And here's a very short (and very bad video) I made of the set a while ago...
I'd almost stopped drawing. I mean, I still took my sketchpad out to work on roughs or to plan patterns, but I didn't really draw if it wasn't the beginning of a collage. And the less I drew, the less confidence I had and the worse I felt about it, like I was only pretending to be an illustrator and, sooner or later, someone would find out. Everyone would say, "Well, she might be able to collage a fine gazelle, but did you know all her sketchbooks are actually full of lists?"
Last week I heard Eddie Mair interview artist Claire Parrish, about how she'd begun drawing again after years (it's a great story, you can listen here on PM, about 40 minutes in) and something made me stop worrying about all the other things I should be doing instead and pick up my pencil.
After that tiny beginning (and proving that Gladys is always the answer) I didn't really want to stop. I can't describe just how perfect a weekend I've had, sitting in the sunshine, in the garden or at the top of my studio steps, drawing trees and things. Not brilliantly well, it has to be said, but that is beside the point.
I think this must be what people are talking about when they enthuse about the benefits of mindfulness; feeling there is nowhere else in the world, and no-one else in the world, you'd rather be. It's quite a revelation, as though my mind is gently rewiring itself and I'm settling back into my skin.
If I needed another reason to fall back in love with the humble coloured pencil, it would be that they're so portable! Even if I attempt to take all my collage things outside, it takes only the lightest breeze, or a mere wag of Gladys's tail, to send everything floating off into the grass. This whole pencil and paper thing is revolutionary. And Gladys can sit as close as she likes.
You can see more work in progress photos over on Instagram. And just in case this post is lacking collage, here are the aforementioned gazelles:
This is my new philosophy for life.
I had grand plans to design myself a really nice thirtieth birthday party invitation which I could adapt and sell online (I know, I have quite a startling aptitude for business). I thought I'd create something which said, Kate is a person of style and elegance, her collage simply oozes sophistication, but I couldn't get it right. I spent a huge chunk of the day trying to make various flowery things work, and still, the sophistication wasn't oozing at all. I had the same disheartened feeling I get when I read trend forecasts all about pineapples or concrete, or whatever.
In desperation, I turned to Peter Scott's Observations of Wildlife, because a good bird book has never let me down, and I found this:
Swans! I drew them, decided the looked more like geese and, hey presto...
So this is it. I'm going for geese.
I think it's kind of how I always work; I had no idea people would buy tea towels with orangutans on, but it turns out there is a niche market out there for jungle themed kitchen textiles. Whoever would have guessed? I'm not entirely sure if this is the best way to run a business, but I expect I will find out.
And there are always concrete pineapples to fall back on, if all else fails.
In the same way you're supposed to do pilates or something to stop yourself becoming a hunchback with a slipped disc, I think every illustrator should join a choir! (I mean, ideally every human being would, there'd probably be fewer wars and more shared cakes.) Singing in Lichfield Gospel Choir is basically the exact opposite of what I do on an average day in the studio; instead of sitting at my desk, alone, covered in little bits of paper and glue, serenading my dog, I stand in a school hall and sing for two whole hours with about seventy other lovely people, led by our brilliant musical director, Themba Mvula. It's enough to make a freelance illustrator positively giddy.
I've been a member for just over two years, have finally learned all the words (quite a lot in Zulu), and can now both clap and sing at the same time without a look of extreme concentration (I think). There is nothing better than choir practice on a Tuesday evening to make the world feel like an exceptionally glorious place.
Towards the end of last year, I was contacted by the Royal Collection about illustrating a book to celebrate the Queen's 90th birthday. So I popped into St James's Palace one Friday morning in my best hat, got there far too early and then walked around outside for far too long, til I was almost late, flung my sketchbooks all over the security office floor, and somehow still managed to get the job! Cue: a lot of celebratory dancing. The story is written by Davide Cali, who has won 33 awards and is, you know, a proper children's book author, so after even more celebratory dancing I sat down to wonder quite how on earth I'd got this job and practice drawing corgis.
I LOVED working on this project. The story is all about finding the Queen the perfect crown for her birthday celebrations and involves a lot of snazzy headgear, but ends simply with a perfect paper crown from made by the prince and princess. Really unusually, the story is almost entirely set in one room of the palace, and I think the book's brilliant designer, Duska Karanov, and I simultaneously had the idea that I could make a proper set!
Here are a few photos of the whole thing:
Working on this made me think a lot about my own Grandma and Gran. They would have been beside themselves with delight if they'd known I was illustrating something for the Queen's birthday. The pose the Queen's adopting on the front cover is very much how my Grandma would look if she was opening a present - or just peering over your shoulder, waiting to make sure she'd boiled you the perfect egg.
You can buy a copy here and it's also available in all good bookshops.
Another blog (following January and a bit of February) about my latest favourite listen, book, play and walk.
Judith Kerr was, unsurprisingly, completely delightful on Radio 4's Bookclub. When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit is based on her own family's flight from Nazi Germany and the time they spent travelling around Europe as refugees. In response to James Naughtie's observation that she's still writing (and drawing - her favourite) in her nineties, Kerr replies, "Oh I don't know, everybody does everything in their nineties now, I think". At this point in the programme I decided for absolute certain, that I want to be Judith Kerr. Perhaps in 60-odd years I'll have cracked it...
You can read James Naughtie's blog about this particular Bookclub here if you aren't able to listen and he's also picked out his favourites from over 200 editions. There are some real gems amongst them, from Donna Tartt to Maya Angelou.
Love, Nina by Nina Stibbe
OK, this is a bit of a cheat because I think I read it in January, but it's brilliant and I don't know why I didn't include it last time. It's a collection of letters the author wrote to her sister while working as a nanny to LRB editor Mary Kay Wilmers' sons in Camden in the 1980s, surrounded by all sorts of famous literary folk, most notably Alan Bennett, who mends bicycles and regularly joins the family for dinner, often bearing a salad or rice pudding. The dialogue is wonderful and the recipes she includes are extraordinarily eighties, involving tinned fruit and a lot of turkey mince. I hardly ever even email my sister, let alone write her incredibly witty letters. I'm on the verge of buying myself a fountain pen in the hope it will spur me on to greater things. Like almost all the best books, this one was recommended to me by Sarah of The Book Barge. I urge you to read it, you will laugh a lot.
I loved Michael Buffong's production with the Black-led Talawa theatre company. I studied Death of a Salesman for A level, and the experience didn't exactly instill me with a life long love of Arthur Miller, but this production of All My Sons was wonderful. The play is beautifully staged amongst tall, leafy trees on the front porch of a clapboard house (I'm a sucker for a nice set) and begins with Kate (Doña Croll) grieving over the death of her pilot son in the war, while romance blossoms between his fiance, Ann (Kemi-Bo Jacobs), and younger brother Chris (Leemore Marrett Jr). The plot takes a much darker turn as the father, Joe (Ray Shell), a small factory owner, is forced to face up to his responsibility for the deaths of 14 airmen who flew the faulty aeroplanes he sold in an attempt to protect his business. The end scene is incredibly intense, as the family is shattered and Joe has to confront his own selfish greed, realising that the lost pilots are "all my sons".
Hartington to Beresfordale (and back again)
This is one of my very favourite Peak District ambles. It's not very far and invariably involves shopping for cheese or a nice lunch. Last month it was the latter; we walked here for our annual Mother's Day jaunt. Usually we'd take a picnic to eat by the river but the forecast was so dreadful we opted for the Charles Cotton Hotel in Hartington instead (delicious), with Gladys (labrador, not to be repeated, she only calmed down when I sneaked my lamb bone to her under the table). We used to go camping in Beresfordale with lots of friends and our mums when I was little and this walk was a regular feature. I once complained of a headache when we'd hardly set off and was driven to Hartington by car instead (wimp). When we arrived mum bought me a Magnum which caused ructions because the others had only been allowed lemon ice lollies. I grandly promised that when my first book was published I'd buy everyone a Magnum to make up for it - campers, I owe you.
Competition now closed. Thank you very much to everyone who entered! And the winner is...
No. 5: GEMMA LUKER! Hooray! Please get in touch, Gemma, and email me your address.
I've extended the closing time for this competition by a day because some people have been having problems commenting. I think I've sorted it out now so please try again if you couldn't comment before!
Competition time! (It's been TOO long.) I was thrilled to receive advance copies of ABC London back in January (originally published by Frances Lincoln in 2012, written by James Dunn and illustrated by me). The super folk at Frances Lincoln have reissued it in a new concertina format, a compact 13 x 13cm in size, all packaged in a rather lovely box! A shame then, that I completely missed it's publication earlier this month, only remembering when my sister snapped a photo of it in Foyles!
I'm so pleased with how this book has turned out (possibly because, as one of my tutors at uni observed, everything looks better when you shrink it down - and I do much prefer the simpler type), that I've decided to give a signed copy away! All you need to do is leave a comment below.
Please share and tweet and like and so on, it's all hugely appreciated, although do make sure you leave a comment to enter. This competition is open to anyone, anywhere in the world and will close at midday (BST) on Monday 30th April The winner will be chosen at random on Sunday afternoon.
PS. I've still got spaces on my collage workshops on Saturday the 11th and 18th April. Lots more info here if you fancy a relaxing day in a lovely Staffordshire farmhouse learning a bit about my collage techniques accompanied with a slice of cake or two and lunch included!
Calling (warbling, tweeting and chirping) all Brits: the vote is open to choose our national bird! You can pick your favourite here, from a shortlist of 10. It's been narrowed down to either robin, blue-tit, blackbird, kingfisher, wren, hen harrier, red kite, mute swan, barn owl or puffin. I expect it will turn out to be a robin but I've heard a few people campaigning very persuasively for the blackbird (for it's song and because it's so easy to find) and, of course, I have a huge soft spot for puffins! In fact out of the shortlist there are only 2 I haven't illustrated. If by some chance the hen harrier or red kite is chosen, I'll definitely be adding it to my portfolio!
I spend most of my working day with Radio 4 playing in the background. I don't always listen properly, but there are very few things which will actually make me get up and turn it off (ahem-round-Britain-quiz-cough) and there are occasionally programmes so good they root me to the spot, unmoving until they finish). I thought I might write each month about my favourite listen and then decided to add in other recommendations too, so it's become a sort of monthly round-up. Having left it til mid-February, this is a bit of a cheat too. I'll get better.
I love this series, a sort of Desert Island Discs for the book lover, and this programme with Sanjeev Bhaskar of Goodness Gracious Me and The Kumars at no. 42 fame (42 because he's a big Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy fan, I discovered while listening!) is one of the best. You should listen just to hear Adrian Lester read the line "and we're going to need your creativity or we're done for", it will send shivers down your spine. Claire Benedict also does a fantastic reading of Kipling's 'If' which I'd never imagined being spoken by a woman and is much the better for it. If you're in the UK, you'll be able to catch it on iPlayer for the next 3 days.
Despite being a Midlander, I'd never been to the RSC in Stratford until a couple of weeks ago when we went to see Love's Labours Won. We loved it so much we couldn't resist going back again last Friday to see Love's Labours Lost. Much Ado is my very favourite (happy) Shakespeare and this production was completely wonderful. The best Beatrice and Benedick ever I've seen and, most surprisingly, a Dogberry who will not only make you cry with laughter but also break your heart. Both plays still have a few more performances left to run and you can catch Love's Labours Won at the live cinema broadcast on the 4th of March.
Ilam Park (The photo above is from the same walk, but in October because I didn't actually take any last week.)
This was our Valentine's day out, complete with fish and chips from Ashbourne's Market Place which have got to be the best to be found this far from the sea! Just up the road from Dovedale, Ilam looks like a gingerbread village with it's ornate, steeply roofed cottages. The hall is a National Trust hostel, complete with a tea room and a garden that offers a spectacular view of Thorpe Cloud. With your delectable jam-slathered scone in hand, you can watch the tiny people rowed up along the top ridge like the spines of a dragon. Heaven. We discovered it's just as good with a parcel of fish and chips on your knee, which handily doubled up as a hot water bottle on this particular grey February day. We opted for a gentle amble upstream along the river, where the path eventually meets a lane that leads back down into the village.
I've had my first bash at filming a collage-in-progress! It's not entirely successful, mainly because I haven't got a clue what I'm doing when it comes to this sort of thing, but I hope it might give you an insight into how I create my illustrations. I think the file might be way too big and that's why it's a bit slow and pixelated in parts? Or maybe it's something else entirely (like my terrible Staffordshire internet connection?). Any hints and tips very much appreciated!
I made this on Friday and planned to put the video up on Saturday as a nice, Valentine-y thing, but general cluelessness combined with a lovely weekend going to the theatre/walking-and-fish-and-chipping/singing conspired to delay my plans somewhat. I hope instead this brightens up an otherwise grey and drizzly (here in Staffordshire, anyway) Monday afternoon. I apologise for the relentlessly chirpy backing music (better than no music at all, I thought), you probably shouldn't watch it more than once, it will embed itself in your brain.
Here's how the finished thing turned out, I'm going to add to it and perhaps use it for a card, what do you think? I used to be really reluctant to collage animals without hair or feathers, but elephants are my new favourites.
I've finally got my new website up-and-running! It's been rumbling away in the background for months and there are still many things I want to add and improve on (including some sort of video), so please consider this a work in progress and let me know what you think!
A big thank you to Holly Booth for recommending Squarespace. I basically wanted a really good portfolio site (with BIG images) which would also accommodate this blog, my own shop and things like the workshops and wholesale pages. My Not on the High Street and Etsy* shops are, of course, always open for business.
It's been 7 months since last I blogged, but I have grand plans, my friends, GRAND PLANS. I do love a good plan, so here's hoping this becomes a regular thing. Keep your eyes peeled.
*Pssst! There are still quite a few things left in the sale in my Etsy shop, plus buy one, get one free on lots of cards.
I'm really excited to announce that from July I'll be hosting regular collage workshops here on the farm in Newborough, Staffordshire, where my studio is based.
Whether you’re a keen crafter or a complete novice, you can spend a few peaceful hours in a beautiful countryside setting and indulge your inner artist! Workshops take place in the farmhouse but you're very welcome to have a behind-the-scenes peek at my studio too.
For more information, to book and to see lots more photos from my first workshop click here.
The beautiful photography is by Holly Booth, who, as always, did a brilliant job of capturing the day!
Growing up on a dairy farm and now working from a studio overlooking the yard, you might imagine drawing cows would be my forte. Unfortunately, my early attempts at capturing our dairying queens on paper usually failed spectacularly and it sort of put me off. Aged 10 I drew a ghoulish calf's head in oil pastels and gave it to my mum for her birthday, I think it was downhill from there! In my first year at uni we had a Christmas drawing project and I chose the farm as my theme. In theory, I'd be able to snuggle up on a straw bale with a mug of mulled wine and fill a sketchbook with my favourite Friesians, but actually it was bitterly cold and I stuck it out only long enough to fill a couple of pages (badly). Lately, I've been trying to remedy this and if you follow me on Instagram you'll have seen the fruits of my labour. Until recently I was ignorant of the benefits of posting half-collaged Herefords, but now I've decided that #wip is the way forward. Instagram, I love you! So, in the spirit of sharing my working process, from my first pencil drawings to the finished pattern, here's the merry herd:
OK, so I've only done their heads, but I'm happy with how they've turned out for now. I left the Highland out in the end because it wasn't quite right - disproving my theory that the hairier the animal, the easier it is to collage! Most importantly, my dad successfully identified all six different breeds, which has got to be a good thing.
These cows are now destined for mugs and tea towels, and I've just had some new wrapping paper printed too!
PS. Here's a cow from a year ago with a body. Just so you know I'm not always that lazy. Strange to see how my style is developing too, even in such a short time.
I'm so thrilled with how this book turned out, I love the hardback matte cover and the lovely paperback with flaps. There's a story CD narrated by Debra Messing and the traditional tale is beautifully retold by Mary Finch.
Here's a sneak peek of what is probably my favourite illustration, where, as a reviewer in Publisher's Weekly noted, "the rooster briefly wears a cooking pot on his head."
Finally, at the grand age of seven-and-twenty, I am the very proud owner of a Blue Peter badge! A couple of weeks ago, on my birthday in fact, I was heading into the Peak District for a celebratory luncheon, enjoying the sunshine and generally revelling in the fact that I had not one single bird to cut out, when my telephone rang. It was Blue Peter's director asking if I could go up to the Farne Islands that very evening to be part of a feature they had planned the following day! What would Diane Louise Jordan* do? I asked myself, and quickly said YES before I had chance to get too nervous. So, after a quick sandwich, we hot-footed it back home for a slice of birthday battenburg (homemade with lots of marzipan - my favourite!) before I caught the train back up to the Farnes, just three days after I returned home from hanging the exhibition.
It's very exciting having your travel arranged for you by someone else. I spent a good chunk of the journey quickly trying to get to the part of Susan Cain's Quiet where she enlightens introverts on how to deal with public speaking. It turns out you need 1) practice: "Aaargh, I have no time to practice!" and 2) a passion for your subject: "BIRDS! COLLAGE! BLUE PETER! YES!" Everything would be ok, I promised myself, my jar of Night Time Kalms rattling reassuringly in my pocket.
In fact, everything was super. It should come as no surprise that people who work on Blue Peter are very lovely people indeed. They even gave me a special HAT. Anyone who knows just how much I love a good hat will not be surprised by my delight in having such a fine, green M&S specimen to add to my collection.
The children from the local middle school in Seahouses were brilliant. They asked some great questions about my exhibition and made lovely bird collages in a really short space of time. We also did quite a lot of walking in and out of the chapel, donning our hats at the appropriate moment, and a good deal of pointing at puffins:
It was broadcast today and you can now see the whole programme here if you're in the UK, it will probably be available for a week or so and the Farnes bit is about 19 minutes in.
I'll be back on the Farnes during the summer holidays to run some children's collage workshops (as seen on Blue Peter!), I'll keep you posted and should have some definite dates lined up soon.
*My absolute favourite Blue Peter presenter when I was young:
I spent the last week of June working high up amongst the rafters of a 14th century chapel on a tiny island in the North Sea, attempting to suspend hundreds of life-size seabird cutouts from the roof. From my perch atop the scaffolding tower I felt something akin to a fairly chaotic puppeteer, as I tied lines to the surrounding beams while the birds swayed about unpredictably below.
It's been two weeks since the my exhibition on the Farne Islands opened to the public and I still haven't written this blog, so I pinched that last paragraph from the guest blog I wrote for Barbour. It's difficult to know where to begin summing up such an enormous and incredible project, but I'll start with the birds.
Somehow I made 120 bird collages in just five weeks, covering about 20 different species which breed on the Farne Islands, from enormous cormorants to tiny swallows. These were then photographed (thank you Holly Booth!) and printed onto gigantic sheets of Foamex, like this:
If you imagine, as I did, that the name Foamex implies some sort of foamy quality, you would be entirely wrong. Cutting out 500-odd birds from 3mm plastic with nothing but a craft knife is no picnic. A HUGE thank you to everyone who came to the rescue and helped me to accomplish this mammoth task in just three weeks. It wasn't long before the birds had taken over the entire ground floor of my parents' house (where I have my studio) and while I escaped to a bird-free home at night, at one point they were clambering over cormorants and razorbills just to get upstairs! This is the plus-side of Foamex, a material so tough and durable, it could be usefully employed to build an assault course.
The other plus-side was that instead of working all on my own up in my studio, muttering to myself and letting the Radio 4 waves wash over me, I had company! It made a lovely change and everything much jollier (and finishing on time much more possible).
Extra thanks also go to lovely Alice Kiteley, who answered my plea on Twitter and drove across Staffordshire on at least four occasions to help me, all the super volunteers at Sudbury Hall, and Jack and Chris, who lent me a fretsaw and so revolutionised the entire bird-cutting-out process! Tina Webster also wrote a lovely blog about the day she drove all the way down from Yorkshire to assist.
Finally, the birds were sorted and packed, and the farm felt like it does after Christmas when the decorations have been taken down. We managed to squeeze them into my tiny car and I drove up to Northumberland to embark upon the hanging.
Unless you're prone to really violent sea-sickness, travelling to work by boat surely can't be beaten. It is utterly wonderful. Although I was slightlyexhausted by the end of the week, I absolutely loved spending so much time on the Farnes and disembarking from the boat in the morning, even to be dive-bombed by dozens of nesting, extremely protective Arctic Terns, was quite magical.
When it came to actually hanging the birds (the wording always sounds a bit odd...), I was brilliantly assisted by Simon Lee, property manager and, most importantly, the person who thought St Cuthbert's chapel would be the perfect venue for a giant collaged avairy. There's a great time-lapse organised by one of the National Trust rangers, which shows the whole flock going up in three days, although we did sneak a few more birds in on the morning of the preview!
I'll be seizing all further opportunities to go back to the Farnes this summer, I had such a wonderful time. The exhibition is open until the 31st October, normal opening times and admission charges apply, more information can be found here.
PS. More VERY EXCITING NEWS TO COME. No idea if I'm supposed to keep it under my (specially adopted for protection from Arctic Terns) hat or not...
In two weeks time I'll be transporting my flock of six-hundred-and-something birds to the Farne Islands and in under three the exhibition will be open to the public! If you haven't been to Northumberland before it really is the most glorious place to spend a few days (beautiful beaches, castles, seals, BIRDS, the Cheviot Hills, Hadrian's Wall...) AND this year, for four months only, you can visit St Cuthbert's Chapel on Inner Farne and find it filled to the rafters with my wild, collaged flock!
I've had some brilliant helpers over the last week who've assisted in the cutting out of about one third of the birds so far! Lovely illustration student Alice Kiteley has been an absolute STAR as have lots of friends, family and the fantastic volunteers at Sudbury Hall! Really couldn't get it done without you all, so a HUGE thank you. Still 400-odd left to go, so if anyone else fancies helping out and is in the Staffordshire/Derbyshire area please get in touch!
It's fun, honestly. And there's ice-cream. Look:
I have some really exciting news which I can finally tell you ALL about! In August last year, I had THE BEST work day out, ever. It involved travelling up to Seahouses in Northumberland to meet some lovely people from the National Trust, taking a tiny boat across the sea on a beautiful, sunny day, eating cake delivered by post, a tour of a beautiful island and a really unique exhibition space, all topped off by a seal watching expedition (and fish and chips for tea)! It really will take some beating, although I am, of course, open to offers.
The result of all this northern adventuring is that from the end of June until the end of October this year, a lovely chapel on the National Trust's beautiful Farne Islands will be filled with a vast flock of my life-size, collaged birds! Similar to those I created for Yorkshire Sculpture Park in 2010, but at least ten times as many and only species which can be seen on the islands (no flamingos this time), the birds will be suspended from the beams in the chapel so you'll be able to walk amongst them as they swoop to and fro!
The Farne Islands are a tiny group of islands just off the coast of Northumberland in the north-east of England. They're one of the most magical places I have ever visited, this is the breathtaking view looking back towards the mainland from the Farnes, with Bamburgh Castle on the coast and the Cheviot Hills in the background.
The islands are most famous for their incredible bird life - they have 23 species, including around 37,000 pairs of puffin! Look - it is impossible to keep yourself from beaming with joy at the sight of ONE, let alone 37,000 pairs:
Luckily, I'd been to the Farnes on holiday in my teens, so I knew a bit about them when Simon Lee, the manager for this area of the Northumberland coast, contacted me about creating a flock especially for this space. Somehow one of my dream commissions has become reality - a seaside, bird-based reality! It really couldn't be better.
The chapel is on Inner Farne which was once home to St Cuthbert in 678 AD. Built in 1370, the chapel is dedicated to the saint and stands alongside the Pele Tower which once housed monks and is now home to some of the National Trust rangers!
Imagine this space filled to the rafters with birds!
Here are some more photos I took of the islands:
Look - SEALS! Unfortunately my camera failed at the last minute and I didn't get many photos of them. Huge thanks to Simon, David, Claire and everyone else for making it such a super day!
You can see more photos on the Pinterest board I've created here. Also well worth a look is the rangers' blog - they live on Inner Farne for eight months of the year (check out the photos of their mammoth supermarket shop just before they ventured out for the new season!).
I feel a puffin brooch in the offing. More importantly, I have A LOT of birds to collage...