The gentlewoman

Over the past week, I was privileged to spend some time with the delightful Caitlin Shearer. Caitlin’s inimitable watercolours span pleasant baked delights to confident glamorous ladies to awkwardly beautiful intimate scenes. Her painted characters gaze distantly, lost in worlds of their own, always poised, though letting us in on a quiet, private moment. Her linework is firm and angular, carving out hands, faces and figures with merciless honesty, but in these irregularities of features one sees not disfigurement but personality. As one who has complained about the smoothing over of ‘blemishes’ and the bland rounding-out of the female form, I certainly admire an artist who can explore femininity in a truthful way.

Caitlin is that rare breed of lady—elegant, unassuming, poised and polite. Her lips and nails are painted, her hair is a voluminous flowing mass, and she speaks with a soft trill, as though sentences are melodies. Sydney terrace houses with Juliet balconies have her dreaming up the sorts of fantastical narratives that her paintings depict, full of romance and longing. Painting is, for her, an escape—a means of creating worlds in some ways simpler, in some ways more complex, than the one we really inhabit.

It was a real treat to meet another illustrator and to talk candidly about our hopes and fears and illustrative intentions and aspirations. Illustration is a bizarre sort of career that demands a great deal of work—constant output, clever ideas, maintaining a presence and a little bit of luck getting noticed. And once you’ve put all these things in the pot, given it a good stir and seasoned to taste, people are wont to become attached to the things you are not, and to fail to notice the work that you feel defines you. I suppose all an illustrator can do is make a fresh pot of tea and keep translating her ideas into physical things.

© Caitlin Shearer


The tea towel above was a present from Caitlin, and should you need to celebrate your love of cakes too, you can get one through her Etsy shop.



An excellent thing happened to me the other day, which was that I got to visit the hallowed halls of the Julian Ashton Art School, and to attend a class, no less! I dropped in on some life drawing and had a bit of a snoop around at the school where my teachers trained, perched proudly on The Rocks.

While I’ve done loads of life drawing, I’ve learned a bunch of things about drawing in more recent times, and was bursting to try them out on a real live model instead of a cast. I propped up a board with some paper on a delightful little ‘donkey’ stool, perfectly positioned to study a nose in profile, and set to work.

I’ve never been interested in shading, because I found it tedious, washed-out and it made me think of high school. All those kids smudging pencil to get those hideous bubbly-smooth effects. All of this has changed. Under the patient and precise guidance of the skillful Ryan Daffurn, I’m learning to mold form with intentional pencil strokes, each carefully and powerfully descriptive of form and of shadow. After sketching the broad figure and refining the accuracy of proportions and placement, we block in the shadow (making sure not to include any of the halftones—the darkest parts of what is really still in the light) and create an instantly dramatic drawing. The shading in the light follows the contours of the body, conveying fullness and perspective, and paying attention to the amount of light and the way it falls on different shapes. The shadows get touched up later, without giving too much detail that distracts the eye from the real information.

This particular drawing, then, is my solitary effort, unfinished, unguided and performed in a single session, in my artistic Holy Land, and I’m a little bit pleased with it! And a little bit pleased at getting to walk around the Harbour by night, inspecting the soft glow of the sails of the Opera House and perusing books at the Museum of Contemporary Art.


Letter lovin’

It turns out I am not very good at holidays. Rather, I am very good at them, and do all the things that I want to do—but I don’t rest and recuperate, or stop working! I’ve temporarily shifted my action-packed life to Sydney, where I have taken up several other classes instead of the ones I regularly take in Brisbane, and where I am still painting, inventing a knitted item, attending life drawing and going out with excellent people.

Saturday I attended a light-hearted and thoroughly enjoyable workshop called Type by Hand, run by Wayne Thompson of the Australian Type Foundry, and his accomplished accomplice Gemma O’Brien. Gemma gave an excellent talk at last year’s Semi-Permanent, and I’ve been a fan of her elaborate scripts and general enthusiasm for letters ever since—it was a real treat to meet her and watch her in action.

The workshop walked a nice line between theory and practice, and the emphasis was firmly on practice. Our tables were lined in paper, stacked with paper, and extra wide-nibbed Copic markers were placed in our hungry vicinities to complement our Artlines and other pens and pencils. So much paper! So many pens!

Wayne led with some ‘letter life drawing,’ where we warmed up by copying some old favourites. He then asked us to draw specific letters and, after giving it a shot, gave us simple explanations of very specific type ‘rules’—or perhaps more accurately ‘precedents.’ These established letter constructions are reliable ways to ensure legibility and to compensate for optical illusions. Most notably, the X is not a simple overlay of two lines—if one line is thicker, it must be broken, meeting the other bar at different points, or it will appear refracted. After drawing a sans serif P and R, we looked at ‘real’ Ps and Rs and saw with our own eyes that typographers have historically shifted the middle bar of the P slightly lower, to account for that unwieldy empty space.

Yuck! Terrible phone photos! My apologies.


The rest of the day was really about experiment—trying new media, copying fancy text, getting a feel for where letterforms came from by giving calligraphic lettering a go. A little prompting to try adding embellishments, or ligatures, or to think about how words might intersect, and we were transforming our simple lettering into Things of Beauty.

I didn’t feel stretched or overwhelmed at any point, but I felt like I’d received a shiny new box of tools—a bunch of exercises to loosen up and imagine lettering in new ways. I grasped the letters, shaped their forms with my hands, carved them from the inside out and watched them emerge from negative space. I’m discovering that I think spatially far more intuitively, and that my drawing—of letters or otherwise—need not be constrained to lines.


Out and about

Just chillaxing with my Nanna and Pa in Sydney Town! (Yes, I was on a boat, and yes, I was full of vanilla ice cream.)

I had the great fortune to go to the Hotel Hollywood tonight and see the very talented Rainbow Chan play her last gig for a while before recording an album. This lady has a golden voice, an incredible ear for harmony and pleasing dissonance, and is going to add the harp to her formidable repertoire as of tomorrow!

I’ve been meeting a few other personal heroes this weekend; more on that after some well-earned rest.


Romanticised degeneracy

I’m gadding about Sydney, where I’ve signed up to several workshops, agreed to meet several people, am planning a leisurely lunch with my grandparents, and am generally trying to take it easy / soak up the excess culture and abundance of magazines. The place of my birth–though I feel no true attachment to it, having only lived here as a baby.

I spent some time the other day in a library at the University of Sydney, where my friend Robyn works, and found myself reading up on my artistic heritage in a book titled ‘Painting The Rocks.’ The Rocks is the bit of Sydney that’s smack-bang on the water, under the Harbour Bridge, looking out at the Opera House. Traditionally slums, disreputable, haphazard and considered a den of debauchery, it’s now a little bit swanky, and also home to the art school—Julian Ashton’s—that my present atelier teachers attended. Julian Ashton himself, thus my painterly great (multiple greats?) grandfather, was, it seems, particularly enamoured of The Rocks, and in 1902 arranged an exhibition of romanticised paintings of the area.

The government had decided, on the basis of the outbreak of the bubonic plague (what?) in Sydney at that time, had decided once and for all to clean up the area and purge it of all degeneracy. (This is despite the fact that only three deaths ensued in The Rocks, and only one thousand people out of the entire city were infected). Ashton, in a sudden flood of nostalgia, rallied his artist friends—including Sydney Long—to ‘document’ the area for posterity, with a good dose of romance in the form of street goats and street chickens and cute wives sweeping under flapping white laundry.

What motivated this exhibition? Some Howard-esque urge to fabricate a national identity steeped in old-world charm? An outright fear of progress? Ashton’s school still teaches in the traditional manner—one that I adore—replete with raw umber underpaintings, tonal studies and intentional rendering of form around the contours of a figure. Perhaps this traditionalism played itself out in a simple love of the historical, the true—the government could whitewash all it liked, but the fledgling city had a life of its own, more authentic and more descriptive of our origins.


Inventing things

Preview of a new painting to be exhibited at my show!

There is a point at which you cross from fear to facility. I’ve just completed my first of two years of a graphic design diploma, which I take part time to complement my work as an illustrator. It means I’m more adept at all manner of file preparation and prepress, and have a better understanding of the broader design industry.

Our assessments began as simple copycat lessons, tracing logos and rearranging imagery, but somewhere along the line they demanded more of us: we had to invent something. I remember freezing in horror at the thought of having to invent something on that white screen, something that conveyed all the things I wanted to convey, and cleverly, and prettily.

I went to my sketchbook, I scribbled pages of roughs in black ink, and a tiny idea was born. I did it again and again. Ideas emerged from the chaos steadily and without headaches—some better than others. But the worse ones didn’t have to make me a bad designer. They just had to be accepted as part of the learning process. I put them aside and moved on, and dreamed up better ideas, and my technical abilities grew alongside them.

When confronted with a new problem, I no longer seize up with panic, but excitedly start bubbling with ideas, and this is a nice place to be. Getting here was a steady road of simply trying, finding out how things look and how they are received. It’s possible to invent things with confidence and glee!



News: Some of my note cards are available for sale at a spiffy little shop in West End, The Happy Cabin. The Happy Cabin stocks all manner of adventure boot, adventure satchel, adventure socks and adventure pants for both adventurous gentlemen and adventurous ladies.

If you can’t make it Brisbane, don’t panic. Clicking the picture below will give you free shipping on note cards and other goodies in my Society6 shop, until Sunday. Hooray!


Winn Late Δ Winn Lane

My friend Nadia and I are delighted to announce our joint exhibition that celebrates secret pockets of cities and countrysides, secret nooks where we find little pieces of home, and stolen moments for reading thoughtfully and mulling over life.

The generous folk that make up the vibrant community of Winn Lane, Fortitude Valley, are hosting our pop-up show as part of their Winn Late of 4 October 2012. You are invited to explore their carefully cultivated shops, say clever things about art, feast your eyes on bright brushstrokes and intricate linework and meet other cultured Briswegians.

You can spy on Nadia on her blog–she’s one talented lady, a whiz with layouts and lettering and letterpress too.

You can also visit Winn Lane in daylight hours, where you’ll find a happy mix of shops: a second-hand book shop, a vintage clothes shop, fancy modern clothes, pretty and playful clothes, beautifully creepy jewellery, stylish men’s gear and a hairdresser–and a cafe with yummy pear and almond muffins, and imaginative milkshakes.

Come say hello!