Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Lions and Lords...

Sorry I've been silent for longer than usual. No good excuses, just busy with things, plus trying hard to focus more on getting studio work done and spending less time on the computer. I'm guessing you all know what I mean.

Anyway, I wanted to share with you an interesting day I had earlier this week, where, amongst other amazing things, I got to look at some embroidery from the 18th century, which hadn't been seen for 40 odd years!

On Sunday, John and I drove down south - I was doing a talk on Monday morning to illustration and publishing undergraduates at Kingston University. I still mostly get booked to work with children, so I really enjoy the occasional events with adults. Here I am, strutting my stuff:

It went really well. Everyone was very interested and hung around for ages afterwards, asking questions - always a good sign. Then, when I was done, John and I took a train into London for two very unusual activities.

The first was at the Palace of Westminster. The husband of the Course Leader who booked me for the talk at Kingston, was Yeoman Usher at the Houses of Parliament. He met us at a side door, Black Rod's Gate, where we had to go through airport-style security, then he took us on a personal tour - a real honour. This is him, on the left, with the ceremonial mace, which we watched him carry later that afternoon, as they processed into the House of Lords to open business for the day:

It was fascinating to be guided through the maze of corridors deep in the building, to be shown all the important rooms and have the history and ceremonies explained. Every wall was lined with paintings like an art gallery, every ceiling was exquisitely decorated, in fact pretty much every surface was either intricate gilding, mosaics or carving. Unfortunately you can't take photos.

We were taken for lunch in the House of Lords restaurant (an opportunity for spotting several famous faces), then shown into a private viewing area in The House, to listen to the Lords questions and debates. It was so interesting, we stayed for about an hour and a half. I asked if I could sketch - unfortunately not, so nothing I can show you.

But that was not all! At 6pm we had an even more extraordinary honour - an appointment with Garter Principle Kings of Arms, at the Royal College of Arms. This is where new Peers of the Realm have their family's coat of arms researched, designed and archived. Each lord's heraldry is also hand embroidered onto ceremonial tabards, which was my connection and particular interest.

The College of Arms is not open to the public, but a group of 8 of us were offered this special opportunity. We were mainly Royal College of Art embroidery graduates, including course leader at Hampton Court's Royal School of Needlework, so I was honoured to be invited.

The Garter and his assistant had gone to great trouble. They had burrowed into the archives and chosen tabards for us to look at which ranged over 100s of years. Some were embroidered onto velvet, some on silk, some damask, depending on the person's importance. The newer ones gleamed with lions, horses and harps densely sewn in golden thread, but I liked the really old ones, where the colours were faded and the wear and tear added another set of textures:

I was struck by how contemporary the illustrated element of the heraldry was: the stylisation of the faces, the almost comical lions, the funkiness of the stitching. I took photos of many these wonderful characters from lots of the different tabards. It was really inspiring.

We spent about 90 minutes asking Garter questions and poring over all the tabards, which were laid out on every available surface in two wonderful old rooms, stuffed with huge, crumbly tomes, full of heraldry and genealogy. When we were done, Garter even gave us a glass of champagne, to thank us for our interest. How nice.

What an unusual and memorable day! Thank you so much to Alison Bavistock, for setting things up.

Friday, 27 October 2017

Creating a New Textiles Piece: Start to Finish

Having finished my coffee house piece, but with no particular plan in mind of what to do next, I have decided to go back to pure experimentation. This is always especially exciting, as it pulls on pure creativity, but it's also really quite challenging too. Where to start?

As it happened, I had a bit of a play around with tea and dye-splotting during my recent residency and produced a few pieces of background cotton, which I put aside for an occasion just like this. I started by pinning a couple of different colours of organza on, to break up the space and start a more interesting composition, then chose some initial thread colours:

I then played. I like the way blanket stitch can create interesting curves. I am also very into stitched crosses. The blocks of running-stitch were brought across from my coffee-house piece. I got inspiration for the large sweeping marks from one of the mark-making pieces I created ages ago. I still keep the pile of squares by my desk. They have been so useful, if ever I'm stuck.

I built it up, adding more sections of colour, to create more layers and give it depth, expanding the stitch-colours, trying new marks on top of what I'd already done. It was looking really interesting, but I felt it lacked something. It needed more powerful contrast, a bit of 'oomph'.

Over the last couple of weeks, I have been gradually going through rag-boxes that a couple of people gave me when I first started getting into textiles. I've been ironing what I want to keep, and sorting the bits and bobs into warm and cool colours, patterned and plain, so I can find things more easily. At the bottom of one box I found a tiny tangle of wonderfully lumpy wool. I was about to store it away. Then I placed it on the piece.

I have 'couched' in some wool before, on the first map piece I created, and was really pleased with the textural contrast it provided. This seemed like it was well worth trying...

I didn't overdo the couching, as I didn't want to flatten the wool's lumpiness, so I stitched just enough to keep it in place and to add a subtle glimmer of mustard thread, to tone down the white and help it 'belong'.

One final bit of work I felt it needed was a few stitching additions to the mustard stripes top left. I softened them into the piece by stitching across with some pale blue, which really did the trick and echoed the couching of the wool.

I am pretty sure it's done now. I'll live with it for a bit.

I am really pleased with the overall effect, but also with the way sections of it work, when you focus in on details. It's so hard to photograph this work - you can't really appreciate the layering and detailed stitching when you take a picture of the whole thing, especially with the larger pieces.

Hope you like it! Now... Tea-bags and wax...

Friday, 20 October 2017

'Costa Coffee', in Wool, Organza and Thread

Last time I talked about my textiles work, I said I would try to finish off the piece I started, while doing my Orchard Square residency, within a week. Well, that did indeed prove overly ambitious. It's not that it has taken over a week in actual sewing time, it's just that so many other things always crop up. 

I also did a little bit of unpicking and reworking. It's often the way: by the time I am nearing completion, I can see that areas I did early on are not quite right. In this case, I was unhappy with the weight of the stitching in certain key areas, like the crockery on the table top. It looks better now.

The main thing that is experimental about this piece has been the inclusion of coloured wool. I bought myself some felt-makers wool and played with different ways of sewing it into the piece. I started by using sashiko running stitch to anchor large areas of colour, to create a bold but soft-edged effect, a little like watercolour.

I anchored it very loosely for the writing on the wall. This was a complete experiment too, but ended up working really well as a contrast to the more controlled type above.

I also trapped smaller bits of wool under layers of organza. I love the almost smoky effect you can get, by keeping the wool very thin. You can achieve a very painterly mark by this means too, as with the ceiling light fitting, which I just wanted to suggest, rather then illustrate too literally.

This understatement of the various elements within the scene was important to me. Having moved away from representational pieces in recent months, I wanted to create playful semi-abstractions in the piece as much as was possible, while still allowing the overall effect to conjure the place and the atmosphere. You can see this in the reduction of the information which makes up this man and the way textures and colours flow through and past him:

Also with the other man's bag, which is about lines, texture and marks, rather than solid form, but is hopefully still readable in the context of its position by his chair:

In the original watercolour sketch the piece is based on, I painted the fridge at the back of the room, then a customer came and stood at it. I drew him in line only, over the top, to get the sense of his transience. I took this approach into the textile interpretation, keeping it pretty close to the sketch:

The finished piece is 47 x 39cm, but it will be bigger once I get it mounted up onto a stretcher. I am very pleased with how it has turned out. It's a good halfway-house between the more obviously representational pieces, like the church and the commuters, and the more recent map work. 

Monday, 9 October 2017

A Croc-and-Bull Story!

Last week I did manage a little bit of stitch work, but also spent what felt like days catching up on boring stuff after my residency - oh, those emails!! I managed to escape the computer on two days though, and had heaps more fun, doing illustration workshops and very silly storytellings in a couple of schools (hello to all at Nettleworth and Cavendish primaries!). This is me explaining about drawing emotions - the little girl in white is acting out a 'shocked and horrified' face, to feel what happens to her eyebrows. I asked them to imagine a huge bear had walked in and was eating the children nearest the door:

For this visit to Cavendish School, I was actually a prize - the school had won me by having more children complete the Summer Reading Challenge than any other school in Greater Manchester. Well done kids - great job! I'm not surprised they won, having met the children: they were all so focused. The older ones asked such perceptive questions and everyone was so obviously into books and creativity. So that's a big congratulations due to the teachers too, I reckon.

This is me with about 100 Foundation children, having just read An Itch to Scratch, we sang an itchy song and did lots of scratching, like Big Gorilla in the story, hence the silly pose! 

While I was there, the lovely folks from Manchester Library Service, who looked after me all day, gave me a little present: some of the brand new publicity leaflets for Manchester's children's library cards, starring Class One, as they appear on the first page of my latest book Class One Farmyard Fun, just before they get into all that bother with the bull...

The library card itself it attached to the inside of the leaflet, featuring my sneaky, dancing crocodile from Kangaroo's Cancan Café. Do you remember, a couple of years ago now, my characters started to appear on the new-look library cards?

It makes them look so much more enticing to kids than a boring old plain card, like the poor grown-ups get. I can't wait to show author Julia Jarman, my friend and partner in all the books featured. I know she'll love having our new book on the front!

Wednesday, 4 October 2017

Beginner's Sketching Workshops at Orchard Square

On Saturday morning, I held an Urban Sketching for Beginners workshop, as part of my residency at Orchard Square. I wanted to inspire new people to give it a go, and help them to feel less intimidated by the prospect of sketching from life in a public place.

I had a dozen people book in, which was a perfect size, as I could give people plenty of attention, but the group was large enough for them to not feel too exposed. We were just able to squeeze into my studio space, for me to talk to them as a group and brief in various exercises as we went along:

I shared various techniques, for instance, ideas to help them decide where to start and how to find simple things to tackle amongst the very complex world at large.

I also had a special trick up my sleeve to get them drawing in a confident, rather then a hesitant way, which worked really well...

As beginners, most of them had not come across contour-drawing before and it proved a revelation, which really freed people up and made their drawing much speedier.

It was very fortunate that I had a handy balcony outside my studio, so people had a great view over the shops and were able to work without the pressure of being in the throng of other people coming and going, and potentially looking over their shoulders.

This vantage-point proved especially useful because, as with the surprise Steam Punk event at my previous workshop, this time round we had a Morris-Dancing festival in the courtyard below! This gave us lots to draw all day, but it made things quite busy down at ground level, so it was good that we could watch and sketch in relative privacy.

I asked everyone to bring coloured pencils as I also wanted them to learn a few simple ideas for adding colour to their sketchbooks. It makes such a difference. we experimented with adding text too: personal observations, feelings, overheard sounds...

At various stages, we got together to share what we had done and learn from each other. I had a bigger, upstairs space I could use for the workshop, which was great for putting out all the books on the floor:

I really enjoyed the morning - it was such fun to be sharing techniques which were entirely new to people and which, though often fairly simple ideas, can be complete game-changers when you are starting out. It really felt like I was making a difference and there seemed to be quite a buzz by the time we had finished.

A big thanks to everyone who came. I hope you enjoyed it. And thank you to John too, for giving up his Saturday to be my right-hand man and for taking all the photos.

If you want to hear about any future workshops I run, either for beginners or more experienced sketchers, sign up for my mailing list.