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Saturday, January 18, 2020

A Fantasy Writer's Conundrum

As a visual artist as well as an author, I have a very difficult time writing a blog post without including at least one image. So here's one of the 34 illustrations I did for my book Tales of Love and Courage from Milkweed Manor. And it actually ties in to what I'm going to write about today, which is a conundrum in writing fantasy.

You can clearly tell I write fantasy by the apron on the hare as well as the cat and rat having a calm conversation.

Last year my sister bought me a wonderful book, Writing for Animals, an anthology of essays about writing in the voice or, and to advance the cause of animals. One of the essays (so sorry I can't remember which one it was and therefore the author) advised for writers of fantasy to add as many realistic details as possible so as to avoid stretching the reader's credulity too far.

I've been writing the sequel to my Milkweed book, Dark Days at Milkweed Manor, and last night I was working on the opening scenes of one of the stories. A hare and two rats are sitting on the fringe of a work site where large machines are scraping, digging, and gouging the earth. Tragically, the ground they're destroying was the home of these three animals as well as many others who have been killed or displaced.

When I woke up this morning, one of the first thoughts that came to mind was realizing hares don't live in burrows - they live in grass nests! So, surely, living in grass nests, the hares would have had plenty of time to escape. Oh, no! What to do?

If I left my writing as is, then I'd be in error about the way hares live. Even if most readers wouldn't catch the error, some would and I would always know it was there. On the other hand, if I write about the hares living in above-ground grass nests, the story as I've written it won't make sense. 

After some cogitation I decided to be as unspecific as I can while still leaving an impressions that the hares were in a position to be caught unawares. This may seem to be a small problem, but I'm glad I caught it!

Saturday, January 11, 2020

What Makes it All Worthwhile

Back in 2008 I put blood, sweat, and tears (figuratively, of course) into my third art instruction book, Drawing Birds with Colored Pencils. But it was really worth it. Not just because it did quite well on Amazon and, 12 years later, still is! But mostly because writing, illustrating, and finishing it was such a feeling of accomplishment.

And on the way, I learned quite a bit about birds. One of the things that amazes me most about them is how much they can express with body language even though:
they have rigid beaks so can't smile
they can't control individual wing or tail feathers so they can't use their 'arms' expressively
and their spines are fused from shoulder to hip, so no striking asymmetric poses!

But what I really want to tell you is an amazing thing that happened today. Let me preface by saying that although I have an Instagram account I haven't used it in close to a year. Today I was waiting in the truck for my sister to emerge from the grocery store and for lack of anything better to do, checked out Instagram. And there was an amazing post from a junior high school art teacher. She posted photos of the work of four of her students and explained they had been drawing birds from my book! Made me so happy!

I wish I could include the photos here, but I can't copy them off Facebook or Instagram. However, here is a photo I found on Google of someone's work with my book underneath. Sorry but I don't know the name of this artist.

And here are two of my drawing from the book. If you're interested, you can find the book on Amazon by clicking on the link to the right - the book cover illustration with the rat, hare, and crow.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Needle Felted Guinea Pig - Part 2

The last time I worked on this little guinea pig I had spent quite a bit of time building the form with core wool. So when I picked her up again I didn't have a whole lot more to do before I could start with the final colors.

Here's the finished product. Adding the colored wool increased the body size somewhat. I spent most of my time, though, on the head and face. The ears are wool felt. I cut the shapes then tacked them to the head with a large needle and thick (like carpet thread) thread. The final coat of wool also helps hold them in place.

The eyes are 6mm black glass beads. I really like using beads because the run the thread through one bead, through the head, through the other bead, back through the head, then tie the thread tight. This pull the eyes towards each other for a more realistic look. I thread each of the thread ends back onto the needle, run the needle through the head again, and clip the thread close to hide the thread ends.

I used chalk cakes and a small brush to add a bit of blush to her cheeks and a dark brown edge to her ears.

It's hard for me to resist adding something more, so I found two lengths of pretty organza ribbon and gave her a nice bow. For the final tough, I dabbed dots of glitter glue here and there on the ribbon.

This little one doesn't have a name yet. That will be up to my sister when I give this to her for her birthday!

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Needle Felted Guinea Pig part 1

Pretty adorable little animals, guinea pigs! I'm going to attempt to needle felt one for my sister for her birthday.

It's important to start with a good armature, so I search the internet for an image of a guinea pig skeleton, then attempt to copy it with wire (aluminum gauge 14 wire). You can't see it in this photo, but for the feet I made a loop of wire then used cotton-covered florist wire for the toes. Once I was done with the wire, I wrapped the armature with pipe cleaners. The pipe cleaners give something for the wool fiber to stick to-much better than the slippery wire. I like to wrap the pipe cleaners pretty densely, but you really don't have to.

From here it's just a matter of adding wool fiber to the armature. I prefer the core wool that's in a long thick (1 1/2 to 2") rope. I don't use it that thick, but tear off the length I want then split it lengthwise into 2, 3, or 4 pieces, depending on the width I want. For quick form building, I'll use a half, but for toes, I'll use a very thin piece, splitting the 1/4 even further.

In the beginning, I wrap the armature, but once I have a bit of form built up I just place chunks where I want them and needle them in place. (By the way, if you're not familiar with needle felting, one builds form by applying wool fiber over wool fiber. The felting needle has tiny barbs on it, as does the wool fiber. Poking the wool with the special needle interlocks the barbs on the fibers, holding them in place.)

After an hour and a half, this is what I had. I'm more than half through with the core wool. I added the bead eyes (8mm black glass) because, in my experience, once I have the eyes, the creature begins to come to life.

It was a challenge to build from a skinny piece of wire with all the arm and leg joints articulated to a guinea pig shaped blob.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

The Wonders of being Older

Tomorrow I will be 74 years old, and thankful for it! Getting older was difficult about ten years ago for all the obvious reasons - wrinkles, a few aches and pains, and that thing about getting closer to the end. But now, having dealt with all that, I'm just so happy to be here, happy, healthy, and active.

I've come to appreciate a huge benefit of getting older, something that only comes with time and experience. All those things I've learned over the years, the skills I've acquired, and the wealth of experiences I've had form a larger and larger base that I draw from in understanding life, navigating relationships, and creating my art.

(By the way, in my mind, wealth of experience has nothing to do with travel. There's more richness in my immediate surroundings than I can ever fully appreciate no matter how long I live.)

Another thing I've noticed is a clearer understanding of who I truly am. In other words, I can feel that I'm developing authenticity in my art.

Last month I finished writing, illustrating, and self-publishing my first fiction book, Tales of Love and Courage from Milkweed Manor. When my sister, who knows me very well, read it, she told me that the book is truly me, almost an 'autobiography' - not in the sense of retelling the events of my life, but in the sense of revealing my true self - what I care about, my tastes, visual and story-telling themes, and so on.

I think of authenticity as flowing from a combination of memories and imagination. I'm continuing to think about this with the goal of being able to express it more clearly. Meanwhile, here's a small watercolor that I did a few years ago. It's a 'portrait' of a needle felting hare that I dressed in clothes I made from vintage shirting fabric. This painting, as well as the needle felted piece is, I think, authentically me.

What expresses the true you?

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Repurposing a Fairy Garden House

Last week I was cleaning our some dead annuals from the garden when one of the fairy gardens caught my eye. I made this house last spring. I had the urge to make a fairy house but wanted to stay focused on my Milkweed Manor book. So, I made this little house in the image of one of the places in the book - The Inn at Ivy Knoll (simplified quite a bit, though!).

The Inn seemed so sad amongst the dying annuals, and it occurred to me that it might be nice in the house as a Christmas scene and, later, just a winter scene. So I brought it in, cleaned it up a bit, and set it on the kitchen island as I pondered what to do with it.

As I always say, "when in doubt, shop on Etsy!" And that's where I found this teeny Christmas wreath and the little fir trees. That was a good start.

Then a Wayfair purchase arriveda small tabletop lighted artificial tree. It was the perfect size to hover over the Inn. And I really liked the shape of this tree.

I had some white fleece and used it under the scene to simulate snow and unify the scene.

About a month ago I made this stoneware bear. He was just hanging out on the kitchen counter when I noticed he was the perfect size for this scene. And, you know, the addition of a bear always improves anything! So her he is lurking by the Inn's front door.

I had a small string of mini led lights and strung them around one of the small fir trees. I wanted to put it in the window of the Inn. But the light were too cool a white, plus there were too few of them. I've ordered a string of warm white leds with more lights on the string. Once that arrives, I'm hoping it will make a nice addition in the window of the house and if it does, I'll post another photo here.

This has been a fun little project. I love fairy gardens because I can just get lost in them. The same is proving true of this little scene, and in the spring, the Inn will return the the outdoor garden.

Saturday, December 7, 2019

Why It's Important to Save Old Wood

I'm sort of kidding about this, but sort of not. I have several boxes in the shop filled with pieces of wood that I've salvaged from things like old planter boxes and even the duck house that I demolished a couple of years ago to make room for a new one.

But my prize is a piece of wood that a friend gave me about 5 or 6 years ago. He said it was from an old building. It was wide - nearly 12" which you know is wide if you've tried to buy wood lately - and nice and flat. But the best part was the old off-white paint that was peeling here and there.

Delightfully, I was able to use it to make a frame for this collage. I think it's the perfect fit for the deer. It has a "farmhouse Christmas" look. Oh, and even more delightfully, I still have some of the wood left for another project!

For all intents and purposes, my days of buying frames are over! Of course that's nice because frames are expensive. But, more than that, I just don't like finishing a piece just the way I want it and then searching available moldings that sprung from someone else's imagination that will work for my piece. It's usually "sort of" work than "really" work - at least in my mind. I'd rather just have no frame, or a "painted frame" as part of the piece itself, like last week's post.

This works for me because I work mainly in acrylic which doesn't require glass to protect it. But even watercolor can do without glass as long as I spray it with fixative, adhere it to a wood panel, and varnish it. The only medium that wouldn't work - at least that I can think of - is pastel.

A few words about this collage. I did it as one of three examples for a class that I was planning but never taught. I wanted to develop a way for people who didn't have (or didn't think they had) drawing skills but still wanted a realistic image as a collage element.

The deer is a copyright free image that I found on the internet. I used a photo editor to remove the color and lighten the exposure, then applied colored pencil over it - kind of like a coloring book! Then I sprayed the paper with fixative and was able to proceed with the collage, adding other elements, washes of color, and decorative details. It was really fun. I should do a video on it (note to self!)