Why I Draw Every Day

 

Lately I’ve been carving out more time to work in my home studio (it’s tiny, but it works—for the most part). Back when I was in art school, I was always making books, and I was always carving wood blocks and lino blocks. It was a daily practice, and one that I enjoyed. Fast forward a few years, when I realized that I wasn’t making enough time for printmaking. I missed it. It’s been hard in the last few years to make enough time for art (is there ever enough time for the things that we love?), but I’ve been working to find the balance.

I have a small tabletop printing press, which I bought from a friend about 7 years ago. Sometime last year, I realized that I had not carved a block or pulled a print in over a year. I couldn’t remember the last print that I’d made, and it made me sad to think that this thing that had once been a daily practice, a thing that had brought so much joy, was not in my life anymore.

So I made myself a deal: I’d make a little time each week to carve a block. Weekends only, maybe. I’d make time when I could. After all, I was working full time and trying to build a small business, and I was already feeling like a workaholic.

That was all the more reason to make more time for making art.

Below is one woodblock that I used to make the print at the top of this post—it’s a tufted titmouse made from 3 different blocks carved by hand. It had been years since I’d made a print with multiple colors, and I was excited to do one again and get back in the groove.

 

 

This year I decided to use my Etsy shop as a way to keep myself motivated: I wanted to add new items each week, and that meant I’d have to hold myself accountable—I’d have to make something new every week. Even if I was only making one finished piece a week, it would mean that I was making art a daily practice again.

That might have been the best decision I made for myself all year. Yes, this year has been crazy. It’s been heart-wrenching, and trying, and I’m grateful I get to spend each day with a loving, supporting partner. Getting through this year has been about focusing on what’s most important and finding joy in the everyday—and seeking happiness and gratitude in the things that I can control.

I’ve made a lot of adjustments this year, and one of the most rewarding has been getting back into the daily practice of drawing. Sometimes those drawings turn into blocks prints, or greeting cards, or small paintings. Sometimes those drawings don’t become anything else at all, and that’s fine, too. Some days they’re just doodles, just an exercise that’s almost a kind of meditation. They’re a way for me to unwind, and explore, and find a little everyday joy. I hope that during this year, you’ve been able to find the things that help you do this, too.

Cover Reveal: Rosemary and Gabriel

cover of book jacket for Rosemary and Gabriel

Finally, the Wait is Over!

Today I’m excited to share the cover for a new book that I’ve been illustrating for my friend Janice Fuller. Janice is a poet and playwright, and her most recent book may be a departure from both of those genres, but for me it has a little of both: there’s plenty of poetic language to enjoy (Gabriel the cat is quite the wordsmith, especially as he becomes smitten with Rosemary), and the dialogue between the main characters (two witty housecats) propels the story forward as it delves into character much the way a solid stage play does. These are two things that immediately drew me into the story—and when Janice asked me to illustrate, I was delighted.

A Little About Process

With many illustration and writing projects, I tend to work in an order that is not chronological. After some initial sketches of Rosemary and Gabriel, I jumped into the book and started drawing based on the scenes that came to me first. Rosemary and Gabriel is broken into 8 parts that essentially function as chapters—and we quickly agreed that each section should have its own illustration that pointed to the heart of that section. The question for me was to think of what sort of image might capture that heart—and sometimes that’s a tricky thing to see.

With my own writing, it sometimes (ok, almost always) takes a while for the real themes to emerge. If I let ideas percolate for too long, I find myself crippled by the possibilities, so I often have to just jump in and start writing a character down, and get them into trouble. Then their strengths, desires, and weaknesses begin to reveal themselves, and then the conflicts emerge, and the themes reveal themselves, and the pieces begin to fall into place and finally I get some momentum. A similar thing happens when I illustrate a story: sometimes if I think too hard about what the most important themes are (how do I illustrate grief??), then I stonewall myself. Sometimes I just have to start drawing some characters and see what happens. And as I draw them and discover their personalities, then it’s easier to illustrate what the story is really about.

That’s what happened with Rosemary and Gabriel. When Janice first sent me a draft, I drew a cat that I envisioned as Gabriel. (It turns out he looked nothing like the real Gabriel, who belongs to Janice), but doodling with some new charcoals and pencils helped me think about what kind of style these illustrations might have. In the beginning, I tried out several kinds of materials, including gouache and charcoal, but ultimately created the illustrations digitally. (You can read more about the illustrations in my previous post.)

When I started drawing for real, I read through the book again and made notes of scenes that came to mind as I was reading. Certain sections had a solid image that leapt out at me—like Gabriel dreaming he was a jaguar (below). Other sections had more abstract ideas that were a little harder to draw an image for. (I saved those for last, after I’d nailed down some key personality traits of the kitties.) And last was the cover—with my own novels, the title is often the last piece that I write after an entire draft. And then I design the covers after all the writing is done. Things were very much the same with Rosemary and Gabriel: I had no idea what the cover would look like when we started, but once we came around to the end, both Janice and I had a feeling about something circular (and I liked the idea of the cats circling each other, chasing each other)—and that’s how we landed on the cover design.

Gabriel the cat dreams of being a jaguar

More About the Book

I won’t give away any spoilers, but here’s the book’s synopsis:

What can two cats teach us about being human?

In this modern epistolary story, two cats, Rosemary and Gabriel, begin an unusual friendship that begins with letter-writing and blossoms into love.

Gabriel, jealous of the way his owner toils over her laptop instead of scratching his ears, thinks such devices are silly. He can’t understand why his owner Janice spends all of her time typing. Who could she be writing so many emails to? When his curiosity takes hold, he makes a discovery that changes his world—Rosemary.

When Rosemary agrees to correspond with Gabriel, he immediately begins to court her: he sends her poems and valentines, and pledges to come and see her in Toronto. As Rosemary and Gabriel open up to each other, they share a commentary about life that’s both witty and poignant and, of course, filled with unabashed professions of love.

Written by Janice Moore Fuller and Janet Lewis, Rosemary and Gabriel is a heartfelt story about how we navigate friendship, romance, grief, and love—and everything in our hearts that makes us human.

 

Rosemary and Gabriel: Laptop Love goes on sale everywhere Sept. 21, 2020 and is available as ebook and paperback, on Amazon and at your local indie bookstore. 

Cats and Love Letters

This week I’m finalizing illustrations for a project that I’m really excited about. When a friend of mine contacted me about working together to illustrate her new book, I was thrilled. I won’t share too much about the story behind the book here, because that’s hers to tell: but I will say that as I read the manuscript, I was flooded with ideas about ways to draw the characters, and filled with an energy I hadn’t felt in a while. Rosemary and Gabriel: Laptop Love, was co-written by Janice Moore Fuller and Janet Lewis, two friends who shared a love of rescue cats, James Joyce, and proper letter-writing.

Hint: this book is about cats—but not just cats. It’s an a modern epistolary tale: a love story told in emails between two cats who happen to belong to English professors (but according to the cats, it’s the other way around). Rosemary insists on always capitalizing the letter R, because that’s the way it is in her name; Gabriel plays the role of paramour, determined to meet the new love he’s found through letters. It’s witty, and charming, and took me by surprise with its huge heart: in the end, it’s a moving story about love, grief, and friendship—it was just the kind of story I needed right now. As I read, it reminded me of the beloved Griffin and Sabine, and Charlie Mackesy’s beautifully written The Boy, the Horse, the Fox, and the Mole. 

The most fun part of working on these drawings was the challenge of capturing the cats’ personalities. Gabriel’s sweet, perhaps a little naive, and has a wide-eyed wonder about everything—including how he imagines his journey from North Carolina to Toronto, where Rosemary lives. Rosemary is older—she’s witty and practical, and has a self-described “earthy” sense of humor. (I can appreciate that: I’ve been described that way more than once.) That also made me think of my grandma, which made my heart swell. Grandma would have loved Rosemary, and might have seen a little of her wit in that tiny furry body, too. 

drawing of Gabriel, a white and buff rescue cat

Janice is a tremendously talented poet and playwright, and this book is strikes that delicate balance between poetic prose and dialogue that strikes you right in the heart. One email from Gabriel contains a poem of Janice’s called “My Cat Steals a Baby Aubergine.” Gabriel’s delight at discovering he’s the center of a poem and his eagerness to share it with Rosemary was both funny and touching—it reminded me of the one time a poem was written about me, and it felt like the whole world tilted on its axis for a minute. It reminds us how good it feels to be loved and valued, and regarded as special. (Feeling like a muse, even for a minute, isn’t so bad, either.) 

I so badly wanted to draw Gabriel stealing that tiny eggplant—perhaps that sketch could go in the end notes.  

Rosemary and Gabriel will be available in the coming weeks, wherever books are sold. I’ll post an update here (with the cover reveal, yay!), and if you want to be sure to be the first to hear about it, sign up for my author newsletter, here

 

I owe a special thank you to Janice Fuller, for inviting me into her world of rescue cats and love letters, and letting me create illustrations of Rosie and Gabe. Thank you, Janice. 🙂 

Slowing Down to Really See

It’s been a while, but I finally started a new series—and it feels really good to be making prints again. These last several weeks have been really hard, for a lot of reasons. I’ve spent a lot of time being angry, and devastated, and heartbroken. For a lot of those days (and weeks, really), I didn’t feel like making art at all. I felt like I should be doing something better with my time–something more beneficial.

The truth is, I’m still thinking about what I can do that’s helpful right now. I’ve been thinking about what I can change in my life to support people who need to be supported, and amplify the voices that need to be heard right now. Thinking about all of that can be paralyzing really, but it helps—as it so often does—to find balance. For me, that balance means giving myself time to make things. Sometimes “make things” means sewing masks to send to hospitals and clinics (yes, help is STILL needed for that—if you’re feeling crafty and want to help, you can check out the group that I sew for, the Carolina Mask Project. There are lots of other similar organizations out there—I’m partial to CMP, but you might find another in your region.) Sometimes, “make things” means art.

I’d been thinking about a new series for a while, and was finding it hard to make time to just get cracking on it. I carved a block that was a complete failure, and then started a big 12 x 12 woodcut that I imagined being three layers of color—and three separate blocks. I carved the three blocks, and did some text prints, and they came out okay. And then I started printing for real, on the nice Japanese paper, and hit a road block. The first layer of ink went on nicely, but the second wasn’t behaving the way it should. Rather than push through and try to force it (like the old Lauren would have done), I stepped away and gave myself time to think about it and troubleshoot. (That first block that was a failure? I just pushed through and didn’t pay enough attention. I tried to learn from that.)

I didn’t want to stop completely, so I started carving smaller linoleum blocks to keep myself going. I decided to do these in black and white, and then add a little pop of color with a separate block. Sometimes, scaling back and doing something simpler, in black and white, helps me concentrate on the shapes, and the light and shadow.

The old Lauren snuck in for a minute though, and printed these nuthatches without noticing that the location of the bird’s eye was off. After laying out one of the finished prints to photograph, I thought, why does this bird look weird? What’s wrong with this nuthatch?

And then I realized two things: I’d forgotten to add its characteristic cheek stripe, and the eye was off a little. The thing about linoleum is that once you carve something out of the block, you can’t go back in and fix it. But what you CAN do is pochoir. (That’s fancy French for “stencil.”) Sometimes, this technique can be a lifesaver. In this case, it saved this derpy looking bird from ruin.

>>Above: the nuthatch print and the special Pochoir patch. Just place it over the area, use a stipple brush to apply the same kind of ink used in the original print, and voila! Below is the finished print, complete with proper cheek stripe.

Pochoir’s not just meant as a way to correct errors, of course. There’s a long history of using it in other printmaking techniques, including letterpress printing, as a way to add a small bit of color that doesn’t require another printing plate or press run. It’s a way to add some spot color, or color that has a little texture in it from the brush. (Google it if you want to go down the rabbit hole and see the endless possibilities.) I’ve used it for spot color with small editions of letterpress pieces in the past—it’s a technique I learned while at The University of Alabama.

Below: The blackbird, which was actually the first bird I carved, was much more successful. I tried really hard to cut slowly and deliberately, paying attention to the marks I was making and the spaces I was leaving behind. I’ve been doing linocuts and woodcuts for twenty years, and there is a pattern I can quickly fall into: this is a laborious process, and sometimes I find myself just wanting to get finished so I can move on to the business of pulling prints. (That’s the reward stage.) But that’s how I make mistakes—I rush, thinking of the goal line, instead of taking my time and enjoying the carving process, too. So this series is my personal exercise in taking my time and paying closer attention.

First error made, first lesson learned.

Below is the finished block with the nuthatch (and his bare cheek that I so carelessly carved away). I’ve had these tools for years, and they are by far my favorites—Japanese imports from McClain’s print supply, for anyone who geeks out over tools, like I do. (Bonus: these are made from steel used in samurai swords, which in itself is pretty badass—when you keep them honed properly they last a lifetime. Honing and sharpening is something else I revisited recently, because taking the time to do that was something ELSE that I’d let fall by the wayside. But now I’ve seen the error of my ways, and I’m in the “let’s keep these tools in top notch condition” camp. If you have carving tools that need some proper love, check out this video for a quick and easy lesson from Draw Cut Ink Press. It’s one of the best demo videos I’ve come across, so show them some love!)

After a week of carving, doing test prints, and finally doing the first of the open edition, I’ve got prints I’m happy with and the first ones are up in my Etsy shop. These two pair nicely together, and there will be more to come. I’m enjoying slowing myself down to do these, and really think about how I want to use the space and create the image. It feels good to chip away at these in the evenings and on weekends, and give myself time to work a little, think about them, and go back and do some course-correction. It’s also helping to balance out my brain, and think about those other big things that we all need to be thinking about right now. Sometimes, carving and printing is like a kind of meditation for me: it’s a way to calm down and focus, and stop that cacophony of other thoughts that make my head feel like a pinball machine some days. And sometimes, when I’m working on prints in that quiet headspace, that’s when the most important realizations are able to appear.

I hope you’re able to find balance in these days, too, and find a way to have that quiet space to breathe and reflect, and feel more whole.

 

If you’d like to see more art, check out my Etsy shop for handmade prints, books, and new greeting cards. You can also join my Patreon team, where you’ll get more posts like this delivered to your inbox, along with special handmade goodies like prints, cards, and other items made especially for my Patreon team members.