Friday, 18 August 2017

Getting in the Groove: daily sketching and writing

If you've been following me on Instagram (which I'm slowly getting used to) and Twitter, you might have seen some of the - mostly - daily drawings I've been posting recently. I've avoided multi-posting to the blog or on Facebook on a daily basis, I think the continuous nature of Twitter and Instagram is better suited to daily sketch exercises, but in case you missed them, here are a few recent scribblings.


On a train, playing "guess the famous book"

Sketchbooks are an intrinsic part of my work, both for practical ideas for commissioned projects and for time-off drawing, but, unusually for me, the first part of this year I actually found it very hard to think about sketching. I was at a low ebb after the death of my father last year (he was almost the last of his generation in my family), so I wasn't feeling particularly whimsical. Most of my creative energy was focused on commissioned briefs, and when I could devote spare time to creativity it was spent more on reviving my long-dormant picture book stories than sketching. Of course, for picture books I need to do both - writing and sketching, together! Admittedly I wasn't travelling much either, and it's often on trains that I tend to get into the groove of doodling, so, commissioned work aside, sketching was sluggish. 

I needed a break, thankfully the SCBWI Picture Book Retreat earlier this summer played an enormous part in helping me re-charge my batteries. I had a couple of very heartening meetings with presenters, and the workshop activities were a delight.  

From a sketching exercise run by illustrator Adam Stower at the SCBWI Retreat - we were asked to loosely sketch the outline of volunteer models, then develop the sketch into a character - here I turned attendee Gary Fabbri into a wolf-man.

Since then I've been working on ideas and filling the pages of my sketchbooks, just getting back into the rhythm. Eventually I'll write picture book stories based on or developed from my own free doodly sketches, so they're not separate things, but united themes, expressed in words and pictures, visuals and story together.... but I'm not quite there ... yet. My sketchbooks tend to be about drawings only, I don't find it easy to pull out and develop stories from my sketches, the drawings say it all! Likewise when I think of story ideas I tend to focus on the words and the narrative, rather than illustrations. It's a curious separation in my mind, which I'm trying to bridge. There are stories in the sketches though, can you see them?

Dog Lover
Beaver in a library run by Otters
Air Bus
Two Rats in the Rain

Some of these were drawn on train journeys, as I've been out and about a little more lately, but also sometimes late at night sketches before bed, or doodles while watching TV (like this friendly monster)..... just getting back into the habit of daily drawing. I'm not laying any rules on my doodles, I draw when I can, mostly daily, and post the ones I like, but this isn't a race or an exercise, it's all at my pace, for my benefit and enjoyment. It's for this reason I don't tend to go for some of the more structured art challenges on social media. 

This started from scribbling on scrap paper, trying to unblock clogged pen nibs (one of the drawbacks of fine-point pens), and ended up as a drawing in it's own right.

Any kind of creative activity takes you on a journey, sometimes though when you pause for a breather you might dally too long and forget the way. But the path carries on, and if you walk it, it gets clearer, you'll find it takes you to all kinds of places.


Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Best Wishes for Summer 2017!

Summer greetings to all my dear friends and readers.

It's been a rather cool and wet summer in the UK so far, not so glorious for beach-lovers perhaps, but good for gardens... and frogs!


Tuesday, 8 August 2017

New picture book release: "Magic For Sale"


Magic For Sale is finally out!
Written by Carrie Clickard
Illustrated by John Shelley
published by Holiday House Books

ISBN: 9780823435593
32 pages of rollicking fun!

The book follows the trail of young Georgie McQuist, who's been dared to sneak into Miss Pustula Night's Magic Shop overnight to find the spirit that's rumoured to inhabit the basement. Needless to say he finds the ghost and a great deal more in the creepy confines of the shop, including Miss Night herself and her pets Fifi and Grumpus. All ends well for Georgie, who makes a new friend in the not-at-all-scary ghost and ends up with a new monster pet of his own to scare his classmates.



All lots of spooky merriment, written in lively rhyming text. Carrie's story was a great deal of fun to work on, especially filling the shelves of the shop with as many mysterious items I could think of.

I intended the illustrations to convey a sense of claustrophobic clutter while expanding on the jollity of the text with all the trappings and paraphernalia of magic, mystic and monsters. A darkened shop basement might not seem like the easiest of locations for a picture book, but filling shelves spilling over with extraordinary objects I hoped to create a "bazaar of the bizarre". If the reader is able to find something new every time they look over the drawings, perhaps think of their own stories inspired by the weird items on the shelves, then my job is done. Well, that was the intention anyway!


Magic for Sale has been a book long in gestation, having been put on hold for some time due to clashing schedules and other things, so I'm very happy to see it finally in print. The release has been timed to appeal to the Halloween season, but it's not 'just' a Halloween book. My enormous gratitude and thanks for patience go out to Kelly and the other editorial staff at Holiday House, and of course, to writer Carrie Clickard, who has made a fabulous book trailer here on You Tube!

Without giving too much away, some of the creatures you'll find in the illustrations include: 

Mummies....


....Owls...


....carnivorous plants....


...legendary monsters like the Tarasque from French Provence...



.... beasties in cages (assorted)....




....and a Kraken.



plus potions, jinxes, dried ghouls and pickled goblins.........(you'll have to buy the book to see more!). And finally not forgetting Georgie's new pet.



The first reviews have been enormously encouraging, Kirkus has given Magic for Sale a starred review, and the response on social media has been very positive. Holiday House has recently announced a distribution deal with Penguin Random House, which means a wider reach for the books outside the US as well as in North America. The book should already be available through most outlets across North America. In the UK as I write  Magic for Sale is already available through online sellers, and, I've been assured, will be distributed to high street bookshops and other trade outlets  through either Ingram or Baker & Taylor distributors.




Sunday, 30 April 2017

Catching up with Spring

It's been a while since I've posted to my blog, I've had a few things on my plate this spring which have kept me occupied, and when I do have time to write I've tended to summarize in a few words on Twitter!

So what have I been up to? Well, I can say that after a long time in gestation, Magic For Sale will be released through Holiday House Inc in the US on 25th July. Written by Carrie Clickard, it's a spooky 32- page picture book in rhyming verse, full of potions and monsters.... I can't show much of my work on this book yet, but I can reveal the cover!


Magic For Sale can be pre-ordered through the publisher or online sellers now, more on this title shortly!

Until recently I've had little experience of working with schools, despite the number of books I've illustrated - for a variety of reasons it was just an area I'd never really pursued. But in February I crossed an important threshold and did two school visits to a local school. It was a revelation! Here's my report on the experience for the SCBWI journal Words & Pictures. I can now officially count myself within the ranks of author/illustrators who visit schools, if you're involved with schools, do get in touch!

Right now I'm working on a series of three early-reader novels about historic harbour boats in New Zealand, black-and-white drawings and coloured covers. I'll reveal more about these lovely stories once the project is completed, but you can see some work in progress through my instagram account @studionib. Here's the chaos of my drawing desk at the moment:



These last few years I've been working exclusively on commissioned artwork, so my own self-written projects have been shamefully pushed into a neglected corner. It's a very different process for me to work on my own stories rather than commissioned ones, but, much as I love working on texts written by others, I'm trying to devote more time to my own ideas now.

Everyone has ideas, even non-writers and illustrators, some of them good, some bad, all my ideas get jotted down in a little notebook I carry everywhere with me. But these are just concepts, polishing them into a finished story submission for professional publishing can be challenging, it's a different part of the brain than pure illustration. I'm not much for developing ideas from my illustrations, because my drawings tell their own, visual narrative, I actually prefer not to think too much about images at all when I write stories! Anyway, it's an area I'm trying to revive.... wish me luck!





Tuesday, 24 January 2017

Sketches from Tokyo Part 2

Here's a few more pocket sketchbook scribbles from my recent trip back to Tokyo.

Writing nenga-jo (New Year greeting cards) on the train.

It's always great to be in Japan, I never get tired of the country or lose the desire to go back, no matter how long I'm separated from it, even if, like this time, the entire trip was spent in the Tokyo metropolis. But in fact it's the urban city that really sparked my interest when I first went, and still holds my biggest fascination even now, uptown or downtown, the people, architecture, and life. Searching for the details of humanity in the great sprawling concrete monster, that's what really attracts me in Tokyo. It's an utterly contrasted world to green and historic Norwich (which I have an entirely different kind of affection for).  

Standing room only
Nevertheless this trip was quite a different experience from previous return visits, largely due to the time of year - everything shuts over New Year except shops, so no galleries and so on. I did get to see a number of friends and clients though, which was great. 

And on the trains there were all sorts of people....



Compared to train portraits I didn't get to draw the urban sprawl of the city itself so much, once you're out of the station exit things get very busy, the sojourn of the train journey comes to an abrupt end when you get off and head into the chaos. But also central Tokyo buildings are complicated... so many lines in those structures, with a fine-point pen you need time to do it justice, and time was something very limited on this trip. There's just so much to nail down when you're running around, nevertheless I did scribble this of the Shibuya crossing while waiting for someone.

Standing outside the Shibuya Crossing koban, waiting...

And so, all too soon, it was the last day.... one more train trip into the city before back to the UK.

Final sketch before we left, once more standing up on a crowded train, drawing the man sitting in front.




I love Tokyo, that will never change, it never ceases to amaze and inspire me, even plain old train journeys. 

Will I ever get to live there again? I don't know, maybe, maybe not. My daughter would like to move back, but we're not going anywhere while she's at school, and there's so much I need to achieve in the UK. But we've every intention of travelling back to Japan whenever possible. I continue to work regularly with clients in Tokyo and elsewhere, my books are always in the shops in Japan (a quick perusal of the shelves in Aoyama's Crayon House children's bookshop found three of my titles),  I exhibit in galleries in Tokyo.... crucially we have family, and the old guard of friends remain. 

Japan will always be part of our lives.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

Tokyo Sketchbook Part 1

Here's some train journey portraits from our recent trip back to Japan.. I've been a bit slow to share these sketches, mainly because there's been so much going on since our return, work, personal and of course on the world front. What a month it's turning out to be!

But anyway, here's what I got up to in my little pocket sketchbook, better late than never!


One of the last days of work before the New Year break.
Christmas? Nobody celebrates. Boxing Day? What's that?

It was only a two week trip, and I was down with a very bad cold for most of it, but I was on the Denentoshi line into Tokyo a lot. It's about a half-hour journey from northern Yokohama across the Tama river and into Tokyo, getting off or changing trains at Shibuya or Omotesando. Most of these sketches were drawn on this train line, sitting down whenever I could, but sometimes standing all the way....
Passengers without phones or tablets are in a minority

Usually I travel back to Tokyo in the summer, and in much better health! We weren't expecting much in the way of Christmas cheer in Tokyo, it's just an ordinary working day (apart from retail promotions), but I hadn't expected to be quarantined in bed. Boxing day was actually the first day I was well enough to travel into the city.

Though my virus was picked up in the UK and hammered me throughout the whole trip, I wasn't the only one with a cold. I've not been back in the winter for several years and was really struck by the sheer number of people with face masks, either to contain viruses, or perhaps to prevent catching one.


I don't colour my train observation drawings, partly because there's not enough time on a train journey, but also it would be a dead giveaway of what I was up to. Just drawing, quietly, without being noticed.... pen drawing is both surreptitious and what I really love doing the most.


These were all very rapid sketches, there's never quite enough time on commuter trains, but sometimes having to curtail a sketch gives it a certain power of it's own...



It wasn't particularly wintery during our visit, apart from a few chilly evenings it was an unseasonably warm New Year, however there were more clothes to draw than the summer, it was great to get to grips with the way passengers wrapped up. Everyone has a dress policy in Tokyo.

I loved this guy's woolly jacket.
scarves, bags, coats... the start of the January sales.

A senior citizen who spent the entire journey
talking to her friend and waving her hands about,
making it rather difficult to pin them down!

More sketches to follow!

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

30 years of Japan

Today will be remembered by many as the 1st anniversary of David Bowie's death, but it also represents a special anniversary for me, as it marks 30 years to the day that I first set foot in Japan.

10th January 1987 - my first view of Japan
10th January 1987 - a date ingrained into my memory. It was a one-way ticket into the unknown, on a year's working visa for a sponsor I knew almost nothing about. A country in which I was to live permanently for 21 years without a break, and have frequently returned to in the years since I left in 2008.

What was I thinking? Previously the longest I'd ever been away from the UK was a 10-Day excursion to Europe with my mum & dad. I'd only been on a plane once before and had never travelled anywhere overseas on my own. I was walking away from a promising expanding illustration career in London, I'd just finished my debut trade picture book for Andre Deutsch (The Secret in the Matchbox), my editorial illustrations graced the pages of everything from City Limits to Cosmo, Working Woman and Homes & Gardens. I'd just said farewell to the solid community of my Crouch End studio, abandoning everything I'd worked for over the previous five years, and plunged into this weird fascination for a country I knew only from it's art history, and second-hand through friends in Anjinkai, the London-based Anglo-Japanese society. It was madness, but I just had to go, something just took over, I had never felt so strongly that I had to travel to a place, not just to visit, but to live there.

It was no accident I went to Japan, it was an irresistibly unstoppable urge. Since becoming fascinated with Ukiyo-e woodblock prints, my interest in Japan had expanded into wider appreciation of Edo-era history, then finally through the wide circle of Japanese and former ex-pat British friends I made through Anjinkai, people who had all lived in or were born in Japan.

They all knew Japan first hand, now it was my turn. All I had was a suitcase of clothes, some language study books and my illustration portfolio. The plan was to study the culture of shitamachi (old downtown Tokyo), do whatever illustration work was commissioned by my sponsor, and learn the language. I was committed to one year, hoped for two, possibly even three. Thinking back on it now I can barely imagine the risk I was taking. I had an unshaken belief it was the right thing to do, that everything would be alright.... and after many arduous months it did eventually turn out alright. Little did I suspect I'd be there 21 years, encountering acclamation, frustration, triumph, transgression, love, tragedy and cataclysm in great, smothering dollops. Tokyo would bring it all on.

What would have happened had I never set foot in Tokyo? Would I even still be an illustrator?

First photo of me in Japan, wide eyed and fresh off the plane, a few days after my arrival in January 1987. Location is Asakusa, the person who took the photo refused to press the shutter unless I made a 'peace' sign, ubiquitous in Japan at that time.

I've actually just come back from nearly 3 weeks in Japan, where daughter and I spent Christmas and New Year with her grandparents, this latest visit was my first time back to Japan in 2 years, so the longest I've been away from the country since I moved there all those years ago. As there's not much to do over the New Year period (virtually all clients were away and many of my old friends) on this latest trip back I spent a lot of time just going to my old haunts. Looking around familiar locations I was intensely aware of the significance in my personal history.

One of the most memorable days on this latest trip was to re-visit Yanaka, an old downtown suburb of Tokyo that survived both earthquakes and wartime bombing, and where I lived for a year from May '87. Prior to that I was housed by my sponsor for a few traumatic months in a far-flung new town out in the countriside. Higashi Kurume - nothing there was as old as I was - at that time the town (mostly fields) was less than 20 years old, about as far removed from my fascination with old Edo as you could get. Unsurprisingly things did not turn out well with my sponsor. To their credit they did their best and I'm incredibly grateful for the opportunity they offered - they wanted to help me and thought I would be a useful asset to their company. But nothing had been planned, they had no work role for me or any understanding of my aims in Japan. We were as different as chalk and cheese - I assumed they were a sophisticated illustration rep involved with the creative business, they were in fact a hack office for the worst kind of businessman's titilating magazine, with fingers in various other activities from Chinese medicine to a local bakery. They thought of me as a student on a gap year, a foreign visitor they would (eventually) think of some role for. Relationships deteriorated rapidly.

So discovering the tranquil beauty of Yanaka and eventually finding my own residence close by was I feel the real start of my life in Japan. Though only a drab condominium flat, it was my own rented property in an area I wanted to live, away from my sponsor, and it got me on my feet. Seeing the old town again on this trip after all these years was fascinating and heart-warming. I loved Yanaka then, and still .... I only moved away eventually because things moved rapidly for me in uptown Aoyama, and I needed to be closer to facilities.

Yanaka today. There's a thing about cats...
Things have changed in Yanaka since I lived there, very many of the old wooden buildings have gone (as I examined in previous blog posts here and here), nevertheless the town undoubtedly has a much more lively and tourist-friendly culture now, the atmosphere of the area has if anything become even more enhanced through the arrival of tiny galleries, crafts and boutique cafes. It's become a landmark place to visit for Tokyoites and tourists alike. When I lived near Yanaka I rarely saw another foreigner, it was incredibly hard to find a letting agent that would even show me property. Now the area is one of the most cosmopolitan in Tokyo.

At the entrance to Yanaka Ginza, the main shopping street

Most satisfying of all was to once more stand outside the Yoshida Yasake-ten, a preserved Edo-era Victualler, part of the Shitamachi Museum. My old mansion flat stood a minute's walk away, and the whole of the crossing around the old building, the cafe on the corner, the Sembei-seller, the public Sento - all was exactly the same as when I lived there in 1987. Nothing had changed - one memory at least was completely preserved!
Yoshida Yasake-ten photographed in 1987

Me outside the same building a couple of weeks ago, I don't do 'peace' signs now. EVER!

As I cast my mind back to that fateful day of 10th January 1987, I vividly remember every hour - it was cold and crisp, blue sky but dry air, everywhere was new and luridly bright, I was terrified and somewhat bewildered, and yet fascinated. That night it clouded over and snowed heavily, giving everything an even more surreal image the following day when I was taken, not to somewhere in Tokyo, but out to the fields of Higashi Kurume. The property I was left alone in that first winter was so bitterly cold I spent almost all my time under a kotatsu or in bed. The first few months in Japan were tough, but I was gripped by a fascination for Tokyo that has never diminished over these 30 years.

Tokyo, you've given me enlightenment, glamour, terror and heartbreak. I've more crazy experiences than I can remember - some wonderful, some anguishing. You picked me up, bathed me in limelight, chewed me to bits and cast me down. 30 years of toil, enrapture, triumph and loss. But I still love you, and today I celebrate!!