Drawing Characters

I read a new picturebook to our daughter last night. The artwork was amazing. But one thing bothered me: the boy looked like a different person in every picture.

Now that I’ve illustrated a story for myself, I can totally see how this happens.

1. It’s difficult to draw people. I don’t think I’m alone in thinking this, even among people who draw regularly. I think that’s why so many picture books feature animals as characters!

2. It takes months to illustrate a children’s book (even if, unlike me, you don’t dawdle about it!). Over the course of months, your child model grows up. I’ve already noticed that the reference photographs I took of our three year old look different, mainly because she’s since turned four.

But of all the things to get right in an illustrated book, it must be the child protagonists. I’ve noticed our resident preschooler looks intently at the facial expressions of the characters in storybooks. When language skills are in early development, facial clues provide most of the story.

I thought I could use myself as a model for Roya, to avoid imposing on randoms, asking them to get into my bed and whatnot, but when I first drew her, she looked about fourteen. The lazy bastard in me thought, oh well, fourteen she is, then. I can’t be bothered creating her again.

But the story doesn’t fit a fourteen year old. She has to be younger than that — I wrote the story about an eight year old. So even though I quite like this character (who looks not much like me, by the way) I had to kill her. (Along with the initial colour scheme, which was easier to let go. No one’s ever been incarcerated for killing a colour scheme, I don’t imagine.)

By the way, here’s an even earlier version of Roya. When Dan walked into my computer room he actually screamed. “Yar! What the hell is that?”

That’s when I knew I was making the story TOO scary. No one would expose their kiddies to a story with this thing as a main character, right?

Anyway, that’s what you get when you use a Blythe Doll as inspiration. (She did actually have eye-balls, but when Dan walked in I hadn’t done them yet. It’s true, without eyeballs, anyone looks freaky.)

The Scariest Scary Stuff

“There’s no formula. I think you have to create a very close point of view. You have to be in the eyes of the narrator. Everything that happens, all the smells, all the sounds; then your reader starts to identify with that character and that’s what makes something really scary.”

– R.L. Stine from an interview with mediabistro

All yesterday’s talk of scary stuff made me think of scary stuff.


1. The Most Unintentionally Terrifying Movies Of All Time, from io9.

2. What a little girl does with her copy of Coraline, and Neil Gaiman’s response.

3. 22 Incredibly Creepy Toys, from Buzzfeed. I don’t care what it is, if it’s got those shutting and opening eyes with stiff black lashes on it, it’s creepy. (Those Jolly Chimps come a close second, and I drew one in The Artifacts. Did you see it?)

4. This limbless amphibian family discovered in India is pretty scary. But then I don’t like diaphanous life forms in general.

5. Someone’s list of scariest movies, on IMDB. I haven’t seen all of the films on this list, but the ones I have seen are super spooky!

6. The Earth Might Have A “Pulse” Which Causes Extinctions Every 60 Million Years, from io9

7. The World’s Largest Rodent on Wikipedia I wouldn’t want to feel this massive thing swimming between my ankles in any dogdamn South American waterhole. It’s a lot less cute when you know it’s a rodent though, no? Otherwise it might pass for a catdog.

8. The Spooky TV Movie That Caused Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, from io9 (the website of many spooky things).

9. A list of the 8 Scariest Places On Earth. The closest to me is Victoria’s Beechworth Lunatic Asylum. I intend to pay a visit someday, since I somehow forgot to visit when I actually lived in Victoria.

10. I think all ice-cream vans play scary music, but this one on YouTube is pretty darn scary indeed.

11. The Most Disturbing Books Of All Time from Pop Crunch

12. 5 Scary Reads from To Be Read Blog

13. Watch a GIF of The Joker applying lipstick

14. An incredibly simple horror short to make you afraid of the dark, shared by io9

15. This ‘Goodnight Moon’ Remake Will Ruin Your Favorite Children’s Book from Mashable

16. The Bloodlines series from Wired breaks down what exactly it is that makes a movie scary.

17. Scaryish Stories (for Halloween) from Imagination Soup

18. Terrifying macro pictures of polychaetes or bristle worms from The Telegraph

19. Top 10 Scariest Monsters in Children’s Books according to Smashing Lists

20. Top 10 Scariest Motels in America from Smashing Lists

Children’s Literature: How scary is TOO scary?

I’ve always believed that children, even at a very young age, know their limits, and if a story is too frightening and overwhelms them in some way, they will either fall asleep or walk away.  If you read to your child on a regular basis, it’s easy to navigate this terrain with conversations about each story that help you instinctively calibrate what is appropriate for bedtime reading.  Reading fairy tales may expose children to the dark side, but it also introduces them to survival skills, teaching them to use their heads to outsmart predators.  Shoving the witch into the oven may be a bridge too far, but no reason to be reverent about the words on the page, especially for the younger crowd.

Maria Tatar


People say, ‘Your book keeps giving me chills,’ but I don’t know what that feeling is. Horror always makes me laugh. Normal adult things scare me, but not things from a book or a movie.

– R.L. Stine, from an interview with Village Voice


What’s the difference between a monster movie and a dark fairy tale?

It’s a very, very, very thin difference. I think that horror stories come from fairy tales, in a way. They share a lot of similarities. I think the difference is tonal. You know, the fairy tale contains a lot more elements of magic and whimsy and the the horror story contains a lot more, sort of, almost existential feelings — sort of dread, and ultimately they are similar melodies, played at a very different key.

– Guillermo del Toro


Over time, supernatural and horror fiction that has been targeted to children and young adults has become darker. If we look at books from the early 20th century through to the 1950s or 60s, we see books similar to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in their mild handling of frightening characters and scenarios. As we move into the 1970s we start to find horror novels targeted towards young adults. Stephen King’s works Salem’s Lot and Firestarter won the American Library Association’s Best Books for Young Adults award in 1978 and 1981 respectively, showing that children and young adults have been quite willing to read scary literature for some time. Neil Gaiman’s books Coraline and The Graveyard Book are also targeted for the tween audience, and could easily be considered scarier than even these specifically labelled horror books from authors such as King and Dean Koontz. In recent years, it appears clear that more and scarier books are being targeted to the child and young adult audience, and as a result, children are reading scarier books than in the past.

Thomas Pynchon

Continue reading “Children’s Literature: How scary is TOO scary?”

Are you a hoarder or a minimalist?

Here’s an article from LiveScience: Inside A Hoarder’s Brain, which caught my attention because I thought of Asaf and his ilk.

I was a hoarder as a kid but these days I’m more inclined to throw things out. I’m sure there are a number of reasons for this:

1. I’m now the one who has to tidy the house, and I’ve noticed that the fewer things you have, the easier it is to keep the place tidy.

2. We’re living in an increasingly throwaway society, in which it’s easier to be of the mindset that even if you throw something out and regret it later, you can always go out and buy a new one. We had a garage sale a couple months back and of course we ended up selling a couple of things I’ve since wish we kept. The regret isn’t as big as you might predict; few functional items are truly irreplaceable, and the space you gain from getting rid more than compensates for the occasional seller’s regret.

3. When you’re a kid you don’t have your own money, so you can’t easily go out and buy a new anything.

Are you a hoarder or a minimalist? 

Is it possible to be a hoarder in some areas but a minimalist in others?

Have you changed your sorting and filing habits over the course of your life?

What about your family members?

Have you ever regretted throwing something away?

To-Do Lists

Some people write to-do lists after they’ve already completed the tasks, for the simple satisfaction of crossing them off.

You know what else is motivating? Crossing off a task before you’ve even started doing it. This is true rebellion, and I feel like I’m in arrears until I’ve completed the task for real. Sometimes you need that little bit of urgency. Whatever works, I guess…

Making Ideas Happen By Scott Belsky

For anyone embarking on the creation of a storybook app, or indeed, any long-term creative project, I recommend the book Making Ideas Happen by Scott Belsky, founder and CEO of The Behance Network. I’ve written a 5 star review of the book over at Goodreads.

Related to productivity, while working on The Artifacts, Dan and I made use of a shared Google docs spreadsheet, which we set up as a fairly complicated to-do list. We colour-coded it, added shortcut keys for to-do, doing and done, the columns were all different widths and the green colour didn’t go with the yellow colour and I hated it. I don’t know if I can make a generalisation about arty folks in general, but spreadsheets always remind me of maths and other boredoms. The less I have to do with spreadsheets in my life, the better. I didn’t see any point in moaning about it though, and we created a new shared Google docs spreadsheet for Midnight Feast.

Dan has since found something better. This really cool collaborative tool was mentioned on one of his programming forums and it’s called Trello. It’s free, it’s pretty and it’s pretty darn awesome. It comes with its own ready-made to-do, doing and done columns. There’s a lot of extra functionality too, which you may not have known you’d needed.

I’d encourage any collaborative team to check it out. There’s even an iOS app. You have to 2x it in order to use it on an iPad screen, which means it’s pixellated, but did I mention it’s free? Nice work, Fog Creek Software.

Here’s how we have used Trello for Midnight Feast:




12 Unconventional Habits of Highly Productive People from Marc and Angel Hack Life


Related from Farnam Street Blog

The Single Most Important Change You Can Make In Your Working Habits

How to Work More Efficiently — The Eisenhower Matrix

A Formula For Setting And Achieving Goals

The 5 Types of Work That Fill Your Day from 99u

10 Things I Am Not Going To Do Today from Time Management Ninja

Take Control Of Your Time, an NPR interview with Elizabeth Grace Saunders

The More You [X], The More You Want To [X]

I’d like to offer that one up as a snowclone, because I think it’s true for most things. While it seems to work for all that’s unhelpful in life (watching Home and Away, eating Maltesers, sleeping in), surely this human tendency can be turned to our advantage when it comes to finding the momentum necessary to complete long-term creative projects. Stephen King works every single day of the week whenever he’s working on a novel (which is most of the time) and I figure he’s onto something. there.

As for me, I seem to work in fits and starts. While I’d like to work like a valve, I seem to be an on/off switch — all on, or all off.

If I look set to burn myself out, and force myself to take a weekend completely off, it’s not quite as easy to get back into the swing of things on Monday. This is probably something to do with what’s in the working memory. If you know exactly where you were when you left off, it’s much easier to get back into it.

I’ve noticed another few things about the way I work, and perhaps Know Yourself is the key here.

1. I do a lot more art and writing when I’m blogging. The more I blog, you know I’m doing a lot of art as well.

2. The more I tweet, the more I’m drawing and writing offline, as well.

3. The more Facebook updates I manage, the more art and writing I’ve been doing.

This is all counter-intuitive, since blogging, tweeting and Facebooking are renowned time-sucks. Some companies even ban their employees from using these sites during work hours. I don’t know how successful they are now that many people own smart phones (and are therefore not reliant upon the company server), but the question needs to be asked: is there really a negative correlation between work output and time spent on social media? Or might the latter be highly motivating for many, if not all of us? I can think of nothing more demotivating than having a Big Brother micromanage my time, including my time online.

Every now and then I wonder how much more quickly I’d have got something done had I channeled ALL of my energies directly into the project at hand rather than into the peripheral, fun but non-essential activities such as social media, but I’ve decided there’s no point wondering about that.

It could be that talking about [X] is not displacement activity; rather The More We Talk About [X], The More We Are Engaged In [X].

Narrative Pacing

Pace is crucial. Fine writing isn’t enough. Writing students can be great at producing a single page of well-crafted prose; what they sometimes lack is the ability to take the reader on a journey, with all the changes of terrain, speed and mood that a long journey involves. Again, I find that looking at films can help. Most novels will want to move close, linger, move back, move on, in pretty cinematic ways.

– Sarah Waters

The New Midnight Feast Icon

If not cake, then what? I liked the cake one. It happened effortlessly. But since our food philosophy has changed and doesn’t involve sugar, there were problems with cake.

I still liked drawing the cake, though.


cake icon


Apart from everything else it’s the wrong colour scheme. That colour hasn’t actually appeared much in the book. The icon should follow the design of the app, offering up no surprises regarding colour, art style or anything else. So then I tried working with the spoon and plate of the title page.



But I couldn’t manage to position the plate in such a way that the layout didn’t look wrong. So next I picked an asset that had already been created from one of the pages in the book. Grapes are food related, and colourful, and kids’ app icons all seem to be colourful, so next I came up with this excuse for a technicolour dreamcoat:

grapes icon


There’s ‘colourful’ and then there’s ‘lurid’. It now has HD on it because we decided at that stage to make Midnight Feast iPad only. (Actually, Apple kind of decided for us, by having a cutoff date for the latest iPhone compatibility). Since Midnight Feast is a dark story — ‘unsettling’, as my friend put it — it made no sense at all to indicate a bright, festive atmosphere via the icon.

That’s why we’ve decided to go with this one. Dan had been keen all along for me to depict a face with eyes on it. Apparently eyes attract attention. When I’d done it, I knew it was right.

final icon

Note mainly to self: I may need to make an icon using Illustrator at some stage, in which case this tutorial may come in handy.


This Looks Painful

Artist's Dummy

This is my artist’s dummy, useful for setting up against a light source in order to remind yourself of which way shadows fall.

I bought him at the mall yesterday, after losing my last one on a plane several years ago. He was travelling in my hand luggage, not because I’m unnaturally attached to such things, but because you’re supposed to declare wooden products in Customs whenever you enter Australia. And you’re meant to put such items in hand luggage to hasten the queue. I’m sure that treated wood is probably okay, but I’ve watched far too much Border Patrol reality TV shows to risk smuggling any sort of wood in. I can just see myself on one of those shows, paying my hefty fine in the name of Art.

I’d like to have seen the look on the face of whoever it was who found my little mannequin. Because of all the things you’d hope to find in your seat pocket, that’s probably not one of them. I suppose if I’d found one myself, abandoned on a plane, I’d have assumed it was off on some sort of  holiday. If you’ve spent (too) much time on the Internet, you’ll know, as I do, that people send Blythe Dolls off on vacation all the time. They take photos of their dolls sunbaking at the beach, admiring art in museums etceterah etceterah, and I see no reason why an artist’s mannequin couldn’t indulge in the same.