Friday, September 29, 2006

Hand tinting


I don't get to do much of this nowadays, which is a shame because I really quite enjoy it. Hand tinting is just a fancy term for colouring in - crayoning, in this case. The hard work's all been done, the drawing finished and printed. Now all that's required is a bit of colour. And if you mess it up, you can always take another print and try again. So it's really not too stressful.

Knitting must be a similar activity, I guess, in that once you've acquired the necessary skill, you can knit and do other things at the same time. Talk, for instance, or listen to some music or a radio play. Or just sit and think. It's great.

Most of the hand tinting work I do is for private collectors - usually frontispiece illustrations for The Various and Celandine. I'll put up a post about the book collectors market some other time. An amazing world that I never knew existed until relatively recently. Amazing people too.

The example shown isn't all that sharp, but it was handy. I use German water colour pencils - 'Albrecht Durer' by Faber-Castell. Had the same box (a present from my wife) for about twenty years now.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Talk To The Animals...

There is a group of people who believe that animals can talk. Like the Flat Earth Society they're regarded as being a bunch of nutters by just about everybody else, but they're a well established club, whose numbers continue to grow.

I became a member of this odd little society many years ago because I'd always suspected that animals could speak perfectly good English, once your back is turned, and I was hoping to discover the truth.

From other members at club get-togethers I heard some amazing stories. The reason that animals keep secret the fact that they can talk is because they don't want to work. That's right. It suits them better to lie around all day waiting for the sound of the tin-opener than to go out and get a proper job. They know that if they once let on that they could speak, they'd be immediately shipped off to call centres and put to selling insurance and patio doors and advertising space. This would eat into their time, and so they play dumb. It's pure indolence.

I learned that not all animals have the same breadth of vocabulary. Gorillas don't say a lot, possibly because they don't need to, and neither do koalas, possibly because they're too stoned to. In fact wild animals in general are less chatty than their domestic cousins. We shouldn't be too surprised by this. Wild animals are usually either hunting or being hunted, and both parties do better by keeping quiet. Not a great idea to be hanging around the water-hole gossiping, and this applies whether you're a gazelle or a tiger hoping to meet a gazelle.

But domestic animals are naturally talkative, and it must be painful to them to have to just lie on the rug and keep schtum. Agony for fox-terriers, I should imagine, who really do have lots to say. Their choice, though.

Parrots are the truly clever ones. They play this dangerous game of double-bluff - pretending that they can talk a bit, but in such stupid comedy voices that we believe they're just mimicking our own. It's kind of funny, although I can't help thinking that it's demeaning for them, the parrot's natural speaking voice being such a deep and warm baritone. They sing very well too. Big Gilbert and Sullivan fans. Parrots of Penzance is practically their national anthem.

Anyway, after about twelve years of club membership, I finally heard an animal speak. I'll never forget it. It was a Friday night. I came home unaccountably late, and realised that I'd forgotten my door key. Damn. I really didn't want to wake the wife and kids. I mean, they're fond of me, but beyond 2 a.m. they're apt to forget it.

What to do? I wondered if I could get in through the cat flap. I was thinner in those days...

I'm joking of course. What I actually wondered was whether I could reach in through the cat flap and poke the door-latch up with a stick. It seemed worth a go. So I found a stick ( it was growing on a tree, funnily enough) and I knelt down and lifted the cat flap. The light was on in the kitchen, and I could see our little black cat, Charlie, lying in his basket, right next to the door. What luck!

"Hey Charlie!" I whispered. "I've forgotten my key. Give us a break and let me in."

So Charlie looks at me, and then he looks up at the Yale lock, which is about five feet from the ground. Then he looks back at me, and that's when I hear him speak. Clear as you like.

"Me? How?"

Then he just goes back to sleep! Like I said, bone idle. Fortunately for me - and for him - I was able to flip the latch up with that stick, but when I tried to demonstrate the same clever manoeuvre the next morning to my admiring family I couldn't do it. Even though I was on the right side of the door. All I got was a load of grief about how I'd broken the new plum tree that had only just been bought from the garden centre, and what a vandal I was.

No matter, because from then on I was a fully qualified member of The Club. I could hold my head up among that righteous group of believers who make it their life's work to spread tales of talking animals, despite the ridicule such activity brings. New members are always welcome, by the way. We call ourselves Children's Authors.

Saturday, September 23, 2006

Scraperboard technique


Something I'm still trying to master. Scraperboard is a type of card, about the same weight as mounting board, but with a smooth clay surface. The technique involves inking this clay surface and then working into it with a scraperboard tool - scratching away the black ink with a blade, in order that a white underlayer shows through. The blades are available in various shapes. Scraperboard usually comes ready-coated with a black surface, but I prefer to use white board and apply the ink myself. This means that I can paint in the general framework of the illustration and there will be less ink to scrape away.

I get quite nervous before beginning a piece of scraperboard work. It's pretty unforgiving, in that once you've scratched a line into the surface some of the clay has been removed and can't then be replaced. This means that if you make a mistake there's not much you can do about it. It's similar to wood cut, or lino-cut, in this respect. Hours of painstaking work can easily be ruined by a slip of concentration. Sometimes you might get away with repainting the surface and trying to scratch through it again, but really once it's gone it's gone.

A far more effective 'cheat' is Photoshop. I still like to produce artwork by hand, but I then usually scan it into Photoshop. Here I can rectify minor mistakes, adjust the composition, put in extra bits, or take 'em away again...and of course add colour. It's a great facility. I feel fortunate in having had a proper grounding in traditional drawing and painting techniques - four years at art college in the sixties - but I'm also grateful for the modern technologies.

Sometimes I think that things have gone a little too far the other way. I occasionally lecture in colleges, and find there's such a heavy reliance on computer technology that I wonder if straightforward drawing skills are being lost. During one module that I was teaching, some firemen accidentally cut through the optic cables and all the computers were down. "Right then folks," I said to my students, "get your pencils out." Pencils? They all looked at me like I'd gone nuts. Was I kidding?

The little picture of a squirrel that I'm posting here is actually a reject. I'd originally intended that it would be one of the interior illustrations for The Various, but it didn't make it. My editor felt that the style was a bit too tight and formal compared with the rest of the pictures that I'd done. I still quite like it, and it's nice to be able to give it an airing.

UPDATE: You can see some of Joseph Mendes work HERE.

Friday, September 22, 2006

From Boney N to Ali da G...

...or from Napoleon to Alexander the Great.

A couple of weeks ago a fairly big publisher ask me to write a book on Napoleon. Oh good, a commission. Usually I have to come up with an idea and then sell it. It's nice when people come up with the idea for me and then pay me to do it. I don't know that much about Napoleon, but I can learn.

Turns out the book is supposed to be written from a child's point of view - a kind of diary written by a kid in Napoleon's household. And that's OK. I can see how it could work, although it could only be a brief snapshot of one particular period in Napoleon's career. Any longer than a couple of years, and the child diarist would be growing out of the age range that the book is intended for.

But now the publishers are having second thoughts. They still want me to do the job, but they're thinking that maybe Alexander the Great would make a better subject than Napoleon. I'm trying to be flexible. Sure, I said, I can change horses (from Marengo to Bucephalus in this instance).

The trouble is, these same publishers have messed me around once already. They asked me some months ago if I would be interested in writing an encyclopaedia. It was to be titled The Encyclopaedia of Enchantment and Illusion. They pulled the plug on that idea before I'd written a single word. The 'Encyclopaedia of Enchantment and Illusion' very quickly became the Encyclopaedia of Disenchantment and Disillusion after all.

So will they get it right this time? Watch this space.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Wednesday night...

...is snooker night. Yay. I get to go to the Lib Club, and drink beer, and whack a load of balls around with a stick.

The great thing about snooker - like golf, I imagine - is that you're never going to be able to master it. Once in a while you'll pull off this great shot, and you think "Oh I see. That's how you do it. Now all I have to do is keep on doing it like that and next year I'll be at the Crucible/Masters, whatever". But then, of course, you continue to play like the wazzock you always were and will be.

They make it look so easy on the telly. I liked the comment that Steve Davis made one night, after some hotshot had casually made yet another 100 break. "Believe it or not this is actually quite a difficult game."

Scenes from the books.


I've been asked to produce a series of pictures from The Various trilogy. The idea is that there will be three pictures from each book, so nine scenes in all. The pictures will then be made available as a limited set of prints, with just 100 of each printed up - I think. These will all be signed and numbered.

When I was doing the actual book illustrations I avoided drawing the characters. As a reader I'm always a bit disappointed when the picture of a character that I have in my head turns out to be nothing like the illustrator's idea of that same character.

With this commissioned series of 'scenes from the books' however, it's been necessary to include some of the characters. I think the key is not to be too specific, nor to attempt close-up facial portraits. I've just finished the first scene - the one where Midge is tending to Pegs in the barn. I'll see if I can post here.

Monday, September 18, 2006

Little People

Nearly trod on a baby yesterday. I shook hands with a mate and didn't realise his newborn was lying there on the floor between us. I pulled out a chair, sat down, and still didn't see it.

"How's the baby?" I said.

"Oh, you know. Surviving - despite you and your size twelves."

Gave me a bit of a shock when I finally spotted the little fellow. I did feel that it wouldn't have been entirely my fault if I'd squashed young Isaac, though. He was dressed in blue and lying on a blue rug. I thought he was just part of the pattern.

That's thing about little people. They're very good at blending into the background.