Tuesday, 26 January 2010

"Family Reminders" honoured

A recent book for Charlesbridge publishers in the US, Family Reminders written by Julie Danneberg, has been chosen by the National Council for Social Studies (NCSS) and the Children’s Book Council (CBC) as a Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People.

Lili at Charlesbridge tells me "This is a really great honor, and the book will be exhibited at the 2010 NCSS convention in Denver".

Monday, 25 January 2010

Recent work

Here are two recent pieces completed for the British Medical Journal. The first, "Aging Tsunami" accompanied a feature about pressures on the health service as the population lives longer.

The second illustrated an article on the decision of some hospitals to ban bedside flowers as a risk to health.

Friday, 15 January 2010


Illustrators owe it to themselves to be dissatisfied, to be unhappy with their work, their situation, their direction. It's the constant burden all artists must face if they want to push forward their creativity. Never be complacent, always have something to gripe about. Creativity is galvanized by being unhappy with the way things are, for discomfort leads to change.

This line of thought was prompted by a recent Campaign blog post by Steve Henry "Safe isn't Safe" which emphasises that producing comfortably acceptable work is the death of genius, being merely okey at something condemns your work to obscurity. There's nothing worse than living in a comfortable groove and staying there in a creative cul-de-sac. There's a logical cycle to creativity. You get inspired, you have ideas, you explore them until they run out of steam, you take stock, scream with boredom, which pushes you on to the next wave of creativity and the cycle starts again. It's a naturally intuitive way for artists to develop. Unfortunately for illustrators though, their art and direction is often controlled by outside forces - changing fashion, expectations of the market, clients, which can handicap the natural creative process. Illustrators can find themselves stuck in a repeating groove, being led by the market rather than leading it, burdened by their past output and unable, or unwilling, to move forward.

I experienced exactly this when working in advertising in the mid-1990's in Tokyo. Having made a big splash on the commercial illustration scene at the beginning of the decade I was lucky enough to become inundated with ad work, much of it asking me to repeat my first hits, as art directors based their pitches around my previous work. This resulted in a dangerous loop, whereby I'd end up doing pastiche's of my own work, constantly recycling the same themes. The first version, usually commissioned by a talented AD (Mr.Ideas), would be an exciting and creative exercise, guided by a designer who knows how to encourage an illustrator on a project, the teamwork would lead to something fresh and exciting. Then I'd be asked to do a similar version of the same job by AD No2 (Mr.Lazy), who'd seen the first image and used it to sell his pitch with few ideas of his own. The task for me in this situation would be how much could I change the brief to make the artwork unique and interesting, usually AD no2 would have very little input in the creative process.

The worst would come at stage 3 though, when AD No3 (Mr.Clueless) would see version 2, completely misunderstand what made the image successful in the first place and throw some cruddy cut-and-paste comp at me. So for example, an idea developed in a poster for a Tokyo fashion dept store, would spark a commission to do similar for a somewhat less fashionable supermarket in the provinces, which would in turn open the the door to cruddy "cartoon" commissions for instantly forgetable DM leaflets etc. By the second half of the '90's I realised I was dealing more and more with Mr.Lazy and Mr.Clueless and less and less with Mr.Ideas. I was pigeonholed and getting very stale. I became miserable, dissatisfied with everything I did, I hated my entire ad output. Fortunately (in a way) this coincided with a lot of major changes in my life, not least the crash of the bubble economy in Japan, so as the advertising market cut back I had plenty of time to take stock and re-order my output. My dissatisfaction galvanized me into new areas, new directions, and new work. Some of the projects led nowhere, others revitalised my existing output. This sense of being in a creative rut and being forced to move on led to inspiration. The late nineties and early noughties were a very experimental time for me. I never forgot the lesson, now I actively encourage myself to be aware of ruts and seize any kind of job that gives creative freedom to move forward. In that sense my work matured, I'm much more in control of my creative output, though like all illustrators still at the mercy of the market. You don't have to be avant-garde to do this, much of my work is very "traditional" by today's standards, but I challenge myself to approach things with a fresh eye whenever I can.

Illustrators must thus have a strong constitution to continue in this business long-term, for they're not only dealing with the changes and vagaries of the market, but also the negative, gnawing self-analysis that comes as part and parcel of their talents.

So are we condemned to be moaning minnies, always griping about our work? No of course not. Self-awareness is crucial, but too much self-analysis can be a big handicap to change. The key is not to analyse the past and become morose, but to look forward, to nurture the intuitive inquisitiveness of your creative spirit. Those who take the easy way out and become complacent about their work will always end up in the loop above.

As an illustrator friend once told me, there comes a point where you've got to stop thinking and just get on with things. Get out your pencils and draw. Be hungry, but don't analyse your hunger, feed it.

Monday, 11 January 2010

Snowed in and snowed under

Last week's recent heavy snow across the UK caused transport systems and schools to close, forcing working parents to take time off. My daughter was off school virtually the whole of last week, but as I work at home now it's been business as usual. I was illustrating to a soundtrack of children's TV, punctuated with a steady stream of demands beginning with a full throated "DADDY!" and ending with "can I watch a DVD?" or "sweeties ...... please?". I'd much rather daughter did something more sustaining like read a book, but this is perhaps a little too much to expect of a 6-year old, such activities require my full participation.

Surprisingly, no amount of encouragement could persuade delicate little princess to step out to make a snowman in the park, the very thought of getting her toes and fingers freezing and wet in freshly fallen snow sent her into tantrums of terror. She only dared venture from the house when the heatless sun shone in a crisp blue sky after the snow had frozen overnight and made snowman-building impossible.

Daughter has a nonchalant attitude to my work. She shrugs when I show her new pictures, and sometimes gets annoyed when I drag her away from TV to ask her opinion on colour schemes (yes that's right! I do ask my daughters advice on art, though I may ignore it). Her favorite book that I've illustrated is one of my skimpiest works, a very simple thing I did for an educational publisher in Japan a few years ago. However she tells everyone we meet that her daddy is "the best illustrator in the world", so she's my most loyal fan.

I'm often quite busy with Japanese commissions over the festive season, this year has been no exception,  Christmas of course being just an ordinary working day in Tokyo. Frustratingly Japanese companies often commission in mid-December, expecting the work to be completed by the time they get back to the office in early January, which messes up my plans for the holiday, but these are churlish regrets, I'm grateful to be busy when many others are not. Balancing freelance work and child-care is an art I've yet to completely master, it's more a question of switching from one to the other, but there could be worse jobs than sitting at home drawing pictures in the circumstances.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Today's Weather

London was spared the heavy snowstorms that have swept the rest of the country..... until now!

Here's the view as I write across Queen's Park.

School is cancelled for my daughter. No amount of urging on my part can persuade her to brave the elements outside, though if you look carefully some intrepid souls in the park are hard at work building snowmen.

Friday, 1 January 2010