Monday, 29 October 2007

No Tricks, but a Treat for Halloween

This image is so old I'm quite embarassed to post it, a portfolio piece right from the beginning of my career when I was fresh out of college. Nevertheless it seems to fit the occasion, and has never been seen before in public, so there's the treat!

Happy Halloween!

Friday, 12 October 2007

Exhibition piece - "Hope"

This was submitted to a charity exhibition for victims of the war in Iraq.

Monday, 1 October 2007

Monday morning sketch

Is this someone I've met? I'm not altogether sure. The memory can play funny tricks on you.

Friday, 28 September 2007

couple of figures

Things are getting seriously busy now as deadlines approach, so in the absence of words here are some more sketchbook grabs to amuse.

Saturday, 22 September 2007

Digging up old work (an occasional slot)

I've been rummaging through some of my old work looking for material to show my agent. Often I end up getting distracted by the pieces that I turn up and forget what I was looking for in the first place.

This is one example, an exhibition piece from several years ago which I've always had a soft spot for. The tree was actually in my local park, I did an on-the-spot sketch and developed it into this illustration.

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

Tea Pot Torment

Why can't you find as decent western tea pot in Japan (or suburban Yokohama to be more specific)? Could this be a rant coming on? Yes it is.

So the story's this. My old tea pot broke it's spout in the dishwasher, so the missus and I set out to buy a new one. Off we marched to new town shopping mall paradise "Center Kita" with our hopes high.

Center Kita - the very name ("Center North") conjures up images of modern Japanese blandness. Twenty years ago it was nothing but rice paddies, now it's the home to not one, but three air-conditioned mega indoor malls, and all of them are filled with the same old chain-shops you'll find everywhere else around the city - Starbucks, Gap, Sanrio, Orange House, etc etc. Together with the next station down the line (the equally imaginatively named Center Minami (you guessed it - "Center South"), where there's yet another big duplicate shopping mall, the area is a stark example of the Japanese fixation on shopping. For there is utterly nothing else to do there, outside the malls the land is a windswept concrete nightmare of train lines, dual carriageways and stark apartment blocks. I dread to think what would happen to the area if people stopped shopping, it's a disaster waiting to happen.

Anyway, back to story. I'm looking for a large, 4 to 6 cup traditional teapot, but can we find one? No. In all these vast palaces of retail overindulgence there's not one shop that sells a good sized, well designed teapot. What do I mean exactly by "well designed"? This:

Yes we found teapots - we found square ones and we found triangular ones. We found glass ones and aluminium ones. Pots without steam holes, pots with big fat bases that will render the contents cold within minutes. Maybe fine for sticking flowers in, but useless for making tea. I found one teapot which had the shop/company logo emblazoned all over it, but I will not have my kitchen turned into free advertising space for some chain conglomerate company. Most frustratingly we actually found a lot of good miniature teapots - good for two cups, but nothing bigger. And that's where the crunch of realization finally hit me.

Shops don't sell larger teapots than two cups because, according to the rules of fashion, black tea is something for trendy housewives to occasionally sip with a girlfriend, consumption is not the cultural cornerstone multi-cup guzzling of your average Brit.

For all Japan's obsession with accumulating things foreign, western lifestyles are a different thing. Tea-drinking culture in Japan is focused on green tea, not black. These department-store malls are selling not only products, but also lifestyles, but these lifestyles are still only transient fashions, largely targeted at young women. It's easy for a Westerner to be misled into thinking that because all the shops are corporate chains or outlets filled with trendy international goods, that consumers themselves are becoming more "international". Even after twenty years in this country I still fall for it. But the truth is that for the average consumer (and these malls are all focused entirely on Mr and Mrs Average), it's all just shallow fashion. For the Shelley's, as an authentic quirky international family, if we want to find items to match our lifestyle we need to go shopping in quirky international towns, but they have become a great rarity in Japan now, squeezed out or transformed into these souless money-spinning malls.

So why can't I find a decent western tea pot in Japan? Because, despite the appearances of the shopping malls, this is still very much the East!

Monday, 17 September 2007

More machinery

Something else from the sketchbook. I find the more constraining the environment around me, (concrete jungle, crowds of people etc) the more I escape into fantasy.

Wednesday, 12 September 2007


It's not only faces I've been doodling during those increasingly rare occasions I get a seat on the train into Tokyo. One day these doodles might develop into a finished product, then again they might not. I don't really think about where I can take them too much, it's where the drawings take me that's more important. It's just good to scribble away without any agenda other than enjoying myself.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Sunday, 9 September 2007

More Faces

Here's another page of rambling pen lines from my pocket sketchbook.

Saturday, 8 September 2007

Sketchbook doodles

Recently I've been doodling faces a lot in my little note sketchbook, here's one page. All straight from the imagination, not so much observations of people around me. I regard it as a kind of imaginative work-out - free doodling without the pressures of meeting a brief. It's not for any specific project, though I'm actually preparing to begin work on the fifth Charlie Bone novel later in the autumn, so maybe some of these doodles will eventually appear in some form or other in the pages of the book.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

Family Photos

Okey, this is definitely the last post on my family, the howling wolves of deadlines are baying at the door, henceforth I'll be focused on the present and the tasks in hand.

However I just wanted to show what a wonderful tool Photoshop can be for retouching. As various older members of the family have passed on my father's house has become a repository for a growing collection of old family photos, some of them in very poor condition. So I've been scanning them in and doing what I can to make some of the more important shots more presentable. It's amazing what can be done:

Anne Hern (born 1850) - original scan of a very
faded photograph before retouching.

Anne Hern after painstaking cleaning up and
judicious use of Photoshop's light/shadow &
saturation tools.

The Shelley family around 1932, my father is the toddler propped on the back
of the bike. Original scan with nasty creases.

The same image after careful retouching with Photoshop's clone tool.

In such a way have I been avoiding work and thinking of my family. I've a lot of pictures of my mother's family too, but since she's now gone there's plenty of time to work on those. But its back to work now! As my forever practical wife says, I should worry more about providing for those still around me than those who are no longer with us!


I've been researching my family history for some time now. A couple of years ago my dad had reached a blank on tracing his grandfather, and asked me to see what I could find on the Net. For a history nut like me this was an invitation to open a door into the past - I was instantly hooked.

Since then I've not only traced my great grandfather, but his father in turn and generations before that. I've traced the Shelley line back to 1715 to the small village of Broadwell in Oxfordshire, which last year we visited when I was back in the UK. The biggest revelation was that the family name was originally Shayler, and was mysteriously changed to Shelley in the 1850's, so I've no connections to the poet or the miniature painter Shelley unfortunately. One of the other families in my tree, the Herns, I've traced back to the 17th Century. I've been lucky in that many of the names in my father's line are quite regionally localised, although other families with more common names I've been less successful with. Notably my mother's family in Wales have been difficult to trace beyond the 19th Century as Welsh names are all very similar, the records are just not clear enough. There are just too many Williams, James, Edwards and Davies.

But I live in hope. Now that my mother is gone I have almost no-one of that generation to refer to for information on the family, so the buck pretty well stops here. The research I've garnered is for future generations to preserve, if they so wish.

Of course this has absolutely nothing to do with art, other than a search for some sign of where my meager creative skills descend from. So far the strongest contender for an artistic heritage is my paternal grandmother's family, the Griffins, my great grandfather worked in a Birmingham engraver's office in the 19th century.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

Thwarted Summer Greeting

Here's an image I drew some time ago to celebrate the publication of Crockett Johnson's Magic Beach by Front Street in the US. I was invited to submit an homage illustration which would be posted with others on their website. I created it in an afternoon and emailed it over, but for some reason they never received the image, a fact which was overlooked until it was far too late.

Oh well! Had things worked out differently this summer, I'd intended to print it up as postcards and send it to publishers across the continents, but family circumstances intervened. I was hardly in a seasonal celebratory mood either of course. It seems this illustration is doomed forever to be hidden to the public. Well, not if I can help it, at least I can post it here on my blog!

Moving on

I've found the best way to cope with family loss is to concentrate on work, although I can't say I'm being particularly efficient at the moment. It's been a month since my mother's passing, and it's in frequent quiet moments that small details bring her memory sharply into mind, enough to make me stop whatever I'm doing. More particularly I worry about my father, alone now after 55 years of marriage. It's difficult to get enthusiastic about much around me in Yokohama, because I feel my right place is in the UK with him, rather than here the other side of the world. It's silly really, as Japan has been my home for 20 years, my career and family are rooted here. Nevertheless rather than pushing on with deadlines, I've been researching family history and doing other things that help me to place our lives into focus. These are the things that occupy my thoughts a lot of the time.

Though it may be hard to feel very creative right now, I've a lot of work to catch up with after three unscheduled weeks in the UK. Chief task is a 24 page picture book with November deadline for a Japanese publisher. I promise myself once I get stuck into it I'll be fine, but overcoming the first hurdles is not easy!

Monday, 27 August 2007

Funeral speech

We were offered a few short minutes to deliver some words during the funeral so I put together and presented this.

Our dearest Gwen

As we say our farewells
we remember the love and the selfless devotion you showed to your family and to your friends.

As a mother you've were an inspiration, a shining light of guidance,
who encouraged your children to pursue their dreams and aspirations.
As a companion and friend you were a comfort, with an openhearted enthusiasm for life, and generosity of spirit.

Gwen, ever prepared with a word of sage common sense.
Gwen, the socialite, an astute judge of character, for whom the warmth and companionship of those around meant everything.
Slow to anger, quick to empathize, your loyalty and compassion reached out to friends and family alike.
Gwen, bursting with spirit, sometimes eccentric, sometimes even scatterbrained
we loved you for it all.

You were a rock of support to all who have known you, the anchor of our family.
As you begin a new journey, the legacy of your life remains through your children and grandchildren, a precious legacy that will be preserved in our memories.

Spiritually you were always by the side of your loved ones no matter what. And still you remain by our sides now.

Thank you Gwen, for your grace. Thank you for your understanding, and for your insight.

Above all, thank you for your love.

Loss of my Mother

It seems those thundery late July skies were not celebrations, but omens of an awful tragedy.

My mother is gone.

An active, fit woman for her age, she went down with a stomach bug which felled her in three days. It was very sudden, very unexpected. No-one, least of all her doctor, thought it was a fatal illness, just a minor stomach upset. The official cause was septicemia brought on by gastroenteritis.

My father called me with the news and I caught the earliest flight back to the UK on 5th August. The last few weeks have been spent in Lichfield, organizing the funeral, looking after my father and coming to terms with the loss. I returned to Japan last Friday.

I'm still very numb, and very brittle. I cannot understand why I've been unable to cry. My father and sister are in pieces, but I've been locking it all inside. It was too sudden and unexpected, we all thought she had a good few more years in her.

I was very close to my mum, even though I've lived the other side of the world for so long now. We shared the same character, of her three children I'm definitely the most like her in looks and personality. Perhaps being based the other side of the world for so long has buffered me to a degree, I always felt she was here with me in spirit in Japan, so to a point I'm more used to the idea of her not being around. My mind has created a buffer zone, a state of suspended disbelief, as if events are seen and understood, but not truly believed. Everything seems to have enacted out like watching a film. The fact that I'll never see her again is a truth that's only now beginning to really sink in.

Monday, 30 July 2007

The pressures of career

As my son was interested in my picture books I suggested he think about writing something himself. Surprisingly in the space of an afternoon he came up with a couple of solid ideas with what seemed like very little effort. After I helped him hone them into shape we had two complete stories well on the road for submission.

Why, I asked myself, can a teenager approaching his thirteenth birthday who's far more interested in Nintendo DS than reading books still produce something so unaffected and fresh without any apparent toil, while for me writing my own picture book texts is like climbing mount Everest? The answer, as the missus wisely pointed out, is that my son was writing purely for fun, whereas for me it's my job - I have all the pressure of trying to produce something that will sell, something that will catch the eye of an editor. In other words, my efforts carry the baggage of career. Whereas he is just having a bit of fun.

I wish I could write like I was "having a bit of fun". I find it very difficult to shut myself off from the "job" aspects of what I do and just concentrate on the craft, even with illustration. Perhaps it's the blue-collar heritage of my upbringing, the work ethic. Perhaps one reason I chose graphic art rather than "Fine Art" is because my creativity bends itself more easily to working within the framework of deadlines and briefs.

As the years go by it's become more and more difficult to disassociate myself from working to a brief, to simply draw (or, write) because I love doing so, and not because I've a deadline to meet or some other target to attain. Seeing the way my son blithely and irreverently played with plot brings this message very firmly home. I need to loosen up!

Sunday, 29 July 2007

Happy times

It's been a day I'll not forget in a hurry.

My youngest son from my first marriage has been over to stay with me from London, which has been a precious and emotional experience I find hard to put into words without getting very personal (too personal for this blog at least!). I usually only get to see him on my infrequent trips to the UK, so these past two weeks together have been pure magic. He's just approaching his 13th birthday now, on that threshhold of childhood to teenager. There was much to talk about, a lot of ground to make up for, these rare occasions are always emotionally charged with joy at seeing him, and sadness at the years spent apart.

After our final, sorrowful parting today my wife (number 2 that is) booked me in for a fabulous massage at a nearby aroma therapy salon in Tama Plaza, which eased away all the fatigues of days spent marching around the sights of Tokyo in blazing heat, from museums to art galleries to fun fairs and shops.

While I was being transported to heaven, the heavens were brought crashing down around me, as the evening sky suddenly erupted with violent peals of thunder and vivid explosions of lightning. It was a wonderfully relaxing massage, but the gods were on the war path above! I finally reached home tonight in driving rain with the rumbling pyrotechnics flashing and rolling above.

Finally to end the day the results of the Japanese Upper House elections came in, with the historic news that Jiminto (the so-called "Liberal Democratic" Party, which is famously neither liberal nor democratic) has been defeated. Not only defeated in fact, but stomped on and trounced by Minshuto (The Democratic Party). Although Abe still holds on to the Lower House, it seems the people have really had enough of the scandals and the belligerence of the government. Still, however there is no news of a general election, so in all likelihood governmental stagnation will probably be the short term result.

The storm must seem to Abe like lamentation for his defeat, but for me it was a fanfair for the wonderful time spent with my son.

O joy, o joy, o joy

Wednesday, 4 July 2007

Before and after

Thank god for Photoshop, that's all I can say. Here's a recent editorial job that required some quick fixing. I had to illustrate a rant against cinemas. The writer blasted out at all the various ills of movie-going in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek diatribe, complaining of the noise, the inconveniences etc etc, ending the piece saying how much better to stay at home and watch dvds instead. With no other information other than the essay, I thought the blunt opinionated tone of the writing suggested a loud-mouthed 20-something male, and illustrated it as such.

The editor called me straight back to tell me the writer was in fact a 16 year old girl. Thanks for not telling me! I had to do a quick overnight redraw and paste. Fortunately it all worked out well in the end, thanks to those geniuses at Adobe, and the ability of Photoshop to blend in seemless adjustments. Here's the first version....

.... and the second. Spot the difference!

Monday, 2 July 2007

Souvenirs of Mongolia

Holly and I were presented with many things from the workshop participants, ranging from copies of their books to original artwork. Here are a few.

Book cover of The Bear with a Stone Talisman, self-published book written by our host Batji.

Bookcover of a another self-published short story written by Lhagvasuren (sorry, I can't figure out the title!)

Cover of one of the books presented to us by Bolomaa Baansansuren

Original painting presented to me by Baasansuren.

Gers Oil painting by S. Togsoyun

One of three paper-cuts presented to me by the artist I. Ochipurev

Sunday, 1 July 2007

Workshop in Mongolia

I've just returned from Ulaanbaatar in Mongolia, where SCBWI Tokyo RA Holly Thompson and myself co-ran a two and a half day workshop for children's book writers and illustrators. We set off on this trip not really knowing what to expect due to communication hiccups during planning, so ended up taking a lot of material with us to cover all possible angles. We flew in on Thursday, one day later than scheduled as our flight was postponed over 30 hours due to severe wind conditions in Ulaanbaatar. Despite this the workshop went ahead as planned, we just lost our free day.

Arriving around midnight we were met by the on-the-spot workshop organizer, SCBWI ARA Batjargal, (known as "Batji"), a much travelled journalist who spoke a few words of English, and our interpreter, a tall muscular language teacher who introduced himself as "Boris", though his real name is Mongolian.
The entrance to our apartment
Our accomodation consisted of two rooms in a dilapidated Soviet era apartment block, although we were told it was better than average by Ulaanbaatar standards.

It reminded me of an old student bedsit in Manchester. Not having any running hot water for half our stay was the biggest problem, but we managed, making do with cold showers. Every morning at 6:00am the piped radio began broadcasting the national anthem, which awoke us with some authentic local ambience.

View from our balcony towards the Monastery. Note the two city Gers

At 9:00am daily we were collected by Batji and driven down bumpy split roads to the Press Institute, the venue for our workshop. Despite constraints on facilities Batji was a marvel of efficiency.
Talking to Batji & Boris

He'd notified every attendee of our delayed flight and adjusted schedules accordingly, he'd managed to find a projector so we could run Power Point presentations, every participant had a name card, and coffee/tea breaks were included so none of the participants became overly fatigued. In a country of meat eaters they even looked after my vegetarian requirements.

Workshop attendees at lunchtime - Mongolian tea, rice and scotch eggs, with salad.

As far as possible all our requests were ably looked after by Batji and our dynamic interpreter and guide Boris. The two of them ensured the workshop and the trip ran with smooth professionalism.

The class had 40 participants, including some of the leading children's authors in Mongolia. As a large number of children's books seem to be self published there was a fair variety of talent. The ages ranged from 70 to 10, the oldest being a teacher and well known writer of numerous children's books and film screen plays.
Our youngest attendees....

...and oldest (on the right)

Holly in action

Holly and I co- presented the workshop, speaking in succession, Holly for the writers, me for the illustrators. Holly had the biggest task, as few of the attendees spoke any English, yet she was there to help with their stories. Illustrations at least speak the universal language of visual communication.

John in action

character development exercise
It was therefore a workshop with many challenges, but we nevertheless covered over the two and a half days the whole gamut of children's publishing, from story ideas to story boarding, submissions to marketing and promotion.

Worked up storyboard by M. Chimeddorj

Boris translated everything with unflagging dedication from beginning to end, all the attendees took copious notes.

The only part that really failed to come together was a morning of critiques on the second day - after a successful character development and story-boarding activity the previous day I asked the illustrators to bring their portfolios and book dummies in for discussion, but only three brought any work in at all, and then it was just a handful of loose sheets and paintings, no portfolios. I realized that in all likelihood few illustrators here actually possessed anything approaching a portfolio. There were nevertheless some good artists.

Holly in pensive mood

Holly had an even bigger problem as the attendees were not keen on critiquing amongst themselves, they wanted to hear Holly's opinion of their work. So all the stories had to be translated by Boris, which proved a monumental task that exhausted everyone, especially our hard-working interpreter.

We learned a lot through this and other experiences. Children's publishing in Mongolia is in a state of development. The population of the whole country is less than 3 million, and as the number of people who can afford to buy children's books is very small, the market is limited. We were told most publishers are in fact printers, a lot of books are self-published by authors paying out of their own pockets, who then sell the books themselves. Commissioned work often seems to be comic style art, judging by what we were shown during the workshop and saw in a bookshop. The most visible producer of children's literature is Irmuun Agency, which serves as a printer, publisher and agency. Two of the editors from Irmuun attended the workshops, one of whom showed us their published children's magazines, which lean heavily towards brightly coloured comic styles drawn by computer.

The editors from Irmuun joined in the character exercises

Bolormaa Baasansuren
We were also honoured to meet with the illustrator Bolormaa Baasansuren, who's fabulously lush artwork took first prize in the 2005 14th Noma Concours competition in Japan. Her picture books are produced in Mongolia by Munkhiin Use, although two, The Tale of the Housewives Hair (Mongol no Kuroi Kami), and My house is a Ger (Boku no Uchi wa Geru) have been published in Japanese by Sekifusha publishers in Fukuoka. Holly had interviewed Baasansuren for a forthcoming article on the Noma award in the Kyoto Journal, so it was a great pleasure to meet her face to face when she dropped in to present us with signed copies of her beautiful books on the second day. She's by far the leading international light in children's illustration to appear from Mongolia, we were surprised that many of the attendees at the workshop did not know her work.

Being great fans of her art Holly and I both felt a keen desire to help Baasansuren and other Mongolian illustrators make a name for themselves outside the country. The fundamental problem is simple - with a weak and limited local market for children's books in Mongolia, writers and illustrators are faced with the choice to either create a stronger publishing market locally, or establish a bilingual agency that will promote work internationally. It's a slow process, but as Boris told us, people are aware of what needs to be done and will get there in the end, with help.

We ended the workshop with a talk on promotion, the need for a stronger web presence and a coordinating office to handle negotiation, visit trade book fairs etc, which left Holly and I wondering what we could do ourselves to help put Mongolian children's books on the map. We've a few ideas that might help. Baasansuren joined us again for the last morning of the workshop and talked about her work. The participants were all presented with certificates signed by us and Batji commemorating the event.
The whole thing ended with book signing, gift exchanges, and photo shoots outside the venue.
Some of the attendees outside the press centre at the end of the workshop

Other than the workshop we were escorted around the sights of Ulaanbaatar by the energetic Boris and Batji. Every day the workshop ended at 4:00pm, and as it didn't get dark until nearly 10:00pm we had plenty of time to see the sights.

Gandan Monastery
One of the first destinations was the Gandantegcheling Monastery, rebuilt after it's destruction by Chinese in the 1930's and containing an incredibly tall statue of Buddah. It was breathtaking.

Prayer wheels surround the older buildings. Visitors walk around the buildings, turning each one.

Monastery decoration

detail of one of the roofs

Next evening after a great dinner with Boris at a Chinese restaurant he took us to see a short performance by the national theatre performers, which included folk singing, traditional dancing, contortionists and throat singing.
Folk singers

Although it seemed to be something staged largely for tourists Boris told me Mongolians also queued to see the performances.

One of the dancers

Whatever the case, I was suitably impressed.

As it was still early we then went to see the Soviet built WWII memorial, perched high on a hillside at the top of a long flight of steps overlooking Ulaanbaatar, presenting a panoramic view of the city from a circular mosaied pedastal.

War monument

mosaic and view. The central plinth was in former times lit with a flame.

close up of the mosaic

Further down the hill stood another memorial to a Mongolian built T-34 tank that advanced all the way to Berlin between 1943-1945.

We ended the day in a large modern Irish pub called the Grand Khaan, memorable for it's enormous beer glasses, strangely German stage backdrop painting, and beer promotion girls.

The third and final day was time to relax and really get to see something of the country. We wrapped up the workshop at midday, then visited a bookshop with Baasansuren, researching and stocking up with books for the Chihiro Museum in Tokyo. Then Batji and Boris drove us out into the country to visit an authentic Ger.
Inside the Ger, the owner's mother prepared salty tea and yoghurt

Much to our surprise this turned out to be owned by the husband of Sodnomdorj Tsetsegmaa, one of our workshop attendees.

The Master of the House. On the table were laid cheese and goats's milk snacks, plus the ubiquitous Mongolian tea.

It was a dream come true to sit with a family in an authentic Ger in Mongolia. We were told the Ger was over 50 years old, the owner had in fact been born in it.

Arrival of our workshop attendees We were even more surprised when half the attendees from the workshop also suddenly turned up and crammed into the cosy tent. Mongolian tea and yoghurt were passed around and camera shutters snapped. It was an unforgetable moment.

Holly and our hosts outside the Ger

Eventually we left the workshop attendees at the Ger and drove off deeper into the country to see a large and recently constructed palace hotel built in ancient Chinese style.
The view across the river valley

The scenery was breathtakingly beautiful, I felt like we were at the foothills of heaven.

From there we drove down potholed dirt tracks to the river, where once more the workshop attendees appeared, together with the Ger owner - unbeknowns to us a riverside party had been organized. Holly and I were presented with oil paintings as thankyou gifts...

...the vodka was opened, a milk churn served as a cooking pot over an open fire, and we stood soaking in the wonderful air...

...the landscape...

...the wild horses wading the river...

...and the incredibly warm hospitality of our hosts.

Boris and cognac

As the sun set we drove back to the city, and topped an already uncomfortable mix of drinks with more beer at the Grand Khaan Irish pub, narrowly missing sumo star Asashoryu, who left as we arrived.

Finally back at the apartment late at night we found our illustrator friend Baasansuren waiting for us with yet another gift of two original pieces of artwork.

I was lost for words. It was the perfect end to an unforgetable trip.

(Many thanks to Holly for some of the snapshots!)