler Academy in Westbourne Grove yesterday. Here, his young friend Elliot reads aloud, surrounded by his brother Finley and little sister Scout, amongst others. 

Yuval seemed perfectly at ease signing books and chatting to visitors - he says an upcoming reading at Paddington Library for a school group is a more daunting prospect!

What a fab spot in Westbourne Grove is The Idler Academy - a bookshop of the small but perfectly formed variety - light filled, cosy, with a teeny cafe in the garden and just the right amount of deliciously enticing reading.