Kohinoor watercolours

For her 18th birthday this year, my daughter received a Koh-i-noor watercolour set of a very clever design. It has four round discs, each with six colours and a depression in the middle for mixing. The discs screw together, one on top of the other, so that the whole set is about the size of a can of tuna when closed.

The gift was a surprise from her Dad, who got it in London on the advice of an artist friend. When she opened it I think I was even more thrilled than she was, because it was just like a paint set I had at her age! Mine was green rather than black, but otherwise it was exactly the same. I loved that set and used it for years, and until now I had never seen another one like it.

In senior school I loved working with watercolours, and the art teacher was happy to let me get on with painting what I wanted to with my own stackable watercolour set. I had a special Chinese paintbrush too, dark red with soft bristles that came to a perfect point.

Chinese brushes

These Chinese brushes are designed for calligraphy, and the bristles are made from weasel tails or goat hair. The top brush in this photo has soft goat hair, and the bottom one is a mixture of goat and the coarser weasel hair. I think my brush was a mixture too, though it was a long time ago and the brush is long lost. When I was 17 I used a photograph from the National Geographic magazine to paint this Inuit child:

Eskimo

The rich colours of my special paint set made it possible to get those warm skin tones and deep black of the shadows. My Chinese brush with its fine point allowed me to capture the loose hair on the child’s forehead.

There is nothing like working with real paint on real paper. But more and more these days, artists are turning to computers to produce very similar results that can be shared electronically and reproduced countless times. Many children’s books that were once illustrated the “old fashioned” way with pen and ink or other traditional media are now being brought to life digitally instead.

A good example of this trend is the work of my friend and illustrator Margaret Chamberlain. She has been illustrating children’s books for over 20 years, and when she first illustrated one of my books (Pink! in 2008) it was a departure for her into a new technique and simpler style. Her earlier books had always been done with richly detailed ink and watercolour artwork. An excellent example of this is The Enchanted Flute by Angela McAllister:

©Margaret Chamberlain 1990

©Margaret Chamberlain 1990

The central character of this story is an impossibly demanding monarch, Queen Pernickity, who wants only the very best of everything. You can see from the illustration above that Margaret has created texture and lots of detail with a fine ink outline and rich colour using watercolours.

The Enchanted Flute has recently been released as an iBook, and on her website Download Children’s Books you can watch a short video demonstration of Margaret drawing Queen Pernickity using a computer and a programme called ArtRage. As she points out, it takes much less time working on computer, and it’s easy to correct mistakes. The finished effect is very similar to real paint on paper, and it can be sent directly to publishers and printers to produce a finished book.

So is there any future for real paint and paper?

Another recent invention, the WaterColorBot, has reversed this relationship between art and computers. Instead of computer art replacing paint and paper, this machine translates art drawn on a computer into “real” art through a mechanised process similar to an Etch-a-Sketch:

©Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories 2013

©Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories 2013

The paintbrush moves around an x and y axis (two metal rods) powered by pulleys and wire cables. In this way a drawing made on a computer can be reproduced multiple times, and the WaterColorBot becomes a type of printer. The idea began with a 12-year-old girl called Sylvia who wanted to make a robot for a science fair. She has her own website, Sylvia’s Super-Awesome Maker Show, where she demonstrates fun creative projects. When she took her idea of a painting robot to the people at Evil Mad Scientist Laboratories they were happy to help out!

My daughter is still keen to experiment with real ink and watercolours, and has done a few sketches with her new paint set:

©Anna Rickards 2014

©Anna Rickards 2014

©Anna Rickards 2014

©Anna Rickards 2014

Even though technology seems to have made real paint and paper somewhat obsolete, I’m quite tempted to buy myself a little Koh-i-noor paint set too…

©Lynne Rickards 2002

©Lynne Rickards 2002

Photo ©Simpson and Brown Architects

Photo ©Simpson and Brown Architects

One beautiful sunny Sunday recently I made my first visit to the Robert Burns Birthplace Museum in the Ayrshire village of Alloway. As National Poetry Day is fast approaching, it seemed a perfect time to learn more about the life and work of Scotland’s most famous poet.

The Museum is made up of several buildings, including the thatched cottage where Robert Burns was born, a handsome stone monument, a huge exhibition building (whose entrance is shown above) and a Poet’s Path dotted with outdoor sculpture. The map below is given to visitors so they can find their way around:

Burns museum map

We started in the modern green-roofed building which holds the main exhibition about Robert Burns and his very eventful and productive life. The building was designed by Simpson and Brown Architects and is made of locally-sourced natural materials (Douglas fir timber and a dry stone wall at the entrance). The space inside is light and airy, with a shop, education room and cafe:

Photo ©Simpson and Brown Architects

Photo ©Simpson and Brown Architects

The exhibition itself is in a huge open-plan area kept very dark in order to preserve the original artefacts (as ink on paper fades very quickly in natural light). There are many hand-penned poems and letters, furniture, clothing and even pistols owned by Robert Burns. (He needed to be armed when he worked as a tax collector!)

Photo ©Conservation By Design

Photo ©Conservation By Design

The exhibition is full of information about the poet who was born in 1759 in a tiny farmhouse in Alloway. Although he only lived to be 37 years old, he wrote hundreds of poems and song lyrics and fathered 13 children! He also worked as a farmer, a collector of folk music and an Excise officer (collecting taxes for the government). He is best known for writing in the Scots language, and his poems are full of great character and richness because of this.

My favourite Burns poem is “To a Mouse” which he wrote after disturbing a little mouse’s nest with his plough. (If you click on that link above you can read the poem and hear it performed by actor Brian Cox.) In honour of the “wee, sleekit, cow’rin, tim’rous beastie” of that poem, a giant bronze mouse sculpture stands at the entrance to the Poet’s Path:

Burns mouse

It stands over two metres high and looks quite confident, so visitors look more like the cowering beasties in comparison! Another animal sculpture stands at the end of the path; it is a fox representing liberty carved from red sandstone:

Burns fox

At the end of the path we arrive at the 18th-century cottage where Robert Burns and his brother Gilbert and two sisters Agnes and Anabella were born. The cottage is a long, low building which housed not only the Burnes family (the original spelling of their surname). Also under the same roof was a byre where the cows, horse and chickens were kept!

Burns cottage

Robert’s mother sold milk from the family cows, and grew vegetables like kale, carrots, onions and potatoes in the garden. The family of six lived in two small rooms, and the house was heated by one hearth in the kitchen:

Burns hearth

Opposite the fire was the box bed where all four children were born. Their names and birth dates are embroidered on little white nightdresses suspended over the bed:

Burns bed

Snippets of Burns poems are painted on the cottage walls and these give a flavour of his work and the language he spoke with his family:

Burns inspiration

Some of the words are quite surprising, and often they are very expressive:

Burns words

Wandering around this impressive collection of buildings in Alloway gives a real sense of Robert Burns the poet and the man. This National Trust for Scotland site is a great place to discover Scotland’s most famous poet.

Portrait of Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth, 1787, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

Portrait of Robert Burns by Alexander Nasmyth, 1787, Scottish National Portrait Gallery

 

Patrick for invoice

The best thing about being a picture book writer is seeing your ideas come alive in the hands of a talented illustrator. Two of my stories are in the process of being illustrated just now, and it’s very exciting for me to see the way they are going to look!

Most of my stories start with a central character, and that was certainly true of Pink! which was illustrated by Margaret Chamberlain. She cleverly captured the personality of a little penguin called Patrick who woke up one morning to discover he had turned bright pink.

Patrick and pals

Margaret has also illustrated another of my picture books, I Do Not Eat the Colour Green. In that story I imagined a determined little girl called Marlene with curly red hair (I’m not sure why) and this is what Margaret came up with:

Marlene McKean

She does look very stroppy, doesn’t she? Luckily the story ends with a smile as she discovers she does like green things after all.

Another illustrator whose work has been the perfect complement to my stories is Gabby Grant, who illustrated my two puffin books, Lewis Clowns Around and Harris the Hero. She is brilliant at drawing animals, so she was the right choice for these two books!

cute acrobats.jpg

Lewis and Harris are puffin brothers, but Lewis decides he belongs in the circus. Here you can see him performing with his fellow clown Karla the Koala. When Lewis flies off to town, his brother Harris is left all alone. Feeling lonely without a friend, Harris decides to go on his own adventure, which of course ends happily!

Harris on his own

Gabby has managed to show Harris looking sad here, which is no mean feat when it’s a stripy-beaked puffin! She is also very good at painting water and clouds, and I especially like her bird’s-eye-view angles.

Another book whose illustrations I was very pleased with is Jacob O’Reilly Wants a Pet. I didn’t really have an idea of what Jacob should look like, but this story was also full of animals (a whole range of pets) which illustrator Lee Wildish has drawn with lots of humour.

Jacob O'Reilly

The publisher decided the cover should have a walrus in the bathtub (one of the pets Jacob asks for) and it’s quite a good choice I think!

Authors don’t often get a say in who the illustrator will be. Sometimes if we’re lucky we get to see a few sample drawings and say which style we prefer. As the book is being illustrated, we can usually see the rough pencil sketches of each page and help check the text to make sure no mistakes have crept in. Later we get to see the colour “proofs” and at that point it’s pretty much too late to make any changes.

Last week I was sent rough sketches for two of my books, which was very exciting! The first is a book all about healthy eating which is called Never Bite a Tiger on the Nose. The illustrator is Eilidh Muldoon and she has done some lovely things with all my characters who are trying to eat tigers and alligators and elephants!

Abigail and Crocodile

I love the way Eilidh creates sweeping curves in her illustrations. Here we have a little girl called Abigail who wants to eat an alligator’s tail. There are also children called Emmylou, Humperdink, Lola Rose and Leopold.

veg and fruit baskets

As you can see, Eilidh has done some charming sketches of all the healthy food these children should be eating, and I think the book is going to look great when it’s done! Take a look at this clever little monkey:

monkey with banana

Once the book is finished it will be given out to preschool children across Scotland as part of the Scottish Book Trust’s Bookbug scheme. I can’t wait!

The other book that’s in the works is called One Potato. This was inspired both by the healthy eating theme and by a special request from a boy in P4 at Comely Park Primary School where I am Patron of Reading. One afternoon when I was visiting the school, Kofi put up his hand and told me that he and his friend Adam were writing a story about a runaway potato and an eagle. He asked me to write one too, and I agreed, thinking it would be a good exercise.

When I finally got down to writing my potato story, I decided to start with the rhyme, One Potato, Two Potato, Three Potato, Four. When the story was finished I sent it to Kofi’s teacher and the whole P4 year group spent some time doing illustrations for me!

One potato, two potato, three potato, four. Nice and cosy underground, they don't know what's in store...

One potato, two potato, three potato, four.
Nice and cosy underground, they don’t know what’s in store…

Suddenly a farmer's fork comes down to dig them out. They roll around upon the ground - what can this be about?

Suddenly a farmer’s fork comes down to dig them out.
They roll around upon the ground – what can this be about?

Then one by one they're tossed inside a bucket made of tin. Clatter, clang, bump and bang, we hear them going in.

Then one by one they’re tossed inside a bucket made of tin.
Clatter, clang, bump and bang, we hear them going in.

Thanks to Willow Reed, Olivia Kinloch and Abby Reid for providing those three illustrations. (There were lots more, so I’m sorry not to have room for them all here. I keep them all in my special Comely Park Primary folder).

The potato decides he does not want to go into the soup pot, and he rolls into the garden and tells the farmer’s wife she should put some other vegetables in her soup instead. She chases him all around the garden but he is too quick for her, and as he rolls down the road he says, “Nobody’s cooking me!”

I was delighted when my potato story was picked up for the Collins Big Cat series, so I have Kofi and Adam to thank for that! The preliminary sketches for One Potato are looking great, so I’ll let you know when that one comes out. The illustrator they have chosen is brilliant, but more about that later…

There are so many wonderful children’s illustrators out there that I could write about it all day! Maybe the next blog post will be about all the artists I would like to illustrate my stories. Seeing these two books come alive has certainly inspired me to get writing more!

Recently I visited my cousins in Canada, and stayed in a beautiful wooden house deep in the woods near Kingston. It had a big veranda out front and lots of fine woodwork inside, from the kitchen cupboards to the many beams holding up the ceiling.

cottage kitchen

I have always thought it would be fantastic to design my own house. Mine would have lots of windows and be eco-friendly with recycled water and solar panels. As well as stairs, I might put in a curving slide (my son would like that) and I would design my own furniture too, with wacky bunk beds and basket chairs suspended from the ceiling.

But it’s not easy to build your own house, especially if you live in a big city as I do. First you have to buy a plot of land, and get permission to build on it. Then you have to design the house, with lots of drawings to show how it looks on the outside and where all the rooms will go inside. If I wanted to build my own house I would definitely need some help, but my cousin Scot can do it all! He is an expert woodworker, and he knows how to build a house.

House design by Scot King.

House design by Scot King.

Here is one of my cousin Scot’s drawings, which shows a sort of see-through image of the outside and the inside. You can even see the foundations of the house that are underground. Scot does these drawings using a computer programme called Chief Architect. It allows him to look at the house from all different angles so he can spot mistakes before he gets working on site.

Traditional beams are cut to slot together, and wooden dowels hold them in place.

Traditional beams are cut to slot together, and wooden dowels hold them in place.

Scot lives in Kingston where there is lots of land for building and people like to have cottages by the water. He builds traditional timber-frame houses using big beams like the ones above. First they have to put up the main frame of the house:

The house starts with concrete foundations and a wooden "skeleton".

The house starts with concrete foundations and a wooden “skeleton”.

When they are in place, these same beams look beautiful and are part of the interior design. The wooden floor, staircases and counters are all hand-crafted, and my cousin can even make furniture!

The structural beams are part of the rustic "look" of the finished house.

The structural beams are part of the rustic “look” of the finished house.

The houses Scot builds are just as beautiful on the outside. Often they are built on a waterside plot with tall trees, so they fit well into the natural setting.

Some of these are summer cottages, and some are lived in all year round.

Some of these are summer cottages, and some are lived in all year round.

If you are designing your own house you can make it exactly as you want (providing you respect the laws of physics so it won’t fall down). Here is a very handsome one built for a family who wanted a half-circle window, rustic porches and a Georgian grey-green exterior:

House designed and built by Scot King.

House designed and built by Scot King.

And the one below was designed for a member of the family. Sometimes I wish I lived in Canada so I could build my own dream house (with Scot’s help)!

Another Scot King design.

Another Scot King design.

Scot has a company called Kingline Design and a great website (where I got all these pictures). It never ceases to amaze me that he can actually create something so big and complicated that you can actually live in! My cousin is one clever guy.

ceiling beams

Photo © Rob McDougall

The Scottish Seabird Centre Puffin Fest is launched! Photo © Rob McDougall

I’ve just had a lovely day in sunny North Berwick, a pretty seaside town northeast of Edinburgh on the south shore of the Firth of Forth. I had been invited as one of the “opening acts” at the first Puffin Fest celebrating all things puffin at the Scottish Seabird Centre.

Arriving by train from Edinburgh, I strolled along towards the harbour admiring the town’s charming stone cottages and handsome Victorian houses. When I reached the harbour I was impressed by the long sweep of the bay and the striking view of several rocky islands offshore.

From North Berwick you can see the Bass Rock, Fidra, Craigleith and The Lamb. These are ancient volcanic islands that are home to thousands of seabirds including puffins, gannets, razorbills, cormorants, shags, guillemots, eider ducks and various types of gull.

The island of Craigleith from the East Bay, North Berwick.

The island of Craigleith from the East Bay, North Berwick.

Craigleith is the nearest island to North Berwick, and for many years it was home to one of the largest puffin colonies in the UK with 28,000 breeding pairs. By 1999 the puffins had become endangered because of a plant called tree mallow that grew rapidly and choked the areas where puffins made their burrows. Unable to raise their pufflings, the birds started to abandon Craigleith. It was the sharp observational skills of one Scottish Seabird Centre volunteer, Maggie Sheddon, that alerted people to the dwindling population of puffins, and SOS Puffin was launched. Since 2007 hundreds of volunteers have gone out by ferry in the winter months while the puffins are at sea to “weed” the island’s invasive tree mallow. This has helped the puffin colony reestablish itself on Craigleith.

The Bass Rock from North Berwick.

The Bass Rock from North Berwick.

The other well-known island in this group is the Bass Rock, which is distinctive in appearance because it is white with 150,000 gannets and their droppings! The lighthouse you can see in the photo above is the only human habitation now, but around it you can see the ruins of a castle from the 15th century which was later used by various Scottish kings as a prison for their enemies.

The Scottish Seabird Centre invited me to take part in their very first Puffin Fest because I have written two books about puffins: Lewis Clowns Around and Harris the Hero. I had a great time sharing these two stories of heroic puffins with a lovely audience of children who had lots to contribute to our discussion.

Lewis and Harris

My storytelling event was only one of a long list of exciting activities for the whole family that make up the Puffin Fest programme between 16 and 26 May. Click HERE to see all the events planned, which include puffin trails, boat cruises to the islands, expert wildlife talks, puffin parties, a puffin-themed art exhibition and the chance to see puffins in action on the Scottish Seabird Centre’s live interactive cameras. If you love puffins as much as I do, this is a festival not to be missed!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 87 other followers