Friday 30 October 2015

Thursday 29 October 2015

Friday 23 October 2015

The blue cow, pastel A2, 2009, Bundanon Trust Collection

Wednesday 21 October 2015

The Master Thief, clay, bronze patina and candle, 25cm tall
Melbournites who missed the Singing Bones exhibition can still see some sculptures at Carlton's Readings bookshop on Lygon Street this week, in their front window display until Monday (with many thanks to the staff at Readings). One of these, above, illustrates one of my favourite Grimm tales about a brilliant con artist, able to convince people the world is ending using nothing more than crabs and candles.

Monday 19 October 2015

Thursday 15 October 2015

The Singing Bone: sculpture notes

While I was working on illustrations for Grimms Märchen and The Singing Bones, I remembered to document a little of my process, so here it is. I don't think there's anything special about it and I imagine there are many other ways to create effective sculptural illustrations (some no doubt better than mine). In any case, below is a step-by-step example of how I approached this task, fairly consistently over 75 works. The Grimm story I am illustrating here is 'The Singing Bone', from which I drew my own collection title, about one brother murdering another in order to claim a reward for killing a wild boar.

Interestingly, I did not make the kind of preliminary drawings for this project that I normally would, and often started making the first thing that came to mind upon reading each story (also unusual for me). I guess I was very interested in capturing an immediate gut-reaction, and just getting my hands dirty without over-thinking things too much.

Here's my basic structure for one figure, made of papier mache and wire. I usually start by bending a strong wire into a rough shape, then squeezing pulp around it. I make the pulp by ripping a newspaper into strips, soaking it in a bucket of water until broken down, then straining it. I then mix it with a tapioca- or potato-flour glue (a little flour in a saucepan of water, gradually heated until viscous and clear). My dad used this technique a lot as a child in Malaysia and the resulting form, once dried in the sun, is extremely hard, durable and very light (I used to make a lot of masks with him as a kid). It can also be cut with a knife. The 'lumpiness' of these shapes are quite suggestive and this process typically introduces a lot of accidental forms, often a good thing.

Here I'm starting to add air-drying clay over the form, working quite quickly, not thinking too much about the result. I find it's important not to get bogged down in detail, and 'let nature take its course' to some extent. There are different kinds of air drying clay: I've used DAS, which is (I think) a kind of finely pulped paper, so also quite light when dry. It's not as subtle as real clay, but I've gotten used to its character and find it quite versatile (the terracotta-coloured kind seems easier to work with than the white one, having less elasticity). Why not just use real clay? I wanted to introduce objects and other materials into my figures, of a sort than kiln firing would not allow. I also like the immediacy of working with air-drying clay, and how easily you can later add to it, wet on dry if need be.

A little more modeling, but still pretty rough. As a shape takes form, I'm thinking of how the emotion or attitude of a character can be conveyed through very simple body language, especially as my figures don't usually have expressive faces (or any faces at all sometimes). Here, I was aiming for a sense of a man about to strike his brother with a club as they are walking home. In the story the violence is disturbingly casual, even psychopathic in its lack of empathy, so I wanted something cold in the attitude of my figure.

A little more refinement of surface, adding some unity of weight and curve to the back and limbs.

Once the form is dry, I carve into it with knives, files and sandpaper. The final style of the figure is largely defined by this carving. It's also easier to simplify and smooth surfaces this way, and again it discourages me from adding too much detail. I very much wanted these figures to have a bluntness about then, without too many distracting embellishments.
A few layers of acrylic paint later and the figure has a stony appearance. I often change my mind about colour, painting a sculpture multiple times, but that only adds to the complexity of the surface, as if the object has had some life of its own, some history. Rubbing back with a damp cloth before acrylic paint has cured, or with turps in the case of oils, produces a very nice, natural-looking surface.

With the hapless victim added, I tried out different compositions in front of the camera. Something seemed missing until I added rocks from a local gardening-supply store, lending a theatrical and elemental feeling to the scene. The hard overhead lighting with a cool lamp created the right atmosphere, a certain claustrophobia and starkness: a timeless pause before the critical moment of action. The narrow focus with fore-and background blur also isolates the figures and sustains their small scale: the act is tiny but terrible, happening  far away from the the light of a larger world. The final image was edited slightly in Photoshop, mainly darkening the sky. I try to keep digital editing as minimal as possible, and get as much as possible right in the initial photography, just because 'real' solutions usually look much better than digital ones.

Tuesday 13 October 2015

Some upcoming appearances, Melbourne

I'll be at No Vacancy Gallery, Melbourne for a final Singing Bones book signing - and maybe the artist talk I didn't get around to doing last time, with a little Q&A if possible. That will be this coming Saturday, October 17, from 12 - 1.30pm.

On the evening of November 11, Armistice / Remembrance Day, I'm participating in a panel about peace at the State Library of Victoria, alongside artist Bill Kelly, film-maker Paul Cox, Lyn Gallacher of ABC Radio National and Deborah Cheetham, Associate Dean of Indigenous Development at the Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. I think it will be quite a broad and no doubt very interesting discussion about using art to promote peace, reconciliation and social justice. This is a free event, but requires booking. More info here.

On November 16, I'm next door at the Wheeler Centre in conversation with the terrific children's author and artist Sally Rippin and two young editors from the journal Early Harvest, discussing the question, 'Do adults and kids have different ideas about what makes great children's literature?' Probably. Younger readers and writers are welcome to chip in and teach the aging know-nothings a thing or two. This is also a free event but ticketed, and you can find out more about it here.

Monday 12 October 2015

Sunday 11 October 2015

The History Lesson, pen and digital

An illustration on the theme 'darkness > light' in which artists were asked to include the colour yellow as a negative element. It's always fun to invert conventional values ascribed to things, eg. yellow being usually regarded as sunny and positive, and this is often a good staring point for both illustration and writing.

Saturday 10 October 2015

Thursday 8 October 2015

The Brothers Grimm, clay, wire, paint, 15cm tall

For Melbournians, I'll be giving a short artist talk and signing books at No Vacancy Gallery, (Jane Bell Lane, QV building - not the Fed Square one) on Saturday afternoon, 12 to 1.30pm, do come along.

Wednesday 7 October 2015

Plasticine Era, artworks by exhibition visitors

As part of the Singing Bones exhibition I've included a table with blobs of plasticine, encouraging visitors to make their own narrative sculptures, either Grimm-inspired or not – the only rule being to have fun. It's great to see kids and adults equally drawn to this. The result (ongoing until October 18) looks something like elemental lifeforms popping into existence, hence the provisional title I've given to this anonymous communal artwork. Many thanks to all participants. Do drop by No Vacancy Gallery, QV building,if you happen to be in Melbourne CBD and add your own bit of weirdness!

Tuesday 6 October 2015

Thorn Wolf sketch, clay sculpture and digital

Above, a preliminary design for a large wall painting to accompany the Singing Bones Exhibition, and below, a wall at No Vacancy Gallery, which continues for the next two weeks. I ended up grouping the 70+ Grimm-inspired works according to general themes, this section dealing with predators, demons and witches, both good and bad.

Sunday 4 October 2015

Friday 2 October 2015

Thursday 1 October 2015

The Devil and His Sooty Brother, clay, paint, iron filings, photo, digital; reproduced as a cover for The Iowa Review
I wrote an essay for the Iowa Review as part of their special feature on children's literature this month, with a few Singing Bones images accompanying, more about this here.