Widdershins the Sequel

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Green Hill Arts in Moretonhampstead has been rounding up some dreams and wishes to share with you throughout July and August. Mythic art by Alan Lee, Brian and Wendy Froud, Virginia Lee, Marja Lee, Pauline Lee, Paul Kidby, Hazel Brown, Neil Wilkinson-Cave, Danielle Barlow, Terri Windling, Angharad Barlow, Rima Staines (and me).

Terri (who sprinkled her bag of quotes most effectively over the proceedings) has more pictures here.

What an unimaginable honour to be included in such an excellent line-up. Again!

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Trees and Beasties

d1Roughly the same time I was working on Podkin (see last blog instalment), another interesting job turned up from Bloomsbury Books. As my plan of easing back into illustration by mostly drawing trees seemed to work well with rabbit-based adventures, I decided to apply the same wheeze for the first few pictures of this compendium of mythical beasts.

Here’s the first little rough for a Harpy family portrait – it has a swoopy liveliness that didn’t make it to the final picture.

h2.jpgAs the image developed, it took on a late-Victorian aspect, which is surprising as the initial inspiration was from a William Blake painting. He had illustrated a scene from Dante’s Inferno, showing the Harpies roosting in the forest of suicides. I did a further rough that had the trees all twisty and writhing like tormented bodies, but I scared myself with that so it probably wouldn’t have been suitable for the nippers. Gustave Doré also had a crack at a similar scene.

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Last of the overtly tree-based images: a lovely werewolf caught mid transformation. For absolutely no reason other than I found it amusing, I made him a Hussar. There isn’t any mention of it in the brief; in retrospect I think I must have been channeling the film A Company of Wolves which features a fine lycanthropic gentleman with a similar outfit. It probably would have been more fun to get hold of the film and use the exact same uniform, but I can’t think of everything, unfortunately.

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I have completed several more pictures for the book, but these ones fit my tree narrative better so I’ll stick with these for the time being. Kev Walker is also working on the project (we are linked in that we have both worked for 2000AD at some point); it is due out in October.

Lastly, if you are in Dartmoor this summer you could do worse than visit Widdershins 2016, which is the sequel to Widdershins from a couple of years ago. I blogged about it at the time, here. The exhibition is being put together as I type so I’ve yet to see it, but I’m fairly sure it’s the same artists but with different artwork. Unless you’ve been in my kitchen, you certainly won’t have seen the originals of the six Local Characters that I’m displaying.

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Gap Year Ends in Massive Rabbit Caper

1About a year ago I decided to have a spell of time away from illustration, as I suddenly had the feeling I might prefer to eat my own kidneys than ever draw another picture. I had been doing it for quite a while, so I suppose a change was long overdue. I’m happy to say I didn’t spend the days lolling about in a dressing gown watching television (luckily I own neither), although now I’ve typed that, I find the idea disturbingly attractive. I may do that next time. But as it turns out, not earning money is rather inconvenient if you want to eat, replace shoes, fix broken windows, etc.

Luckily, a pleasant job popped up courtesy of writer Kieran Larwood. The publishers were keen on using double page spreads for the illustrations, which meant I could get my teeth into some tasty environments. I was still a bit fragile in the visual image department; the only subjects I could contemplate  drawing without utter despair were trees, so the first few pictures were basically woods with little figures in them somewhere. Gradually I could ease myself out of my twig-based comfort zone and attempt some rabbit-on-rabbit action. To make life even more bearable, I was allowed to use pencil, which was scanned and beefed-up with a spot of Photoshop craftiness. Here are a few of the pictures…

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The book is called Podkin One Ear, published by Faber & Faber in October.

Coming soon to this blog: A Miscellany of Mythical Beasts, in which I do some paintings of trees that happen to have mythical beasts in them, and What I Did During My Year Off.

Patrick Woodroffe

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In my youth, when I was first getting into illustration quite seriously, one of my favourite-ist pictures was Hortus Conclusus by Patrick Woodroffe, who died last year.

Yesterday, I was a very happy person as I finally got to see this oil painting in real life; Falmouth Art Gallery is currently running a retrospective of his work. Also present was the cover to The Sentinel, a gatefold-album by Neo-Proggers Pallas, another notable item from my early eighties experience.

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Patrick employed an almost miniaturist approach to many of his paintings – they are staggeringly detailed and the gallery should have provided magnifying glasses as I strained my aged eyeballs squinting at many of the works . I knew a little about his processes from his book ‘A Closer Look’, in which Patrick reveals many of his arcane secrets in detail. But mere reproduction cannot begin to capture the texture, colour and clock-maker craftsmanship he lavished on his pictures.

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There’s a lot to see in the show; as well as book and record covers, there are etchings, tomographs (Patrick’s painted cut-out puppet thingies) and items from his studio. The event runs until April 18th at Falmouth Art Gallery.

Spinning Moonlight

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Just finished this today, which is appropriate as there have been other moon-based shenanigans afoot (there was an eclipse in this part of the world this morning).

These are my good friends Eloise and Murphy going about their business, which in this case involves collecting skeins of moonlight, presumably to fashion into a stylish, yet practical, garment later on. Eloise recently packed her job in and has become a full time weaver – you can find out more here, or if you are visiting Widecombe-in-the-moor, pop into the National Trust shop where she has some wares on display.

Here are the relevant stages (or struggles, as I prefer to call them). First, the initial scribbly idea…

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Then the rough with some colour added via Photoshop…

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Next, the pen and ink drawing…

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Then the undercoat, which was particularly fiddly on this one because of all the twiggy nonsense.

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After this stage there was much toothbrush-flicking of watercolour, added colour pencil, paint taken off and put back on again, scanning in and fiddling about digitally to try things out so as not to make too much of a mess on the painting, more flicking of paint and general fixing of things. Business as usual, in fact. This one will probably undergo a bit more remedial work; normally I live with paintings for a while before releasing them into the wild, but there probably won’t be many lunar-centric stories in the news in the next week so this seemed an appropriate time.

Past Lives

The last few days have been filled with reminiscences of things past.

(Reminiscences? Think I might be on dodgy grammatical ground with that…)

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Firstly I was reunited with author Geraldine McCaughrean for an event at my local literary festival. About seven years ago we were involved in the publication of Peter Pan in Scarlet and the subsequent picture-book version. We were spoilt rotten with launch parties, high profile appearances and TV interviews at the time. This weekend’s event was less celebrity-filled, but no less enjoyable; I hope our young audience were inspired to go and write/draw their own stories. Above is the cover of the novel. It was quite a hectic commission as there was little time and I also had to draw a number of illustrations for the inside. Brian Froud was doing the cover originally but he withdrew from the project due to artistic differences with the powers that be. His painting now hangs in the Todd-Jones’ residence (they have been mentioned in past blog entries) as Pan was modelled on a young David Todd-Jones. Google it.

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Back in 2003 I worked on packaging design for the band Arena. The Contagion digi-pack is shown above along with a few of the pamphlet images. It was a staggering amount of work, but highly enjoyable. This week the band were rehearsing nearby in preparation for their upcoming 20th anniversary tour, so I popped over to have a listen. I was in a band with guitarist John Mitchell when we were nippers, in what feels like a previous life. John also has a solo album out called Lonely Robot which I believe he will be touring later in the year.

The approach to the rehearsal rooms…

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And inside, slaving away at the coal-face of progressive rock perfection…

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Lastly, sad news…

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I was lucky to work on many of Sir Terry’s books and related paraphernalia (very often instigated by the lovely Bernard who is on the right of this pic). After I completed my first cover for him, The Amazing Maurice and his Educated Rodents, he very thoughtfully phoned and thanked me for my efforts, a gesture I appreciated immensely. A lovely chap whose imagination and humour will live on.

Ghost of a Tree

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Bit of a spooky one this week.

This little creature came to me while I was observing a recently fallen beech tree. From one particular angle the branches seemed like frozen lightning bolts, suggesting great energy; a stark contrast to the fact that it was thoroughly rootless and deceased.

I suddenly imagined a slightly alarming figure amongst the twigs. I couldn’t get the image out of my head, so I made a picture. Better out than in, I say; the last thing you need is to be haunted by a dead beech tree.

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High Tor Guardian

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We start with an extreme close up, as one of the joys of painting for me lies with the textures that seem to occur naturally in the very act of lobbing pigments at a bit of blank paper. Here you can get a better impression of that. To give a sense of scale, in real life her face is about the size of a fat bumblebee.

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This Local Character came to me fully formed (more or less) on a Christmas walk out in the wilds of Dartmoor. I must admit I got into a pickle with the face as she looked a little too much like Bruce Spence from Mad Max 2, and even though there’s still a touch of the Brucies about her, I’m reasonably satisfied with her look of benign disdain. In my mind, she had much greener lips, but it looked ridiculous when I came to paint them so they had to be subdued somewhat. The only other deviation from my initial vision came when I stole her twiggy head piece from this awesome lady:

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The Great Mythic Village Disaster (and other traumas)

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It’s been a difficult month work-wise.

Just when I thought the collected Crooked Imp was completed and ready for it’s Spring release, the publishers started having second thoughts about the cover. Unusually, I was quite happy with the one I’d already done, and was extremely reluctant to do another. I did try another approach, but nobody liked it much. Eventually I agreed to let a third party have a look at the original to see if we could wrestle it into an form everyone was happy with. Designer and comic artist Paul Duffield squeezed and shuffled things around until we had a result – meanwhile the title changed so I had to redraw that as well.

Here’s the original cover:

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Then the abandoned second attempt (in rough form):

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And now the unequivocally very, very, very final cover that will appear both here and in the States (unless it changes again):

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Next up, the ongoing nightmare that is the Mythic Village Yearbook.

Last year I had the splendid idea (it wasn’t) to gather all my Local Character paintings and sketches into a wonderful book (it isn’t). The book was supposed to be out before Christmas last year (it wasn’t) and be a fair representation of my favourite things to paint (it isn’t). Five hundred copies finally turned up a week ago. In fairness, the cover and binding is great, and I like the dead hares endpapers, but then things go downhill. Most of the pictures have an alarming, eye-piercing green tint that can only be described as ultra-violent emerald (a pigment currently unavailable in Windsor and Newton watercolours) and certainly not present in the originals.

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At this point I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but the books are certainly unsellable and I suspect we’ll be having a very expensive bonfire in the near future.

To finish on a positive note, here’s a sketch that I’m hoping to develop for my next Local Character painting, a guardian of Wattern Tor high up on the moors. On no account will there be any green in this picture whatsoever.

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The Trouble with Layers

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Warning: post contains tedious Photoshop-based conundrums. Skip to the last bit if allergic to digital dilemmas.

Conrad Mason’s Demon’s Watch books are being publishing by Scholastic in the U.S. (splendid news), but they found my first cover a little overly weaponised and requested an alternative version. Personally, I find happy trolls with blunderbusses cute and amusing, and I struggled to find a different approach. I read the book again and decided on a rather exciting scene that has witches and aquatic behemoths and our heroes in trouble, with no flintlocks or cutlasses in sight. This is the rough idea…

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Unfortunately this was considered too frightening for the nippers, which left me in a quandary as I couldn’t think of anything else. Luckily, Conrad stepped in and suggested an idea (top of post) which thankfully did the trick.

When creating pictures digitally, it’s customary to build the elements up on layers, so things can be easily accessed and altered. Unfortunately this also gives the unsuspecting artist many more potential avenues to explore, resulting in a lot of procrastinating and scratching of beard. I can’t count the number of wasted hours altering the opacity of layers minutely or changing the tone subtly, then reverting back to the way it was, then looking at it the next day and inexplicably repeating the whole sorry, indecisive affair. I had a particularly bad case of layer-meddling on this one, which nearly resulted in me submitting this as an alternative:

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I liked the simplicity and space, plus it looks better really small (the size you might see it on a website). I didn’t suggest it in the end, as it’s a bit too different from the other two covers and would be summarily rejected. This version happened by accident when I turned the other layers off – here is the opposite effect when the swooping figures are turned off:

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Not quite as exciting, but with some fiery typography slapped in the middle it could make a decent enough cover. You see what I’m getting at? Sometimes there are too many options. Wait, maybe I should have done the background less blue…

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Enough already.

This week I did an interview for an online magazine called Last Laugh, which features an eclectic mix of art and artists. Have a look through the previous issues as there’s a lot of interesting and inspiring stuff.