The Exhibitionist Part Two: Yet another crack at galleries

So I was in the middle of combating my mistrust of art galleries.

I was doing it in the laziest way possible, don’t get me wrong, by only attending events of illustrative relevance, but I was still doing it.

Having spent the early afternoon in a whirlwind tour of the contemporary illustration scene, by way of the AOI World Illustration Awards at Somerset House, I decided to kick it up a notch with an exhibit that cost real life pennies. Commitment ahoy! This big spender headed to the House of Illustration.

Safe bet? Yeah definitely but whatever, I was still paying to look at walls so I consider it a victory.



So, I am in love with the House of Illustration. Tucked behind the bustle of Kings Cross, if you can fight your way through the Potter-ites to find it, do it. Not only does it have a tiny yet really nice little shop of all things illustration, (I forget I have no use for postcards every time I enter) it also regularly holds events, talks and lectures by some of the industry’s finest. I’ve many a fond memory of various events in those walls held by editorial artists, to kids book creators, comics artists and beyond, all of which have been top quality. It’s genuinely a great place to get yo’self an education in all things drawn so if you’ve not already, do head it up.


What made this venue a great counterpart to the AOI exhibition, is that the HOI not only champions the contemporary, but regularly pays great homage to the history of illustration. It didn’t let me down on my visit either, where, on paying my affordably £7.00 ticket price, I was treated to a charming, unexpected exhibition of Quentin Blake originals.

I suppose it’s not that surprising, given that this goliath of British children’s illustration IS the founder, but even so the short and sweet collection was a bit of a delight. Seven Kinds of Magic, is a collection of Blake pieces in which he approaches themes of surrealism and magic. In all honesty, Blake’s work doesn’t tickle my fancy on too frequent a basis, but it’s truly impossible to deny the life and charm of his scrawled characters and bonkers scenarios. I also firmly believe that any insight into the workings of a practitioner and acknowledgement of how they approach a given subject is all of great relevance. Especially when they have been rather a large part of your childhood experience of pictures. And especially when they are so joyfully mad.




On top of this emporium of scribbled musings, another small room housed yet more Blake magic, this time in lieu of the BFG‘s contemporary comeback. Having spent many a sleepless night, terrified I would be consumed by an unfriendly giant (well, what’s any British childhood without a bit of Dahl related trauma?) this did result in a pang of nostalgic excitement. hoi_16

This small collection housed originals from the book, as well as previously unseen images that were cut from the end product. A sneak peek into the production and alternative results of something we’ve all become so familiar with. I’m not the kind of gal who is hugely fussed by the idea of seeing ‘The Original’. For me, if illustrations  were made for a book, those printed pages in their intended context ARE the real versions. Authenticity of ink on a page matters not in my eyes, BUT new images I’ve not seen before? Illustrator interpretations of scenes I was previously left to imagine myself? Well that is something worth taking a peek at.


And it is a bit of a joy, even on a wall. It’s around until October, so if you were/are/could be a fan of the book, you really should stop in.

BUT, these surprise delights from an illustration wizard were not actually what had drawn me to the HOI that sunny, August afternoon.

Instead an exhibition of Soviet children’s books, the aptly named A New Childhood had caught my interest hook, line and sinker.


You offer me a chance to compare story, illustration style and subject of historical children’s books to that of the contemporary, I’m there. (#booknerd) You invite me to take a look at the picture books of another culture, particularly those in a time of historical poignancy I’m THERE. You invite me to observe the impact of political unrest on the children’s book market I am ALL OVER THERE. And you appease my love of classic, European and Russian design, casually throw out names like El Lissitzky and charge me less than a tenner? My friend, you got yo’self a date.

It was one of those events that made me sad I wasn’t still in education and having to write a dissertation any time soon. I was mortified the taking of pictures was forbidden, it was a fabulous collection of incredible design work. Stylised illustration in glorious synergy with typography that screamed history.

Given it’s historical relevance, it’s not surprising that the arrangement of the exhibition felt like a classical museum format. The glass topped tables and large, formal information cards gave the collection a treasured, ‘getting cultured’ vibe that took me back to being a kid in a museum. That knowledge that you were, in NO WAY going to EVER be trusted to touch such relics. It’s so strange then, to imagine the pre and post revolution children of Russia, pouring over this very collection I stared at through four inch thick glass, in their beds and with their parents; in the same, slouched manner you see kids on beanbags in Waterstones, sinking into Charlie and Lola with the corners folded in and their imaginations racing.

I understand, and in this case totally appreciated, the serious tone of such a valuable collection being treated with this respect. I liked that I felt I was in a museum. I felt I was being taught. I felt I was really Getting History, but it was so apparent how many millions of miles away from the real world of kids books it was. I wasn’t a reader here, I was an observer.

Yeah okay, the fact I can’t read Russian probably had something to do with that too, I can’t deny it.


And I learned a lot. Aside from the joy I found in discovering the artistic impact of the curious rules of such a strict regime; the banning of all things folklore, the mistrust of anthropomorphism and the, almost comical differences this appears to have with our contemporary, Western picture book climate, I learned facts. I followed the roots of contemporary illustration, the way style and content spread throughout nations, the impact such poignant work has on my current market. The transition of design. The movement of character. It was a delight to see and compare where things came from, to where they are. And, importantly as always; context. Society changes, and the creative output moves too.

To ban fantasy, to encourage production, function and mechanism and place importance on becoming USEFUL adults, is a far cry from the values explored in plenty of picture books today. Such a no-nonsense regime had to drill function into young minds. I suppose for many, it’s brainwashing. To remove a child’s imaginative capability by way of focusing on the reality. The list of banned, damaging or unsuitable children’s output then, seems so obscure to us now.

But that obscurity to our society, is of course where the lesson lies. Call it brainwashing if you will, but children’s books do shape minds, which, in turn, shape people.

We may not like to consider it brainwashing now, perhaps because the societal scenario is not nearly so extreme, perhaps because one political body is not perceived to be outwardly in charge of the entire output, perhaps, and most importantly, because we don’t disagree with the topics of discussion. Either way, we must always be aware that picture books are significant in shaping thoughts, societal codes and values. All works of fiction, media and art in all  their forms, impact directly on the belief system of a person.

I don’t think this is necessarily negative. This is how cultures are formed. We have to define and express shared values to an extent, in order to co-exist without pandemonium. Without getting too pretentious, children’s books, along with all other entertaining consumables, help to define the core of societies.


A New Childhood was a brilliant collection of texts spanning across a foreign period of revolution. It, as all museums do, celebrated and examined a point in history, be it within or outside of our cultural code of conduct. It was an extreme reminder that context is everything and to always be aware of the power of judgements communicated in all media; specifically those intended for the young. First impressions, after all, can be hard to renegotiate.

The House of Illustration is a good place for picture loving yet gallery-wary people like me to explore these, white-walled environments. It takes things I love, like illustration; imagery designed for a purpose, for a brief, for a text and displays it out of it’s original context. The intent is to perhaps elevate it to something more cultured than it is? To remove the dirty, money aspect, and witness the creation as an example of higher art?  It’s a mark of true acceptance of commercial artists, once looked down on by the community of higher artists, into the realms of something greater.

I appreciate the notion, because I (obviously) appreciate the illustrator. I think they SHOULD be appreciated. I do think they should get credit for the work they do. Cover artists of novels should have their name on their work, and picture book artists should be acknowledged as co-authors. In my, humble opinion, that is.

Where I think I fall away from the idea of an exhibition space, is that I don’t view it as any more valuable. I don’t like looking at things on a wall or displayed on a grey floor. I still don’t really rate the experience, even after the array of, frankly, phenomenal collections I experienced. I suppose I personally, don’t really feel it does the illustrator that many favours.

I like to see things, not in their original state, not to appreciate solely the mark on the page or the craftmanship of the line (although there’s no doubt it can be sensationally impressive) in a blank environment where all that matters is its existence. I’m more excited by it In situ. I want to see an illustration next to the text it was made for. I want to see the design of the spread as a whole and how that designer has impacted on the illustration. I want to see the results of every stage of production working their respective magic to create the final output. Arguably of course, that’s why it’s important to see the illustration alone, in a case; to truly experience how it’s placement has changed. That’s why I’ll continue to check out places like this, to get a rounded experience of what illustration is, why it is more than simply drawing.

But don’t expect me to be as excited. I still prefer my pictures printed in pages, tangible, touchable, smellable. Interacting with spine and paper stock and text in the musty library, in the messy play room, in the classroom that smells like pencil shavings.

This is my kind of illustration, and my kind of design. I loved my visit to the HOI, it was an enlightening and beautiful museum and I know I’ll return. Thanks for trying to appease my inner gallery lover, but if you need me, I’ll be on the floor, elbows deep in a beanbag.



Alexis Deacon; Two days of Master class Magic and Mayhem

I’ve been thinking a lot more about stories and comics recently. Mainly because I’ve not been doing so many and, given that this whole illustration thing has grown out of comics to begin with, I’m definitely now suffering the symptoms of some kind of creative withdrawal condition.

So when I saw the chance to do a two day illustration and narrative masterclass with Alexis Deacon (Beegu, Slow Lorris, winner of 2014 Observer/Cape/Comica Graphic Short Story Prize and generally good maker of things) while booking my Elcaf ticket, I thought it was probably worth a bit of investigation.

I’ve never done a masterclass outside of formal education before (certainly not one actually meant for grown up people anyway) and, to be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect.

In actual fact, it was like being caterpauled back into the welcoming arms of early university days again. Both days focused on different topics and I found myself with a curiously warm and fuzzy feeling at the notion taking part in a one day project; something that I despised being requested to partake in during University, yet have seemingly grown to appreciate in the name of artistic growth and discovery.  Back then, my stubborn, student exorcisms in self righteousness sneered in the face of actively creating “bad” work and paying for the privilege to do so; and I still can’t quite say it’s a method of working I’d chose to exercise on too regular a basis, yet there was certainly a joy to being apart of an environment in which you can genuinely bury any sense of pride or dignity regarding your work in favour of loosely and blinding discovering the new. It’s a bit like being creatively drunk. Inhibitions go out the window, your metaphorical artistic pants come off and you all dance on an entirely non-existent table of creativity, relishing the fact that in that moment, you can see the room from a completely different position from that you’re accustomed to.

So in the name of lowering all artistic inhibitions and creative inebriation, we got stuck in and had a lot of fun.

The first day was a masterclass on character and their roles and positions within the physical environment of a drawn story.


On entering, Alexis had drawn a massive forest environment and our job throughout the day was to populate it with characters who interacted with each other and their drawn habitat, both physically and in the creation of mico-narratives.


Alexis was an ace speaker and generally charming chap, focusing a lot about the analysis and theory of a character and inviting the group to consider each task. He spoke  a lot to various members of the group about simple visual elements, yet maintained a refreshingly analytical bent that I often see glossed over in favour of just making marks by less considered artists.


Having spent most of my creative life being told to think less and draw more, Alexis offered what felt like a refreshing and intelligent analysis of the physical form and it’s position in space. I felt encouraged to see his priorities and considerations when drawing a scene seemed very similar to my own inner processes and seemed like another tick in my head that for me, visual storytelling seems to be where it’s at; a feeling i believe to be echoed in the feelings of a lot of like minded characters in the room.

Mine and Alexis's fish-things.
Mine and Alexis’s fish-things.


Even though the work we were making was quick and loose (probably not going on the wall), it all had a purpose within the context of the forest scene we were working together to create. I think it was this sense of consideration and context that separated THIS kind of quick project, from the kind I’ve encountered in the past where all sense and sensibilities go out the window in the name of blind “freedom”; a word that needs careful usage in my eyes so as not to make me want to grate my own face.

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Anyway, the day spanned a series of short tasks and by the end, our forest was well and truly populated. Visual perfection, it was perhaps not, but it’s always been of my opinion that the imagery alone is inconsequential. The narrative if formed by a number of visual and inferred factors and I like to see our forest as an expressive anthology.


The second day was even more joyfully analytical and focused on the telling of a story and visual exploration of a narrative. It was potentially less involving than the first and I felt less apart of a group project and more considerate of my own part within the story’s structure, however this could have been due to a number of factors and I can’t pretend I don’t find working alone a familiar and comfortable position to be in.


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Having had a story broken down. we each tackled a key scene, as agreed by the group. Consideration was given to how the visual priorities and composition, lighting and other basic features were used in the process of communicating the intended emotional impact of the scene. The work was, again, loose and unrefined but I felt it was the perfect compromise of being able to shed the fear of producing a bad item in the face of pushing the intended impact of the image. The irony of course, as is always the way, is that when those creative beer goggles go on and the artistic inhibitory pants come off, then emotion of a scene can really be given the freedom to shine. Communication is a funny thing and the visual manifestation of it is just as complex. The fear of making something that ‘doesn’t look right’ is inherent in many, if not most, artists, but once that analysis and understanding of what you ARE trying to achieve within a piece has taken place, loosing the fear and daring to push out of a comfortable placce is seemingly the only route to really nailing an idea.



I requested to work on a scene that revolved around the environment, due to the fact that environments are not at all my forte, but I DID know how I wanted it to feel, so with this knowledge in hand I struck out of my comfort zone and really did just make a big mess.

You know, in the name of learning.

Thanks a billion to Alexis for all his help and critiques during this weekend. I cannot fathom how difficult it must be to teach real life grown up people but found an inspiring balance between honesty and criticism without falling into the patronisation pit. While I don’t think anything I produced was necessarily pride inducing, i think of this weekend as an exercise in the craft of storytelling.

So, after a long lazy gap my muscled have finally been well a truly flexed, it’s time to go make something.

Let’s go tell some stories.

Well I had to get him to sign something...
Well I had to get him to sign something…

House Of Illustration and Folio Society: A collection of Ghost Stories!

As the Folio Society continues to pump out books so beautiful I dribble a little bit, in their honor I decided to knock out a few pieces in line with their yearly competition (previous entry seen here).

Three illustrations and a book jacket design for their next publication; and this year the book is a collection of short, Victorian ghost stories, all with varying themes and settings but linked together by a whole lotta scary.

So here’s what I got. Not so traditional but hopefully still dark and tingly making!Thomas Abbot Ghost Story Illustration

The Treasure of Thomas Abbot by M.R James

The Upper Berth Ghost story IllustrationThe Upper Berth by F Marion Crawford

The Empty House Ghost Story IllustrationThe Tale of the Empty House by E F Benson

Ghost Stories Cover DesignAnd the jacket design. This had to be simple with limited colours to be printed onto cloth. Instructions also dictated that there should be no information on the cover itself, but space for the logo and anthology title on the spine.

Okay so it hasn’t won, but it was a nice project to work on, and excellent portfolio builder and most importantly, gave me an great excuse to curl up under a blanket get involved in some classic creepies!

A Dark Heart and a Whole lot of Mess

If you’ve had your ear to the ground in the world of illustration and whatnot, you may have heard that the Folio Society & House of Illustration have recently launched their 2014 competition to illustrate a classic novel. This year’s addition to their, ever growing archive of mouth-wateringly stunning books, is Joseph Conrad’s novella, Heart of Darkness.

And with a subject matter that rich, who the hell am I to say no?

So here was my entries of 3, evenly spaced illustrations to accompany the text and a graphically simple jacket design.

"Two women, one fat, the other slim sat on straw bottomed chairs, knitting black wool."
“Two women, one fat, the other slim sat on straw bottomed chairs, knitting black wool.”
"What we could see was just the steamer we were on, her outlines blurred as though she had been on the point of dissolving, and a misty strip of water, perhaps two feet broad, around her-- and that was all.  The rest of the world was nowhere..."
“What we could see was just the steamer we were on, her outlines
blurred as though she had been on the point of dissolving,
and a misty strip of water, perhaps two feet broad, around her–
and that was all. The rest of the world was nowhere…”
"But his soul was mad.  Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked within itself, and, by heavens!  I tell you, it had gone mad."
“But his soul was mad. Being alone in the wilderness, it had looked
within itself, and, by heavens! I tell you, it had gone mad.”

Book jacketSo there we have it! It was a stunning project to work with, the text is truly deep and rich and it was a genuine challenge to provide works that didn’t sell it short. In the end, I decided to let the words do their job with the vast majority of the description and allow the imagery to focus more on communicating the themes of the scene. It’s my belief that images should, really offer something additional to the text, rather than simply supporting it.

I Can’t wait to see the winning design, I’m sure it’s going to be something quite special!