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Cameras In Storytelling

The invention of cameras was a boon for storytellers. Writers and film directors have this new narrative tool — in the shape of a camera — which allows them to play around with perspective, to use as a metaphor and as a way to explore death. (No kidding. Read on!)


Some characters use a camera. These characters love their camera. They’ll have the device with them everywhere they go and they’ll use it well, usually sticking it in the most unwelcome of places – they’ll take the most inane pictures they can, record everything they see or all of the above (maybe even at the risk of life or limb). Something embarrassing happens? They’ll snap a shot. Important plot event? They caught it on tape. You can always expect this character to wear their camera on their sleeve for any important or non-important moment that may arise, probably becoming uncomfortable without the object at near. It’s possible that they derive some kind of strange pleasure from watching people, though its best not to get into that.

TV Tropes

Why have photography hobbyists become such a popular trope, especially in young adult novels?

Photography affords YA novelists an opportunity to explore the relationship between agency, death and discourse. […] Novels that employ photography create many opportunities for characters to explore metaphorically the relationship between subject and object, betwween acting and being acted upon. 

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

Seelinger Trites works with the theory that death and narrative structure are linked. 

[Many YA] novels employ photographing protagonists as metaphors for the relationship between power and agency. The metaphor of the camera bestowing upon the photographer a sense of empowerment based on the communicative abilities of photographs occurs often in literature. 

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

As examples, Seelinger Trites analyses the following:

  • A Summer to Die by Lois Lowry (1977)
  • Witch Baby by Francesca Lia Block (1991) 
  • Spite Fences by Trudy Krisher (1994)

Now that cameras are ubiquitous, it’s no surprise photography has become increasingly common in stories for YA. More modern examples (created after Seelinger Trites wrote Disturbing The Universe):

  • Me and Earl and the Dying Girl — the viewpoint character makes experimental short movies — Lowry’s A Summer To Die sounds like it might have been the mother of Jesse Andrews’ novel. Both are about teenagers standing nearby as another teenager dies. 
  • The Secret History Of Us by Jess Kirby — the viewpoint character has lost her memory in an accident. Photographic evidence helps her to work out the mystery of what happened to her and provokes the return of certain memories.
  • The Girl With Glass Feet by Ali Shaw — a love story about a shy photographer and a girl who is slowly turning into glass.
  • Hold Still by Nina LaCour — photography is a means of expression for Caitlin, functioning kind of like a diary
  • Flash Burnout by L.K. Madigan — When Blake snaps a picture of a street person for his photography homework, he never dreamed that the woman in the photo was his friend Marissa’s long-lost meth addicted mom. The flash is especially metaphorical: “You got too close to the subject. So the flash overexposed her.”

Photographers as main characters aren’t limited to YA by any means — Nora Roberts likes a photographer as character. Goodreads has a list of novels with characters who love photography.


Seelinger Trites explains that photography has a specific function in YA, and the pattern is repeated. The camera is a ‘metaphorical representation for achieving agency’. When you’re on the snapping side of the camera you are no longer the object. You’re in control. You’re the one doing the observing, the judging. In a photography narrative, the main character becomes more and more aware of their own agency. That’s the character change. 

Pictures are important not so much in and of themselves but for what they teach the adolescent, especially as they become repeated artifacts that allow the character to witness the same scene during several different points in her or his development.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe

[The] need to recognize one’s own agency is a central pattern of adoleescent literature; we achieve adulthood more comfortably if we recognize that we have some control over the various subject positions we occupy than if we feel entirely like objects, pawns, in other people’s movements. But conversely, maturity also depends on our ability to maintain, when necessary, an object position, for we are all objects of the cultural forces that constantly shape us. Again, the relationship between subjecta nd object is a fluid one, but gaining an increased understanding of one’s power as an acting subject is inevitable during maturation.

Roberta Seelinger Trites, Disturbing The Universe


In 1977, Susan Sontag produced a collection of essays On Photography. It’s pretty famous. Points especially relevant to YA:

  • In their ubiquity and passivity, photographs can become a source of aggression.
  • Cameras can create a sense of vicariousness that may also sanction the photographer’s nonintervention in painful issues.
  • For characters who take pictures instead of becoming involved, photography can become a source of complicity, a way to approve tacitly that which they may not otherwise be able to change.
  • Cameras serve to both empower and disempower adolescents’ agency.


Until recently, regular kids didn’t have access to cameras. Now every adult carries a camera in their pocket and we give our older models to our kids. Kids take photos now. Perhaps this is part of the reason photography as a metaphor has come down into MG.

Though this novel wasn’t originally written for children, the camera plays a starring role in Wolf Hollow by Lauren Wolk, in which the town vagabond is entrusted with a camera which has been won — along with a lifetime’s supply of film — by the main character’s family. When I read this story I assumed the camera had been included for the sake of the plot, even though the setting is based on the author’s own grandparents’ farm, but as it turns out they really did win a lifetime’s supply of photos after the war, when film and development was very expensive. In Wolf Hollow Toby is a what TV Tropes refers to as a ‘camera fiend’.

The reason I assumed the camera was a plot device is because it’s a very good one. When a story is written using anything other than an omniscient viewpoint, a camera can offer insights and evidence concerning happenings outside the realm of the characters’ knowledge. In this MG novel, the camera isn’t really used as part of the main character’s change to someone with agency, but as part of the mystery plot. Mystery writers must come up with various ways their young characters can solve mysteries — talking to adults, keeping watch from the shadows and finding evidence such photos are common tricks.


It is generally assumed in story that the camera does not lie. While this has been true until recently, that’s changing. We’re yet to see many stories come through — at least for younger children — which make use of the fact that photos can be easily doctored by anyone with appropriate software. I predict ‘fake news’ as a huge theme in YA fiction in the coming years.


There are definitely camera as gun elements to Wolk’s Wolf Hollow, in which Toby is hunted as wolf while he in turn is only as dangerous as a camera, shooting nothing more than photos.

In Surfacing, Margaret Atwood also uses the camera as a stand-in for a gun. It’s handy that in English the word ‘shoot’ is used for both taking a photo and using a gun. Cameras are a recurring motif throughout Atwood’s work.

Note that when we say ‘camera as gun’ we are talking about the invasive nature of cameras. When you have a camera pushed into your face without your consent, and when the photos of you are seen by others without your consent, this is invasive.

It is a superstition of many Real Life religions and cultures that cameras and photography are harmful, with many believing that being photographed may steal their soul and taking great pains to avoid it (This is ostensibly the Soul Jar variant of the Phantom Zone Picture).

Magical Camera


Absent from classic fairy tales: Cameras. Tales as collected by Grimm are not about self-reflection. Characters don’t grow. They exist as archetypes. Fairy tales are told by an unseen omniscient narrator, avoiding the more modern narrative tricks.

But there is a fairytale camera equivalent, I believe, and that is the mirror. When Snow White’s mother asks the mirror to educate her on the fairest in the land, she knows and we know that it is telling her the truth. (Mirrors aren’t known for their diplomacy, and nor are cameras.)

In Northern Lights (The Golden Compass), Philip Pullman creates a fantasy world with a palimpsest of our real world — Oxford, Whitehall, Lapland, Berlin. Accordingly, he includes fantasy elements which are connected to real world technologies. Early in the story we see the Scholars — with Lyra hidden in the wardrobe — showing what Pullman calls ‘photograms‘ from an expedition to the North. These photograms are in black and white, in keeping with the olde worlde feel of Oxford and the patriarchal set up depicted. Some of the photos from the expedition have been developed using the normal emulsion, but some of them have been developed using ‘special emulsion’. This reveals a different landscape altogether — the Scholars and Lyra can now see a hidden city, existing in a world separate but connected from our own.

A photogram is not something entirely made up by Pullman. It is a picture produced with photographic materials, such as light-sensitive paper, but without a camera. How do you take a photo without a camera, you might ask? By placing objects directly onto the surface of a light-sensitive material such as photographic paper and then exposing it to light.


Later the word ‘photogram’ was used to refer to the earliest photographs. The word has now fallen out of use.

In fantasy, a variety of tools can be used for the purpose of seeing into a parallel, magical world. In The Spiderwick Chronicles, Holly Webb invents a ‘seeing stone’ which allows the main characters to see hobgoblins in the garden.

Scene from The Spiderwick Chronicles movie


The trope in which cameras reveal what the eye cannot see is used heavily in the horror genre. The camera which can see paranormal activity is a type of magical camera, reminiscent of the fairy tale magic mirror. 

For instance, in the film Insidious, a medium and her crew come to a haunted house, and by putting different ‘magical’ filters on the camera they are able to see scary, ghostly creatures hovering behind the boy, getting closer and closer until finally they are right inside him, inhabiting his body.

In one shot we see a picture of the sympathetic father but through the lens of the camera we learn he has been possessed by this hideous creature:

Insidious is not a particularly original horror film but it does what it does very well, making an excellent job of evoking a nightmare. Once the father is in the other world — the world we’ve been shown glimpses of via the camera in the familiar world — there is no longer any need for the camera as such, but that doesn’t mean cameras are not of influence. As he wanders around the scary mansion he finds gothic and grotesque creatures who stand (almost perfectly) still, as if their photograph has been taken and now that’s all that’s left of them.

Here he examines a woman who stands completely still in the middle of ironing in a 1950s version of his living room, except when she blinks and scares the living daylights of both him and the audience.

Scene from Insidious


Though The Blair Witch Project is also a horror, it uses the camera differently. This film tells the story of characters who have been killed. We know at the beginning of the story that they are dead, which adds suspense and intrigue from the start. This lets us sit through the slightly unpleasant and somewhat boring experience of watching unedited footage as three film students pack for a hike in the woods, asking each other about film and equipment etc. The ‘unfound (and unedited) footage’ story provides the narrative reason why anyone knows what happened.

The memorable selfie in The Blair Witch Project

The Blair Witch Project is the archetypal example of the In-Universe Camera trope.

What is a fractured fairytale?

A fractured fairy tale is a story which makes use of a traditional fairy tale but restructures and reimagines, with the aim of greater nuance and with a contemporary sensibility in mind. The writer might be offering a critique of the ideas in an earlier version. This makes some of them subversive. Fractured fairy tales are often aimed at an adult audience.

Fractured fairy tales can be of any genre:

  • Fantasy — Most recently we’ve had a lot of dark fantasy
  • Horror — Horror has gone hand-in-hand with the dark fantasy. In horrors, villains such as witches don’t tend to have a back story — they serve as the evil force.
  • Dramatic musical
  • Thriller
  • Comedy

Fractured fairy tales are very popular at the moment. In film and television there was a proliferation between 2010 and 2016, and many of these are available on Netflix, for example.

  • Into The Woods — a stage play running for two years from 2002 by Steven Sondheim which weaves Grimm and Perrault tales together; produced for screen during the ‘proliferation’ period.
  • Once Upon A Time
  • Grimm
  • Shrek — This franchise takes a classic monster from a fairytale (the ugly ogre) and turns him into a sympathetic character.
  • Descendents
  • Beastly — a retelling of the fairytale Beauty and the Beast and is set in modern-day New York City.
  • Maleficent —  a retelling of Sleeping Beauty from the evil fairy’s point of view.
  • Hansel and Gretel — horror
  • Witch Hunters — horror
  • Snow White and the Huntsmen — horror
  • Half Baked — horror

Three Types Of Fractured Fairytale

The Cross-over Narrative

Cross-over fractured fairytales intersect various fairy tales to create one big story. Examples are Into the Woods, Once Upon a Time and Grimm.

The Subversive

Subversive fractured fairy tales force the viewer to look at a familiar story from a unique perspective. Examples are Beastly and Maleficent. Often these subversive tales take on the narrative point of view from a different angle — perhaps the viewpoint character is the villain, recast as a sympathetic character. It’s rare for witches to have backstories in the traditional tales, but modern fractured retellings often give us the witch’s perspective.

Many tales which aim to be subversive nevertheless uphold traditional ideas:

  • Youth is beauty
  • Age is ugly and to be avoided
  • It’s not so bad being ugly, but your ugliness still prevents you from marrying someone beautiful (Shrek)

Moral relativism is the view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (for instance, that of a culture or a historical period) and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others. Subversive fractured fairy tales tend to take this view. Sure, Maleficent is evil, but once we know her back story, the morality changes.

A common technique in retelling old tales from different perspectives is to name previously unnamed characters.

Naming has primary importance as a way of determining a being’s subjectivity. [A character’s namelessness] reinforces his lack of an existence, his lack of agency.

— Roberta Seelinger Trites, Waking Sleeping Beauty

So wicked witches are named, Cinderella is known to us by her more familiar name, Ella and so on.

The Inspired

Inspired fractured fairy tales are only loosely based on traditional stories. Examples are Hansel and Gretel (the film), Witch Hunters, Snow White and the Huntsman. 

Lamb To The Slaughter by Roald Dahl

Lamb to the Slaughter is one of Roald Dahl’s most widely read short stories, studied in high school English classes around the English speaking world. In this post I take a close look at the structure from a writing point of view. Why has this story found such wide love? What appeals?


The ‘main character’ of this short story isn’t clear because this is a story about a scenario, and the characters are required in order to carry out the scenario. The characters are archetypes. However, the story opens with Mary Maloney. We are encouraged to identify with Mary Maloney, and it is Mary who goes through an extensive range of emotions. We end with a conspiratorial relationship with Mary.


Mary Maloney is childlike, as housewives of the mid 20th century often were. Mary is economically and emotionally vulnerable, and she is extra vulnerable because she is six months pregnant. She is unable to simply move on from this relationship, or get a job. Re-partnering will be hard for her, too. This situation encourages the reader to empathise with her plight, even if we don’t agree with her way of dealing with things. Also, readers are like ducklings and we tend to empathise with the character first shown to us. If Dahl had instead described the policeman’s arrival home, starting with him leaving work, turning the difficult situation over in his mind, we might have empathised with him instead.

Mary also has a Virgin Mary association — we don’t think of murderers when we think of ‘Mary’. I guess that’s why when we do get a murderer named Mary, we are intrigued by the story and it becomes lore.


Mary’s desires seem to be right there on the page: She is lonely during the day and home with no adult company, waiting for a scrap of human interaction from her husband after spending the entire day preparing the home for his arrival. But this interaction with her husband is her surface level desire, and points to a deeper desire: to assuage her utter loneliness. This is especially well set up by Dahl, because the very worst thing that could happen to Mary is to be left all alone.


A simple web: Mary wants to remain married to her husband; her husband wants to leave her for another woman (we guess). Because their desires are in direct conflict, this makes them opponents. Later, the dead husband’s colleagues arrive. Part of what makes this story work: The husband was himself a policeman, so when his colleagues arrive to replace him as new opponents, these men seem like basically the same person to Mary.

Note also the writing trick employed by Dahl — he leaves the exact words of the break-up conversation off the page, instead giving us enough clues to work it out ourselves. This works partly because Mary is so blown-away by this revelation that she wouldn’t be able to take in all the words. This aligns the reader with Mary. It also works for another reason: Break-up sequences are pretty boring for most readers, who have seen the exact same conversation played out time and again in stories. It’s very hard to write a break up scene with any kind of originality, so Dahl just skips it, and trusts us to fill in those blanks. Also, the break-up is not a big part of the story. The Story = what comes after.

A question we might ask ourselves when writing short stories: Which parts of this story have been done so many times before that I can easily skip them? Narrative summary is a useful tool, especially in short stories.


When a character snaps and does something crazy, you can’t really argue that there was a plan. Mary only makes her plan later: She didn’t plan to kill her husband, but she does plan to get out of it. She will visit the grocer, then return home to ‘discover him dead’, then get rid of the murder weapon by acting like a grieving wife in shock, then she will encourage the policemen to eat the lamb. This plays out with what I like to call a ‘heist plot’. I just mean that the reader doesn’t know what Mary’s going to do until she does it. Dahl puts the reader in audience inferior position. Reader satisfaction derives from seeing Mary carry out her plan and then get away with it.

Be wary of writing characters who just snap and do something crazy. I have heard judges of short story competitions complain that they see too many of those — perhaps writers are hoping to emulate Lamb to the Slaughter. Why does it work for Dahl? Because a woman snapping is not the story. Stories which end with a character snapping don’t work because:

  1. It’s generally unbelievable that people just snap — people who commit these crimes in real life have a history of violence. And in a short story you don’t have time to get into someone’s entire history, so it’s going to feel unfinished.
  2. It works here because Lamb to the Slaughter is basically melodrama. It’s written with a wry, tongue-in-cheek smile right from the start, and even Mary’s giggling is comical and over-the-top. Lamb to the Slaughter is written in the tall tale tradition.
  3. If a writer concludes a story by having their main character just snap and do something murderous, it feels like the writer can’t think of a more interesting way to finish the story off. ‘And then she killed him’ is akin to ‘And then she woke up and it was all a dream.’
  4. There is already a long history of tales which end in sudden death. Take Fitcher’s Bird, a tale collected by the Brothers Grimm. The final sentence: ‘And since nobody could get out, they were all burned to death’.


It’d be easy to think the bit where Mary slaughters her husband is ‘the battle scene’, but it’s not, really. There’s no battle in that. She comes at him from behind. For storytelling purposes, the battle scene comes after a plan has been concocted and mostly carried out. Thus, the ‘battle scene’ in this story comprises the sequence in which the policemen hum and ha about whether or not they should go ahead an eat the lamb, with Mary encouraging them to eat. Mary wins that battle of words and manners.


The story ends when Mary giggles to herself from the next room. She has concluded she’s getting away with murder.


The new equilibrium phase is cut off in this story — as it is in many short stories — and left for the reader to extrapolate. We may also conclude that Mary has gotten away with murder.


Dahl wasn’t the first to shock readers with a cannibalistic yet strangely genteel scene involving a character eating its own kind in a story about duplicity.

The Juniper Tree was one of the tales collected by the Grimm Brothers. In a patrilineal culture, a mother is angry that she and her daughter will inherit nothing while her husband’s son will inherit all. She is soon so overcome with anger that she is possessed by the devil, and eventually shuts the boy in a trunk, luring him with apples. The boy is decapitated. The woman tries to tie it back on with a neckerchief, but then the daughter accidentally knocks it off and believes she’s the one who killed him. The boy ends up in a stew. The father comes home, asks where the son is, and is told that the boy has gone away to stay with relatives for six weeks. The man eats the delicious stew — which he feels is part of him somehow — and throws his son’s bones under the table, which makes me wonder if that’s what men did in those days. (It reminds me of modern casino culture, in which big gamblers — mostly men — simply piss on the casino carpet rather than leave their stations to visit the toilet.) It’s the daughter’s job to tidy up after him. She collects the bones in a silk cloth and buries them under the juniper tree. The boy is reborn into the shape of a bird and the story goes on from there. The boy/bird eventually exacts revenge and kills his mother figure for killing his human form and feeding his flesh to his father. The mother is therefore punished, for letting herself become so angry and scared about becoming old and homeless and letting herself go crazy. Presumably, her daughter escapes this kind of crazy with her youth, and lack of understanding about how the world works. The sister doesn’t know that she, too, may become homeless — she is young and is likely to marry. So the inheritance thing probably doesn’t affect her.

Roald Dahl had a different relationship with retribution. Matilda is an entire middle grade novel made of revenge sequences against her terrible parents and Miss Trunchbull. Dahl certainly enjoyed pranks and tricks and loved to let his characters get away with bad stuff. Lamb To The Slaughter is another revenge tale, but unlike in The Juniper Tree, Dahl’s murdering woman is never punished. Dahl leaves his readers to imagine that her husband fully deserved to die.

The Juniper Tree was collected by the Grimms, but originally written down (in low German) by a painter called Philipp Otto Runge. There’s an entire family of tales in which one parent kills a child, the other eats him. (It’s usually a boy who is eaten.) Though these tales weren’t originally for children, food and death have become linked over the course of children’s literature.

Since sex and death (violence) are intertwined in mainstream stories, it is food and death which are intertwined in stories for children.

— for more on that, see Food and Sex in Children’s Literature

Later, in 1857 the Fables of Aesop were translated into Human Nature. Aesop’s Fables had been published many times before this, but until now, readers had not seen them illustrated so adeptly by a well-known comic illustrator of the time: Charles Bennett (1828-1867).

Bennett dressed Aesop’s animals completely and gave them a contemporary mid 1800s setting. The characters are Victorian Londoners, but with animal heads. In order to find the illustrations funny the reader needs to know something about that particular social milieu. It was funny that Bennet turned the Fox in ‘The Fox and the Crow’ into a philanderer and the Crow into a rich widow, for example. Animals dressed in clothes appeal to children and so Grimm’s fairytales and Aesop’s fables became stories for the whole family, and eventually considered ‘children’s stories’. Likewise, Lamb to the Slaughter is not a children’s story, but when I taught high school English, this short story was studied by year elevens.

Aesop’s Wolf In Sheep’s Clothing is dressed as a policeman, taking supper in the basement with the cook, who is a sheep. They are ominously dining on a leg of lamb, and I wouldn’t mind betting Roald Dahl read the Bennett version of the Aesop’s Fables at some point, perhaps during his childhood. I’m sure Bennett’s comic illustrations would have appealed to Roald Dahl anyhow, whose own work was illustrated by famous British comic illustrator of the late 20th century and beyond, Sir Quentin Blake.

Wolf Lamb



Bullying In Children’s Literature

“Middle school wasn’t much fun for me. We had some bullying going on, and the best thing to do was to stay out of their way.”

— Jeff Kinney, author of Diary Of A Wimpy Kid

bulling diary of a wimpy kid

Rodrick Heffley from Diary of a Wimpy Kid early films. Rodrick bullies his younger brother.


Bullying is repeated verbal, physical, social or psychological aggressive behaviour by a person or group directed towards a less powerful person or group that is intended to cause harm, distress or fear.

If two people disagree, that is not bullying.

If two people dislike each other, that is not bullying.

A single episode of aggression also does not count as bullying. This is especially important because an act of retaliation on the part of the bullied does not mean ‘both sides are at fault’.


When authors cover the topic of bullying it can be super helpful to young readers, explicitly teaching what bullying is and how to recognise it for what it is. Even if we as adults have no further advice — I don’t consider myself qualified to give advice on how to deal with bullying — recognising bullying behaviour is a huge help to kids on the receiving end of it.

So, what does bullying look like? Some of these are obvious to neurotypical kids but in my opinion even neurotypical kids need explicit training on what bullying looks like. By putting these tactics into words, we are holding kids to higher standards. They then hold each other to higher standards.

  1. Touching someone in anger, or touching someone who doesn’t want to be touched
  2. Saying something nasty then putting ‘just joking’ on the end as a way of blaming others and demeaning the reaction of the victim
  3. Spreading untrue information about a person
  4. Threatening to tell an authority figure that a person has done something they have not
  5. Sharing true but personal information about a person
  6. Taking photos of someone without their consent, worse when shared, even worse via social media
  7. Mimicking the way someone walks/talks/eats etc
  8. Excluding someone because of skin colour/religion/culture and similar
  9. Microagressions are also a subtle form of bullying e.g. constant reference to someone’s difference from the wider peer group
  10. Barring someone from entering or exiting a space (commonly stairwells, toilets, shared play spaces)
  11. Practical jokes and pranks which are designed to humiliate someone, probably in front of a group
  12. Going into someone else’s bag/pockets/locker/desk without their consent
  13. Or more generally, messing around with someone else’s stuff with the intention of annoying them or shaming them
  14. Touching someone’s clothing, especially with the intention of exposing their body to others
  15. Provoking someone to anger, in general, hoping they will explode and get into trouble with teachers and parents
  16. Threatening to withdraw friendship unless someone does what you want them to do
  17. More generally, any behaviour designed to control another person. A lot of the bullying that goes on between girls mirrors exactly the abuse we call ‘coercive control’ when it happens in an adult relationship. Unfortunately, a history of falling victim to coercive control as a child/teenager primes someone to fall victim to it as an adult, too. (We can flip this, but we have to first name it, and teach it explicitly.)


Almost any story set in a school or a school stand-in will involve opposition between peers. Bullying is a common topic in children’s literature from chapter books onwards.

Adults know way more about how bullying works than a couple of generations ago. This can be traced through fiction (or ask any elderly person about their experiences of bullying in school).

Fictional bullies occurred frequently in school/boarding school stories, and it wasn’t treated as bullying, but more of a ‘character building exercise’, designed to prepare school aged children for a world in which they’ll be ranked in an adult hierarchy.

Today’s authors show a better understanding of the true nature of bullying, in which bullying is a social system, rather than a person:

All kinds of attitudes have changed, mostly for the better. Bullies were hated in Tom Brown’s Schooldays but now, as in Louis Sachar’s Holes, they are both villains and victims.

Amanda Craig, writing about the third golden age of children’s literature

We’re all doing better now, but still have a long way to go. How are adults, specifically adult writers, still getting bullying a bit wrong?


“There was a bully at Peter’s school and his name was Barry Tamerlane. He didn’t look like a bully” writes Ian McEwan in chapter four of Daydreamer. The explicit and direct message here is that “There’s no such person who looks like a bully.”

He wasn’t a scruff, his face wasn’t ugly, he didn’t have a frightening leer, or scabs on his knuckles and he didn’t carry dangerous weapons. he wasn’t particularly big. Nor was he one of those small, wiry, boney types who can turn out to be vicious fighters. At home he wasn’t smacked like many bullies are, and nor was he spoiled. His parents were kind but firm, and quite unsuspecting. His voice wasn’t loud of hoarse, his eyes weren’t hard and small and he wasn’t even very stupid. In fact, he was rather round and soft, though not quite a fatty, with glasses, and a spongy pink face, and a silver brace on his teeth. He often wore a sad and helpless look which appealed to some grown-ups and was useful when he had to talk himself out of trouble.

— Ian McEwan, Daydreamer

I do wonder if there’s an unfortunate implicit message in here, though. When we describe the appearance of bullies, no matter how we do it, we’re conveying the implicit message that if you just study this hard enough, you’ll find you can typecast people according to how they look. ‘Bullies don’t look how you think they look… they actually look like this’, is one possible interpretation of the passage above, when I believe the intention is ‘You can’t pick a bully based on what they look like.’

McEwan does side with the young reader and does what most authors do: He acknowledges the fact that adults will never understand the complicated and subtle social dynamics of adolescents:

Of course, Peter kept out of the bully’s way, but he took a special interest in him. Barry Tamerlane was a mystery. On his eleventh birthday Barry invited a dozen boys from school to a party. Peter tried to get out of it but his parents would not listen. They themselves liked Mr and Mrs Tamerlane, and so, by the terms of grown-up logic, Peter must surely like Barry.

— Ian McEwan, Daydreamer


Authors sometimes set up a character web with ‘model’ children versus ‘imperfect’ children. By the end of the book, the young reader is supposed to have worked out for themselves who is in the wrong, and mimic the behaviour of the model children in real life. An example of this kind of book is Pigface by Catherine Robinson. The focus character learns a lesson when he breaks his leg playing football. While he’s away on the couch, a new boy joins the class. This new boy is preternaturally mature. When our focus character returns to school he realises he should stop calling Harry ‘Pigface’ because he probably doesn’t like it. He has also learned to stick up for other people, and not to judge others at face value. The reveal is that this cool new boy was bullied at his previous school.

This story for emerging readers does not attempt mimesis. It attempts (and achieves) a clear line between bullying and friendly behaviour. The reality is that a boy who was bullied at his previous school is likely to continue to be bullied at a new school, though bullying cultures do differ from school to school. It is possible to start with a clean slate in a new environment, though perhaps not quite so cleanly.


When do people start forming social hierarchies? As soon as they start interacting with groups of peers. But when does that real ‘mean-girl’ crap start happening?

“The mean-girl thing is happening much sooner than everyone realizes,” our elementary school counselor told me when I called to talk it through. “I see it all the time.”

The Washington Post

The parent who wrote this article found it first started happening to her daughter in fourth grade. I also have a daughter of that age (in NSW Australia it’s called ‘year four’) and I can confirm it started happening this year. What form does it take? For my daughter, it has involved social exclusion. Friend has a birthday, brings enough cupcakes for everybody, gives extra cupcakes to her ‘besties’, refuses to give cupcake to one girl in particular as some kind of social punishment. It’s easy to almost laugh at this ridiculous example, but if this happened to us in our workplace, we’d be equally wounded. Apart from blatant social exclusion:

The most common ways girls ages 8 to 12 bully is by mocking, teasing and calling people names, says Cosette Taillac, a child and adolescent therapist

The Washington Post

Though that article focuses specifically on the types of bullying that goes on among girls, it strikes me that at 8-12 years old, there’s no significant difference between how girls and boys bully others. Boys use this same strategy of ‘mocking, teasing and calling people names’. However, the nature of these names might be different. Because of a cultural emphasis, girls are more vulnerable to commentary about physical appearance:

“Girls at this age are extremely conscious about how they look in relationship to others,” Taillac says. “Any way they look ‘different’ is a potential target. This goes beyond weight — it can also be about being taller or shorter, skin color, or even about things like having freckles or pimples.”

The Washington Post

(No one is saying boys aren’t also picked on due to how they look; the difference is that all girls are judged based on their looks no matter what they look like, whereas physical appearance only comes into it for boys when the boy does actually fall outside the ‘accepted norm’, and ‘the norm’ is wider for boys. Which is of course no comfort to boys who do fall outside the accepted norm for boys. And boys are getting more judgemental about each other’s appearance, unfortunately. Living in the exact same culture, it’s getting worse  for girls as well.)

On a more positive note, this form of bullying has all but disappeared by senior high school.

This opinion piece written by a teenager echoes something I’d already noticed myself:

In my school, most people like each other! We might not like the same brands or bands, but that doesn’t mean we have a burning desire to watch those more traditional or popular fail. (That would be middle school.)

While this HuffPost article is painting too broad a stroke with an inflammatory headline about not liking YA novels in general (there are many different genres within that category), the writer is pointing out that bullying takes on a different form altogether once students move through high school. (But it doesn’t disappear completely.)


Bullying among the 8-10 year old set looks completely different from bullying in senior high school. This needs to be reflected in stories.

I Study The Psychology Of Adolescent Bullies is about Donald Trump but offers an insight into how bullying works at each age. The subheading sums it up: Kids who dominate other kids are often popular — for a little while.

Below is the reason given for why middle school is terrible for bullying, though I grew up in a country where middle school was often attached to the primary school — no major reshuffling necessary. I don’t know how the social dynamics are different in those cases but:

Although bullies are never liked, they are popular in certain situations. Our research shows that bullies initially become “cool” during their first year in middle school. We think that this link between bullying and popularity is strengthened by the collective uncertainty associated with the transition to middle school. As youth are trying to acclimate to the new setting, many worry about their own social standing and ask: Where do I fit in? Who should I hang out with? When the future is uncertain, it is vital to know not only where one fits, but also who is in charge. Dominance hierarchies help group members find their places and form alliances, and bullying is among the most primitive ways to establish dominance.

I have noticed in some stories, especially those on TV, middle school level bullying continues long past its due date. By the time students are about 15, explicit, racist or un-woke bullying behaviours have morphed into social dynamics far more subtle. But what does it turn into?

Our research on middle-schoolers also shows that the popularity of bullies wears off after the transition period. That is, after the first year in middle school, bullies’ popularity gradually decreases. […] When a young child is questioned whether he ate the last cookie (even when there are crumbs on his lips), the immature response is: “I didn’t do it.” Children deny the act before they learn that it is socially beneficial to admit the wrongdoing but deny any negative intent. Teens tend to become even more skilful and elaborate on various mitigating circumstances, such as not turning in their homework due to illness or because they were helping an ailing grandmother. These accounts reduce the likelihood of punishment and facilitate forgiveness.

If bullying is still going on in senior high school, it is insidious and covert and ridiculously difficult to deal with. It can usually be denied completely. ‘Social exclusion’ looks a lot like, simply, exercising your right to choose your own friends.


  1. Bullying is a problem that bullying people have. It does not follow that someone targeted by a system of persistent bullying is the one doing something wrong.
  2. Children and teens need friends. Friends aren’t just ‘the icing on the cake’.
  3. In order to be happy, children don’t need a wide circle of friends. Sometimes all it takes is one friend. The difference between no friends and one friend is like night and day.
  4. Unkind behavior toward children without social status is rewarded with social capital and elevated social status, because it highlights the status differential.
  5. It is not easy — in fact it is an act of rare and unusual bravery — to step in and defend someone with low social capital. Defending a low-status child is like touching someone with “cooties,” so bystanders rarely step in.
  6. A child at the bottom of the social ladder becomes “untouchable.” Even if that child has a delightful personality and loads of friends elsewhere, in a social system in which she lacks social capital, she is not likely to acquire friends. Take away point: a child can have loads of friends in one situation and none in another, because ‘untouchable’ cultures can pop up anywhere if not kept in check.
  7. Children with status erroneously believe that the reason untouchables have no social status is because they are repulsive, but in truth, it is precisely the reverse. The lack of social status is what makes an untouchable appear repulsive.
  8. Adults are no more likely to sacrifice their own social capital to stop bullying than children are. Adults don’t magically go through a character arc in which they are immune to all this crap. Most of us quietly become part of the system.
  9. When adults instruct kids to simply ‘walk away’ from bullying, we are indoctrinating them into this system. Parents justify this by going back to the concept of ‘freedom’. ‘My child must be granted the freedom to choose her own friends’.

–Happiness and the Pursuit of Leadership

Can we end the whole “you attract who you are” myth? There are abusive, terrible and mediocre people who latch on to vulnerable, kind and generous folks.

Another myth to abolish: You don’t have to “love yourself” first in order to be worthy of love in return. You are worthy of being loved, of being safe and well-cared for regardless of how you feel about yourself.

— @femmefeministe


A New Way To Reduce Playground Bullying

Bullies and Bullying In Kids’ Books

For more on coercive control, this podcast (actually the entire series) is excellent.

Amy Alkon coined the term ‘social greed’ to describe someone’s unwillingness to risk their own social capital without an anticipated return on investment.

Humour Study: Overly Literal Characters

Humorous stories about characters who find themselves in strife after taking instructions too literally are old stock comedy fodder. One of the earliest recorded in Europe is the fairytale Clever Hans — an ironic title, because Hans is a fool. Hans does something stupid, his mother tells him to do it differently next time. But when Hans applies the previous bit of commonsense advice to the new, slightly different situation, this leads to different trouble. Trouble increases in magnitude until he ruins his life.

If you’re anything like me, Clever Hans as a humorous tale doesn’t work. It feels out-dated, by centuries. One problem is the heinous nature of the repercussions. Hans ‘stupidly’ plucks out the eyeballs of the farm animals — an example of foolishness which seems cruel rather than funny to me.

But has the archetype of the overly literal fool gone out of fashion? Not at all. In fact, we’re having a bit of a renaissance. I suspect this is partly to do with increasing autism awareness (which is a different thing entirely from autism acceptance). The stereotypical autistic person, promoted by the contemporary corpus of fiction is:

  • White
  • Male
  • Good at maths/fixing and hacking computers/memorising facts about specialty area
  • Non-empathetic
  • And overly literal, to his own detriment

Atypical Netflix

Sam of Netflix’s Atypical series is an excellent showcase of this popular — but ultimately shallow — understanding of level one autism:

Sam is a basically a human whiteboard illustrating the triad of impairments. He talks in a somewhat rat-a-tat monotone voice (demonstrating atypical verbal development), can’t understand social cues and takes everything very literally (social and emotional difficulties), and has obsessions (imaginative restriction or repetitive behaviour), which manifests in his case as an all-consuming interest in Antarctica and the Arctic and all the fauna of those environments, especially penguins.

What Netflix Comedy Atypical Gets Right and Wrong About Autism

Overly literal interpretation of language is not a characteristic shared by every person with a diagnosis of autism. Many autistic people can throw sarcasm with the best of them. Satire — top level comedy — is not lost on autistic people. At the moment, any overly literal comedic character tends to have a pop-culture diagnosis of autism whether the creators declare that or not. The Big Bang Theory is an excellent example of that phenomenon.

This is why I am delighted to see brilliant Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby has revealed her autism diagnosis publicly, a generous act, given that she’s now going to be seconded as ambassador for yet another marginalised group, whether she wants to invest all that time or not. Gadsby does not fit the autistic stereotype. Fortunately for us, she has the gift of seeing satire and absurdity at the deepest level, commenting ironically, manipulating audience emotion with fine precision. Gadsby shares this skill with many in the autistic community.

Perhaps this signals the beginning of a more diverse representation of autism in pop-culture. I hope comedy writers will start pushing the boat out when writing autistic characters, beyond mishaps caused by ‘overly literal’ interpretations. It’s far more difficult to pinpoint humour in the very real differences between autistic and neurotypical communication styles. It really does require #OwnVoices level insight.

Illness and Disability in Children’s Literature

Illness, disability and disfigurement has a problematic history in children’s literature. What are the main problems, today and in the past, and how might writers aspire to do better?


When you think of classic children’s literature and illness, you’re likely to come up with The Secret Garden.

The Secret Garden […] presents ideas that could certainly be called subversive, since at the time they were new and of dubious reputation. In this case, however, they are ideas about religion, psychology, and health. Colin’s self-hypnotic chanting recalls the sermons of Christian Science or New Thought, in both of which Mrs. Burnett [the author] was interested. The idea that illness is often largely psychological, and can be cured by positive thinking, permeates [The Secret Garden]. Another new concept is that of the healing power of nature, of fresh air and outdoor exercise. Today we take ideas like this for granted, but Mrs. Burnett grew up in an age when the only exercise permitted to middle-class women was going for walks. The Secret Garden also shows the influence of the new paganism that found a following among liberal intellectuals of the time. It contains a kind of nature spirit in Dickon, the farm boy who spends whole days on the moors talking to plants and animals and who is a sort of cross between Kipling’s Mowgli and the many adult incarnations of the rural [man-beast god] Pan who appear in Edwardian fiction.

— Alison Lurie, Don’t Tell The Grownups: The subversive power of children’s literature

The Secret Garden is a typical example of literature from the First Golden Age of Children’s Literature, which from 1850 until the first world war.

Now we are in the Third Golden Age of Children’s Literature. Children’s stories have never been so accomplished or diverse. Still, there have been expressions of concern lately about the amount of ill-health in contemporary children’s literature. Ill-health is one of modern kidlit’s defining features. Continue reading

Joy Story Short Film Storytelling Technique

Joy Story is the perfect short film to teach kids story structure, focusing on character empathy and self-revelation. This story is also interesting in the way it handles gender.

Story Structure Of Joy Story


This story has a clear main character — the dog. I guess the dog’s name is Joy. Which in the West, at least, codes her as feminine. Interestingly, Joy doesn’t have any clear feminine markers. (I suspect Disney/Pixar and Dreamworks would have given her thick eyelashes and ‘feminine’ shaped eyes.)

As Joy steps onto the fishing boat, she shows caution. Her psychological weakness is that she’s a little scared of being on boats. While this doesn’t directly relate to her character development (the weakness usually does), this makes Joy relatable to viewers.


Joy — like most dogs — wants to please her owner. This means guarding the fishing bait worms from the heron.


An audience is like ducklings — we tend to fall in love with the first character we see. With Joy set up so swiftly and clearly as the main character, the appearance of the heron marks Heron out as opponent. Joy wants to protect the worms. Heron wants to take the worms. Their desires are in direct opposition, making them ‘opponents’.

We do see the heron very early, but it’s easy to miss. The birds fly past in the distance. We’re not supposed to focus on the birds at this point — nor are we supposed to be surprised when a heron turns up. Casual mention of an opponent before the opponent is properly introduced is a good technique, and one much used in murder mysteries.

The camera work helps the audience to regard Heron as the baddie. The camera pans from the feet, sliding up, gradually revealing more as if in a horror film. The low-angle shot of Heron, seen from Joy’s point of view, makes the bird seem powerful and scary. The character design, too, encourages empathy with Joy — while the heron is more naturalistic in proportion, Joy’s head is literally more massive than her entire body. The heron’s eyes look scary. Both characters have ‘humanised eyes’, but the heron’s pupils are very small and instead of white around the pupil, she has yellow. Less human means more scary, to human viewers. Joy has large pupils, with white around the iris so we can tell where she is looking.  In lots of character designs with dogs, dogs are given eyebrows. Joy has an expressive brow, but without actual brow hairs. She does have an unusually human mouth, however, with a full set of human teeth and lips which smile and frown.

On the topic of character design, notice the owner has no eyes at all, hidden beneath his bushy brows and a cap. This is a clear signal that the fisherman owner does not play a big role in the story.


Joy’s plan is to protect the worms from the heron.

The heron has a counter-plan which is in direct opposition — heron plans to steal the worms from Joy.


After a rule of threes battle, with the final ending in a tug of war, the heron departs, having lost. It seems Joy has ‘won’ and the story could be over. Of course, if the story ended there, it would feel incomplete and unsatisfying. That’s because stories aren’t about winning or losing a battle — they’re really about the self-revelation, and that comes next.


First there is a simple revelation (not the self-revelation). The revelation is shown to Joy and to the audience at the same time — another trick writers use to keep empathy with the main character. Revelation: The heron doesn’t just want the worms. She needs the worms, and they’re not for herself. She is not being selfish after all. She’s not simply stealing worms in order to have fun. This is a life and death situation for her chicks, who can’t swallow big fish. They need smaller food or they’ll go hungry (and die).

At this point, the audience sympathy expands to the bird. Heron and Joy remain in opposition, but the heron is no longer the baddie/villain. Another interesting story technique: Because most baddies are male, and most characters without distinct female markers are considered ‘neutral’ (ie. still male), when we see the heron with babies it functions as a reveal. “Oh, it’s a mother!” we think. Suddenly her badness is downgraded.

(Perhaps people who really know birds may tell the difference immediately, but it’s not easy to sex a heron. The only real difference is in size, and when there’s only one heron, it’s even harder.)

This is an interesting subversion of typical gender roles in story, and only works because audiences have been so thoroughly conditioned to consider any character male, unless specifically told otherwise.

Now for the SELF-revelation. This doesn’t happen until the heron delivers the fish in exchange for Joy’s gift of worms. This is the part where the audience also has a self-revelation, which links beautifully back to the moral argument: Small acts of generosity will be returned to you ten-fold. So be generous, and you’ll get what you desire in the end.


Joy only ever wanted to please her owner. When the owner turns round and sees she’s somehow managed to ‘catch’ all those fish, he pats her on the head and she has achieved her original goal. Joy and Heron and owner are happy.


Digital Art Software I Have Tried

Earlier this week I compared two similar digital art programs, Artrage 5 and Rebelle 3. Rebelle 3 has just been released. Those are my top picks for illustrators who don’t want to fork out the big (ongoing) bucks for Adobe products or for Corel Paint (which I didn’t like anyway, last time I used it).

Here are my thoughts on some other art software.


If you have an iPad with an Apple pencil (so, an iPad pro or the latest one), Procreate is the way to go. My old iPad can’t support it, but apparently their latest update was amazing. Procreate has excellent gesture support. They’re setting the industry standard on that. There are illustrators who use Procreate and only Procreate to create professional work. There’s a lively and active Procreate community and plenty of brush specialists creating awesome resources for sale. You can even ‘go native’ on an iPad pro and get rid of your desktop if you want.

UPDATE: I have since started mucking around with Procreate on my new iPad and an Apple pencil. The interface is very nice, though I kept accidentally touching the sidebar. Shifting it over to the other side fixed that problem. (You get to choose set up for ‘left handed’ or ‘right handed’ — I’m actually right-handed but choose the left-handed set up.)

The big problem some Procreate users have right now: There’s no CMYK in the page set-up. That stops professional artists from using it, unless they’re creating solely for screen. I know professional artists are really wanting to go native with an iPad Pro and Procreate, so if this Tasmanian company is smart, they’ll sort that out very soon. Instead, they are telling users to just switch to CMYK from RGB in Photoshop or similar. This is a ridiculous thing to be telling artists as it never works well.


Not quite there yet but amazingly impressive:  PaintStorm Studio. Like Artrage, this is one man’s passion. That man happens to be Russian. He has not released an instruction manual (in any language, from what I can gather) and GOOD LUCK learning how the brush engine works through boneheaded experimentation, because his set-up is unlike anything you’ve ever seen before. Basically, every functionality has been rolled into the brush engine. Hard to explain until you see it in action. Fortunately, there are YouTubers who’ve published excellent reviews of PaintStorm Studio and your best bet for learning how that software works is to watch one of those. Paintstorm is officially in beta mode. It’s been in beta mode for ages. It’s amazing what the Paintstorm guy has done (mostly? entirely?)  on his own, and he has made some really excellent decisions, taking the best of many different programs and pulling them into a new passion project of his own. The ability to pick up paint from lower layers is really awesome. He’s also taken Krita’s seamless pattern functionality (Krita calls it Wraparound) and for me, it was worth buying Paintstorm just for that. And also because I’d like to see that guy financially supported.


Speaking of Krita, your free, open source alternative, I deleted that from my computer after discovering PaintStorm because I only used it for the wraparound functionality, and Krita is — at present — lacking naturalistic paint mixing capability. It does not work well on my old Mac.

In 2013 I bought Mischief on the Apple store. I was interested in its very unusual ability to create a never-ending canvas, and the ability to zoom in and in and in until you have a mise en abyme image. Look at one of their promo videos to see how cool that is. Thing is, I’ve hardly used it. I thought I’d use it for character design sheets and whatnot, where there is no real need to choose a certain size of paper, because you’re in total creative mode and you can hypothetically keep going every which way. I find the lack of margins strangely disconcerting. Turns out I’m old-school when it comes to margins. I like my paper to end. I am someone who gets lost at the mall. So if I need to drop pins to get back to where I was, I’m going to get hopelessly lost. Without even leaving my own desk! More to the point, the user interface never appealed to me. I didn’t stick with Mischief long enough to memorise the shortcut keys and now it’s just irritating. Mischief have not done anything obvious with their software since I first tried it, and though a professional artist can use any software and create excellent stuff with it, without naturalistic paint mixing, Mischief is not a contender for me. I would recommend Mischief to people (especially students) who love to make their own hand drawn mindmaps, because the one thing that pisses me off about mindmaps is, you always end up wishing you’d started somewhere else on the page. You won’t run into that problem with a never-ending canvas.


Here’s another interesting but underdeveloped passion project: Verve, described as ‘experimental fluid dynamics fluid software. It’s completely free, but available only on PC. Verve has a band of loyal supporters on the forum, but the UI is very odd. If you keep playing, you’ll work out how to make certain effects on purpose (rather than by complete happy accident). If you’re into dragging needles over dye in water (I forget what that is called) then you’ll be impressed by Verve. My programmer husband contacted the developer about five years ago and asked if he wanted to collaborate on an iPad app aimed at the preschool set. We saw amazing potential for this gooey, squishy, sandboxy physics engine, which Taron says he stumbled on by accident. Taron wasn’t interested in a collaboration — fair enough — no one wants to give up their code that easily, especially since software physics belongs to the dark arts, and happy discoveries happen once in a lifetime, if you’re lucky. Taron replied that he has big plans for Verve, and plans to develop the UI himself. Five years later, nothing’s changed. We contacted him again a few months ago, but Taron says he still has big plans to develop the UI and is still not interested in a collaboration. He’s probably got a number of such emails over the last few years, and he’s probably been developing it quite a lot without making a release. However, I suspect Taron has missed the boat. Five years ago, the physics engine of Verve made your eyes pop. It felt really exciting. Through sheer hard graft and a whole heap of startup funds, other, bigger companies have discovered these physics engine secrets, knowing they were there to be discovered.


Affinity Designer and Affinity Photo are genuine competitors to Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop. If you’re migrating over, the thing that will disappoint you is that you can’t migrate all of your Adobe resources over. All of us have years worth of carefully curated brushes which are as individual to the artist as style itself. I understand why Adobe have gone subscription model, but they’re disproportionately expensive for most indie illustrators, whose paychecks have been decreasing, not increasing over time. If Adobe worked like some of the 3D software developers and charge subscriptions based on the size and income of the company, that would be fair. Also, everyone who pays for a creative cloud subscription seems to have a love/hate relationship with the products — ‘too bloated’ is a criticism you’ll hear time and again. Like Microsoft Word and iTunes, Photoshop needs rebuilding from the ground up. Affinity products do not suffer from that problem. They’re lightning quick, schmick and slick. Also a little buggy. Just in the last few months, I’ve been having more and more issues with Designer. I have no idea if it’s my computer or them. I suspect a bit of both.

There’s one issue with the eraser which renders Affinity Designer almost unusable for me at the moment, and now it’s doing something funky with pixels on the edge of a page. (I’ve got a workaround for the weird pixel thing — I turn every page into an Art Canvas.) Go to the forums and you’ll see regular  users with laundry lists of bugs, all of which seem individual to each user, and which may eventually get squashed as new ones arise. I made a suggestion about the sticky settings for new documents and they appreciated the feedback. In their response they said they’re in the process of sorting sticky settings out. Not a lot of thought went into them. So that gives you some idea of where they’re at. They’re responsive on the forums, but like the other smaller players, they’re overwhelmed by their to-do list.

They’re also working on an alternative to Adobe InDesign, which I will buy, and be frustrated with. They’re already behind their original schedule (by about a year), saying they’d rather put out a stable program than a crashy one. If their previous track record is an indication, their next product will be fast and stable, but full of niggly little annoying things, at least for a while.

As for the user experience, Affinity Designer do a really interesting thing by separating their vector functionality from their bitmap functionality. It’s excellent for working with fonts. I love that you get live previews of blend modes as you hover over the selection before selecting it, which will improve your blend mode learning curve no end. (This knowledge transfers nicely to every other bit of art software.)


This bit of software isn’t cheap but it’s fun if you’re into that kind of thing. I treat it as a game. You build a house, put up wallpaper, furnish it with items from the library and then you can ‘walk through’ it, and even make a video if you like. You can view your house in dollhouse view, as a cross section, in watercolour, as vector lines, or with photorealistic textures. Bear in mind, you need a good graphics card for it to work properly, otherwise you won’t be able to toggle shadows and reflections at the same time.

What’s the point of going to all this effort? Well, if you’re illustrating a children’s book (or series) set largely in a single house (e.g. something like Dogger or our own Midnight Feast), then you’ll be wanting the house to feel like a real house. There’s a huge benefit when you’re able to look down into a room or up at the ceiling from any angle. You can play much better with viewpoint when you’re taking screenshots of your model house. This is way more fun (for me) than mucking around with perspective rulers.

Home Designer is used by professional architects, though they’d use the more expensive version. I use the middle one, which does everything except fancy windows and unlimited storeys. There are much cheaper options available as apps. I started off playing around with a few of the apps that are out there and got addicted to building digital houses that way. I started to get frustrated that the apps weren’t as customisable as I wanted them to be.

As you’ve probably guessed, there’s a bit of a learning curve with Home Designer, but no more than your average game. I do find I have to relearn a few things if I haven’t been in for a while.

bathroom screenshot

Screenshot from the upstairs bathroom in my entirely digital fantasy house

bathroom illustration

(A washed-out flashback) illustration created quickly using screenshot as a tracing image


Speaking of 3D, art teachers will advise you to make a structure out of boxes, set up a lamp and learn how shadows work. The modern equivalent of that is downloading (the totally free) Sketchup Viewer, jumping onto Trimble 3D Warehouse and downloading some (totally free) objects that other people have uploaded and manipulating the objects in Sketchup. You can rotate most objects to any angle, and adjust shadows for time of day. Even if you can’t find exactly what you want to draw, it’s amazingly handy.

Below is an illustration I did utilising objects I found on Sketchup: The TV and the tea trolley are from Trimble 3D Warehouse. In Sketchup Viewer I angled them as needed. The deep fryer on the TV screen is from the 3D warehouse. I even modelled the food on the tea trolley on some 3D digital food. I still have to draw the character from my head, but that’s okay. I do find if I use real life examples — even models of real life examples — I get a level of detail in illustration which is absent if I’m relying only on images inside my head.

illustration created from 3D models


If you’re into 3D models, there’s Poser from Smith Micro (creators of Rebelle). The free alternative is DAZ Studio, and some artists prefer DAZ Studio. DAZ is on my computer, but I find it intimidating. It makes me log onto my DAZ account every time I open it, and this has been giving me grief. I need to get over my reluctance to make use of an actual 3D software, given how partial I am to using 3D digital objects as reference. I wish I knew how to use DAZ properly.

Alternatively, I’m more and more interested in Clip Studio Paint, which in earlier iterations was called Manga Studio. (It’s a Japanese company.) Clip Studio is tailored to comics and cartoon creators, and is therefore excellent for graphic novels, but is also very good for creating a picture book. No matter the length of the project you’re working on, the program only loads one bit of the project at a time (the bit you’re working on), so you don’t get endless spinny wheel, which is what I’m dealing with in Apple Pages as I create a 200 page hybrid novel on my Mac

I’ve been doing my homework and now I’m waiting for one of their regular sales:

  • There’s a focus on line art. There are two different kinds of line correction, which you may like if you’re not someone who wants complete control over your lines.
  • It’s also set up for easy filling. You set up a line layer as the fill layer and then draw rough outlines around objects. It automatically fills, with good gap detection. This makes filling a lot quicker than colouring objects in by hand. Colours can run under lines, which can be a cool feature if your lines are semitransparent. (Think Peppa Pig, where the outline colours are related to the fill colours, but darker.)
  • The brush engine is very powerful — more so than Photoshop. You tag your brushes with search terms, which is an example of how this software expects you to create a whole heap of brushes (and can handle it). As an example you can do ‘tape drawing’ (also a feature of Affinity Designer) — drag out a brush to create a bunch of images that looks like decorative craft tape.
  • It is stable. It doesn’t glitch or freeze — compared to other digital art software, and considering how intensive it is on your CPU. (Photoshop crashes more often.)
  • ‘Transparency painting’
  • Correction layers to fine tune colour, like Photoshop.
  • File objects — create an object, put it on the canvas, but edit it separately — which edits them all, even though they’re already on the canvas.
  • Sophisticated perspective rulers, as well as multi-point symmetry. Most programs have this. But Clip Studio also has a curve ruler, where you draw a curve then the pen follows it exactly. There’s also a parallel line ruler. Define a direction and everything else you draw on the canvas will run parallel to this guide. Think speed lines. Parallel curve tool is basically the same but allows you to draw a few curves that follow each other perfectly. Focus line is when you draw a curve, then everything you draw duplicates that line. The concentric circle is great for sketching a character’s head, if you are drawing that kind of art. You can draw any size circle you want, in any perspective (squashy, long etc.) If you know how to draw using six point perspective, you can.
  • To transform an object, you don’t have to group those layers and then transform the group, as you would in, say, Artrage. You draw marching ants around the part you want to change, then tick the layers that will apply to the transformation.
  • Massively, there is also a 3D library within the software and it looks very fun. It reminds me of Sims, the way you create a character and dress them and whatnot. You could technically use a Sims character as your character reference, but you’d be pretty limited by comparison, and the Sims body language is too specific to that game. In Clip Studio you create characters and pose them to look how you need them to look.
  • Some of these things need to be paid for but there’s a lot available for free. (You do have to sign up for an account even for the free stuff.) The language and descriptions are in Japanese. There’s a translation tool in the library but Japanese doesn’t auto translate very well to English. (I knew there was a reason for that 10 years I spent learning Japanese. Finally, I may have found it.)
  • Like Affinity Designer, this software allows for both raster and vector drawing (and erasing). While Affinity Designer focuses more on vector, Clip Studio focuses more on raster.
  • It creates frames, which at first glance looks like a simple box, but the box is a layer mask. So basically, this software takes everything you need from InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop, tailored to comic artists. You could also use these frames to make thumbnails for a picture book. The divide frame tool cuts an entire page into nice segments. You can resize these panels by dragging a control point and the other boxes resize automatically. (It works well most of the time.) Using this tool it’s impossible to draw in the wrong panel — it won’t let you. You can also hand draw boxes, as long as you do it in a single stroke.
  • Automatically generated comic book movement conventions like streamlines and sunbursts. You can also use this tool to create rain. Screen tones are another big one. (Dots) You can edit these effects on the fly. You can create gradients and greyscale with these screen tones. You can turn these dots into lines/lozenges or any image at all.
  • As you’ve probably guessed by now, the text tool in Clip Studio is awesome. The software automatically links the text to the bubble. It can also group different text bubbles together, realising they belong to the same ‘conversation’. Overlap them and they’ll join together. The software can link between bubbles automatically. The tail tool creates the call out. What you can’t do is layer effects applied to vector text. All you can do is change the size and stretch it a bit. In order to freely manipulate the look of text you do have to rasterise the layer.
  • You can create your own groups of fonts, which is kind of like having RightFont within the software. You can sort your fonts into ‘dialogue fonts’, ‘effect fonts’ or project fonts.

There’s Paint Ex (full feature version) and Paint Pro (fewer features). The company has already switched over to subscription model for their iPad (pro) version of the software, in which it’s about $9 a month after a six month free trial, so I expect that’s where they’re going with their desktop software, too.


I recently heard some advice for SCBWI members uploading their portfolios for consideration: Don’t make your influences too obvious. Apparently, art directors see far too many portfolios where the influence is obviously Disney and/or manga. A lot of artists who come to Clip Studio are there because of a love for manga and anime, which is cool, but it’s worth pointing out — something formerly called ‘Manga Studio’ doesn’t have to be used to create manga-looking art. As software makes it easier and easier to create art using 3D libraries, with perfectly symmetrical faces, it’s probably even more important now, to develop your own personal style, recognisable as only yours.

Artrage 5 or Rebelle 3? Software Review

Artrage by Ambient Design, and Rebelle, by Escape Motions, are similar. They are both excellent, lower-priced digital art software which replicate real-world media and painting techniques. With both, you can pick up your pen and start drawing right away. If you have to choose, which should you buy? In my case, would I get much use out of Rebelle when I’ve been an Artrage fan since 2011?

The short answer is yes, I’ll definitely buy Rebelle. Nothing matches Rebelle 3 for digital watercolour simulation.


  • If you already know one of these programs you’ll easily learn the other, because they are very similar in many ways. The Rebelle team seem to have made careful study of what’s out there. They utilise the best  UI features from Artrage, Paintstorm Studio and Adobe products. But this is no copycat mashup — Rebelle does its own thing, too.
  • Artrage features some interesting lighting effects which allows for metallic textures and glitter.
  • Artrage does a bit more (e.g. text, some layer effects, plug-ins), but Rebelle does fewer things better.
  • Rebelle does more with the paper. There is a genuine, physics based interaction between paper and media.
  • Rebelle is therefore better for watercolour, a medium which is heavily influenced by the thickness, wetness and tooth of the paper. You could do any watercolour course and apply the realworld techniques digitally, without spending a fortune on paints and papers. I’m pretty confident the skills you learn in Rebelle would transfer back into the real world, where you’re painting on real watercolour paper. That’s how good it is.
  • While both programs aim to emulate the experience of painting in real life, the developers have made slightly different decisions about when to emulate real media and when to utilise the advantages of digital.
  • Colour selection and mixing  is more complex and powerful in Rebelle.
  • If your computer is more than a few years old it won’t cope with Rebelle 3, in which case go with Artrage (which will run slowly, but it does run).
  • Although Rebelle shines in realistic watercolour, take one look at their forum and you’ll see Rebelle used to create all sorts of different types of art — from washy and bleedy to hyperrealistic.
  • I think Rebelle is particularly well-suited to children’s illustration, which is what I’ll be using it for.
  • If you want a whole lot of image based brushes which you create yourself from scratch, I think Artrage is for you. But I haven’t tried out Rebelle’s brush engine yet. It may be just as powerful, for all I know. To be continued.



First up, Artrage also has watercolour functionality. For a while they were probably leading in this field. Artrage Andy has said in a Reddit AMA that he does know how to make brilliant and naturalistic watercolour, but he’s waiting for everyone’s computer processor to catch up. (I’ll believe him, thousands wouldn’t, haha.) Artrage has a foot in the mobile computing camp, so they’re probably held back by the need to support that, at the moment. Rebelle, on the other hand, is avoiding the mobile market for now, in favour of producing powerful desktop software which will work best with — wait for it — 16GB of RAM(Is it just me, or does that make you feel like you’re living in the distant future?)

Rebelle Minimum: Intel i5 or equivalent AMD, 4GB RAM, 200MB harddisk space, Open GL graphics card with 1GB RAM, Windows 7 (64-bit or 32-bit) or Mac OS X 10.11. Recommended: Intel i7 or equivalent AMD, 16GB RAM,1GB harddisk space, Open GL graphics card with 4GB RAM, 64-bit system Windows 8, 10 or Mac OS X 10.12 and newer, Wacom or Surface compatible tablet.

In contrast, here’s what Artrage says about compatibility: You can install ArtRage 5 on any desktop, laptop, or touchscreen device that runs a supported operating system. Please try the demo before purchasing if you have any concerns about performance or compatibility.

We all have our own idiosyncratic favourites, partly based on what we’re used to. Artrage was one of the first art programs to offer naturalistic squidgy paint blending, which is what made me settle on Artrage as my main software. Apart from that, Artrage has a simple, intuitive interface which lets you get straight to art without a huge software learning curve a la Photoshop. Advanced settings are behind the scenes, which means you might not ever find them, to be honest. Artrage was ahead of its time for a while. At $79, Artrage has always punched above its weight. I won’t hear a bad word about it.

Now for a bad word about it. Andy, who codes it (a Kiwi compatriot), has an idiosyncratic, creative approach to programming which I recognise as a ‘number 8 wire’ attitude. Self-taught, passionate and able to solve very complex problems, I have a heap of respect for that guy. However. That same attitude comes with: ‘I don’t look at what other developers are doing, here’s what I’m doing”.

To give an example, if you know how to make your own brushes in Adobe, you’ll have a brand new learning curve in Artrage because custom brushes are crated quite differently. They’re not even called brushes in Artrage. They’re called stickers. There’s no masking in the traditional (digital) sense, just weird-ass workarounds which involve selecting paint on a layer and making a ‘stencil’ with it (which actually looks like the stencils I used in the eighties — but do kids still use those?). With the aim of hewing as closely as possible to real-world media, Andy and his small team say nah to a bunch of REALLY USEFUL things which aren’t really all that difficult to grasp, conceptually.

As a result, each time Andy issues a big new update I wonder if he’s FINALLY going to give us a few ‘industry standard’ digital art basics. When Artrage 5 came out and he  still didn’t give us eraser functionality on every kind of brush, I shouldn’t have been surprised. But you know what? Andy’s individuality is starting to look a lot like plain ole contrarianism. Can you buy erasers shaped like any kind of brush in an art supplies shop? NUP. Therefore we ain’t making any. Okay, he hasn’t actually said that exact thing, but that’s the general philosophy if you’ve been hanging about on the Artrage forums.

(You can actually get putty-like erasers which can be moulded into many different shapes. They’re called ‘kneaded erasers‘. Good for working out your frustrations.)


kneadable eraser

Artrage 5 did come with some cool updates, which made the paid upgrade worth it. Mostly it felt like performance improvements, which actually makes upgrading mandatory, even if you have no interest in the new custom brush, which is like stickers… but with blending. Which is awesome. The huge downside of the Artrage stickers was always the inability to blend them. Now, it’s possible to make some truly awesome brushes in Artrage. I have noticed in general that some artists are into that kind of thing — brush-making as an art in its own right — while others are more interested in using software as a means to an end. I’m in the latter camp, so I haven’t spent a solid week mucking around with custom brushes. You could. Oh, you could.

The forums are pretty quiet these days. I do wish more people used (and paid for) Artrage, because then more stuff might get done more quickly. It’s a very powerful piece of software. Artrage 5 doesn’t come with a PDF user manual, probably because I’m one of the five people who likes to read those things from cover to cover. (I asked for one and they said it’s coming.) For now there’s an increasing amount of documentation on their website, designed to be read on a need-to-know basis. The documentation is written in very good, plain English. I was impressed by that. In one solid weekend you can get a good handle on what’s under the Artrage hood.

  • Artrage ships with a greater selection of readymade options for each tool, with more difference between each one, though this advantage diminishes as you create your own collection of brushes with the brush engines.
  • A weird tool specific to Artrage is the gloop pen. Other artists have said on the Artrage forum that they never use such a thing and it should be taken off the main tool panel and added to the custom brush panel, but I do use it. I use it because it is so specific to Artrage, and creates an effect most digital artists don’t have access to.
  • Bump blend modes. The bumpiness of layers can be added to each other to create quite a high level of bumpiness, as if you’ve glued a whole heap of glitter to the page or used very thick oil. (For even thicker oil, check out Verve, where it can look like someone dropped a lump of putty onto the page.)
  • Speaking of oil, Artrage shines (literally) in its oil painting. (Which could just as easily be called ‘acrylic’.) Rebelle calls their textured brushes acrylic, and that’s pretty good too. Rebelle lets you set ‘impasto depth’ on an acrylic brush. At this stage, if I wanted to create something that looks like oil, I’d go with Artrage. Artrage has a more obvious lighting effect, which you can fiddle around with to create glazed oil versus matte.
  • Related to that, Artrage has a metallic setting which can be applied to any painting/drawing tool. This is affected by the canvas lighting. Metallic media have a ‘crackly’ texture which is really kind of cool. Though it’s a little like the gloop pen — professional artist types don’t seem to use this much. A bit gimmicky, perhaps? My kid loves turning the metallicity up to max, which gives you an idea of who uses it. (Crayolas come with metallic crayons, but professional sets don’t.) She also covers the Artrage canvas in ready-made stickers and ends up with this crappy looking rubbish — I end up kicking her off Artrage and giving her the Crayolas, and this is a kid who’s really quite an accomplished drawer. These extra features of Artrage can be cool, but in practice, will you use them? Kids enjoy Artrage, and I’m guessing they’d tell you they prefer it. But is it better for learning how to paint? That’s a different question.
  • Artrage has a text tool. It’s pretty basic, though. It actually cuts part of the text off if I’m using many of my fancy fonts. I end up doing text in Affinity Designer.
  • To create ultra realistic paintings, your best bet in Artrage is the blending felt pen tool. The marker is not what I’d use in Rebelle — my guess is that you’d be making use of the airbrush for that. I do really enjoy using the felt pen tool, going in afterwards with a blender. The felt pen is my go-to tool in Artrage, so it’ll be interesting to see what I settle on in Rebelle.
  • Artrage is not great with colour palettes. You can’t use an imported palette, so I make my own workaround by creating a png swatch in ColorSchemer and importing as reference image. Also with Rebelle’s colour palette, you can choose to show the names of the colours. This is especially useful if you’re working with an analogous palette. You can also create a colour set from a text file, which looks like a minor pain in the neck, but good to have that option.
  • The pastels in Artrage don’t blend very well. I’ve never warmed to them. (This isn’t an issue if you use a pastel brush in the custom brush functionality of Artrage 5.)
  • Artrage features some layer effects you’ll recognise from Photoshop, like shadows and glow.
  • In Artrage there are so many tools that you can keep your favourites in a ‘tool box’. This tool box resets when you reopen the application, so make sure to export it if you’re working on a big project with more than one document.
  • The workspace can look quite busy, especially since the palettes aren’t dockable in the Adobe sense, so you can hit a key and enter work mode, which gets rid of everything except the canvas and your current tool.
  • I really love the navigation of Artrage. I set my upper Wacom pen button to ‘right click’ so I can hold that and move the canvas. (I don’t like flipping my pen to erase, so my bottom button is set to erase, although my erase button has not clicked off eraser mode in Artrage for a long time, and I’ve been unable to successfully troubleshoot, even with their help.)
  • There’s no navigation panel, but I’ve never found it a problem to zoom in and out. Flipping to check on your perspective skills is really easy — just hit H. The canvas flips right back as soon as you take your finger off the keyboard. This ease of flipping encourages a good habit.


For watercolour artists, the latest release of Rebelle  by Escape Motions is hands down the most impressive (and mesmerising) thing I’ve seen on a screen.

Others have made videos so I don’t have to. Aaron Rutten made a comprehensive video focusing on its new features. Rebelle is totally new to me, but this is a good intro nonetheless:


You’ll also need an excellent graphics card. Thanks, bitcoiners, for pushing the price up on those damn things. Basically, Rebelle 3 requires a gaming computer. Discussions I’ve had in forums with other digital artists indicate a swing away from Apple (favoured by designers) back to PCs, for graphics card reasons. (My five-year-old desktop Mac runs silently, but has a mobile graphics card in it. Which can’t be upgraded. A moment of silence, please.) But! Now that I have a brand new gaming PC, I plan to get the most out of my RAM and my schmick new graphics card. Rebelle 3 is officially the most hardware intensive software I plan to install. (For now.)


This is based on my trial version of Rebelle, so this will be an incomplete list.

  • As everyone mentions, super realistic watercolour. I could leave this list at that, but more specifically, the canvas texture of Rebelle 3 means something. It’s not there for aesthetics. Okay, so the canvas texture does mean something in Artrage too. The pencils and pastels adjust their appearance based on the size of the tooth, but it’s done differently. I’m not a coder so I couldn’t be more specific about that. In Rebelle, watercolour paint is heavily influenced by the toothiness of the paper, and this becomes especially evident in drip mode. If you’re a watercolour artist this is huge. You can also randomise the position of the grain relative to the brush mark, which is partly what makes it look more realistic.
  • Part of this is to do with settings like degree of edge darkening. Artrage has been mucking around with this, utilising it in the gloop pen tool, but not in the watercolour toolset, as yet.
  • Ah yes, the amazing drip mode, dependent on the ‘tilt‘ mode. Artrage does not have anything like that. I believe if you’re working on an iPad Pro using Astropad (a subscription service which allows you to mirror your desktop software onto an iPad), Rebelle 3 makes use of the accelerometer, so physically tipping your iPad will mean the drips flow in that direction according to actual gravity. I don’t have an iPad Pro with Astropad myself, so I can’t comment on its compatibility. I’m not sure the extent to which the Rebelle team worked with the Astropad team to get that up and running. You can also blend with your fingers in Rebelle if you’re using a touchpad. So that’s pretty cool. (My art teacher never let us smudge with our fingers. He said it’s for amateurs who fix problems the wrong way. But he never said anything about BLENDERS.)
  • Rebelle features a blow tool, also part of what they call the DropEngine. It blows wet paint. On dry areas it creates dripping effects.
  • Amazing blending. Artrage also has excellent blending (which was truly amazing before even simple apps started offering it, which changed just recently). But in Artrage, as soon as your Wacom pen lifts from the tablet, the paint stays where you have put it. This can be good. It can be just what you want, and you can work like this in Rebelle, too, by turning off the drip mode and setting the paper up to not influence the paint as much. But watercolour artists on the Artrage forum have long complained that watercolour does not work realistically in Artrage. (Their gripes were a little unfair, because computers had yet to keep up.) Basically, if you are a watercolour artist, Rebelle is for you. Hands down.
  • Rebelle has this ‘blue’ mode where you can wet the canvas. In Artrage you can choose to paint (well, blend) using only water, but there’s no option to wet the canvas beforehand. Adding water is something you do after you’ve painted. So you’re really limited in your wet effects in Artrage. Some artists make a background with real media then finish off in Artrage, but with Rebelle they wouldn’t have to do that.
  • Instadry means you don’t have to put paint on separate layers to avoid smooshing them together. I’m so used to making new layers I’ll probably keep doing that out of habit. However, the instadry functionality is essential because of the DropEngine. You want some control over when the droplets stop dripping and dribbling.
  • Rebelle lets you choose either cut and deckled edges on your canvas, which you can turn off and on again, because the deckled edge functions like a mask.
  • In general, the language used within the software hews more closely to the language of watercolour artists. Rebelle talks about hot/cold pressed paper, for instance.
  • Rebelle’s UI is a bit more similar to Adobe’s. There’s the obvious dark colour scheme, but Adobe has other advantages too, like a more intuitive way of making your own brushes. You’ll soon pick up how to change the settings. By comparison, the little circle and grid system of Artrage, with its negative and positive values, feels very specific to Artrage. Learn the ins and outs of that and your skill set won’t transfer. (And you’ll wonder how an entire week went by… .and six months later when you go to make some more brushes, you’ve forgotten…)
  • The filters on Rebelle seem a bit more powerful. It’s mostly there in Artrage too, but I do finish off colour correction in Affinity Photo rather than in Artrage. I’m yet to see if I’ll need that final step after creating in Rebelle.
  • In general, Rebelle is more ‘drag and drop’ than Artrage. Artrage does have a bit of drag and drop functionality but feels all menus, clicking and typing compared to the most modern programs. For instance, you can expand (or shrink) a Rebelle canvas by dragging the corner. In Artrage you have to go into the menu to do that. In Rebelle you can even drag and drop an image into the colour set panel and Rebelle creates a palette from that image. Genius. I am so impressed by that small thing.
  • Speaking of colours, Rebelle’s colour picker is pretty sophisticated. When you hit the eye dropper tool you’ll see not just a single colour but a dual-coloured ring pop up. It allows you to mix colours — the current colour and a new one. It allows you to precisely select how much of the previous colour you want in proportion to the new. This is a decision you’re constantly making in real world media, so it’s interesting what Rebelle has done to emulate colour mixing with a brush and artist palette. I’ve never seen this in other software. I’ve yet to muck around with it and learn how it properly works.
  • Rebelle also lets you pick colour from your screen (on Windows)
  • Rebelle uses Adobe’s concept of primary and secondary colour. Artrage doesn’t use that concept. In Artrage, your colour is your colour and that’s it. This concept is important for reasons explained above, though colour behaves more simply in Artrage, which may be what you’re after.
  • I haven’t tried out the transform tools because the trial version won’t let you, so I’m yet to comment on how well it transforms. Does it lose any quality? Artrage has not been great in this area. You want to avoid transformations in Artrage because each time you move something it gets more pixellated. Artrage 5 improved heavily on that, but it’s still not great.
  • Both Artrage and Rebelle have their own way of masking. You’d think Artrage would have utilised the real world medium of masking fluid, but strangely — given Andy’s philosophy — he went the digital route with ‘lock transparency’, selection tools and ‘select all paint on a layer’. Rebelle has those tools as well, but includes a masking technique which mimics the real world application of masking fluid. That said, masking fluid in Rebelle doesn’t work exactly as it would in real life — in real painting an area of paper is either fully masked by fluid or it’s not. But in Rebelle you can set the opacity of your masking fluid to create subtle and unusual effects.
  • If you’re familiar with Adobe/Affinity, this is important:. In Rebelle white is concealing and black is revealing. That’s the inverse to how Adobe and Affinity products work. Honestly, it makes more sense to me. I’ve always felt intuitively that Adobe have black and white the wrong way around. Probably because I grew up using white out fluid, and subpar erasers which rip a hole in your paper (metaphorically creating a black hole). Let’s not get too existential about that. In any case, this decision should be easy to get used to. Artrage avoids this kind of masking altogether. Artrage also has some weird behaviours which I have brought up on the forum, and which can’t easily be fixed. For instance, when you lock transparency for a layer and paint over an object, the edges of that object end up the colour of the canvas (which is white, unless you change it.) This is actually a real problem if your mode of working is to slap down paint, then lock the transparency to put in the detail. Which is how I learned how to paint digitally, avoiding the main problems which come with using a tablet like an Intuos, which is not great for freehand drawing no matter how adept you become at manipulating the pen.
  • Rebelle 3 has some amazing perspective rulers. I haven’t made use of them yet. They’re built for people who have studied perspective drawing — they won’t be useful unless you’ve done that. Even the simple ruler has an inventive functionality. The ruler in Artrage works like a real world ruler, which you can drag and pin onto the page. This one doesn’t look like a school ruler but a digital equivalent, and it snaps horizontally and vertically without you having to hit control on the keyboard. It takes a few minutes to get used to, but then you understand its usefulness.
  • There’s a navigator panel. (Similar to that in PaintStorm Studio)
  • You can save custom UI layouts, though it looks like you have to import that setting.  Are your previous settings sticky when you open a new document? With the trial version I can’t tell.
  • Artrage refuses to tell us how big the canvas can get, because they don’t want people trying it out and proving them wrong! Rebelle is similar. We’re told the maximum canvas size depends on the power of our computers.
  • The problem with all these digital tools is, you can easily slip over into creating something which looks digital. In the name of skeuomorphism, you can deliberately make wobbly but straightish lines by turning on ‘freehand mode’. This is especially useful for those of us using something like the Wacom Intuos, which is much better for painting strokes than for drawing line art, because you’re drawing down here while looking up there. I’ll definitely be making use of that.
  • Rebelle 3 does have its own PDF instruction manual which comes free with the software, if you’re into that kind of thing. You can check it out before you buy. I read it and it’s easy to understand. It’s a lot shorter than any of Artrage’s earlier PDF manuals, which speaks not only to the extra tools in Artrage but also to the (unnecessary, imo) complexity of Artrage, especially concerning the making of brushes. Sorry, stickers.
  • I’m not sure how easy it is to rotate the canvas in Rebelle because I haven’t found that shortcut yet. There is a rotate button in the navigator panel, but if you often rotate, this is a bit of a pain. The Rebelle navigation is really nice, except that one thing. However, I do have an Intuos touch, so I’ve decided to turn that on and use one of those gloves. Rebelle works really well with the touch functionality of my tablet. I can rotate and zoom by pinch and expand method. Finally I’m getting some good use out of my tablet’s touch functionality. Apparently you can rotate by holding R and left-clicking, but since my Wacom pen is set to right-click, this is a pain. I’d be changing that in preferences.
  • Rebelle’s stencil functionality is very similar to that of Artrage, but with the added benefit of extending a stencil out to prevent accidental painting over the edges.
  • You can also tile the stencil. Now this is pretty cool. It allows you to make patterns (though not seamless patterns — for that I recommend PaintStorm Studio). There’s a reason why you wouldn’t necessarily want to use Rebelle to create seamless patterns — the huge advantage of the tiled stencil is that you can create a wallpaper in which each separate object has a slightly different (or vastly different) watercolour fill.  Artrage also has a pattern fill option attached to its paint bucket, but it’s not useful. All it does is repeat an object, which you could previously achieve by importing a tracing image and selecting a tile fill. I do think both Artrage and Rebelle could benefit from a wraparound function like that in (open source) Krita and PaintStorm Studio. I acknowledge that seamless patterns are not the main point of this stencil tiling option — use it to make a wallpaper when you already know what dimensions you need. Then you can create something amazing, with individuated objects.
  • Rebelle is great for artists who do line work on white paper then scan it in. Rebelle can remove white. At present, I use Affinity Photo to do this step. Being able to do it within Rebelle is convenient.
  • Rebelle saves in the background. This is huge. I can’t tell you. On my Mac, Artrage is extremely slow to do a save. I work with many layers, and when I get over 10 or so layers it can take over a minute. I think it’s worse if you make use of blend and bump modes. It really takes you out of the flow. I hope Artrage Andy does something about that soon.
  • Artrage does do iterative saves, and Rebelle offers this too. (Not sure if it’s by default.) This is something Artrage implemented just recently. (I’ve been burned badly several times — when Artrage crashes, it sometimes saves only your bottom layer, and sometimes saves nothing at all, whith otherwise REPLACES your previous save.) I highly recommend iterative saves. Developers offer it for a good reason… They’ve seen what can happen!
  • Related to crashing and whatnot, Rebelle allows you the option to choose how much of your computer’s memory it uses. I know that for developers, that choice between functionality and memory is a fine balance and a constant frustration.
  • Rebelle are experimenting with a GPU brush engine. I’m looking forward to finding out what that even is. I do know that the latest version of PaintStorm implemented this, and it was a game changer. Online I’ve seen reviewers get super excited about it.
  • I don’t know if you can group layers in Rebelle. I can’t find that option anywhere in the instruction manual. Rebelle is set up so that you’ll require fewer layers in the first place, with its masking layer influencing the one underneath and so on, but I use lots of layers, so that’s important to me. Artrage lets you group, though it’s a bit fiddly taking a layer back out of a group if you’re rearranging layers. (An ungroup layer option in the dropdown menu is on my wishlist.)




Great Gifts For Young Artists

I have a nine-year-old daughter who loves stationery. As a kid I loved stationery too, and now I am an illustrator. These days, if I’m buying for a young artist I give great gifts. (A #lessersuperpower?) I love buying art supplies almost as much as I love using them.

Reason for this post: Stationery is never-ending in variation and as a consumable nothing lasts forever, yet I have been asked for suggestions on what to buy my stationery loving kid as a gift. It’s a fair question: Young artists living in rich countries with robust gift-giving cultures probably have an oversupply of pencils and markers.

Here are some gift ideas for young artists which are slightly off the beaten track. You won’t find these in big box stores, but you can find them easily online. I won’t add vendor links though. (Most readers of this blog don’t live where I live.)

1. Skin Tone Pencils

Most young artists have a proliferation of pencils already, because pencils don’t wear down as fast as pencils are gifted. But! They may not have a curated selection of dedicated skin tone pencils.

I like a box set because they encourage White kids to consider a wider spectrum of skin colour and incorporate diversity into their drawings. This is a long way from earlier childhoods, where the ‘flesh colour’ was peach. (Crayola have since changed the name.)

Derwent skin tone pencils

From a colour theory point of view, this set of pencils from Derwent is also good for encouraging young artists to think about all the different tones underlying skin. Who would naturally think that blue is a skin colour? Yet professional artists make use of blue to build up colour. Most coloured pencil manufacturers release a skin tone set — it doesn’t have to be Derwent.

2. Graphite Pencils

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