The Goldilocks Effect

By disposing of my old oak plan chest (represented by the cardboard rectangle, bottom right) and going for a new slimline version (white card) I should end up with the studio that I'm after.

THE FAR END of the studio was too dim . . . this end is too bright . . . but I reckon the other wall at this end will be just right.

After all my efforts moving the furniture yesterday, I soon realise this morning that my desk is now in the wrong place because the winter sun is streaming across my computer screen. Yes, I can pull down the blind but what a shame to shut out the view of the garden and Coxley Valley beyond; I’d be much better facing the other wall where I’d only catch the early morning sun. I’m rarely at my desk at six in the morning.

But I don’t want to swap the bookshelves and the desk around as sunlight would soon fade the dust-jackets. No, I could really do with a slimmed down plan chest behind me as I sit at my desk.

I’ve got wonderful 3D programs like Sketchup on my computer but when it comes to re-planning my studio I feel the need to make a simple cardboard plan (above), abandoning metric for the more familiar (to me) option of one inch equals one foot. Ikea have recently introduced ‘Alex’, a six-drawer unit that fits A2 sized paper. Discussing it with Simon the joiner, we decide that putting three of those on a six-inch plinth, with a worktop running along above, will give me the storage that I need for artwork and paper, plus a working space for folding and guillotining the booklets that I still produce in-house.

Tilly proved a restless model when I called at the bookshop this afternoon. Tilly is usually a restless model and she also has a habit of disappearing altogether into her 'den' beneath the desk.



AS I TYPE this the rain is lashing against the studio window and the trees in the wood have been stripped of leaves. It’s been a good day to stay indoors and reorganise my studio. Yesterday evening it occurred to me that if I swapped around my old oak plan chest and my desk, I’d have a better view from the window and, for much of the day better light.

The plan chest is so substantial that it had never before occurred to me that it was movable. Yes, it was quite a job to remove and stack the ten drawers packed with artwork,  but I’d slid them back in place by eleven.

The L-shaped arrangement of my desks together at the window end gives me more room to spread around my reference books and sketches when I’m working while around the plan chest at the darker end of the studio, I can build some much-needed shelves for my steadily overflowing books.

But these old books aren’t mine; I drew these in Rickaro’s where they’re celebrating 10 years since the bookshop opened. Local writer Ian MacMillan and cartoonist Tony Husband were the special guests. However Tilly, the bookshop Welsh border collie was not invited!

Sales Pitch

My studio revamp is in honour of a computer upgrade. Telling the salesman in a busy store that I’m keen to have a machine that can handle graphics, I show him the sketches I’ve been making while I waited in their recently introduced queuing system.

“I thought that I’d have a chance to draw the staff as they gather by a computer to talk to customers but you’re never still!”

“Welcome to our world!”

Leeds Gallery

WE HADN’T come across the Leed Gallery before; it’s down beyond the market and bus station, not far from the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the BBC.

The current show, The Illustrators, is fascinating. It includes a selection of work by – mainly – children’s book illustrators of the last one hundred years, almost all British, including Quentin Blake, E. H. Shepard, Heath Robinson, Kate Greenway, Emmett, Ronald Searle, Thelwell and a cell from Walt Disney’s Snow White.

Windows in Leeds, drawn from Clark's . . . as Barbara tried on numerous pairs of boots!

It’s a great opportunity to see the artwork at it’s original size, in the original media before it went into print. There are few obvious corrections as these illustrators are fluent in creating imagined worlds.

Of course, in a galley, you’re seeing individual illustrations out of their context on the page and away from the sequence of drawings that told the story. For all the imagination that goes into them, there can be a sweet, wistful sameness about the mostly comfortable fantasy world of childrens stories. But I’ve got to remember the purpose of these illustrations wasn’t to entertain professional illustrators like myself; they were designed with a specific readership in mind.

Shoppers passing by Cafe Rouge in the Light shopping centre.

For myself as a child, the only illustrated books that I would ever spend my pocket money and book tokens on would be those about natural history, prehistory or history. I was unaware at the time that a great deal of imagination goes into making the ‘real’ worlds of history and nature believable. I’m thinking of illustrators Charles Tunicliffe, Carrol Lane Fenton and Denys Ovenden  who illustrated, respectively What to Look for in Spring, Prehistoric World and Looking at History; from Cavemen to Vikings, to give just one example from each.


Leeds Gallery

Victorian Fair

I’VE BEEN at the Victorian Fair in Wakefield for a few hours each day on the Tourist Information stall, launching my new paperback Wakefield Words. When the morning fog has melted away it’s been sunny enough to make Wakefield look just as it does in the publications that the Tourist Information people are handing out. A pair of stilt-walkers in crinolines and a three-piece oom-pah band come strolling by today. We’ve seen dozens of people we know and met people keen to discuss the old local words that are the subject of my book. One man, an ex-councillor tells me that one of his ancestors from Barnsley had a business card describing himself as a ‘Sparable Maker’.

Sparables, he discovered, are the small nails used to fix the sole of a shoe in place. There’s a Sparable Lane in Sandal.

Out of the sun, on the stall, it isn’t all that warm when you’re just sitting there for any length of time. There’s dampness in the air after the morning mist so I’m sitting there in
Victorian costume – top hat, black coat, paisley scarf – concentrating on keeping my hands warm in my fingerless Scrooge-style mittens, when I hear a woman answering a question that her friend has just whispered to her;

“Of course he’s real!”

I decide that I better keep active so that people don’t mistake me for a mannequin and I draw the Cathedral tower and porch as seen from our stall on the precint.

Like most of my drawings, this started as pen and ink line, but it was when I added that patch of blue – French Ultramarine – that I could see between the sandstone finials of the Catherdral porch and the awning of the stall, that the drawing came to life.

A large flock of town pigeons were soaking up the sun on the roof of a shop on Upper Kirkgate and we saw a Sparrowhawk circling briefly but I didn’t hear or see a Peregrine, a falcon that has often been seen around the Cathedral and blocks of flats in the centre of the city.


MY BIG SISTER posted a comment yesterday to say that I was beginning to sound like a computer geek (wish I was sometimes, that would be so useful) so just to prove that I haven’t totally exchanged pen and ink for mouse and graphic pad here are a few recent drawings from my sketchbook. I have to admit that when drawing this row of chairs as we waited for my mum at the doctor’s I did find myself thinking ‘how would I do this in Sketchup’.

These magazines would be fiddly to design on a 3D program. The basic shapes would be simple enough but the dog-eared corners would need adding individually.

Desert Lake

I’M BACK in Bryce 7 territory as I trek my way through the basic tutorials to re-familiarise myself with the programme after a couple of years when I couldn’t get it working on my machine. The last time I went through this tutorial, using Bryce 4 in 2004 (left), I added a few rocks to the lake shore. The rendering of the scene has improved, making the most of the capabilities of my new computer. I’m almost ready to supply the images for a National Geographic article.

Bryce 7

I’M BACK on this now rather familiar alien world, as this is the fourth time that I’ve worked through John Kennedy’s introduction to Bryce, the natural landscape-generation programme. His article, published in PC Format magazine 13 years ago this month, includes a step-by-step alien landscape tutorial. A full version of Bryce 2 was included on the cover CD.

Until now, I haven’t been able to run Bryce successfully on my computer. I went for a new machine a couple of years ago when Windows 7 came in but, despite tentative assurances that that you’d be able to run your old programmes under the new operating system, my existing 3D design programmes were never able to run successfully.

Now Daz have made a PLE version of Bryce 7, the latest version, available as a free download. PLE stands for Personal Learning Edition but this is a full version with no limitations other than it’s not for professional work. This gives me a perfect opportunity to get to know the programme and, if I do decide to use Bryce for an illustration – a historical reconstruction, for instance – in one of my books, I can easily upgrade to the professional version, which is reasonably priced.

So far, it works fine on my Windows 7 64 bit computer. The render time for the final image takes seconds rather than minutes. As you can see from this image (left) from previous occasion, back in 2005, when I went through the tutorial the results of my new set-up, using Bryce 7, are impressive.

Bryce versus Sketchup

Sketchup makes it simple and intuitive to design anything ‘from a house to a coffee pot’ but I think, looking at this chair tutorial (right) which I completed yesterday, you can see why, as an illustrator with an interest in geology, history and wildlife, I don’t find it as attractive as Bryce.

For me Bryce offers more exciting possibilities and, as it is now 13 years since I first tried it, it feels comfortingly familiar to use.


Bryce 7 PLE download at CNET.

Tree Ferns

I DREW this group of tree ferns from plants in the fern house at Kew Gardens. It was a frosty winter weekend and the prospect of drawing in the shelter of a glasshouse appealed to me. Unfortunately when I got there the fern houses were closed for maintenance, so I had to stand on the frozen turf outside and draw this tropical scene through the window.

This was back in the winter of 1976-77 and I was gathering visual reference for my first book, A Sketchbook of the Natural History of the Country Round Wakefield, for a fold-out diorama of the coal forests which covered much of Britain 300 million years ago. The giant club-mosses and giant horsetails are long gone but modern tree ferns are almost identical in appearance to the tree ferns and ‘seed ferns’ (an unrelated but very similar looking group of plants) that grew in these primeval forests.

I felt that drawing from real plants would give a touch of believability to the drawing, a kind of ‘everyday’ look which can be difficult to achieve when you’re reconstructing an exotic landscape.

Today, I’ve been revisiting that landscape, part of my past as well as part of the distant past of our planet, as I’ve been asked to prepare a coloured version (coloured in Photoshop that is) for an information board for a country park on the site of a former colliery. The stored energy in the coal comes from sunlight that fell on these long vanished forests 300 million years ago.

Sketchup 8

SKETCHUP 8, the latest version of Google’s 3D design program has just been launched. As I’m still in holiday mood, I downloaded it this morning and took my time going through the tutorials. Rather like a child learning to draw, they start you off with a basic house.

Taking things a bit further, you can specify precise dimensions as you draw; for instance this second house (right) started with two rectangles of 12×30 and 20×10 feet, joined to make an L-shaped plan.

The Offset tool is useful for creating the overhang of the roof and the frames of doors and windows, while the follow-me tool was used to take the plinth along the lower edge of the house from one side of the door frame to the other.


This elegant hall table has ended up rather deeper than intended but by following the tutorial through I’m beginning to grasp the principles of making components such as the legs and drawer fronts. Make modifications to one of the legs and the others update themselves to match.


To work on an interior you delete two walls of your house (you can always put them back in later) and switch to a wide angle ‘camera’ so that you can navigate into tight corners to work on your model. Those comfy armchairs are easy to download from the Sketchup website and, like every other component of the model, you can change their colour or pattern with a click from the paint bucket tool.

You’re encouraged to upload your own models for others to use. I’m going to have to improve a bit before I submit my efforts but I’ve enjoyed spending a few hours learning the basics today.

You can get a free download of Sketchup from

You can find the video tutorials that I followed on Sketchup’s YouTube channel:

Sam Swift

I WROTE about my great-granddad George Swift in my diary for 7 August 2010. He’s pictured here between his younger brothers Arthur and Fred in front of Joseph Rodgers, the Sheffield cutlers where all three worked.

His father Samuel Bergin Swift (1814-1878) also worked there. Since I wrote that diary, a distant cousin of mine (a great-grandson of Arthur on the left) has e-mailed me and I’ve taken a photograph of Samuel’s obituary notice from The Ironmonger, March 1878 (below) for him. I’d love to have a photograph or drawing of Sam’s workshop but this word picture is the next best thing and I’m delighted that someone took the trouble to describe it and that it has survived.

Sam’s most prestigious commission was to design a set of cut-throat razors for Napoleon III, which I featured on an additional page of my diary for 7 August. I say his most prestigious commission but it’s likely that he worked on similar pieces for equally illustrious historical figures. I featured razors designed and made by George in my diary for 20 January 2011.

The Swifts were evidently well thought of in the cutlery trade but in his genealogical research my distant cousin has located a black sheep of the family from the Victorian period! I’m looking forward to hearing more.


Taken from the IRONMONGER, MARCH, 1878

Many of our Sheffield friends will read with regret this announcement:—“ On Saturday, the 12th instant, Samuel Swift, cutler, of Meersbrook Heeley, aged 64 years.” The deceased was a most ingenious workman, and had been in the service of Joseph Rodgers & Sons for 40 years. He was a thoughtful, industrious workman, and inherited the skill of his father, “Billy Swift”. For many years the deceased had been a “day” worker, contrary to the usual practice of piece working in the cutlery trades. Almost all manner of curious articles taken to the show-rooms of Rodgers & Sons to be repaired were transfered to Swift, whose ingenuity was seldom overeached. He possessed tools (many of his own making) sufficient to have stocked the “Old Curiosity Shop.” Working in steel, silver, gold, or pearl, came to him most readily. He was indeed, in scriptual phrase, a “cunning workman,” and it is such men as he who have built up and sustained the reputation of Sheffield. To the young workman Swift was ever ready to give the benefit of his great experience. It was no uncommon thing for workmen in mechanical or other working emergencies to be advised to “ask Sam Swift,” as his more familiar friends usually called him. He was a genial, kindhearted man, whose days were spent in the workshop, and his leisure hours cultivating his little freehold, in which for many years, he took a laudable pride. He was a noble example of an English artisan, and his moral worth and ability will long be remembered by his relatives, friends and fellow‑workmen.