Drawing, Thoughts

Adventures with Scratch Board

(A long blog post in which I behave like a grade one idiot)

When I was little, my Grandma used to say I would grow up to be a nutty professor. This was because while I displayed gifts and talents in many things, common sense was not one of them. Time has not altered this one bit.

I’ve spent most of the last week working on a gig poster, commissioned by the B-Bar in Plymouth who are soon to host one of my favourite musicians, Alasdair Roberts. Needless to say designing the poster was an honour and a lot of fun. I’ve been sharing sneak peeks of the work-in-progress all week, and now it’s done! But not without heartache…

Alasdair Roberts at B Bar Plymouth

In my last blog post I promised to be honest, so it seems fitting to begin with a confession of complete idiocy, or perhaps if I’m being less harsh, learning from one’s blundering mistakes.

Scratch board is a relatively new medium to me. I started experimenting with it when working on The Crystal Mirror in 2013. It proved not to be the right approach for those stories, but I liked it nonetheless and intended to revisit it. When I sketched out the design for this poster it seemed like scratch board would be a good fit. I didn’t have any large pieces of white scratch board handy, and working to something of a deadline I figured that the large silver piece I had lying around would do. Ha!

A little bit about the process: I sketched the initial design on paper in pencil, and then outlined the main shapes with a Sharpie so the image would bleed through to the other side. Turning the paper over, I was able to trace the lines on the back in a soft pencil, creating a mirror-image. I then laid this flat on the scratch board, and scribbled over the right side to transfer the outline to the scratch board surface. Doing it like this creates a much fainter mark that is easier to erase than drawing onto the scratch board surface directly.

Alasdair Poster Process 1

Alasdair Poster Process 2

I then scratched away merrily for several days.

Alasdair Poster Process 3

I finished the piece in a flurry of pride and excitement on Monday, stuffed it straight into my scanner, and got this:

Alasdair Poster Process 4


At no point had it occurred to me that I might want to test the silver scratch board, the medium I’d never worked with before, perhaps see how my scanner captures it before committing hours to a piece of work that needs reproducing. At not point did it occur to me that iridescent metallic shininess might perhaps cause something of an issue. I threw all my photoshop skills at it, getting progressively grumpier, but to no avail. There was no way I could get a poster-quality print from that scan. so I tried a different tack: photography! There was much standing on tables, angling of lamps (and swearing, I’ll admit there was swearing). How do you capture a flat image of an iridescenty silvery shining thing?

You ask a professional.

The day was saved by the kind chaps at Spectrum Photo Labs, who had the tools and knowhow to take this fantastic photograph. All was not lost, and I have to say I’m rather proud of the completed piece. Next time I work on metallic scratch board I won’t have to factor in time for cursing, standing on tables and wrestling with lamps, just a little extra cost because I know I can’t scan it myself. And perhaps next time I use a new medium I’ll conduct a few test pieces first…

Alasdair Roberts at B Bar Plymouth


In At The Deep End

In At The Deep End

It is many months since I last blogged, almost a year since I blogged with a frequency you could perhaps generously describe as regular. It’s not as though I have nothing to blog about: 2014 saw me travel to the USA and Bangladesh where I taught my first workshops with eating disorder units and in schools. I had my first article published in a magazine. I rediscovered my love of craft, advancing my knitting skills beyond my wildest dreams and took my first tentative steps in crochet. I published my favourite ever issue of The Green Bean.

But 2014 was also unkind to my mental health. I will try to write about that soon, but for the time being things seem better. I am surfacing after months underwater.

As I’ve returned to (art)work, I’ve felt overwhelmed and hopelessly behind. The more time passed since I last blogged, the greater the pressure on that first post. It wanted it to be spectacular, attention-grabbing, and make up for all the time that was lost. The expectation grew and I was never able to meet it so I wrote nothing, thinking perhaps I’d feel more up to it another time. Time passed. Writing that first post got harder still.

Until I remembered my work has always been about being honest. Instead of lumbering myself with expectations, trying to plan out weeks’ worth of exciting content and pretend no time has passed, it seems both logical and infinitely more achievable to begin right where I am. Excited, yes. I have lots of news to share and ideas in the cooking pot. But nervous too, and struggling still with the bit of me that always wants to do everything, everything, perfectly and right now. I am protesting by writing a blog post that shares how it is, rather than pretending it’s all how I want it to be.

And I intend to continue in this manner.

Work In Progress, Zines

How A Green Bean Comes To Life IV

Untrimmed Green Beans

When I pick up Green Beans from the printers, they look a bit drab: my work isn’t quite done. Part of what I think people like about the Green Bean is its handmade feel, and a lot of that is down to the touches I add after the printers, when many people would consider it finished.

Trimming Green Beans

I am a pathological perfectionist. The first change I make to the freshly pressed Green Beans is to sharpen the crease with a (vegetarian) bone folder, then trim the three edges to make them flush. I do this by hand with a scalpel, and have a fine callus on my index finger from the 2000+ Green Beans that I’ve finished this way. One day, I will invest in a guillotine.

Green Bean Corners

After the trimming, I punch the corners. My Zutter heavy-duty lifetime-guaranteed corner-rounder has indeed lived up to its claim, and continues to plough through whole Green Beans in one clunk.

Colouring Green Beans

Next, the best bit! I pick from my generous supply of Neon Green Lyra Colour Giant pencils and colour the beans on the front by hand.

Signing Green Bean

Finally I sign and number the issue and send it on its merry way out into the world…

Work In Progress, Zines

How A Green Bean Comes To Life III


Once I’ve done the inking, my work on paper for a Green Bean is done for the time being. I scan the artwork (which is drawn at print size) and work in Photoshop to remove my pencil lines and yellowy choice of paper, leaving a crisp black and white illustration.

I do this for each double page, gradually over the space of a few weeks – sometimes months! – until I have 32 pages of artwork and a front cover. These I assemble into a PDF document and then trundle along to the printers, rucksack full of precious recycled paper.

It took me a bit of trial and error and a couple of bad print runs to find the right printer for The Green Bean. I knew I wanted it to be somewhere local, so I could visit in person to explain my very specific requirements and check proofs. I didn’t really mind how much I had to pay so long as the zines looked right, and in the end I found competitive prices and great service at Clifton Print Services, who’ve been printing The Green Beans ever since. I can’t recommend them highly enough and, though it will complicate matters slightly, I hope to keep using them to print The Green Bean even when I no longer live in Bristol!

Work In Progress, Zines

How A Green Bean Comes To Life II

I’m always juggling work on the Green Bean with a hundred other things. This means I have to be super-organised in order to put out issues as regularly as I do (which truly isn’t very regularly at all!)

Green Bean Pencils

Every page starts with a rough pencil sketch, which varies from being very loose and open to precise and organised. Usually if there’s going to be writing I leave the space blank – I rarely plan what I’m going to write, just go for it spontaneously, which is why the sentences in The Green Bean are sometimes a little strange and full of typos. I try to do the pencil sketches in batches, say, of 5 double pages at a time. With the thinking part done, I can then dip in and out of inking those pages in between other the work over the course of a week or so.

Green Bean Inks 1

When drawing the Green Bean, I work with 01 and 005 Micron pens, which I’ve found produce a very consistent line that scans well. I draws, perhaps ill-advisedly, on the same paper upon which Green Beans are printed. It’s 100% recycled photocopy paper that I buy in great reams, ploughing through several a month. I like how the surface takes the ink of the Micron pens, and I also like that it’s cheap and cheerful. I get horribly intimidated by expensive paper, and afraid I might never draw anything. The downside of my beloved copy paper is that it’s not made to last: after a year or two, especially if kept in the light, it suffers very serious yellowing. I happen to like the effect, but it means that my original drawings will never be worth very much as they’re not likely to be around in 50 years. Oh well.

These pages-in-progress are from the forthcoming Green Bean: Volume 4, Issue 3.

Green Bean Inks 2