For those of you who have followed my work for a while now, you will know that my ‘signature tune’ in most of my drawings is a ladybird. I am not totally sure as to how and when I decided to put these little scarlet beetles into my drawings, but I do know why I am so particularly fond of them. When I was a little boy my Grandfather Lake was keen on growing roses and he and I would go to the site of the old swamp in Tanfield Lea and gather as many ladybirds as we could find to put on his roses. They were very hardworking gardening allies and kept all the pests at bay; my Grandfather’s roses flourished year-after-year. Through the years, the ladybirds became more and more prominent in my work and it now reminds me of dear friends, such as Mildred from Carlisle and Dorothy from Whitehaven.
So, whilst having lunch at Hexham Fish Bar with my friends from Carlisle, Mary and Peter Lupton, Mary turned to me and said, “Darling, what are you going to do for your next blog post?” I wasn’t sure and later when we were talking to Stella, the young lady that works in the fish bar, Mary suggested I give her one of my business cards. Stella’s family are from Cyprus and she pointed out the ladybird on my logo. I asked her what the insects are called in Cyprus and she said she would check with her father. He said that they are called Babavura or Paparouna, which relates to ladybirds bearing the same colours as the field poppy – scarlet and black. Quite appropriate! Whatever your nationality it would seem that ladybirds are lucky or beneficial insects in most countries or cultures with pet names such as ‘God’s Cow’ and ‘Mary’s/Our Lady’s Beetle’ -relating to the Virgin Mary, who was often depicted in early mediaeval paintings wearing scarlet and black robes, instead of the traditional white and blue that people are now familiar with.
So, on this very sunny and warm Good Friday, I decided to sit down and do a very quick coloured pencil sketch of ladybirds on one of my favourite flowers, forget-me-nots. I allowed myself a very strict time limit to do this illustration and I just managed to meet the deadline. I felt a little bit silly for sitting in drawing on such a glorious April day, but with the window open and the sun pouring through it was like being outside inside. I enjoyed doing the illustration and it was interesting to see just how many colours were used to create the final piece of artwork!
It’s almost scary that I drew this pen and ink drawing (later to be coloured with watercolours) almost 21 years ago. I see that the completion date was ‘St. Ursula’s Day’ (which is the 21 October), so it’s almost ‘come of age’ this drawing in many ways than one. I have done a number of book illustrations like this one over the years, but most of them I’ve sadly forgotten, but not this one. This one takes me right back to the years when I was doing a lot of art, whilst also working hard in the world of newspapers…
The reference material was largely my own photographs, as I can remember photographing these scarlet poppies which were growing in my family village of Tanfield (for those of you who know that area, it’s one of the fields on the industrial estate – opposite the sign to Tanfield Railway). It was a gorgeous day and I was spending it with some of my family, Carole, Robert and Kirk.
This illustration took quite a long time to do, with the blurry effect behind the mice and the poppies in the foreground being the most time consuming. I really enjoyed putting the details on the faces of the mice as they climb upon and nibble the swaying wheat. When I actually spied some harvest mice I could not believe that they were so small; I also wanted to make sure that my trademark ladybird was not out of proportion with these tiny and elusive rodents.
I was rather taken aback by the popularity of this illustration and was delighted when it was reproduced as a greeting card and as one of the summer month illustrations in a rather classy calendar. The original piece of artwork was purchased by Mr Alistair Thompson, from Scotby in Carlisle, after he saw it displayed at an exhibition. I wonder if it’s still hung upon the living-room wall of his beautiful home to this present day…
I am very patriotic and I’m proud to be an Englishman, so St. George’s Day for me is a day of annual celebration. So much so, that I think it should be an annual English bank holiday.
So, with that in mind, when I was producing my Bear-a-thought calendar for 2007 I thought I would include St. George (in teddy bear format) as the illustration for the month of April. I chose one of my favourite bears, Augustus, to represent the patron saint of England and my friend, Jennifer A. Stephenson, dressed him appropriately with a helmet (with scarlet plume), a chainmail vest (emblazoned with St. George’s Cross) and a rather fiercesome looking wooden sword and shiny protective shield.
Once Augustus was ‘suited and booted’ I had to find a ferocious dragon for him to vanquish. I wanted to make the fierce dragon look as fierce as a baby with a marshmallow (not quite sure where that expression came from, but it was the first thing that came to mind), so found a rather cute and endearing green-and-yellow dragon on the Internet.
I set the picture up in my garden, using rocks from when I had the house renovated and created a dragon’s cave, set against the backdrop of a beech hedge. It was mid-April when I set this scene up, so I incorporated some of the flowers in the garden to create some ambience: daisies (the traditional flower of the month of April) and forget-me-nots which always flower in my garden at this time of year. The Forget-me-not is rather appropriate in this illustration in more ways than one, as there is a mediaeveal legend as to how the flower got its name. It goes that a strong and handsome knight, after returning from some war or crusade, was reunited with his fair maiden. On meeting her again, beside a riverbank, he stooped to pick some of the delicate blue flowers that grew on the riverbank. Unfortunately, the weight of his armour and his semi-recumbent position made him topple into the river and to his death. But before he succumbed to the swirling water, he threw the blue flowers to his distressed maiden, with his last words “forget me not!”.
The St. George and the Dragon illustration was popular in the calendar and also as a greeting card, with the original illustration being purchased by an English customer, living in Spain, who has a small and select collection of my teddy bear illustrations.
I hope this illustration stirs the heart of any Englishman and woman reading this post and I also hope that it sends a message out there to any unwanted and ferocious dragons that England is a country that is both proud and fearless. ;0)
A friend and former colleague, Jacqui, contacted me a few weeks ago, to ask if she could commission me to create a birth illustration for a new member of her family, who is called Scarlett. Jacqui’s cousin gave birth to the little girl last year and she is to be christened today (Easter Sunday) in a church in Durham city.
When Jacqui stated that her cousin, Steph, had requested an Easter theme for Scarlett, I wasn’t sure how pastel-coloured eggs, ducklings and rabbits were ‘going to go’ alongside a name like Scarlett, which evokes a bright vivid red to one’s mind. The name Scarlett originates from the colour scarlet and the name became well known during the 1940’s when Vivien Leigh played the part of the vain, self-centred and bewitching Scarlett O’Hara in ‘Gone with the Wind’ (1939). The name has also had a recent boost of interest, which is probably due to the popular and glamorous actress Scarlett Johansson.
After careful consideration of the colour scheme and layout and despite my initial forebodings about the pastel colours and the name ‘Scarlett’ I was pleased with the finished result. I had used a mid-pink for the lettering, adding in small scarlet-coloured dots to the edge of the letters, so that there was some scarlet included in the picture.
I hadn’t done an Easter birth illustration (though I was really looking forward to doing my first), so I was as happy as a sandboy when drawing the ducklings and the bunnies that are enjoying the spring sunshine amongst the Easter eggs. And of course, I had to include one of my favourite spring flowers too – the forget-me-not, which always flowers in my garden from mid-April.
The sketch for the illustration
I hope the illustration is a success with Scarlett’s family and with Scarlett herself in years to come. My client, Jacqui, was so pleased with the illustration that she confessed to wanting to keep it herself, which I consider very high praise indeed… Michael
I have been a fan of Sherlock Holmes since my early teenage years. I remember having studied a small piece of his writing for a mock-examination at school. The only thing I can recall about it was that it was an excerpt from Arthur Conan Doyle’s first Sherlock Holmes book ‘A Study in Scarlet’ (first published in book form in 1888). The small section contained a detailed description of the exterior of a house, and something to do with sickly-looking laurels… The evocative title alone caught my attention, as I am also a big fan of Cluedo (a Miss Scarlett connection) and being an artist, colour names rather get my attention at first glance. Years later, a ‘Study in Scarlet’ (stored away in my memory banks), I saw a small piece of the movie ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ starring the renowned Basil Rathbone, as Conan Doyle’s legendary sleuth… The story grasped me with its twist on a typical Gothic horror mystery, with a large and glowing hound striking fear and causing death to the noble Baskerville family, living in Dartmoor.
Later still, when I was studying, what was to be 5-years of graphic design qualifications, I became more familiar with the name of Baskerville, as it is a traditional serif typeface, which is popular to this day. I liked the font because of the Sherlock Holmes connection and it has become one of my all-time-favourite fonts. With or without its connection to one of my sleuthing heroes, it is a fine font and one that I use fairly frequently in my work… Having started my career exactly one-hundred-years after the publication of ‘A Study in Scarlet’, it is rather appropriate that my fondness for this font remains strong.
The font, which is easily recognised for its distinctive swash tail on the uppercase Q, was designed by a writing master, John Baskerville (1706 – 1775). His evergreen typeface also shows some beautiful cursive serifs in its italic form. The capital letter Q is unique among typefaces, as it is longer than its body width and cups the following letter.
So, after finishing the novel ‘The Baskerville Legacy – A Confession’ by John O’Connell today, all of these Baskerville memories bubbled to the surface… It’s funny how the name ‘Baskerville’ can conjure up so many emotions from both my social and professional life…
I also like the fact that the Baskerville Q looks rather like an apple with leaf when viewed upside down…
The corn or field poppy (papaver rhoeas) has always been one of my favourite flowers. Despite my favourite colour being purple, the poppy’s vivid scarlet colour is pleasing to my eye. A sight that always gladdens my heart is a field of corn poppies in full bloom. A number of years ago, a ‘field of scarlet’ appeared in my home village in County Durham. My Mum, Dad and the family dog, whilst going for a ramble, couldn’t resist but venture into the outskirts of the field. There’s something about nature that appeals to our inner souls and my camera!
During the Millennium celebrations, when I was staying in a lovely part of Los Angeles, I began working on the coloured-pencil illustration – using photographs I had taken on the day of the family walk. It was pretty intense work colouring all of those stems and leaves and not forgetting my ‘signature tune’ ladybird (pardon the pun, but can you spot it?). After what seemed a lifetime of drawing petals and stalks I finished the illustration, which was presented to my friend and former colleague, Helene, as a wedding gift.
This particular illustration has been on my mind this month with the centenary of the First World War and the associated imagery of poppies that is often evoked with the mention of Flanders Field. The title ‘Scarlet Battalions’ is also linked to the soldiers who fought so bravely for their countries and freedom. The inspiration for the illustration came from the Simon and Garfunkel song ‘Scarborough Fair/Canticle’.
The portion of the song that inspired me:
Tell her to find me an acre of land
(On the side of a hill a sprinkling of leaves)
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
(Washes the grave with silvery tears)
Between the salt water and the sea strand
(A soldier cleans and polishes a gun)
Then she’ll be a true love of mine
(Sleeps unaware of the clarion call)
Tell her to reap it with a sickle of leather
(War bellows blazing in scarlet battalions)
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
(Generals order their soldiers to kill)
And gather it all in a bunch of heather
(And to fight for a cause they’ve long ago forgotten)
Then she’ll be a true love of mine
Are you going to Scarborough fair?
Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
Remember me to one who lives there
She once was a true love of mine
Michael, with the camera, taking shots for the ‘Scarlet Battalions’ illustration