Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Tale of the Watercolor Badger

This blog keeps languishing, and I feel guilty for that, but I just have so much on my plate these days. When I started this blog for the 365 project, I was between jobs, living in a crappy little apartment, struggling to get by. A lot's happened since then. I nursed my cat of thirteen+ years through cancer and euthanasia (You can see her featured way back in this post and even then I can see the pale spot on one side of her muzzle where the tumor was lurking), I stumbled into a dream job working at a veterinarian hospital, and we moved to a house with a yard, where we're now preparing for our second year of a productive garden. Art and reading never stop, for me, but taking the time to sit down and write an essay about it is trickier. The job at the vet keeps me busy, and the past six months, while I'm still very happy there, I've been working 50+ hour weeks 6 days a week, so what free time I do have is partly eaten up with errands and all the basic business of living. I don't, I will admit, read as much or as often as I'd like.

I have still been doing plenty of art, even though I haven't posted it here.

In the spirit of that, I'd like to try to post stuff here again. I may or may not manage to resurrect my 365 project, although I had plenty of ideas waiting in the wings, so we'll see. If I can manage a post a week or so, to share art and musings, I'll consider that enough.

On that note, I'll start with my most recent stuff, and it is loosely book-related. The other hobby that I cram in whenever I have a few spare moments is role-playing, which is always a weird thing to have to explain to people who might not know what it is. Not Dungeons & Dragons (although I'm no stranger to that, and it's more flexible cousin GURPS), not something kinky for the bedroom, either. I roleplay online, and there's a pretty vast community who does, with original characters or fan characters drawn from books, movies or TV, we're mostly people of a writerly bent of mind, coming together to play characters meeting, going on adventures, forming friendships (or conflicts), and basically engaging in interactive story telling. It's something that crosses all genres and styles, depending what the people involved are interested in playing, and it's something I've been involved in pretty much as far back as I had regular access to the internet.

The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck
More recently, a friend created a roleplay community for some Beatrix Potter inspired roleplay, which is an opportunity both for stress-free fluffy tea time shenanigans, and also the darker more realistic side of animal interaction (a lot of the people playing grew up on books like Watership Down as well as the more pleasant talking animal stories children are fed). Beatrix Potter's work itself, for all that it's talking animals in clothes, rarely shied away from the realities of predators and prey.

I'm not sure if it was the general environment of the game, or the idea of Beatrix Potter's art, but I threw myself into the game with a passion, created an original character, and started painting.

The Tailor of Gloucester
When I was young, I had several Beatrix Potter books, including a big treasury with a collection of tales. Growing up, talking animals were very much my focus of play, I preferred animals over humans both in my games and my art, and what that says about me I'm not sure. I didn't really start trying to draw human beings until High School. The versatility of Beatrix Potter's animals interested me, the fluidity with which they moved between wearing clothes and presenting themselves as people, and other times wearing only their own fur and acting very much in their place in an ecosystem of wild animals. The pen and ink and watercolor style of artwork, too, was a medium I've become very comfortable with, and realism always appealed to me.

As a child, my favorite stories were the Tailor of Gloucester, and the Pie
The Tale of Mr. Tod
and the Patty Pan. Mice and rats always seemed to have a rich wealth of stories, my mind blending Beatrix Potter's portrayals with the Secret of Nimh and, later the Redwall books. Cats and dogs, too, there's a wealth of stories about, and I remember adoring the pictures of Duchess in my big treasury book, the art even more than the story, I think, was my favorite there.

The setting of the current roleplay game is the countryside, rather than the city, and we were encouraged to make animal versions of other characters we already play, if in need of inspiration. That's not quite what I did, but I definitely went for an archetype I tend to play, a slightly grumbly, bookish old man, and the perfect animal seemed to me to be the badger.

My own take on a badger character
Before I tried drawing my own character, I thought I'd google Beatrix Potter's art, because I couldn't even recall seeing an illustration of a badger from her. What I discovered was a single tale, in which a badger played a mischievous role.

There's nothing wrong with her illustration, of course, but the badger described in the tale of Mr. Tod wasn't my badger at all. What I cam up with was the image of something slightly more respectable. Bespectacled, bookish, just a little grumbly but with a sharp sense of humor. He's a retired, well-fed old badger who prefers a peaceful neighborhood and slow food (which ought to put the new neighbors slightly at ease). He's not quite as much of a gentleman as he's taken for in his old age, though, and he's been in more than a few scraps, including a vicious fight with a dog that left a scar over one eye. His name is Mr. Tadge Blackbriar, and in the game, I have yet to see anyone address him by his first name, I guess he comes off as too distinguished for that.

Mr. Tadge Blackbriar

There's something about working in ink (prismacolor fine line markers, in this case) and watercolor that feels like an easy default. From a very early age I got used to watercolor paints, and a family friend who is a professional artist to this day gave me childhood lessons. I remember sitting in her elegant house, with the grand piano and white carpet no shoes were allowed on. Her father's art hung on the dining room wall (a landscape in the tradition of English Watercolorists) and her art elsewhere throughout the house. At the dining room table she taught me different exercises in texture and how watercolors blend, or how to keep them from blending, when needed.
At home, we had a privately published book of hers, a story of a mouse.

Mr. Blackbriar moving into the neighborhood
Since then I've played with a variety of mediums, and I went through a period where I was in love with acrylics. Oil paints, I never did get the hang of. I always came back to watercolors, and these days they're fast and familiar, a quick and easy way to get color down the way I want it. The pages of the sketchbook I've been using aren't ideal for it, but the ripple effect on the paper seems to be at a minimum even with big washes of color.

I've been so inspired by the roleplay, in fact, that I started doing portraits of each character that joined. Playing online, there's space for icons, a handful of little images to be used with each post of writing that can help illustrate the character's mood. That kind of thing inspires me to draw even more images of the character, in a variety of expressions. Expect more art posts to come...