Throw yourself in

Star cardigan © Samantha Groenestyn

This is my favourite cardi, which I knit a couple of years ago, and which has travelled all over the world, gotten its sleeves dirty in cafes, gone out on fancy dinners and taken French classes. It’s an all-purpose winner of a cardi, made from an old 1940s pattern called Charm Star Cardigan. The buttons were a particularly spectacular Etsy find, being hundred-year-old Czechoslovakian buttons–a country which no longer exists! The wool is 100% Italian merino, very fine–lots of teeny tiny stitches. It took some time to knit, but the thin fabric was worth the effort. This was my first colourwork project, and I taught myself to strand the second thread behind the first, from a book!

(The dress I made from a 1953 Simplicity pattern, and the shoes are from Paris).

While J has been in Sydney making physics, I’ve been taking advantage of some extra alone time to do some wicked crafting. I whipped up these modified socks for my brother for his birthday, which each feature a little space-invader:

I’m not an avid sock-maker, but I’ve enjoyed these and will probably churn out some more, especially with winter and the promise of boots coming up. If you’d like to make some, I’ll be adding my instructions on Ravelry in the near future.

My knitting confidence is growing thanks to a relatively new acquisition of mine:

With a deeper understanding of how knitting builds a garment, and a scrap of paper to scribble on, it’s easier to think analytically about what one is doing when knitting, rather than blindly following a pattern. For these socks, I had to adjust the number of stitches to match sock wool (what?–I know, right?), and then work out proportionally where the decreases ought to go, or how wide the heel ought to be. The perplexing instructions I had called for very bizarre proportions with worryingly narrow heels that made no sense to me, and very long heel-to-toe measurements. Perhaps my brother has small feet, I don’t know. At any rate, they fit a treat, even without measurement, since they were a surprise gift!

Elizabeth Zimmermann’s Knitter’s almanac is very different to what I expected, having read plenty about it fulfilling some sort of biblical role in the knitting community. It is essentially a storybook about an old lady who is knitting a different item during each month of the year. Sometimes she is on a camping trip, other times she is out watching extreme sports and napping in the car. She writes a narrative about the construction of her item, and then provides the ‘pithy instructions’ which are what we would ordinarily expect of a pattern. Reading the book is more like sitting down with your Nanna, ‘yarning up’ (Australian pun) and casting on, and being talked through the process of construction. None of the items are really appealing enough to make, but I have picked up some gems in terms of the strict angles created by particular decreases and so forth. In fact, she makes me think of Richard Sennett again, who discusses three ways of providing instructions: the cautionary, which looks out for pitfalls that the follower might walk into; the narrative, which aids understanding and memory by taking the follower on a journey; and the metaphorical, which I referred to here.

My other crafting includes a little black dress, replete with pleats. I always throw myself into projects with far more confidence that my experience ought permit–I have altered a pattern in crucial ways that I’m not sure I can think through the construction of it–but how is one to learn without extending oneself beyond what one already knows?



The swamp queen © Samantha Groenestyn

‘I’m made of bones of the branches, the boughs and the brow-beating light
While my feet are the trunks and my head is the canopy high
And my fingers extend to the leaves and the eaves, and the bright
Brightest shine
It’s my shine.’
(The Queen, The Hazards of Love – by the Decemberists)

I’ve been admiring the work of Carson Ellis, and this little sketch is a study of her method of working, applied to my own imagining of the Queen. (Illustration Friday.)

Medium: Pencil
Listening to: The Decemberists


A celebration!

Sacré-Coeur © Samantha Groenestyn

I’m terribly pleased to announce that my website is ready! All the real fun will continue to happen here, at the Duchess, but my spiffy online portfolio is a major milestone for me, opening up all sorts of opportunities. You’ll find a selection of my travel sketches that will provoke your wanderlust as much as this fresh little painting.

To celebrate: a mini competition! Leave a comment below, with a link to one of your favourite illustration blogs or websites. I love discovering other illustrators, so let’s spread the love. Here’s a favourite of mine: Rosie Gainsborough is a London-based illustrator who does beautiful linework and dreamy, seasonal drawings that transport me back to Europe. (And her website is very clever).

A randomly selected comment will win my ink and gouache drawing of the lovely Donna von Vixen, an American burlesque performer whom I had the privilege to sketch during her time in Brisbane. J is a scientist and is going to provide a totally legit random number generator. You have until Thursday, 9pm, AEST.

Donna von Vixen © Samantha Groenestyn

The Eiffel Tower gets a lot of glory, but the real heart of Paris, to my mind, is the Sacré-Coeur. I’ve spent many a day meandering the streets of Montmartre, sipping coffee, sketching, eating roasted almonds and listening to harpists, chasing pigeons, dining with friends and being pursued by artist admirers.


Rands and your monetary worth

Evergreen © Samantha Groenestyn

The notion of value is a very important one to the commercial arts. Rather than expressing oneself, as an artist would, the commercial artist—illustrator or graphic designer, or both—solves visual problems that clients cannot solve themselves. This service is valid, necessary and skill-dependent, and for these reasons it is valuable. And when we speak of something’s value or worth, we often quantify it in monetary terms. I’m certainly not of the persuasion that everything of worth can be priced, but this is an instance where it ought to be. Solving visual problems is as relevant a contribution as any in the broader context of work, and no one else works for free.

Illustrators and graphic designers, sadly, work for free often enough that there is a name for it: speculative work. Holly DeWolf* (p. 154) defines speculative work as ‘doing work for free without the guarantee of compensation. The client basically says, “I’ll tell you if I like it when I see it.” Payment usually never happens.’ I’ve read enough books like hers to be wary of this type of work that ultimately devalues illustration and the problem-solving process more broadly. There’s even an online campaign against speculative work, NO!SPEC. I was therefore shocked to hear this spec-work anecdote from my graphic design teacher.

He told me a sad tale of a struggling photographer who couldn’t decide between the sleek, modern logo he’d designed for her and the stylish one based on her handwriting he’d provided as a second option. ‘Did she pay for two options?’ I asked, my inner Dagny Taggart doing some quick sums. My teacher explained that he simply tossed in the second one because he’d come up with a few ideas and they were no use to him so she may as well have them.

I was shocked enough at this lack of respect for the value of his own work, when he went on to explain that the photographer then lost her other job and couldn’t pay him, so he simply gave her everything—the website he designed, the posters and flyers and logo options. What I learned from this is, go cry at a man who doesn’t like crying, and he will give you whatever you want, even a free website.

‘This isn’t a cookie-cutter business,’ DeWolf (p. 154) sternly reminds us, imploring us to remember we are skilled, offering expertise and time, labours for which we should be awarded money.

Paul Rand, the designer revered by Steve Jobs as the ‘greatest living graphic designer’ (when they were both, clearly, living), and the creator of the IBM (including the eye-bee-M) and NeXT Computers logos, knew his worth. His ‘Randian’ perspective might be mistaken for the self-assured and economically-savvy views of one Ayn Rand, of whom he is no relation (though interestingly, they both adopted the name Rand in place of their previously identical surname, Rosenbaum). Paul Rand did not offer options, as Steve Jobs recalled, he offered a single solution, and demanded payment whatever the outcome:

I asked him if he would come up with a few options. And he said, ‘No, I will solve your problem for you, and you will pay me. And you don’t have to use the solution — if you want options, go talk to other people. But I’ll solve your problem for you the best way I know how, and you use it or not, that’s up to you — you’re the client — but you pay me.’

We would do well to remember this sentiment, and boldly proclaim our worth.

* DeWolf, Holly. 2009. Breaking into freelance illustration: the guide for artists, designers and illustrators. How Books: Cincinnati.
 Maria Popova has uncovered a fascinating interview from 1993 in which an overawed Steve Jobs attempts to capture Paul Rand in words.

I’ve started a series of paintings of things I have knit. This is J’s Scandinavian jumper, 100% merino wool, dapper pattern courtesy of Drops Design. When I start knitting paintings, you’ll know I’ve gone mad.



What does it mean to be ‘self-taught’? ‘Taught’ implies a teacher or master who passes on knowledge to a student. There are always aspects of reinforcing what is taught through some form of self-directed homework—be it practicing a piece of music unaided or conjugating verbs between classes—but this does not constitute teaching.

I have taught myself much about languages. This is easy to explain—others with teacherly skills have put together language courses in book form, and I have dutifully worked through these books with some amount of success. The ‘teach yourself’ style books (indeed, Teach Yourself is a series I am currently dabbling in) simply form a papery bridge between me and a distant teacher. The ‘self-taught’ aspect simply hinges on my own dedication to working through the exercises.

I begin to really teach myself, though, when I devise other ways of learning. I supplement these structured exercises with reading novels in German, and with writing little stories in German based on vocabulary lists, and with writing German emails to my German-speaking friends. In these instances, I am the teacher, because I devise the tasks and seek out the things I need to know, rather than accept them directly from someone else. The line blurs when others are involved, and others will always be involved—I may initiate a conversation with a German friend, but they will correct me as we talk, and they will assume the role of teacher, saving me a rummage through my dictionary. But the knowledge we gain from others is not always given to us; it must sometimes be uncovered through extra work on our part.

I am a self-taught illustrator. By this I firstly mean that I have not studied illustration at university or at an arts college, making it a handy and positive response to questions about where I gained my qualifications. But having established that I did not attend SVA or ECA, the phrase warrants a little more explanation.

Yes, I do simply draw and paint all the time. As often as I can, for as long as I can. My ragged sketchbook has been on many adventures, I’ve seen lots of naked people posing for three, five and ten minutes, and I’ve had to replenish my gouache set. In simply doing something repeatedly, there is plenty of opportunity for experiment, refinement of technique and improvement. But I started to ask myself, how will I learn something I don’t already know if I continue to do things the way I always have? Trying a new medium forced me to experiment with techniques, but I worried that I might grow comfortable in this new space and be unable to discover things I would otherwise excel at if I were taught.

Advice I frequently encounter is: ‘don’t look at other illustrators’ work.’ It’s usually nestled in a section on ‘how to get through dark periods.’* In this context, I am sure this is important advice, so long as the reason you are in a dark place is that you think everyone else is better than you. If the dark place was brought on by a lack of ideas, I’d argue the stimulation of the work of others might just be the inspiration needed. The advice generally boils down to: Learn to love your own work and not rank it against the work of others. I think this is a very shallow way to approach the work of others, which is so rich in information.

I say: look, and look critically. This isn’t the shallow kind of ‘hit or shit’ critique, or spot-the-mistake. Sure, if an illustration isn’t working, think about why, dissect it harshly if there is anything to be learned from this. I’m not going to point any fingers, but a brief visit to Illustration Friday will show you a truckload of illustrations that miss the point of the exercise, which is to depict a word (often a complex concept) each week. A cringe-worthy example is the week of the word ‘intention,’ for which I saw many entries that boiled down to: ‘I intended to submit something for this week’s Illustration Friday, but instead I drew a picture of my cat.’ I learned from this that I want my image to convey as much meaning as possible, without needing some convoluted back-story or funny caption to get it over the line. Similarly, I see a lot of complexity in imagery (which can be a very beautiful thing), where many elements are needed to explain the concept. I realised quickly that it’s effective to distil the image to one simple focal point. Learning from the mistakes of others, then, can be very useful, but is ultimately a precautionary kind of learning. It’s like a map that alerts you to potholes but omits the castles and beaches you’d like to visit. (Castles if you’re in Europe; beaches if you’re in Australia).

A spread from 'Fairytale Food' illustrated by Yelena Bryksenkova.**

No, you can look critically in another, more edifying, sense, and here I return to a method of self-teaching I previously referred to as analysis and imitation. The work of Baltimore-based, Russian-born illustrator Yelena Bryksenkova is pure magic to me. There’s something soothing and gentle about it, yet it is bold and self-assured, and though it seems a simplification of life, it explodes with detail—of everyday objects, wildlife, plants, astronomy and fashion. Here is what I realised: it is possible to look at something, and look at it often, and not be able to articulate why you like it, or what makes it so fascinating, or how it was constructed. And so, I set out to determine these things by doing. I chose a favourite piece—Peaches—pencilled it out (this took some time) and began to paint it.

Some concrete, practical things I have learned about Yelena’s method are that she defines three distinct dimensions in her work, and each plane receives a flat but distinct colour treatment. White borders edge many objects, like rugs or pictures. Unifying tones are crucial—the same brown applies to all wooden furniture, the same pink features in textiles and wallpaper. A limited colour palette–here, pink, red, green and brown–is stylish and effective. It flattens the image, when the world is a very colourful place, but also stops the image overwhelming the eye with disconnected details. And it takes a very long time to draw each and every book, tile and floral pattern.

Part of me felt a little shady undertaking this exercise, and then I came across this advice from Austin Kleon: ‘Steal like an artist.’ Maria Popova cites him when discussing her idea of combinatorial creativity. In attempting to achieve what Yelena has already achieved, I am unpacking the knowledge and skills and thought processes she has put into creating the piece. In doing so, I gain some of these skills and can apply them in new ways to my own work. I gain a deeper appreciation of how Yelena works, and I learn a new way of approaching my work. I will not adopt her style as my own, but will cite her as an influence on my own artistic path. As Maria Popova argues, ‘Imitation is the sincerest form of ideation.’


* Holly DeWolf, for example, makes this suggestion in Breaking into freelance illustration. (2009; How Books: Cincinnati).

** Cash, Lucie. 2012. Fairytale Food. Preface: London.


Qu’est-ce que vous faites dans la vie?

Surrealism © Samantha Groenestyn

None of us are so much deciding what do be or what to do with our lives as figuring out how to be or to do it.

When your small, past self was asked what it intended to do once it was a fully-fledged rational being, I’m sure it had a clear idea. It may not have had a title for it, but your child-self (and yes, I usually refer to children as ‘it’) quite probably imagined spending the day in one or several particular ways. Jen Bekman’s younger self knew she just had to have a job reading magazines—an ambition surely scoffed at, but she now makes a living doing essentially that, as well as running a gallery and selling prints online through her 20×200 project.* As a child, I usually worked myself to exhaustion at my little square table, passing out, crayon in hand. This ought to have been a clue.

Somewhere on our path to rational-beinghood, we learn to quantify occupations differently, and to the detriment of our own clear thinking. Presented with a list of jobs on a job search website, one gets all sorts of silly ideas like, ‘I think I want to edit books. That makes money,’ simply because these jobs are advertised. (I think editing is a fine career—only, for myself it would be a stepping stone and is thus a distraction since it requires further training).

What we really want to ask ourselves is this: ‘Hey, future self, how do you want to spend each day?’ Shall I get up and rush to the city by train, reading classics on the way, get coffee with a friend and then sift through reports until morning tea, eat a piece of cake at my desk, respond to some emails and spend the rest of the day compiling a team work plan? In fact, I think I would rather read blogs over cheesy toast, read some illustration books, work on some thumbnail sketches and concepts and, after a leisurely lunch on the veranda, spend the afternoon painting, thank you very much. Step away from the what and concentrate on the specifics of the how.

Truth: most of us know, even if it’s a deep dark secret, how we want to spend our time. I know your friend knew since the age of twelve that he was going to be a theoretical physicist, and that made you feel indecisive and as though you got off to a shaky start. But your friend was just lucky to have a name for what he does, rather than a vague desire to write in some capacity, and some ill-defined sense of connecting people, and an obsessive love of magazines. Think about this: Jen Beckman has built her career based around the internet, and when she was growing up there was no internet save the scary military kind completely lacking in a graphic user interface. Maybe your career doesn’t exist yet, but your interests and skills do, and you ought to invest in them with every quantum of energy in your being.

It is my sincere belief that we ought really be concerned with how to get paid for what we do. This is what we really mean when we say we are trying to figure out what to do with our lives. We already do fabulous things that other people get paid for every day. Some people get paid to read magazines. And I bet you pay to read magazines. Time to get creative and show the world why they should take our interests seriously, and why our interests should be our nine-to-five.

Debbie Millman interviewed Jen Bekman on her ever-entertaining segment Design Matters, through which I learned everything I know about Jen Bekman.

I’ve spent many a happy hour in a tree in the past year. The above tree is in St Kilda, Melbourne. I usually take a good book (here, Leonard Cohen), or someone to k-i-s-s.


What matters and why it matters

Pumpkin-like berries growing outside my window: (a) from life; (b) distilled



I’ve always viewed money as an enabler. ‘Mum,’ I would reason as a teenager, ‘I want to get a job, so I can buy a guitar and get lessons.’ My mum would tell me to stop worshipping money and that I could start guitar when I ‘finished’ piano (my mum is not a musician). Of course, there are always ways around not having money, and my resourceful younger self managed to borrow a very lovely guitar from my uncle when he went away for a month, and to seek instruction from kids at school. I took it from there. Essentially, lack of money frequently stood in the way of my doing things as a child, and I have thus always viewed having money as the prime means of doing things, if you want to do them properly. Borrowing will only get you so far.

On leaving university rather recently I had the vague notion that I would sell myself in some mildly obnoxious manner to obtain vast quantities of money, perhaps for four years, saving furiously, and that I would then take myself to Europe, rent a sparse inner-city altbau apartment with ceiling-high windows streaming cold sunlight in, and that I would commence my creative career in financial security. I am certainly not the type of artist who thrives on the smell of piss, hates bathing, or prefers graffiti on my walls, and I saw this looming in my future unless I took specific measures to counter it. This plan fell through. I ‘worked for a year’ (this is how I will bracket off this unfortunate period, dusted under the rug to be forgotten like my other year of toil prior to university), but decided I could not sell my time in this manner, no matter how high the salary.

I now buy back my time by working roughly three days a week in my old area of expertise—waitressing. I work harder now and I earn half as much, but that concept doesn’t hurt as much as it used to. It is simply the price that must be paid to keep some precious hours for your own work. No, what’s bothering me now is that I have to keep a part-time job at all, when I have far more important things to do. Two days does not permit much of anything, especially when you take five classes per week and study three languages at home (and are still trying to ‘finish’ piano).

I’ve always admired people that ‘do too much.’ I don’t know many personally, but I read about them from time to time and know that although I must be crazy, I’m bound to be successful through sheer dedication. Maria Popova,* curator of the brilliant site Brain Pickings, manages to pull it off. Working four jobs throughout university, ‘working for a year’ upon being unexpectedly sent home to Bulgaria from America, and finally taking a lousy job to be able to return to America, Maria must have felt frustrated by time-theft and by the need to work to support a basic existence. Now, as the sole curator of her incredibly intelligent and thoughtful blog, her schedule is no less tight—she absorbs enough information to produce three articles daily—but is no longer peppered with dead chunks of sold-off time, never to be recovered and doomed to be spent on below-capacity tasks.

This is what most frustrates me about my otherwise happy existence: I see my unimpeded future self working at my most productive every moment of every day, producing high-quality content and thinking deeply about meaningful things and adhering to my schedule in a pleasingly strict fashion. I ought to be an employer’s dream, but employers seem unwilling to demand work of this calibre, a point that makes me certain that I am bound for an autonomous career. Instead, I commit to memory whether a person prefers multigrain or white bread, and how much butter they take. This practical work is undeniably useful in keeping people sustained, and rewarding in being directly connected with the results of my labours, and even pleasant in bringing about cheerful communications with my fellow-beings. But challenging and in my field it is not.

Becoming so precious about one’s time leads to dangerous pastimes like avoiding one’s friends a la Benjamin Franklin (via Maria Popova):**

[Franklin] drew up a list of virtues and wrote a brief goal for each one, like this one for Order: ‘Let all your things have their places; let each part of your business have its time.’ … If he promised to spend an evening with his friends but then fell behind his schedule for work, he’d have to make a choice that would violate his virtue of Resolution: ‘Perform without fail what you resolve.

This is where we come back to Maria Popova’s adage for selecting content on Brain Pickings: Maria seeks to distil ‘what matters and why it matters.’* Broadly speaking, to meet all the demands placed on us, both those facilitated by money and those required to obtain money, we need to evaluate the worth of each undertaking—including spending solid time with our friends—and remind ourselves why we have committed so much to them. If each has it’s place, we’ll just have to keep at it, reminding ourselves that we’ve already achieved so much in not electing tv, owning a house and amassing truckloads of money above the things that make us hungry for life.

Brazil Cherry © Samantha Groenestyn

* Listen to an enlightening interview with Maria Popova on Design Matters with Debbie Millman, at Design Observer.

** Popova discusses this quote from the book Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength by John Tierney and Roy F. Baumeister.