From Watership Down to Warren Street

My drawing on cell for an overlay for a scene from 'The Trek' sequence of Watership Down.
My drawing, in dip pen, Pelikan Special Brown Indian ink and cell paint on an overlay for a scene from ‘The Trek’ sequence of Watership Down. This version wasn’t used in the film.
My impressions of the main characters.

Nearly forty years since its release, the film version of Richard Adams’ rabbit saga Watership Down is stirring up a bit of controversy (see below). It brings back memories of when I worked on the film for five or six months starting in the autumn of 1976 when a creative controversy was coming to a head at the Nepenthe Productions studio in Suffolk House, tucked away behind the Tottenham Court Road, near Warren Street tube station.

Producer Martin Rosen was, I guess, aiming to tell the story in a gritty and compelling way, getting as near as he could to the immediacy of a live action drama: a road movie come war film. pipkin

This was probably one of the causes of friction with John Hubley, his director, who was going for a more playful, graphically inventive approach by introducing the folk tales and myths of Adams’ rabbit world as stories within a story. The creation myth at the start of the film is about all that survives of this interpretation.

At my interview, John Hubley looked through my sketchbook and picked out a pen and watercolour sketch of a hawthorn branch: “I’d use this just as it is, with a white background and have the rabbits moving through the drawing.” Continue reading “From Watership Down to Warren Street”

The Obsequious Mr Simpson

Waterton confronts SimpsonI keep imagining that I’m producing a stage play. Mr Simpson is really getting into his character as the villain of the piece, all sneers and sarcasm, but, as an illustrator I’m responsible for the bit part players too; fo their costume, make-up, even their back story, as far as it goes.

I can imagine the extra playing the labourer saying to me ‘What’s my motivation in this scene?’

‘Er . . . could you lean on your shovel and smirk, as if you’re thinking “this should be fun”?’

Waterton comic page 9I’ve learnt a lot about the strategy of producing a comic strip while working on this page. For instance, for those first two panels (which were the last to be completed) I drew them both first and then coloured them together, to save mixing the colours twice.

I realise that a decisive style is going to work best, rather than the soft tentative approach that I use for natural history subjects. Plenty of structure and drama is what’s needed in a comic strip.

Whatever my misgivings about this page, I’m now leaving it until I’ve finished the other eleven pages, then I can come back to it and review it. Hopefully I will feel that it still works in the context of the story.

How do I stop WordPress Compressing my Files?

Setting compression to 100% in the Media settings in WordPress. But it still compresses to 90%!
Setting compression to 100% in the Media settings in WordPress. But it still compresses to 90%!
So how come this image is so sharp? It’s a PNG and WordPress doesn’t ‘help’ you save bandwidth by compressing them.

Having gone to so much trouble, I’m keen that my work comes over as crisply as possible in this blog, allowing for the inevitable loss of sharpness that you’re always going to get between the paper version and the onscreen image. I’ve added a plugin to stop my web page program WordPress compressing my JPGs (which it does in order to save bandwidth) as this is what makes them lose sharpness.

Yes, I know that it’s a marginal loss of sharpness, but I’m an illustrator. We worry about such things!

Unfortunately the plugin that I’m using, WP Resized Image Quality, hasn’t been tested on the latest version of WordPress and, would you believe it, my JPGs, which I’ve already tweaked to perfection in Photoshop, are still getting compressed.

Any tips would be welcome!

Links; WP Resized Image Quality 

By the way, I checked with Christine Rondeau who designed Mon Cahier, the theme that I use for my WordPress posts, and she tells me the compression definitely isn’t happening there.

Soap Bubbles

Simpson v. WatertonI’ve been looking forward to seeing this drawing in colour. It looks rather stagey but it tells the story clearly, so I’ll stick with this version.

Simpson v. WatertonThis is the first time that I’ve added a curved tail to a speech balloon. In Manga Studio EX5 this kind of tail is known as a spline. Mathematically, a spline curve is one that moves through a given series of points. Because of lack of headroom in this frame, a straight tail would have to emerge from the side of the balloon, which would look rather awkward.

No wonder Simpson looks so pleased with himself, he’s the first character to get a spline bubble in this comic strip. I don’t blame Waterton for storming off indignantly.

Soap worksI’ve left the background muted because I can easily add more colour if it’s needed but, as it’s transparent watercolour, I can’t remove it if I overdo it.

Soap Bubbles

confrontationThe confrontation between Charles Waterton and Edward Thornhill Simpson the soap manufacturer is rather wordy. It wasn’t until I printed a paper copy at the final size that I could see that the font was larger than it needed to be.

In this frame I’ve dropped a scan my pen and watercolour  into a layout that I’ve set up in the comic strip creation program Manga Studio EX5.

soap bubbles

Although in this second version the type looks rather small on screen, it is still a bit larger than is necessary to make it legible in print but it’s small enough to give a bit of breathing space around the speech bubbles.

Waterton in Watercolour

cmyk versionI saved the first image in RGB (red, green, blue) format, the recommended method for viewing on screen, the second in CMYK (cyan, magenta, yellow, black) which supposedly gives the best results when printing but I prefer the colour cast of RGB, even on the printed version from my colour laser. Neither version manages to capture the transparency of the original watercolour artwork. A professional printer will, I’m sure, make a better job of it.

The typeface is Hannotate SC Regular, set in a italics in the second version. I might hand letter the final version but for the moment this is a useful way of setting up the design of each frame of the comic strip. There might be a few tweaks to script and it will be easier to accommodate those if I don’t commit to hand written text at this stage.


In Search of Sea Monsters

sea monsters comicMy first attempt at putting together a comic strip using Manga Studio EX5. Still a lot to learn, but I’ve managed the basics. On a short trip to Hornsea last September, we’d taken Map Art Lab with us for some crafty inspiration and the project that we had in mind was to design our own version of the sea monsters that were drawn as decorations on maps during the age of exploration.

Mr Darwin Welcome

Tour of Walton Park rough‘Mr Darwin Welcome. Delighted you have come to Yorkshire’ is the opening caption, spoken by Charles Waterton from the top branches of an elm tree to Darwin, then in his mid-thirties, midway between the voyage of The Beagle and the publication of The Origin of Species.

It’s a complex double-page spread but you’ve got to start somewhere so this very rough rough suggests how we can slot in the main aspects of a tour of Waterton’s sanctuary for wildlife at Walton Park. You could really extend this one tour into a twelve page comic story in its own right but that’s all the space we have for the last forty years of Waterton’s life.

I would so like to have heard a discussion between Darwin and Waterton about the Nondescript, Waterton’s enigmatic ape-man creation. Did it give Darwin the idea for his Descent of Man?!

And here’s another Darwin/Waterton which regrettably we’re unable to follow up in this brief comic strip biography. Here’s Darwin recalling his medical student days in Edinburgh;

‘I heard Audubon deliver some interesting discourses on the habits of North American birds, sneering somewhat unjustly at Waterton. By the way, a negro lived in Edinburgh, who had travelled with Waterton and gained his livelihood by stuffing birds, which he did excellently; he gave me lessons for payments, and I used often to go sit with him for he was a very pleasant and intelligent man.’

Charles Darwin, Autobiography

Charles Darwin, drawn for a student project in 1975 on the graphic design course at Leeds College of Art.
Charles Darwin, drawn for a student project in 1975 on the graphic design course at Leeds College of Art.

young darwinAlso in Darwin’s autobiography there’s a passage which echoes Charles Waterton’s childhood. Darwin recalls; ‘To my deep mortification my father once said to me “You care for nothing but, shooting, dogs and rat catching and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.”‘

He and Waterton had so much in common!

Rough Stuff

rough for comicAt last, I’ve had a look through the script for the Charles Waterton comic and I’m onto the first pencil roughs stage, quickly going through the scenes doing what in the theatre would be called blocking in; planning the movement of characters. Even with something as chaotic as a punch-up with poachers I don’t want to keep changing the point of view too much so that, for instance, the character on the left is inexplicably on the right in the next frame. Based on a true incident recalled by Charles Waterton, this near fatal fracas ends up with a touch of Laurel and Hardy slapstick because, Waterton tells us, the poacher ran away with his hat and he ended up with the poacher’s.

Despite having read the Dummies book and watching several video tutorials, I’m still struggling to get up to speed with Manga Studio EX4 but at least it is easy to draw up the panels to see how much action I need to fit onto each page. I might very well draw the panels by hand in the final artwork, I haven’t decided on that yet, but at this stage I’m happy to have a grid to work in. Obviously I wouldn’t go for such thick ruled borders alongside my pen and ink drawings.

I can see the advantage of getting friends in to choreograph the fight and take reference photographs but at the moment fast pencil sketches, getting the gist of the action, are all that I need.

Bark to the Drawing Board

roughsbuttonI’ve been tweaking the badge featuring Tilly, the bookshop Welsh collie. As I’m used to drawing her looking down on her, I’d missed the detail that she has a black beard and ginger throat. It makes a surprising difference to her character.

No room for a book, so we’ve given her a pair of reading glasses.

Link; the Rickaro Bookshop on High Street Horbury, home of Tilly’s Young Readers’ Club which is soon to be launched.

King of the Meadow

Biscuit and friendThis is when it takes so long to get through the Christmas cards, when I start getting tempted to draw cartoons in the neighbours’ cards.

Biscuit is a pony with attitude problems but I’m not sure who would come out on top if there was a contest to see who was King of the Meadow, Biscuit or that bruiser of the black and white cat. He’s the kind of cat you see trotting down the road with a vole in his mouth and he’s been known to bust through a neighbour’s cat-flap and push the resident cats away from their food to eat it himself.

The Pheasants are Revolting

A couple of years ago, I drew a rough of this for one of the exercises in Drawing Words and Writing Pictures and, as I’m using it in an article, I’ve enjoyed working on a final version.

pheasant comic strip

 I traced my rough (below) in pencil onto layout paper, then scanned and added the colour in Photoshop.

I’m reading Teamwork Means that You Can’t Pick the Side That’s Right, one of Scott Adams’ Dilbert books and decided that I’d try graded backgrounds like he does, fading gradually from dark  to light.

Hope that I’ll get the chance to try some more comic strips but I’ve got a lot lined up for the autumn.
pheasant cartoonThe squirrel went from being demented in the rough to looking evil in the final version, which is a shame because that might suggest that he deliberately dropped the coconut shell. I was aiming at making him manically determined rather than evil.

Link; ‘The Pheasants are Revolting’ rough version, October 2012.