Monday, 23 November 2015

Why are children's book deadlines like buses?

They always run over time and then three arrive at once. 

What is it with my local buses? Yesterday the bus into town was 15 minutes late, then I waited nearly an hour with my daughter in the rain for a homebound bus back again. Why can't they keep to timetables? What is it that holds them up? 

From Michael Rosen's Nasty (Barn Owl Books edition, UK)

Well I shouldn't complain too much, I'm hardly one to point the finger at other people running late. This year has been demanding, illustrating books can take up a very large chunk of time, and I've been very, very late with all my projects, hence my limited online activity for much of this year. 

I wish I could anticipate production time for books more accurately, it's so much easier when you only have one or two images to create, e.g. for editorial (magazines) or other non-book work. I wouldn't say I prefer 'other' illustration over books, they're two entirely different types of work, but editorial is a lot more straightforward and easier to calculate schedules for. You read the commission, bash out some idea sketches which the editor quickly evaluates (in the case of Tokyo's Wingspan magazine it's within a matter of hours), do the artwork, and it's done! An editorial drawing might take just a couple of days including sketches, or at the most a week to turn around. 
Idea sketches for a recent editorial feature in Wingspan magazine, about an environmental exhibition featuring the biggest paper ball in the world. 
The finished illustration

Scheduling books however is much more difficult to calculate. 

For a start my technique and style of working is very different for books, the artwork for which is usually non-digital, in ink and watercolour. Books pull you into the 'world' of the text, you have to absorb the tone of the writing, to plan and compose the pages with a coherent narrative, to tell the story visually over succeeding spreads with strong characters and compelling compositions. It takes a great deal of contemplation and experiment to get into the skin of the text. Picture books usually have at least 20 images, often more, and always evolve and develop between concept to final book, whether self-penned or illustrating a commissioned text. At every stage of a book's production there are tweaks, re-writes/re-draws, adjustments and revisions, especially in the case of non-fiction where research is such a crucial aspect of the process. Books are complicated things with a whole manner of challenges that can potentially upset your carefully laid plans, even before you get to final drawing and painting the artwork. Despite the assumptions of a recent TV programme, you can't turn a book around in a day.

Early pencil sketch for Yozora o Miage-yo. A great deal changed between this and the final book.

All this planning and tweaking is okey if you just plan one commission at a time, but if you've more than one project in the pipeline the pressure is on. You might find a relatively small unanticipated delay with book 1 causes a major re-scheduling of book 2, and complete postponement for book 3, if the publishers can't wait you find yourself in a mad dash to meet multiple deadlines all landing at the same time. It's exactly comparable to how the ripple effects of minor delays cause major traffic jams, or buses to arrive late and bunched together.

This has been the case for me this year, which has been filled with two non-fiction picture books involving a lot of research and revision, one, Will's Words being a history of Shakespeare and the original Globe theatre, written by Jane Sutcliffe, and the other Yozora o Miage-yo (Let's Look at the Night Sky), written by Yuriko Matsumoto, on the subject of star-gazing. 

It's finished! Completed artwork for Yozora o Miage-yo

These were exciting but very involved projects, requiring much more time than initially anticipated. Both will see publication in 2016 - Will's Words by Charlesbridge publishers in the USA, and Yozora by Fukuinkan Shoten in Japan. 

There are certain ways you can speed things up - spend less time in front of a computer screen, work to more stringent daily routines etc., there are ways to limit distractions and cut down procrastination. But finding the correct balance is important, it's all very well working into the early hours, but with longer commissions what you gain from over-working on one day you tend to lose the next day due to fatigue. Sleep and exercise is important for efficiency, and for illustrators working from home studios both can suffer if you're not careful. Additionally as a widowed single parent I'm entirely responsible for the needs of my daughter, get her off to school in the morning, feeding, clothing and spending time with her, so burning the candle late at night is only an occasional option.
These books were absolutely fascinating to work on. I love being absorbed by non-fiction, the research, the challenges of getting it right and so on. With the artwork for these titles now completed though things will get a lot easier hereafter (touch wood!) -  I've other delayed book commissions waiting in the wings, and they are fun fiction projects - so not quite so much research required!

To all my long-suffering publishers and editors, my deepest apologies.

Now, onwards!

Sunday, 25 October 2015


My, it's been a long time since I posted to my blog, you may have thought in fact I'd given up on the blog entirely. Well no, not given up at all - but I made a decision to put things on ice for a while. There are a few reasons for this, one of the biggest being a very heavy workload this year, so I've cut back on a lot of social media until things get a little easier. 

So what have I been up to then? Here's a brief update on activities. 

First and foremost, a cover reveal! 

My next picture book collaboration with Jane Sutcliffe is currently awaiting release in the US in March 2016. Will's Words: How William Shakespeare Changed the Way You Talk, is published to coincide with the anniversary of Shakespeare's death in 1616, and takes the reader through the streets of Jacobean London to the Globe theatre. Dropped into the narrative are numerous words and phrases from his plays that are widely used in everyday speech today. I'm greatly excited about this book, research and production of the artwork consumed much of my workload during the first half of this year. This will be my second collaboration with Jane, (our previous book together Stone Giant: Michelangelo's David and How He Came to Be was released in 2013).

Currently I'm working on a picture book for Japanese publisher Fukuinkan Shoten, Yozora o Miageyo, with words by Yuriko Matsumura, which follows a child's discovery of the stars of the night sky, culminating in a country trip to see the Perseids meteor shower. This too is due for release in 2016 in Japan. Here's a sneak snapshot of some work-in-progress.

Other book projects thereafter are currently under wrap - all will be revealed in due time! 

Finally, I was recently honoured to be interviewed by writer Kathy Temean for her excellent blog Writing and Illustrating. This is a very full interview with plenty of images, so if you haven't seen it already do please have a look!

Saturday, 6 June 2015

More work for Wingspan

While I'm on a hiatus due to deadlines, here's some more work for Wingspan magazine....

Aroma Dating parties in London

Bathing in beer at the Starkenberger Beer Spa, Austria
A Silent Disco is shut down by the mayor of Salzburg for being too loud.

Yes, that's a self-portrait behind the turntables... well I couldn't resist.

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Recent work for Wingspan Magazine

Here's some more of my regular monthly cut illustrations for Wingspan, ANA's inflight magazine on their international flights.

A story about a wild boar in Australia that went on a rampage after swigging 18 cans of beer.

Nepal's Bird man Gautam Sapkota, world record holder for his ability to mimic 151 species of bird

Dracula's Castle goes on sale
In Dresden a moose became stuck in an office building for six hours

More to come!

I've been shamefully behind with my blog this year, chiefly because I've been pretty well overwhelmed by some very involved book deadlines, things have been extremely hectic! It's not over yet, things are still very busy, but I'll post again when things get easier.

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Crinkle, Crackle, Crack Released Today!

My latest picture book is launched today!

Released by Holiday House Publishers on 15th January, Crinkle, Crackle, CRACK, It's Spring!, is available in bookshops and online across North America, and in other countries via online bookstores.

The story is written by Marion Dane Bauer, regular followers may remember our previous picture book collaboration Halloween Forest in 2012. This time the theme is the change of seasons.

In the middle of a cold, late winter night a child is awoken by strange noises outside. In the garden stands a bear, who takes the child in a mysterious journey through woods covered in melting snow.

Other animals join them as they go, a rabbit, a squirrel, a beaver, and a newly hatched bird, while the strange cracking sounds grow louder.

Eventually they discover a giant egg, which bursts to reveal - Spring!

A Japanese language edition is due for release in February from Bronze Shuppan.

Crinkle, Crackle, CRACK, It's Spring!
Words by Marion Dane Bauer
Illustrated by John Shelley
Holiday House Books for Children, 32 pages
ISBN: 9780823429523

Friday, 2 January 2015

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Seasons Greetings!

Wishing all my followers a warm and joyful Yuletide!

Hoping this festive season brings you peace, mirth, and cheer.


Monday, 24 November 2014

Freelancing for Free?

Rant! Rant!   (from King Smelly Feet, Andersen Press 2002)

There it lies in my inbox, another tantalising proposition for illustrators. Carefully written, brimming with enthusiasm and creative aspirations, how this wonderful project will be seen by all kinds of important people.... it all looks very exciting.  So I scroll down for the important details: what's the brief? When is the deadline? And, crucially, what is the fee? But oh ..... how strange, there's no mention of fees. And then comes the fateful line, usually in small print right in the last paragraph...

"Although there is no fee for participation this will be a great opportunity for exposure"

Well, as has often been repeated, people can die from exposure. And yet nowadays we constantly hear in the creative industry of projects and "opportunities" for artists and other creatives that offer no pay at all, but are, bizarrely, supposed to be good for us. Now, feeding myself and my daughter and maintaining a roof over our heads is good for us, it keeps the two of us alive, that's for sure. But working for free? Erm, nooooo! 

It used to be the case that low fees were undermining the business of illustration, that is bad enough in itself. But now we hear tales of no fees at all! That's nothing. Zilch!

Generally these so-called opportunities fit into one of two types:

The "Good for Exposure" Project

The client needs creative work, but say they don't have the budget for a fee.  Instead they persuade artists by saying it will be great "exposure" for your work, or a great addition to your portfolio. They might tempt you with "this one is free but it will lead on to other work" (probably also free!). They might add "all our other contributors are doing it for free". Often they don't have funds because the business model is fundamentally flawed. Nomatter how well the illustration is packaged there is no respect for the actual illustrator, the project has not budgeted for creative content, only for production. So the printer gets paid, the distributor gets paid, and maybe the publisher gets paid. But not the malleable contributors.

Sometimes the projects are worded as if they are charities, artists are thanked for "donating their services" - well that's great for philanthropy, sometimes I offer my work for free to a worthy cause I believe in, a registered charity that will benefit people or environments in crisis. That's my decision, because I want to support the charity. But a commercial enterprise is not a charity. You're selling a product or service? You pay the printer? Then you pay me!

Good for your portfolio? No it's not, because if it's free, the chances are it's an unprofessional job that will mean nothing to a respectable art director. If you want to improve your portfolio work on your own projects!

The client (especially self-publishers) might suggest a profit-sharing agreement "If the project is successful the contributors will be paid", or "we'll split the profits". If you're a writer considering this, don't! - this is dragging your contributors into your gamble. Speculation means risk - only offering payment if the project/product sells is obliging people you employ to take on your risk. Freelance illustrators are not in a position to gamble on other people's ideas.

It's not only published material, the same principle applies to speaker engagements - if you're asked to speak at an event you should be paid, unless it's a group you yourself is involved with and want to freely volunteer for.  

The Speculative Pitch

The other type of "free" work is when major clients ask illustrators for spec work to compete for a job. Juried competitions for illustrators have been around for a long time - freely submitted works are selected by a jury for an important exhibition or a notable prize, the winners get the prize, those rejected - well, better luck next time. I don't go in for this kind of thing, but I can understand the appeal for others if the prize/award/exhibition is big enough to warrant pursuing. However in recent years this practice has been twisted into use by companies for nothing more substantial than an illustration commission. The word is put out, artists are commissioned or invited to pitch by creating a sample piece of free artwork, the client just picks the one they like, the rest go hungry.

A friend recently shared this fun animation that spells it out very clearly.

I've even seen some competitions that require artists to pay submission fees, with nothing more substantial to offer the winner than a poster commission. Not only is this an appauling way to treat artists, it's an invitation for unscrupulous clients to use whatever they want from the rejected artwork as well as the chosen piece.

Supporting Start-ups

But what's that you say? Having to pay contributors prevents cash-strapped entrepeneurs starting worthy projects? Ground-breaking, start-up initiatives with great ideas will have to sell out to find the funds? Well there are innumerable ways that new projects can raise money, ranging from applying for Arts Council grants to staging benefit fund-raising events, from pursuing selective sponsorship to forging distribution deals. All things that should be established before commissioning writers and illustrators. Attaining backing is not a simple task, no one is saying it's easy, so many of these start-up enterprises don't even bother to pursue funding, it's so much easier to just say "no fee" and push the pain down the chain onto their contributors.

Collectives and collaborations are other ways to approach low-budget enterprises - in a collective everyone pools resources and shares the risk (and the profit if it's a success), the contributors control the project, it's a group responsibility. In the same way writers collaborating with illustrators, submitting as a team to publishers or self-publishing as joint authors  - it's your project, not a client's. Neither of these are the same as asking artists to work for free on a commercial concern they don't own or control.

I once ran a music fanzine back in my post-art college days. The first issue cost very little to produce, was badly printed and was entirely created and distributed by me, but it sold out with a small profit, which enabled issue 2 to be better printed and have a bigger print run. That too sold out, which funded more improvements in issue 3... and so it grew. Gradually it evolved into a fine little journal, in the end there were other contributors, all paid a moderate but acceptable fee for their contribution. I'm not saying every project should work this way, but it goes to show how new ventures can get going, grow and maintain their integrity, without "selling out". The trouble is a lot of these non-payers are not interested in looking after their contributors, they regard them as the weakest, most flexible part of the production chain. Or, due to the parameters of the job they are unwilling/unable to put time and effort into growing something from a small acorn to majestic oak.

Unethical proposals have always been around, in the past they were in the realm of unscrupulous outfits and beginners, but nowadays the "unpaid gig" is creeping into every aspect of mainstream creative media and the arts, from small entrepeneurs to the biggest publications and corporations. These practices are becoming more and more prevalent from companies who should know better. And of course they do know the score, but they also know that for all the professional artists who walk away there will be a bunch of young illustrators desperate for work, any work, who leap at the chance to get into print. Paid or unpaid.

No, no, no, no NO! I will not work for free, and I will not stand by and see fellow illustrators taken advantage of. "This opportunity may not be right for every artist" says one no-payer. Believe me, it is not right for any artist, it's not something we can ignore, free work is undermining the industry, not only for those who undertake such work, but for every freelancer. Free work is sapping the life out of the creative business, it's not an opportunity, it's an abuse, and it must be stopped!

So I'm taking a pledge. From now on every time I hear about or receive one of these bad practice "opportunities" I'll warn all the artists I know, I'll post on Twitter and wherever necessary. I won't just let it pass.

Some further reading

There is a lot of material on the web from artists and other creatives standing against no-fee assignments, here are a few good articles:
Emmeline Pidgen article against working for free
Lauren Panepinto post on the differences between Spec Work, Working for Exposure, and Competitions
The Business of Illustration on Working for Free, including a link to Harlan Ellison's much shared but timelessly hilarious rant Pay the Writer.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Sketch: Shooting for the Stars

Here's an aspirational doodle.

We all need to aim for the stars, these are ambitious times!

I've not had chance to blog much lately, due to distractions like being made this month's SCBWI BI Featured Illustrator, with it's associated Web Gallery, the SCBWI Winchester Conference and of course deadlines, deadlines DEADLINES!

There's a lot happening, and never enough time at my drawing board.... I'll be back shortly, when I can find somewhere to land!

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Iggy Pop and Rock n' Roll vs Children's Publishing

The recent speech given by Iggy Pop for the John Peel lecture on BBC Radio 6, Free Music in a Capitalist Society (the transcript is available here) got me thinking of the parallels between popular music and the illustration business, especially the world of children's books.

Iggy Pop at the John Peel lecture (image courtesy BBC)

Think for a moment of an industry dominated by big companies, but with numerous smaller enterprises (usually with limited budgets), and lots of DIY producers of varying levels of ability and success. An industry full of great ideas and striving creative artists, but driven by easily marketable (and sometimes bland) popular titles and by a limited number of headline celebrities. Think of a business in which being young, fresh and fashionable is at least as important, if not more important as being technically skilled, dedicated and talented. I give you the British music industry! .... I also give you the UK children's illustration market!
"We are now in the age of the schemer and the plan is always big, big, big, but it's the nature of the technology created in the service of the various schemes that the pond, while wide, is very shallow."
This is not a criticism, I'm just making observations here. Nomatter what our creative expression, music, writing or illustration, it's the same basic business structure behind all. The fact is we all have to make a living in our chosen forms of expression, and, as Iggy points out, in order to make money we have to be commercially viable.
"when it comes to art, money is an unimportant detail. It just happens to be a huge one unimportant detail."
I think there are a lot of parallels with publishing today and the music business at the end of the 1970's. I'm a child of the '70's, my memories are laced with the sounds I grew up with - it was an era that saw a succession of revolutionary movements and major changes in the music business. In with the new, out with the old! Glam to prog rock to punk. Reggae to dancehall. Funk to hip hop. The '70's saw a major shake-up in the way music was made, produced, marketed and sold, from the explosion of indie labels to challenge the majors, the introduction of cassette tape recording allowing people to record music from the radio for free, and, in the first years of the '80's, the start of CD technology. There have been equally ground shifting changes in the publishing industry - ebooks, unregulated discounting.... none of them seem on the face of it good news for creatives. Publishing is booming, but less and less of the turnover seems to be going to the writers and illustrators, as reported by The Bookseller.  Stylistically there have also been waves of fashion, "traditional" (ooh I hate that word) drawing to digital art, and back again, much like the waves of changing fashion in music.

I began as an illustrator inspired by the great early 20th Century Golden Age illustrators, I was entralled by the work of masters like Beardsley, Rackham, Heath-Robinson, Ardizzone and Dulac, I thought - "that's what I want to do with my life", such a simple decision to make! It was all about the art, not the money. But of course times have moved on from the belle époque, society has changed, the industry has reinvented itself a hundred times over. Somehow I had to learn how to match my skills, my creative integrity and ambition to the modern business of illustration, a business that evolves just as you think you know it. Keeping up with the changes is a process that never ends, it's the kind of skill you rarely have chance to completely nail in art college, it's the reality of working in the real world, being a freelance, self-employed artist that makes or breaks an illustrator. In an ever shifting world not everyone is able to maintain a long-term career, and it doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the quality of your artwork.

"some guys are born and raised to be the captain of the football team and some guys are just gonna be James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause and that's the way it is. Not everybody is meant to be big. Not everybody big is any good."

Adapting to the market, seeing the opportunities and being aware how you fit in is essential, but equally it's a bad policy to simply follow what the market thinks it needs, we need to live, but we need to be true to our art as well. Publishing, like the music industry and all other creative livelihoods, is a hard, tough business, but it hinges on the precious and personal vision of it's artists. The creators are always the innovators, not the marketing staff. Don't ever lose track of that!

"I only ever wanted the money because it was symbolic of love and the best thing I ever did was to make a lifetime commitment to continue playing music no matter what, which is what I resolved to do at the age of 18. If who you are is who you are that is really hard to steal, and it can lead you in all sorts of useful directions when the road ahead of you is blocked and it will get blocked. Now I'm older and I need all the dough I can get. So I too am concerned about losing those lovely royalties, now that they've finally arrived, in the maze of the Internet. But I'm also diversifying my income, because a stream will dry up. I'm not here to complain about that, I'm here to survive it."
I shouldn't push the analogy too far, these are times of change, technology and the market for books is moving in ways we don't yet fully understand. But we've seen with the music business how digitalisation led to overwhelming piracy, tumbling prices, revenue for musicians and so on. I worry that it's happening too with e-books, I desperately hold onto the value of the printed page. I'm also concerned that creative editors no longer have enough say in what gets published, when the marketing team determines what will or will not be printed, innovation and quality go out of the window. I worry that children's publishing in the UK today seems often to be more about Kajagoogoo than the Sex Pistols.

But maybe I'm concerned too much about the "industry" and forget sometimes that we creators are the ones on which the book trade depends. Whatever the media, our talents will eventually find an audience, and if that audience is limited, well so be it. If we have to do some unimaginative jobs to pay the bills then fine - as long as we also have an outlet for our honest creativity. I always have faith that somehow, if I just keep at it, keep drawing, keep painting, I'll continue to find the funds to feed my daughter, keep a roof over our heads, and still have time to produce work that both satisfies and challenges me. And that's all that's important.
"It's good to remember that this is a dream job, whether you're performing or working in broadcasting, or writing or the biz. So dream. Dream. Be generous, don’t be stingy. Please. I can't help but note that it always seems to be the pursuit of the money that coincides with the great art, but not its arrival. It's just kind of a death agent. It kills everything that fails to reflect its own image, so your home turns into money, your friends turn into money, and your music turns into money. No fun, binary code – zero one, zero one - no risk, no nothing. What you gotta do you gotta do, life's a hurly-burly, so I would say try hard to diversify your skills and interests."
Diversify skills and interests! that's a key point, whatever your creative expression. Thank you Iggy.

(All quotes are from Iggy Pop's lecture, courtesy BBC)

Monday, 13 October 2014

John Shelley Exhibition at NNUH

This past month has been very hectic, not only with illustration work, but also setting up another major exhibition, a career retrospective at Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital.

The exhibition came about immediately after my return from Tokyo. The hospital Arts Project at NNUH was running a series of workshops for children "Supernatural Garden" run by visiting artists from the University of Tsukuba in Japan, headed by Professor Yasuyoshi Saito and Dr Herb Fondevilla. I'd met Herb some years before in Tokyo, the hospital was very keen to link an exhibition of my children's book illustrations (especially those published in Japan) with the workshops.

The central corridor is a busy thoroughfare through the hospital, used by staff,
patients and visitors. I hope that the illustrations offer a brief imaginative escape
from what can be for many a very traumatic experience.
The Boat in the Tree (2007, Front Street)

Emma Jarvis, Hospital Arts Co-ordinator, says: “Our colleagues in Japan take a different approach to art and John is a great example of bridging the gap between the two cultures, allowing East to meet West. The illustrations will allow patient, staff and visitors to be reminded of their childhood, looking at detailed illustrations of well-known stories and provide something that everyone can enjoy no matter of their age or gender. The exhibition is a great and very rare opportunity to explore another world through an internationally recognised and award winning artist’s work who lives right on our doorstep, making it the perfect partnership.”

Two of the 4 volumes of Hans Christian Andersen Tales
(Hyoronsha 2004-5).
Various exhibition pieces, and illustrations for novels (Hawaiian Big Daddy 2003,  
The Deptford Mice 2005)
There are over 140 pieces of artwork on display, in 11 large wall mounted display cabinets dotted along the length of the hospital central corridor. The majority of work is children's book illustration, covering almost 30 years of my career, from my first trade picturebook The Secret in the Matchbox (Andre Deutsch/ Farrar, Straus & Giroux 1989) to my very latest Stone Giant (Charlesbridge, 2014).
From The Secret in the Matchbox (Andre Deutsch / FS&G 1987),
passing through two prints for Disney Japan to The Cobbler and the Elves
(Oki-na Pocket magazine, Fukuinkan Shoten 2007)

Stone Giant (Charlesbridge, 2014) - These are facsimile inkjet prints, as the
artwork is still in Japan

Artwork from other books on show include Peer Gynt (1990),  12 no Tsuki-tachi (The Month Brothers) (1991), Cinderella (1994), Hoppy no Atarashii Uchi (1995), The Magic Umbrella (1999), King Smelly Feet (2002), Hawaiian Big Daddy (2003), The Deptford Mice (2004), my Hans Christian Andersen series (2004-5), Charlie Bone series (2006-7), The Boat in the Tree (2007), The House of the World (2008), Halloween Forest (2012), and Jack & the Beanstalk (2012). Also a number of independent works from exhibitions and other projects. So, this is quite a big show, with examples from the whole gamut of my career in children's publishing.

The Charlie Bone novels (Tokuma Shoten 2006-7), and work for a WWF tie-up
exhibition  Denizens  (1990)

King Smelly Feet (Andersen Press, 2002), and Hoppy no Atarashii Uchi
(Hoppy's New House) (Fukuinkan Shoten 1995)
Much of the work on show has only been published overseas and is displayed for the first time to the public in the UK. All the works are for sale, either as originals (in the case of stand-alone pieces) or inkjet prints (for book illustrations). The show will run until May 2015, so if you're in the area over the next six months and have a chance to visit the hospital do take a look.

Cinderella (Hikari no Kuni 1995), and Peer Gynt (Hyoronsha 1990)
12 no Tsuki-tachi (The Month Brothers) (Miki House, 1991)
The House of the World (a subscription-only picture book for Benesse, 2008)
and The Magic Umberella (Fukuinkan Shoten, 1999)
The Hospital Arts Project at NNUH works on diverse projects with the community, interior design, site specific arts, performances, workshops, exhibitions, events, gardens and more. It's funded by grants from organisations and charitable donations. For more information visit

Halloween Forest (Holiday House, 2012)
Jack & the Beanstalk (Fukuinkan Shoten, 2012)
My deepest thanks to everyone behind the show, especially Herb Fondevilla (Tsukuba University), Emma Jarvis (curator, Hospital Arts Project), Richard Drew (Director of Arts in Hospitals), Eloise O'Hare (Norwich Dandies) and Natsue Hayward (Centre of Japanese Studies, UEA).

Monday, 15 September 2014

Tokyo Sketchbook Part 2

Here are some more pages from my sketchbook in Tokyo this summer. I already posted this selection on Facebook, so apologies to my friends who've already seen them!


Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Tokyo Sketchbook Part 1

Over the summer in Tokyo I filled a sketchbook with pen drawings. I always sketch a lot when I'm in Japan, but it was particularly so on this trip, perhaps I was driven by the shear joy of being back in the city, it was as if something had been unlocked.

Some of these drawings were the kind of fantasy ideas and escapist shenanigans I regularly doodle. One or two were observed sketches inside restaurants...

Gonpachi Soba-ya, Azamino, Yokohama. 3rd Aug
But a very large number were observed drawings of people on trains, especially the Denentoshi line, which runs from Chuo-Rinkan through the northern Yokohama suburbs, across the Tama river into Shibuya, from where it continues through the middle of Tokyo as the Hanzomon line.

It's a long, snaking line and very busy, on the evening trains out of Tokyo to the suburbs its very difficult to find a seat nowadays, even outside the peak times. Compared to a few years ago the passenger dip between the rush hour and the late trains has become much shallower, there's very little difference between 7pm and 9pm. Waiting for a later train might be fractionally less crowded, but it still doesn't mean you'll be able to sit down.

Thus, many of my sketching chances were on journeys into town at midday, often on the slower local trains.

 Whenever opportunity allowed, I'd commandeer a seat and discretely draw those around me in my small pocket sketchbook. Curiously, despite standing out like a sore thumb as the only non-Japanese on the carriage, few people ever noticed that I was drawing, and I'm pretty certain none of the subjects were ever aware.

I think this is because many commuters simply shut off when they're on the train, they close their eyes in either real or feigned sleep, or fix their gaze on smart phones.

People effectively wrap themselves in their own worlds, oblivious to the rest of what goes on in the carriage. It's a gift of the Japanese commuter to be able to do this, perhaps due to the nature of Tokyo itself - in the neon drenched street of the urban centres so much is going on around, the noise, the flashing kanban, most people develop a selective awareness of the environment around them - they filter out the unwanted "noise" of the city, and thus preserve their sanity.

There is an art to survival in the metropolis - people concern themselves with details that interest them and are able to largely ignore the rest, train journeys can be meditative affairs, and if you want to escape entirely technology provides you with music, game apps or a read.

So I'm able to blithely sketch away on Tokyo trains undisturbed in a way I'd find difficult in the UK, not least because my train journeys in the UK are much rarer, with seat layouts that make it difficult to draw other passengers. Tokyo trains, with seats facing opposite, are the perfect life drawing class.

Another thing I noticed during this trip though, compared to former years - the poses are largely the same. In the past people would read books, talk, or whatever. Now, almost everyone who gets a seat on Tokyo trains does exactly the same thing - they sit, bag on knee, smart phone in hand, headphones in ears, and close their eyes.

My task is to unlock their thoughts and character through a lightning sketch, before they move or are blocked from view. It's one of the exciting things about sketching people on trains, the knowledge that you might only have a few fleeting minutes of opportunity.