I have been working on some scamps and rough sketches which feature quills this month. It reminded me of the work that I did years ago for the Cumbria Life magazine (based in Cumbria and the Lake District). My good friend, Cherry, was working for the magazine at the time and commissioned me to do a series of illustrations for some key regular features in the magazine, such as: antiques, cookery, books and literature etc. I didn’t have a great deal of time to do the illustrations, as I was working full time in a college then, but I still managed to meet the deadlines and produce a series of illustrations.
The magazine was (and still is) a lovely and glossy publication – filled with gorgeous and sumptuous photographs and features, so I chose to do something that would look noticeably different on each page, but tied in with the heritage and roots of many of the readers. I chose a woodcut or linocut design, which I actually drew by hand (not having the time to create linocuts) to give the effect of the illustration being printed by such a technique.
Quills are beautiful to draw with and the illustrations were all drawn with quills, most of them modern ones, rather than the traditional goose feather variety. My love of red squirrels was abounding at the time, so I featured a bookend in the form of a red squirrel. This is an actual bookend that my father, Robert W. Nixon created for me and I incorporated into the illustration. I then added in the quill, books and ink pot with a quirky ragged border to group the components together.
I’ve mentioned the quills, but not the spills! That is the unfortunate part of the story; no sooner had I finished this illustration than I spilled the bottle of Quink ink all over the drawing board and the illustration. After clearing up the mess and it being nearly midnight, I started to do the illustration again to meet the deadline…
The illustrations were used in a number of Cumbria Life magazines, but I have long since lost the actual copies. However, the memories remain ever-present and strong and the red squirrel bookends still sit on my bookcase – nibbling their nuts and keeping a watchful eye on my most-treasured volumes…
Of all of the Bear-a-thought illustrations that I have created over the years, ‘Gingerbread Bears’ reminds me of the most bizarre predicament that I found myself in. Although I do enjoy the occasional cookery programme, I am not blessed with culinary skills. So when I needed to create a very small portion of dough, I thought that it would be a ‘breeze’ – even for me! This small piece of dough was going to be used to create some small gingerbread bear biscuits that Scruff (the bear in the illustration) was going to bake.
Off I went to my local Post Office; the postmistresses Enid and Angela soon provided me with my essential ingredients, butter, eggs, flour… Back at home, I set to work with a hale-and-hearty approach to my task, but after mixing the ingredients for a while I suspected that something was not quite right. My dough consistency was wrong! I put that particular mixing bowl to one side and using what was left of the ingredients started again. Culinary disasters don’t often strike twice in the same kitchen, but let me tell you they can. The dough was too runny this time… I put that bowl aside and went to the Post Office again to buy more essential ingredients. This was beginning to be a costly exercise for one piece of pastry. I started again (not quite as hale-and-hearty as before), mixing ingredients – checking the recipe – weighing things carefully. But it still went wrong! My fourth attempt was no more successful!
Then, a friend arrived – surveyed the culinary process at hand and exclaimed, “What are you doing?” I explained and within minutes hands were washed and then plunged into the various bowls – the first ‘experiment’ had lacked enough butter, the second hadn’t enough flour. Soon all the mixtures were perfect.
I now had enough dough to feed a family of forty. After cutting out a wide assortment of animal shapes, including giraffes and rhinoceroses, out of the dough, we were ready for baking the collected menagerie. The scene was somewhat reminiscent of a factory production line (at full tilt), as tray after tray of biscuits were placed and taken out of the oven…
Too many biscuits… I couldn’t eat them all, so I packed them in clean white paper bags and distributed them to my astonished neighbours. Thankfully no one was rushed to hospital with gastroenteritis, and even more thankfully I had remembered to salvage a small piece of pastry aside for my illustration.
So, when people look at my teddy bear illustrations and see the bears, smile and say “How lovely!” they really have no idea what pains and lengths I have had to go to create that particular finished piece of artwork.
After writing all of this copy, I think I need a refreshing cup of tea and a gingerbread bear… Biscuit anyone?
I have always had a love of swans, but Mute Swans in particular. They are known as birds that are legally protected in Britain by HM Queen Elizabeth II. I rather think they match being a royal bird as the regal way they bow and raise their heads is grace personified. I also admire the way that they glide serenely on a lake, whilst their legs are frantically going like the paddle wheels of a riverboat steamer beneath the almost unrippled surface!
I do know swans have gained, with some people, rather an aggressive reputation, but I think their protective ways are much needed in a world where irresponsible dog owners let their dogs run after and threaten (and on occasions kill) cygnets. I have also seen children throwing stones and bricks at these beautiful birds, so is it any wonder that many of them are very protective especially to their young? I can see the swan’s point of view and have to say that with all of my many up-close-encounters with swans have all been tranquil and placid.
I found a nice photograph of a mute swan preening its feathers in the shallow waters of a lake and decided that I would draw it in soft pastels. I was rather pushed for time, but I was also needing to use up some creativity that was bubbling to the surface that day. With this in mind, I did the drawing on a very small scale and on a very textured paper. This wasn’t the best of ideas, as the texture was perhaps a trifle strong for a drawing that small, so much so, I put the illustration aside for a while after only doing a small part of the background. Later, with a little bit of persuasion from a friend, I was encouraged to persevere with it, which I did rather begrudgingly (time always being a much prized and scarce commodity with me).
After half-an-hour of sustained colouring with my pastels, I started to enjoy the drawing for the act of drawing and being creative, rather than trying to complete something that was ‘pleasing’ to me… As it happens, it pleases a friend of mine very much, who has kindly requested it for his brother – an ardent nature lover.
I finished the mute swan today and have learned a few lessons from it, firstly that textured paper and small drawings have a conflict of interest and secondly that enjoying doing something is sometimes more important than the finished result…
Whilst I was continuing my perpetual cleaning spree of my study, I unearthed this picture from my college days’ archive. It is a coloured pencil illustration that was given to me circa 1997 by a friend and fellow student, Hazel Joy Shields, known to her friends as Joy. I got to know Joy in my second year at College and what made the biggest connection between us was the fact that she was from the North East, (Blyth, Northumberland to be exact) and I was from Durham.
My nickname from my friends at Cumbria University of Arts was ‘Quiffer’ due to the wave-like quiff I had in those days and in this illustration Joy has drawn me with my distinctive hairstyle. I am rather pleased that she has drawn my caricature as the wizard, (with the obvious power over the smoke-breathing dragon) and not one of the helpless knights quaking at the sight of it. The knight in pink armour is my friend, Paul Drury, who hails from Huddersfield and the green-clad knave with the blonde hair is my friend, Andrew ‘Andy’ Smith from Wakefield. I don’t know if either of the two Yorkshire lads will have seen this illustration or not before or whether it will be a surprise for them…
It was wonderful finding this illustration, still in perfect condition, amongst my papers, as it has brought back so many happy memories of my days of yore in Carlisle. This cartoon illustration was done before the adventures of Harry Potter came into being, but maybe Joy had a bit of the foresight to see the potential in wizards, castles and knights in shining armour…
Whilst my role as a teacher allows me to meet some great learners, it also gives me the opportunity to meet some really nice people who support the learners to achieve the best results they can. I have worked with many support workers, but the ones that I have worked with over the last two terms have been some of the best. These have included (in alphabetical order): Amanda, Danielle, Jess, Nathan, Neil, Ronnie and Tom. Working closely with learners and their support workers in the classroom give you a real insight into the kindness and patience people have for those that they care for and in time you get to know these people and find out about their families and their interests.
One of the above named support workers, Nathan, was telling me about his family on one occasion: about his wife Tracey, their four-year-old daughter named Annabelle and their young son, named Max. Annabelle is a fan of My Little Pony and also likes unicorns (but then who doesn’t?). He requested me to do an illustration for Annabelle, which he and Tracey would present to her on her fifth birthday this month.
Inline with his daughter’s interests, Nathan requested ponies, flying horses, unicorns – things of a fairytale theme, with the main colours of pink and blue, which are Annabelle’s favourite colours. I made a suggestion of trying to include Annabelle in the illustration and bearing in mind the size of the illustration this was easier said than done, as I was illustrating a face that was so small on paper! I had to use my finest pencils and a magnifying glass to see what I was doing. I took a deep breath and whilst biting my tongue did the drawing, trying not to overdo it. It was white-knuckle time!
I got a message from Nathan to say that the illustration is fantastic and his colleagues have also given me such great feedback about the drawing. I hope the illustration was a highlight of Annabelle’s birthday and that when she is older it will bring back the most special memories of a wonderful birthday and a personalised gift from her loving father and mother.
It seems many, many years ago that I was working on this ‘When autumn leaves start to fall’ illustration. All of the Bear-a-thought illustrations take me right back to the time I was drawing them. This was an illustration that appeared in my 2006 calendar and was inspired by a famous song performed by the immortal Nat King Cole.
I was chatting to a good friend recently who mentioned the song and I thought that this illustration would make a very good blog post this month. I have to be honest and say that I have a bit of a ‘downer’ about November and it’s my least favourite month, as I dislike being plunged into the dark days of autumn at the end of October.
In this illustration, I have tried to show November at it’s best with golden leaves and azure blue skies. I chose one of my new teddy bears, named Raymond, for the illustration as I just thought he was so appealing in his blue duffle coat and I loved illustrating the cord buttons on his coat that are keeping him warm from the autumn chills. I also really enjoyed drawing the golden-leafed oak tree in the background and I do remember putting some shapes in amongst the foliage. I think there was a heart, a gingerbread man and a goldfish to name a few, though looking at the illustration now I can’t see them.
The leaves that our lovely little bear is bouncing on were quite difficult and rather monotonous to draw, but I wanted to give them the appearance of looking dry, brittle and ‘crackly’; the kind of bone-dry leaves you cannot resist running through and then watch them being whisked-off by the cool autumn breezes…
Autumn leaves of red, orange and brown, to the ground come fluttering down.
Raymond jumps to catch them as they fall, from the trees above – so big and tall.