Setting the scene and procrastination…
I am a frustrating procrastinator when it comes to my books. Despite it being something I want to do more than anything else, I find things such as cleaning windows (I don’t like cleaning) or taking my dog my for another walk to come between me and them…
In fact, quite a large part of my procrastination comes in the form of walking. However, for this I don’t think procrastination is the right word and proof comes in the form of my new book which is composed of many hours walking through my local landscape with my dog Milly. Walking and looking and listening all gets absorbed for later use.
We are both as comfortable out in our local countryside as we are by the fire on a cold winter’s night. Many of the things I have seen and felt on these walks are part of this book and includes a selection of real experiences and me trying to look through the world via Milly’s nose and eyes.
This new book, ‘Between Mountain and Sea, A Dog’s Adventure in Coigach and Assynt’, is meant to represent a journey through those landscapes and habitats. Where events and words are minimal, I hope that the pictures and animals that can be found as they go along, tell a story in themselves.
The book was born out of the Coigach and Assynt Living Landscape (CALL) project which, over the last four years has added enormous value to the area I work and live in. They have their own projects but also have a community grants fund for individuals and organisations which invites people to produce something that will be educational and add value and insight into the incredible area. I successfully gained a small grant to help produce the book and so I am very thankful to CALL and their funders, Heritage Lottery Fund and NatureScot.
Why did I choose a dog as the main character?
I could have picked any of our wonderful wild animals to take us on a journey or tell a story. I thought about one about water voles or eagles or other wildlife that could be highlighted.
However, my personal experience of being in the landscape as a human and the diversity and overall ecology of the area and thinking about Milly’s experience as a dog, made it an obvious choice for her to take us through a broad range of habitats.
In addition to this, I also have a lot of raw materials and reference material from being out and about. If I take a sketch book out with me, Milly is very patient and will often sit beside me so I end up drawing her as part of the landscape.
She looks to me as though she fits in with the landscape and regularly poses on on a high point to get the best smells, which has inspired some of the images in the book.
And so, being out there is a big part of the process for me. It is the beginnings of ideas and the formation of compositions and I draw and photograph everything from the vast landscape to muddy paw prints and sculptural rocks.
I met a crofting lady as part of making this book as well because her house featured in it. This was one of the great unexpected things about this process and I had a really enjoyable time meeting her and all her animals. I didn’t want to include her croft, or a representation of it without asking her. It is things like this that make making a book exciting. Which turn will it take depending on what I see and who I meet.
Going indoors and starting the real work!
Once I can pull myself away from the outdoors, often I need really bad weather to go to my next stage. I set myself up inside with all my materials around me, sharpen pencils and have the tidiest desk you have ever seen (yep, more procrastination). I don’t have a studio so the kitchen table is transformed in to an art space. Although for a couple of weeks at the start of this project, I rented Eleanor White’s studio which was amazing!
For the artwork, first I make a very quick storyboard, so that I know how many pages I need and gather sketches and photos of all of these things. I then measure out all the pages, so I have my blanks ready to go. When it actually comes to creating the artwork, I first of all sketch out the scene but then I don’t have a set way of working and often work in mixed media quite randomly.
I try an include as many animals and plants I have seen in similar habitats without crowding it too much. There is obviously a fair bit of artistic licence in seeing so much at one time and so close up but I wanted to give the impression there was lots living in the different habitats.
I can be quite a fast worker when I actually sit down to do it. Some images come more easily, some have to be redone or reworked and so it still takes longer than I think. For this book I made about four different versions of the cover, I think I got it in the end and managed to include my dad’s favourite hill, Suilven as a feature.
This book had 42 large pages. It was good to work on this scale but when I finished, I had the problem of getting them digitised. Naively, I thought that I could just ask someone with a big scanner. These are not that common, especially during a pandemic so I made the decision to get them photographed. Therefore, once the artwork was eventually ready, I received some help from local artist James Hawkins who had the ideal set up. It was great to meet James and see his studio, another unexpected positive to the whole process.
The writing part
Normally, I would write the story first and base drawings around the words but this time I only had the journey they take as the rough structure and the drawings came before the words. I found this quite liberating in terms of the art production, but it did make writing the book a lot more difficult. I finished the art work long before I had written any words. I hope my aim of leaving most of the talking to the pictures has come from this.
Now came the hard bit, for me. Digitisation and using editing software is probably my least enjoyable part of the process. While I feel like I have finished because the artwork is complete, this next part can take just as long. I feel like every time I come to do it, I have to relearn a whole language and even by the end I am only speaking a pigeon variety of it!
It can be quite satisfying though and when I have that Pdf ready to send to the printers, there is a great sense of satisfaction. At this point it feels like a long time since I was out roaming the hills with my dog gathering ideas. She spends most time by the fire as the hours disappear in this digital phase. I used Photoshop for editing and then, for the first time, I used InDesign to put the book template together.
Many roles in one
The number of hours spent to produce this book from start to finish, don’t bear thinking about. By self-publishing a book, you come up with the idea, create all the illustrations, write it, carry out the graphic design side and publish it yourself. This is quite a process but also freeing. Aside from making sure the funders for this book were quite happy with it, I could pretty much do what I wanted!
I love doing it and it is so important to me that I follow my passion of Highland nature combined with children’s books. I want others to read the book and feel they want to go out there and see what they can find and look a bit closer. I want them to feel the expanse of the landscape, to feel part of it, to look after it, to respect it and feel how small we are in relation to the rest of life.
And I finished this book, already excited about creating the next two which were put on the back burner for this one. Watch this space for more Highland wildlife books from me!
Thanks again to the funders and staff at Coigach and Assynt Living Landscape Project, Heritage Lottery Fund and NatureScot. Also to all my proof readers, a heartfelt thanks to them and, of course, most importantly thank you to Milly the dog.
I might be slightly biased, but Milly is an exceptional dog and you can find out more about her in this separate blog.
Please send any questions to me about the book, area, landscape or process. [email protected]
To buy the book, click here.