Saturday, February 28, 2009

Another Collaboration

Good news! Last night, one of my editors left a message on our answering machine while we were eating a nice Italian dinner out... it seems my husband Andy and I will be doing another picture book together. The topic will have to be kept under wraps for now, but this little guy will be one of the main characters:
We have a long list of ideas for joint books, glad we’re finally getting another one on the schedule. The first one we coauthored was Messages From Mars, which came out in 2006. Although Andy is a research scientist working in advanced technical mode most of the time, he has a knack for thinking of fun plots and imagining vivid scenes which is great for picture books, of course. This time he’s going to be building cool 3D stuff to photograph, then I’ll draw in the characters in Photoshop. Or at least that’s the plan!

Friday, February 27, 2009

Missing Math Earns Bronze in Florida Book Awards

That headline makes me feel positively Olympian. (I’ve been trying to get more exercise lately, anyway.) The Florida Book Awards for 2008 have been announced, although their web site may not have been updated quite yet. Missing Math: A Number Mystery has won the third place medal in the Children’s Literature category. Who knew that an artistically-inclined person like me would ever have anything to do with numbers?

The 9th grade guidance counselor had that serious-grown-up look when informed of my reason for not taking any more advanced classes in the subject: I will never go into any field that requires math. As an art major in college, that logic continued and no math classes appeared on my schedule. When my children’s book editor in the early 1990s suggested doing a picture book with a math theme, it was startling, to say the least. And yet...

I began thinking about my everyday activities as an author-illustrator, from bookkeeping to
measuring layouts to estimating how long it would take to do an illustration. Apparently math was integral to my daily existence! If you’re a traditional quilter reading this, your geometry muscles get a work out on a regular basis, right?

The other ironically nice thing about math
from an artistic standpoint is its abstract nature. The possible imagery one can use with a concept is up to the imagination. If multiplication can be paired with Halloween characters, why not? I made a list of terms such as counting, adding, subtracting, and so on, and have been working my way through them ever since. All the titles (so far) are here. Kids seem to like my visual approach to math, and hopefully they’ll have a more positive attitude about it than I did.

The idea of “taking math away” took several years to crystallize into the story told in the book. To read more about that little adventure in writing, click here.
It appears that keeping an open mind and doing a few sit-ups now and then can really pay off!

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Opaque Paint on Fabric

I’ve been intrigued with using paint on fabric since my interest in the fiber arts began. The photo below shows a detail from Discovered, my first little art quilt. More info about it can be found on its page on my web site. In this case, the brown fabric on the right was painted with textile paints in various colors to create the outlines of the owl. Then most of the brown fabric was cut away and other fabrics were inserted from underneath. The sample below was painted using regular acrylics. They are somewhat stiffer than textile paints, but not to a degree that bothers me especially. I’ve tried using the Golden fabric medium (GAC 900) but can’t say whether it makes much difference. Guess a blind “touch test” would be the way to find out. Golden has a page with info about using their acrylics on fabric here.There’s something about the drybrush effect that lets the fabric show through that I love. This leaf sample was painted after being quilted. This detail from a sunflower study shows that most of the outlining got covered up by the fabric pieces. The silver paint in the sky was lightly applied with a fine-textured sponge after quilting. The detail below shows an in-progress piece that is just acrylic paint on a background fabric at the moment. The plum color on the right shows the background color. The idea was to get at least some paint on the whole surface, then add pieces of fabric, then stitch away. It’s pretty huge though, so who knows when there’ll be time to work on it. (I have two book deadlines coming up this summer, that’s the hold-up.) This is a follow up piece to this study. You can see my progression here, from using a small amount of paint to an allover approach. We’ll see how much gets covered up when the fabric collage phase begins(!)

Monday, February 23, 2009

Quilts in Miniature

The finger in the middle of this photo shows the scale of the tiny hexagonal patchwork. It’s one of the amazing miniature quilts created by Carol Henry of Carol’s Creations (click here to visit her site.) Her booth at the Space Coast Quilters show in Titusville, Florida last Friday was so crowded I didn’t get a chance to speak to her, but at least could feast my eyes on her work. Below is one sized for a doll bed.
Though I’ve been working with fabric using quilting techniques for a few years now, piecing regular-sized blocks isn’t something in my repertoire, much less these teensy wonders. Yet, due to an upcoming project, I need to learn how. One option is to use precut paper pieces as sold on Carol’s web site.

A new book called Miniatures in Minutes by Terrie Sandelin uses a single piece of paper as a foundation, which sounds like a good method. I snagged the last pack of Carol Doak’s foundation paper at the show, a lightweight paper that was recommended. So we’ll see how all this goes, it’s on the list of Things to Attempt.

If you’ve created any minis, please feel free to give me advice and/or post a link in the Comments.

Happy creating!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

When Did Art Evolve?

Is this a woman? A person? Or just a random rock? It’s the 250,000 year old “figurine,” found at the Berekhat Ram site in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights in 1981. Microscopic scrutiny has revealed etch marks that appear to have been made by a tool. It’s one of the artifacts that archaeologists are debating about within a larger discussion of the origins of art.

For those who would like to delve further into this topic, Science magazine has a wonderful article in the February 6, 2009 issue, On the Origin of Art and Symbolism, by Michael Balter. Does the crafting of sophisticated tools require the capacity to hold an abstract concept in one’s mind while changing the raw material to conform to that mental template?
There are large tools called Acheulean hand axes found in Africa that date from 1.7 million years ago. Probably made by H. Erectus, there is debate about whether making them required abstract thought. Given my experience as an artist, I would think so (at least most of the time!) A related blog post by the same author can be found here.

So whatever you are creating, keep at it...your ancestors would certainly be impressed.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Printing by Hand: book review

Hand printing is only an occasional activity for me, but it’s useful to know the basics. Printing by Hand: A Modern Guide to Printing with Handmade Stamps, Stencils, and Silk Screens, by Lena Corwin contains all you need to know to carve stamps, cut stencils, make silkscreens, then print on various surfaces. At 144 pages with plenty of photographs and a lay-flat spiral binding, it’s sure to be well-used additon to the studio. The projects range from the simple (pouches) to the complex (a set of sheets) with the author’s clean and versatile designs.

On the page below, she explains the difference between standard and reverse stencils, as well as the use of “bridges” when designing one.

I’ve carved a few stamps and enjoy using the soft carving blocks such as Speedy-Cut, made by Speedball.

This simple stamp was used during my B.Q. era (Before Quilts) to print a feathery pattern on canvas with acrylic paint. I started with a blueish-gray base color, then stamped on the lighter feathers more or less randomly using a range of near-whites.

This collage consists of canvas, clear plastic, and aluminum foil, all painted, cut out, then adhered to a stretched canvas with gel medium. For example,
the brown stem is plastic. I’ve always liked the flexibility of collage, the way you can move the pieces around until the last minute. In many ways it’s similar to using layers in Photoshop, which is how my book illustrations are created.

The completed image, Fishing, shows a heron on the prowl. Normally a large white water bird in Florida would be an egret, but in the Keys there is a native white heron.

I love the way this turned out, but have a notion to do a similar design with fabric and stitching. While collage is a wonderful art, the hard varnished surface is not as appealing to me these days. Give me that soft undulating fabric that can be painted, crinkled, stitched, beaded... it seems endlessly flexible from a creative standpoint. And if you can’t find the fabric you like, why not print your own?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Starry Nights: IYA 2009

Did you know that 2009 is the International Year of Astronomy? My post about it here on I.N.K. includes several web links about a passing comet you can see next week(!), star parties, NASA resources, plus recommendations for great books for kids on the topic.

I wanted the artistic readers of my studio blog to know about a good resource for celestial images. From Earth to the Universe puts up a new image of planets, nebulae, or galaxies every day on their home page. They have desktop images in various sizes such as the one above (look under the For Visitors button.) If you click on Tour the Images, a page with dozens of thumbnails of beautiful images will come up. It takes a while to load, but it’s worth it. The colors are fantastic and the thing is, they’re really out there! This is W49B, a supernova that’s 35,000 light-years beyond our solar system.
Credit: Image made by J. Keohane et al in x-ray light for NASA / Chandra X-ray Center and infrared light for Palomar / SSC

I haven’t done a lot of peering into telescopes myself, but did have one memorable experience some time ago. A local astronomy club has open viewing events where members bring their ‘scopes and you can walk around and see what’s on view. These are not dinky telescopes either, some are several feet long. One guy had his focused on two galaxies that are (were?) colliding. It was quite compelling to see it with my own eyes. So if you get a chance, check out the International Year of Astronomy web site, and see if you can attend a star party near you.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

The Quilted Apple Clock That Gave Me a Hard Time

The post that describes how the apple was made is here. Basically, it consists of a 1/8" piece of hardboard covered with quilted fabric. How hard could it be to make it into a clock?

Clock parts are readily available in craft stores. While they come with a plain set of hands, this fork and knife pair was irresistible for a kitchen clock. The only hard part would be to drill a hole in the hardboard large enough to fit the gold threaded shaft through. This one is 1/4" long.
So, after marking a good position for the hands and making an entry hole in the fabric with an Xacto knife, I started to drill. In nanoseconds something strange gripped the bit. I switched the drill into reverse and backed it out.

It appeared to be a batting volcano. It’s hard to see in the photo how big it was, but it was a large, hard lump that bulged up under the fabric at least an inch. Where did this thing come from? It was too huge to be a few wisps of the stitched quilt batting. Slowly a memory surfaced... wasn’t there an an extra layer or two of loose batting under there, meant to plump up the apple? Oops. Clearly, it had to be removed somehow. Tweezers? Too wimpy. Only pliers had the gripping power to perform the needed surgery. 1,2,3, pull!

This is what came out. It was some fluffy synthetic batting that I wouldn’t normally quilt with, so had been trying to use up. Oh well!

As you can see, the battingectomy left quite a large tear in the fabric. Hey, at least the shaft fit through the hole in the hardboard (after putting a larger bit in the drill.) Now I only had to figure out a way to patch this mess.

The patch is a donut of fusible-backed fabric. It seems to blend in well enough; nobody’s going to look that closely. After attaching various pieces I could fit the very delicate clock hands on it and finish this project.

Oops, again. Because the sh
aft is only 1/4" long, the clock hands were hitting the puffy quilted surface. What to do...? Delicate being the operative word, I gently bent the clock hands upwards so they wouldn’t hit the clock or each other.
It’s about time this thing was operational! Any lessons?
• Drill the hole in the wood first.
• Don’t drill loose batting.
• Buy a longer clock shaft in the future.
Even though this project ticked me off at times, it was worth it in the end.
Time flies when you’re crafting puns.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Best of the Best Goes Missing

I was delighted to find out that Missing Math has been named a Chicago Public Library Best of the Best book for 2008 in the nonfiction division. You can download a PDF of the entire list on this page, just scroll down a tad. There are many good books on the list, including The Lincolns: A Scrapbook Look at Abraham and Mary by Candace Fleming; Abe’s Honest Words by Doreen Rappaport, illustrated by Kadir Nelson; and Madam President by Lane Smith. Well it is Presidents’ Day today, remember?

The premise of Missing Math is that numbers mysteriously vanish one day. No one can count, add, or subtract, there are no phone numbers, fractions, sports scores... it just gets worse and worse!
To see a fun video book preview, click here. The little cowduck seen above couldn’t pick the right size hat or boots, poor guy. Incidentally, the way I draw and paint these days is using Adobe Photoshop. Here is a brief explanation of how I create digital illustrations. Have a great day!

A Loopy Quilted Project

Some time ago I got the notion to hang several fruit fabrications (pun intended) up in the kitchen. Rather than a square or rectangular shape, something more intricate was called for. Therein lies the difficulty... anything firm enough to support the cloth is too hard to cut easily. Fortunately my husband has a band saw in the garage, and 1/8" thick hardboard worked just fine for the basic shape. The band saw is tricky because if you twist it the blade will break, so you have to nibble away at the shape carefully. A different type of saw might work better, even a hand coping saw, perhaps. (Real woodworkers, by all means add your suggestions in the Comments.)

Click on any of these images for a bigger view, by the way.

A pattern was sketched out first, which provided the outline to trace onto the hardboard. The loopy lines would serve to break up the shape of the apple. The reverse-fusible-appliqué technique used for the blue outlines of the apple is described in more detail on my web site here and here.

Once the various fabrics were fused into place, a thin batting and backing were added. (If memory serves, the batting was pre-trimmed to the apple shape to eliminate some bulk.) The piece was free motion stitched, then wrapped around the hardboard shape. Lots of clipping was necessary, then a fairly heavy fusible (Steam-a-Seam 2) provided the adhesive. It was pretty tricky to get all the fabric pulled around to the back and stuck down using one of those mini-irons.

This shows the back after gluing on a piece of black felt to cover the rough edges. The picture hanger is the type that allows some leeway in case it wasn’t centered exactly.

Both the apple and the pear (see below) came out pretty well. There was just one problem... they took a ridiculously looooong time to m
ake. It was the cutting out of the shapes that was a bit much... sawdust everywhere... yuck. I gave up the idea of making more fruit to hang in the kitchen. Instead, they were given titles (Loop-de-Apple and Loop-de-Pear) and put into a sale to benefit the Orlando Museum of Art. The pear sold, so the poor little apple was left all alone and has been ignored in a corner of my studio.

But recently I got an idea for the apple. Tick tock, tick tock, how about some clock parts? Craft stores carry some cute fork and knife clock hands, so as soon as I get a round tuit, the apple will tell time.

An easier way to proceed with a similar project would be to find pre-cut wood shapes. Some of the craft stores are carrying 12" alphabet letters that would look nice with a little quilted upholstery. Frames would work, too. Just pick a shape that isn't too overly intricate.

Happy creating!

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Think of a Good Title

Good advice, isn’t it? Whether it’s a book, a work of art, or a blog, if it’s worth creating it’s worth putting some effort into the title. Since my children’s books usually have some nonfiction content, the key word is usually somewhere in the title. If possible, it’s the first word. Case in point, Measuring Penny, which is about... measuring. It’s a pity for a book to have a vague title like Jamie’s Exciting Day when it could’ve been Jamie Finds a Pterodactyl, you know?

Keep in mind how the title sounds out loud, as well as how it looks in writing. Some word combinations are tough to say, such as Rory’s Rural Romp. And in these digital days you may want to have a identical domain name, so that’s another consideration. A long title may not work well as a web site addy: is a tad long.

What about naming artwork? While some artists have taken the easy road by calling everything Untitled #X, an appropriate title can add something special to the viewer’s appreciation of a work. If all else fails, try opening up a dictionary or thesaurus with your eyes closed, or try this fun random word generator.

For a book it’s important to avoid a title that’s the same or too similar to an existing one. A few years ago there were three books with the title Amazing Grace, which led to a lot of confusion. Once I have some title ideas, off to Amazon I go to see if it’s already been used. I’ve saved myself a lot of hassle by doing this.

In fact, yesterday provided an especially ridiculous example... early last week my husband Andy and I had dinner with one of my editors (in town for a sales meeting.) In the course of the evening she asked us if we had any ideas for a new children’s picture book, and one scenario cracked us all up. (Andy had just thought of it the day before.) By the end of the week, the publisher had offered us a contract. Wow! But when I looked up the title online, not only had it already been used for a recent kid’s movie, it had the SAME animal characters and the SAME plot! It wasn’t a big movie or we would have heard of it, but people would naturally think we copied it. Another disaster averted. I would be more specific about the name, but we’ve rethought the whole thing and hopefully the publisher will like our new concept. I’ll let you know!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Welcome to My Studio!

After debating which of my creative interests to focus on, I decided to publish a blog that could contain them all. Just to give you an idea of what topics may appear, here’s a partial list:

• writing and illustrating children’s picture books (over 35 at last count)
• insider info about CB publishing (CB = children’s book)
• painting/beading/stitching fabric collages, otherwise known as art quilts
• experiments with various materials, such as drawing on foil
• plein air painting, which I haven't done much of but will attend a workshop in April
• science-related topics (my husband Andy is a scientist*)

* Happy Valentine’s Day, Sweetie!

Here’s a bigger chunk of the art quilt used as the blog header. Click on it for a larger image. Note that the whiskers are REAL cat whiskers, shed by our cat Knickers. It was very tricky to sew them on, because whiskers are so springy and they kept popping out. Ended up using monofilament thread and lots of teensy stitches. As you can see, the cat is not looking at the cardinal. Wonder what she’s looking at?

Though this is the first post on my personal blog, for about a year I’ve been a once-a-month blogger on I.N.K. which stands for Interesting Nonfiction for Kids. It’s a group effort by several authors from picture book age on up. My most recent post, Being Smart is Cool!
refers to some recent research about the best way to encourage children to learn, and gives recommendations for great books kids can read to ratchet up their brain power.

I can’t pretend to be a big expert on the whole blogging thang, so if you have any suggestions please put them in the Comments. And by all means add this blog to your reader... if you don’t have one already, give Google Reader a try. Readers allow you to create your own custom “newspaper” on whatever topic you choose. Mine is full of art and book blogs, naturally. Will post some favorites on here, eventually. Thanks for stopping by!