Category Archives: Illustrating Children’s Books

Yoko Tanaka – Emotion In Detail

Y Tanaka holding ME 2

Looking carefully at one of Yoko Tanaka’s images rewards you with details that on a quick perusal you could easily miss. They are feather-light, with the delicacy of a dragonfly’s wing.

Yoko Tanaka Magician's Elephant 2 detail

I met Yoko through Rotem Moscovich, an editor at Hyperion Publishing who saw her in New York last Fall and thoughtfully introduced us to each other over e-mail. Yoko has lived in London since 2011 and Rotem knew that I had recently relocated here.

I have enjoyed talking with Yoko and learning a bit about her process and approach to imagery. She was kind enough to consent to my featuring her on this blog, and invited me to her studio.


There is an ethereal, dreamlike quality to Yoko’s illustrations. Monochromatic in tone, the elements emerge out of shadows as if lit by the moon. Since her paintings are often dark with a limited, earthy palette, she says she receives many jobs whose stories deal with “winter, snow, night, death, witches and magic, and children with problem parents.” She is excited that her next picture book project has “100% happy components.”

Yoko Tanaka with Magician's Elephant Chap 1

There is a sadness in many of the pieces, but there is humor as well. Each face tells a story. There are no abbreviations when it comes to elements that convey emotion. Emotion is a word Yoko uses frequently when talking about her work. It is the element she strives to communicate visually. She succeeds.

Yoko Tanaka Magicians Elephant Chap 1 detail

It surprised me to learn that Yoko first studied Law in Japan, her native country, before moving to California in 2000 to study design. She was then accepted to Art Center College in Pasadena where she changed direction to study painting, intending to become a gallery artist. Her first painting was of a large coffee cup.

She enjoys painting on a bigger scale, but that isn’t practical for reproduction, and her current studio space is small. Her illustration work is done to size or slightly larger (which is tiny for the amount of detail she includes).

It was literary agent Steve Malk who first encouraged her to pursue illustration rather than gallery work. She has been working with Steve since 2005. One of the first book contracts Steve brought to her was to illustrate Kate DiCamillo’s The Magician’s Elephant for Candlewick Press in 2008.

Y Tanaka-ME cover_04


Four months is Yoko’s ideal amount of time for a children’s book project; one month to sketch and three months to paint. She doesn’t like projects to go on much longer than that. One project at a time is better for her than overlapping jobs.


Yoko says that ideas don’t come to her while she is sitting at her drawing table. Driving a car is where she prefers to do her thinking – in quiet isolation, following a well-known route. In London, she walks instead.

When she gets an idea, it comes to her fully formed, in 3-D, sometimes even with sounds and smells. She then sketches it with pencil and paper as quickly as possible. Revisions are relatively few. She will use Photoshop to add color and value for preliminaries to show clients, but her finished work is usually done in acrylic paints on illustration board.

Y Tanaka-ME CHAP9_01 Y Tanaka-ME CHAP9_02 Y Tanaka-ME CHAP9_03 Y Tanaka-ME CHAP9_04

Yoko recently completed a cover for a new edition of The Magician’s Elephant as part of Candlewick’s reissue of five of DiCamillo’s books in their Fall/Winter 2015 catalog. The publisher wanted a brighter palette with the animal in the center of the composition, in keeping with the rest of the paperback collection.

Y Tanaka-ME new cover

Yoko also showed me the art she created for the first edition of Tiny Pencil, an art-zine “devoted to the lead arts.” These illustrations are done in graphite, not her usual medium. She used stencils and chamois cloth to create the gradations of value. The images have a ghost-like quality that is both poignant and spooky.

Y Tanaka holding Tiny Pencil 1

Y Tanaka Tiny Pencil 1 detail

Y Tanaka Tiny Pencil 2

Y Tanaka Tiny Pencil 2 detail

I am grateful to Yoko for taking the time to welcome me to her studio, and for sharing her ideas and process, as well as her time. I look forward to seeing more of her work in the future, perhaps on a gallery wall as well as in books.

Y Tanaka balcony arrangement




The Museum of Childhood

Museum of Childhood entry

Last Wednesday, I visited the Victoria & Albert Museum of Childhood in London’s Bethnal Green area.

This is not a simply a children’s museum, though many thousands of children visit here each year.  This museum houses the British “national collection of childhood-related objects and artifacts.” The extensive array ranges from the 1600s to modern times.

As you enter the exhibit area, the signage includes this quote from Plato:

“You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation.”

So, Plato isn’t just talking about children here? He was implying that adults should be observed playing too? Those Greeks.

It would be a hardened and steely adult who would not feel the pull towards play when viewing this collection. No matter what age you are, you will see items that remind you of toys and games you played with as a child, and the rest will make you envious of the children who played with them before they became museum pieces.

Isn’t that writers and illustrators of children’s books are supposed to be able to do –  access the emotions and wonderment of being a child? This museum would be a worthwhile field trip for any of us.

Troll Dolls-Denmark(Troll dolls are what I played with as a child. I spent many hours making clothes for them and styling their luxurious hair.)

Viewing the collection as an illustrator, it was fascinating to see the progression of imagery through time and across cultures.

Game of Goose-Italy-1750The Game of Goose, Italian, 1750.

Cloth toy owlSoft toy owl, designed by Kristin Baybars for Ostrobogulous, England, 1964.

My favorite part of the exhibit was the Optical Toys section. Some of these toys use special visual effects – tricks of the eye – to make two-dimensional pictures appear to be three-dimensional. Others make pictures move, or appear to move.

Below are various views of a teleorama from Germany, circa 1800-1820.  teleorama 1-Germanyteleorama 2-Germany teleorama-GermanyI think making a teleorama of sorts could be a fun project to do with children. If I could figure out the telegraphing part.

P1020361 P1020363Magic lantern slides, 1890 – 1900. Made in Germany by Gebrüder Bing & Planck.

P1020368 P1020367Kaleidoscopic lantern slides, 1850-80. Using a double rackwork mechanism, these slides show a changing pattern of colors by turning a handle.

Le Phenakistiscope discs detail Le Phenakistiscope discDisks for a Phenakistiscope from the late 1800s.

viewing Praxinoscope 1880By looking through slits into a mirror while spinning the disk of a Praxinoscope, the pictures appear to move.

These and other such moving-picture toys led to the invention of modern moving-picture technologies,

Movie Makerwhich then led to the invention of toys like the Movie Maker, 1960-1970, made by the Arnold Arnold Toy Company, USA;

Star Wars slide setthe Star Wars Slide Projector set;

Early computer gameand, eventually, computer games.

And then there were the toys that really do move, like the amazing automata of the French company Roullet et Decamps, 1870-1880.

cat emerges from the hat, sticking out its tongye to the sound of a music boxThis cat emerges from the hat, while sticking out its tongue to the sound of a music box.

Rabbit in a cabbage, French 1870-1880, Roylet et DecampsThis rabbit rises out of his cabbage while wiggling his ears and munching.

plays ‘Rigoletto’ and ‘Carmen’ opera tunesThis French monkey musician, 1870-80, plays ‘Rigoletto’ and ‘Carmen’ opera tunes. This wasn’t a toy for children. Adults got to play with this one.

cuckoo on wheelsThough far less elaborate in mechanism or decoration, this hand-carved and hand-painted wooden cuckoo on wheels is also beautiful. Pressing down on the bird’s tail makes the white-leather bellows create bird-like noises. A traditional toy from Germany, circa 1900.

Lajkonik horsemanThis ‘Lajkonik’ horseman is from Poland, 1958. When pulled along, a wire swings the horseman’s club.

Russian musical bearA clockwork Russian bear plays music on it’s balalaika.

wind-up toy monkeyA Chinese wind-up monkey, circa 1970.

Clockwork bugJapanese clockwork bug that jumps around when wound, circa 1950-70.

1940-ishMarx Company, New YorkTin Plate novelty toy1940s tin plate merrymakers. The Marx Company, New York.

animatronics 2 animatronics 1Lots of robotics. Even some robots.

Of course, an exhibit of toys that move must include toy cars.

Hillman Minx car The Hillman Minx battery operated car, made in the 1960s in England by the Tri-ang company.
Pedal carThe Royal Prince pedal car, also by Tri-ang, England, 1930.

Chevrolet blanc et noirThe sleek Blanche et Noir, made in France by Vilac, 1989.

And other vehicles with wheels.

wire motorcycle-Africa wire bicycle 3 wire bicycle 2-AfricaThese bikes were made in Africa from scrap wire, 1980 – 1983.

Puppets are moving toys that have taken to the stage.

PuppetsYellow Dwarf theatre, 1868The Yellow Dwarf theatre, 1868; a theatre made for one family and designed to perform one play, The Yellow Dwarf. The story comes from fairy tales published in France in 1697 by the Clountess D’Aulnoy.

St George and the Dragon puppet-1920-30A Saint George and the Dragon puppet, circa 1920-30.

paper puppetsA shadow puppet theatre, 1850s.

1963-70, EnglandAnd finally, one more toy that moves, as if by magic. England, 1963 – 70.

What I like so much about all the toys that move, or seem to move, or move with us, is the ingenuity and inventiveness involved on the part of the creator. The artists and craftspeople that invented these toys knew how to access their childlike imaginations to fill our hearts with wonder, which is something children, and adults, will always be drawn to.

Maybe creativity is really just another form of play. If so, it’s something I never want to grow out of.

Cloth Clown

The Illustration Cupboard

I must say, having to write a post every five weeks is getting me out of the house regularly. Each month I look for something to investigate that will fit into the realm of what Books Around The Table discusses (writing, illustration, children’s books, life…). Sometimes I have difficulty deciding which to choose.

This is more important than you may assume, as I find that as I no longer feel like a tourist here, I no longer head out sightseeing as often as I used to. Even in a city as exciting as London, one gets caught up in the regular, mundane tasks of life. It’s easy to miss out on something that comes to town for only a short while.

Someone in the local SCBWI group here posted on Facebook that Jane Ray was having a show at The Illustration Cupboard. I wasn’t sure if The Illustration Cupboard was a gallery, or someone’s closet, but it turned out to be a bit of both. It started twenty years ago in the spare bedroom of someone’s apartment, but it now occupies a space in the St. James’s art district of London.

Illustration cupboard storefront

I have been a fan of Jane Ray’s work for many years. She has a perceptive eye and a delicacy of detail that I enjoy, and a dark edge to her work that I appreciate, especially in the realm of children’s books.

These pieces are all spot illustrations from the book The Lost Happy Endings. They are exquisite in person. My poor pics do not do them justice.

Jane Ray-Birds in leaves and trees-The Lost Happy Endings

Jane Ray-Grey Squirrel Red Fox-The Lost Happy Endings

Jane Ray-Owl Frog and Other Such Creatures-The Lost Happy Endings

I didn’t realize until going to the gallery that Jane Ray is a London native. The gallery has works on display by other artists that are favorites of mine, as well as many whom I’m not familiar with. I am finding there are a number of children’s book authors and illustrators here in the U.K. that we in the states have seen little or nothing of. Some have made it across the Atlantic, but it would seem to be relatively few. It’s like discovering a library in an alternate universe – one full of wonderful books that I have never seen, yet all in English! We can get so isolated in the U.S.

Illustration Cupboard bookshelf
Here are a few other pieces from the gallery’s walls:

Shaun Tan is an Australian illustrator whose work is fascinating.

Shaun Tan-Bull & Grass

Check out his book of sketches and paintings if you can. It’s wonderful.

Shaun Tan-The Bird King

You will no doubt recognize the style of David Vinicombe from his work with Nick Park at Aardman Animations.

David Vinicombe-Sheep Tower-Big

Brian Wildsmith is another British illustrator whose work I have long admired for it’s vibrancy and exuberance. He builds his images with both collage and paint. It is always a thrill to see works like these up close.

Brian Wildsmith-Tales from Arabian Nights Front Cover Brian Wildsmith-detail from The Arabian Nights front cover Brian Wildsmith-another detail from The Arabian Nights front cover

John Lawrence is a renowned English wood engraver. This piece was created especially for the gallery’s Summer Envelope Exhibition 2013.

John Lawrence-Envelope III

Neil Packer is a British artist whose work is new to me. I am now an enthusiastic fan.

Neil Packer-Odysseus on his way to Ithaca Neil Packer-The Stone Ship Outside the Harbour

Neil Packer-Tiresias the Blind Prophet-The Odyssey Neil Packer-detail from Tiresias the Blind Prophet-The Odyssey

So much to discover here in London. Looking forward to next month’s quest.

An Afternoon at Foster’s

Fosters Books-Master Stephen

Imagine what the quintessential British bookstore might look like. If you picture a little shop in an 18th century building stocked untidily with old and unusual books from floorboards to rafters, then you could be thinking of Foster’s Bookshop in Chiswick, London.

The owner Stephen Foster is a second generation bookseller who bills himself as a purveyor of “outmoded educational tools and antiquated entertainment devices.” He looks the part, don’t you think?

I had stopped in the shop a few times since moving here, and thought it would make a good blog post source, so I made an appointment with Stephen to come in and photograph some of his children’s books – if he wouldn’t mind.

What I had thought would be a half-hour visit turned into the better part of an afternoon, talking and viewing.

The first volume he took down from his shelves was a 1906 (U.S.) edition of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, by J. M. Barrie, illustrated by Arthur Rackham.

Rackham-Peter Pan-book coverRackham-Peter Pan-title page

Stephen told me that he grew up near Kensington Gardens and that he and his siblings visited the park often when they were young. Walking through the park where Peter Pan’s stories took place must have been wondrous for a child. Would that not make you believe in fairies, too?

Rackham-Peter Pan-little boatRackham-Peter Pan-hoursRackham-Peter Pan-web

Most Americans think of Peter Pan as Disney portrayed him in the 1953 animated film – an impish young boy in a pea green suit and elf slippers. That is nothing like J. M. Barrie’s original character as shown by Rackham – an infant wandering the park and befriending it’s otherworldly denizens after closing time.

Rackham-Peter Pan-boat under bridge Rackham-Peter Pan-kite Rackham-Peter Pan-swansRackham-Peter Pan-tulipRackham-Peter Pan-flying Rackham-Peter Pan-king Rackham-Peter Pan-Broad WalkRackham-Peter Pan-fairies Rackham-Peter Pan-hidingRackham-Peter Pan-stars

I clearly remember the first time I saw illustrations by Arthur Rackham. It was in a little bookstore owned by a friend of my parents, and she carried a number of publications from Green Tiger Press, which specializes in reproducing antique and vintage illustrations. I was a pre-teen who was still enthralled by fairy tales, and who drew a lot. Rackham was like God.

A few years later I visited London with my parents, and was ecstatic to find whole books about Arthur Rackham that I could purchase and take home with me. I spent hours looking at the illustrations in those books, wishing I could see more of his work, but 19th century picture books were not something a teenager could easily access in the U.S. in the 1970s, at least not in my home town in California. I had to be content with the few images that had been chosen for reproduction.

Until last week.

Next Stephen pulled down a 1905 edition of Rip Van Winkle, by Washington Irving, also illustrated by Rackham.

Rackham-Rip V W-cover Rackham-Rip V W-title page Rackham-Rip V W-intro page

Because there were so many illustrations in each volume Stephen showed me, only a few of which I had seen before, I was determined to take as many pictures as possible to share here. The photos aren’t great – I was taking them under poor lighting on the only space in the shop that wasn’t piled high with books and prints – but I hope they will still give you some of the thrill that I felt turning those pages to reveal so many wonderful images.

Rackham-Rip V W-certain biscuit-bakersRackham-Rip V W-kite Rackham-Rip V W-These fairy mountains Rackham-Rip V W-hen-pecked Rackham-Rip V W-daughter and grand daughterRackham-Rip V W-window Rackham-Rip V W-his knees smote Rackham-Rip V W-Kaatskill MountainsRackham-Rip V W-making friendsRackham-Rip V W-new moon Rackham-Rip V W-postscript

I learned a few things from studying Rackham as a teen that I still keep in mind when I work: Don’t just illustrate what the author describes – imagine scenes beyond the text; if you limit your palette to a only three or four colors, nothing in your image will “clash” with anything else. It is part of why Rackham’s illustrations are so pleasingly quiet, visually.

My favorite image of Rackham’s as a teen was from Undine. The coquettish creature coming up from the sea had a lot of appeal to me then. I wondered what that look in her eyes was about, and what story the other pictures from the book would tell. I had only seen a few.


And there it was, between Spike Milligan and The Hobbit.

Rackham-Undine-cover of 1912 US edition

Okay, so I went all out here. I took photos of pretty much every image in the book, just in case there was another teenager out there who wondered the same thing about this girl.

The story is similar to The Little Mermaid. Lots of romance and melodrama and a moralistic ending.

Rackham-Undine-frontespieceRackham-Undine-Contents tableRackham-Undine-webbed pair Rackham-Undine-list of illustrations headRackham-Undine-This is the story Chapter I How the knight came to the fishermanRackham-Undine-fearsome forest Chapter IIHow Undine had come to the Fisherman Rackham-Undine-beautiful little girl Rackham-Undine-infancyRackham-Undine-flood Rackham-Undine-Knight Rackham-Undine-false goldRackham-Undine-storm “At length they all pointed thier stained fingers at me” Rackham-Undine-Little niece and KülhlebornRackham-Undine-framed spotCHAPTER X HOW THEY FARED IN THE CITY Bertalda Rackham-Undine-a mark“Bertalda in the Black Valley” “Soon she was lost to sight in the Danube” “He could see Undine beneath the crystal vault” CHAPTER XIVTHE BLACK VALLEYRackham-Undine-Chapter XVIIRackham-Undine-bearded spotCHAPTER XVIIIHOW THE KNIGHT HULDBRAND IS MARRIED CHAPTER XIXHOW THE KNIGHT BULDBRAND WAS BURIED

Even the endpapers are beautiful.


I hope this wasn’t too much of a good thing for you.

If you like old books and happen to be in London, you should add Foster’s Bookshop to your sightseeing list. It will be worth the tube ride to Chiswick.

Fosters Books-more books

I plan to go back and peruse the shelves further, and I’m sure another blog post will come of it. At least, that will be my excuse for taking more photos…


In The House of Illustration

blake-arrow sign

I have been living in London almost three weeks now. My jet lag has worn off. My post-flight cold is gone. I am settling in and learning how to get around this amazing city.

For my first post as “foreign correspondent” for Books Around The Table, I chose to visit Sir Quentin Blake‘s “Inside Stories”, the inaugural exhibition at the recently  opened House of Illustration gallery space.

House of Illustration was begun in 2002 by a group of UK illustrators, led by Blake, to establish the world’s first “home for the art of illustration.” Over the next decade, the founders worked to raise awareness and garner funding to find a permanent home. In July of this year, they opened its doors in Granary Square, near King’s Cross, London.

House of Illustration’s gallery and education space is the place to see, learn about, and enjoy illustration in all its forms, from adverts to animation, picture books to political cartoons and scientific drawings to fashion design.”

Blake pledged his massive archive of original drawings and illustrated books to House of Illustration, so it is fitting that the opening show be of his work.

I know Sir Quentin Blake’s work best from his illustrations for Roald Dahl’s books, but he has done hundreds of others (not all of them for children) that many of us from the US aren’t as familiar with. It was a wonderful opportunity to see so many of his illustrations at once, but even more valuable to see his thoughts, notes and preliminary sketches included as well.


The entry to the exhibit immediately immerses you in Blake’s world with a floor-to-ceiling drawing of his studio space. The case beneath presents you with insights into how Blake approaches his art.

Blake-What does

(You must excuse the poor quality of these interior photographs, as I was surreptitiously snapping these shots with my smart phone on the sly. I risked admonishment for you, so please don’t turn me in to the authorities).


blake-the essence

Q Blake-sketches for the Twits

Q Blake-Mr & Mrs Twit

One entire room was devoted to Michael Rosen’s Sad Book. This was the part of the show that impressed me most deeply. Blake managed to balance sadness and joy with delicacy and subtlety. Perfect in its gentleness. I’m still thinking about those images.

Q Blake-Happy Sad face

Blake-Sometimes sad

Blake-one candle

Blake-many candles

Blake defines illustration as “drawing with a purpose.” That is the most accurate, least condescending definition that I have heard to date. It doesn’t try to fit it somewhere along a hierarchy between fine art and craft. It just says what it is.

And this is just the beginning at House of Illustration. There are four more exhibitions scheduled through June 2015, and I plan on being here for all of them. Stay tuned!
To view two BBC interviews with Sir Quentin, visit this page, and this one.


Screen Shot 2014-08-22 at 11.14.41 PM

“Boldly and bluntly simplify the subject so as to reveal its true essence.”
– Kiyoshi Saito, (1907-1971)

I have spent the last three months preparing to move from Seattle – where my husband and I have lived since 1986 – to London, England. I fly out at the end of the month. These last few weeks have been a lesson in letting go.

I have been going through everything we own to clear the house for incoming renters. I have picked up every object, pondered it, and decided whether to ship, store, or discard it.

This has gotten me thinking about the process of editing.

Editing your life is like editing your own personal narrative. I am an accumulator by nature, but not a collector, nor a hoarder. The difference is that I enjoy getting rid of stuff, if only to clear the clutter to let the better bits shine.

When I am writing I follow the same process. I have less confidence in my words than my imagery, so I don’t mind keeping my words to a minimum. If I can prove to myself that every word has a reason to be there, I feel I have created the cleanest, least cluttered prose possible. It’s less risky that way. Clear the knick-knacks off your literary shelf.

Screen Shot 2014-08-22 at 11.15.36 PM

In my artwork I am constantly editing and revising. I strive to follow the words quoted above. Kiyoshi Saito is a contemporary Japanese woodblock artist and a master of selective visual editing in his imagery. Choosing what details to include and what to leave out reveals the aspects most elemental to an idea.

Get rid of the lesser bits. Pack them away or let them go. Only set your choicest pieces out for display.

My next post will be written from the UK. Just think of me as the Books Around The Table foreign correspondent for the foreseeable future. I look forward to exploring new territory and sending back the best bits to share with all of you!

And now, back to packing!

Screen Shot 2014-08-22 at 11.17.17 PM



UA-Spring- L llustration-1928

Recently, I was looking through a French magazine from 1928 – L’Illustration – and came across a series of images of the seasons. The artist is not credited, unfortunately, but the work is a lovely example of the chiaroscuro printmaking approach.

Highlight and shadow. Clear and obscure. Chiaroscuro has always been one of my favorite terms and techniques in art. In printmaking specifically, chiaroscuro refers to the use of high contrast tones, usually in a monochromatic field, to indicate volume. The technique goes back to the early 1500s, and began as a method of mimicking in print the look of chiaroscuro drawings.

These artists created so with such a limited tonal palette. So simple, yet so complex.

Ludolf Businck-Moses with the Tablets of the Law

Since early books were typeset and printed by hand on presses, woodcuts were the best method of illustration. They could be inked and printed repeatedly using the same methods used for printing the type. As long as books were printed on letterpresses, chiaroscuro woodcuts continued to be used.

Bartolomeo Coriolano-Battle of the Giants

Bartolomeo Coriolano- Sleeping Cupid-mid-17th century

The Miraculous Draught of Fishes-c 1523-27

Each tone required a separate block to be cut. Here are three plates by Christoffel Jegher from The History of Wood Engraving that deconstruct a two-block chiaroscuro woodcut.

Chiaroscuro demo 1

Chiaroscuro demo 3

Chiaroscuro demo 2

Though now largely forgotten as a technique, chiaroscuro was common in illustrations through the early part of the last century, until offset and color lithography printing technology became more common. Woodcuts & Wood Engravings: How I Make Them, by Hans Alexander Mueller (1939), illustrates beautifully how to make complex images from only two layers of color.

H A Mueller

It is amazing to see how two flat images can create so much depth when combined.

H A Mueller 2

These two illustrations, from Designs For You – To Trace or Copy by F. J. Garner (1950), also use only two tones to indicate volume and pattern with concise efficiency.

F J Garner-bottle design

F J Garner- gay tie designs

“Bright Water,” by Elton Bennett, is a serigraph print from the later half of the last century. He used only two screens, with some color variation in the ink application of the lighter color, to create this print of water flowing through boulders.

Elton Bennett-Bright Water-1950s

I was inspired to try this chiaroscuro technique in lino-cut for an illustration I did for Unix Magazine many years ago (note the floppy disk).

M Chodos-Irvine-Unix Mag

I think you can still see the influence of chiaroscuro woodcuts in this relief print of mine “Minotaurus” from 2010.

Margaret Chodos-Irvine-Minotaurus

I’m not sure how chiaroscuro could be applied in illustration for children’s books. It seems too monochromatic for today’s day-glo, technically enhanced, 3-D world, but maybe it will be something worth exploring one day as a calmer alternative.

H A Mueller-Ex Libris


Days o’ The Week

Days o the week pattern

Routines don’t seem to be part of my genetic coding. My brain must be lacking the necessary programing that makes repetition easy and comfortable. I can do it, but it doesn’t come naturally.

Unlike my husband, who gets up in the morning and proceeds with his usual, ordered, getting-ready-for-work tasks, I get up, and invariably think, What now? Should I take a shower first, or go get some breakfast? Or maybe I could read a bit more in that book I started last night before I get up… There are so many possibilities.

Maybe being self-employed and able to set my own schedule is responsible for this deficiency, or maybe my inability to naturally settle into a routine is why I’m self-employed.

It’s different when I am working on a book contract or illustration job (when I know exactly what I need to do each day – work till the project is done), but right now I don’t have any deadlines pending, so when I get to my workspace, I often can’t decide what to do first. I should probably work on that story idea I’ve been playing with, but working on that print I started last week is so much more fun than writing, but I also want to decorate this box I have with cuttings from old cookie tins… Sometimes I feel like I flit around my studio like a butterfly in a rose garden.

This is not something I am proud of, or even particularly happy about. I envy people who don’t have to think so hard about how to proceed with their day.

For example, consider the early American settlers (well, the women anyway) who followed the prescribed adage that divided their existence into seven tasks, one for each day of the week:


Monday = Wash

Tuesday = Iron

Wednesday = Sew

Thursday = Market

Friday = Clean

Saturday = Bake

Sunday = Rest


Iowa State historical society

Granted, that was a time when doing the wash took from dawn till dusk, and this arduously tedious life was probably not terribly fun, but can you imagine having only seven things to worry about accomplishing each week? No emails to answer, no dance lessons or soccer practice to take your kids to, no meetings to prepare for and attend. And a whole day set aside just to relax, without your needing to feel guilty that you aren’t being more productive.

I’ve been thinking about this idea – having one chore for each day of the week – but instead of household duties, I wonder if I could organize it to be a more work-related guideline for someone like me, who has a lot of creative things I want to do, and even more that I should be doing, but who has difficulty making decisions and getting into a regular routine.

So, how about a week that looks like this?


Monday = Write

Tuesday = Draw

Wednesday = Design

Thursday = Make

Friday = Sell

Saturday = Read

Sunday = Rest


Only one task per day, like a pioneer woman who has to sweat away at drafting her designs before sunset. I will still have to figure out how to still get all my emails answered and errands run and meetings attended, plus the other twenty-three items on my to-do list – not to mention housework! – but maybe I’ll try this new schedule out, at least during my usual working hours.

Simplify. Concentrate. Limitations can be useful. Narrow walls make it easier to focus straight ahead.

Is this idea even possible in our modern, hectic world? Am I crazy to attempt such a strict regimen considering the lack of imposed structure I am used to?

We’ll see. I’m not going to start embroidering it on any tea towels quite yet…

Sunday dishtowel detail


Eleanor Fortescue Brickdale-mermaid

Contemplating bird wings for my last post got me pondering other animal attributes we humans envy, which then led me to thinking about mermaids.

Arthur Rackham-To Hear the Seamaids Music-A Midsummer Nights Dream

I’m not sure what it is about mermaids that is so alluring. Is it our fascination with beings that can exist in multiple realms? Why else would we fantasize about having fishtails instead of legs? Personally, I think I’d rather be able to fly like a bird.


Yet, when I was a young girl I dreamed of being Marine Boy‘s helpful mermaid friend, Neptina – or at least getting hold of some of that oxy-gum . . .

Marine Boy and Fortina

The mythology of mermaids goes back thousands of years and across multiple cultures.

Russian print-mermaid and merman

Mola-mermaid fishing

Mexican folk art hanging mermaids

Jose Francisco Borges-Iemanja

Often they were considered dangerous, luring men to their doom with their sensual beauty and seductive voices.

Medieval mermaids besiege ship

They were known to be vain, fond of looking at themselves in mirrors and combing their hair.

Medieval mermaid with mirror

Some theorize that what early mariners saw as mermaids were actually manatees.

National Geographic-manatee love shot

Really? Those poor sailors . . .

But by the 17th century mermaids had moved from the feared to the fantastic,

Merbabies birdbath at Versailles

Mermaid fountain at Versailles

the romanticized,

John William Waterhouse-A Mermaid

landing eventually in the realm of fairy tales, the most famous being Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Little Mermaid.”

Vilhelm Pedersen-The Little MermaidAndersen’s story was a tragic tale of misguided love and sacrifice, a subject of many beautiful illustrations.

Arthur Rackam-Fairy Tale mermaid sillouettesJeannie Harbour-Little Mermaid

Maxwell Armfield-The Little Mermaid

Edmund Dulac-She Held His Head Above The Water

And then Disney got hold of her and she became the insipid creature many girls now idolize. At least Neptina had some spine.

Disneys Little Mermaid Wallpaper

One day at an outdoor community pool about five summers ago my daughters and I watched, mesmerized, as a young girl wearing a mermaid tail lowered herself into the water and started swimming around, mermaid style. From a distance, she looked amazingly realistic and the scene, in spite of it being set in a chlorinated, square enclosure, was charming. After she removed her tail (the pretense looked like hard work) we went up and spoke to her. She said she got the idea and the DIY mermaid costume instructions off of YouTube.

Currently you can find thousands of videos online of people “mermaiding.” My teen-aged daughter follows a site called Project Mermaids where models and celebrities pose for photos in elaborate mermaid costumes to demonstrate “how precious our ocean and beaches are.”

Maybe it’s not just the idea of being able to exist in multiple realms that makes us envy those with wings and tails, but also the idea of defying gravity, either underwater or above ground.

I guess it’s human nature to want to be more than human.

Unknown artist-mermaid




Birds placemat

“Birds have wings; they’re free; they can fly where they want when they want. They have the kind of mobility many people envy.” – Roger Tory Peterson

I must be one of those people to whom the famed naturalist was alluding. I find that things with wings, especially bird wings, have a special attraction. Real birds fascinate me. How they have evolved, the way they communicate, their behavior. And of course, how they move. This attraction extends to other winged creatures as well – angels, putti, mythological characters. Anything with wings on it seems imbued with magic.

Cherubs-Neopolitan-mid 18th c

Have you watched the PortlandiaPut A Bird On It” skit? Now, I enjoy the humor in that show as only a true urban Northwesterner can, but since that episode aired, I can no longer indulge my bird love without a twinge of shame. Damn them. Don’t they understand that we just envy birds’ mobility?

M Chodos-Irvine -Get Out Of Jail Free charm

So bear with me while I bare my feathered soul.

There is something about birds that I find comfort in. I don’t collect birds like a philatelist collects stamps. Rather, such items accumulate around me like pigeons around a cafe. They inspire me. Why shouldn’t I want bird imagery on things I have around me in my nest, so to speak?

Such as outside my window, on a metalwork piece by artist Deborah Mersky.

Deborah Mersky-Crow metal hanging

Or on the walls of my home, as in one of my favorite paintings by Joe Max Emminger, “Bird Moon.”

Joe Max Emminger-Bird Moon

And on jewelry.

MOP bird pin

Blue bird and moon pin

Winged school bus pin

Japanese bird badge mount set

I also have amassed a large number of bird related postcards.

I H Jungnickel-Der Hahn als Festordner

Bill Reid-Haida-Raven and the First Men

Pablo Picasso-The Dove

Claude Coats-Disney production image for Snow White and The Seven Dwarfs

Crows-detail of Japanese screen-c 1650

Ruan Sidi-Jinshan folk art-Ducks Eat Rice

Along with this page from a Mary Poppins “Magic Paintless and Dot-to-Dot” coloring book by J. LaGrotta and E. Eringer for Disney Inc.

J LaGrotta and E Eringer-Disney Mary Poppins Magic Paintless and Dot-to-Dot

Of course, the works some of my favorite children’s book illustrators have wings too.

Julie Paschkis:Julie Paschkis-Word Bird-Flutter and Hum

Leo Lionni:Leo Lionni-Tico and the Go copy

Lizbeth Zwerger:Lizbeth Zwerger-Swan Lake

Wood engraving is a beautiful medium for portraying the delicacy of feathers. These are some of my favorite prints in that medium.

Sarah van Niekerk:Sarah van Niekerk-Jacobins in a Bay Tree

Eileen Mayo:Eileen Mayo-Two Doves-1958

John Buckland-Wright:John Buckland-Wright -Endymion-1943

This is a wood engraving of the sculpture of the Winged Victory of Samothrace by an uncredited illustrator, used as an advertisement for air power. It came from the now defunct scrap file at the Central branch of the Seattle Public Library.

Winged Victory of Samothrace-Airlines determine the destiny of nations-artist unknown

There are wings of inspiration in all sorts of places. I took this photo of some old airline signage from the Boeing Museum of Flight.

Boeing logo bird arrow

I went to Paris recently. Paris has wings everywhere you look.

Winged monument Paris

Winged Victory statue Paris

Wall decor painting - Louvre

So by now it shouldn’t surprise anyone that bird imagery shows up often in my work.

M Chodos-Irvine -Dreamer

M Chodos-Irvine -Cycnus

It helps to have some good reference materials. I have accumulated a number of  bird books, but there are a few that I use often. Birds In Flight, by Carrol L. Henderson, has excellent photos of birds on the wing. Any bird book by Roger Tory Peterson will be good. The World of Birds, by Peterson and James Fisher has good structural information, such as this page on the anatomy of the wing.

R T Peterson-wing anatomy

The “How To Draw” series from the 40s includes a handy instruction book on drawing and painting birds.

How To Draw and Paint Birds cover

Hunt makes it look so easy.

Lynn Bogue Hunt-How to Draw and Paint Birds-pg 14

Audubon’s illustrations are fun to peruse. His birds are placed in the most awkward positions, yet they are graceful in their own torqued way. I guess this is what you get when you are drawing from death, rather than life.

Audubon-White-tailed Kite

Birds and wings and feathered things. They tell a story of flight, of soaring, and of freedom. May they inspire you to make great art. Or at least put a bird on something.

Jean Honore Fragonard-The Cage