Sophie Blackall Illustration

Drawings and Snippets and Breaking News, (but more snippets than breaking news).

Friday, November 15, 2013

A Fine Dessert - Part 6, A Completely Justifiable Research Trip to England

Not that I really need to justify a trip to England, but I really, truly had things to do there that couldn't be done on the internet, like visiting the archives of the London Zoo (for another book, more on that to come) and to do an Ivy and Bean Day event at the wonderful bookshop, Ottie and the Bea in South East London. But while I was there, visiting family in Somerset, A Fine Dessert was never far from my mind. Call me obsessed; you wouldn't be the first.
My cousin and his wife live in a ridiculously picturesque hamlet in Somerset. I'm not going to tell you what it's called because you'll all want to go there and the hamlet dwellers would be mad.
They live next door to this excellent pig called Blossom...
And down the lane from this fairytale Medieval roundhouse built by their friend the local thatcher...
...who also makes cider.
 It was harvest time at the local cider mill...
 ...which was momentarily distracting...
...but I was looking for blackberries.
The lanes were dripping with them...
...and just dripping, generally.
 But in the evenings they turned golden.
The blackberries were smaller and firmer than their American counterparts (I draw no cultural observations here)...
...and the fool we made came out a deep purple, almost tarmac color. But was equally delicious.
There were more thatched farmhouses than you could poke a stick at.

 And we visited Montacute which has a wobbly hedge...
And through the wobbly hedge, is an ice house.

 In A Fine Dessert, in 1710 the farmer's wife and her daughter made the blackberry fool, then Emily Jenkins writes, "They carried the mixture to an ice pit in the hillside. It chilled near sheets of winter ice, packed with reeds and straw." I have been reading everything I can find about ice pits and ice houses and the making of iced desserts in the 18th century. This ice house was constructed in a similar way to a stone well. I couldn't quite imagine where the dish of blackberry fool would be placed to chill. I'm wondering whether perhaps they would have transported small chunks of the ice back to the kitchen instead. Emily suggested I write to Lynne Olver, the expert food historian at the Food Timeline, and I'm holding my breath for her response. In the meantime I drew a sketch of them carrying the mixture to the icepit in the hill, because it would make a nice image, and a perfect excuse to paint the English sky. But we'll see what Ms Olver says.
 ps The one tree hill I used in the drawing is part of the cider mill. Click below to visit their website.

Monday, November 4, 2013

A Fine Dessert - Part 5

As I threatened a few weeks ago, I am sharing the whole messy process of this book, A Fine Dessert, written by Emily Jenkins – the decision-making, the research, the false leads, the mistakes, the happy accidents, even the paralysis – as it's being made. Here's how a recent day went:
In the second century of making the blackberry fool, around 1810, we are introduced to a slave and her daughter, working in the kitchen of a plantation near Charleston, South Carolina. Just as I tracked down my farmhouse in Lyme, I had a picture in my head of the plantation I wanted to draw: white, with Georgian columns and an avenue of wriggly oak trees. I had a hard time finding a reference for the perfect house. So many of them were burnt down in the Civil War, or had porticoes or wings or columns added over the decades. I settled on Hampton Plantation, which was built in 1735 and suited my needs nicely.

I started to sketch it with the wriggly oaks when I suddenly had a forehead slapping thought: I'm drawing these mature oaks, but this is 1810... what did they look like then?  Had they even been planted?

And I found the answer was no. At least I'm not quite sure. Though it seems they were planted around 1820. So I erased them. But I didn't want to lose them altogether so I decided to draw rows of saplings. 


Then, as I continued to delve deeper, I found this painting by Charles Fraser. Of a white plantation house called Ashley Hall. With an avenue of mature trees. Painted in 1803. 
So I drew them back again.

This took pretty much an entire day. Most people holding the finished book in their hands sometime next year will never know about the trees that nearly weren't, but you and I will.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

A Fine Dessert - Part 4

I have been burying myself in research for A Fine Dessert, in a lovely, but boggy sort of way. For instance, I spent the better part of a day trying to figure out what a slave working in the kitchen house of a plantation in South Carolina in 1810 might have worn on her feet. And I'm not even sure we'll see her feet. So I decided this weekend to step away from the computer and into the kitchen.
The dessert in question is blackberry fool, made with blackberries, sugar and whipped cream. 
In 1710, the author Emily Jenkins tells me, "the woman skimmed the cream off the evening’s milk. She added it to the cream from the morning’s milk and began to beat it all with a bundle of clean, soft twigs."
So obviously I had to make a twig whisk. I cut several nice, straight, flexible twigs from a lilac tree and bound their ends with jute. This was no end of fun.

I would like to say I picked the blackberries from my own field but it's a bit late in the season (these below were in my own field, but we picked them and ate them long ago). I had to hunt down two punnets at Price Chopper, which was far less romantic.

Then I put the twigs to work. And they worked! It did take about 15 minutes but was immensely satisfying.

Squished the berries with a fork, pushed them through a sieve to remove the seeds, added sugar to the pulp and folded the lot into the cream. In 1710 they took the dish to the ice pit in the hillside (more on that later) I popped mine in the freezer.
It was FINE.

Monday, October 7, 2013

A Fine Dessert - Part 3

As I mentioned in the last post, Emily Jenkin's A Fine Dessert begins:
A bit more than three hundred years ago, in an English town called Lyme, a girl and her mother picked wild blackberries. Their hands turned purple with the juice. The thorns of the berry bushes pricked the fabric of their long skirts.

This book spans four centuries, beginning in the early 1700s. I have made a list of all the images I need to research, and it's long. But to begin with, I wanted to find what a farmhouse in Lyme looked like around then. A quick search for 1700s farmhouse Lyme sent me wandering off to the The Landmark Trust where I got lost for a good hour, planning all the vacations I would take in historical buildings (you can stay in turrets and castles and Robin Hood's hut!). I dragged myself back to the task at hand and realized that what I should be looking for was a 1600s farmhouse, unless I wanted my family to be living in a spanking new house in 1710.
I think it will be fun to draw a thatched roof, so I'm going to model their house on these, and it will look something like this.

Friday, October 4, 2013

A Fine Dessert - Part 2

A Fine Dessert is a book about blackberry fool, made by a farmer's wife and her daughter in England in 1710, a plantation slave and her daughter in South Carolina in 1810, an urban middle class woman and her daughter in Boston in 1910 and a father and his son in San Diego in 2010. Each century sees changes in society and food technology.
The first thing I'm thinking about is the trim size of the book and what shape it should be. Square or rectangle? I'm leaning towards rectangular and largish and landscape (horizontal, rather than portrait/vertical.) In each century, the berries are picked, the cream is procured and then whipped and then chilled, the dish is served and shared. The first images to float into my peripheral vision are from the beginning of the book (picking wild berries) and the end of the book (a large dinner party). In both I want room for the illustrations to spill left and right, for blackberry tendrils to unfurl and for children to leave the table and roll around on the ground. So landscape it is.
The next big question is about style. I am considering whether each century should be treated slightly differently, and if so, how far to push this. There is a danger of getting swept up with the design (the lure of possibilities with type and ornamentation!) and forgetting the children who eventually hold this book in their hands. What will make them want to turn the pages?
In the meantime, I am sifting and gleaning and bookmarking and borrowing.
This woodblock jumped out at me. I would love to do something this simple and beautiful.

I love these feet.

Caldecott's palette here makes me happy... does this one from Iran

I like this crowded room...

...and the perspective of this one

...and how the Provensons manage different scenes in different rooms all on the same page.

I like how Walter Crane shows us the backs of people
I think is image is cropped but I admire this composition

I remain in love, as ever, with colored engraving

and low horizons with large foreground figures...

...and small.
And finally, I can't stand it anymore and I have to make a picture, which almost certainly won't make it into the book, but will break the paralysis. Otherwise I'll be sifting and gleaning forever.  
A Fine Dessert begins:
A bit more than three hundred years ago, in an English town called Lyme, a girl and her mother picked wild blackberries. Their hands turned purple with the juice. The thorns of the berry bushes pricked the fabric of their long skirts.

So, here is a first go at painting the girl and her mother.
You can see where I stole the feet.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

A Fine Dessert - Part 1

I am starting in on a new picture book. It's always an exciting time; blank canvas and all that. When it's a book you've written yourself, the pictures form simultaneously with the words as one entwined, inseparable idea. At least for me. But when the manuscript comes from another writer, the process is different. I've often thought an illustrator is also part architect, costume designer, landscape gardener; we design the houses of our characters, and choose their clothes and plant their gardens. At times we are given license to decide if they are humans or animals or, you know, unicorns. All these decisions can be paralyzing. (A whip-cracking editor can be useful here.) When a story is one of historical fiction however, there is research to be done. Research, which has its own drawbacks and rewards. Spending a day hunting down a single image can lead you down rabbit holes you never imagined (Oh! Rabbit holey internet!), and at the end of the day you may be no closer to finding your image. You may, on the other hand, know all sorts of things you never knew about the secret uses of an 18th century ice house, the mating habits of pink fairy armadillos and the French postman who spent 33 years building an extraordinary grotto out of pebbles he carried in his pockets.
In any case, I am starting in on a new picture book for Schwartz and Wade. It is written by Emily Jenkins (Toys Go Out, Lemonade in Winter, Love You When You Whine!!!) and it's called A Fine Dessert and it's wonderful. In Emily's words, "it is about the universality of the pleasure in cooking and eating dessert -- how it goes through time and across cultures." The dessert in question is blackberry fool, made with berries, cream and sugar, combined and chilled. The book follows four families making and sharing this dessert, over four centuries, in four different places.
I often do school visits and talk to teachers and librarians after a book is finished, but I have never shared the process – the decision-making, the research, the false leads, the mistakes, the happy accidents, even the paralysis – as it's being made. For better or worse, I have decided to drag you along with me. Feel free to crack the whip, share your own tales from the rabbit hole, send me images of whisks through the ages...
More soon!

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Ivy and Bean Drawings

Here are a few of my delightful visitors at the Princeton Book Festival last weekend. Over 75 girls, a few boys and one brave librarian drew pictures of Ivy and/or Bean for me. It was fantastic. Incidentally, Ivy and Bean received equal love with 30 drawings of each girl. The others drew the pair, and there was one random rabbit.
Here is a selection.