Quills and Spills…

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.
Books and literature illustration by Michael Quinlyn-Nixon for blog

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…

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Gingerbread Bears – Bear-a-thought Illustration

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. 
Gingerbread bears by Michael Quinlyn-Nixon for blog
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?

This picture now resides in the home of two of my dearest friends, Mary and Peter Lupton in Carlisle.  You will see that the bag of flour in the picture bears the name of ‘Lupton’.  I have had many people say that they can’t get this flour in the shops and where did I get it from?  Well it’s not available in any leading supermarkets, as it was done in special recognition of my friends.