Owls and epiphanies

Collage illustration of a tawny owl

So what’s with this owl, then? As some of you may know, I’ve started a part-time MA in Illustration (Authorial Practice) down in Falmouth School of Art. I’ve been working on my first Negotiated Project – a combination of illustrated piece and a research journal to, in mathematics parlance, show my workings. The illustrated piece I’m working on is deliberately imperfect, incomplete, changing (it’s an animation) – it’s inspired partly by the writings of Judith Butler and J Halberstam* around queer theory and how queer lives and queer identities must continually be made and remade in the face of heteronormativity.

Well, I hear you ask, that’s all very interesting, but what has it to do with this child’s birthday card made from bits of scrap out of a bin in five minutes flat?

I spend a long time carefully getting the lines – their shapes and thicknesses – just how I want them in my illustrations. I create pencil workings and then work over the top of them. I ink slowly and deliberately and love the way my brush pen responds to pressure and angle.

In my animated college project, I’m being quick and playful and I am not attached to the outcomes being perfect. I go over things and I change things and I show what’s going on underneath – I show the structure of the image, the skeleton of it, where I’ve gone wrong and where I’ve covered up. And the project has really loosened me up – I didn’t know quite how much until I made this card.

I’d bought 12-year-old Jacob a book about birds for his birthday; he’d spent the day itself at a hawking centre watching the raptors being flown and looked after and learning all about them. I realised I hadn’t got him a card and so I pulled a cardboard sleeve out of my recycling bin, cut it to shape, found some squared paper, cut that into a rough owl shape and then stuck it to the cardboard. I flicked through the book I’d bought until I found a photo of an owl that would fit the space and with my brush pen I scribbled and a minute or two later there was this. I coloured the legs in with tippex, coloured the branch and leaves in a little with fineliner and there you go. And it’s the best damned thing I’ve done in ages. It’s loose and fluid and evocative and not overworked at all.

So I think I’m going to rethink the way I do illustrations. It’s not to say that I won’t prepare – I’ll still do pencil roughs, but maybe I won’t ink over the roughs. Maybe I’ll use collage more. It’s pretty bloody exciting!

*Jack Halberstam is his current name; the books I have read of his were published under his dead name, the first initial of which is also J, so I use the initial to get around the which-name-to-use etiquette!


Following on from last week’s blog post about trying new illustration media, here are two lunchtime doodles with the fineliner I used to hate. Working out how to get the best of it is fun!

Pulling things out of my head – the pen can do clean lines and fine shadingpanic robot illustration

but it’s nice for creating loose rough sketches too, with plenty of energy and movement (these are some children from an ad in a magazine):illustration children playing


I’m a bit conservative when it comes to trying new methods. My job is often limited by time so I tend to do the things that work. But that gets boring after a while.

When I was in art college I tried lots of different things but my butterfly brain would not persist with any of them – “can’t do that – too hard” *throws toys out of pram*

Now, with a little age and experience under my belt, I’m looking at new ways of doing things – ways I’d rejected before but remained curious about.

Last winter I signed up for a botanical illustration course – hoping to apply some discipline to my splishy-splashy style, and also to learn how to paint with watercolours, one of the most difficult mediums to master.

The Very Precise Style isn’t really me, but I’m enjoying it anyhow…

10887514_761809127234631_219316847201473626_o 11155095_812546242160919_7145262069798780958_o...and learning about watercolour has enabled me to use those skills to work out how to represent things in a more expressive way…afal


All this has prompted me to try other new ways of doing things. One of the materials we were asked to buy for the botanical course was a black fineliner artists’ pen. I have never liked such things, finding them clumsy and limited and difficult to use with subtlety, preferring a Bic fine biro for such tasks *cue singing of hosts of heavenly angels – best pen ever*

However, I’ve been using it more and more, and just now I created this raven. I would have been able to create something very accurate with a Bic pen – shaded and shiny and the filaments of all the feathers present and correct. However, the fineliner adds a character, an expressiveness, that I might not have been able to capture if I’d used a more subtle pen. There’s a solidity about her – her hulking form, her strength, the shine of her feathers. I’ve had to think much more carefully about how to represent her to get around the limitations of the pen, and it’s taught me a lot. I remember reading about a champion surfer who’d learned to ride waves on her brother’s broken board – if you can make something special out of whatever materials you have to hand then you’re on your way.


Continuous Personal Development or whatever it’s called

When I was in art college I remember weeks on end of basically just sitting in front of naked people with an easel working out how best to get that conglomeration of skeleton, flesh, skin and hair onto a two-dimensional bit of paper. What I forget every time I decide that I need to exercise my drawing muscles from life is how exhausting it can be. Learning to draw should properly be called learning to see.

Having realised yesterday that I had a day free and also that I had missed all of the life-drawing sessions I could find out about in Cardiff before Christmas, I did the next best thing and stomped over to National Museum Wales to draw nudey sculptures. Sculptures have the advantage of being a) free to look at and b) unmoving; however life models are better because the poses within a session are often time-limited and there is nothing that sharpens up your observational skills than trying to get a realistic human shape on to paper in 120 seconds in the full knowledge that what you are looking at will no longer exist after that time allotment is used up.

So I went to the museum and I drew Perseus by Frederick Pomeroy with its ridiculous overly-modest figleaf (which the ubiquitous-to-museums sixth-form students evidently found as funny as I did). I guess it took about 45 min to an hour.

pencil sketch of sculpture of Perseus holding Medusa's head aloft

and a Thompson’s Gazelle (10 min)

pencil sketch of Thompson's gazelle

And Rodin’s The Kiss (an hour or so) (you can see I was getting tired here and it’s sort of a mess but I want to go back and draw it again from fresh)

pencil sketch of Rodin's The Kiss

I’ve also been studying anatomy books – if I can understand the structure of something I find it easier to draw. I guess I’m sort of teaching myself the things I wish I’d learned in college. Looking at the bones, muscles and tendons beneath the skin appeals very much to the technician in me and I’m loving learning how bones rotate and ligaments slide and basically how amazing we are. If you’ve seen Leonardo Da Vinci’s sketches of all the dead bodies he ‘acquired’, took apart and drew you can appreciate how obsessive this understanding-how-things-work can become. Not that I’ve robbed any graves lately or anything *ahem*


NB this is the anatomy book I’m studying. It’s excellent, if you can overlook the occasional moment of 1920s racism :/

Life drawing

warning: contains naked people!

Hello! Just a quick post to put up some quick sketches I did at the life drawing sessions I’ve been attending at Rodney Parade in Newport for the past couple of weeks. I really recommend life drawing as a fantastic way to improve your drawing skills – if you go regularly you’ll notice an improvement very quickly. If you’re interested in attending these sessions, which are run in Newport on Wednesday mornings and Garth Olwg in Trefforest in the evenings, join this here Facebook group. My friend, awesome painter Carl Chapple, also hosts taught life drawing sessions in Barry on occasional Sundays. He has a Facebook group here which you may “like” to find out more.

Happy scribblings!


Hello. I made some doodles. Thinking of developing their style into a new way of illustrating. I especially like the owl and the leaf.