For the past few months, I have been researching fairy lore for an ongoing writing project. I recently came across an exhibition catalogue on Victorian fairy paintings, suitably titled Victorian Fairy Painting (1997, edited by Jane Martineau with contributing essays from curators and other experts).
I feel so lucky to have stumbled into this one at Balfour Books in Toronto while they were having a big sale.
The drawing below was inspired by Richard Doyle’s The Fairy Tree, which I saw in the book and immediately thought it would be a good excuse to draw monsters.
Richard Doyle was brilliant at drawing little fairy folk figures in imaginative wondrous landscapes. Unfortunately, his depictions carry racist, nationalist, and orientalist attitudes of the time.
He was also the uncle of writer Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who later enthusiastically embraced spiritualism.
I love the dream paintings of self-taught artist John Anster Fitzgerald, included in the catalogue. His paintings below had several versions and were controversial because the earlier versions showed references to drug-induced hallucinations and darker themes.
So many fairy paintings from the Victorian period were heavily inspired by Shakespeare, ballet, and theatre – but my favourites are inspired by more traditional lore, spiritualism, and psychological themes 🖤
Richard Doyle’s The Fairy Tree
The Artist’s Dream by John Anster Fitzgerald (1857)
The Nightmare by John Anster Fitzgerald (c.1857-8)
The Stuff that Dreams are Made of by John Anster Fitzgerald (1858)
Completely unrelated, as I was browsing the children’s section in the bookstore, I noticed that staff had subtly placed an unwelcome book in the children’s section. I found this offensive to children’s literature!
The following post is based on a course assignment from a few years ago that offered me the opportunity to closely read and trace a few pages from Julie Doucet’s My New York Diary, one of my favorite autobiographical comics. My New York Diary is also an early contemporary feminist classic of graphic autobiography. I read the second printing of the softcover published by Drawn and Quarterly in 2011. The work chronicles Doucet’s six months living in New York, beginning as an idealistic 17-year-old artist after graduating from an all-girls’ school in Canada. Heartbreaking, hilarious, and often relatable complications ensue, including boyfriend woes, addiction battles, physical and mental health struggles, and grave disillusionment with the art world.
God I miss studying comics.
After rereading sections of Julie Doucet’s My New York Diary I became aware that Doucet’s graphic narrative reminded me of the voyeuristic act of peering into a dollhouse. Typically, each page in My New York Diary is made of three rows of panels that parallel the levels of a dollhouse, the characters are doll-like with disproportionate and “cute” physical features, and the layout of the page exposes an open wall for the audience to gaze inside the scene. However, unlike a child’s dollhouse Doucet’s dollhouse engages with the grotesque, including: garbage—although she somehow makes garbage look cute, dirty and cracked walls, insects that corrupt each room, leaking body fluids, and objects that move eerily between panels. Doucet’s characters, which look like beat-up dolls with black eyes and bruises, also contribute to the uncanny dollhouse aesthetic. I felt unnerved reading many of Doucet’s brutally honest self-critical scenes. Maybe because they defamiliarize my childhood memories of playing with dollhouses while inventing more naïve, although perhaps not more strange, narratives.
Kidkraft’s 18″ Dollhouse
Page five of Julie Doucet’s story “My New York Diary” introduces several themes that reveal Doucet’s immaturity as a younger artist, exposing her idealistic fantasy of love and the creative life of an artist in New York. The cartoon Doucet on this page is naïve and optimistic. She is a marionette-like figure not yet able to critique her boyfriend or her decisions; she embraces her boyfriend in the chaos of the apartment and exclaims, “Oh Chéri, we will be so happy.” The author might write this with heavy cynicism, but the character in the panel seems genuinely happy. I chose to examine this page in contrast to page fifty-two because the character Julie changes drastically between these two pages, as does the story’s tone. Doucet’s character gains autonomy and the author finally speaks through her character instead of manipulating her like a puppeteer. On page five the cartoon Doucet is alienated from the narrator Doucet while on page fifty-two the narrator and the cartoon character merge and the character is self-aware (and aware of the audience).
In most panels on page five Doucet’s character smiles gleefully at her boyfriend’s messy apartment, and she stares entranced at her boyfriend. Both characters act ecstatic, excited about the space they believe will be conducive to creativity and romance. However, because the space is visually unstable, I read both characters’ optimism as unreliable. The space foreshadows conflict. Doucet’s uncanny dolls, such as the mouse with the superman cape, shift unsettlingly between panels and the walls and floors shift between panels as well.
Doucet draws her younger self and her boyfriend as oversized dolls with large heads and unblinking large manic eyes. They are also children playing dress up, acting out their roles among the toys and chaotic props of the world of the apartment. Doucet’s New York is a city of discarded objects where even garbage becomes “cute”, thrown like abandoned play toys into heaps along the sidewalks; the jagged edges of tin cans become more curved. Many of Doucet’s characters are overgrown children carelessly discarding their playthings and garbage, but they are also drawn to look like grotesque dolls and they are also often discarded. On page four of the same story the backwards-L-shaped bottom panel shows a cute girl wearing a backpack and polka dot dress. Her eyes appear to be hollow or gouged out and she looks lost and distressed and walks with her arms at her sides like an automaton. She looks like a discarded doll.
In the top left corner of page five Doucet’s boyfriend twists his head around completely in an unnatural toy-like movement while walking up the stairway. Reading this gave me the impression that his character is fake or disingenuous. Doucet draws herself with spaghetti-like hair that fits into the chaotic, garbage-ridden aesthetic of the apartment and her New York. Doucet blends in and becomes lost in the scenery. The cans in the hallway, the ominous shadows, and dirt on the walls in the first panel foreshadow the messiness of the apartment and the instability of the relationship, exposing the younger Doucet’s idealistic fantasy of New York. Doucet and her boyfriend move erratically, almost jerkily, from panel to panel, like stop-motion animation figures. They hug in the second last panel on page five and suddenly in the last panel her boyfriend dramatically throws himself into a swing-dance-like move, his arm extended toward the refrigerator.
The subtly shifting toys and walls and the disorienting tilt of the floor create an atmosphere filled with anxiety and instability. The shifting unreliable objects offer a critique of consumerist culture as well—since the objects and possessions become threatening and unreliable.
I associate Doucet’s graphic narrative to the voyeuristic glimpse into an uncanny dollhouse, but I also think about how the process of paneling and drawing comics itself parallels the childhood act of playing with dolls by placing them in various positions and making them speak. Although this might play into the stereotype of the cartoonist as the social outcast alienated with their collectables and imagination, artists like Doucet can distort and manipulate the dollhouse and dolls and force them to work against problematic social norms. For example, Doucet defamiliarizes the social conventions and the “nuclear family” ideology attached to the original mass-produced plastic dollhouses.
The panoramic center panel on page five shows Doucet’s character smiling, standing next to the smiling mouse doll in a cape. The character Julie is encompassed in her boyfriend’s belongings and becomes another doll he has collected. This panel is the establishing shot for the world of the apartment where the character Julie will isolate herself from her new city. Doucet’s character is empowered by her creativity, but otherwise she is afraid to leave the apartment. The reader views the panel from the powerful perspective of the puppeteer while Doucet’s character is the puppet doomed to repeat Doucet’s behavior and experiences. However, on page fifty-two the character Julie meets the reader’s gaze, altering the power dynamics and uncanny feel of the earlier page.
Page fifty-two establishes Julie the character is more autonomous and self-reflective than in earlier stories. Doucet draws the title of page fifty-two, “My New York Diary”, studded with jewel-like decorations, alluding to the glitzy façade of theatre productions or glamorous fantasies of fame and fortune. Here Doucet might be making fun of her earlier fantasy of New York’s romance. The first page I looked at for this post begins in Spring, season of hope and rejuvenation, while the second page I chose takes place in the desolation of winter, wrought with isolation, hibernation, and somber self-reflection, befitting Julie’s disillusionment.
On page fifty-two Julie speaks in split speech balloons that suggest a conflicted internal dialogue. The split speech balloons also reveal her ability to be self-critical and investigate her potentially conflicted feelings. She is now aware of an audience and has become disillusioned with her earlier fantasy of New York (page five). Page fifty-two lacks the imposition of narrative voiceover and finally Doucet the author merges with Julie and is able to speak through her. Although I could read the same page as Julie speaking with another character in the room, she is still more powerful and self-reflective than on page five where she hardly speaks. On page fifty-two the reader is less powerful because Julie is able to meet their gaze, even if she does not necessarily break the third wall. The character is no longer submerged in the naive fantasy of her new life in New York. The reader initially views Julie on page fifty-two from the perspective of a camera angled down from above, like from the vantage of a puppeteer, however the page ends with the reader meeting Julie’s gaze and her character is empowered.
The atmosphere on page fifty-two is less cluttered than page five and hints at Julie’s contentedness and clarity, but the walls and floors are still dirty and cracked and the shifting floors and walls are more noticeable without her boyfriend’s clutter, so the environment is still unstable. Julie’s shifting posture also contributes to the page’s visual tension. Initially her cartoon self sits in the proper posture of the Victorian fantasy of the sophisticated young woman— upright, elegant, with her hands crossed over her lap. However, as she talks about her ex-boyfriend’s latest immature escapades she becomes angry and slouches, her legs split apart in a grotesque “masculine” position. Although she is no longer lost in the chaos of her boyfriend’s apartment she is still surrounded by objects and furniture that do not belong to her. Only her cat, stripped of its facial features, becomes a reliable object. she is also more free to travel and move on because she carries few possessions.
On both pages the small gutters create more crowded-looking panels. One moment in the story jerks ungracefully into the next as each busy panel fragments the narrative and forces the reader to linger on the page. The cluttered panels and sliding landscapes offer an anxious and chaotic environment and a challenging reading experience. Each page contains almost too much to look at so that the pages disorient the reader like the lights and visual cues in a casino. In this way Doucet uses visual tension to recreate her physical and emotional experience of New York.
My body responded to Doucet’s visual narration. Sometimes as I read I felt tense and nervous, but other times I genuinely laughed out loud. Doucet’s characters pop out of the black backgrounds with the erratic jumpiness of marionettes or the dolls that would come alive in a child’s nightmare of a dollhouse. Doucet’s characters are more object-like than any other graphic narrative I have read so far and I found it hard to be selective while tracing these two pages because it seems like the objects are just as important in Doucet’s visual narration as the people. After a few close readings of this work and after tracing the two pages discussed in this post (as part of the assignment), I believe that part of the power of Doucet’s artwork is her ability to disturb and provoke the reader through stories offering a voyeuristic glimpse into her uncanny dollhouse and the memories it explores. Doucet retells her stories through visual and visceral narration that recreates both physical and emotional experiences, allowing and forcing the reader to engage more intimately with the narrative.
“Little Orange Man”
I post drawings often on Instagram if you would like to see more work:
Naomi Parker Fraley, the iconic woman who inspired the “We Can Do It” poster by J. Howard Miller during World War ll featuring Rosie the Riveter, passed away January 20th, 2018 at 96.
This drawing is inspired by the strong woman in that poster and strong women across the world today who advocate for gender equality.
Cover illustration from the beautiful graphic novel, Back and Forth, told in linocut illustrations, made by Toronto artist Marta Chudolinska
Recently, I decided to take a break from hand drawing and learn how to create block prints, mostly using the linocut printing technique, which is a type of relief printing.
Having taken a rare books course last year in the beautiful Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto, I was somewhat familiar with the process of relief printing, but I wanted firsthand experience, and I was curious to see how the drawing process translates into print images. Well, I was quick to learn that printmaking is an incredibly labor-intensive and frustrating learning process of trial and error— but it is also incredibly satisfying and rewarding. While carving linocuts, I was forced to map out my drawings beforehand using pen on the block, simplifying my images (which is something I almost never do), or else the detail can obscure the image of the final print; this is true especially if you are a beginner and opt to use cheaper tools and blocks with a more malleable but less durable surface.
Lino blocks are less easy to carve and cut than thicker softer rubbers, however, these lino blocks will last longer and survive multiple printing sessions over time. Sadly, these durable lino blocks are more likely to lead to actual “linocuts” 😦 Behold this heavily bandaged blogger:
For those of you reading this post who are beginner print-makers or do not know much about printing, here is a brief overview of 3 different illustration printing processes, traditionally used in making artist books, or what are now considered rare books. I will mostly focus on relief printing.
**Much of this blog post is compiled from course notes and power point slides**
Three main illustration processes
Note: Silkscreen might not be considered a planographic process because the pigment is pushed though a screen, but it is a very similar process to lithography.
Early woodcut: William Caxton’s The Game of Chesse, c1474
Relief printing: This printing is done from a raised surface, much like type was used in the printing press. Traditionally, this process included letterpress, wood engravings, and woodcuts. During this process, ink is applied on the raised surface, and then the paper is pressed down on it, or the block is pressed into the paper in the case of smaller blocks; in the case of my block printing, I applied the ink by hand with a small roller. The ideal outcome is that only the surface prints, although if ink is over-applied this might lead to some unexpected but aesthetically pleasing results. Traditionally, pear was the commonest wood used, and the flat plank side of a piece of wood was cut with the grain using knives and gouges; the area cut away would be lighter, so the raised lines would be darker, thick, and angular. Achieving detail can be very challenging in relief printing, such as cross hatching, however error can be corrected by gluing on pieces of wood and re-carving. Initially, illustrations would be inked by hand with paper laid on (the way I do it now), but then later a printing press was used, in addition to type (letter blocks) which could be printed then at the same time as the illustration. Albrecht Dürer is a well known illustrator from the 16th century who miraculously developed awe-inducing fine relief print lines, but then copper engravings quickly became popularized. In the 18th century woodcutting had a revival thanks to the influence of Japanese woodcut illustrations, but blocks are more fragile than other printing techniques, and sadly do not last, so other printing techniques are much more common.
Rhinoceros 1515 woodcut print by Albrecht Dürer
Wood engraving was also a popular form of relief printing, made popular by Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) in England. During this process, wood blocks were prepared with a solution of zinc white in gum arabic, onto which the artist drew their design, or else a drawing could be pasted on the block, much like how now many images can be ironed onto blocks to be engraved. Designs are then cut into the wood block, at the grain end, with a steel graver so that they lie below type height—which results in the design being made of the white lines that the ink does not pick up, as opposed to woodcuts which pick up the design in black ink lines above the type height. Sections of the block could also be painted or washed over with ink to be toned, for more depth or detail. Boxwood was most often used for the process of wood engraving. Blocks that were glued and then bolted together made it possible for newspaper to print full-page illustrations in the 1840’s, and then by the 1860s photographs could be printed right onto blocks to be engraved. Wood engraving was popular until the end of the 19th century, when photo-mechanical processes took over.
Intaglio printing: This type of printing process uses an engraved or incised surface, and can lead to very detailed results. Traditionally, this process included metal engravings, such as copperplate engravings, and etchings. Tools are used to cut grooves in the surface of a plate, these grooves are then filled with ink, the rest of the plate is wiped clean, and then the plate is put through a rolling press. Using a great deal of pressure, in this way the paper is forced into the inked grooves during the printing process.
In drypoint engraving, the metal plate is first coated with a ground onto which the design is scratched with a needle, and then the ground is washed off; the design is cut onto the surface of a copper or zinc plate with a diamond or steel point. The design is scratched directly onto the plate using a burin (engraving tool), which leaves a dark burr of metal, and during this process the plate rests on a rounded cushion filled with sand. The plate is warmed, and then ink is applied to the surface of the plate and wiped off, leaving the lines of the design. These lines are then deepened, but the burr (the raised metal left on each side of the cuts) is not removed, although the burr can come off during the process of engraving. Thanks to this burr, a drypoint image can have softer outlines. The plate is then inked, and wiped with a cloth and the palm of the hand. Then, with the paper placed on top, the plate is passed through a rolling press, where excessive pressure can be applied.
Hand-coloured etching from William Blake’s Jerusalem (plate 51), 1820
Etching is another intaglio process. In etching, chemicals bite into a metal plate to create an image. Traditionally, a clean polished copper or zinc plate is warmed and covered with ground, which can be wax, asphalt and hartshorn), and the smoked over with a candle, which will colour it black. A tracing of the design is placed over the ground plate and pressed down onto it, and then a rounded needle removes the ground from the lined of the drawing. Once this design is carved out using the needle, the edge and back of plate are covered with acid-resistant varnish, and the plate is immersed in an acid solution which “bites” the lines, repeatedly until the desired depth is reached. Lines that have reached the correct depth can be “stopped out” with varnish to prevent further deepened etching. Artist William Blake hand-coloured his etchings to beautiful effect (Songs of Innocence and Experience, 1789), and the artist Rembrandt left ink on the plate, which produced darker prints.
Other forms of intaglio printing include:
Aquatints were first used in the 1750s, notably used by Francisco Goya (1746-1828), who combined etching with aquatint.
Mezzotints, which were quite possibly invented by Ludwig von Siegen in 1642, reproduced tones as well as lines, and were often used in reproductions of portraiture works.
Aquatint: Goya’s The Giant (1818)
Mezzotint with drypoint: Pandemonium, 1824, from John Milton’s Paradise Lost
Planographic printing: This type of printing is done from a flat surface, as opposed to a raised surface (such as relief) or engraved/incised surface (such as intaglio). Traditionally, lithography and offset lithography are planographic processes. These processes are based on chemical properties—primarily, that oil does not mix with water.
Planographic printing, first used by Aloysius Senefelder in 1796, was first called “lithography” in 1804, and by early 19th century it had spread throughout Europe. Senefelder, who first drew on limestone, began by using acid to raise the text, but later realized that he did not need to raise the printing surface; by drawing with a grease-based ink and wetting the limestone, he discovered that only the greasy ink printed on the paper. In 1797 Senefelder built the first lithographic press, and in 1798 lithographic transfers, which used a print to create a new lithographic stone, were used, and in 1799 crayons were used for drawing on stones. In 1837, Engelmann patented chromolithography (colour lithography), which was the most common method of creating colour illustrations in the 19th century. Now modern methods use photochemical reproduction for an image, with zinc or aluminum plates in rotary presses.
Lithograph: Desire by Edvard Munch, 1898
My printmaking tools:
A few finished linocuts: