Today I am thrilled to welcome artist/designer/writer extraordinare Heather Ross (blog). She’s here as part of her Blog March to promote her brand new book Weekend Sewing. The publisher, STC Craft, is giving away a copy of Weekend Sewing to one lucky reader. Just comment on this post by this Saturday, March 21, 2009, at noon central U.S. time for your chance to win. (Winner will be picked randomly.)
“The Chinese consider the cricket to be a metaphor for summer and courage … ”
Isn’t that one of the prettiest things you have ever read? I stumbled across those words while I was researching crickets for a print idea, and when I read that line I sat down on the floor at the bookstore in the exact spot I was standing (without moving really, other than letting my knees buckle) and kept reading. After about thirty minutes, a young clerk who I don’t think spoke much English (I had been trying to enlist her help in my cricket book search earlier) walked towards me with another book in her hand. I assumed that she was going to point me in the direction of the bookstore’s cafe, where more civilized people sit in chairs and read books they have not paid for, but instead she handed me Eric Carle’s book, The Very Quiet Cricket. I smiled and thanked her and resumed reading, entranced by the idea that every living thing could be nothing more than a metaphor for a season or a feeling, but she was insistent. She opened it for me and to my surprise the very last page, when turned, made the tiny insistent sound of a cricket. The little chirp made heads turn the whole room over, and the clerk and I both stifled a giggle.
I doubt anyone was surprised by the idea of crickets being in a bookstore, they seem to turn up everywhere. I have heard them in movie theaters and offices and even in the dark quiet of the planetarium at the Museum of Natural History, where apparently they escaped being lunch in the amphibians exhibit and have set up camp under the stars. This was the place they seemed most at home to me.
In the summertime at night in Vermont if you stood at the top of the meadow above our house you could see a dizzying amount of stars in the sky, extending far into the valley below you in a way that made you feel as though you were floating in the sky. It was always the first thing visitors noticed. “I never knew there were so many stars,” they would say, and then everyone would be quiet, except of course for the crickets. Both the stars and the operatic chorus of chirping stretched from horizon to horizon, and if you didn’t know better you would think that one was the sound of the other.
But we knew exactly where the sound was coming from because we had plenty of crickets indoors as well. I never looked too closely at them until I found a tiny little wire cage in my mother’s things. Her parents and their parents had lived in China for a long time and as a result we had lots of little mysterious trinkets in the house. When I asked her what it was, she told me that it was a cage for keeping pet crickets, and that in China there are crickets who sing like birds, and that they are much fatter than the ones that our cats were always trying to catch under the sofa.
I was shocked that no one had bothered to tell me this before now. And newly obsessed. Sadly, our little cricket cage was broken and would not keep a pet, especially the thin, quick little Vermont variety, who I imagined to be a poor but resourceful type of cricket. I would have loved to have caught and kept one anyway, and maybe made him fat with big spoonfuls of peanut butter pushed at him, but it was probably a good thing I didn’t have the chance. We were forever catching things and putting them in jars and then becoming distracted and missing feedings. This would not have been a nice way for any cricket, regardless of socioeconomic standing, to spend a humid afternoon. Obviously, this memory stuck and I have always thought of that tiny little cage when I hear a cricket and always loved the way they remind me of vermont and summer. Which is how I ended up researching crickets in the first place.
And now I really needed to start drawing or it wasn’t going to happen within my Kokka deadline.
First, I gathered up a nice selection of images of crickets, some technical, others purely for inspiration. Eric’s artwork, of course, and a lovely woodcut of a cricket cage peddler. Then a few amazing examples of cricket cages, including a simple and beautiful woodblock of a gourd turned into a cage, and then immediately following, a modern-day cage also made from a gourd.
I should admit that I then spent about an hour trying to find and buy a copy of the woodcut of the gourd and cricket. This happens to me more times than I would like to admit. Finally I forced myself to actually find some images of crickets, and then to start sketching.
I usually make very simple sketches, trying to focus on the characters and their expressions, gestures, and pose. With a print like this, where I intend the subject to be repeated with slight variations, I will draw as many as I can at a time. Next, I scan them into Photoshop using a very inexpensive scanner by Epson.
Then, I add color. I use the channels method in Photoshop, where I can bring in one color at a time as though I am screen-printing my design. When you print fabric, you make a separate screen for each color. Eventually, each of these channels will become a screen. I draw with a stylus and a Wacom tablet, which is also my mouse. (I have been using a stylus for so long that I can’t actually maneuver a mouse properly. It’s a little sad to watch, like someone trying to draw with a wet flipper.)
With my sketch visible, I create channels on top of it and trace the edges of my sketches, making lots of changes and improvements. I set all of my channels to be transparent, so that I don’t cover up my original sketches as I work. i don’t like to draw outlines, I prefer my illustrations to be made up of solid blobs of color and then add detail with a single dark scratchy line. The result looks like this:
Cute, right? But sort of blah? I remember the magical cricket cage and decide to add it. Bonus, this gives me the opportunity to add more colors and play up the graphic elements. I try caged crickets, but they look like they are in jail. I opt for empty cages.
I like it. I print it out in ten different colorways, changing the ground and the cage and the crickets each time. This is the best thing about drawing one color at a time using channels, you can change the colors really easily and try lots of variations. I love Epson Fine Art Paper for printing colors, and I use the low-end Epson photo printers — the ones with six ink cartridges give the best oranges and pinks, FYI. It’s pricey, but produces something that you could frame if you wanted to.
My crickets were actually intended to be a part of the Far Far Away line for Kokka of Japan. I sent it to them along with the unicorns and princesses and frogs and snails. And guess what.
They hated it.
It was (very respectfully) cut from the line. This happens a lot, at least to me. I have an idea that I realize, much too late sometimes, relates to too few people. And the thing is, when you decide like I did to become a commercial artist, you have to respect that.
So my little crickets came back to me after their trip abroad (which means that they have now been to Japan and I have not) and currently take up permanent residence on my inspiration board. More organized designers use their inspiration boards to plan and generate new works, but mine is really more of a wildlife refuge for everyone who emerges from my printer unfit for the real world, a little too creepy or scary or odd, or having been born too late or too early and missed that window of relevance or popularity or even recognition. They are, of course, my own little strays. I’m sure a few of them will venture out successfully one day, but for now they are quite happy and safe here with me. Plenty of peanut butter to go around.
Thank you so much, Heather! Look for Far Far Away, unfortunately sans crickets, in fabric shops soon.