I have arrived at a place where I’d like to stay, perhaps for the rest of my life. It is a very comfortable, forgiving sort of place, full of interest and challenge. I write in the morning and draw in the afternoon. I am finishing a book, which is going swimmingly, thank you for asking. I am starting to learn my craft, drawing-wise. I have a feeling that the learning will take the duration of my stay.
I have always drawn – we all have. Before we learned to express ourselves with words on a page, we used pictures. Letters are pictures of a noise. I remember the excitement of my first days at school – being given crayons and paper specifically for drawing. There was always a fascination with art materials – I remember days like today: rainy and windy, struggling through puddles and crowds of children, to arrive at a desk and find: exercise books with a blank top and three or four ruled lines at the bottom. A fat HB and colouring in pencils. The joy – to be asked to draw and then write some aspect of your life. Imagine that being the start of your day, now? I have configured my working life so that that is, almost, what my work is now.
Starting a project can be difficult though. Starting a work, any work, is daunting. Putting that first mark on a blank page is the most difficult thing. The pictures in your head are never as good as the pictures you put on paper. I scrabble around with an 8B pencil. It’s sharpened with a craft knife, so it looks whittled, with a chiseled lead. I make indistinct marks on paper with it, rubbing at the marks to smudge them, in order to make what I’m drawing look like what I am looking at – if I screw my eyes up tight and see shadings, rather than people or trees or buildings. It’s daft. I want to draw graphic novels. I have already planned the first, and am writing speech bubbles in my head all the time, while the characters who say them are still, well, blurred and rubbed at with my graphite stained finger.
How to change this? How to have the assuredness of a five year old holding their first pencil? ‘This is my daddy going shopping. This is me and my sister laughing’, my first picture in my first book says. Dad saved my first books – he gave them to me when he was clearing out his study when I was in my thirties. I like looking at them, because as we get older, we know ourselves less, it seems. When you’re five, you describe everything you see from that simplicity of viewpoint.
We went to see Isabel Greenberg at Cheltenham Literary Festival on Saturday, and her clear drawing starts with a brush pen. Chris Riddell too. So. I bought a brush pen. And there it was. The first picture I drew with it was on the report slip for the fifteen year old: husband looking angry, me looking worried, with a note in the comment box ‘we will be monitoring her’. The second picture was a sketch of the David Bowie postcard taped to the kitchen wall, with a cartoon of 15 year old next to it. The writing underneath says ‘Spiky and David Bowie accidentally get married while she does her Maths homework and she thinks it’s really stupid. She thinks EVERYTHING IS REALLY STUPID’. I have drawn her eyes well – when I was drawing them, I thought – I’ve drawn these before: tracing their shape onto the page, I realised they were the same as my younger sister’s eyes. I drew what I thought was 15 year old’s mouth, but when I looked at it again, it was my mouth. That happens a lot too – I seem to draw myself.
The pen is like the red ballet shoes in the movie: once you take the lid off, you can’t stop drawing. We had a children’s series of books for our children- The Berenstein Bear books. One was called ‘The Magic Toe Shoes’ – a rather prosaic story about the placebo effect of buying a pair of ballet shoes for the sister bear, who on putting them on, finds she can dance. When fifteen year old was five, she found she could swim when we bought her flippers. I find I can draw with my magic pen. I find that my pictures are everything I imagined them to be. No – I find that I am everything I imagined I would be when I draw – and that my pictures are magical, because what comes from the pen is not what I imagined. It is different. It is sometimes better.