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.