the limited palette

It started back last Christmas when I made an e-card to send to family and friends. Three colours only, blue, pink and white, painted onto tinted board and then worked over with a black pencil. The idea was to produce something relatively quickly.

But I liked the result so much that I thought I’d pursue it, and when I began producing new works for a one-man exhibition at Oriel Tegfryn, I used the same technique and characters for portraits of Oberon and Titania from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.


I turned then to a regular theme I’ve been exploring for ten years, the blind saint Hervé and his wolf…

… before trying the same technique worked on panel rather than board, which gave a much grainier effect.

The most recent work has been on two illustrations for a forthcoming edition of Alice in Wonderland.

What started as a brief foray, has turned into an obsession.

Down the Rabbit Hole: picturing Alice


Alice is done. I’ve spent the most unconscionable time down that rabbit hole re-familiarising myself with and exploring Wonderland, and I’m left with the rather uneasy feeling of being all dressed up for the party but with nowhere to go. For the forthcoming one-hundred-and-fiftieth celebration edition of the book from Inky Parrot Press, I was asked to provide either two full-page images for the chapter titled ‘A Caucus Race and a Long Tale’, or a double-page spread. I decided on the latter.

I wasn’t asked for a chapter-heading vignette but provided one anyway, though I have no idea whether it will be used.

When I started the project I hadn’t the slightest intention of picturing Alice, though I ended up doing so. I have loved getting to know her again. Maybe I’ll get invited to that party one day, and be given the chance of putting everything I’ve learned over the past few weeks to good use elsewhere. It could happen!


I’ve always liked Alice, but now I absolutely love her!

Picturing Alice: a vignette


When I started this project I had no intention of showing Alice. She hadn’t made an appearance in my head, and so I skirted around her. But over the weeks of thinking my way into the book in order to make the illustration for the chapter A Caucus Race and a Long Tale (see above) she’s gradually emerged from the shadows, to the point that I’m thinking of making a little portrait of her as a chapter-heading or tailpiece.

Above: the Alice of Vera Berdich, who didn’t illustrate the book, but produced a couple of beautiful prints on the theme.

My Alice must definitely not be too pretty or picturesquely turned out. My favourite versions of Alice, Tenniel and the artist Vera Berdich aside, are those in Jan Svankmajer’s wonderful film. Both the real girl who plays her… all grubby knees and bitten finger-nails… and the blank-faced Victorian doll that stands in for her in animated sequences, are perfect.


Svankmajer’s Alice…alice-peek2jan-svankmajer

… and her animation ‘stand-in’.

So I want a rather difficult and potentially formidable Alice. She has to put up with quite a lot in the narrative that would daunt a timid child, and yet she remains self-possessed throughout. For the most part I’ve retained elements of Tenniel, with an Alice-band and a mass of unruly hair, though my Alice looks in more urgent need of a hair-brush!

In some of these she’s a tad stout. It makes her stolid and lovely to picture. I’m imagining a very small version of Brenda Blethyn!

She’s clearly quite annoyingly sceptical, with appraising eyes that are too judgemental for comfort.

I would not enjoy being on the wrong end of this look. 

I like this hair-style because it would be interesting to draw from all angles. Moreover it requires a plastic slide to hold it back, which is funnier than an ‘Alice-band’.

The gym-slip is perhaps a tad too retro and ‘Ronald Searle’ in tone, but with the addition of flat pumps and white ankle-socks, makes me laugh. I don’t think the way she’s dangling the poor Caucus Race crab looks very respectful of the poor creature!


A plain sketch (and child) lacking in detail, but I rather like it.

This profile image of an Alice with a pronounced forehead, has shot off in another direction, and is much too pretty for my liking.

In this one I’ve reined in the prettiness, and the drawing is all the better for it. I like too the less-than-cute pairing of Alice with the Caucus Race crab, instead of the mouse.

Well, I shouldn’t get carried away here. It’s not as though I’m designing an Alice needing to be fully-rounded in all her physical and character aspects in order to be able to picture her through an entire book. I’m making just the one illustration, and a vignette at that. But it’ll very likely be my one and only chance to draw her, and so I want the result to at least get any viewer wondering what a full edition of Alice in Wonderland illustrated by me might have offered. It will be rather strange, and indeed poignant, to be saying both hello and goodbye to a character in a single, finished image.


Alice, from start to finish: part four

I’ve finally completed the illustration. Alas, as my skills with a camera are not really up to the job, you will have to wait until after the weekend to see it ‘intact’. The full picture requires the services of ‘the photographer’! 

Alice, from start to finish: part one

My chapter is the one with the Caucus Race.

There was a collage of my cousin’s Devon Rex, Jeffrey, made a couple of years ago, and that was the start. Jeffrey would become Alice’s cat, Dinah.

DSCF102The magpie, mother canary and her young, Dinah and a reckless bird, come together in a rough layout.

Later I add a mouse between the magpie’s wing and tail, and try a different position for Dinah.

Next there are exploratory sketches of the various elements.

Many studies of mamma bird and her babies…

… and even more of the mouse.

At last the finished work begins, starting with a faint drawing of all the elements laid on board.

The colours are laid in, and the shapes, positive and negative, begin to emerge as I’ve been imagining them. Some startled birds add movement to the image.

Dinah’s tiger-stripes are lovely to draw.

The one-hundred-and-fiftieth celebratory edition of Alice in Wonderland, with illustrations by various artists, is due out from Inky Parrot Press in 2015.

progress on the Alice illustration

Piecing together the left side of the composition, I’ve progressed from this…

to this…

to this…

to this.

The mouse, the magpie, the canary and her young, all exit left while Dinah’s attention is diverted by a cheeky bird perching on her tail. Of course Dinah isn’t in the actual scene, though she’s there in the animals’ imaginations, because Alice has just tactlessly boasted of what a great huntress her cat is. Now I just need to find a way to overlap a bit of Dinah with a bit of the magpie, to create the interlocking and connection I so value in composition. The canary chicks are going to look like these:

I liked the top composition in which Dinah reaches over the ‘gutter’ of the book (the bit in the middle where the pages join), because of the dynamic of the interlocking shapes. But dramatically the second image is better, because the bird in the cat’s coiled tail gives the eye somewhere to focus on the right hand side of the illustration.

Today I begin the work on the prepared board. The medium is to be acrylic paint and oil-based pencil, and I’m borrowing the limited palette from the Christmas card I designed last year.

Saint Francis, the Caucus-Race and the Long Tale

I have an interesting project. Next year Dennis Hall at Inky Parrot Press is producing a celebratory edition of Alice in Wonderland to mark the one-hundred-and-fiftieth anniversary of the book’s publishing date. Each chapter is to be decorated by a different artist, and I’ve accepted A Caucus-Race and a Long Tale. The requirement is for either two full-page illustrations or a double page spread, and I’ve elected to go for the latter. This came my way because Dennis found an online image of my Saint Francis painting, The Congregation of Birds (2009), and he thought I’d be a good match for the chapter because he liked the way I painted the birds.


My research has shown that artists have frequently expressed the chapter in terms of quite similar visual ideas. The dodo is regularly the focus of their images… dodos being lovely to draw… as is the mouse whose ‘tale’ forms half of the chapter’s title. There are also a good many circular-based compositional devices, the Caucus being described by the Dodo as a race frequently, though not invariably, run on a circular course.

Here are a small selection of past images made of the scene.

Below: Meg Hunt

Vera Berdich (I like this a lot! It has an Edward Lear vibe.)

Eunyoung Seo

From the 1951 Disney animated film

Arthur Rackham


It’s my way to subvert what might be expected of me by finding my own way into any subject. I particularly like the moment toward the end of the chapter when the Mouse, having got into rather an ill-humour with Alice, stumps off despite her entreaties for it to remain:


   “I wish I had our Dinah here, I know I do!” said Alice aloud, addressing nobody in particular. “She’d soon fetch it back!”

   “And who is Dinah, if I might venture to ask the question?” said the Lory.”

  Alice replied eagerly, for she was always ready to talk about her pet: “Dinah’s our cat. And she’s such a capital one for catching mice, you can’t think! And oh, I wish you could see her after the birds! Why she’ll eat a little bird as soon as look at it!”

  This speech caused a remarkable sensation among the party. Some of the birds hurried off at once: one old Magpie began wrapping itself up very carefully, remarking ‘I really must be getting home: the night-air doesn’t suit my throat!” And a Canary called out in a trembling voice, to its children, “Come away, my dears! It’s high time you were all in bed!” On various pretexts they all moved off, and Alice was soon left alone.

So my idea right now is not to show the Caucus-Race as described or the Long Tale as recounted, but rather to embody the anxieties of the animals about Dinah-the-bird-catching-cat.

I want Dinah to be the significant character of the composition, because I love the description of the Canary herding her brood away from Alice’s account of her cat’s predatory nature, and the Magpie ‘wrapping itself up’ in discomfort at the very thought of Dinah arriving on the scene!

Above: in the bottom left corner of the spread the Canary shields and guides her chicks with her wings as she herds them away from danger while glancing back over her shoulder. Above her the Magpie checks behind as it makes good its escape.

Below: in the full spread I’ve added the Mouse at the top of the left page… sandwiched between the Magpie’s outstretched wing and trailing tail… and a small bird in flight scarily close to Dinah’s jaws. I’m aiming for strong dynamics in the image, a sense of movement and drama. And of course for me there must always be the emphasis on positive and negative shape.

Below: trying out an alternative position for Dinah.

So… a start has been made!

In Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Carroll doesn’t describe Dinah save in terms of her character. In real life Alice Liddell had a tabby cat, which is how I’ve chosen to draw Dinah. (Right now she looks like a Devon Rex, which is no surprise as I have a great affection for a couple of Devon Rex cats known to me.)