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!