Unexpected Thrills: Adventures of an Illustrator is a blog about some of the more unexpected events that have happened to me in the line of duty. Let’s take just three; The Lilac Debacle, Fear of the Buffalo, and Finding a Scab.
The Lilac Debacle
This exploit has a moral which, put simply, is Do Not Steal.
I was working on the illustrations for “The Garden Forager” by Adele Nozedar, going through the species list. Next up was lilac, and wonderfully, the lilac was in bloom. I have none in my garden, but there’s a lovely big bush just up the road, overhanging the wall by the pavement. (It’s already sounding like a fairy-tale, isn’t it?)
The Lilac Debacle: Acting Decisively
Being a girl who likes to act swiftly, I nipped out early one morning and snipped a couple sprigs. I brought it back to my studio, proceeded to illustrate it, and thought no more about it. Error.
Quite often I’ll steal a tiny bit of a plant I’m asked to paint. When I can, I ask permission. But sometimes, if it’s a tiny bit of a much larger shrub, I’ll just steal it. Or at least I used to.
Lilac and sketchbook study on the desk in my studio
The Lilac Debacle: The Debacle
The next day, my neighbour Jude came by looking worried. “Lizzie”, she said, “have you been stealing lilac from Miss Jones’s garden? I said you hadn’t, but she was insistent. And very upset.” I admitted my guilt. My neighbour looked increasingly concerned. “I think you ought to go round and apologise. She’s threatening to call the police”.
Lilac sketchbook study
I was almost finished with the sketch, so I rushed over there straight away. I didn’t want to serve a custodial sentence for sourcing good reference material, and was half wondering which of my reprobate friends would make a decent character witness in court (none).
I knocked on the door, and after a wait, Mrs Jones opened it. Entirely naked, and very angry. I apologised, assuming I’d got her out of the shower but no, the fury was entirely down to the stolen lilac. The nudity was par for the course.
I showed her my illustration, apologised prolifically, begged for forgiveness, and asked her not to press charges. Immediately she smiled broadly, pronounced herself “delighted to see the sketch”, forgave me on the spot and embraced me. Which was all a bit much, to be honest (not least cause she was still nude).
The Lilac Debacle: Lessons Learnt
The book went to press. I was forgiven. The lilac appeared on the cover! But I’ve learnt a lesson about stealing form people’s gardens: Do it at night! (Names have been changed, like in all the best thrillers).
Fear of the Buffalo
This adventure is recent, and thus the terror is still fresh in my mind. I was working on a series of illustrations for Wild Shreds Pet food, and one of the animals I had to illustrate was the American bison, or buffalo.
After extensive searching, I found a buffalo farm here in the UK. Bush Farm is run by an extremely pleasant farmer, Lord Colin Seaforth, and I think is the only buffalo farm in Britain. I planned a visit, and turned up armed with sketchbook and camera.
Pencil sketch of buffalo
Fear of The Buffalo: Adult Male
Lord Seaforth got me to pop on the back of his quad bike, and we drove to the first of two fields. This one had a large herd of mature buffalo in, with one enormous male. We saw him in the distance, down by a pool. “He’s in a dreadful temper” commented Lord Seaforth, “driven mad by the heat and the flies. We’re safe on the quad bike, but if you got off, he’d go for you.” He was massive, even from a far. “If you drive your car into this field, shut the gate; then wait. He’ll come and investigate. Don’t get out, whatever you do.”
I followed instructions. I most certainly did not “get out”. The monumental bull did indeed come and investigate. He nosed at the car, and I felt it shake. He pranced about nearby, and I felt the ground tremble. I took photos. I did quick sketches. I was very, very frightened. The buffalo sat about near the car for a long time. No way could I get out, and certainly not to open the gate and make my escape. It was a hot couple of hours.
Pencil sketch of buffalo
Fear of The Buffalo: Adolescent Males
After escaping, Lord Seaforth asked if I wanted to spend time with the adolescent males. I needed to, the brief called for the body of an adult and the head of an adolescent. This time he was more blase, “They’re pretty frisky, but you should be ok. Just make sure you’re within running distance of your car, in case they, you know, play up.” I don’t know how a buffalo “plays up” and wasn’t sure I wanted to find out.
He disappeared, leaving me (and my car) in a field with about 15 young buffalo. Now remember, the brief called for animals in a majestic and imperious pose. Alas, this means they have to be seen from below.
I have rarely been so frightened in my life. Lying in the dirt on my belly, pointing my camera up at enormous bison, waiting for the perfect shot. To get the level of detail; things like direction of fur growth, angle of eyelid; I had to be close. When they were still it was fine. It was not fine when they got skittish.
Tonal pencil study of Buffalo
I lay in that field for a good four hours, switching between creeping forward on my elbows like some commando; and springing up and sprinting for dear life back to the car. My eyes were prickly with tears. I did think on several occasions what an absurd and entirely appropriate death it would be, trampled to death by a lively teen-age bison.
Fear of the Buffalo: Illustration achieved
I got my reference. I thanked Lord Seaforth. I drove home fast. I completed my illustration.
Completed illustration of American Bison (copyright Spot Farms 2019)
I vowed to never again be so frightened by a job that it made me cry. It’s a year on now, and so far I’ve stuck to my guns. But who knows what the next 6 months will bring…?
Finding a Scab
One of the oddest illustration commissions I ever had was for a book called “Scab on My Knee” by Jenny Alexander. The book has a good premise, explaining the healing process to kids using a skate-board graze as the focus. The illustrations were complete. However, the art director felt the series of scabs needed a more accurate approach.
Cover of “A Scab on the Knee”
I was asked to illustrate scabs, as scientifically as possible, at different stages.
The first was to be a fresh graze with dirt in. The second was to be a healing scab. The third was a picked scab and the fourth (and most unpleasant) was a scab peeling back to reveal healthy fresh skin underneath.
Finding a Scab: Getting Reference
It’s only when you desperately need to draw something that you realise how hard it can be to find. This job was many years ago, and the internet wasn’t as full of useful imagery as it it these days. I knew no children and hadn’t yet had my own; children are a good source of scabs.
Initial illustration of a healing scab
I tried to paint scabs without reference. No way, it just looked wierd.
I asked my sister, a teacher at kindergarten for help. Could she take some photos if any of her class fell over, focusing on the graze? Could she ask her children to pick their scabs and take photos of the resulting chaos? Could she slyly snap a photo or two of scabbed knees? Quite rightly she sent me packing and said I sounded like a pervert. What to do?
I started thinking about self inflicted grazes. If I ran fast along a road with untied shoe-laces, could I supply my own reference? I tried, and stayed firmly upright despite my best efforts. Perhaps I could use a kitchen grater? This didn’t work either, it hurt and also made me feel like I’d gone entirely mad.
Finding a Scab: Wellcome Photo Library
Suddenly I remembered the existence of photo libraries. The Wellcome Trust has an image bank! I got a train to London and had the sort of conversation one will only have once in a lifetime, with an extremely helpful woman in charge of image licensing. Between us, we got out hands on exactly what I needed.
Fresh graze with dirt
The grim side of this enterprise was that minor grazes tend not to feature large in image banks used by doctors. We found them as accessories to far more traumatic injuries. A perfect fresh graze on the edge of a photo showing a horrific bike crash. A region of healing scab next to a frankly revolting skin complaint. Healing wounds alongside badly set fractures. I had my reference.
Scab peeling off showing healthy fresh skin below
The illustrations were pasted onto the knees of the little lad in the story, and, for a while, I think the book sold comparatively well. Although obviously to a niche market…
So you see, the life of a natural history and botanical illustrator is not all pretty meadows and cheeping birds. It can involve tangling with neighbours and the law. It can make you cry with terror as the herds of bison approach. It can see you accused of being a wierdo and looking at gross reference photos. But I love it, whether or not there are unexpeceted thrills. I wouldn’t change my job for the world. (But I might not steal lilac or share a field with a buffalo again…)