Sunday, 5 October 2014

A few new USA exhibition dates for 2014

So, my sketchbook, which tells - in roughs - the story of a little girl who goes on a mission to retrieve her lost balloon, is hitting the road again this year after an epic 41-city tour in 2013.

It's been selected to join a curated exhibition travelling to five different cities across the USA this month. And, ahem, it starts today...

Exhibition Dates:

Philadelphia, PA - October 5th, 2014

Franklin Square

Syracuse, NY - October 14th, 2014

Syracuse University Art Galleries

Buffalo, NY - October 16th, 2014 
Western New York Art Book Center

Detroit, MI - October 19th, 2014 
Popps Packing

Brooklyn, NY | TBC 
Brooklyn Art Library

Check it out if you can!

Thursday, 22 May 2014

Fixing Common Drawing Mistakes, Part 2: Drawing Facial Expressions

Last week, I shared the first of my five-part series synthesizing my attempts to improve my illustration work. As I said in my previous post, I am absolutely not claiming expertise in this department. Just the desire to save fellow learners/improvers the same blood, sweat and tears that claimed my dignity at about the same time my 500th failed, balled-up sketch landed in the bin.

Five common drawing mistakes

Essentially, there are five main drawing mistakes that I have noticed myself and others making over and over again. Specifically:

  • Inconsistent characters (particularly between different poses or angles)
  • Nondescript facial expressions
  • Flat composition
  • Poses defying the laws of physics
  • Inconsistent style

In Part 1, I shared three key tools that I find helpful in drawing more consistent characters. So this week, in Part 2, I will move onto the next point on the list: facial expressions.

I had intended to cover a wider gamut of 'emotion and expression', including posture, body language and gesture, but I don't believe that anyone's patience would endure everything I have to say on those subjects crammed into a single post. So they will have to wait for another time. For now, lets stick to faces. As it were.

Nondescript facial expression: The problem

Obviously, the point of a facial expression is to express something. That's a bit of a given. Most picture books, in particular, absolutely depend on facial expression to tell their story. If this expression is absent, uninteresting, inaccurate, or untrue to the character or the story... the story will die.

It can be tempting to think of facial expression in terms of generic categories. 'Happy', 'sad', 'crying', 'laughing', and so on. However, to do this is to discount the huge variety of subtleties and variations within these broad emotions, and from my own experience, it often leads to the kind of deadening of expression that we are trying to avoid.

Instead, I have gradually attempted to introduce a new approach to my own drawing, which rests on four main mental 'tools':

Tool 1: Draw verbs and adjectives, not nouns

This is perhaps the key change that I have tried to make, and centres largely on identifying a precise expression instead of a generic category.

For example, my previous approach would begin with something like, 'Hm, I think I'll draw a little girl looking happy'... followed by a drawing of a little girl smiling. A slightly dull noun with a slightly dull adjective, and a drawing that may be quite cute, but doesn't really communicate anything.

However, I now attempt to approach from a different angle, and begin with something like, 'Hm, I think I'll draw a little girl who has just heard an ice cream van.' Now we have a huge range of possible verbs and adjectives to pull into the mix. What is her reaction to the ice cream van? Is she excited? Manically so? Drooling over the thought of an ice cream? Trying desperately to decide which to buy? Or has her world ended because her mother won't let her have one? 

We can now begin to pin down the precise emotion that we are trying to express, and we can produce an illustration that communicates.

To demonstrate the difference between these two approaches, take a look at two of my old Animal Alphabet illustrations:

Here, on the left, we have a badger doing, well... nothing really. Scrabbling on the floor a bit perhaps? Kind of cute, but not really telling us anything. Our cat, however, has clearly found himself in a bit of a pickle, and this much more identifiable expression of his thoughts makes him a much more engaging illustration.

Tool 2: Be an actor; use a mirror

Reference photos of facial expressions can be very useful - and indeed, there are several fantastic books bursting with them, my favourite of which is this one:

Available to purchase here

However, whether working with a reference or not, I have invariably found that the expression I'm drawing never really clicks unless I'm pulling it myself. Yes, that means I have to gurn. And that I have become accustomed to a few slightly concerned glances in Caffe Nero.

Ideally, keeping a mirror on hand is probably the way to go, but failing that I have even resorted to using the reflection on my blank computer screen or, occasionally, a window. Best check who is walking past on the other side though. Believe me. 

Tool 3: Distill, distill, distill

Another crucial change in approach for me, and it essentially boils down to this: Don't use ten lines when one will do. 

I have been very guilty of this in the past, largely through fear. Distilling lines down to the minimum requires much more accuracy in both linework and decision-making. If I'm only using one line and not ten, it had better be done right. Whilst this - for me, anyway - was rather scary, it serves to remove any ambiguity or indistinctness in facial expressions by pinning down what really matters, and using only those truly essential elements of each expression. 

It's so useful, in fact, that I consciously set myself a challenge to tell a story with expression only, using minimal lines, in an unchanging set of circles. I was allowed to use eyes, eyebrows, and mouth, but all other lines were forbidden. The results of that challenge organically evolved into my 'Pea Pod Family' series, including this one:

'A New Pea In The Pod' by Amanda Moussa

As you can see, nothing in each stage of the drawing changes except the eyes, eyebrows and mouth, but by distilling each feature down to its essential components, a story can still be communicated.

Tool 4: No feature is an island

Facial features are all inter-connected. As one squashes and stretches, it affects the others around it. The mouth, when smiling, pushes out the cheeks. The cheeks in turn push their way over the eyes. The nose rises slightly, as do the eyebrows... Indeed, a few minutes gurning into a mirror, as I suggest in my tip above, demonstrates just how mobile and interconnected our faces really are.

So... go and have a gurn. That is, it seems, the sum of my advice and the result of hours of research. 

Slightly depressing, that.

Like Part 1: Drawing Consistent Characters, this post is intended to cover only the basics of what I have learned. Further detail and focus will have to wait for subsequent posts, since I am writing blog posts and not a novel. Click here for the first part of this series, and stay tuned for Part 3: Drawing Compositions With Depth.

Happy drawing!

Saturday, 10 May 2014

Fixing Common Drawing Mistakes, Part 1: Drawing Consistent Characters

It's been quite a while since I promised this post (eeep... a very long while!), but finally I have stopped farting about and finished a written dissection of everything that is and/or was wrong with my drawing techniques. Ooh, it was painful.

Firstly, I would like to point out that I am not making this post with even the vaguest idea of assuming the role of an expert. Even my ego can't delude itself quite that much. I'm making this post in the spirit of fellowship, as an artist and illustrator on a steep learning curve, in an attempt to synthesize some of my research and trial-and-error practice hours, and spare other developing illustrators the same inches of graphite, blistered fingers, swollen hands, and hair loss.

Seriously. It wasn't pretty.

Five common drawing mistakes

There are, essentially, five main issues that I have encountered again and again when producing artwork, and all are very common drawing mistakes that are all too easy to make. Namely:

  • Inconsistent characters (particularly between different poses or angles)
  • Nondescript facial expressions
  • Flat composition
  • Poses defying the laws of physics
  • Inconsistent style

I can't face dissecting them all at once, so I will devote a separate post to each. For today, I will focus on inconsistent characters. More specifically, inconsistent character proportions and facial features. This could well be the most significant of the above list, since it is perhaps the hardest to fix, as well as arguably having the most detrimental effect on the success of sequential illustrations. So it well deserves first place in the dissection list.

Inconsistent characters: The problem

Almost anyone who has ever tried to draw two or more sequential pieces of art will understand this problem. You have, in the first drawing, rendered a character exactly as you want them. Everything's great. Now, for your second drawing, you want to turn them in a different direction within the frame. Or perhaps you want to change their posture, or maybe their expression. And when you do so... they no longer look like the same person. They might have the same hairstyle and the same eye colour, but they aren't them any more. Oh... well, fudge, fiddlesticks, and darn it to heck (#MincedOathObsessive).

The thing is, character design is complicated. A character is, essentially, a collection of specific shapes and features which will change form when rotated or foreshortened, but must remain faithful to the 'original' shapes and features. It is very difficult to do this adjustment entirely mentally - we usually need to gather visual tools to aid this process.

Tool 1: Start with basic shapes

The process of gathering these tools for yourself begins before the completion of the first character drawing - in the earliest stages of the design process. Beginning the design with simple shapes and conscious proportion rules is hugely valuable.

For example, here is my very rough collection of shapes for the construction of a toddler. The proportions I use are stylised for illustrative effect - a toddler's head isn't really a third of their total height, for instance - but I use them consistently, to create a kind of stylised but consistent version of reality that aims to exaggerate a toddler's key characteristics, such as the large head in relation to height; the large forehead, eyes and ears; the chubby cheeks; the nappy-enhanced bottom; and the absence of an adult-like waist.

These shapes must then be built on and fleshed out, obviously - but crucially, they serve as an underlying 'armature' that can be moved into any position and retain its proportions. It is far easier to mentally rotate a collection of squishy squashy circles than a complex human face.

 Like so:

Here, as the toddler is turned, the shapes look different and additional shapes become visible, which were out of sight when viewed from the previous angle, but the proportions and structure remain a consistent foundation for detailed drawing.

Tool 2: Draw a turnaround

Another solution is to draw a turnaround. Whilst it is relatively time-consuming to produce, it's an extremely useful step in the design of a character that you intend to draw frequently, enabling most crucial design decisions to be made at the beginning of the process and reducing the number of desolate cries of 'But what the hell would her hair look like from that angle?!?' later in the process.

I like to keep my turnarounds close at hand when drawing sequential illustrations, as a quick reference - although I tend to use it as a guide rather than an exact blueprint, since I find that nothing is more likely to lead to a wooden drawing than a direct trace.

Here is a toddler design turnaround I created recently for a work-in-progress project:

A WIP character design for 'Stories From Home' by Amanda Moussa

Tool 3: Use a mannequin

I haven't tried this method, mostly because I don't draw to real-life proportions so can't use a ready-made mannequin, and my sculptural abilities are somewhat limited. However, for those who use realistic proportions, a mannequin like this is a quick, easy and popular reference tool:

Artist's mannequin, available to purchase from Amazon here

Even if, like me, you use a more stylised version of reality, a bit of wire and plasticine in the hands of someone sculpturally-inclined could create a turn-able, re-positionable reference model. And a nice little bit of desk decoration to boot.

And, hey, if you start to really, really fall out of love with your new character, there is an inbuilt method of venting your anger somewhat more satisfying than a scribble.

Very tempting.

Filming Wallace and Gromit, image courtesy of the Guardian, here

Anyhoo. I hope something in this post has been helpful. There is obviously a great deal more to say about this issue, and I hope to return to it again to share more detailed observations and tools that I find useful. But, since I'm already in danger of stretching the post out into an essay, I think it's time to STEP AWAY FROM THE KEYBOARD.

To shut up, in other words.

The second part of this series, Part 2: Drawing Emotion & Expression will be posted soon (now available here). Click here to receive updates via email, or follow me on Twitter here. And, in the meantime, are there any other tools or techniques that you find helpful in maintaining the consistency of your characters? I'd love to hear about them!

Monday, 28 April 2014

5 Quirky Gift Ideas from 'Off The Barrow'

William Morris famously advised: 'Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful', and it was largely my re-reading of this quote that sent me off on a hunt for beautiful homewares last year. Minimal, good quality, functional and decorative homewares that would replace the plethora of cheap 'it'll-do-for-now' items I'd unconsciously collected in my home. An effort to replace quantity with quality, and gradually remove the tat, to leave behind only well-chosen objects that would make me happy to share house space with.

That project is, predictably, still somewhat ongoing - and ripe for another day and another blog post. But it was during this hunt that I came across the online gift shop Off The Barrow and promptly fell in love with the quirky products they showcase, and the ethos of support and collaboration within creative communities that underlies the site. So I'm very, very excited to now be included among this product range, as the site has begun stocking my designs on giftcards and as prints. And, whilst I had intended this post merely to announce this fact, in all it's cringy, self-promoting heft, I simply can't write about Off The Barrow without also including my very favourite products from the range.

So, I'm hijacking my own post to tell you about my four top picks (well, five, if you count my own). Quirky, original, and beautiful, they are above all, little objects that will simply make you happy that you share your house with them. And who could ask for more than that from a simple little object?

Peas In A Pod Giftcards by Amanda Moussa

Well, yes, these are mine. I'm very excited that Off The Barrow is now stocking giftcards with my 'Two Peas in a Pod' and 'A New Pea in the Pod' designs. Created with a combination of traditional and digital tools, these designs are little snippets into the lives of a 'pea pod' family that anyone who's ever been a son, a daughter, a mother, a father, a wife, a husband, a girlfriend, or a boyfriend, can relate to. So you should know a few of them.

Set of 3 'Peas in a Pod' giftcards by Amanda Moussa, available to purchase here

Alphabet Blocks by Eleanor Stuart

Well, given my enormous love of language, and fascination with alphabets, perhaps it isn't surprising that these make the little geek inside me go 'Squee!'. I want one with the initial of each family member in my house.

And then I want the other 23.

If you please.

Alphabet Blocks by Eleanor Stuart, available to purchase here

Giraffe Mug by Yas-Ming

A lovely quirky twist on an essential. There are a few other animals available, but I love the simple lines of the giraffe, and I have a feeling that my overly clumsy hands will get along well with this nice long neck.

Giraffe Mug by Yas-Ming, available to purchase here

Illustrated Fan by Barbara Ana Gomez

This reminds me a little of the alphabet bookend designs I worked on last year - but this is so much more polished and intricate. Elegant and lovely. If I thought I could pull off a fan as a style statement, I would. Failing that, the wall would seem to be the perfect place...
Illustrated Fan by Barbara Ana Gomez, available to purchase here

Your Eggcellency by Leeann Walker

I absolutely love the language play of several of Leeann's pieces, but this is perhaps my favourite for quirk-value. It's an egg in a cape - what's not to love?

Your Eggcellency by Leeann Walker, available to purchase here

Want to see more from Off The Barrow?

Check out their full range of products at or follow them on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest or Instagram.

Thursday, 17 April 2014

Altered Book Art - Found Poetry

I recently came across a portfolio of artwork left over from my art school days, buried at the back of my wardrobe under the pile of Christmas presents I have already begun to stash away and the bursting bag of camera lenses with mismatched lids. I looked over it with a bit of fondness, a bit of embarrassment, and the occasional 'actually, that's really good'. And I realised just how much my work has moved on from art school.

I still was - and forever will be - drawing-mad, but spent most of my time with a camera in my hand, full of confusion, floundering for direction, and struggling to pinpoint exactly what it was that my tutors, and the course, 'wanted from me'. I don't think I found the answer to that at art school, frankly. I needed a lot more practice and a lot more life to even touch on the answer to that. A husband, a daughter, a few losses, a few scares, and twenty sketchbooks later, and I feel closer to it. Still not there, but closer.

But there were a few pieces of 'me' hidden away in the pages of battered sketchbooks and crammed folders. Most of the guilty-pleasure drawings that I knew didn't really fit the project I was working on but which just demanded to be drawn anyway. And my found poetry.

My very favourite class at art school was not a class on art at all, but on writing. Run by the brilliant Dr Mick Gowar, it was my first introduction to Edward Gorey, and for that alone was worth the price of admission. But it also introduced me to a delicious altered book technique called - variously - 'altered poetry', 'altered pages', 'found poetry', 'discovered poetry', and 'blackout poetry'. Whatever your term of choice, it involves, essentially, the hunting down of hidden poetry within larger pages of text, and the subsequent obliteration of all superfluous words, to leave behind a brand new 'secondary' text.

I was hooked.

While Tom Phillips, the king of this technique, uses drawing, painting, collage and colour in his A Humument, I never managed to make the figurative drawings work with this technique, and found myself favouring minimal pages of black or white, which I produced a veritable tower of during my university days.

There is something so appealing about the notion that these little 'secondary texts' were sitting there in the page since the 1970s, when most of the original books I used were published, just waiting to be found. In fact, although I am not in ANY way, shape or form comparing myself or my work to Michelangelo, I am reminded of a Michelangelo quote that I have always adored: 'Carving is easy. You just go down to the skin and stop' (The Michelangelo Gallery), and his reference to seeing an angel in the marble and carving 'until I set him free'.

Perhaps it is best for me to abandon my post here, in the wake of such a beautiful notion. Feel free to leave at this point. Truly. Won't be offended. I can't compete with Michelangelo.

But, nontheless, here is my little nod to this notion. A small selection of my little pieces of discovered poetry, unpolished and awkward - but perhaps forgiveably so, considering the forty years they spent sitting on a page, waiting for someone to find them and set them free.

(Have included transcripts, since since some of the scans are a little small and fuzzy)

He Is Not Their Father
He is not their father
But so tolerant
Must be admiration for the dominant
And desire to please
This is not love
Those feelings may leave another isolated

A Comfort Sound
A comfort sound
A pleasing little sound
A piece of warm happiness
Learn to know joy
Learn to understand

Learn To Be Frightened
His usual fear raised
Terrified by first glimpses
Clinging so hard that he left marks
His mother stood looking
And they called to each other
Through the ensuing storm
Fear is learned
The sound of alcohol in a man's voice
Learn to be frightened
It is hard to avoid

Her mother still wants to help
'I'll do it myself', she says
She smothers
Make a sharp break with mothers

I don't need to transcribe this, do I? Every full stop on a double page spread? Really? Oh, go on then.



Friday, 11 April 2014

New Moving Home Design - The Tortoise Family

It seems that I am destined to forever invoke the spirit of my family in my designs. Specifically, two exhausted parents and a child that Just. Never. Gets. Tired.

Oh, if I could siphon off some of that energy. Not for me, you understand. Just to SIPHON OFF SOME OF THAT ENERGY. 

But life would just not be as much fun without our little bundle of wriggles and giggles, so instead of craving the rest I'm unlikely to experience again for about 18 years, I choose to celebrate the craziness. To be honest, this mostly appears to involve recreating our family dynamic with increasingly random and obscure characters. Peas (here). Comic characters (coming soon). And tortoises.

Like these.

'Just Moved' Tortoises by Amanda Moussa
This will hopefully be finding its way onto a 'Moving Home' greeting card soon, but I wanted to share it now, while it's all fresh and newborn.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a shell that needs a polish.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Two Peas in a Pod

In the wake of the encouraging response to my 'Pea Pod Family' (thank you to all those who gave me some really lovely responses!), I have created a little glimpse into our peapod couple's earlier newlywed life before their little addition.

I won't tell you which couple served as the inspiration for this.

Because you can probably already guess.

Two peas in a pod