The Secret of the Unicorn

WE’D ARRIVED ten minutes early at the cinema, so, without really settling into full drawing mode, I drew my hand. The Adventures of Tintin; The Secret of the Unicorn started life as drawings by Hergé and his team and this Steven Speilberg production pays homage to the original artwork, without being too reverential about it. The opening credits show how effective a purely graphic version might have been but I feel that Hergé would have approved of this big-budget over-the-top widescreen 3D production. It’s a bit exhausting but an absolute delight for a Tintin fan like me. There have been traditional animated cartoon versions of Tintin in the past, which seemed to me rather pedestrian compared with the original comic strips and even a live action version, which I didn’t see but which I can’t imagine working successfully.

For me Hitchcock’s North by Northwest is the film that comes closest to the pacing of the original adventures. The Tintin stories are one relentless adventure, so if you used them as a storyboard for a movie you’d get something like this Speilberg version but that’s a different experience to reading a comic strip where you can always pause to take in the scenery and the artwork.

I’ll be interested to see the book The Art of the Adventures of Tintin to discover how they created the artwork for the film.

The Bittern Hide

THIS IS THE VIEW looking east from the Bittern Hide at the RSPB’s Old Moor Wetlands reserve at Wath-on-Dearne, South Yorkshire. Temperature, a balmy 24°C.

We didn’t spot the reserve’s resident but elusive Bittern. During the summer it never ‘boomed’, so it’s thought to be either a juvenile or a female.

But, thanks to a birdwatcher sitting near us in the hide we saw the equally elusive Water Rail, emerging from the reeds and crossing a grassy gap. I’m pretty sure that it’s a lifer, a first for me. Oddly, it was a bird that I was very familiar with as a child; a terrace of old stone-built cottages on our street stood empty, awaiting demolition, and my friend Stephen went rummaging there. He rescued a leatherbound copy of Cassell’s Science Popularly Explained (1856) by David A. Wells, which I still have on my shelf, and a stuffed water rail in a glass fronted cabinet, long since vanished. A little time capsule commemorating some Victorian’s fascination with natural history.

There was a flock of well over a hundred of these waders in the scrape at the other side of the reserve. I’m not good at waders and these looked far from distinctive so I took notes and consulted one of the field guides in the visitor centre.

The bird that I looked up was Golden Plover – that was my first guess – but the field guide that I consulted showed summer plumage only; a striking golden yellow bird, as the name suggests.

The warden took a look at my sketch and confirmed that was what it was, but of course in winter plumage.

Back home, looking in my current favourite field guide, the Collins Bird Guide, there are several illustrations of various plumages and, helpfully, an illustration of a winter flock, looking just like the birds that we saw.


IN A STRIP in one of the raised beds we planted a row of leeks in the spring; flimsy grass-like seedlings from a punnet we’d bought in the garden centre. This morning I dug out one from the end of the row and it’s now so large that this one leek gave Barbara enough to make a large pan of leek and potato soup. It’s one of our most trouble-free crops. They were watered a few times when they first went in, weeded two or three times since and that’s it. An impressive crop from an area the size of four or five sheets of A4 paper.

And talking of leaks, the pond is still a disaster area, damaged, we guess, by rodent activity beneath the liner. There’s still some water and some pondweed in the deeper section, so hopefully the pond life can survive until we can find a solution to the problem.

The whole garden is in need of attention after the distractions of selling Barbara’s mum’s house this summer, followed by me working on my book. The wood chippings on the paths are in need of freshening up. In the shade of the hedge near the plastic compost bins by the shed, honey fungus and another variety that I’ve forgotten the name of are sprouting luxuriantly.

Victorian Fair

This morning I enjoyed a rather light-hearted piece of graphic design, using Microsoft Publisher; designing a poster for the launch of my book (so please do look out for me if you’re at the Victorian Fair). It’s in the style of a Victorian playbill rather than trying to be a facsimile, an excuse to use some of the hundred plus fonts that I’ve accumulated over the years.

Correction, that’s, well over a hundred; my font folder contains 1626 items!

Well, you can never have too many fonts can you? I remember my college days when the typography department was limited to little more than Times New Roman and Univers, while Letraset offered exotic possibilities such as Carousel and Bookman Bold Italic. But on my limited budget I’d be just as likely to put the Letraset catalogue in the Grant Enlarger and trace my text letter by letter. I couldn’t have dreamt of having access to a thousand fonts via my desk top at home.

But even with so much choice, I still feel that sometimes hand lettering works best with my sketch maps and drawings.

Line versus Half Tone

I’ve been using Microsoft Publisher 2010 for the layout of my book and it’s been working well but I decided to take the opportunity of giving Serif’s PagePlus X5 a try when they rang me with a special offer. I used a previous version of PagePlus for my colour walks booklets but it proved to be unsuitable for my new paperback format. Unfortunately the same applies to the new version, which I tried on my computer this morning.

Line art in Publisher 2010, magnified about ten times.
I’ve enjoyed the discipline of working in black and white for the new book and that’s how I want the drawings to be seen on paper; in crisp black and white.
That’s the result that I get with Publisher (left) when I scan my drawing at 1200 dots per inch. Any pixel has to be either black or white so the image is made up from a mosaic of tiny black and white rectangles. This gives a stepped appearance to a line, particularly a diagonal line.
This close up is from a PDF of a page produced in Publisher and printed on my laser printer. You can’t tell what the paper output will be like simply by looking at the artwork on-screen.
Line artwork in PagePlus X5; where did those half-tone dots come from?

Unfortunately that’s not what I get with PagePlus (right). Dots appear around my pen lines showing that a half tone screen has been added. This softens the appearance of those stepped lines but the effect is almost imperceptible unless you look at the drawing through a hand lens. A halo of half tone around lines is something to be avoided if your work is intended to be printed professionally as line artwork as those dots can clog up with unpredictable consequences.

 You might think that I’m being over fussy but, after the weeks that I’ve spent preparing and scanning my drawings and designing my pages, I want everything to turn out just as I’ve planned it.

Platform 13b

OUR FIRST full day off since I got my book off to the printers and you might think from this drawing that we headed off to some crag or cliff of sedimentary rock but no, this is the collar of a jumper in Marks and Spencer, as I waited for Barbara to try on a pair of cords. The hand-knitted look seems to be back in fashion so it could be time to get the Aran sweater Barbara knitted me years ago back out of the drawer, if it’s a cold winter.

This is my usual ArtPen but I’ve scanned the drawing at 3 or 4 times its original size.

That was about it for drawing, apart from these passengers drawn as we waited for the Dewsbury train to leave platform 13b, Leeds City station. As people read and write texts on their mobile phones they hold a pose long enough for me to have the chance to drawn them. That’s actually quite rare amongst a crowd of commuters; people are surprisingly active, looking around, moving from one leg to another and so on.


We had lunch at Cafe Rouge in the Light shopping mall on the Headrow, the most fossiliferous mall in Leeds. This section of an ammonite shell is set in one of the polished limestone slabs of the floor, near the restaurant. You can see the septa – the dividing walls within the shell. These were linked by a tube so that the ammonite, which lived only in the last constructed section, could fill individual chambers with water or gas to adjust buoyancy, like a submarine.

I was as discrete as I could be photographing this specimen but I was aware of the security guard nearby who I think had spotted me. I came here with a geology group after a workshop in the Leeds museum stores near the Armouries. On that visit the group was showing such interest in odd corners of the mall that the security guards asked the group leader to step into their office and explain what was going on!


IT SEEMS STRANGE to sling my art bag over my shoulder and set out as I’ve been completely out of the habit of doing that recently;  I’ve had to put in about three weeks – weekday and weekend alike – in order to get my latest book off to the printers on time. As it is, I’m setting off to the local bookshop to meet the photographer from the Wakefield Express but, as he’s late, I get a chance to draw Tilly, the resident Welsh border collie at Rickaro’s.

I’ve gone for a really simple cover this time. It’s actually in full colour but I decided to limit the text, illustration and border to just one colour. The background is a piece of scanned textured brown card with the colour balance changed in Photoshop to make it look like parchment.

I think the simple cover works because this is a simple subject (but with a lot of resonance) and I’m happy that it effectively communicates the period that its set in and indicates that the material is treated in a clear but reasonably light-hearted way, rather than being an academic study.

I’m looking forward to starting on the sequel, the working title being, rather unimaginatively, More Wakefield Words. But I’m not going to be caught out by a deadline this time!