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Developing an Illustration

What a difference a week makes! My blog today aims to give you a little run through of my illustration development, and a look at my work process using a comparison of two sketches that I produced only a week apart!

So, a bit of background: recently, I have been reading "Only You Can Save Mankind" by the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett with my youngest son. The first of the underrated Johnny Maxwell trilogy, the story is set in the early 90s and is a satire of the smart warfare of the first Gulf War, and the blurred lines between real life and games. "Only You Can Save Mankind" sees 12 year old Johnny Maxwell playing a new alien-shooting space combat game on his computer when, to his shock, the alien fleet communicates and surrenders to him. It gave me the idea to develop an illustration of the moment when our hero receives the first unexpected communication from the aliens in his computer game, and the text: "We Wish To Talk".

Johnny Maxwell: Mk 1

I started drawing the MK1 design only a week ago, and had a lot of fun thinking about 90s references for the image - the first Peers family computer from around this time; my old desk and swivel chair with a wacky colour scheme; a set of PC speakers and a Quick Shot joystick for playing X Wing and Tie Fighter... I thought that Johnny Maxwell would still be wearing his school uniform, playing the game late into the evening... But the more I drew, the more I realised I was focusing my energies in the wrong places. I quite liked the design of Johnny Maxwell and his reaction to the message, and the hands were a challenge but I think I captured them okay... but then I got drawn into the details of the back of the computer, a slave to the realism I had inadvertently created that saw me tediously drawing cable and wires because the composition showed the back of the machine.... and in an effort to show some movement and dynamism, I drew Johnny's legs and feet under the table.

Johnny Maxwell: Mk 2

Before cleaning the MK1 image up, I decided to have another crack at it so started the MK2 image earlier this week. I wanted to make Johnny's reaction to the message more exciting and visceral. I wanted to stylise the computer and accessories more so I didn't have to waste time on boring details like cables and speakers. I made the joystick smaller so as to give more space for other nods to the source material and make Johnny's desk look more like the messy desk of a 12 year old boy. I adjusted the composition - if the pose was more laden with movement and effect, there was no need to draw his legs under the desk, again allowing more capacity for the viewer's focus to be on Johnny and then to explore the desk. I have included a stack of half eaten bowls of Sugar Glazed Snappiflakes, his favourite breakfast cereal (and main meal). Lying on his desk and on top of the computer monitor are three plastic alien figures Johnny found in his cereal boxes. There is a "bug" stuck to his monitor. Remember those? Little, fluff balls with adhesive feet, googly eyes and a ribbon bearing the logo of something or other. I certainly collected them in the late 80s and early 90s! This one has a ribbon saying Blackbury, the fictional town where Johnny lives (and where Sir Terry Pratchett set many of his early stories). The old fast food drinks cup and half-eaten the bag of crisps hint to the unhealthy appetite of a 12 year old whose family is going through Trying Times. And the mug of cold tea features the famous Space Invader image, an old space shooter referenced occasionally in the novel.

So I am much happier with the MK2 of my Johnny Maxwell illustration, and did a little clean up and added some shading and lighting. I think it is more exciting, dramatic and detailed in all the right ways, and at some point I may colour this in and finish it off. It was a worthwhile exercise and I learned a lot, and this exercise showed that the first draft of a drawing will rarely be the best. MK1 certainly informed the development of MK2, and no work is ever wasted. But refining ideas and starting afresh is a fantastic way to develop a picture into something much closer than what I had in my head at the start of this exercise.

Now to go back to reading the rest of the book with my son, and explaining the mysterious cultural references of the time.... computer games on disks, nothing on TV but the news and "Neighbours" ("Cobbers"!), the kids using landline phones to call their friends....

Happy drawing!

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